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Pathways to a Premiere for Composers and Librettists
Anne Choe, Artistic Services Manager, OPERA America
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ArtistLink11/12/2007

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Committed to the development of new works and creative artists, OPERA America has begun to host workshops for composers and librettists across the country. The next workshop will take place in Syracuse, NY on December 8 and 9, and will cover topics including obtaining a commission, working with singers, self-producing, the role of the publisher, self-publishing, finding creative partners and ideal projects, and much more. Below is a summary of a recent workshop that OPERA America hosted in partnership with San Francisco Opera with panelists Paul Dresher, Jake Heggie, Joan La Barbara, Gene Scheer and moderator Kip Cranna, musical administrator for San Francisco Opera.

Getting your break
More and more companies are producing new opera to revitalize themselves and reach a wider audience. There's more room for development of new ideas now than ever before. But to an aspiring composer or librettist, it may not always feel like the opportunities are within one's reach. Getting a break can seem elusive as ever. Cranna posed the question to the panelists, "How do you get experience if you must have it in the first place? Who first took a chance with you?" Each member of the panel spoke of how a singer with whom they had worked or being a singer themselves was instrumental in their careers. Pairings included Heggie and Frederica von Stade, Scheer and Denyce Graves, and Dresher and John Duykers. La Barbara had a successful career as a singer performing nontraditional music and creating a name for herself. Their experiences may have differed, but they all knew how to write for singers (or learned) and understood voices. Heggie advises "This is something to think about when getting your works produced. Because if the audience doesn't know the music, they want to know who is singing. Also, Mozart looked for very controversial subjects to write about. So did Verdi and Puccini who were aware that opera is populist in nature. You need to have a hook — especially if you're going to ask people to give up an entire evening or afternoon and come with somewhat of an open mind." For many productions, the hook is the singer. Many first commissions come through singers who are familiar with a composer's work in song cycles. Scheer asked the attendees, "When the call comes, what do you have ready to share? Obviously you need a break, but the thing is to be really prepared. When the meeting came that led to An American Tragedy, I had a finished libretto and 20 songs. You have to be able to put something forward that really shows what you can do." Heggie notes, "It's very important to know what kind of work you're doing and know what the aspiration is." Successful artists have fostered their relationships with other artists, been prepared for their moment and assessed their goals to plan for the future.

Writing your masterpiece
Finding the idea that will inspire a great work and that resonates over time and across genres is possibly the greatest challenge an artist faces. The panelists all shared a passion for the idea, an investment in their creative partners and a commitment to the evolutionary process of their operas. When finding collaborators, everyone needs to be on the same page, have a stake in the idea and share trust, respect and support for each other. Artists rely heavily on their network to shape their pieces into a work that is sustainable and dramatic. As a composer or librettist, it can be easy to lose sight of the involvement of other artists, because so much time is spent writing alone. Ultimately, the opera cannot exist in a bubble and requires the ideas and cooperation of a large team of people.

Is it any good?
For many great works, not just opera, but also film and theater, the evolution involves not only other artists but also audiences at workshops or performances. Obviously, it is far better that the missing pieces in a work are discovered before the premiere, because as Heggie said, "Once you've lost an audience, getting them back is very, very hard if they're confused, if they're not getting something or they don't care about the characters. I'm sure you've all been to things that make you think, ‘How did that get on the stage?' or ‘Didn't someone see that?' And you don't want to be that person that they're talking about." The importance of workshops was repeatedly stressed by the panelists. Dresher feels that they are absolutely necessary. "I think the conceit that you could get an opera absolutely right the first time out is absurd. Every great opera that I know had to be tested. It's much better if you test your works in front of people you trust." La Barbara uses in-progress performances: "An excitement is there with the performances and the audience is part of the process. I'm also building my audience." Dresher presents his workshops to an audience of theater professionals who can point out specifically what the issues are and how they can be fixed. In the end, handling feedback is part of being an artist, as well. A balance between being willing to bend and knowing what one feels strongly about is crucial. This comes from a commitment to and passion for an idea, collaboration with creative artists and an understanding of the fluid nature of opera.

Join us in Syracuse on December 8 to discuss these topics and many more with composer Anthony Davis, soprano Lauren Flanigan, librettist Michael Korie, Kip Cranna, Michael Ching from Opera Memphis, Dale Johnson from The Minnesota Opera and other panelists. On December 9, we will discuss the process a company undertakes in commissioning a new work, creative negotiation and fostering a relationship with publishers.

To register, please visit operaamerica.org/workshops or call Anne Choe at 212-796-8620, ext. 202 by November 30.

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