The last opera composer to enjoy a mass following died eighty years ago. Giacomo Puccini left Turandot unfinished in 1922 but its “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep”) has become an anthem for World Cup soccer. That popularity depends on the brilliance of the Three Tenors. Puccini did not write many melodies along with which audiences dare do more than hum.

Despite this long hike between tunes, every culture still seeks to assert its independence by showing that it can make opera. Latvia did it with The Prodigal Son by Romualds Karlson in 1993 as it slipped loose from the Soviet Union. Devolved Scotland has just seen Sally Beamish’s Monster. New Zealand had Jam by Rachel Clement at Canterbury in August last year. The 2002 Perth Festival staged Noah from the back streets of South Africa. A restyling of traditional Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion, was at Perth last year.

Moreover, all manner of troupes want to attach the logo “opera” to their physical theatre, Rock band or circus. An exemplar is Tasmania’s IHOS whose Pulp; an industrial opera (1997) approached the mill-town of Burnie as its stage. This desire to identify mass performance with opera is reasonable because opera is the total work of art, mixing the visual and aural, treating music as drama, incorporating dance and painting.

My Life, My Love, with words and music by Adelaide’s Pat Rix, works its way from 1900 at Glenelg, through the terrors of two world wars and depression, back to a suburban horror in 1975. The State Opera and Theatre have combined with a ommunity singing group, the Tutti Holdfast Community Choir, comprising singers with varying physical and intellectual abilities. Under the direction of Rosabla Clemente, this diversity heightened audience engagement, and offered the professional leads, Jennifer Kneale and Brian Gilbertson, opportunities to extend their stagecraft.

The number of Australian operas that get staged is on a par with the rate of productions for new works across the world. Since Richard Meale’s Voss at the 1986 Adelaide Festival, Opera Australia has launched a new main-stage work every couple of years, including The Golem from Larry Sitsky in 1993.

The need now is for more revivals to allow for reworking. Opera Australia brought  The Eighth Wonder back just before the Olympic Festival, but could not fund librettist Dennis Watkins and composer Alan John to improve on their 1995 premiere. Even more deserving of a second round is Batavia by Richard Mills which got minimal rehearsals last year.

No less important are second explorations by a different director. For instance, it is time for a fresh production of Voss freed from the worshipful company who hung around White.

The condition of contemporary opera across the globe can be viewed through four essentials: plots, staging, the music and the cash.

One way to soften audience resistance to unfamiliar sounds is to use a well-loved title, such as Little Women. Poet Peter Goldsworthy turned to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for Richard Mills in 1996. A modern classic, The Great Gatsby, was adapted for the Met in 1999. From Spain in 2000 came Cristobal Halffter’s treatment of Don Quijote.

Another path to the box-office has been to set subjects relevant to public concerns, or at least sensational news. The on-stage “re-trial” of Lindy Chamberlain, for which the real life protagonist promises to be in the first-night audience, opens in Sydney on October 6 from the pens of Myra Henderson and poet Judith Rodriguez. Lindy is the first work by women to gain a place in OA’s subscription series, although women are composing their share of new operas, here and abroad.

Opera South Australia will offer Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie on capital punishment in 2003, a reminder that Chamberlain could have executed in the Texas of George W. Bush.

No one has taken so great a battering for his choice of challenging topics as John Adams whose latest stage work, El Nino, is the central mainstage offering at the Adelaide Festival. El Nino relies on the Apocrypha around the infant Christ story, of the little one, not the climatic pattern, yet it charts political storms across Latin America. Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents prefaces the setting of poems about the Mexican government’s state terrorism in 1968 against students, and more recently against the Zapatistas. The Virgin expresses the power of Latino women.

Adams collaborated with the poet Alice Goodman for Nixon in China (1987) which triumphed at Adelaide in 1992. They got into trouble with other left liberals for presenting a Nixon more complex than the paranoid crook he could be.

That squall was nothing compared with the tempest that still rages around their The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which dealt with the 1985 seizure of the Achille Lauro by Palestinian gunmen, during the course of which a wheelchair-bound US tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, was the only hostage murdered.

After a picketed premiere just after the Gulf War, Klinghoffer has not been staged in the US of A because of opposition to letting the Palestinians put their case. Its recent filming by Britain’s Channel Four will give SBS the chance to screen it here.

Adams’ and Goodman’s offence was in allowing the killers to sing their “anti-Semitic, anti-American, anti-bourgeois” passions. Once any opinion is rendered poetic enough to be set to music it is lifted above its content, as happens to the malignity of Iago and Scarpia.

After September 11, the Boston Symphony Orchestra dropped some Klinghoffer choruses from a concert, “to err on the side of being sensitive’. Adams hit back that not just valium, but tough thinking, was needed to cope with that trauma.

Despite the furore at home, John Adams was billed as the “Voice of America” in London in January. Undaunted, Adams is at work on a new opera about the 1954 decision to produce the Hydrogen bomb at the peak of McCarthyism.

The alternative to politically themes was apparent in Brisbane in 1998 with Thomas Ades Powder Her Face (1995) about the divorce of the Duchess of Argyll on the grounds that she was a compulsive fellator of the lower orders. Who cares?

Lots of operas from every age are closer to oratorio. A plot-driven libretto is one where characters enter and exit for some reason other than the composer’s inability to spin out their music. With dramatic tensions in opera thinner than the dying Mimi, tableaux have returned, as in Phillip Glass’s Akhnaten (1984) to be given in Adelaide next May. In centuries past, stasis on opera stages was relieved by theatrical fireworks that are now too expensive.

A solution has been to project film over the performance area as Peter Greenaway did in Adelaide in 2000 for Writing to Vermeer. Last week, ex-Festival Director Peter Sellars supplied two hours of screen effects for John Adams’s El Nino. The roughness of the camera work was in keeping with the text’s commitment to the Nativity as a myth for the everyday. The literalism of the imagery eventually spun out into evocations of the difficulties faced by disadvantaged families. At worse, the film distracted from the music, was repetitive and failed to point up the politics within the poetry.

Whereas nineteenth-century opera had aspired to the condition of cinema, opera scores are now challenged to escape from being film music, not surprisingly since it is the principal earner for many composers. The danger is a score of sound effects.

Following a century of formalism and minimalism, many Western composers have slipped back to Romanticism without providing much by way of a good tune. Instead, scores have become as eclectic as listening to radio  which serves up pieces from all periods as a continuous present.

Adams is the grand master of the pastiche. He composed a rock opera about the Los Angeles earthquake and grounded other compositions on Bach’s Passions. The score of El Nino is as straightforward as Handel’s treatment of scripture yet original, the “Shake the Heavens” calling the Messiah to mind only because of its words. In Adams, baroque ornamentation is rare in the solo lines, but abundant in the layering of voice parts and in the intensity of the orchestration.

Delicate and plaintive sections alternate with threats and risks until the longest segment brings a Hallelulah Chorus for our time in a cold rage against death squads.

The roles pass around the voices so that at points Mary’s lines are sung by the bass to highlight the power of the feminine. US bass-baritone Herbert Perry supplied the firmness and richness demanded to convey the wrongs felt by Joseph and the wroth of Herod, maintaining clarity if not always adding the cutting-edge.

The dark, rich timbre of Kirsti Harms and the zest-filled lightness of Shu-Cheen Yu’s completed each other. The trio of American counter-tenors covered an equivalent vocal range, always balanced and distinguishable in their tonings.

Underlying these achievements was the choral splendour of the US Theatre of Voices, directed by Paul Hellier, who demonstrated his stated aim aural scenery. The Adelaide Symphony proved once again its mastery of demanding material under visiting conductors, this time, Alasdair Neale.

The biggest obstacle to mainstage productions of any opera is cash. Chicago’s Lyric poured a fortune into its 1999 adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Over A$2m went on the principals and sets; commissions for composer, librettist and playwright totaled A$250,000. Australian composers would give years of their lives for that level of support.

To match their expenses, composers everywhere seek sponsorship by several companies or Festivals. For example, Louis Andriessen’s Vermeer at Adelaide 2000 was a joint commission with Amsterdam. Similarly, El Nino began its world tour of premieres in Paris in December 2000, and is already available on CD. In addition, the sets are simplified to be shipped around the globe.

An alternative to these outlays has been to turn to chamber-scale pieces, for instance, Andrew Ford’s Night Letters, or even to monologues with piano. In 1997, Martin and Peter Wesley Smith adapted their opera about the Timor refugee, Quito (1994), for ABC radio, a still under-used medium, despite the 1947 lead of Menotti’s The Telephone.

Electronics and screens are the stuff of Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) who has spent the past twenty-five years completing his Licht cycle, with one opera for each day of the week. This new creation myth places Stockhausen as heir to Wagner for more than its hymn to racial purity.

Against all odds, although Stockhausen’s endorses “the clash of civilisations” thesis, he got into trouble after September 11, when, out of envy enflamed by admiration, he referred to the implosion of the World Trade Towers as a work of art, a spectacle. He forces his ceremonial and ritual theatre far beyond the proscenium arch, notably in the Helikopter-Streichquartett relayed into the theatre from on high.