Knowing the Real Market

My wife, the university opera director, is always looking for chamber operas suitable for largely undergraduate performers. And while there are more than a few chamber operas out there, she seldom finds many that her students can perform. Why?

First, far too many operas written today, including chamber operas, are far too experimental and musically difficult for undergraduates, and also have limited audience appeal because melody too often takes a back seat to “experiment” and “novelty.”

Second, like most university opera directors, she’s limited in the number of talented male singers with a surplus of female singers, particularly sopranos, yet the vast majority of operas, both past and present, require more male singers.

Chamber operas that are meaningful, musically sound, melodic, and dramatically interesting, with more female roles, are rare. When she finds one, such as The Ghosts of Gatsby, which her company presented in 2023, she’s delighted.

But, as an economist, what I don’t understand is why so many composers today ignore the opportunity presented by hundreds of university opera programs, all of which have “too many sopranos” (actually a title of a good chamber opera). Presumably, given the excess of starving composers, such composers would like to have their work presented and receive a chance at royalties for their effort.

Yet in going through some twenty recently composed chamber operas available for production, my wife could find exactly one where the number of female singers exceeded the number of males.

At some point, this might change, that is, if composers actually want to have their works presented and to be paid.

On a parallel track, of sorts, when I started writing professionally, most writers were male, and most wrote science fiction, as did I. The speculative fiction field both grew and changed, and I changed with it. When I looked at the best-seller lists for the past three months, I noticed that something like 60% of the best-selling books were by women, and most of the men on the list were older. Even Brandon Sanderson is approaching fifty, and I’m certainly no spring chicken.

So… maybe, just maybe, those classical opera composers should think about why so few of them are getting produced.

5 thoughts on “Knowing the Real Market”

  1. Grey says:

    This is a fascinating mismatch. Has she asked any composers about it?

    I know zero about the topic, so I’m going to guess that there isn’t much money (royalties/licensing) in college-level performances and they need to focus on what can be performed by professional operas even though it’s a flooded market?

    1. She’s talked to a number of composers. That’s one of the reasons she was able to produce Ghosts of Gatsby.

      Even for colleges, the royalties aren’t inexpensive. But they can pay off. From what I can tell, since its premiere in 2018, Ghosts of Gatsby has been produced by two regional professional companies and nine university programs, which shows that there’s some market there.

      Along the same lines, Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women was premiered by the Houston Opera after a number of critics and professionals said it wouldn’t work, but Little Women has had over 100 separate performances over the past thirty years, making it the most popular American opera of the past century — and it’s essentially all about women.

  2. Darcherd says:

    Maybe you could try telling composers they’re not writing operas but rather making Tik-Tok videos…that’d get their attention.

  3. Paul says:

    Ah, no wonder the Pacific Island male singers from New Zealand are doing well in the traditional opera world.

  4. Ronald Maurer says:

    I noted the same issue for the theater department at the college I worked at pre COVID. They had far more females trying out for productions than males, and the females were more talented. But the professors directing the plays had a horrible time finding plays that featured women. A lot of the time, they would switch genders on roles. Of course this is easier to do than switching the part from baritone to soprano. We often wondered why there were still so few plays written with female leads.

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