Operatic Intentions

Operatic Intentions

So, I went to the opera last night. Double bill: Puccini’s Suor Angelica from Il Trittico and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. As is the case every time I see an opera, I was seized anew with the desire to write and produce my own. As if a large orchestra piece weren’t enough of a pipe dream.

Now that NewMusicBox has the estimable Mark N. Grant on board, I have to be careful not to shoot off at the mouth about the opera establishment; however, I don’t think I’ll raise many eyebrows by noting that opera-goers are probably the most conservative classical audiences in America. I’m sure we all know self-identified opera diehards who listen only to Wagner—in other words, they will tolerate not a small handful of eras or of composers, but of pieces. I wish I could abduct these people and blast them with T. Rex and MC Frontalot in a small floodlit room.

Nevertheless, one or two very fine composers of my acquaintance have sallied forth into the opera world with success. It sounds macabre, but those graying faithful who can only be taken to opera heaven by certain historically precedented varieties of heldentenor will soon be too incontinent to sit through even an extensively cut Parsifal, and the scene will presumably loosen up. Somebody has to write new operas—so why not me? Maybe because my opera would be nothing like a normal opera. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the medium (and, for that matter, The Medium); many of my earliest participatory musical experiences were in amateur opera productions. A good Tosca gets me as weepy as the next testosterone-deficient dweeb. As a composer, though, I don’t find the bel canto tradition especially authentic, and two hours of subtly inflected sprechstimme in quarter-tones strikes me as a tough sell.

The good news, of course, is that there are more alternative opera outlets than ever before. The key seems to be collaborating with theatre people, which in a city famous for its theatre seats per capita (i.e. Minneapolis) should be doable. Can anybody proffer advice on how to mount an indie opera in the 21st century—how, in short, to circumvent the Wagnerites?

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9 thoughts on “Operatic Intentions

  1. mryan

    Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, young opera singers are much in the same boat as young composers. Desperate for performing experience they will sign on to almost any project that they can find.

    The trick is finding the desperate singers. Thankfully Classical Singer Magazine makes that easy enough with their free audition listings for “no pay / no fee” productions.

    Caveat: 99.99% of the desperate, but talented singers out there are SOPRANOS. So, unless you have a tenor or baritone friend you know will sing for you, forget writing for men and just write for women. By the by, women can play men, they call these ‘pants roles’ and it is a perfectly acceptable convention.

    I only needed one tenor and one baritone (besides myself, I got my bachelors in vocal performance) for my production of The Other Wise Man, I had a devil of a time finding the men. On the other hand, even in Utah, I had more sopranos audition than I would have ever needed and have found yet more as time has gone on.

    When you decide to produce your own work there are, of course, a lot of other factors that come into play besides finding your cast: direction, costuming, orchestra (I opted for the piano), rehearsal space, performing venues . . . but if I can do it, you probably can to.

    That said, producing my own opera ate up about 6 months of all my free time (all of it), so this is not something you can take on lightly. It will probably be some time before I do that again.

    Right now I’m focusing on the much more easily self-produced choir, Phoenix Rising, as a show-case for my choral work and that of other living composers (with some Renaissance music thrown in for fun).

  2. philmusic

    Do it like this:

    Title your opera;

    “Important Opera Houses in Europe and the United States.”

    -It has 2 parts;

    The Prima Donna and Major Roles

    So folks will want to be in your opera because they can truthfully write in their resumes that they Performed:

    Major Roles in Important Opera Houses in Europe and the United States!

    or that they were:

    The Prima Donna in Important Opera Houses in Europe and the United States!

    Oh my score is available for perusal lol

    Phil Fried

  3. rtanaka

    The key seems to be collaborating with theatre people…

    You answered your own question, I think. Either that or find singers who’re willing to act. (Fairly rare, in my experience.)

    I got lucky last spring and made friends with two singers who were both willing to sing and act…I gave them a script and they really just took off with it. It was great fun. Oh, the text of the fourth movement was based on academic jargon. Parody piece, obviously. ;)

  4. philmusic

    better go talk to ol’ Ben Krywoz and the Nautilus Music Theater!


    Phil Fried

    PS my next opera, an original comedy will be called “pants part.”

  5. eficklin

    The opera wold can move, but it moves slowly. Major shifts (for the better) are occurring, at the top and and at the grass roots. Either way, though, the changes can and will take years to become apparent. Two contrasting examples: Peter Gelb as new head honcho at the Met and the bawdy crowd of belting beer drinkers at Opera On Tap (http://www.operaontap.com).

    As for writing and producing your own: collaboration is the key. I’ve gone it alone thinking I could do it all–and I found out that I couldn’t. (I’ll spare you the details…) In opera, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it’s our current historical perspective that forgets the collaborators and glorifies the composer alone.

    On the practical side, you’ll find a lot of support and self-producing know-how in the theater world. Hook up with some good theater artists, follow their lead, observe, learn, work your butt off (and I do mean work), and voila, you’ll have an opera. But don’t expect it to happen right away, it can take years…


  6. philmusic

    “it’s our current historical perspective that forgets the collaborators and glorifies the composer alone. ”

    I disagree –these days its all about the director.

    Phil’s Page

    as long as everyone else is plugging their work I might as well too.

    Phil Fried

  7. pgblu

    While we’re on the subject of opera dreams, does anyone have advice on finding librettists? I have been mulling an opera project for a long time (though I guess theatre with music is a more appropriate term), but haven’t gone past the mulling stage because I can’t write stage texts to save a life.

  8. noiler

    I understand all the talk about the time and effort to produce an opera. However, I think the key to writing an opera is just to write one and put it on – as quickly as you can, however you can. It doesn’t necessarily “take years”.

    I don’t think opera has to necessarily be this HUGE thing that involves a HUGE orchestra, a HUGE production, HUGE casts etc. etc. If your means to get something up is to only use a few people in a local municipal multi-purpose room, let’s say, then – what’s wrong with just getting something up then and there, and then get something else up?

    It’s only through more output of opera / music-theater that we can develop an audience for these works. People go see plays and musicals because there are always new ones being read / performed / workshopped. If we can increase the volume of opera being written and performed, not necessarily through the big opera houses, then we can really create a scene for opera and music-theater, and not just become the occasional “new opera” production that dots a new music season full of new string quartets and new pierrot pieces.

    A large orchestra piece may really *be* a pipe dream, just because of the sheer amount of people that’s needed to bring it to life. But since it’s theater, and theater can be very flexible in presentation, operas don’t have to be huge. You can do very interesting things with a small cast and a small production.

    Capitalize on the forces you have and just get it out there!


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