Art Works Blog

From the Archives: John Adams on the Art of Opera

Washington, DC

Composer John Adams at the 2009 NEA Opera Honors celebration. Photo by Henry Grossman

In 2009 composer John Adams was honored in our second class of NEA Opera Honorees. More than 20 years earlier, having just written his first opera, Nixon in China, Adams contributed an essay to an NEA ArtsReview special issue on ?America?s Opera.? Here?s an excerpt from that essay:

Opera is a very loose term, and it?s bandied about a great deal to apply to almost anything that involves theater and music together?.I feel opera involves trained singing and that it?s essentially a musical experience, so perhaps my definition is conservative. Those of us who are trying to write real operas have drawn from both the traditional practices of the past as well as the more experimental forms, not to mention technology.

The fusion of opera and Broadway is prompted by economics and a desire to draw a larger and somewhat more uncritical audience. It?s very unfortunate. Musical comedy has its place. I don?t think opera houses are where they should take place. Why not support composers writing new operas instead of resurrecting Broadway shows from the past? Those Broadway shows from the past which have obvious merit will remain in the repertoire by popular demand in any case.

It seems that the priorities of today?s opera companies are first, big-name singers, next, glamorous and spectacular staging, and, last, the music. That to me is a very wrong-headed priority. It?s something I?ve been fighting. Great music can survive a bad production,  but the idea of having a good production with bad music is unthinkable. One hopes that the listening public would be educated to be able to recognize the right priorities.

Want to hear what John Adams is thinking about opera these days? Visit the NEA YouTube channel to watch our interview with John Adams and browse our interviews with other NEA Opera Honorees.

And don?t forget to visit the NEA Opera Honors page on our website to learn more about our newest Lifetime Honor.

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