Nothing like approaching the turn of a personal decade to make you ponder things like success. There are many ways of defining success. But that’s not exactly what I’m going to prattle on about right now. Instead, I’m going to ponder the study of success and how we talk about success to each other.
There seem to be to be much discussion about "relevancy" in the opera world right now. The standard classics of the repertoire are often given updated productions to make them more relevant. Subject matter for new works, commissions, workshops, and the like encourage relevancy. What exactly is relevant? What makes a production, a work, a subject matter or character relevant?
As I stopped to take a breather between larger works, I found that it's been a long time since I wrote any art song. From my earliest attempts at composing to where I am now, art song has always been central. So, in an effort to keep the creative fires burning—or, at least, smoldering—I decided to experiment a little.
operamission, led by Jennifer Peterson, will present Stravinksy's L'Histoire du Soldat and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire—a wonderful evening of early twentieth-century angst at the Gershwin Hotel in New York City, June 3 and 4, 2011. Come one, come all... Details here »
It seems, in New York, at least, one of the first questions you're asked when meeting someone for the first time is "what do you do?" My stock response at the moment is "websites for money and music for love" and then see where the conversation goes from there. When it turns, as it does eventually, to composing opera, there's usually a moment of silence as my interlocutor processes this strange, strange answer. You can see it their eyes, the quizzical look of disbelief that someone in the 21st century writes opera.
"The reason we know so much, and in such detail, is rubbish." Thus writes P.J. Parsons in a brief account of the discovery of literary and historical treasures preserved in huge mounds of rubbish in the Egyptian desert. This rubbish brought to light previously lost ancient Greek texts. Excavation and examination continues to this day and hope remains for yet more lost texts to be brought to light again.
Why am I discussing this fascinating rubbish?
Most of my operas lend themselves to the being handed off to a company to perform, i.e. the traditional model of opera production where the composer and librettist consult in the final stages but are rarely active producers or performers. However, one is not. This one falls into the "hands-off" category when it comes to opera companies. It is, at the moment, my most oft performed work and I have had a huge hand in every single one of those performances. My personal attachment to the work is like no other in my repertoire.
In a word, yes. But it's not really the iPod, it's actually the mp3 format we've all become so fond of. It is indeed designed to fool you, and fool you it does. How so? Well, our ears and brains have a limited range of sound they can pick up and process. A high quality audio recording has a great deal of sound to it that is beyond our range of hearing. When you compress a CD track into an mp3, the mp3 encoder (that little part of iTunes that secretly works in the background when you add a song to your library) throws out a lot of sound data that you don't "hear" in any real sense.
When embarking on something large, we're often given that sage, if cliche, advice. Having recently laid down on paper, finally, the first few lines a new libretto destined to be a grand opera, I find that I need to remind myself of this. Indeed, large endeavors always require a large perspective.
What kind of stage directions should go into a libretto? I've always tended toward a "less-is-more" approach, leaving wide latitude for directors and performers. Still, you have to give them something to hang their hats on, as it were, while still letting them make the work their own.
This is a love note to the wonderful group of musicians who made Opera in Flight at the Gershwin Hotel such a wonderful experience. As a composer, there is perhaps no more inspiring or humbling experience than watching your work take shape in the hands of such dedicated and consummate professionals. Add to that the gratification of a packed house both nights, and you have a very happy composer.
2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the 1860 edition of Walt Whitman's monumental Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman Productions and American Opera Projects have commissioned a series of settings of the Calamus poems to be premiered on several concerts in the New York City area. My contribution to the effort will be a new version of a song I wrote a few years ago, "Trickle Drops," for tenor and piano. The new version, "Drops of Me," will be for baritone and cello.
Spaces are still available, contact me for more details!
Summer in Sombor is a week-long composition seminar led by the members of the South Oxford Six composers collective. This seminar is an opportunity for up to 12 students to spend a week with the members of the collective and a resident ensemble exploring the art and craft of composition from a variety of perspectives. The seminar includes group sessions, individual instruction, readings by the resident ensemble and public concerts. The language of instruction will be English and the seminar takes place in Sombor, Serbia in July 12-18, 2010.
operamission, that is…
Stage a concert of Handel scenes in a hotel lobby. Impossible, you say? Well, the inimitable and indefatigable Jennifer Peterson (conductor, vocal coach and self-proclaimed Handel nut) did that just last night at the Gershwin Hotel.
I read recently in Center for Contemporary Opera's Opera Today (Fall 2009) an interview with J. D. McClatchy, author of many a libretto. He was asked the question of how he decides what subjects can become libretti, or as the interviewer put it, "stage-worthy." His response:
My own experience—of both watching and making operas over the years—tells me that melodrama works best. Comedy is rarely funny, and its impulses are handicapped by the slowness of music; tragedy that begins with too abstract or merely psychological a premise grows wispy and tedious. But melodrama offers the possibilities of variety, outsized characters, and a plot that is both complicated and resolved.
New York City Opera' revival of Hugo Weisgall's Esther (originally commissioned in 1993) is worth your attention. It's rare for any company, even in the best of times, to revive a commissioned work. It's something of a given in the world of new music, that the second performance of a piece—especially something a huge as a three-act opera—is much harder to get than the first.
Kudos to City Opera for taking a bold course of action in difficult times rather than retreating. So bold, in fact, they added an extra performance due to demand.