VNPAC: A Great Conversation, A Few Tips, and Dating Advice

VNPAC: A Great Conversation, A Few Tips, and Dating Advice

Is the Opera America conference setup for composers? Not really. There is no welcome mat, but there are funny corners with some pretty powerful conversations taking place…

Yesterday I was thrilled by the deep, strong, palpable, passionate discussions that took place surrounding the commissioning, performance, and subsequent life of new operas. At “Forging Beyond The Premiere,” the room was packed and lively. Leaders from every side of the opera world came together to engage in a discourse about how new works can have a life after they are born.

More apparent then ever was how important new opera is to the lifeblood of so many American opera companies. Many ideas were bandied about concerning the process and inner workings of a production. Many inadvertent tips for composers were explicitly revealed:

Tip #1: One Size Does Not Fit All
Both Peggy Monastra from Schirmer and Norman Ryan from Schott emphasized that if your new opera has another version with a reduced instrumentation, this just makes further performances more viable. It’s easier to book works if there are multiple versions available to fit the needs of different companies.

Images from the Spoleto performance of Anthony Davis’ Amistad (click to enlarge)

Stage director Sam Helfrich went further to say that the need to reduce chorus members for the Spoleto performance of Anthony Davis’ Amistad actually facilitated a significant conceptual shift for the work, strengthening its dramatic core. Here’s what he had to say:

Tip #2: A Penny Saved Is A Penny Saved

Composer Daniel Catán, who is a strong advocate for composers and new music, argued that reducing the dimensions of a new opera, if solely to address financial constraints, is not necessarily a bad thing. Have a listen:

Tip #3: If You Don’t Have Something Nice To Say, Don’t Say Anything At All
There was a pretty powerful and quite shocking discussion about the power of a critic. No matter how great a new opera is, a critic, in one fell swoop, can destroy any life it may have with a bad review. Some of the points that were brought up were:

  • There should be a fund for opera company directors to travel to premieres so that they can pass their own judgment on the success or failure of a new work, rather than rely on what a critic thinks.

  • We all need to find ways to educate critics about the works they are reviewing before the performance. Critics are sometimes predisposed for or against certain composers depending on how that composer was previously reviewed. We need to help keep minds open.

Tip #4: Practice Makes Perfect

One theme that resonated with everyone in the room was how important it is to workshop new pieces, much like the process of developing a new theater piece. Whether with the production company, a university, or in your backyard, any form of workshopping is strongly encouraged in order to make a new piece successful. This may seem obvious, but several people spoke about how this step is missing from many new productions.

My Network Lunch — Canceled!

Even though I was totally nourished by the morning conversation, by the afternoon I had lost my appetite. I skipped “Co-Production Speed Dating”:

Carmen 2:00-2:30 p.m.
Turandot 2:30-3:00 p.m.
Faust and Rigoletto 3:00-3:30 p.m.
Aida and The Barber of Seville 3:30-4:00 p.m.

Why aren’t new operas on this list? What if “Co-production Speed Dating” was an opportunity for composers to pitch new operas? What if this whole dilemma about one-off premieres was resolved here?

By the way, today I had some great conversations about the opera that I am working on. I got some really positive feedback, and so maybe I am making my own welcome mat…

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One thought on “VNPAC: A Great Conversation, A Few Tips, and Dating Advice

  1. philmusic

    Carmen 2:00-2:30 p.m.
    Turandot 2:30-3:00 p.m.
    Faust and Rigoletto 3:00-3:30 p.m.
    Aida and The Barber of Seville 3:30-4:00 p.m.

    I’m not sure how many of the above works were work shopped before their premieres.
    On the other hand that was then this is now.

    Still I wonder if this workshop concept has more to do with institutions need for ownership and priority in the process than the composer and librettists need for experience. Not to mention available grants. Institutions make the rules and as I have said before they get to decide what an opera is not composers. Then again why commission folks with no experience or understanding? With the exclusion of serialism the big opera companies have done just about as well as any other performing ensemble when it comes to creating new work.

    Still I would rather have Beethoven’s “failure” than Reginald de Koven’s success.

    Phil Fried, who talks big.
    Phil’s page


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