So You Want To Start An Opera Company…

So to recap, let’s say you were all excited that you and your librettist had the most awesome idea for a miniature chamber opera about the housing bubble, and you had hoped a big opera house might potentially fund a workshop of said opera, and you were then rejected from this amazing opportunity. It happens.

And you realize that maybe you should stop waiting around for a big opera company to produce your opera, and so you take fate into your own hands, curating your own future as a composer. Because, dangit, you are going to write the bloody opera, and if you want the opera to be performed, you are going to have to produce the dang opera yourself.

Opera Rehearsal

NANOWorks rehearsal, May 2013. With Stacey Erin Sands, Liz Remizowski, Tyler Catlin, and Adrienne Sereta.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

You and your librettist (and co-collaborator for most artistic things in your life) decide that the way around the non-performances and non-workshops of your work is to create a small opera company. This totally can be done, you think. You got this.

And then you do it. Mostly. In an amazing, inspirational, haphazard way that makes you wonder how on earth this new opera company didn’t kill you first.

I want to say I am quite thankful for the many conversations I had with my librettist (over delicious Reuben sandwiches and quite possibly later over Cincinnati chili) since it helped us deal with brutal rejection and heal our artistic wounds. We discussed the lack of opportunities for libretto readings and for workshopping new operas, and ultimately that inspired us to found an opera company. (If there is one piece of advice I can bequeath to you delightful readers, it’s that yes, risks are scary, but you have to be a bit foolhardy to make your art happen.)

The new opera company (North American New Opera Workshop, or NANOWorks) has been going decently so far. Our first teaser season in 2012–2013 had four performances, which included a performance at the Classical Revolution Cincinnati Constella Festival (thank you, thank you, Laura Sabo) and a stint at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, a world premiere of my rejected opera…

Fringe performance

Christopher Brandon Morales and Karen Wissel Shiota performing THE BUBBLE at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

…and holy cow, an article about us in Opera News. For our next performance, we are producing a world premiere of Eric Knechtges’s opera Last Call, an opera loosely based on the gay bar scene in Cincinnati, and Marie Incontrera’s At the Other Side of the Earth, a dystopian punk lesbian coming of age opera. (If we align our ducks right, it will be performed at Below Zero Lounge in downtown Cincinnati preceding the drag show, which would be quite awesome in its own right.) And guess what folks, we now officially have our first call for scores, so you have until June 1 to submit something for our 2014–2015 season. Ironically—and this I dread—I may have to dole out rejection letters. Because of this, I’m sorry in advance. (This turn of events will possibly be discussed in a future blog post.)

Considering my opera company has barely existed for more than a year, we are obviously not doing so badly. However, I must admit, running this opera company has been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Why?

I don’t have enough money to independently fund my own opera company.

I’m what financial guru Suze Orman calls “young, fabulous, and broke.” Sure, I’m young and fabulous, but I would love to pay my singers. And my music director. And my wonderful piano maven. And maybe also pay for some costumes and sets, or quite possibly a venue. And, here’s a thought—maybe I should pay my composers. That would be lovely.

NANOWorks Opera Rehearsal 2

NANOWorks rehearsal wiith Melissa Harvey and Adrienne Sereta.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

Without funding, I have to pay for venues and licensing fees completely out-of-pocket. I rely on eager singers who are happy to create new operatic roles, but they may have to suddenly drop out because a better-paying gig was offered to them. (Did I mention we had to double cast our Fringe show because Cincinnati Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier took out all the good baritones in town?) I have to rely on free or cheap rehearsal space, and sometimes that means I have to hold rehearsals at my house and hope my singers aren’t allergic to my cats. Did I mention I don’t have a real piano at my place? Did I also mention that I only have so much space for “staging” at my house? Ultimately without funding, I have to forgo certain props, venues, or talent that I would love to work with to create a good production. And I pride myself in producing good work.

At this point, you are probably asking why I decided to start my own opera company, especially because it continues to be a money loser for me and my co-founder. However, I tell my students (and possibly because I need to believe this myself) that it’s important to invest in yourself and nurture your art. And I see NANOWorks as a vehicle for which I will sacrifice profitability and sleep to enjoy the notoriety the company provides, to create the possibility of future commissions, and to be able to produce my own art. Hopefully this makes up for the cost.

Will this strategy work for everyone? I honestly can’t guarantee that, and I am still waiting to find out what happens myself. However, I know there are better things to do than to sit around all dressed up with no place to go, waiting for a grand opera company to call.

15 thoughts on “So You Want To Start An Opera Company…

  1. Pingback: maestros | Classical Music News - Harris Goldsmith + MORE | Stars & Catz

  2. Jon Silpayamanant

    I blogged a bit about your Opera and Opera company a bit ago, Jennifer (I was at the Classical Rev Cincy with my Klingon band that night). In Louisville, we have the Thompson Street Opera Company which is a small company formed in 2011 and il Troubadore premiered an excerpt of our Klingon Opera-Ballet “wa’ SaD ram wa’ ram je” at a Sci-Fi convention in Louisville back in 2011 too, and have performed it at various conventions around the country (we only performed some select ‘arias’ from the opera-ballet at Classical Revolution that night).

    I think we’re seeing more and more smaller opera companies being formed all around the US, and this is a good thing. In fact, I think this is happening at all throughout Classical Music–I’ve recently written about all the new music ensembles/orchestras, choral ensembles, dance groups that have formed in Louisville within just the past few years–so many of us aren’t waiting for the big SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) to produce the work that many of us do and are stepping out there and doing it ourselves. It was so great to see what you folks were doing and I hope to get a chance to see more of your work again soon!

    Reply
    1. Kendall A

      That was an awesome night, although you’ll have to excuse me for not remembering all the klingon vocabulary we learned then. At any rate, thanks for pointing out your thoughtful post. I’ve actually been meaning to get down to Louisville to check out Thompson Street Company for some time now. I’ll be sure to make it more a priority now.

      Reply
      1. Jon Silpayamanant

        It was a great night–I was so pleased to hear that you folks existed and glad toget to hear it. No worries about the Klingon–we’ve been talking to some folks about bringing the Opera-Ballet to Cincy for some time now, so maybe you’ll get a chance to brush up on it if we make it back!

        Please do make it out to Thompson Street Company–I recently met Claire DiVizio, the company’s founder, as we’re both members of a new music ensemble, Eight.dB which a local composer (Tim Miller) formed earlier this year. While I’m sure I would have discovered TSC myself at some point, I was glad to meet Claire and look forward to working with her! Hope to get a chance to chat if you do make it into our neck of the woods!

        Reply
  3. william osborne

    My approach has been similar to yours. Thirty years ago I began writing what I call chamber music theater works, and eventually began writing them for only my wife, since she did the best work, among a host of other reasons. Through the use of quadraphonic electronics, I eventually even eliminated need for even a piano accompaniment.

    We’ve had some success. We’ve performed in over a 150 cities, and were fairly well paid for about 97% of them. This was mostly possible because my wife is a very well-known musician for whom it is easy to garner short residencies at universities. As another measure of success, two dissertations have been written about our work, one at the University of Malaga in Spain, and one at the University of Iowa.

    One difference I have with you is that we do not call our work opera, but rather chamber music theater. By calling it opera, false expectations can be awakened. And much more importantly, chamber music theater should become a legitimate and autonomous genre of its own, and not be seen as just some sort of watered down or miniaturized kind of opera.

    The absence of music theater in chamber formats represents an enormous gap in the oeuvre of Western classical music. Some of the best minds in history attempted the genre but failed, including the melodramas of romantics like Schumann, Schubert, and Liszt. The music was often remarkable and inventive, but among other things, there seemed to be a lack of theatrical theory that could provide a basis for the creation of effective, small-format music theater.

    In the 20th century, many new, small forms of theater evolved, such as the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and Sartre. The theories they embodied have paved the way for new kinds of small music theater. Another advantage we have is the large and economical sound spectrums offered by electronics. We also have access to new kinds of media, like video and its easy distribution, that earlier composers did not have. It seems likely that the successful creation of chamber music theater will be one of the contributions of our epoch to the development of Western art music.

    Anyway, congratulations for NANOWORKS. And keep up the good nano work!

    Reply
    1. Kendall A

      Hi William, I’m Jennifer’s co-founder and have to say that we’ve definitely found some difficulty in challenging people’s preconceptions by calling ourselves an opera company. That said, when we performed at Cincinnati’s Fringe Festival last year, while most of the reception was at least mildly positive, one reviewer I’m pretty sure was set to be disappointed with us from before he entered and took pains to note how much unlike the musical theater he was accustomed to we were. We may be damned either way with labels and perceptions. The truth is that these works are definitely meant for chamber settings, small venues and companies, and they are going to be an unfamiliar genre to audiences until more companies like it spread, but I think we can explore and shape an art of our own in this way, and maybe decouple both opera and music theater from their big box commercial direction that’s currently limiting the forms’ artistic growth.

      Reply
      1. william osborne

        I agree. Music theater also has a common usage that can confuse people. Interesting that when the Florentine Camerata conceptualized opera it was to be a relatively small form following what they thought to be concepts of Greek theater. And it was to fully integrate music, words, and theater. It was only later that music and the bel canto voice came to dominate. You could think of yourself as taking opera back to its original roots.

        A form as complex as music theater takes years to learn and develop and just about every effort from everyone helps in some way. Never mind the detractors. Just keep working, learning, and exploring.

        Reply
      2. Phil Fried

        Ben Krywosz. goes with the concept “new music theater” except for grand opera.

        http://www.nautilusmusictheater.org/

        When Opera Bob performed at the MN Fringe festival we had great reviews except for one commentator who thought that opera didn’t belong at the fringe. Our work was a “curated review” that included unfamiliar classics and my 2 comic arias.

        Anyway good luck and keep going!!

        Reply
        1. Phil Fried

          My apologies folks the opera bob selections reverted to my entire youtube channel.
          If interested; look for the soprano’s lament and Mezzo’s Mayhem; Ho Perso le Mie Buone Forbici

          Reply
  4. Rachel

    The nomenclature issue is tricky, but calling all of what NANOWorks does ‘short musical theater’ isn’t totally accurate because of the range of works we produce. Some pieces may associate more strongly with musical theater, but others, like Doug Pew and Dara Weinberg’s “A Game of Hearts” are clearly in the operatic realm. I think that having a variety of short operatic works is part of what keeps NANOWorks shows fresh and exciting.

    Reply
  5. simone

    As someone with quite a bit experience running independent small opera co. let me offer additional angle or strategy to keep in mind… but unfortunately sacrificed all too easily, I find: try more outreach to the local community in your area for volunteers. Not just for production but behind the scenes, young composer showcases, etc. Even a small chorus! If the company is viewed as an educational institution rooted in a neighborhood or town, known for the right mission, (and not just another venue for Great Art,) you’ll be able to attract more people, better grants, & generate more overall hullabaloo. This will mean going more democratic, warts & all! And don’t worry about sacrificing those standards we all learned in school; audiences will forgive you & love you more for the effort & atmosphere. Creating a great social space will in the long run foster more opportunities for your company. And, best of luck to you Jennifer!

    Reply
    1. Kendall A

      What you refer to as democratization taking opera off its elite perch, as I’m sure you know, can be a tricky path to navigate, but it’s an important one for the art in general I feel. Our mission is more centered on creating great artists than insisting on great art, so it’s a bit easier for our organization than it would be for others. We welcome the dirt and grit of low scale and work around it. We’ve already been working with young composers, for example, Rachel Walker (whose piece is in the second video above and who commented just ahead of you,) is an undergraduate at CCM, and next season the plan will be to offer more workshop productions and libretto readings free of charge, working with other students and emerging artists on developing projects along with our productions of completed works. Some of those will follow a more traditional model, in order to give our singers and musicians professional rather than just volunteer experiences to put on their resumes, this keeps their quality high and aids them as much as it does the composers we work with.

      Involving the community more is definitely a goal and a challenge in the meantime. Choruses are also tricky, as most of our staging spaces are too small to integrate them, there are no pits or much space in the audience, and they complicate rehearsal planning. Our last production had two works with small choruses, but they confirmed my thoughts on them rather than dissuading me. I think for most chamber works like this, composers and librettists should try to excise them if at all possible. We’ll probably stage more works with them in the future, but they add size and complexity when we’re aiming for spartan simplicity.

      Reply
  6. william osborne

    Since NANOWORKS is based in Cincinnati, I looked up some details. The Cincinnati Opera is the second oldest company in the USA and is based in a metropolitan area with a population of 2.2 million. And yet the city only ranks 345th in the world for opera performances per year. Many other major American cities are in that same range such as Atlanta (355th), Kansas City (356th), and Phoenix (326th).

    There are European cities like Pforzheim, Lucerne, Ulm, Pécs , St. Gallen, Košice, Heidelberg, Innsbruck and many others with less than half the population that outrank these American cities by over 200 positions. The GDP of Houston is about the same as the entire country of Austria, and yet Houston doesn’t even make the top 100. (With its claims of greatness, the Houston Grand Opera is a pint size company wearing a ten gallon hat.)

    This helps explain why American composers are exploring new and smaller forms of music theater and/or opera that can be produced with very little support. And it’s another reason to admire Jennifer’s and Kendall’s efforts.

    Reply
  7. william osborne

    One of the biggest challenges facing small forms of music theater is that black box theaters are virtually non-existent in schools of music. Black box theaters became common in the 60s and 70s when small forms of experimental spoken theater became more common. A black box theater is pretty much what the name says, a square (or almost square) room that is painted entirely black. The floor is flat and there is often a catwalk around the upper part of the walls and pipes or a mesh tension grid covering the ceiling for hanging lighting instruments. The seating can usually be arranged in any sort of array, the lighting is easy to focus, the black surfaces stop reflected light, and the connection with the audience is intimate.

    Small theater is often problematic on recital hall stages because it looks so stagey and hokey, especially if the set is simple. Recital halls often also have very limited facilities for theatrical stage lighting. The stage walls and floor are often light colored and reflect a lot of light, in the off chance genuine theatrical stage lighting is even available.

    Minimal staging is not a problem in a black box theater because there is plenty of lighting. Simple props can be lit with small spots and the rest of the hall remains in almost complete darkness because of the black surfaces. This can give the set and props a kind of floating, iconic presence. Results are achieved that avoid the hokey, stagey look of recital halls.

    Even as a repertoire for small music theater evolves, it will likely be a century before architecture in music schools catches up. My wife and I often travel with our own lighting equipment to enhance what is in recital halls. Even with the addition of our own equipment, facilities are sometimes so theatrically limited we can’t even perform our theater works in some schools. Or we have to be sometimes put in very large halls which have lighting and black stages, but are much too big for chamber music theater.

    University theater departments invariably have black box theaters, but they use them constantly and so they are rarely available to music departments. In the 150 or so universities where we have performed, I can off hand only remember three music departments that had good black box theaters, the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY, REDCAT Theater in Disney Hall that belongs to CalArts, and Illinois State University. I’m probably forgetting a couple. We played in a nice ones at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Iowa, but I think they belonged to the theater departments. In Europe, most opera houses have black box theaters for small productions, but I do not know of a single major American company that has one.

    I hope that groups like NANOWORKS will eventually have access to black box theaters, and especially to that rarest of phenomena, a black box theater with a good grand piano and good acoustics. The lack of appropriate facilities is one of the biggest challenges the genre faces.

    Reply

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