How Opera’s Crisis Can Become an Opera Renaissance

By embracing change, we're not just preserving opera for future generations; we're bringing more people to the art form.

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, bass-baritone Davóne Tines and soprano Julia Bullock (from left). Freddie Collier (Bridges), Bowie Verschuuren (Tines), Allison Michael Orenstein (Bullock)

Opera stands at a critical juncture. Opera America’s 2023 Annual Field Report reveals an alarming reality: a 27 percent drop in attendance and a 20 percent decline in productivity compared to pre-pandemic levels. As ticket sales and fundraising have declined, many opera companies are scaling back their programming, undertaking fewer productions each season. It sounds dire, but this downturn in an already niche art form presents an unexpected opportunity. It can be an impetus for opera to evolve, a catalyst for innovation in which we embrace inclusivity and forge deeper connections with a wider audience.

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As we have delved into conversations with visionary artists through Opera Evolved, a new discussion series National Sawdust produces with the Metropolitan Opera, it’s clear that opera is already changing. Liliana Blain-Cruz is making her Metropolitan Opera debut with John Adams’ El Niño and is slated to direct the Broadway adaptation of Prince’s Purple Rain. Hailey McAvoy, a young mezzo-soprano who lives with cerebral palsy, plays a leading role in Sensorium Ex, an opera by The Hubble Cantata composer Paola Prestini addressing themes of disability and A.I., with disabled creative Jerron Herman as choreographer and co-director. Davóne Tines is redefining the boundaries of being a classical singer.

These artists are not just creating opera; they are reimagining it, breathing new life into a form that has the power to resonate deeply with diverse audiences. Their work challenges the notion that opera requires grand resources to tell powerful stories. Instead, they prove that opera’s true essence lies in its ability to convey the depth of the human experience, transcending barriers of privilege and accessibility.

Opera has long been seen as elite and inevitably expensive. But is it really? The power of the human voice to tell stories should transcend barriers, making opera accessible to all, not just the privileged. I know from experience that it can. My first encounter with opera, performing in the chorus of La Bohème alongside the incomparable Mirella Freni as Mimi, in Puerto Rico, marked the beginning of a profound journey. The experience was a revelation, unveiling the raw emotion and power of the human voice, which ignited a passion within me and transformed opera from a mere profession into a personal mission. Opera, previously unrelatable and unseen as an option in my family’s history, became a portal to the world, to other cultural landscapes, and to the essence of the human condition.

As I immersed myself in every story and melody I could find, eager to contribute to and celebrate this art form, I also began to appreciate the legacy of operatic tradition and the incredible stories being told by our contemporary creators. My own career spanning over two decades as an opera and arts professional has reinforced opera’s universal appeal—its ability to resonate across diverse backgrounds and experiences. It leaves me yearning for even more space to be made for the stories of my ancestors and their lives in the rich and challenging landscapes of Puerto Rico.

Today, opera is at a critical juncture, challenged by the pandemic yet poised for a renaissance. The traditional image of opera as an elitist art form is being dismantled, making way for a more inclusive and accessible opera that resonates with broader audiences. Take Carmen, for example. Often hailed as a traditional piece, it broke through the conventions of the Opéra-Comique with its raw, unfiltered depiction of life and morally complex characters. That was a moment of evolution right then and there, proving that this concept is not new.

SEE ALSO: Star Tenor Lawrence Brownlee Ended His 2023 Season With ‘Singspiel’ and Solidarity

The good news is that the pandemic has sparked radical thinking about opera’s identity and modes of delivery, and we are witnessing an unprecedented surge in opera newcomers across the country, a clear indication that change is already underway. We’re in the midst of an opera renaissance, with fresh stories and diverse voices on offer and innovative processes enhancing the art form’s relevance and success. Opera talents—from singers to composers and directors—are seizing creative control, expanding their artistry. Opera companies and other cultural institutions’ programming increasingly mirrors our cities’ diversity, redefines vocal artistry for the modern era, and even embraces A.I. as a resource and theme.

National Sawdust’s efforts to cross-pollinate disciplines and forge new partnerships are leading to the creation of immersive experiences that resonate with our communities and have the potential for global impact. To the opera purists, I offer reassurance: there remains a cherished place for the canonical works of Verdi, Mozart and Strauss. Our goal is not to replace these masterpieces but to enrich the repertoire with new stories, communities, methods, and systems.

Funding challenges persist, demanding that we take data-driven risks and expand opera’s definition to secure support. Drawing from Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, making opera relevant means ensuring that the “keys” are effective and accessible, the “doors” are inviting to all and the “rooms” offer rich, engaging and diverse experiences.

Opera’s inclusive evolution is not just progress—it’s a triumph. It harnesses the art’s unyielding resilience and adaptability. Embracing change, we’re not just preserving opera for future generations; we’re pioneering a path of inclusivity that respects heritage and dares to innovate. Together, we’re writing opera’s next chapter, securing its place as a cornerstone of our cultural life.

Ana De Archuleta hosts the third and final installment of “Opera Evolved,” produced by National Sawdust and The Metropolitan Opera, tonight (April 9) at National Sawdust.

How Opera’s Crisis Can Become an Opera Renaissance