Giving Life to New Opera: the John Duffy Composers Institute

Ed Note: Late last month I attended a portion of the John Duffy Composers Institute as one of the guest speakers. I was fascinated by the interactions between the seven composers participating in the program, the musicians performing their music, the various visiting speakers, and John Duffy, who is the mastermind of this whole project. So when Jake Runestad, one of the participating composers, offered to write a post about his experience there, as well as to make a short video featuring brief comments by the other participating composers and excerpts from performances of their works, I was delighted.—FJO

Sitting forward in his chair, leaning in to focus on every word being sung, John Duffy turns to me and responds candidly, “Well done Jake, but remember; clarity of text is paramount.” I heed every word John speaks not only because he is one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met, but because he has a brilliant mind for music and drama.

John Duffy - Photo courtesy of John Polston Photography

John Duffy - Photo courtesy of John Polston Photography

Eight years ago, John Duffy, a respected composer and long-time advocate of new music, founded the John Duffy Composer Institute—an incubator for the next generation of opera composers. The institute brings together leading professionals from the opera world to workshop and produce new works by young composers. This year, there were seven composers selected for this two-week event hosted by the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, Virginia.

I have participated in many different festivals, institutes, and readings, but the Duffy Institute is unlike any other. While it provides an opportunity to hear one’s work performed, it also fosters friendships and collaborations among the composers, performers, librettists, and directors in residence. During our morning and afternoon sessions, we discussed our operas in an open forum where feedback was encouraged and all opinions were respected. Guest composers and librettists presented about their works and initiated meaningful conversation about writing opera, the music business, and life as a creative artist.

When discussing our operas with John and the visiting faculty, a recurring theme was that of time. Time is very different in opera than in traditional concert music because of the staging element—each character’s physical movement influences his or her musical time. Libby Larsen, a member of the composition faculty at the Duffy Institute and one of my previous teachers, shared that when writing opera, she takes the furniture out of her living room and moves around the room as if she is on stage. This allows her to physically connect with a character’s movement and to more accurately represent a character’s sense of time and rhythm. I find this to be a crucial element of composing for drama, in order to create the most effective music possible. This also allows the performer to feel a stronger connection to his or her role that hopefully results in a more convincing performance.

Score samples from the works of several John Duffy Composers Institute participants

Another important and frequently discussed topic was that of setting text. John is a stickler for making sure that the words are clear and that there is no need for supertitles in our works. We studied the amazing textual clarity in the songs of Gershwin, Lesser, and Kern, and worked closely with the vocal coaches and singers at the Institute to learn as much as possible about writing for the voice. In response to these crucial learning experiences, I, and the other composer fellows, shared how vocal music is barely covered in our academic studies in composition. Most, if not all, of our classes and assignments are focused on instrumental techniques and orchestration for instrumental ensembles. Vocal music is one of the most immediate and powerful forms of expression, and I would love to see more schools (and teachers) take the initiative to teach and discuss writing for voices. If theory/composition teachers are afraid of all that the voice entails (yes, it is not an easy beast to tame), partner with the voice department! We can learn a great deal from working with those who practice the craft for which we endeavor to write.

I know I speak for the other composer fellows when I say that my music has greatly improved after my experiences at the Duffy Institute. John continues to be one of my heroes because of his love of people, his respect for artistic collaboration, and appreciation for all sizes, shapes, and forms of music (some of his favorites being Bach, Coltrane, and Eminem). John’s vision of giving life to new opera is an inspiration and is becoming a reality thanks to his tireless dedication to this program.

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Jake Runestad

Jake Runestad

Jake Runestad is a composer and conductor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has received commissions and performances from ensembles such as the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, VocalEssence, Seraphic Fire, the Dayton Philharmonic, and the Baltimore Concerto Orchestra. He is currently composer-in-residence with the Baltimore-based Lunar Ensemble.

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