Opportunities for Composing Operas

Opportunities for Composing Operas

Like many I was saddened by the news of composer Jack Beeson’s passing last week. Others who knew him better have already contributed touching personal notes. So I’ll echo their words only with the observation that among other charms and achievements, Jack was a director of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera, which is the organization that backs my fellowship with American opera companies that I’ve been writing about on these pages. It goes without saying that Jack Beeson’s role in helping to secure and maintain this crucial and dearly needed opportunity for American composers is one that I appreciate deeply.

The recent VNPAC reporting by Anne LeBaron and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum only shed further light on the fact that while many composers wish to write operas, the opportunities available for them to do so—from learning/apprenticeship programs like I’ve been involved in all the way to the kind of accessible, national network for connecting different talents—are few and far between.

On one hand, the framework for more outside-of-academia, on-the-job training already exists but is underfunded and modest in scope; on the other hand, many elements of a rationally-planned network for new opera development (such as a national travel fund for scouting new shows) don’t even exist in skeletal form. Who will create this new infrastructure? It’s quite a huge task to ponder, and right now it makes the seemingly vast undertaking of composing an opera seem comparatively small.

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2 thoughts on “Opportunities for Composing Operas

  1. philmusic

    “..while many composers wish to write operas, the opportunities available for them to do so..”

    These days a practical professional composer would never think of writing an opera without a commission or an “in”.

    Why not? Leadership involves taking risks.

    Fine but then you might say how does one get experience? True one needs to get inside the beast but there are many ways to do this besides composing. How about acting school for example?

    Its true that there are some things that can only be learned through experience. I created work that would afford me that experience in a public arena Opera Bob. Yet all theatrical is similar in that you might add 4 measures for an exit here cut 2 measures for an entrance there etc etc.

    We don’t even think about the powerful effect that scheduling has on institutional programing especially opera where the forces can be so large.

    I think the larger problem for composers is learning from their experience.

    As a final note I too will miss Jack Beeson, he was always encouraging to me.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Re both Phil and Dan’s comments: My first opera was in 1977, but it was far from traditional, a half-hour piece with a small cast and hand-made unique instruments. A self-funded performance with my own ensemble Dashuki Music Theatre, it premiered at the World Trade Center at Charlotte Moorman’s annual festival.

    Now I’m trying again, and finding it a rough go. Not the opera itself — that’s been coming along part-time for 20+ years — but the fundraising.

    Admittedly, I’m not a grants guy. I suppose there’s some money out there for such a thing as Dan notes, but I like the rough-and-tumble of individual commitment and a kind of marketplace strategy.

    In April, Kickstarter.com was my choice. The budget for a monodrama with chamber ensemble in at least two performances was modest at $12,000 … and I figured that I could count on friends and colleagues and opera lovers and fans of the subject to back the project.

    It didn’t work. Friends did help out, right back to some high school friends I’d not seen in over 40 years, and two local people responded to a news story here in Vermont. Some colleagues came through, while most outright ignored my notes to them as well as regular social media notices and tweets. The fans of the topic (the “Blood Countess”) mostly held their purses tightly shut, despite more than 1600 who had contacted me since my opera website opened in 1996. “Let me know, I’ll help” turned into near nothing. And opera lovers? Despite a nice writeup on an online opera site, nada.

    And so the Kickstarter funding reached just shy of 75% when the all-or-nothing Kickstarter deadline arrived. I’ve started the fundraising again directly from my website bathory.org, still intent on producing this without going for grants.

    I’m not sure this sheds any light on the topic, save for the reality that opera is expensive ($12000 would fund quite a nice little concert series instead) and professed enthusiasm is no guarantee of a translation into economic reality.

    Most shocking to me was the low support among hundreds of colleagues, many sporting iPhones and posting about their latest restaurant meals. I’ve quietly supported hundreds of projects over the years, and thought it was simply what we as artists did for each other. So maybe here’s a question for another column: What level of help should artists hope for from one another?



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