So You Want To Write An Opera….

So, like I was saying, after some time in the city I began to understand that Cincinnati had always been culturally relevant and continues to be culturally relevant due to its history and resources. And fortunately I was quite lucky to have moved to Cincinnati at a time when the city was (and still is) making a comeback.

What I didn’t know at first was that much of Cincinnati’s musical history was vocal: Cincinnati is home to the Cincinnati May Festival, which dates back to the 1840s when Saengerfests were held in the city. And, like I’ve mentioned, it is home to the second-oldest opera company in the states. Even though I decided to attend the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music because of its composition program, conveniently it has one of the top opera programs in the country. This inspired me to pick up my previous try at opera writing.

I admit I attempted composing for opera long ago as an undergraduate. I remember seeing the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Billy Budd in the late ’90s and then seeing their production of Peter Grimes in the early 2000s, and I was convinced I absolutely had to write an opera. My sophomore self strutted into Stephen Hartke’s office (he was my composition professor then) and told him I was going to write an opera.

“So. You want to write an opera.”

“Yes.”

“Have you thought about staging?”

“No.”

“Have you thought about characterization?”

“No?”

[slight pause]

“I just…want to write an opera…?”

Apparently I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did my librettist at the time. She adapted a short story of hers into singable prose about a college student who brought home a fish that looked like a naked man. (Just so we’re clear, it is questionable when your roommate brings home a naked man-fish and puts him in your apartment’s bathtub, and it is equally questionable when singable prose is converted into an opera.)

Anyway, my first opera was to be a surreal comic opera, except that there were four potential endings, no exit strategy, and I quickly realized the project was way over my head, so I hurriedly and awkwardly finished only the first scene (and the piece remains unfinished to this day). However, as Hartke pointed out via email a very long time ago, sometimes pushing yourself and working on projects that are completely over your head help you grow as an artist.

Anyway, as I have mentioned before, school wore me out (or maybe my first opera attempt did!) and so I took a break from school (or quite possibly the opera). And when I arrived in Cincinnati, I was greeted by graduate singers who could actually act on stage.

Therefore, the idea of writing contemporary opera was rekindled like you would not believe. I actually thought this could happen. I told a few people at the MusicX Festival in 2010—inadvertently including Hartke himself—that I wanted my future dissertation to be an opera. During one of our meals, someone asked what my dissertation would be. I attempted to answer.

Me: “Well…”

Hartke (staring at me directly): “I know that look.”

Me: “What look.”

Hartke: “The last time you had that look, you wanted to write an opera.”

Guilty as charged.

Back in Cincinnati, my professors told me I needed to contact the school’s music director to let her know I was interested in starting an operatic project. The worry was that my future work would conflict with the school’s complex opera season. So, I met with her (after a ridiculous number of email attempts) and she actually seemed somewhat excited that a couple of graduate students wanted to write operas. She told me to send her a synopsis, a cast list, a libretto, and my sketches. I did.

And then nothing happened.

I decided to contact her again, and after even more email attempts, we finally met. This time she encouraged me to apply to Opera Fusion: New Works, a program in which both the Cincinnati Opera and the College-Conservatory of Music collaborate to workshop exciting new operas. Except I knew they were never going to select me: the last few featured operas included composers such as Douglas Cuomo, Terence Blanchard, and Ricky Ian Gordon and librettists such as John Patrick Shanley. Because this girl has not won a Pulitzer Prize, I knew my chance for getting my opera read through this program was slim.

Cincinnati Opera and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music rehearsal of “Doubt” with (l-r) Douglas Cuomo, composer, CCM student Jonathan Stinson, Robin Guarino, stage director, John Patrick Shanley, librettist, Gary Wedon, conductor, Marcus Küchle, co-artistic director of Opera Fusion: New Works, with accompanists Carol Walker and Elena Kholodova. Photo by Philip Groshong.

Cincinnati Opera and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music rehearsal of Doubt with (l-r) Douglas Cuomo, composer, CCM student Jonathan Stinson, Robin Guarino, stage director, John Patrick Shanley, librettist, Gary Wedon, conductor, Marcus Küchle, co-artistic director of Opera Fusion: New Works, with accompanists Carol Walker and Elena Kholodova. Photo by Philip Groshong.

So then, when I was asked along with a handful of other student composers to create a short American opera for Washington National Opera’s inaugural American Opera Initiative, I jumped on the opportunity. My librettist (the same one from my undergraduate days!) almost instantaneously invented what I believe (and still believe) was an ingenious topic—an opera about the housing bubble. We submitted our proposal and thought we totally had this.

And oh yes, we were totally rejected.

I believe there comes a time when you become so completely haggard and worn from rejection that you may take a good look at your life and realize that maybe you’re going to write the dang opera anyway. And that maybe you live in a town that has an abundance of good singers who act, and that maybe they can perform this future opera. And maybe you and your librettist from your undergrad days think it’s not a bad idea to found a starter opera company in your backyard, especially when your backyard has this wonderful vocal tradition ingrained in its soil. And maybe you and your librettist are crazy enough to actually do it.

7 thoughts on “So You Want To Write An Opera….

  1. John C.

    Oh man, the eye rolls when I told people I was writing an opera for my dissertation. I think every professor tried to talk me out of it.

    But you know who loves the idea of me writing an opera? Every single non-musician I’ve spoken to. Ya know who else? Most of the singers I know.

    I doubt my current opera (my first full-length go, after 2 chamber operas) will get a large scale performance any time soon (if ever), but it won’t stop me. Neither will all the rejections I’ve gotten after sending out my other two operas (one has electronics. talk about a no-no).

    Power to you, and to all the others willing to just go out, do the work, and create something even if you’re told it’s waste of time, it’s not profitable, or it’ll never get performed. At least we’ll have done something, tried, and worked hard for a goal, and done so without giving up our integrity.

    Reply
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  3. william osborne

    Thanks for the interesting and very candid article. I really enjoyed it. Opera in America is a challenge. We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. And two of those don’t even make the top 50 – Chicago and San Francisco which are only half-year houses.

    The so-called Houston Grand Opera doesn’t even make the top 100. Its budget is only 20 million dollars per year. That’s less than 1/6th of the Vienna State Opera, less than 1/10th of the Paris Opera, and less than 1/18th of the Met. In spite of its great wealth and size, small European cities with only a tiny fraction of the population out rank Houston by 50 or 60 positions.
    Philadelphia has the 9th largest metro GDP in the world but ranks 175th in the world for opera performances per year. Neighboring Dallas recently built a posh new opera house, of course named after a wealthy donor, but the city still ranks 257th the world for opera performances per year. Seattle ranks 167th.

    These companies claim international importance, but given their small seasons and budgets the assertions border on fraud.

    There’s been a lot of talk about the closing of the San Diego Opera. Opera America describes it as a major company and one of the top 10 in America even though it only averaged 15 performances per year – about the same amount major European houses often do in two to three weeks. To call companies like Philadelphia, San Diego, Houston, and Seattle major is like calling a minnow in a fishbowl a whale.
    The opera house at Kennedy Center was built over 40 years ago, but Washington D.C. still ranks 182nd in the world for opera performances per year (while having the world’s 11th largest metro GDP.)

    Look at the rankings for a few other capital cities, all listed on the website of Operabase:

    Vienna 1
    Berlin 2
    Paris 3
    Moscow 4
    Prague 6
    London 7
    Budapest 9
    Stockholm 14
    Sydney 16
    Madrid 17

    Even Athens in impoverished Greece comes in at 28th.

    Then comes Washington at 182nd. Our so-called National Opera housed in Kennedy Center is in reality our national joke. These disgraceful numbers exist because of our dysfunctional system of funding the arts by donations from the wealthy. The USA is the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding.

    Almost every larger European house has a black box studio theater for experimental productions. In our handful of genuinely active companies, not one operates a studio theater, much less one with a notable season.

    Americans use many excuses and rationalizations to try to cover the poverty of our opera scene. In spite of paltry budgets and seasons, they often put on lavish productions with star singers as if a flash in the pan season made a great company. Another tactic is to do high profile premieres as if that made up for all the other short comings. Never mind that most of the new operas flop and are rarely, if ever, performed again. And even if they are good, other productions are difficult to find because we have so few genuinely functional companies. Another rationalization is to a call a small group that uses only piano accompaniments or concert performances an opera company. Most American opera companies only work with pickup musicians and singers in rental facilities for a handful of performances per year. The effects on quality are obvious, even if the attempts are noble.

    Another problem, even in Europe, is that there is no place where composers can receive effective training as opera composers. Throughout history, almost every successful opera composer specialized in that field, and is hardly known for abstract music. Mozart and Strauss are the only notable exceptions. And Strauss hardly counts, since he wrote theatrical symphonic music, and symphonic operas. Most also worked in opera houses.

    This means that the advice young composers might receive from professors who have written one or two operas is likely to not be all that great. That’s not very much experience for such a difficult form. It also illustrates the folly of asking well-known composers who haven’t specialized in the field to write operas. Failure is almost pre-programmed. A system for educating composers and librettists in music theater would require an entirely different structure and type of apprenticeship than what our schools of music can offer. Workshop readings and summer programs won’t do it. It would take a decade of daily work in an opera house to even begin learning the form. Jake Heggie is an example of such a composer which explains a lot about his success, regardless of what one might think of his work.

    I’ve been deeply interesting in music theater since I was young. My philosophy from the outset has been to create new small forms of chamber music theater that can exist in America where there is so little support for opera. I also feel opera is for the most part an anachronism, and that it is little wonder that it is essentially a dead art form. (A host of premieres never or rarely performed again does not bring the genre to life.) For those interested, I describe my theories of chamber music theater at the url below which includes a video to illustrate how they work. There are also a number of other videos on my site in the music theater section:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/Miriam.htm

    I mention it, because it is only through a collective effort over several generations that we will develop new forms of music theater that might once again form a central part of our culture like opera once did.

    Reply
  4. Nicholas F Chase

    One of the issues with opera is the relevance of the form, and that’s the elephant in the room no one wants to discuss. Particularly in the US.

    A few million bucks goes a long way, but the infrastructure of opera as an industry cripples effective use of money. The industry is harnessed by an outmoded idea about “high art” that has nothing to do with still-struggling-to-emerge culture and cultural values specific to the United States.

    This is a complicated argument and many, many will disagree – and for the record, I love European opera, I just don’t think it has a “home” in the United States. That is, European opera doesn’t have a home in the United States. What I believe US opera companies should do is develop a distinct cultural phenomenon specific to the United States. They don’t have to rethink singing, or theater, but they need to look at their budgets, the infrastructure of the industry and ask if it services excellent work (it doesn’t) and envision a development of the form that is unique. Every company should have a reason to exist that goes beyond staging someone else’s work in a moderately “unique” way. Every company should draw audiences from around the world to hear and see their entirely unique production.

    That’s why the opera in Vienna was such a big deal. That’s why Wagner’s productions were such a big deal – these were unique institutions that did something no one else was doing. Now, as US composers, as US opera companies, what will WE do that no one else will do, or can do? What can Cleveland do that Houston can’t? And so on.

    And from a composer’s perspective, why write an opera?

    I also wanted to write an opera for my graduate work – and I did, AND I staged it, with a lot of help from a small, but deeply committed cast – who doubled as my crew. I mean, we were crazy committed! We ran six performances and hauled various scenes to festivals here and there. I’m glad I did it, because I’ve never learned so much about composing music – and about getting the music onto a stage. And about being absolutely clear in my understanding that the work needed to be realized in a particular form. It’s one of the most important features of writing a successful opera.

    I have a long background in theater, so maybe I had a little bit of an edge that other composers don’t have. Still, the most challenging question I faced regarding writing the damned thing was – “Why write an opera? WHO cares?” It’s become a kind of…status symbol for composers in the US to write an opera. Somehow the idea is that we’re truly an accomplished composer if we’ve done it.

    The question remains, if you’ve got an idea, a musical idea, a narrative idea – is opera the BEST form to communicate that idea? And once you’ve staged it, is it really “art-worthy”?

    The late Robert Ashley campaigned about this for decades. He was right when he said “Opera is a European form and nothing from the US canon will ever be admitted to that catalogue of works.” He was right, he is right. It’s what inspired him to think beyond the traditional form to envision an idea that is distinctly American. That’s what Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs did in the 1970s with Einstein on the Beach. And honestly, since Einstein on the Beach, the idea of composing traditional, European opera is simply anachronistic. It’s as relevant to the vernacular of US music as wearing powdered wigs and hoop skirts. Feel free, but don’t be alarmed when people look at you funny and call you crazy!

    There’s a lot to be said on the subject and I enthusiastically support any composer who is ambitious enough to think about writing an opera, but I will always challenge them about the form – and ask, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but do you real want to hear someone SING that for two hours?” We live in a different age and, in my opinion, as US composers, we don’t have be limited by the European Conservatory Definition of “opera.”

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      Thanks for the interesting comments. It’s nice to see someone chewing on these problems. With only 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year, we’re long past imitating European models. So now what?

      The cultures that spend the most on traditional opera, are also the ones that spend the most on new forms of music theater. That’s why almost every larger house in Europe also has an experimental black box theater.

      The idea that opera is un-American is to a large degree an excuse to rationalize the fact that we lack a funding system that can support an expensive form like opera, or even experimentation with opera. The common assertion that we are so completely different from Europeans is exaggerated and has an almost chauvinistic quality. More American exceptionalism to rationalize our lack of social and moral responsibility.

      We need American forms of serious music theater, but it will actually be more difficult to develop without the type of cultural infrastructure and funding systems that Europeans have. Vienna, La Scala, and Bayreuth didn’t evolve because people ignored opera and something then magically sprang out of the ground. They evolved through long and continuous support for the form that allowed it to evolve. The best way to create new opera is to also support old opera. For the most part, that’s how culture works. It’s a continuity.

      Reply
    2. Phil Fried

      “.. outmoded idea about “high art” that has nothing to do with still-struggling-to-emerge culture and cultural values specific to the United States. Opera is a European form and nothing from the US canon will ever be admitted to that catalogue of works…”

      I’m a little perplexed are you saying American culture has not emerged in the last 150 years? I suppose Porgy and Bess doesn’t count? Yet some folks feel its fairly American in content and it does get performed. Also, Robert Wilson has worked extensively in Europe to great acclaim.

      Perhaps your talking about the particular needs of Grand opera and major opera houses to tell a story and to feature singing and character.

      Certainly that is not the only way as Robert Ashley and many others have shown. There is a large subculture of small groups making opera under the radar where the creator themselves can make there own rules I believe this is an international activity. Is the need for a theater work to have a story strictly European? How does this square with the popularity of the linear American film?

      I myself have composed 5 operas in different styles and of different forces only 2 grand operas,
      I have achieved a successful fringe festival performances. As a lyric composer I write songs then work larger ideas into song cycles. A staged song cycle could be construed as an opera. There is more to say but perhaps not here.

      Anyway…
      The theatrical avant-garde (European) was pushing the envelope years before opera ever tried its hand at it. That is why so much that has been touted as new and different seem to me to be so unconvincing in that regard.

      Finally, the question of grand opera, opera, or music theater is simply one of opportunity. I would say that the most important feature of any successful American opera is getting performed.

      Reply
      1. william osborne

        I agree that Ashley’s comment that no American opera would ever enter the European repertoire is wrong. Porgy and Bess and West Side Story are staples in European opera houses. The Lucerne Opera is currently running Kiss Me Kate. Glass is the most performed living opera composer and John Adams comes in second. Jake Heggie is 5th, and Floyd is 11th. They have these high rankings in part because of European performances.

        BTW, Jennifer Jolley is doing amazing things to create and support new forms of music theater in America. See:

        http://www.nanoworksopera.com/

        Reply

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