American Modernism

After a quarter-century hiatus from creating new works, the Met began to premiere American operas again in the 1990s, under General Manager Joseph Volpe and Music Director James Levine. Five newly commissioned works were presented across two decades. Furthermore, American operas that originally premiered elsewhere were also integrated into the Met repertory. 


John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles

The first opera commission presented by the Met in a quarter-century, The Ghosts of Versailles premiered in 1991 under the baton of Music Director James Levine. Composer John Corigliano and his librettist, William M. Hoffman, honored the Great Tradition in their first opera by reimagining the celebrated Figaro trilogy by 18th-century French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais that had inspired Mozart and Rossini. Historical characters and reminiscences of musical styles from opera’s fabled past intermingled in a grand opera buffa that was critically hailed as “dazzling.” Audience reaction was equally enthusiastic, with the premiere run of performances sold out. The box office success of The Ghosts of Versailles greatly encouraged management to continue adding new works to the repertory. It was revived in the 1995–96 season. 

AOATM_Image57.jpgJohn Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles, 1991. Production by Colin Graham, designs by John Conklin.
Photo: Hans Fahrmeyer


AOATM_Image58.jpgLeft: Teresa Stratas’s “thrillingly emotive singing brought down the house” as Marie Antoinette in The Ghosts of Versailles, 1991.
Photo: Hans Fahrmeyer

Right: Marilyn Horne “brought her usual virtuosity and comic high spirits” to the role of Samira in The Ghosts of Versailles, 1991.
Photo: Hans Fahrmeyer


Philip Glass’s The Voyage

The Met commemorated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World with a commission to Philip Glass for The Voyage, a tribute to grand opera that explored themes of cultural discovery and confrontation, in a libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang. Bruce Ferden conducted and David Pountney directed the production. Philip Glass enjoyed a wide public for his seminal position in musical minimalism, which he had explored in his unorthodox first opera Einstein on the Beach, given at the Metropolitan Opera House by the visiting Philip Glass Ensemble in 1976. 

AOATM_Image59.jpgLeft: Tatiana Troyanos portrayed Spanish Queen Isabella in Philip Glass’s The Voyage, 1992.
Photo: Beth Bergman

Right: Scene from The Voyage, 1992, with Patricia Schuman. Set designs by Robert Israel and costumes by Dunya Ramicova.
Photo: Winnie Klotz


John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby

Commissioned expressly to mark the turn of the millennium, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby premiered on December 20, 1999, conducted by James Levine. Harbison adapted his own libretto from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic American novel, weaving 1920s jazz influences, popular song (to lyrics by Murray Horwitz), and vibrant dance scenes accompanied by an on-stage band into an eclectic score. Mark Lamos directed the production, which had set designs by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Jane Greenwood.

AOATM_Image60.jpgLorraine Hunt Lieberson and Mark Baker in The Great Gatsby, 1999.
Photo: Winnie Klotz


AOATM_Image61.jpgLeft: John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, 1999, with Susan Graham, Dawn Upshaw, and Jerry Hadley.
Photo: Winnie Klotz

Right: Backdrop projection for The Great Gatsby, 1999. Set design by Michael Yeargan, production by Mark Lamos.
Photo: Winnie Klotz


Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy came to the Met in 2005 as an opera commissioned from composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer. Many audience members were familiar with the true story of Chester Gillette, a young factory supervisor in upstate New York who was executed for the murder of his pregnant lover, through the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor. Picker’s musical style followed in a more lyrical tradition than that of many other contemporary composers, with one critic observing, “This could be the perfect modern opera for people who hate modern opera.” James Conlon conducted a cast of young American artists in An American Tragedy, including baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Patricia Racette as the ill-fated lovers.

AOATM_Image62.jpgLeft: Patricia Racette and Nathan Gunn in Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, 2005.
Photo: Ken Howard

Right: Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, 2005, with (left to right) Kim Begley, William Burden, Jennifer Larmore, Susan Graham, and Patricia Racette. Costumes by Dunya Ramicova.
Photo: Ken Howard


William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge

William Bolcom’s setting of A View from the Bridge, a searing drama on the American immigrant experience, featured the collaboration of playwright Arthur Miller and librettist Arnold Weinstein, the result of which was deemed a “modern-day Verdi tragedy.” Bolcom’s debut work at the Met was given during the 2002–03 season in its world premiere production from Lyric Opera of Chicago. In an exchange of commissioned works, the Met’s The Great Gatsby was given in Chicago, allowing both new operas to be experienced by a broader national audience. Dennis Russell Davies conducted.

AOATM_Image63.jpgLeft: William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, 2002, with (left to right) Gregory Turay, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Catherine Malfitano, and Kim Josephson.
Photo: Marty Sohl

Right: A View from the Bridge, 2002, with (left to right) Gregory Turay, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Kim Josephson, Catherine Malfitano, and Richard Bernstein.
Photo: Marty Sohl


Tan Dun’s The First Emperor

In the line of émigré composers who, like Stravinsky, wrote operas in English after coming to the United States, Chinese native Tan Dun was commissioned by the Met to compose The First Emperor, which premiered in 2006. Tan and his co-librettist, poet and novelist Ha Jin, drew on ancient history for The First Emperor, depicting the dramatic reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China in the 3rd century B.C.E., through universal themes of love, power, and betrayal. An Oscar winner for his film score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan Dun infused musical elements of traditional Peking Opera into the score and became the sixth composer to conduct his own work at the Met, leading the 2006 world premiere co-production with LA Opera and its revival the following season.

The First Emperor
, 2006. Production by Zhang Yimou and co-director Wang Chaoge, set designs by Fan Yue, and costumes by Emi Wada. Plácido Domingo in the title role.
Photo: Ken Howard

Plácido Domingo and Paul Groves in The First Emperor, 2006.
Photo: Ken Howard


Searching for an American Style

American Commissions and Beyond

American Émigrés

Postwar America

From Commercial Theater to the Met

American Modernism

Innovations and Collaborations

International Contemporary Opera at the Met