Over the past 13 years, five of the Grammy Awards for Best Opera Recording have gone to pieces written since 2000. By the standards of an award ceremony known for honoring the new, this might not sound like a big deal. For the previous 45 years, however, since the category was created, new operas were completely shut out in favor of established masterpieces by Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. So what’s going on?
“Despite the general press that comes out about classical music, opera has been a real growth area for new works,” says composer Mason Bates, whose opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs won the category in 2019. “You have this explosion, especially in the American opera scene, of new works. I think that people have started to realize that opera’s a phenomenal medium for talking about any topic.”
That’s good news for the Best Opera Recording category. “At the Met, part of my efforts to stimulate opera audiences is to feature more contemporary music than ever before,” says Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and the former president of Sony Classical. The Met’s recordings of John Adams‘ Doctor Atomic and Thomas Adès‘ The Tempest, which both premiered in the mid-2000s, snatched trophies in 2012 and 2014, respectively, while Gelb is hoping for a nomination this year for the company’s DVD of Adès’ cataclysmic The Exterminating Angel.
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!”