Report: U.S. operas and orchestras premiered fewer new works in 2011

Placido Domingo in L.A. Opera's 2010 premiere of "Il Postino." A new report shows that the number of new operas and orchestral works presented in the U.S. dropped markedly in 2011.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

This post has been corrected. Please see below for details.

The shock of the new reverberated less frequently in America’s opera houses and concert halls in 2011, according to the latest National Arts Index report.

The 145-page report, issued this week by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, aims to give a year-by-year reading on the state of the arts scene’s health by boiling down a bevy of statistics into a single number.


While the overall index showed just a slight dip in 2011, one sobering finding was a steep decrease in the number of new works premiered by American opera companies and orchestras.

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Orchestras performed 124 new works in 2011, down from an average of 154 premieres the three previous years. American opera companies launched 10 new operas after having averaged 21 the three preceding years.

A bad economy poses two main challenges for new work: companies short on funds may be less inclined to spend money to commission them, and more tempted to pack seasons with proven favorites to maximize ticket sales. For opera companies, launching a new work means spending for new costumes and sets along with royalties and fees for the composer and librettist.

Southern California’s top opera company, Los Angeles Opera, has struggled economically in the recession’s aftermath, but its coming 2013-14 season will be busier, with an increase in mainstage productions from six to seven. None of them, however, are new operas. L.A. Opera’s most recent world premiere on its main stage, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was Daniel Catan’s “Il Postino” in 2010. Earlier this year, it premiered “Dulce Rosa” by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Patricia Kiernan Johnson, spokeswoman for Opera America, said the “unofficial count” for opera premieres in 2012 was 14, with no preliminary figures yet compiled for 2013. Figures for premieres of orchestral compositions since 2011 were not available from the League of American Orchestras. The two organizations provided the data on premieres used in the National Arts Index report.

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Johnson said the drop-off in new operas might stem from the common practice of planning seasons several years in advance.

“The lower 2011 numbers may reflect caution during the 2008 economic recession,” she said. “I think we’re seeing lots of adventurous programming at opera companies -- premieres, virtually unknown works, or traditional works staged in nontraditional ways and venues.”

Jesse Rosen, president of the orchestra league, didn’t take the 2011 decline in orchestral premieres as a sign of crisis. “It’s my sense that year-by-year fluctuations in commissioning are not unusual, but that there has been a longer-term trend towards increasing commissions and new works,” he said, citing new series by the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony.

Nonprofit theaters tend to have more economic flexibility than their operatic and orchestral peers because plays with just one or two actors are an option. The National Arts Index report said they offered 247 premieres in 2011, up from 245.

But the report showed that stage companies’ ability to mount new work has been far from recession-proof. After averaging 303 world premieres in the three years before the recession, they mustered no more than 250 from 2008 to 2011.

For the record, Sept. 20, 4:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post omitted L.A. Opera’s 2013 premiere of the opera “Dulce Rosa.”


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