Until recently, the history of opera in the United States has largely been a replica of its European counterpart. The same composers' works fill the repertoires on both sides of the Atlantic, and there, as here, new work barely gets a look-in. Now, though, new American operas are finding their way into the opera houses, at least in the US. Sadly, few of them make the transatlantic crossing.
Later this month, though, the Barbican gives UK premieres to two recent American operas: André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, first performed in San Francisco in 1988, and John Adams's El Niño (strictly speaking, a staged Nativity oratorio more than an opera), premiered in Paris in 2000. It may not amount to a comprehensive survey, but it does provide a rare opportunity to hear how they do things over there; and one detail to note is that both works offer a lead role written for a particular star soprano, a breed that rarely troubles itself with contemporary music.
Yet while Renée Fleming (Blanche in Streetcar) and Dawn Upshaw (Mary in El Niño) have flourishing careers built on standard repertoire, both have shown an admirable willingness to tackle new works. Fleming created major roles in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles and Conrad Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons; Upshaw took part in the premieres of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby and, outside her homeland, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin. Both have recorded CDs of arias from US operas: Fleming's I Want Magic takes its title from a line in Previn's opera, while an aria from Aaron Copland's The Tender Land provides the title for Upshaw's The World so Wide.
When I suggest to Upshaw that there has been an American opera renaissance in the past decade, she gently corrects me: "There's been a large body of interesting work that has been truly American since the 1940s and 1950s. For a long time, American opera was dominated by what was going on in Europe. We needed to find what was to be done in our own home, a specificity that strengthens the piece. What came through to me when I was recording The World so Wide was that the more an opera was about America's story, the more simply, truly and honestly it spoke."
Fleming likewise finds honesty in the works she has premiered. It is not insignificant, though, that the operas by Corigliano and Susa had historical subjects; even A Streetcar Named Desire derives from a Tennessee Williams play that is nearly 60 years old. There is a hint of regret in Fleming's voice when she says, "I'm dying to play a contemporary woman, a woman who deals with the complexities of modern life, perhaps even with some humour. I rarely get to be funny in opera."
That sounds like an invitation to composers everywhere. Fleming continues, "Of course, it takes a huge investment of time to learn a new work, with no guarantee that you'll ever be able to revive the piece; but it's worth it for the joy of working with a living composer. And singing in English is a crucial part of it. British and American singers have to be well versed in other languages, and I yearn to sing in my own language once in a while. I want to be touched by the music that I sing, and I notice that many American composers in recent years, particularly the minimalists, use the voice in a style that isn't sufficiently lyrical for my taste. I am frustrated if I'm watching a new opera and thinking, 'The orchestra sounds incredible, the textures are gorgeous, the harmonies are so rich, but the singers are there simply to declaim text on one pitch.' When I look at a new work, I look at how the composer uses the voice, and I'm always sorry when the singers aren't allowed to be lyric, at least from time to time."
That is not a problem with Previn's opera. One way that singers can ensure that new music suits them is to talk to the composer, and Fleming was happy to make suggestions about the role of Blanche. "It's such an enormous role that I needed to work with André on it," she says. "I asked for a few things, including a set-piece that I could perform away from the opera. He gave me six. One of them, 'I Want Magic', is an aria that I love, and I sing it everywhere in recital; but all the high notes are there because I asked for them. Originally, André didn't write them that way. And since the premiere, we've cut down my role a little, because it was exhausting for me and too much for the audience. It's an ensemble piece with a small cast, and we wanted to make it more balanced."
Similarly, Upshaw discussed her music in El Niño with John Adams: "There is one scene in particular that originally lasted nine minutes with hardly any break for the singer. I realised that I didn't have that kind of endurance, and I'm not sure that many other singers could manage it. I had discussions with John about what might make it easier, in terms of pitch and stamina. That makes a huge difference, not only for me but also, I hope, for the composer, who can perhaps understand more accurately how what may seem like small details have a big impact. It's a luxury to have the opportunity to express my concerns, but I'm not playing a creative role. I never come back with specific ideas, I simply present the composer with the challenges that I face."
The opportunity to tailor works to the best singers of the day has been taken for granted throughout much of operatic history. It remains to be seen whether, in reviving that tradition, A Streetcar Named Desire and El Niño find a dramatic language that speaks to British audiences; but at least we have the chance to find out.
American Opera Week at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891; www. barbican.org.uk): Andre Previn's 'A Streetcar Named Desire' on 25 and 27 June; John Adams's 'El Niño' on 26 and 28 JuneReuse content