Marilyn Monroe At the Opera

Her story shapes the latest in a wave of dramatic, accessible new American works

Samuel Johnson, in a famous aphorism, once derided opera as "an exotic and irrational entertainment." That may have been true in London two centuries ago, when castrati sopranos warbled Handel in Italian before an audience of uncomprehending Britons. But during the past two decades, a wave of new American operas has put the lie to Johnson's dictum. One after another, composers have produced works teeming with powerful drama, accessible idioms and contemporary relevance.

Since the premiere in 1980 of Philip Glass's Satyagraha, which depicted the origins of Gandhi's nonviolent pacifism, operas have taken on such subjects as the thawing of the...

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