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A Composer's Cohort: Secrets of Collaboration
Miriam Piilonen
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Original Content10/10/2013

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Writing an opera is an undertaking unlike any other in a composer's repertoire. The time commitment, depth of knowledge and scope of such an ambitious project make writing an enormous challenge in and of itself. What many aspiring opera composers overlook is the test waiting beyond the solitude of the studio: collaborating with other artists involved in the production of a staged vocal work. OPERA America has gathered leading experts in the fields of composing, directing, publishing and administration to advise composers in working with everyone from singers to stage managers from the initial idea to final curtain call. Whether you are staging a small student performance with one singer and a tambourine or mounting an opening at the Metropolitan Opera, collaboration can make or break your show.

Before You Begin — Librettists, Singers and Showstoppers

  1. Librettists
    A great libretto is one half of a great opera and having an excellent relationship with your librettist will make your job easier. Finding a librettist can be a challenge — not just any poet, playwright or fiction writer will be sensitive to the musical or theatrical nuance — but worth the effort. Use your community of teachers and friends to find the writer whose vision complements yours and forge a passionate working relationship. The give and take between words and music will parallel that relationship and become the foundation of your work in progress.

  2. Singers
    Spend as much time with singers as possible to learn about their instrument. Know what vowels don't work on a high F, how singers find their pitch in the ensemble crowd and where to place a breath mark. Sing in a chorus, write simple vocal songs for yourself and study their repertoire. If you play the piano, accompany singers in rehearsal or take a few jobs as a collaborative pianist. Absorbing what works for the human voice will help you write effectively on a larger scale.

  3. The Great Opera Composers
    Study opera repertoire to form your own opinions on style, orchestration and drama. Analyze using figured bass, analyze form and structure — analyze everything! Attend as many operas as you can; good operas, bad operas, low-budget performances and grand historical works. Develop a sense of effectiveness: What makes diverse elements come together and tell a story that moves you? Read librettos without the music to get a feel for the transition from page to pit to stage. If you can, work backstage to gain insider knowledge of every layer of production.

As You Write — Players and Fair Play

  1. Instrumentalists
    This collaboration should carry over from previous instrumental works. If this is your first opera, simplicity makes everything smoother. Fewer and less of everything will make the performance more manageable and your concept more marketable to producers. Take orchestration seriously, especially regarding staging details. Do not waste anyone’s time by failing to consider every bump that may come up during rehearsal. How will singers find their cues? Where will the orchestra be seated? What adjustments need to be made in a particular performance space? Be meticulous and thorough when printing parts to keep your rehearsals running smoothly.

  2. Directors
    Attend rehearsals of other operas to observe how directors work. Pay attention to the problems that arise and how you can head them off. As you near completion of your opera and begin rehearsing, be flexible. An opera may require you to relinquish a bit of your control over the piece but trust your artistic allies. Take all suggestions with grace. Make changes, edit and revise like crazy. Understand that this is when the ownership of your piece is slowly spreading into the hands of the other artists involved and they will take good care of it.

Production and Performance — The Company and the Crowd

  1. Performers, designers, production staff and others
    Treat everyone as equals. Take advice from anyone who offers. This is where your experience working backstage can yield some fantastic conversations. Give your opinions on the realization of your piece and take notes from the experts as well. The finished product may wind up fantastically differently than you planned.

  2. The Audience
    Your final collaboration is with your audience. Savor your first show and try not to worry about the reception; you’ve worked unbelievably hard and completed something few people are capable of. Whether the audience likes your piece is arbitrary but informative. Be prepared for differences in opinion and room for growth. Take a critical eye and ear to the recording of your opera to revise and begin planning for the next. Most successful opera composers write many small operas and "practice makes perfect" applies even to the most luxuriant, time-consuming art forms. Get back to the studio and make it better. Good luck!

Daron Hagen, Composer
Peggy Monastra, Director of Promotion, G. Schirmer
Zizi Mueller, Senior Vice President, Boosey & Hawkes
Steven Osgood, Conductor
Diane Wondisford, President & Producing Director, Music-Theatre Group
Jake Heggie, Composer
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