American productions challenge norms

The American Repertoire Program aims to produce 10 American operas in 10 years.

Isabel Leonard (Ada) performs in Cold Mountain as part of The American Repertoire Program. | COURTESY KEN HOWARD

We’ve slowly, in the last few decades, started telling American stories in operas, but there wasn’t really a big initiative to do so.

Sarah Williams | Opera Philadelphia new works administrator

The story of one man’s journey across war-torn America during the Civil War has quickly become one of the most highly anticipated operas in the country. Originally written as a National Book Award-winning novel by Charles Frazier, the opera “Cold Mountain” is debuting in Philadelphia this winter. The production premiered at the Santa Fe Opera this August, but has its East Coast debut at the Academy of Music Feb. 5-14.

The production, a co-commission between Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia, was composed by Jennifer Higdon, a contemporary composer who studied and lives in Philadelphia. The opera is just one of many projects by the American Repertoire Program, an initiative of Opera Philadelphia started in 2011 to produce 10 new American operas in 10 consecutive seasons.

The American Repertoire Program is well on its way to achieving this goal; so far, it has produced the Pulitzer-Prize winner “Silent Night” by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell in 2013, “A Coffin in Egypt” by Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia in 2014, “Oscar” by Theo Morrison and John Cox from the 2015 fall season and “Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD” starring Lawrence Brownlee from this past summer season.

“Opera is an art form that originated in Europe,” said Sarah Williams, the new works administrator at Opera Philadelphia. “Many of the stories are rooted in that and many of the creative teams are rooted in that. We’ve slowly, in the last few decades, started telling American stories in opera, but there wasn’t a big initiative to do so.”

“No other company was really doing something like this at the time,” Williams added. “So we really wanted to make sure that we had a well-rounded group of people with lots of experience in opera helping us develop the best artistic aesthetic of these new works.”

The American Repertoire Council is made up of composers, musicians, publishers and administrators who work together to facilitate the creation of contemporary and American operas. The program’s first fully commissioned work, “Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD,” was also the first fully commissioned work by Opera Philadelphia in four decades.

The program continued its momentum with “Cold Mountain,” a show close to the hearts of the American Repertoire Council. Williams said because all the workshops for “Cold Mountain” were held in Philadelphia, it became a “very close project” for the Council.

“More than a typical co-commission would be, because we’ve literally been in the room for all of it, and these new works take so many years to come out so it’s a really beautiful time for us,” Williams said.

Andrew Shaw, a senior vocal performance major, said, “‘Cold Mountain’ isn’t just a big deal for Opera Philadelphia this year, but for the American opera scene as a whole.”

“Every part of this production is ideal, from the artists to the composer to the subject matter.” Shaw added. “They have, in effect, brought together a dream team that everyone is excited to see and hear.”

Hailed by Opera News as the “main event of the season,” “Cold Mountain” stars globally acclaimed baritone and American Repertoire Council Director Nathan Gunn. The cast also includes a faculty member of the Boyer School of Music, assistant professor of voice Marcus DeLoach.

After the success of “Cold Mountain,” the future of the American Repertoire Program lies in seven upcoming new works and an annual two-week festival announced by Opera Philadelphia that will run Sept. 14-25 in 2016.

“This [festival] is going to be something we haven’t seen or done before in opera, at least not in America,” Williams said. “We want to push the art form and be fluid and creative but bring tons of opportunity in for the city as well.”

The fest will showcase 25 opera performances in theaters across Philadelphia, including three world premieres and a performance art piece featured at the Barnes Foundation. The 12-day long celebration will not only help expose the city to opera in a way it’s never been before, but also help local businesses and companies around the area.

With its growing popularity in the opera community, the American Repertoire Program has significantly increased Opera Philadelphia’s reputation as one of the most impressive and innovative opera companies in the world.

“At the time the American Repertoire Council started, [Opera Philadelphia] was probably a level two or three company,” Williams said. “We’re now a level one company, meaning we are in line with the Met, the San Francisco Opera, the Santa Fe Opera and every other major opera company in the world.”

“What I like about [the American Repertoire Council] is that most companies want to keep opera to a certain stage or theater or environment, and what I like here is that we play with everything, we play with space, artists and stories,” she added. “The American Repertoire Program is challenging a lot and continually creating and questioning and telling real, American stories.”

Emily Thomas can be reached at

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