NEW YORK — Jake Heggie recalls that after “Dead Man Walking” premiered in San Francisco in 2000, his first opera was quickly taken up by other companies, but there was “not even a whisper of possibility” that the Metropolitan Opera might be interested.
When Anthony Davis’ first opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” was staged at New York City Opera in 1986 it was such a hit he says “audiences were around the block waiting to get in.” Yet it was ignored by the larger company right next door at Lincoln Center.
And Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, met with Daniel Catan before the Mexican composer’s death in 2011 to discuss staging his “Florencia en el Amazonas,” which had premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996. But he couldn’t find an established Met star willing to take on the title role.
What a difference a few years make.
This fall the Met is presenting all three works as part of a season unparalleled in its recent history. Aiming to rebuild its audience from post-pandemic lows by attracting younger and more diverse ticket-buyers, the company is devoting fully one-third of 18 staged productions to contemporary works.
So “Dead Man,” “X” and “Florencia” will play in repertory alongside classics like Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Verdi’s “Nabucco” and “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”
And in the spring, three more recent works will be on the schedule: Revivals of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and Kevin Puts’ “The Hours” — both big hits in their premiere seasons — and John Adams’s “El Niño,” an opera-oratorio receiving a full staging.
“For a long time in the 20th century it was about producing old works and then updating them with new productions,” Heggie said. “That can only go so far. If you’re going to make news, you have to have something fresh and new. I think companies have recognized that you can be surprising presenting an opera.”
Indeed, it has surprised the composer himself that the Met chose to open its season on Sept. 26 with “Dead Man Walking,” starring mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen Prejean, whose book about counseling inmates on Death Row also inspired a film.
Although the piece is 23 years old and has seen more than 75 productions worldwide, Heggie said that “hopefully and sadly it will resonate with Met audiences because of its subject.”
And he’s excited iconoclastic director Ivo van Hove is staging the production. “He’s going to do something very bold with it that no one else has thought of,” Heggie said. “That’s the proof of a piece that can stand the test of time.”
Davis, who like Heggie has gone on to write numerous other operas — including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Central Park Five” — thinks the fact that “X” was “ahead of its time in the political issues” may account for why it has only recently been revived.
When Yuval Sharon, artistic director of the Detroit Opera, wanted to do a new production in 2022, he found several other companies eager to sign on as co-producers, including the Met. The title role in New York will be portrayed by baritone Will Liverman, who starred in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” when it opened the 2021-22 season and became the first opera in Met history by a Black composer.
Davis said he’s content to be following in Blanchard’s footsteps in that respect. “I’m the Larry Doby of opera,” he joked, referring to the baseball player who was the second Black man after Jackie Robinson to break the major league color barrier.
“There’s a new commitment toward the fact that African American composers have been ignored,” he said. “And there’s a new interest in subject matter that relates to where we are and who we are as a people.”
Gelb says star singers are increasingly eager to be part of such projects.
“When I came to the Met in 2006 I was determined to bring new works,” he said, “but the process began somewhat slowly because the audience was much more conservative and also the leading artists were less willing to be featured in them.
“Today everything is different,” he added. “Artists understand that new work is key to the future of opera.”
His experience with “Florencia” — which will be the first Spanish-language opera at the Met in nearly a century — is telling.
Back then he said he couldn’t find an established Met star to take on the title role, that of an opera singer journeying down the Amazon in search of a lost lover.
“But today any number would clamor to do it,” he said. “When I offered it to Ailyn Perez she practically jumped up and down in joy.”
This season’s lineup is just a taste of what’s to come. Gelb and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin said the Met plans to continue presenting recent operas that have had success elsewhere, while also commissioning brand new operas from talented composers. One such commission will open the 2024-25 season: “Grounded,” with music by Jeanine Tesori and a libretto adapted by George Brant from his own play. It will have its world premiere in Washington this fall.
The stakes could not be higher for the company, which is facing serious financial challenges. This year’s 18 staged productions is the lowest number in more than a century, and the total number of performances has been cut as well,
Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, noted that the Met is benefitting from the vision and risk-taking of other opera companies that mounted these operas originally.
“They are harvesting from this big investment in new work some of the best,” he said, “On the others hand, the fact that the nation’s largest opera company has devoted a third of its season to American opera is also a bold leadership move, an experiment, around the sustainability of an audience around this repertoire.
“We’re cheering for them, and they will learn things,” Scorca said.
“And maybe it will be an unmitigated success, maybe it won’t. But if it isn’t, what do we learn and how do we go forward. And that is part of the enterprise, to try things out.”