God help anyone brave enough to write an opera. Like a Broadway show, any given opera is lucky to yield even one notable tune like "News" from Nixon in China by John Adams. But a good song is not enough; it takes a frothy primordial soup of presenters, foundation funding, and a "name" composer along with a commissioning consortium more convoluted than an ancien régime tontine to get an opera onto the stage—and then not just once, but for the seemingly equally difficult second run someplace else.
Yet a few new operas persist, despite flaws. Doctor Atomic (2005), another Adams opus, nearly dooms an almost perfect first act with the disastrous second act introduction of Pasqualita, a Tewa housekeeper whose Native American wisdom reveals the atomic bomb's chthonic aura. When I saw the Metropolitan Opera Atomic in 2008, most everyone around me winced when Pasqualita sang about lightning, thunder, rain, and wind. I love almost everything by Adams, but the phony "magic Negro" medicine woman has got to go.
I'm rooting for Seattle Opera's premiere of Daron Aric Hagen's Amelia (May 8–22, McCaw Hall, $25–$168, see www.seattleopera.org for a full schedule), especially because general director Speight Jenkins seems to be tiptoeing toward riskier territory. Last season's decade-old Erwartung/Bluebeard double bill, which I saw in Vancouver in 1999, still knocked me out. Jenkins has also championed two relatively new operas, The End of the Affair and Daniel Catán's scintillating Florencia en el Amazonas. Based on what I've heard of Hagen's previous operas, Amelia—blessed with a straightforward, Aaron Copland–ish word setting and the story of a pregnant woman grappling with the death of her father in Vietnam—might stand a chance.
I hope Amelia furthers a spirit of risk at Seattle Opera, which should cock an ear to local composers Tom Baker, Bern Herbolsheimer, Garrett Fisher, and others here who write chamber operas, oratorios, and remarkable vocal music. Alas, risky work usually remains unwelcome in big-time opera houses; for living composers everywhere, a stripped-down, DIY spirit is essential.
Next week, Jay Hamilton, whose homemade operas and song cycles have elated, inspired, baffled, and disgusted me, unveils Henry Silence (Thurs May 13, Henry Art Gallery, UW Campus, 7 pm, free). For this gallery-wide performance, Hamilton, Susie Kozawa, Eric Lanzillotta, Michael Shannon, Esther Sugai, and longtime foil Gordon Frazier treat the entire gallery as a musical instrument. "We're going to use the wall as a sound source," confirms Hamilton with undisguised glee. Many of his collaborators are members of Eye Music, an ensemble dedicated to performing graphic scores—nontraditional notation usually made up of lines, words, and symbols—so count on a spatially aware, potentially enchanting blend of sound and silence.