NPAC Diary Ronald Perera



Ronald Perera
Photo by Dick Fish

It’s Wednesday, June 9, and about 50 composers are crowded into a small meeting room in Pittsburgh’s Hilton Hotel, being coached on how to make the most of the first ever National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC). Mostly middle-aged white guys, with a smattering of women, mostly from the Northeast, we are probably fairly representative of America’s classical music composition “establishment.” A species on the way to extinction, perhaps, but flushed, rumpled, and blinking from our dens to take our place, for this event, at the table of the performing arts.

As a rule, composers do not hang out in groups, though we are by and large sociable folks. We perform one of the most individualistic tasks in society and have learned to be wary and territorial. Yet there is a distinct buzz of empowerment in this room, a feeling of possibility, and our conveners seize the moment to give us the basic DOs and DON’Ts of convention protocol. DON’T leap out and thrust your score or CD in the face of every passing opera company director. DO take time to thank the representatives of the four major presenting organizations who have made your attendance possible at minimum cost to you.

The advice is coming from the leaders of the service organizations who have arranged our representation at NPAC: the American Music Center, Meet the Composer, the American Composers’ Forum. ASCAP‘s Fran Richard expresses it most succinctly when she urges us to think beyond our individual compositions and career concerns and to speak and act as the voice of the larger community of composers. One for all, all for one. I am moved by this to think of iconic figures like Aaron Copland who devoted so much effort advancing the cause of American music and American composers. Who speaks for us in this way today? Have we lost a vision of the larger enterprise in which we are all, like it or not, a part, in favor of an atomistic view of ourselves as individual capitalistic entrepreneurs?

This strikes a nerve. Since taking early retirement from a 33-year career as a college music professor, I have thrown myself into full-time composing and into the creation of my own web-based publishing business. Like many of my composer friends, I’ve seen the erosion of the traditional mechanisms of music publication, recording, and distribution, and I’ve looked to the Internet and the dot-coms for a new business model. But something has necessarily been lost in the transaction. Perhaps it is the absence of a sense of being part of an enterprise, of having the checks and balances that come from the judgment and advice of editors, or producers, or marketers. And how much of one’s creative energy is now absorbed by the demands of running one’s own business?

Like most of us attending NPAC, I assume, I came with some of my own specific goals and expectations. First, ECS Publishing was bringing out the piano-vocal score of my opera S., and they would have the score at their publisher’s exhibit. We were trying to find a co-producer for an opera company that is already interested in producing the work, and there were a few opera company directors that I hoped to talk with. So I would be spending a lot of time in the OPERA America exhibit area. Second, I wanted to attend some specific OPERA America conference sessions to deepen my knowledge of the field (this would not be my first OA conference). Third, I hoped to catch up with old friends who were members of OPERA America and Chorus America.

The sheer quantity and variety of events at NPAC is overwhelming, so the first task was to map out a personal agenda for the conference that would take in the things that I most wanted to attend. I knew I wanted to visit at least the exhibits at Chorus America and ASOL (I decided I wouldn’t have time to do Dance/USA this time), to hear the OPERA America “New Works Sampler,” a Chorus America concert, and the Pittsburgh Opera performance of Dead Man Walking. Because I was staying with relatives in Pittsburgh, I wanted to reserve a couple of evenings for them, and I arranged to take them to the opera Friday night. My experience with conferences has been that there always turns out to be more to do than you had imagined, and it’s best if you limit the number of firm commitments to leave room for the spontaneous. Moreover the individual conferences were spaced among three different hotels which, although all were located in the downtown cultural district, required some time to navigate between.

My personal itinerary put me, on Wednesday, in the OPERA America exhibit area until 1 p.m., at the session for composers (with which I began this article) from 1-3 p.m., and at the opening plenary session at the Convention Center from 4-6 p.m. I expect that others will have more to say about the plenary session. Suffice to say that I was both puzzled and disappointed by it. Puzzled that the multimedia event that billed itself as a look at how some of America’s greatest artists had used art to confront times of celebration, crisis, and change, should end up devoting roughly one third of its time to a 1913 strike by mill workers in Patterson, New Jersey, and to the siege of Leningrad by the Germans. What was actually performed was mostly read by actors over a terrible amplification system. Disappointed that an opportunity had been missed for an address by a major national figure to what was probably the greatest mass of performing arts people ever assembled in this country. By the end of the event I was tired and hungry, so consumed about six pieces of excellent focaccia at OPERA America’s lavish reception at the Benedum Center, where I ran into some old friends.

Thursday morning I spent at the ECS exhibit at the Hilton, where I had a number of interesting one-on-one conversations. The exhibit hall turned out to be rather quiet during the times that conference sessions were scheduled, so the most strategic moments for the exhibitors were the half-hour coffee breaks when there was usually a company “showcase” of a new production. I was interested to see that about half of the exhibitors here were the opera companies themselves, advertising productions of their own that they wished to co-produce or rent. Many of the booths remained unattended most of the time, with their wares laid out on tables. I remember being told some years back by an opera company general director that, as a whole, directors head in the other direction when they see a publisher or composer approaching. Most repertory decisions involving new works are made on a director-to-director level, where there can be private horse trading regarding co-productions. Nevertheless, there were company directors who stopped by the publishers’ booths. Someone should do a study some day about the psychology of these predatory encounters: buyer approaching seller with the wariness of a fly drawn to a spider’s web, feigning only the most casual interest. Seller, eyes fixed on his prey, coiled at the farthest recess of the trap, feigning inattention, then the sudden springing forward, the outstretched hand—the gentle sting. This may not be art, but it sure is performance.

Before lunch I went over to the William Penn Hotel to visit the Chorus America exhibits. I was particularly interested by two products of recent technology. The first was a compact, portable computer display (the MusicPad Pro from FreeHand) that can hold thousands of pages of scores or parts for performers, thereby eliminating the need for paper music. Page turns can be accomplished with a foot pedal, and the music may be marked up onscreen to one’s heart’s content, and ultimately restored to its original appearance by a single electronic command. Of course these little babies are expensive, and the thought that they might run out of battery power and go dark in the middle of a performance is enough to give a performer nightmares. The second is a learning aid for choral singers (Single Parts, from Rehearsal Arts, LLC) that consists of a CD of a composition in which the individual chorus parts have been specially highlighted, and—for difficult sections—slowed down. So far the available titles are limited to some of the most performed choral works. It would be wonderful to see this technology made available for use in teaching singers new compositions.

After lunch with a choral conductor friend of mine, I returned to the OPERA America exhibits where, once again, I had a few informal and useful conversations with opera company representatives. At four I attended a session called “Co-Productions: A Thing of the Past?”, whose panelists included John Conklin (Glimmerglass Opera), Speight Jenkins (Seattle Opera), Peter Russell (Opera Colorado), and Kevin Smith (The Minnesota Opera), with moderator James Wright (Vancouver Opera). The title turned out to be something of a red herring, since it was the unanimous conclusion of the panel that co-productions will always be useful, especially for new works, and that they always represent a better alternative than renting. Yet co-producing has its downsides, and these were explored in detail. I asked how co-production affects composers and publishers, and was told that it is customary for the co-producing companies to negotiate just one schedule of payments for the group.

Thursday evening I attended, back to back at two adjacent churches, the New Works Sampler, and a concert featuring the Bel Canto Singers of the Children’s Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh, The Pittsburgh Camerata, and the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh. The excerpts at the Sampler are from pieces whose development has been supported in part by grants from OPERA America’s Opera Fund. The performances were by singers from the Pittsburgh Opera Center which runs a two-year training program for young opera singers. I found the samples presented from Daniel Catan‘s Salsipuedes and Lewis Spratlan‘s Earthrise particularly impressive. The choral performances that followed next door were all at a high level. I note that children’s choirs seem to be proliferating in this country, and a good thing it is since the reduction or elimination of choral music in many of our schools. One offering from the Bach Choir, directed by the highly gifted Brady Allred, was Stephen Paulus‘s We Sing Thy Birth. Accompanied masterfully by organ and brass, it especially sticks in the memory. So does the performance of “I heard a voice from heaven” from the Howells Requiem, by the Camerata.

On Friday morning I went to visit the exhibits at the ASOL conference at the Westin. There were by far the most exhibits here of any of the three conferences I had visited, owing to the presence of a large number of artist managers. I had been informed that at ASOL the conductors who come are apt to be those who are looking for jobs, and of course managers are looking to place their soloists. But there were also booths here for promoters and publicists, publishers, tour managers, music technology representatives, instrument manufacturers, entertainment lawyers, performing rights representatives, and music book publishers. Composers are accustomed to thinking about music mainly in terms of getting their music composed and performed. But in this huge hall, filled with these exhibitors, I couldn’t help reflecting on the gigantic and often unseen infrastructure of music—of the thousands of people whose work in ancillary fields helps make our musical institutions function. I wondered how many people there were, for every one composer, whose job it was to make the music actually happen? Would the ratio be 100 to 1? 1000 to 1? It felt a little humbling.

After an early lunch with two composer friends, I went to an hour-long event billed as a “Lunchtime Movie Matinee: Publisher’s Opera Showcase.” Here representatives from half a dozen music publishers showed, and narrated, video clips from works, mostly very new, that they published. There were only about thirty people there, which made me think back to what I had been told about the relations between opera company directors and publishers. I was surprised to see that the sound and picture quality of some of the videos shown was quite poor. Probably single camera jobs, shot from a distance. It seems pretty un-businesslike for a major publisher to be promoting a new opera with a less than high quality videotape. The highest quality presentations were from Boosey & Hawkes (John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer) and G. Schirmer (Tan Dun, Tea: A Mirror of the Soul). I could not stay to see the final presentation of The Elephant Man.

In the afternoon I attended the session “From Premise to Premiere: Commissioning Children’s Opera,” whose speakers included Paula Winans (Lyric Opera of Kansas City), Gordon Ostrowski (Manhattan School of Music), Cary John Franklin (composer), and Helane Anderson (Boosey & Hawkes). I had some expertise in this field myself, having composed an opera for Gordon Ostrowski’s Outreach and Education department at the Manhattan School just three years ago. It was heartening to see how many opera companies are looking to their educational mission, not only altruistically, but with the realization that partnering with local schools makes good business sense. Cary John Franklin handed out Meet the Composer’s new edition of their guide to commissioning music, which steps prospective producers through the process of commissioning new work. In the Q&A period I mentioned the children’s opera annotated bibliography that had been so painstakingly compiled over so many years by Opera for Youth. Now that OFY no longer existed, how could one get hold of it? A representative of OPERA America answered that OA was in the process of transferring the data to its own database and would be able to make it available in the near future. She also pointed out that new operas for children were eligible for support from the OA Opera Fund.

On Thursday evening I took my Pittsburgh relatives to Dead Man Walking. I had seen the New York City Opera production, and knew that they would enjoy seeing the opera in Pittsburgh. This particular performance had a special feature: the personal appearance of composer Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean, the nun on whose book the opera was based, in a pre-performance talk. As in New York, I felt that Dead Man Walking is compelling musical theater, with the power to hold an audience absolutely enthralled. I have a few reservations about the music, but all in all it is a remarkable first opera for this young composer.

Following a few days where each organization had focused on its own agenda, Saturday was devoted to cross-disciplinary programming that would bring all of the separate groups back to the convention center to explore certain overarching themes. The 9 a.m. opening session gave the heads of each presenting organization an opportunity to speak, along with the head of a team that was charged with documenting and evaluating the conference as a whole. There were also speeches by Tom Murphy, the mayor of Pittsburgh, and by Dana Gioia, the head of the NEA. I found Gioia’s talk particularly inspiring. He spoke of coming to an agency whose morale could be compared with that of Napoleon’s troops on the retreat from Moscow, an agency that had lost its sense of direction. By turns charming, self-deprecating, humorous, and passionate, he spoke of his effort to turn around the very culture of the agency by making it more positive and non-partisan. His tools, he said, were “conversation, collaboration, and the creation of partnerships.” He must have been doing something right because the agency had received an increased appropriation from congress after years of budget erosion and political bickering. The NEA contributes only a tiny part to the economy of the American arts, but its symbolic influence is still important. It’s nice to see it ably led.

After this I attended three sessions with contrasting themes: “Art in a Changing World: Does Relevance Matter?”, “Critics Are People, Too,” and “Distributing the Arts Online: Wave of the Future or Promise Unfulfilled?” Each session had panelists representing a wide range of experience and point of view, and there was enthusiastic colloquy with the audience. There were performers, foundation officers, theater directors, journalists, technology consultants, and orchestra managers engaging in often heated discussion about the prospects for their fields or institutions in the new demography or the new technology or the changing culture of America. There was a break for lunch, at which participants were given the opportunity to continue the discussion at tables specifically designated “Education & Community Relations,” “Government Affairs & Advocacy,” “Media & Public Relations,” and the like. Only in the rest room could a brief respite be found from the dizzying round of talk. At five, those conferees still on their feet used them to go to the Byham Theatre for the closing session which featured the incomparable Bobby McFerrin leading the audience in a series of hilarious vocal improvisations. It was a final charge of energy in an energy-filled conference, and it left me looking forward to the next one, planned for 2008.

So, did the conference meet my original expectations? I met several opera company representatives, and will have the opportunity to continue discussions with them about my opera. I attended some stimulating conference sessions. I had the chance to visit with a number of old friends and to make new ones. But more than this, the conference drew me out of myself, out of my own particular preoccupations, and thrust me into the larger musical community. I had, simultaneously, a sense of how small a role I played in the tremendous enterprise that we call the performing arts, and yet how lucky I was to be a part of it, part of something that was such a positive force in American life, and something that was so desperately needed at this time in our history. Still, the greatest music is not created by collectives—even collectives in Patterson, New Jersey, or Leningrad. It is written by individuals, and it comes alive through an intimate, though sometimes entirely symbolic, collaboration of composer and performer, one on one. The NPAC conference was big enough to embrace both intimacy and generality, and to invite us to consider the necessary tension between the two. As a composer, I felt privileged to be there.