In 1993, OPERA NEWS published an article called "Front-Page Opera," in which we asked fifteen writers, reporters and other notables what twentieth-century news events they would like to see as opera topics. With the success of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the 1986 New York City Opera staging of the premiere of X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X), plus a couple of works in the pipeline dealing with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and at least one on the Manson family, we thought at the time we might be on to something. Was the availability of twenty-four-hour news so exciting that opera librettists would be turning exclusively to CNN for ideas? Well, it would seem not.
The undeniably operatic life of Nelson Mandela (with the bonus character of his now ex-wife Winnie) was a suggestion that did end up onstage, if not yet in major international houses. The fall of the Romanovs, another proposed storyline, received royal opera treatment with the debut of Deborah Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra at Los Angeles Opera in 2003, with Plácido Domingo (well, really, who else?) in the pivotal role of Rasputin. One of our contributors felt strongly that the lives and deaths of the Ceausescus, the evil husband-and-wife dictators of Romania, would be ideal grist for the opera mill. This one never happened — probably because nobody could think of a Romanian soprano to play the missus.
Not one of the group we asked in 1993 mentioned J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic bomb as a promising opera topic. Oops. In fact, none of the suggestions we received has inspired an opera with broad, mainstream appeal, let alone multiple productions.
Nobody considered TV talk-show hosts potential title characters, so Jerry Springer: The Opera, London's long-running, Olivier-Award winning musical wasn't on anybody's radar. Apparently we didn't realize that tabloid topics and "real" news would become almost indistinguishable within a few years. After all, could any of us have predicted that an opera about the life of Anna Nicole Smith would find its way to — of all places — the stage of the Royal Opera House in 2011?
Maybe we should forget the news (and what passes for news today). It does seem that now, perhaps more than ever, novels — from The Little Prince to Moby-Dick — lure librettists. This is by no means a new trend, but a surprising number of the resulting operas display considerable (for these times) staying power. So former Book-of-the-Month Club selections make for good operas, right? Not everybody would agree on that (check out the OPERA NEWS Archives and read Joel Honig's "A Novel Idea," OPERA NEWS's Aug. 2001).
— Elizabeth Diggans