In spite of the overwhelming odds against getting a new opera produced—even a short one with small requirements—composers still bravely continue to write them. Even then, should a performance actually occur, the chance of getting a second one (much less a third) makes getting hit by lightning seem like an everyday occurrence. Even operas by established composers go begging for a second performance. Lee Hoiby, a great American opera composer, has vanished from the repertoire and the last opera he completed before he died, a stunning setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is still awaiting a premiere.
One more, into the breach rides the Fort Worth Opera. Their appropriately titled Frontiers program asked composers to submit unpublished opera projects, completed or not, competition-style, from which eight would be chosen to be presented in a workshop setting during the last week of the recent festival season.
It was a brave undertaking in the performing arts discipline for which it is toughest to get new work seen and heard (as opposed to theater and dance).
“The challenges are many. [Getting interest from] directors and opera companies in producing new opera means that one must already have a convincing rendition of at least a good part of the work,” said Louis Karchin, composer of one of the works chosen this year, Jane Eyre. “And of course, to receive a convincing rendition, someone in the opera world must already be convinced of the work and create conditions for a compelling recording. So there's a little Catch-22 about the situation. The more you work in the genre and get to know people, the easier it is; but for very large projects, you're asking for a sizable commitment from a company—so it will not happen overnight.”
As for the selection process in this year’s Frontiers, Kurt Howard, Producing Director and Frontiers Curator, said that a wide range of pieces were received, “running from preliminary sketches from novice composers to fully produced works from lauded talents.”
The panelists selected the winning works by listening independently to the samples without any knowledge of the composers until after the scores were tabulated. “These eight selections quickly rose to the top of the list, but there were many talented voices represented in the submitted works,” Howard said.
“Although some naturally made a stronger impression on me than others,” said Fort Worth Opera music director Joe Illick, one of the judges, “for me, hearing new works is very invigorating and I'm excited to see where the Frontiers program will lead.”
Despite that we often hear about the operatic warhorses floating big opera companies’ seasons, judging from the success the Fort Worth Opera has had with its dedication to works created in this century, it’s apparent that opera audiences are interested in hearing new things. And they’re not the only ones.
“It's been my experience that American opera curators are enthusiastic about hearing and considering new work,” said Wang Jie, composer and librettist of From the Other Sky, which was showcased in Frontiers. “The great challenge involves getting all the interested parties (i.e., the producers, directors, company officials, and let's not forget the all-important fundraisers) under one roof to put on a low-budget, spectacular workshop.”
The Frontiers performances stretched over two days (May 9 and 10) with four operas each day, and each work given a maximum of 20 minutes. With some of them, only that amount of music was completed from a larger work still in development. For others, 20 minutes was a complete performance. And with a few, it allowed for selections from a full-length, grand-scale opera.
The subjects ranged far and wide, from the abstract to Shakespeare. Only one composer, Wang Jie, wrote her own libretto. The seven others grew out of a partnership of composer and librettist, many of whom met in workshop settings that brought such collaborators together to see what synergies would happen. All of the composers and librettists have significant credits but none is a familiar name—all were new to me.
Overview of Frontiers and Contemporary Music
The last work presented in the two-day program (Why I Live at the P.O., music by Stephen Eddins, libretto by Eddins and Michael O'Brien; based on a Eudora Welty story) was so completely different from the other seven that I will put off of a discussion of that opera until the end of the report. The general comments that follow concern these seven:
- From the Other Sky, music and libretto by Wang Jie
- Embedded, music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort
- Jane Eyre, music by Louis Karchin, libretto by Diane Osen
- Airline Icarus, music by Brian Current, libretto by Anton Piatigorsky
- The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth, music by Veronika Krausas, libretto by Thomas Pettit
- The Summer King, music by Daniel Sonenberg, libretto by Sonnenberg and Daniel Nester
- The Fox and the Pomegranate, music by Matt Frey, libretto by Daniel J. Kushner
Musically, these seven operas had more in common than they had differences. This is not to say that they were all the same—they certainly were not. However, they all draw on a sort of voix mixte that oscillates between standard tonality and modernist dissonance. It is as if they were all afraid to commit wholly to one or the other. This is completely understandable because of the climate in today’s elite compositional circle, mostly led by the universities, the musical equivalent of the political think-tanks.
The modernists, atonalists, serialists and all other manner of “ists” ruled with an iron fist for decades. Dissonance, unusual performing combinations, bewildering complexities and a rejection of all that came before was de rigueur. While there are many exceptions of composers who avoided toeing the line by their sheer and undeniable brilliance—Benjamin Britten immediately springs to mind—most composers wrote in a neo-romantic style at their own peril. This was the sin that sentenced Hoiby to wander, so undeservedly, in the desert of indifference. As a result, once composers began to drift back to a more accessible language, it was with an understandable wariness.
Now, most contemporary composers are writing music in a much more tonal manner while still keeping an overlay of dissonance and complexity, comparable to speaking passable English with a heavy German accent. Some composers accomplish this feat with alacrity while, with others, it can sound like Elgar with copyist errors.
The first seven of the Frontiers composers had some aspects of this conundrum in evidence. For the most part, the vocal writing was angular. With the exception of one minimalist piece, text was set in a conversational manner as dialogue. Vocal ranges were stretched and, although admittedly hindered by the fact that these performances were with piano instead of orchestra, the accompaniment rarely mimicked the vocal lines. In fact, on the contrary, most of the accompaniments were totally separate from the vocal lines as if in a different, but complementary, musical world. However, all of these works were engaging and were able to create a distinctive universe that was appropriate to the subject matter.
The performances were excellently produced. The myriad of roles were sung by the very talented group of young singers from the Fort Worth Opera. The selections were conducted by Stephen Dubberly, Associate Professor in the Division of Conducting and Ensembles, and Tyson Deaton, who greatly impressed when he conducted Tom Cipullo’s intense opera, Glory Denied, as part of the festival. You can read my review of that performance here. Jody Schum and Stephen Carey switched off at the piano.
From the Other Sky by composer Wang Jie, based on her own libretto, is a fantastical story using the characters from the Chinese zodiac: rat, rooster and monkey. The lark used to be one of them but, in this fable, we learn why she returned to live on earth. (It’s too complicated to go into here but a lack of sex has a lot to do with it.) This was one of the most dissonant-leaning scores. It is also a complete work. Jeni Houser sang the Lark’s coloratura chirpings with ease. Michael Porter’s Rooster was a speaking role. Amanda Robie, whose rich mezzo and superb acting abilities impressed throughout, made a fine rat. Stephen Carey was the Monkey.
Quote from Wang Jie, before the Frontiers performance: “Most opera librettos are adapted from other sources. From the Other Sky is unusual in that because the story (experiencing compassion for the first time, a Zodiac Goddess loses her place in the heavens to share her musical powers with mankind) is original and was conceived purely in terms of opera. It's a miniature opera, a form that is gaining in popularity. … Although From the Other Sky itself is complete as a stand-alone miniature opera, I'm happy to report that the enthusiasm I've received from Frontiers has encouraged me to compose a companion piece (From the Land Fallen) which I'll develop as the second half of a double bill. Given my wonderful experience here, it would be my pleasure to develop the second half here at Fort Worth Opera.”
Embedded, with music by Patrick Soluri to a libretto by Deborah Brevoort, is a story of the cutthroat world of broadcast journalism with a young and beautiful challenger, Victoria (sung by Corrie Donovan) aiming at the aging, but still beautiful anchor, Sylvia (sung by Kristen Lassiter). Anthony Reed as Montressor was a standout. He has a glorious bass voice, a rarity in itself, but he knows how to use it and, even better, he is attractive and an excellent actor. What more could you want?
It is vaguely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's grisly story The Cask of Amontillado, but the fight between the up-and-coming and the on-the-way-out was the takeaway. This performance of two sets of scenes from the larger work got off to a slow start with a long piano introduction that, hopefully, is more engaging with orchestra. Soluri writes in a romantic harmonic language, but his vocal writing is not melodic. Much of it is reminiscent of recitativo accompagnato, with vocal chanting over repeated patterns. On one occasion, the piano only has one repeated note and other parts eschew even this minimal accompaniment and are sung a cappella.
Jane Eyre is a daunting undertaking for the operatic stage, but composer Louis Karchin and librettist Diane Osen are writing a full-scale setting of the Brontë novel. This is also a work in the neo-romantic side of the fence, as behooves the subject. To keep in the Frontiers time limit, we saw three scenes from the beginning of act one. They are off to a good start and many in the audience were wishing that we could hear some more. (It is my recollection that these three scenes were all that had been completed at the time of this performance.)
Quote from Karchin: “Jane Eyre is a large project—an opera in three acts for 13 singers and orchestra. During the past year, I've been able to complete the composition of the work including the final orchestration. The Frontiers Project, although not a full-scale production of the opera, was certainly incentive to push ahead, even with competing projects on my desk with full realizations looming. It meant someone in the opera world was on the same wavelength as me, and there was some confirmation that what I was doing was worthwhile and reaching other people. This is very necessary in the world of the arts. I try to help younger composers this way, and it's great to be helped from time to time, also.”
Airline Icarus, by composer Brian Current and librettist Anton Piatigorsky, takes some stock characters and throws them together in an airplane. From the synopsis, it is a little difficult to ascertain exactly what happens to them, but somehow they are transformed or stuck in their former boring selves. Once again, the accompaniment in this work is minimal and uses constantly repeating patterns in the accompaniment. For the first time on the first day of Frontiers, the characters sang in some choral writing using melismatic effects. There was also some humming. Tenor Ian McEuen was impressive in the role of the Scholar, as he was in all of his appearances in the two afternoons.
The second day started out with some Shakespeare: the Scottish play. Composer Veronica Krauss and librettist Thomas Pettit chose to profile Lady Macbeth by extracting her lines and monologues and using the witches as a Greek chorus. Called The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth, the short chamber opera is a complete work. This Lady Macbeth had dreamy music, supplemented by the most vacant accompaniment so far. She had a big melisma up to the stratosphere at the end, which Elizabeth Westerman tossed off with ease. The witches whispered and hummed and their chant over the caldron sounded like a child’s counting song. At the end, it faded away, exhausted from no evident exertion.
The Summer King, by composer Daniel Sonenberg with co-librettist Daniel Nester, is a full-length opera about Josh Gibson, who was a star in baseball’s Negro League on the cusp of Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking first-base appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. This story has real appeal today. Once again, the accompaniment was vacant – sometimes only one note. Also once again, the vocal writing was angular. Occasionally, there was a high note on an unimportant syllable, such as with the word “bur-DEN.” However, there was some variety as well, even a patter song. Michael Adams did a fine job as Josh Gibson, Ian McEuen was impressive as Wendell Smith and the versatile Amanda Bobie was a stand out. Johnny Salvesen also impressed.
The Fox and the Pomegranate is a parable that was a little on the obtuse side, at least from the synopsis furnished. It has the distinction of having the only gender-fluid character of any of the operas, a role entrusted to (who else?) Amanda Robie. Musically, composer Matt Frey wrote the least interesting music in production in that its reliance on Philip Glass gave it a “been there done that” feel. The work by librettist Daniel J. Kushner was nearly superfluous, in that the scenes that were presented barely used a dozen words.
The hit of the entire program was clearly Why I Live at the P.O., which enchanted the audience and was so obviously enjoyed by the singers. Composer Stephen Eddins and co-librettist Michael O’Brien took Eudora Welty’s most famous story about a dysfunctional family in small-town Mississippi in the 1940s. They managed the nearly impossible task of setting it as an opera while keeping Welty’s charm. They did this by adding a character (Sister 1) who is the same sister as in the story, but setting her apart as a narrator. This way, Welty’s clever and genuine writing style, which so accurately caught the rhythm and vocabulary, came through. Eddins’ music is based on the big band style of the era and is every bit as clever as Welty’s prose.
All of the singers did a fine job. Anthony Reed was a marvelous Papa-Daddy (who will "never-never-never" shave off his beard). Corrie Donovan and Kristen Lassiter were fun as Sisters 1 and 2, Jeni Houser had the right amount of sass as Stella-Ronda, and Amanda Robuie was perfect as Mama. While it is not the best recording, you can enjoy selections from this clever opera here:
If given a vote for which of the eight works to produce on a future mainstage season, give mine to Why I Live at the P.O.
The Forth Worth Opera deserves a big congratulations and even a star in the musical heavens for creating Frontiers. They join a meager, distinguished list of organizations that encourage the development of new works for the operatic stage. There are some others, but the list is depressingly short. Two standouts are Center for Contemporary Opera’s development series (another reading of Karchin’s Jane Eyre will be heard there this year) and New York City Opera’s VOX, in which there's the added cache of a performance with full orchestra.
Another group, The National Opera Association, adds a new wrinkle in that it runs a chamber opera competition specifically to be performed with piano. They hope to encourage short operas aimed at opera workshops, small companies and college opera programs. They give the winner a full production at the NOA convention.
There are others, but the FWO Frontiers is a standout because it presents eight different operas, which is more than the other similar programs showcase.
“The Frontiers initiative at Fort Worth Opera is a wonderful experience for any composer, whether it be a brand-new work or a work that has already been performed,” said Veronkia Krausas, composer of The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth. “Having such wonderful performers interpret work is an invaluable experience. As composers we're able to see firsthand the workings of what we've created; not only the successful, but more importantly, what is not working. The beauty of these workshop settings is that we the have the ability to change those things that are not what we had envisioned. It's always magical to have ‘the noises in one's head’ come alive in front of you with the wonderful singers you have here at Fort Worth.”
Karchin added that the Frontiers experience is important because it provides that first step. “I hope it gives my opera, Jane Eyre, some additional positive momentum and exposure,” he said. “Also, the feedback aspect is very important. Composers work out of sight in their houses or apartments writing this stuff; it's easy to overlook some significant aspect of the project, and hearing comments and suggestions from people who have gone through the process is invaluable.”
Meanwhile, Wang Jie looks forward to learning more about the Fort Worth Opera.
“I hope to develop an understanding between their artistic mission and mine,” she said. “This festival has been a wonderful opportunity for FWO and me to experience each other. I'd love to develop more works here, but remember that it takes two hands to clap. At the very least, I'm hoping that FWO spreads the word about my work to the essential people in the industry and helps me find a company that will give my opera a full life.”
Below is a video interview we conducted with Patrick Soluri when he was in Fort Worth in February for a performance of his 10-minute work Figaro's Last Hangover, which was performed at a Fort Worth Opera Shots event. He talks about the importance of developing new operas, and how the Frontiers showcase could help with creating his work, Embedded.
We can be proud of the Fort Worth Opera for throwing their Texas Ten Gallon hat into this ring which is particularly in need of passionate participants. And we look forward to the second Frontiers event at the 2014 Festival.
Readers, feel free to add your congratulations to the Fort Worth Opera in the comments section below.
◊ Mark Lowry contributed the quotes from the composers and the video interview with Patrick Soluri to this report