Beth Morrison

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Live from New York: Beth Morrison

There are, perhaps, few art forms as widely misunderstood as opera. Long the province of centuries-old epics with grandiose sets and running times stretching over three or four hours, the genre may seem at first particularly unattuned to our digital, instant-gratification age. But for Beth Morrison, the founder of an eponymous production company that has been supporting, presenting, and distributing new operas for nearly two decades, Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner represent merely one slice of the world of classical music theater. Inspired by the concept of black box theater that first blossomed in the Sixties in unadorned rehearsal spaces with minimal budgets, she has dedicated herself to expanding the boundaries of what she calls "indie opera," encouraging new work from diverse voices with an emphasis on female composers and artists of color. "There's been a real awakening of what this art form can do," she explains, looking back across the seventeen years since she founded Beth Morrison Projects. "The work is really exciting and really fresh and very contemporary. We put work on and have young people come who have never seen an opera and say, 'Oh I didn't know that opera could be this, I guess I like opera.' A lot of people have a very stigmatized version of what opera is."

Classical music professionals have been warning about declining audience numbers for years, a downward trajectory that has become markedly steeper since the Covid-19 shutdowns that also drastically affected the budgets of most performing arts organizations. As companies of various kinds have responded to recent movements for social justice by increasing their programming of works from underrepresented perspectives, they have discovered a possible path forward. When the Metropolitan Opera reopened in September 2021 with a work by Terence Blanchard, the first Black composer to be presented in its history, the entire run of performances sold out. "I think that things have started to change more rapidly in the field of opera and that the companies whose mandate is to do the repertoire, they have the hardest time because those are all dead white guys," says Morrison about the large-scale companies who must also cater to the tastes of their subscribers and donors. "The field is changing and it's happened in a very quick way in the last few years. I'm actually really encouraged and excited by what I'm seeing. I no longer feel like a lone wolf. I feel like I'm part of a pack and it’s exciting to see what the future will hold."

In January, Morrison also marked an important anniversary, celebrating the tenth year of the Prototype Festival, which was cofounded by BMP and the arts organization HERE to provide a platform specifically for opera during the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals in New York. With its focus on commissioning and premiering new work, Prototype has been instrumental in launching the careers of numerous young composers over the past decade, and Morrison says that her focus on constantly searching out new artists to uplift keeps her optimistic, despite what she calls an "existential crisis" for the field due to financial concerns. "The thing that brings me hope is that young composers want to write this art form, they're excited about it," she adds. "They feel it provides them an opportunity to tell stories that they can't tell in a piano concerto or a string quartet. By the nature of who they are and their fresh eyes and fresh perspectives and fresh stories and fresh music, it will continue to infuse the field with what I hope is going to be music that will excite people to come and will bring in a younger, different, more diverse, more varied audience. That's what gives me hope for the future of the art form."

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Top by Sacai

Top by Sacai

Hair by Rebekah Calo. Makeup by Andrew Colvin at Saint Luke Artists. Photographer's assistants: Daniel van der Deen and Mae Stark. Stylist's assistant: Jane Bickford. Makeup artist's assistant: Zac Hart.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.