Total Immersion

I’m finishing out my first week in Seattle and so far days have been packed full of rehearsals and meetings, 9am-10pm. This is leaving me with very little time to complete a cello sonata that’s also premiering in Seattle on June 10, but aside from that I’ve basically been focusing on opera 24/7. Daron Hagen’s new opera Amelia is the first new work commissioned by Seattle Opera in over 40 years, so it’s great to be a part the experience.

In some ways, immersing oneself in an opera production reminds me of the “total immersion” technique of learning a foreign language. In this approach, students don’t begin by discussing principles of grammar and sentence structure; rather, they learn by becoming totally immersed in the sound of that other language, forming their own associations as they begin to figure out words and perhaps more easily thinking in that other language than their own native tongue. It can be a bewildering ordeal at first, but sometimes it’s best to jump right in.

Having had no real prior experience with opera, I’ve been surprised and amused by some of the issues that must be explored in production meetings—issues that I never would have thought of, but which I can now see as absolutely essential to a production’s success.

For example, there is a hospital scene in the second act, so the cast will be meeting with staff at a nearby hospital for medical instruction—extremely important for crafting a believable scene. In addition, Daron’s score calls for a heart monitor that flatlines on Bb in order to mesh with a rising oboe line. As you might imagine, this is going to require sampling and transposing the given pitch to Bb, then installing a small speaker in the unit so that the sound will be felt to come from the monitor. It’s an awful lot of logistical information to process, and it all has to be understood and considered by the composer if he or she is to craft an effective score.

Composers have often been frustrated by their forays into opera—Copland had a famously miserable experience with The Tender Land, and composers of ample symphonic chops have frequently been stopped cold by the challenge of writing for the lyric stage. Perhaps that’s because opera requires two skills that are of supreme importance to all composers, but also skills that many composers find difficult to acquire: the ability to create collaboratively in a large group, and the ability to not only accept but integrate criticism. These are skills that most of us continue to hone, but with opera they’d better be pretty well-developed from the start.

2 thoughts on “Total Immersion

  1. Elaine Fine

    I believe that the worst problem for composers is that so few opera companies are willing to put work and money into mounting a production of an opera written by a person who is not a known quantity in opera circles.

    Some new operas may seem like they are by “unknown” composers (because You and I have never heard of them), but they are usually people who have a deep connection to the world of opera or are extremely important to someone on a particular opera company’s board.

    Composers who have worked (played) in opera pits have a technical advantage, as do composers who have worked in operas as singers (or as chorus, or as technical people) because they know what works and what doesn’t, but, unless those composers have clout with the people who raise the money and pay the bills, all that technical skill isn’t worth a hill of beans.

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    I agree Elaine, its also a matter of scale. We have few major opera companies that consistently perform new work. So not much new opera as opposed to New Music Theater
    -plenty of that performed each year.

    So every time a new opera is premiered its an event. It just so happens that it tends to be the exact same event.

    Die Soldaten was a huge success when it was performed in NY. Yet I doubt that the major American houses are looking for its follow up.

    By the way Dan you are very fortunate to get this kind of experience. The MET used to invite literary types in. I don’t know if they still do it.

    Phil Fried Phil’s opera page

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