Published Together: A 400+-year-old art form still has relevance today

From the earliest cave paintings to our present moment, civilization has always turned to artists as vehicles through which our life's challenges can be processed. This is not to say that all art has a definitive path, but rather that when life becomes a bit much, artists have shown us that they can, through what they produce, have a profound impact on our lives.

One artistic practice — opera — has been a medium for artistic expression for more than 400 years. Opera has always welcomed stories of human experience through its artists and, in its performance, encouraged countless spectators to confront topics reflective of their lives. 

One could even argue that opera is a living art form and that within its relatively short existence (compared to, say, cave paintings, which are estimated to be 64,000 years old) has risen to become a pillar of the art world today. Through its restaging, reinvention and reinterpretation of the times, opera has shown that its freshness flows from its early classic roots through the debut of new works today. 

Before one arrives at the contemporary offerings of opera that await us today, it is fitting to dive into a short history.

An opera is a form of theater in which music and dramatic roles are performed by singers. It originated in Italy in the 16th century. “Grand opera” — as it is referred to today — combines nearly all the performing arts into one performance — theater, singing, dancing and a symphony. 

Because of the many areas of the arts that opera welcomes to a performance, it is challenging to execute. However, the Western music tradition has kept opera in a place of high regard, because of its impressive nature and complexity.  

For non-operagoers, it may seem like opera companies have kept recycling the same classic repertoire over the past 100 years. Still, an examination of opera will reveal a genre bursting with new works, relevant stories and talented artists experimenting with new vocal styles.

Contemporary opera features shorter performances and smaller casts. It is more affordable for opera companies to produce and has the added benefit of relevance to modern issues and themes.  Younger audiences find these shows relatable and are coming to appreciate the genre after getting their introduction to contemporary opera. 

Over the past three seasons, Opera Grand Rapids (OGR) has responded to the need to welcome more diversity in its presentations and has produced contemporary shows with topics including politics (“Scalia/Ginsburg,” 2020), autism (“Penny,” 2021), environmental justice (“Second Nature,” 2021) and racial justice (world premiere of “Stinney: An American Execution,” 2022). Using opera as a medium, OGR has been able to elevate important topics and artists while also creating a sense of community amongst its patrons. 

Contemporary opera also presents the opportunity to get inventive with performance changes that reach beyond traditional staging. For example, OGR has partnered with the Federal Bar Association for panel discussions, autism experts and individuals with autism for a filmed panel, and invited BIPOC artists in West Michigan for collaborative artistic events — each paired with a contemporary opera production and bolstering the subject matter of the show.

Expansive programming gives arts companies the opportunity to be creative, impacting the community on a deeper level. Contemporary opera is also becoming an accessible, affordable and thought-provoking staple in the opera industry, and a few regional companies, including OGR, have led the way in elevating it.  

This year, Opera Grand Rapids continues its Contemporary Opera series by presenting Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi’s “The Last American Hammer.” This opera is centered on the flight of industrial jobs from America’s Midwest, a particularly poignant topic in West Michigan.  

Never one to shy away from giving contemporary opera audiences a unique experience, OGR is going the extra mile with this show too by using an unexpected locale. Partnering with Irwin Seating Company, OGR will create an opera venue inside a factory. Upon arrival, patrons will take a short walk through a factory floor before arriving at a cafeteria that’s been converted to a performance space.  

Immersive experiences are still relatively unheard of in opera, but OGR is pushing boundaries and using nontraditional spaces to elevate contemporary opera once again. OGR proves that modern stories can be told in fresh ways to ensure this art form continues to advance upon its creative legacy. 

Opera has a rich history, but it also has a bright future. Through these evolutionary moments, Opera Grand Rapids hopes that its art will be reborn in the eyes of our community and all will see how it is shaping a more welcoming future where more voices can rise (sometimes in song).

Emilee Syrewicze, a boomerang of West Michigan, is the executive director of Opera Grand Rapids – Michigan’s longest-running professional opera company and one of the top regional companies in North America. Before returning to West Michigan, Syrewicze, a classically trained pianist as well as J.D. from Vermont Law School, served as the executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in Charlotte, North Carolina. What attracted her back to our region are OGR’s impressive reputation and full production schedule featuring grand opera, contemporary opera, and a series of recitals and cabarets called “Explore Opera.” As one of her first projects, she established the prestigious VanderLaan Prize at OGR in 2019, which has since become one of the top collegiate vocal prizes in the nation. 

"Published Together" is Rapid Growth's version of the Op-ed and is ushered forward via community conversations held first with our Publisher Tommy Allen. If you want to read more about OGR or secure a seat to attend the Michigan Premiere of The Last American Hammer, tickets may be purchased at or by calling the box office at (616) 451-2741.  
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