The American Repertoire Program: Birthing New Opera in the Birthplace of America

By Nathan Gunn
Director, American Repertoire Council


I was thrilled and very eager to say ‘Yes’ when David Devan asked me to be the Director of Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Council.

I know, firsthand, the many challenges of creating lasting new work – the importance of putting together complementary creative partners, choosing the right artists, and identifying the resources to create something meaningful and relevant for today’s audiences.  I always enjoy when my work on the stage brings me to Philadelphia, where I first performed in 1996, and I think it’s particularly appropriate that a city known for its revolutionary spirit has made this significant commitment to the future of American operatic work.

Since my appointment in September, I have been busy working with David to identify and recruit members for the steering council focused on advancing Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program, a commitment to produce a new American work in ten consecutive seasons.  On February 3, we welcomed the following people to the Council for our very first meeting:

Lembit Beecher, Opera Philadelphia Composer in Residence

Youngmoo Kim, Assistant Dean of Engineering for Media Technologies, Drexel University

David Lai, Conductor and Music Producer

Missy Mazzoli, Opera Philadelphia Composer in Residence

Daniel Meyer, M.D., Chairman, Opera Philadelphia

Zizi Mueller, President of Boosey & Hawkes classical music publishing company

Eric Owens, Operatic Bass-Baritone

David Hyde Pierce, Emmy and Tony Award-Winning Actor and Singer

David Pittsinger, Operatic Bass-Baritone

 Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Professor of Music, University of Pennsylvania

Gene Scheer, Songwriter and Operatic Librettist

The Council will work closely with me and the creative team at Opera Philadelphia, including David Devan, Music Director Corrado Rovaris, Artistic Advisor Mikael Eliasen, Senior Vice President Annie Burridge, and New Works Administrator Kyle Bartlett.


About the American Repertoire Program

The first opera in the initiative was Dark Sisters, performed as part of the Aurora Series at the Perelman Theater in June 2012. A new opera with music by Nico Muhly and a libretto by Stephen Karam, Dark Sisters is the story of a woman’s struggle to break away from a polygamist marriage, and was co-commissioned with New York's Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group.  The Associated Press called it “an intriguing new opera,” while The Philadelphia Inquirer said Dark Sisters was “a significant addition to the chamber opera repertoire.”

The next work in the American Repertoire Program made its East Coast Premiere this week at the Academy of Music.  Silent Night, a co-production with The Minnesota Opera, earned composer Kevin Puts the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music.  With a wonderful libretto by Mark Campbell, Silent Night was called “a stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous case-fire among Scottish, French and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart” in the award announcement. It stars my good friend William Burden and Kelly Kaduce and has opened to rave reviews.  Next season, the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater will welcome the East Coast Premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, a one-woman show starring the beloved Frederica von Stade.

Additional announced co-commissions include Oscar by Theodore Morrison, with a libretto by the composer and John Cox, slated for the Academy of Music in 2015 and starring David Daniels as Oscar Wilde; and Cold Mountain by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon with a libretto by Gene Scheer, which will be produced at the Academy in 2016 and in which I will have the great fortune of singing the role of W.P. Inman alongside Isabel Leonard and Jay Hunter Morris.  Both Oscar and Cold Mountain are co-commissioned and co-produced with The Santa Fe Opera.

Subsequent works may be performed at either the Academy or as part of the Aurora Series. The Council will continue to research composers and librettists that fit with our repertoire, commissioning, and casting goals.

My hope is that what we create here will be something that can be used as a model for the other opera companies in the country to be able to help create new pieces and create new characters on stage.  I look forward to bringing new productions and new performances that you and opera lovers all over the world, and those who come from varying points of view on music, will want to see for many years to come.