Opera Today: Mark Adamo and Tobias Picker
Mark Adamo and Tobias Picker in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video Presentations by Randy Nordschow
Edited and Transcribed by Frank J. Oteri, Molly Sheridan, Randy Nordschow, and Anna Reguero
Maybe it’s just me, but every time I turn around someone else seems to be writing an opera, from the top names in our echelons to scads of emerging composers all over the country. And, not only are composers writing these operas, companies are presenting them to huge and appreciative audiences all over the country. This past year has witnessed the world premieres of John Adams and Peter Sellars’s Doctor Atomic in San Francisco, Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata in Houston, Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner in Detroit, and Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera House. Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar was staged by the Santa Fe Opera and Great Performances at Lincoln Center. In the coming weeks, Margaret Garner opens in Philadelphia and Lysistrata comes to New York City Opera. There have also been some memorable not-so-high profile premieres of new operas. Jennifer Griffith’s
Jack Vees debuted a one-man opera about another atomic bomb pioneer, Richard Feynman, at the Knitting Factory, of all places! And even Art Jarvinen’s recently launched web-based multi-media project The Invisible Guy, a music-infused spy novel with weekly-added episodes, is a kind of opera.
What exactly does it mean to be writing an opera in the first years of the 21st century? Although the word “opera” essentially only means “work”—and therefore could be used to describe any kind of a piece a composer could possibly imagine—it has come to have very specific connotations for the general public. When an evening-length music theatre work for which I wrote music was staged last year, my collaborator and I assiduously avoided the word “opera” because we thought that these connotations would get in the way of people’s dealing with the kind of work we were trying to do.
Yet plenty of vanguard artistic creators are completely comfortable working within the conventions of standard opera where new work shares the same stage and the same audience as those for La bohème, Carmen, Tristan, et al. Over the past month, we visited the homes of two composers who’ve had great success writing new work for opera houses in recent years: Tobias Picker and Mark Adamo. Tobias, whom we caught up with in the middle of the run of his fourth opera, An American Tragedy, feels completely at home working within time-proven conventions and posits that what others might perceive as limitations are in fact guidelines for creating an effective stage work. Mark, whom we spoke to right before rehearsals were to begin for the New York premiere of his second opera Lysistrata, admits to falling into the world of opera rather by accident but now has the zealotry of a real convert. Originally an aspiring Broadway composer, he has left the world of musical theatre behind and contends that opera houses offer composers greater resources they could ever expect to have anywhere else.