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Taking opera for a spin

American operas are bursting with activity and attracting crowds, but is it enough to turn them into tomorrow's classics?

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For two nights this fall, some 140,000 people packed into a Boston city park to see a show full of songs and spectacle. No, it wasn't the Rolling Stones on tour: It was a free production of "Carmen," performed in English by the Boston Lyric Opera.

In December, a production of "La Bohème" will open on Broadway. The pet project of innovative movie director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge"), it will introduce audiences of "The Producers" and "The Lion King" to the opera in its original Italian, using three rotating casts of young, unknown singers. After strong reviews in San Francisco, it's become one of the most anticipated Broadway openings of the season.

Is America about to put its own, contemporary stamp on opera, that centuries-old import from Europe? Maybe.

While it may be too much to call this burst of activity a trend toward "Americanizing" opera, it's certainly a sign of life, and that's enough to get opera enthusiasts cheering. Attendance at American opera houses has been up during the past decade, though that trend may slip a little this year because of difficult economic times.

Meanwhile, American operas written by living composers are not just winning premières by major opera companies – they are being produced for a second or third time, a hint that they may survive to become part of the repertoire at opera companies.

Two recent operas based on popular American books and movies, "Dead Man Walking" and "Little Women," have been performed or are scheduled to be performed in 16 opera houses around the world.

American opera companies are also bringing in new audiences by blurring the line between musical theater and opera, performing works first seen on Broadway such as "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd," by Stephen Sondheim, or even Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.

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