I recently returned from the Opera America Board meeting in New York, and one of the main topics of discussion for opera companies of all sizes was "new works." All of us are striving to broaden the appeal of opera, engage new and younger audiences, and develop exciting and thought-provoking new repertoire for the 21st century. The North American Works Directory maintained by Opera America includes over 1,200 entries, many of which, it may surprise you to learn, have been written in the last 25 years.
For its part, The Dallas Opera announced in January a new commission by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. We are thrilled to be collaborating with Jake Heggie again, especially following the extraordinary premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's Moby-Dick in 2010. The new work is entitled Great Scott, and will premiere in the fall of 2015 with coloratura mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato starring in the title role. However, beyond the fanfare of a major commission, TDO Artistic Director Jonathan Pell and I both regularly receive discreet inquiries from composers as well as unsolicited manuscripts.
For this month's "Off the Cuff," I thought I would share my personal perspective on best practice for commissioning a successful opera. I would hasten to point out that these are principles, not a formula; bringing a new opera to the stage is definitely an art in itself, although I sometimes wish it were an exact science.
1. Write with a specific audience in mind. In working with composers, I routinely find they have a desire to satisfy multiple audiences simultaneously. Unfortunately, though, a mainstage opera is a different type of work than a chamber opera, an opera for schools, or a streamlined one-act. Writing simpler solo parts in the hope of attracting more singers often backfires as top professionals are looking for vehicles to showcase their skills. The commissioning organization can get the project off to a good start by being clear about the format and audience for the new work, and offer sound advice about the size of the cast and orchestra.
2. Hire a composer and a librettist. Wagner wrote his own music and lyrics, but there is near universal agreement that his music is better than his poetry. Much as I love his work, there are definitely moments when a tighter libretto would have led to a better (and certainly shorter) performance. The overall creative result is usually best when the composer and librettist don't inhabit the same space. There are very good reasons that Mozart had his DaPonte, Puccini relied on his Illica and Giacosa, and Sullivan needed his Gilbert.
For all good principles, there is always a counter-example. Carlisle Floyd wrote both the music and the libretto for his first major opera, Susannah, which is rightly regarded as an important American opera. Arguably, though, this worked as well as it did because he was writing a work about a rural evangelical community, based on his own experience growing up. One of my favorite parts of the work is Susannah's aria, "The Trees on the Mountain." You can hear it sung by Cheryl Studer here:
3. Puccini has been done, thank you. Although "nothing succeeds like success," it's striking to me how many contemporary composers seek to emulate the style of Giacomo Puccini. Puccini wrote extraordinary operas, and his gift for orchestration is self-evident. For a 21st century opera to survive for the long term, however, the composer must find his or her own voice. Intriguingly, I rarely hear of serious opera composers interested in emulating the style of other great composers, such as Mozart or Verdi.
4. Does the world need another fairy-tale opera? Many aspiring composers seem to gravitate towards fairy-tale subjects. In part, this is because many of these stories are in the public domain. In today's world, there is huge latitude about the types of subjects that can be presented without fear of censorship, which was not always the case. Recent operas have been based on celebrity train-wrecks (Turnage's Anna Nicole Smith), capital punishment (Heggie's Dead Man Walking), political events (Adams's Nixon in China), delicate political topics (Adams' Death of Klinghoffer), struggles for political freedom (Glass' Satyagraha, Davis' Amistad), reflections on the nature of mind and consciousness (Machover's Death and the Powers) or Internet predation (Muhly's Two Boys). Historical fiction can also be a rich source of material (i.e. Higdon's work-in-progress, Cold Mountain, or Heggie's Moby-Dick). There have been important recent operas inspired by fairy tales, too (e.g. Chin's Alice in Wonderland, Spratlan's Life is a Dream), so, never say never. On the whole, though, I believe that 21st century audiences enjoy exploration of contemporary themes—as did 19th and 20th century audiences. (Here's a clip from the Santa Fe Opera's Life is a Dream in 2010.)
5. Stunning visuals are not enough. While stunning visuals can keep an audience engaged, they cannot on their own constitute a great opera. There is no operatic equivalent of the "special effects movie," although there are certainly musicals where the special effects are the real star of the show. Images can be a powerful creative stimulus (for example, the San Francisco Opera replica of the atomic test bomb for the world premiere of Adams' Doctor Atomic), but they cannot supplant a good libretto teamed with good vocal and orchestral writing.
6. Keep it (relatively) short. The fact that audiences will sit through a five-hour production of Wagner's Meistersinger or a five-and-a-half-hour production of Götterdämmerung (the last opera in the Ring cycle) does not mean that it is best practice! Opera audiences know that opera is an expansive art form, but four-hour contemporary operas are a tough sell, and I have never yet heard an opera patron complain that an opera premiere was too short.
7. Be realistic about size and scope. Sweeping historical dramas that cover several generations in a family's history may appear attractive as a source of an opera, but they often involve a mind-numbing array of characters and therefore huge casts (not to mention long run times). While some opera companies may have a large young artist program to fill these roles, it is by no means universal. Similarly, writing a work for an orchestra of 80-90 players will often limit its uptake…severely. In fact, there is a trend in contemporary opera for re-orchestration for smaller orchestras. Composer John Rea skillfully re-orchestrated Berg's opera Wozzeck (one of my personal favorites) to reduce the size of the orchestra from 60+ down to 21. Ensemble Parallèle recently commissioned Jacques Desjardins to re-orchestrate Jon Harbison's The Great Gatsby for 30 players – a far cry from its original roster of 80.
As an additional point, it is probably prudent to avoid all male or all female casts. Although Britten's Billy Budd and Puccini's Suor Angelica both have much to offer, I believe that their audience appeal is reduced somewhat because of the relative homogeneity of the sound. In this vein, I believe that Jake Heggie was quite savvy to include a role for female voice in Moby-Dick (the "trouser role" of Pip the Cabin Boy).
8. Set checkpoints and milestones. On the whole, opera companies and composers know the importance of establishing a schedule of well-defined milestones, but commissioning works is a multiple-step process and it needs to be clearly laid-out and agreed upon. Above all, opera companies need to avoid what happened to Mozart 's Don Giovanni when the overture was completed the day of the premiere (some sources say the night before), leaving no time at all for rehearsal.
9. Build the right production team. Once the new opera is ready for production, it is equally important to select the right director, designers, conductor and choreographers to work with the composer and librettist. Leonard Foglia and Elaine J. McCarthy collaborated extremely effectively in the Dallas Opera world premiere of Moby-Dick. For TDO's critically acclaimed new production of Tristan und Isolde, the director and visual designer Christian Räth and Elaine McCarthy successfully integrated the stage direction with a set of trapezoidal projection screens that evoked nautical sails, and a complex series of projections operated by two pairs of projectors out in the opera house, in addition to another pair upstage.
10. Live a lucky life. It is impossible to force lightning to strike. But I believe that putting these principles in place will maximize your chances to stage a successful opera premiere.
As we work with Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally on their new opera, Great Scott, I look forward to providing future updates on our collective progress. In the meantime, please join TDO this month for the first offering in our new chamber series, Peter Maxwell-Davies's The Lighthouse, directed by Dallas Theater Center's Artistic Director, Kevin Moriarty, and conducted by Maestra Nicole Paiement. Tickets are still available for the performances on March 16, 17 and 18; visit dallasopera.org. And also watch TheaterJones this week for a series of behind-the-scenes videos about the making of this production of The Lighthouse.