General/Artistic Director, Opera Memphis
Not My Own Private Bayreuth
Being a composer and running Opera Memphis is fraught with contradictory impulses. On the one hand, one feels instinctively the desire to explore and support new projects; on the other, survival seems to dictate a steady diet of standard repertoire.
There are things about being an “impresario” that have helped me as a composer–access to singers who are looking for new works or arrangements, first name contact with producer colleagues, and the chance to conduct and learn great works like Carmen or La Boheme. I suppose the downside is that I simply cannot write whenever I feel like it, but I seem to be one of those people who gets more done when my schedule is full.
I am proud of the fact that I have been able to commission several educational operas for our touring program and that we have consistently done American works in the schools. I think that composers are not adequately informed about the opportunities to create works for these outreach programs.
Chances to write for the mainstage are, unfortunately, less frequent. A remount of a standard opera at our regional house might cost $250,000. A new production (sets/costumes) might cost $50 to $100 thousand more, and a new opera even more than that. In many cases, a new work also comes with a drop in box office receipts for both single tickets and subscriptions. It’s strange to say, but I think the emphasis on high quality productions has hurt the creation of new work. Back in the 19th century, production quality wasn’t as important, and I think that helped more new work reach the stage. Over in Nashville, hundreds of songs get written in order for a couple to become hits. A similar kind of churn and creative investment would be much healthier for opera.
As for doing my own work, I always insist that someone else commission it first. Opera Memphis can be part of a consortium, but I do not treat the company like my own private Bayreuth. Probably the best thing about running an opera company as a composer is that I know hundreds of members of the audience and when I write, I can write with a clear idea of who they are. It’s similar to writing for a particular performer or ensemble–it has an impact on the way you write. I feel, in a way, that my work here has helped give people a better idea of what a composer is, and that we composers fit into the community in the same way as doctors, lawyers, carpenters, or chefs. I wish more composers would decide to become arts administrators. In the end, I think that would broaden the opportunities for new music everywhere.
Michael Ching is the General/Artistic Director of Opera Memphis which will give the professional premiere of his opera about Lewis and Clark, Corps of Discovery, on April 24 and 27, 2004. The opera was commissioned by the University of Missouri-Columbia and given its world premiere in May 2003. Ching’s other operas include Buoso’s Ghost, King of the Clouds, and Out of the Rain. He studied composition with three opera composers, Iain Hamilton, Robert Ward, and Carlisle Floyd.