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Opera reaches for new scale

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In recognition, the NEA two weeks ago awarded the first new federal arts medals in 26 years, the NEA Opera Honors. This past week, the Los Angeles Opera announced Ring Festival L.A., its first-ever 10-week arts festival anchored by a six-day production of Richard Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle slated for 2010. This citywide cultural collaboration showcases the world-class work of the L.A. Opera under superstar tenor, Placido Domingo, says expert Leslie Dunton-Downer, author of the reference book, "Opera."

By a wide array of measures, this "most civic of art forms," as Gioia calls it – for centuries an opera house has been the measure of a city's aspirations – is in full domestic flower. Since 1965, the number of opera companies has nearly tripled from 46 to 129 full-time groups and that many again in part-time and festival-based companies.

Beyond that – and perhaps more important – since 1990, American opera companies have premiered more than 200 new works by modern composers. Nearly every opera company in the country has a new work somewhere in its schedule, says Anthony Freud, general director of Houston Grand Opera and chairman of Opera America, the New York-based trade association. A generation ago, this was not true, but companies realize they must find ways to keep the art form alive "or risk becoming completely irrelevant," says Mr. Freud.

American composers such as Pulitzer-prize winner John Adams ("Nixon in China," "Death of Klinghoffer") have led the search for a more meaningful art form. "The stories are from our own time and they involve what I call mythic themes of American life," says Mr. Adams, who just released his memoir "Hallelujah Junction."

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