He also points to the decimation of the CD market: new operas stand out in a narrowed field. "The difference in sales from the time I arrived at Sony to the time I left Sony was dramatic," says Gelb, who departed a few years after the one-two punch of Napster and the iTunes store gutted physical retail in the early 2000s. "A new recording of Aida in the early 1990s or late 1980s might sell half a million or 300,000 copies. By the time I left we weren't even releasing them."
Those studio sets cost up to $1 million to produce, Gelb says, so today's label executives are more inclined to release live recordings provided by institutions like the Met. That means that the opera companies are the de facto producers, and the recordings reflect their taste: They pick the opera and cover the cost of the orchestra, chorus, cast, conductor and staging. "And even then, it takes a certain amount of coaxing" to get a label to distribute it, Gelb says.
Clemens Trautmann, president of the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, concedes that "an opera production is the most complex and costly endeavor, where there is generally only little margin for failure." Still, he's optimistic, seeing the trend toward new work "as an encouragement towards composers, institutions, publishers, labels, and the audience alike to be open for experiments."
It's a far cry from the 1960s, when the Best Opera Recording category was created. Superstars like Leontyne Price, who won four times in the category's first decade, could clean up at the Grammys with lavishly-produced studio albums of Madama Butterfly and Carmen.
This past year, though, Bates' new composition about Apple's visionary founder bested the Met's recording of Richard Strauss' sumptuous 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier, which starred Renée Fleming — one of the most beautiful voices in the world — in a signature role. The mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who has won for both Doctor Atomic and Steve Jobs, thinks new works generate their own kind of enthusiasm.
"Interest in the old pieces will always be there, but opera has to maintain the same role it had in its inception, in its creation, as a commentary on social happenings," says Cooke. "Steve Jobs was revolutionary for me, because I've never seen an opera house turn into a rock concert like that. There could have been a mosh pit. They sold out every show."
It's almost as though the Grammys are using the category to award Best New Opera, but the irony is that the statuette doesn't go to the composer. It goes to the performers. "To be honest with you, it's kind of a non-issue," says Bates. "I was up for some other categories, but the one thing that I really wanted was for this to win." Bates thinks that Best Opera Recording sounds better—and looks better on a poster or an ad—than Best Classical Contemporary Composition (which he lost).
"I was surprised by that too, because I thought there should be an exception made when the composer is alive," says Cooke. "I wanted to give him my trophy!"
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.