The Process of New Opera, Part 2

The Process of New Opera, Part 2

In my last post I talked about finding a subject, gathering a team, and digging into the long process of writing an opera. Now that the words have been typed and the notes have been copied, it is time to refine, rehearse, and premiere the evolving opus.

With the popular operas you see most often, little can be modified, save for cuts, minor reordering, and–in rarer occasions–adding material from earlier drafts or other works. However, with a newly written opera, the originating performers are vital to the creation process. Working on a new opera, while challenging, allows a singer the opportunity to collaborate with a living composer on fitting the music more beautifully into their voice, the conductor the ability to help refine orchestration to best suit the talents of their pit, and the entire ensemble the responsibility of asking questions that, when resolved, will strengthen the final piece.

The current norm is to do much of this work through a series of pre-production workshops. Borrowed from theater, workshops bring singers together to test out early drafts of material in non-staged performances. A relatively new addition to the development of operas, these events are great way for the creative team to get a handle on what they are crafting, and for the producing company to strategize and fundraise around the material. This is also a chance for the singers to get a head start on learning their music as they are expected to come to first rehearsal “off-book” (i.e. having their music memorized).

Coming out of this process, the composer and librettist have the chance to refine the piece before rehearsals start. Whether major revisions or minor rewrites, the score needs to be set for first rehearsal. In my experience, workshops are a blessing. It is hard to hold something as massive as an opera in one’s head while writing it and the simplest mistakes are easily overlooked.

By this time, the director will have been working closely with their designers to develop a concept for the first production. As sets and costumes take a long time to build, these conversations start well over a year before the cast even enters the rehearsal hall. In fact, the shortest process in the creation of an opera is the actual rehearsal period, lasting only 2-4 weeks. During this time, the piece will be staged, choreographed, musically perfected, and all of the stage elements and orchestra will be added. There is an awful lot to do in a very short amount of time.

As a composer, I feel selfish during workshops and rehearsals. There is little on Earth as moving or satisfying as hearing my own notes emanating from the mouth of a world-class singer, often in a space much smaller than an opera house. In these close quarters you feel the pure power of a human voice shaking your entire body. It is a singular experience, one I wish for everyone to experience in their lifetime.

But after years of inspiration, sweat, refinement, design, and rehearsal comes the inevitable moment of truth: the curtain rising on the very first performance. While no one can say what the future holds for any particular new opera, I am a firm believer that the pronouncements of the death of the form are greatly exaggerated. It is impossible to predict if a work will get a revival production, or, if telecast or recorded, that it will gain any sort of popular traction. But young consumers of popular media regularly partake of music and visual forms that are much more challenging than what is seen on the operatic stage.

In 2009, I directed the Chicago premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera, the punk-themed Oedipus myth Greek. This stunning and challenging work premiered just 7 days after Turnage turned 28. At our production, one audience survey received from a hipster type, also in his 20s, said: “I have never been to an opera before. If I had known it would be like this, I would have come a lot sooner.” Here was a young man who, like the composer of the opera, was up for a challenge and found himself wrapped up in the passion of the material. This gives me hope not only for up-and-coming audiences, but also for the future of the form.

In that spirit, my simple suggestion to composers is this: write an opera! I began writing my first opera in my spare time. I wrote purely out of obsession with the material and with no prospect of a production. But my zeal was infectious and soon others wanted to be a part of the work. Write for the love of the music and you will inspire passion. If you sit around all day waiting for a big commission, the notes will never come. Find the subject or the melody that inspires you and follow it as far and wide as it wants to go. You will be surprised where it takes you. And when you get to a place you don’t recognize, that is where you find your own unique voice.