“Ghosts” and American Opera
This past December, the Metropolitan Opera of New York, the only music-performance institution in the United States now prospering financially, presented the world premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles, a “Grand Opera Buffa in Two Acts” by the composer John Corigliano (born 1938) and his librettist William M. Hoffman (born 1939). Commissioned by the Met in 1979, Ghosts was the first new American opera to appear on its stage since the 1967 premiere of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Despite, or perhaps because of, its long gestation, the Met commitment to Ghosts was total: in addition to the relatively small amount of compensation ($50,000, it is said) for the composer and the librettist, the Met expended vastly larger sums—said to be over $2 million—on a lavish production. Nor did the company stint on name singers for the cast, which in the end included such highly regarded artists as the soprano Teresa Stratas, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Home, and the baritone Håkan Hagegård. Perhaps most important, the conductor James Levine, the Met’s artistic director and one of the most powerful figures on the international opera scene, watched closely over the work’s progress, and gave much time to its preparation for performance.
It is easy to see why the Met chose to approach Ghosts so carefully. For many years now, the Met has been roundly criticized for the comfortable and safe nature of its choices in mainstream European repertory. The company’s leadership has been even more strongly criticized for its inattention to American opera.
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