With the world premiere of a new opera,
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," being unveiled this
week at the TADA Theater in Manhattan, the Brooklyn-based American
Opera Projects launches its 14th season of presenting brand new
operas by homegrown composers, of which Managing Director Charles
Jarden is justifiably proud.
"There’s been a huge resurgence in the last 15 years in opera - mostly traditional opera, admittedly - but there are still people out there who want to write for opera," Jarden says. "We get submissions on a regular basis from both composers and librettists who want to have a voice in new opera. That’s what we do: commissioning, developing and presenting new opera."
Jarden, along with Artistic Director (and co-founder) Grethe Barrett Holby and Musical Director Steven Osgood, have made American Opera Projects, at 138 South Oxford St., into an important outlet for composers who otherwise wouldn’t have their works performed for an audience.
"Last year, our first full year in Brooklyn, we did our normal workshop series, the First Chance series, where the composer and librettist get to hear their work with a cast in front of an audience," Jarden explains. "Since it is theater, you have to test it in front of a live audience.
"We had three pieces performed in workshops just recently," Jarden continues. "’The Floating Box,’ which is having its world premiere this month at the Asia Society [in Manhattan]. ’Beautiful Warrior,’ a children’s opera which is premiering in January at the Queens Theater in the Park. ’Sir Gawain,’ which we commissioned a couple of years ago, is now having its world premiere at TADA."
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," with a score by Richard Peaslee and a libretto by Kenneth Cavender, started its life over 20 years ago as a musical-theater work.
"Both Richard and Kenneth are part of the old guard of theater creators," Jarden says. "Richard did the music for Peter Brook’s legendary productions of ’A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ’Marat/Sade,’ and has also worked with Sir Peter Hall."
This operatic retelling of the timeless legend, featuring Merlin and the knights of the round table, has contemporary resonance, according to Jarden.
"Kenneth went back to the original anonymous tale and crafted an utterly compelling story of Gawain’s wrestling match with his own honor, which becomes his Achilles’ heel," he says. "It’s a wonderful tale, especially in these days, about how a hero must live with himself, to try and stand for something no matter what."
Its origins as a musical-theater piece notwithstanding, Jarden is under no illusions that "Sir Gawain" is an opera in the truest sense of the term.
"Richard turned it into an opera, primarily by writing arias for actual singers, not for actors who also happen to sing," he notes. "The original piece was for children’s theater, so we’re all very pleased that Richard and Kenneth wrote an opera for kids. Our ideal audience is ages 8 and older, with kids taking their parents to see it!"
For Jarden - who was a founding board member back in 1988 - it’s especially gratifying to see the escalating growth of American Opera Projects.
"I was initially asked to see if the company could sustain a mission statement and a life of its own back in the mid ’90s," he says. "We were very small, just doing occasional workshops of new works back in those early days. Now, we’re up to a half-million dollar budget, from $50,000 at the beginning."
The group’s move to Brooklyn - which came early last year - wasn’t soon enough for Jarden.
"Prices in SoHo, where we started out, were getting too pricey, so we negotiated to leave that space in the spring of 2000," he explains. "At that time, ART NY [the Alliance of Resident Theatres] bought a building in Brooklyn and wanted to see if smaller arts companies would take advantage of a fully-staffed office building, which is something we never had in our SoHo space. Now, we’re part of the Fort Greene ’BAM Cultural District.’ A lot of what we do is akin to what BAM does: cutting-edge, new, world-premiere works."
Along with other arts organizations, American Opera Projects has had to think long and hard about how the events of Sept. 11 may affect their ability to find, keep and build an audience.
"We had all these discussions after the attacks," Jarden says. "There were many questions, most notably, will we be able to compete with what else is happening in New York City? But we decided to go ahead with ’Sir Gawain,’ since it’s family-oriented, which may be the ticket for people seeking entertainment at this time. We think it could find its place, we could find a niche among people’s theater-going habits once again."
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
will be performed through Nov. 4, at TADA Theater, 120 West 28th
St., Manhattan. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday
matinees at 2 and 5 pm. Tickets: $15 for adults, $6 for children
15 and younger. For reservations, call (212) 627-1732 or visit