Why is Mellon so Bullish on American Opera Projects' Plan to Reinvorgate Opera?

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's $200,000 grant to American Opera Projects (AOP) represents a "stamp of approval" for AOP's unique approach to make opera more accessible to new audiences while simultaneously supporting composers and presenting institutions.

But before taking a closer look at the details of the grant, let's first contextualize AOP's efforts within the larger framework of contemporary American opera. Opera companies are faced with a conundrum that should be familiar to other arts nonprofits—namely, how to stay relevant and innovative in a world with a seemingly infinite number of cultural choices for audiences.

Some companies have opted to focus on rolling out compelling program offerings to attract new listeners. For example, Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative is a 10-year program with a goal of invigorating the "operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works." To that end, they commissioned a number of works including a production of Stephen King's The Shining. The company was rewarded for its efforts, having recently netted a $750,000 gift from — you guessed it — the Mellon Foundation.

This brings us to the American Opera Projects grant. While Minnesota Opera focuses on rolling out contemporary works, AOP is more attuned to the performance-related elements of composition. Specifically, the Mellon grant will support two programs—AOP's Composers & the Voice and First Chance. The primary focus of Composers & the Voice is "to give composers and librettists extensive experience working collaboratively with singers on writing for the voice and contemporary opera stage."

Specifically, Composers & the Voice allows composers to give a "test run" to audience members, solicit feedback, and fine tune their work accordingly before their public debut.

According to the AOP, "through question and answer sessions to collecting personal feedback, First Chance allows the participation of audience members to help hone and adapt new works while artists discover their own unique voices."

It's an approach that resembles the classic "test screenings" of the film industry. They incorporate the general public into the composition process, make some tweaks, and the end result can resonate with a wider audience. It's a deceptively simple strategy that also happens to be something that Mellon is supporting to the tune of $200,000.

Click here for more insight around Mellon's grants for music.