Fort Worth — Timothy Myers is the conductor of With Blood, With Ink, an opera by Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask currently receiving its professional premiere with the Fort Worth Opera. He spoke with TheaterJones about the experience of premiering operas—he’s premiered six in the past two years—and about the growing popularity of new opera.
TheaterJones: Opera premieres have become something of a specialty for you. Tell us how you got involved with contemporary opera.
Timothy Myers: I’ve always been a curious musician, which has transferred into my career as a conductor. I’m always looking for a challenge. I love standard repertoire, but I also love exploring. I fell into it the first time. The first premiere I ever did, I was the Principal Guest Conductor for Opera Africa, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a one-act opera in, believe it or not, Zulu. I think because I demonstrated a certain skill set working with composers and orchestrators and librettists, it just seemed like these things started coming my direction. The next two were at the Houston Grand Opera and were part of their commissioning arm called HGOco. Those also were one-act operas. So that kind of started me off. With Blood, With Ink is my third premiere this season.
One premiere this season was All Souls by John Supko, which premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It’s a 70-minute production for soparano, chamber orchestra, and electronics. The second one I did this season was at Houston Grand Opera by one of America’s premier living opera composers, Ricky Ian Gordon, an opera called A Coffin in Egypt starring legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. That recording just came out yesterday. And now With Blood, With Ink.
Q: So what was it like working with Frederica von Stade?
Working with Flicka, as everyone calls her, was amazing. One thing is that I came to opera late. The first ever recording that I listened to or owned of any French opera was Flicka’s recording of French arias. Having loved her since the moment I heard that recording and having adored her completely individual and unique voice and artistry, it was an amazing cathartic experience for me. I have to say, she makes it very easy, because she’s one of the kindest, gentlest people on the planet. So it was great, once I got over a little bit of the star shock and realized that she was viewing me as somebody very important, a true collaborator. We were playing in the same game. That was a really great feeling. We’re doing more performances of A Coffin in Egypt together in Philadelphia in June.
Q: What drew you to this particular opera? How did you end up conducting With Blood, With Ink?
A: I’ve known [Fort Worth Opera General Director] Darren K. Woods for 11 years. He saw me conduct when I was in grad school. We kept in touch, and as my career progressed, he’s been a great encourager to me. I was supposed to conduct in the festival in 2011, and because of a scheduling change, I had to postpone. The next thing that was available was With Blood, With Ink. I was fascinated by the synopsis that Darren gave me. It’s been a really wonderful journey so far. Both Daniel Crozier, the composer, and Peter M. Krask, the librettist, are really great to work with. This opera is not particularly new, actually. It was written nearly 20 years ago. It’s just never had a professional premiere. One of the things that’s fascinating to me about doing a new piece is that you’re not working with precedent, you’re setting precedent. It involves working on an entirely different level than when you’re just interpreting a score for an opera that’s been around a long time, where there are hundreds of recordings. With a new piece, you’re helping to craft something from the very beginning, taking what the creators wrote and hopefully in collaboration with them bringing it to life. It’s an entirely different challenge, and I love challenge, so it suits me very well.
Q: It seems that new operas are becoming increasingly popular—why do you think that is?
A: There has certainly been a push for commissioning of new works as of late. If you look at American companies, I think you’d have to say that Houston Grand Opera has the most prolific track record of commissioning and premiering new works, including iconic new works such as John Adams’ Nixon in China. In a less than 60 year history of HGO, they’ve premiered 52 new operas. That’s quite a track record. I believe that what has happened in the most recent years is that opera companies have figured out that they need to get serious about advancing the art form. After the recession, composers have gotten really creative in a smaller format, so it’s not only grand opera. There are other ways for this art form to continue. You’ve seen a flurry of commissioning of chamber operas, which is really a very accessible format not just for the listener, but for the presenter, enabling a smaller company to present new work.
I was at the premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick [at Dallas Opera]. It was absolutely phenomenal, but unless you’re a top ten opera company, you can’t even begin to mount that piece in that format. Nonetheless, smaller companies are still wanting to mount premiers, which makes a market for chamber operas. So with new grand operas and chamber operas, it’s created this great swirling of activity and new opera initiatives, including Fort Worth with their Frontiers program. I believe it’s important because a lot of people will come to the standard repertoire from a backwards perspective. The point of access for some people might be them coming to see Silent Night at the festival, this new piece that’s really compelling and based on an interesting historical event. You can really quickly get into the story, and you don’t have to understand anything about operatic convention to enjoy it.
Q: Do you think that composers are being drawn to this medium again? If so, why?
A: Yes, I think so. You have a couple of classes. You have composers such as Jake Heggie and Ricky Ian Gordon who were always composing to the voice. You have others, like Kevin Puts, who wrote Silent Night—that was his first opera. I knew his other music, such as his symphonic music, long before I ever heard Silent Night. I think that a lot of composers who have mostly been doing instrumental music really want to get into composing opera—they’re really dying to have a crack at it. Some of these commissioning programs such as the American Opera Initiative in Washington, D.C. have mentors, composers, librettists, and conductors. They can help these young composers and librettists find their voices.
Q: What about the musicians? What are the challenges of premiering an opera that isn’t in the standard repertoire, such as Mozart, Puccini, or Verdi?
A: It depends on whether the singers or the musicians are familiar with any other work by that composer. Right now, if you’re doing a piece by Heggie or Gordon, say, there’s enough of that composer’s work out there. They’ve written lots of songs, for instance, that lots of these singers will have learned. So it’s pretty easy to get to know their musical language before you start. If it’s a composer who isn’t yet so prolific, it can be a little trickier. I want to get inside the piece and see it from the composer’s vantage point, because I know then that when I rehearse I know where to go with it and what to do to bring the composer’s vision to life, which is the most important thing in my job. Being the composer’s advocate is a big part of the conductor’s job, and having the composer there is nice because you can say, “What did you mean by that marking?” or “I don’t understand why you did this” or “That part doesn’t feel like it flows to me. Can we talk about it?” Whereas with someone like Mozart, unless you’re someone who can host a good séance, you’re probably on your own!
Q: So is it more difficult to work with living composers?
A: Of course it is. But in the best possible way. You’ve been working with these characters, whom you’ve become passionate about. You’ve been working with a librettist. Then you add the music, and put everything together. Then you figure out pacing and so forth. That’s mostly in a solitary environment. Then when you bring the piece out, it can be a hard thing for some composers. I really have to win their trust as quickly as possible, so that they understand that I have the best interests of them and their piece in mind. Then, when I make suggestions, they understand that it’s out of my love for their music. All the creators have to have a sense of patience and open-mindedness to be successful.
Q: What else would you like to say about the experience of being involved in this opera?
A: I’m very glad that I found my way into doing new work. I do all kinds of repertoire— I just did my first Rusalka. In 2016 I’m doing my first Das Rheingold. I am just so happy to be working on all this great music. It’s amazing how my work on new music has made me rethink how I approach something by a past master composer. I’m considering different things that maybe before I started doing these premieres were not on my radar. I think what it is is that with an older opera, even if I’m reading the libretto, I already know the tune. When you’re trying to read it as literature, and forget what those words are set to, then when you put it back with the music, you wonder “Why did he set that that way?” It really got my creative juices flowing in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
Q: With Blood, With Ink is almost sold out, isn’t it?
A: Yes, but don’t give up! Call the box office because tickets do get turned back in. It’s a wonderful show—a high impact piece of theater.
» Our review of With Blood, With Ink
» Our review of Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt
» You can read our story about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and this opera, as well as a play about her being performed by Teatro Dallas, here