From a distance, opera and dance seem to fetishize the past. Hardcore opera buffs tend to believe the art form stopped evolving after 1900; they idolize divas long gone, such as Maria Callas (whose centenary it is this year). As for dance, the holy names Balanchine and Robbins are never far from standard rep, while avant-garde dance is often banished to the wings. Fine: both fields maintain a strong connection to tradition and standards of excellence (theater could learn). What’s notable about the events listed here is the relative newness of nearly everything. I say “relative” because the two operas having their Met premieres are 23 and 37 years old. Still, fall is a great chance to see the present state of opera and dance—and perhaps its future, too.
On Site Opera begins a nomadic run of a new work by composer Lisa DeSpain and librettist Melisa Tien, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Nightingale.” This modern update (featuring soprano Hannah Cho) concerns a collector on the hunt for “the world’s most beautiful objects.” Setting up for two or three days outdoor in Brooklyn and Manhattan, this 60-minute fable is music to our ears.
Tenor dreamboat Jonas Kaufmann: there’s only one of him, folks. And yet the global star will divide himself in a multiplicity of states for this inventive adaptation of Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle, Schwanengesang (Swan Song). Accompanied by pianist Helmut Deutsch and directed by Claus Guth, the production features additional Schubert works and video projections to explore themes of life, death, and the reflected self.
You know the Susan Sarandon–Sean Penn movie: anti-capital punishment nun Sister Helen Prejean fights to prevent the execution of convicted murderer, despite his lack of belief. Composed by Jake Heggie to a libretto by Terrence McNally, the opera the first of six new(ish) titles having Met premieres this season, a cause for celebration. Coolly European director Ivo van Hove directs the production, which is anchored by superb mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Virginia Woolf in The Hours) as Sister Helen.
Sankaram, a prolific music-theater composer and dazzling soprano, presents vocal works inspired by trees and the underground networks that connect them. She’s been hanging around the barky, vertical stuff for about 200 hours and has written a solo piece for herself and another for acclaimed vocal sextet the Western Wind. According to press materials, Sankaram will incorporate publicly sourced sounds such as running water, birdsong, frogs, and thunder. Shows (at 2pm) are free with Garden admission.
Poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph (We Shall Not Be Moved) and composer Tamar-kali (Mudbound) join with director-choreographer Bill T. Jones (Fela!), tell a story of violence exploited by Hollywood. This timely, challenging work was commissioned by PAC NYC, the new multi-arts venue that opened near Ground Zero. The score fuses melodies rooted in spirituals and percussive breath with the urgency of slam poetry to explore justice and forgiveness.
Although it took a while for Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis’s 1986 opera to make its Met debut, the subject matter is still tremendously relevant. A mystical journey through the mind of the iconic civil-rights warrior Malcolm X, this stirring meditation on race in America could be one of the most political work ever seen in the house. Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) directs the new production, which orbits around baritone Will Liverman in the title role.
City Center’s annual smorgasbord of movement, music, and rhythm turns 20 years old; almost allowed to buy a beer (not that dancers drink!). The lineup this fall includes artists from seven countries, including Birmingham Royal Ballet, India’s renowned Odissi dancer Bijayini Satpathy, and world premieres from star choreographers Ephrat Asherie, Michelle Dorrance, and Adesola Osakalumi. Are you executing a grand jeté to the box office yet?!
Portland, Oregon–based choreographer Takahiro Yamamoto comes to Long Island City to share a deep-trance meditation on presence, erasure, and the spaces in between. Three performers (David Thomson, Anna Martine Whitehead, and Yamamoto) back themselves with agonizing slowness into the front row, or gyrate to techno music, to explore the conundrum of accepting both nothingness and existence.
Six works by the great Martha Graham (1894–1991) highlight her commitment to social issues in the years leading up to World War II. Dancers perform throughout the galleries, a thrilling juxtaposition of bodies and artworks. Their backdrop: the exhibition “Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s.” Dances include Lamentation (1930), Satyric Festival Song (1932), Ekstasis (1933), Spectre-1914 (1936), Immediate Tragedy (1937), and Deep Song (1937).
Loosely based on an unnerving short story by Swiss writer Robert Walser, this mix of dance, puppetry and sensory immersion is about a boy who pretends to drown himself to test his mother’s love (the title means “The Pond”). Director-choreographer Gisèle Vienne uses slow movement, amplified voices, and an electronic soundscape to track trauma and erotic confusion in a family. In addition to seven life-size girl puppets, multiple characters are played by Julie Shanahan and Adèle Haenel (Portrait of a Lady on Fire).
What happens when you combine climbing walls, circus arts, and experimental movement? Something exactly like Rachid Ouramdane’s Corps extrêmes. This athletic spectacle features tightrope walking and other acrobats in an abstract space who desire defy physics, who dare outrageous physical feats. Finally! The dance show you can see with your friend who is addicted to American Ninja Warrior.
The final program of Park Avenue Armory’s 2023 season is a powerful double bill about human origins and personal history. First it’s a tender autobiographical duet created and performed by Germaine Acogny, founder of École des Sables in Senegal and known as “the mother of African contemporary dance” and Malou Airaudo, a key member of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. Then, buckle up for Bausch’s shattering 1975 dance to Stravinsky’s primal classic. Rite, a sensuous and thrilling fertility sacrifice, will be performed by 36 dancers from 14 African countries on a peat-covered stage.