The Minnesota Opera will commit $5.5 million over seven years to contemporary repertoire under a new program just announced. Minnesota OperaWorks envisions three commissions, three revivals of American works and an international co-production.

"This is unique in the opera world," said Kevin Smith, the opera's president. "It's not just an ad hoc approach; it's a program and it changes our company."

Smith said the organization has raised $3.5 million, with another $500,000 fairly secure. With the first commission due in 2010-11, the pledged money allows the opera to front-load productions.

The commissions will kick off with "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie. Significantly, it was their "Grapes of Wrath" that got Smith and artistic director Dale Johnson thinking of this program.

"After 'Grapes of Wrath,' we started looking for the next piece," Johnson said. "We knew we would work with Ricky again and we started soliciting to see who's out there, who's cool? I tend to listen to music in my car, and if something hits me in my car, there's something about it."

After a few hundred miles on the road, Johnson found something in the work of composers Kevin Puts and Jack Perla.

Puts is composer-in-residence for the Fort Worth Symphony in Texas and has written several symphonies and concertos. Perla won the 1997 Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Composers Award. Puts will write "Joyeux Noël" with librettist Mark Campbell for the 2011-12 season. Perla's work for the following year has not been determined.

Johnson noted that commissions are not based strictly on a composer's musical acumen. Once he was sold on Puts and Perla as musicians, he brought them in to suss out their compatibility.

"When you commission, you're going to be living with that person for the next year," Johnson said. "They may be brilliant, but can we get along?"

Film adaptations

Gordon, Puts and Perla visited Minnesota last month for a fundraiser and talked about their plans. "Finzi-Continis" will adapt the 1971 movie about an aristocratic Italian Jewish family during World War II. It won the Oscar for best foreign language film.

"I've seen the movie 10 times," Gordon said. "The music is completely marinating inside me."

For "Joyeux Noël," Puts will approach a topic that has gained visibility recently -- the Christmas truces between Allied and German troops along the front lines in 1914. A movie of the same name was released in 2005. Locally, Theater Latté Da and Cantus mixed carols, British patriotic songs and actual writings from soldiers to tell the story in "All Is Calm" last year.

"Dale saw the potential that this could be a great opera," Puts said. "It's the kind of narrative I'm interested in."

Perla, whose style jazzes up a classical background, has had wide-ranging discussions on what he might write for his 2012-13 commission. Among the possibilities: an original story, an adaptation of a contemporary writer, comedy.

"Comedy interests me a lot," he said. "It's hard to name a successful modern opera comedy."

In addition to the commissions, Minnesota OperaWorks will revive three pieces.

In 2009-10, the company will bring back Dominick Argento's "Casanova's Homecoming" to celebrate the 25th anniversary in the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Johnson likes the piece for its clever libretto, and he suggested that it represents some of Argento's best music.

John Adams' "El Niño" -- in structure and literature a kind of oratorio -- will be revived in 2013-14.

The program concludes in 2014-15 with an intriguing oddity. Bernard Herrmann, the film composer closely associated with Alfred Hitchcock, set "Wuthering Heights" as an opera.

"This was his pride and joy, and nobody did it while he was still alive," Johnson said. Portland Opera did the piece in the 1982-83 season.

OperaWorks actually will start this year with the previously annnounced "The Adventures of Pinocchio," a co-production with Opera North.

Smith said OperaWorks fits well within the company's financial structure. The $5.5 million goal assumes $1 million for each of the commissions. Again, "The Grapes of Wrath" is the template. That show cost about $2 million compared with the usual staging cost of $1 million. The rest of the money will be split among the revivals, and $1 million is dedicated in a general way for audio and visual enhancements that are intended to get work beyond the Opera House, specifically through recordings.

"We're the 15th-largest opera company in the United States, and we can make a big impact," he said. "It's important to get these things recorded and then weigh our options for distribution."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299