Be honest. When you think of opera, you rarely associate it with adjectives like "bold," "edgy," or "boldly edgy." And that's perfectly understandable because opera is classic, refined, and, for better or worse, viewed by the public through the lens of centuries-old stereotypes and preconceptions.
But stereotypes can be changed, as evidenced by the recent news that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has given the Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative (NWI) a $750,000 gift, signifying the completion of the first $7 million of the NWI fundraising campaign.
Some background is in order. As you read this, opera directors across the country are staring out their office windows, brainstorming ways to engage audiences, inspire their ensembles, and connect with the community. And the Minnesota Opera did the same kind of artistic soul-searching, all they way back in 2008. That's when they launched NWI, a ten-year program with a simple, ambitious goal: nothing less than "invigorating the operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works," supplemented by a commitment to artistic growth, leadership, and innovation.
The NWI's first iteration funded the commissions of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Silent Night" and 2013′s "Doubt," by Douglas J. Cuomo and librettist John Patrick Shanley. Clearly, the Mellon Foundation liked what it saw (and heard). At the conclusion of this initial fundraising phase, the foundation has given a total of $2 million to date. And the Minnesota Opera isn't done yet.
This recent Mellon gift kickstarts phase two of the NWI, which will support the production of Stephen King's "The Shining" by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell, as well as "Dinner at Eight" by William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell, based on the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.
So at the end of the day, why did the foundation open their wallets? It's simple. They were impressed by the ambition of the NWI. Mellon recognized a concerted attempt to introduce opera to new audiences by pulling from contemporary sources that would resonate with the general public (The Shining, by Steven King!). It saw plans for performances in non-traditional opera venues. And it appreciated NWI's ability to build partnerships to help create, promote, present, and ultimately redefine opera.
Much like its Midwest brethren at the Cleveland Orchestra, which also received a generous grant from Mellon, the Minnesota Opera is living proof that it pays to be bold.