THE PROCESS OF NEW OPERA

PART 1

Like snowflakes falling on Cold Mountain, no two operas are the same. However, there are certain similarities we can explore. In today’s post, the first of two, I will explore with you the process of creating a new opera.

Every opera-loving composer I know is constantly searching for the perfect property to inspire years of work. The material can be adapted from an existing source like Cold Mountain and Emmeline, constructed from various sources like Dr. Atomic and Satyagraha, or wholly new from the minds of its collaborators like Nixon in China. Regardless of the source, it is vital to choose a subject that will also inspire the librettist and director who sign on to the development process. While no one will spend more time with the material than the composer, each of these collaborators will spend years conceptualizing, conversing, arguing, and, hopefully, agreeing on a final vision for the piece.

Next to marriage, I cannot think of a more intimate, long-term relationship than that between librettist, composer, and director… and it is often just as volatile. Finding just the right team is not as easy a matter as “I marry you. I marry you. I marry you.” This triumvirate can be developed organically between artists who are already acquainted, or can be assembled by the commissioning organization. Once a team clicks, however, these artists might work on many pieces for years to come. As in marriage, the keys to a successful alliance are communication, trust, and a willingness to compromise.

Cold Mountain’s creative team (L to R): librettist Gene Scheer, director Leonard Foglia, and composer Jennifer Higdon. Photo by Kate Russell.

Once a team is set, the subject decided, and the scope of the project agreed upon, there comes oh so much reading. This is the period in which the shape of the opera begins to take shape. While writing Reagan’s Children, I read nothing but tomes about that family for over three years. Same with The Suitcase Opera, for which I have oodles of research on underground New York. My studio’s shelves have literally collapsed under the weight of books. But immersing one’s head in the literature and philosophy of an era is vital to creating an opera that is accurate, honest, and believable.

This commitment to period is one of the things I most value about opera. Often in musicals, modern vernacular and pop tunes take precedent. Opera, being a genre invested in inner musical landscapes, is uniquely situated to sonically represent its characters, setting, and text more honestly.

In opera, also unlike most musicals, the words come first. Librettos can be verse or prose, can be linear or abstract, can clearly mark distinct musical numbers or leave that decision up to the composer. The only key rule is that a libretto needs to be much shorter than a play… by about three-quarters. This means condensing a lot of drama and character development into a very small space. Whatever the librettist ends up creating, it is the composer’s job to create an honest, emotional musical response to the words. The music supports the words, and the words support the music.

This is not to say that the composer has no hand in crafting the libretto. Some composers will set exactly what is on the page, while others will cut, rearrange, and recraft language to meet their own musical needs. Some ambitious composers write both libretto and score. Regardless, the words are mostly extant before the first note is set.

Then the notes take over. Morton Feldman once said: “The composer makes plans, music laughs.” Oh how right he was. The process of hearing this “laughter” is painstaking and takes much longer than expected. For example, while I predicted mere months, my first two chamber operas took four years each to complete. I have learned my lesson. My current property is well beyond that point and I am waiting for it to tell me when it is ready.

Every composer approaches the process of writing music differently. Philip Glass says he writes straight through by hand. Other composers write the last act first and then work backwards. Others write the introduction, the finale, and then fill in the middle. As the old Zen saying goes: “There is one mountain and many paths to the top.”

I tend to start with emotional high points, giving each moment its own chance to breath, and then connect these moments together. My main goal is to listen to the words and find the natural, honest music behind them. Sometimes the words put up a fight and I have to step away, let them have a private conversation, and then come back to listen from a hidden spot in the room. Other times, the words follow me around the city, making patterns in my head with every footstep until they beg to be put on the page. The process feels similar to transcribing, and I enjoy spending time away from my piano writing directly on to manuscript paper with pen. I will then spend just as much time refining and orchestrating my sketches as the final work slowly reveals itself.

Like a novel, draft after draft might be produced before the first production, and huge sections of material may be scrapped or reframed in order to make a more successful work. Doing these rewrites in tandem with the musicians who premiere the work is one of the unique blessings of working on a new opera. But we will talk about this more in my next post.

PART 2

In my last post I talked about finding a subject, gathering a team, and digging into the long process of writing an opera. Now that the words have been typed and the notes have been copied, it is time to refine, rehearse, and premiere the evolving opus.

With the popular operas you see most often, little can be modified, save for cuts, minor reordering, and–in rarer occasions–adding material from earlier drafts or other works. However, with a newly written opera, the originating performers are vital to the creation process. Working on a new opera, while challenging, allows a singer the opportunity to collaborate with a living composer on fitting the music more beautifully into their voice, the conductor the ability to help refine orchestration to best suit the talents of their pit, and the entire ensemble the responsibility of asking questions that, when resolved, will strengthen the final piece.

The current norm is to do much of this work through a series of pre-production workshops. Borrowed from theater, workshops bring singers together to test out early drafts of material in non-staged performances. A relatively new addition to the development of operas, these events are great way for the creative team to get a handle on what they are crafting, and for the producing company to strategize and fundraise around the material. This is also a chance for the singers to get a head start on learning their music as they are expected to come to first rehearsal “off-book” (i.e. having their music memorized).

Coming out of this process, the composer and librettist have the chance to refine the piece before rehearsals start. Whether major revisions or minor rewrites, the score needs to be set for first rehearsal. In my experience, workshops are a blessing. It is hard to hold something as massive as an opera in one’s head while writing it and the simplest mistakes are easily overlooked.

By this time, the director will have been working closely with their designers to develop a concept for the first production. As sets and costumes take a long time to build, these conversations start well over a year before the cast even enters the rehearsal hall. In fact, the shortest process in the creation of an opera is the actual rehearsal period, lasting only 2-4 weeks. During this time, the piece will be staged, choreographed, musically perfected, and all of the stage elements and orchestra will be added. There is an awful lot to do in a very short amount of time.

As a composer, I feel selfish during workshops and rehearsals. There is little on Earth as moving or satisfying as hearing my own notes emanating from the mouth of a world-class singer, often in a space much smaller than an opera house. In these close quarters you feel the pure power of a human voice shaking your entire body. It is a singular experience, one I wish for everyone to experience in their lifetime.

But after years of inspiration, sweat, refinement, design, and rehearsal comes the inevitable moment of truth: the curtain rising on the very first performance. While no one can say what the future holds for any particular new opera, I am a firm believer that the pronouncements of the death of the form are greatly exaggerated. It is impossible to predict if a work will get a revival production, or, if telecast or recorded, that it will gain any sort of popular traction. But young consumers of popular media regularly partake of music and visual forms that are much more challenging than what is seen on the operatic stage.

In 2009, I directed the Chicago premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera, the punk-themed Oedipus myth Greek. This stunning and challenging work premiered just 7 days after Turnage turned 28. At our production, one audience survey received from a hipster type, also in his 20s, said: “I have never been to an opera before. If I had known it would be like this, I would have come a lot sooner.” Here was a young man who, like the composer of the opera, was up for a challenge and found himself wrapped up in the passion of the material. This gives me hope not only for up-and-coming audiences, but also for the future of the form.

In that spirit, my simple suggestion to composers is this: write an opera! I began writing my first opera in my spare time. I wrote purely out of obsession with the material and with no prospect of a production. But my zeal was infectious and soon others wanted to be a part of the work. Write for the love of the music and you will inspire passion. If you sit around all day waiting for a big commission, the notes will never come. Find the subject or the melody that inspires you and follow it as far and wide as it wants to go. You will be surprised where it takes you. And when you get to a place you don’t recognize, that is where you find your own unique voice.


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