Singers have the least amount of clout in the opera world.
All of the big decisions — what gets staged and who gets to work — are made by the general directors who run regional companies. They're followed far behind by production crews, jobbed in show-by-show, who have some say over how a particular work by Puccini or Wagner might be read aloud on a given night.
Singers wait around their agents to text, then show up where they're booked, ready to work.
That makes countertenor David Daniels' role in bringing "Oscar" to the Santa Fe Opera a singular achievement. Based on the life of literary titan Oscar Wilde, it is the most highly anticipated premiere of 2013 and, in large part, Daniels made it happen.
He backed the new work from its inception, consulting on the story, agreeing to take the lead, even funding a demo recording himself. Then he used all of his sway as one of the genre's current stars to find a company willing to commission an actual production.
And no small matter: It took him eight years.
"I always knew the possibility to do this opera was out there if I could get the right person to hear it," said Daniels. "I finally made the decision that I'd get my pocketbook out and get together a recording studio and an engineer and producer and singers. That's what finally captured the attention."
It could also be that opera audiences — conservative art consumers by nature — weren't ready for "Oscar" until 2013.
A century after his death, Wilde is best-remembered as a master of pith, the author of plays, witty and catty, that took on his era's social mores. Theater companies produce his writings reliably today.
"Oscar" is another matter and fitting of its place in an opera house. Composer Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox tell the story of Wilde's public trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency," late 19th century code for homosexual acts. The work is very much a tragedy about a fallen hero, and opera is full of such characters, from "Don Giovanni" to "Carmen."
The Sante Fe Opera presents the premiere of a new work, based on the life of Oscar Wilde. Composed by Theodore Morrison, libretto by John Cox. Starring David Daniels, Dwayne Croft, Heidi Stober and William Burden.
Where: Seven miles north of Santa Fe on the west side of US Highway 84/285
How to get there: Drive or take a shuttle from Santa Fe or Albuquerque
When: July 27 to Aug. 17
Phone: 505-986-5900 or 800-280-4654
Learn more at kimmelcenter.org/resident/opera.php.
"This is not 'The Importance of Being Earnest,'" said Santa Fe's artistic leader Charles MacKay, as a polite and direct warning to folks who may expect a comedy of manners to appear on stage starting July 27.
"Oscar" has an additional twist as well. It's the first major opera where one man professes his love for another man. It's the first openly gay opera in the art form's 500-year history.
The irony of this is not lost on anyone in the profession or anyone who attends opera regularly and sees the two-tuxedo couples who regularly fill the seats. Opera is famous for its appeal to the rich and the gay, and there's some truth to the notion. For a good reference point, rewatch the scene in "Philadelphia" that won Tom Hanks the Oscar. He swoons nearly to death listening to Maria Callas wail through the famous aria, "La mamma morta."
Still, opera has not taken on the subject meaningfully until this year. Last month, jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard's successful dip into opera, "Champion," premiered in St. Louis and told the story of boxer Emile Griffith, who happened to be gay. But even that held back on the passion, reflecting the fact that Griffith cloaked his sexuality publicly. "Oscar" boldly goes where no men have gone before, operatically speaking.
The novelty threatens to overwhelm a story that more interestingly takes on themes of success, persecution and renewal. Wilde's character is winning in that he refuses to flee from England when it is clear he will be sent to prison for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, known to history as simply "Bosie."
Two years of hard labor change the man. Wilde is broken in captivity and emerges with a sensitivity to the less fortunate around him. The opera uses direct passages from the poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which Wilde penned about an execution that took place while he was jailed.
The tale is made large by a sizable chorus and the introduction of a narrator in the form of poet Walt Whitman, who met Wilde during a U.S. lecture tour in 1881. At the end of the piece, Whitman welcomes Wilde into the realm of the "immortals." That's another idea operagoers have seen before.
Daniels gets the historical significance of the opera, especially in a summer when gay civil rights have dominated the news.
"We've all been taken a back a little bit with how emotional it is in the room for us putting it together," he said from a rehearsal break in Santa Fe last week.
"I think it's many things. It's the subject matter. It's this great man. It's the fact that I am a gay man playing a gay man for the first time; the fact that my love interest is not Cleopatra."
"I lost my mother three months ago, and she had tickets for opening night, and that's a part of it."
But he insists the opera will stand separate from current events because of its human story. The writers have played up the tragic romance.
"I don't know, in real life, if the love between Bosie and Oscar was as deep and real as the letters they certainly wrote," he said. "But our story is going to be that it was real."
The singer had a hand in that decision. He has a long association with composer Morrison, who wrote another composition for him, based on the poetry of James Joyce, in 2004. The song cycle toured concert halls across the world.
Morrison and Cox met the night the Joyce piece premiered and decided then to concoct a whole opera just for Daniels. The three of them consulted throughout the process leading to the demo tape, which caught the ear of MacKay. The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia co-commissioned the work, which is on Philadelphia's schedule in 2015.
"I think today, in this business, being pro-active is really the way to keep one's career accelerating," said Daniels.
The fact that Daniels is a countertenor will no doubt shade the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde. It's a delicate consideration that countertenors sing in a mezzo soprano range — a male with a traditionally female voice — and the first openly gay character is personified by one. Is that a comment on the masculinity or femininity of gay men?
Daniels doesn't see it that way. Countertenors rarely get starring in roles in operas, especially new ones with this much hype. He's just going show up where he is booked, ready to work.
"Vocally, I'm here to tell a story, not to do an imitation of what Oscar Wilde might have sounded like," he said. "I'm just thrilled that it's me."