Andrew Simpson , associate professor of music and program coordinator for the master's in composition, was quoted in a July 4 Washington Post article about how new operas are being staged at smaller venues. See his comments in the article below.
From: Washington Post Date: July 4, 2010 Author: Anne MidgettePlácido Domingo wants more new American opera in Washington. As general director of the Washington National Opera, he holds this topic so close to his heart that he's willing to talk about it even as he boards an airplane, apologizing for the seatbelt announcements as he cups one hand over his cellphone to describe his plans for new works.
The financial crisis -- WNO's as much as the country's -- has claimed casualties. One: a planned new opera by Tobias Picker, based on Stephen King's book "Misery." Another: a revival of John Adams's seminal "Nixon in China." These plans have been put on indefinite hold while the company offers a reduced season of older works. "It has been frustrating for me," Domingo says, "not to do [a contemporary opera] every year."
Yet there is new opera in Washington. It just isn't, at the moment, at the Washington National Opera. To find it, it helps to lose preconceptions about opera as something big, grand and overblown. Mushroomlike, it springs up in smaller corners of the performing arts scene: in university theaters, black boxes or smaller opera companies, such as Wolf Trap, that present opera for considerably less money than WNO.
Although other major opera companies around the country are managing to put on new operas (Domingo's other house, the Los Angeles Opera, will present the world premiere of Daniel Catán's "Il Postino" this fall), they're not immune from the general financial pressure. A new opera production at a major company can cost millions of dollars; a world premiere adds another million or so to the price tag. Working on new developments at more realistic prices, the Washington scene may actually be a harbinger of the future of the field around the country.
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"I don't want to make light of the fact that coming up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars for us is a big deal," says Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera and Foundation. "But when you put that up against the one-off cost of 'Moby-Dick' " -- a new opera by Jake Heggie that had a successful world premiere at the Dallas Opera on April 30, to the tune of several million dollars -- "this is still exponentially smaller."
Witman is working on Wolf Trap's second opera commission, "The Inspector" by John Musto and Mark Campbell, which will open at the Barns in April 2011. The first commission, "Volpone," by the same team, opened in 2004 and far exceeded expectations. The opera was so popular with audiences that Witman brought it back in 2007 during Wolf Trap's regular summer season; those performances were recorded, and the resulting CD was nominated last year for a Grammy.
Yet Wolf Trap isn't even a year-round opera company. The Wolf Trap Opera is an established summer program for young professionals, mainly recent alumni of the country's leading training programs.
But although the company had worked with "emerging directors, conductors, designers, scenic professionals," Witman says, "almost every aspect of our industry," presenting a new work was "the one piece that was missing." The Wolf Trap Foundation therefore decided to extend its mandate by commissioning a work to present during the regular season, independent of the summer program, cast with professional singers. It represents a huge amount of extra work for Witman, since there isn't really a Wolf Trap Opera in the fall and winter months: The company has only two year-round employees.
"I'm envious of colleagues in other cities that have big industry backing," Witman says of Wolf Trap's modest means. "But when you see things go south, you're like, 'I'm glad I wasn't relying on it.' "
Small is better. That's the message that's going around the opera world these days. Grand opera is big and thrilling, but it's hard to find the money to put it on. The price tag for "Amelia," an opera that had its world premiere at the Seattle Opera in May, was $3.5 million; a regular production there averages about $2 million. The company has now radically cut production costs for next season.
By contrast, the Long Beach Opera in California, a small company that focuses on new works in unusual venues -- it closed this season with Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Euridice" staged in a swimming pool -- announced earlier this month that it was operating in the black, gaining subscribers and even slightly increasing its annual operating budget. The company's entire annual operating budget for 2011 is $1.2 million.
Composers aren't turning up their noses at smaller venues, either. Even composers who have had success at bigger companies are paring down their offerings. Picker, who was to compose the canceled new work for Washington, had a big success in 1996 with "Emmeline" at the Santa Fe Opera, but the work has hardly been performed since. Last year, he created a version of "Emmeline" for smaller forces: The Cinnabar Opera, another small California outfit with 100 seats, staged it earlier this month.
Even for big companies, a small format is a much more sensible way to try out a new work than a million-dollar production. The Metropolitan Opera's ongoing commissioning program, announced in 2006, amounts to giving seed money to composers and librettists to develop a work for a workshop performance, after which the work's future -- as opera, or as music theater -- will be determined. The fee is a fraction of the commissioning fee for a mainstage work -- a financial advantage, but also a reason that most of the projects have been proceeding very slowly.
The quintessential small venue is the university. Music schools, with lots of in-house talent and without the pressure of having to do well at the box office, are a natural laboratory for new opera. "We have research in science computers. Why not research in the creation of new work?" says the stage director Leon Major, who heads the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland.
The studio presented its third world premiere, "Shadowboxer," the life of Joe Louis, earlier this spring. (In the fall, it will present another recent American opera, Daniel Catán's successful "Florencia en el Amazonas.") "Shadowboxer," by Frank Proto, had a tuneful score that incorporated an onstage jazz band, but its biopic (or bio-opera) approach to its subject wasn't especially experimental. Like many new works, it could use another round of revisions; and here is where the money runs short. "The reason that operas are presented once and never presented again," Major says, "is that the composers want to rewrite, but no one has the money to cover the costs of the rewrite and the orchestration."
"I want to start a company called the Second Coming," he says, to present revised versions of new operas that need a second chance. "I don't think you can do a piece perfect the first time."
Major's first commission, "Clara," a bio-opera about Clara Schumann, has yet to receive a subsequent production. But the second, "Later the Same Evening" (2007), a co-commission with the National Gallery based on Edward Hopper paintings, also by Musto and Campbell, went on to the Manhattan School of Music, and in 2011 will receive its professional premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival. In this case, the lab appears to be working.
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For many people, the word "opera" conjures up visions of Wagnerian helmets and "Aida's" elephants. But "opera" can denote a wide range of performances involving singing on a stage -- as well as video, spoken text and even, horror of horrors to a traditional opera lover, amplification.
On the cutting edge of opera are events like the VOX workshop the New York City Opera sponsors each year in New York to showcase new work. This year, it included "Evangeline Revisited" by Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus. Wachner, who also conducted two of the 10 works presented, observes that the offerings "ranged from performance art to oratorio to true opera." He adds, wryly, "There were only two or three works that actually wanted opera singing."
This is a far cry from the "sweeping romantic tunes and cinemascopic orchestras" that, Wachner rightly says, characterize "opera" as perceived by the mainstream opera crowd. Indeed, real experiments can make opera administrators nervous. At the annual Opera America conference in June, a gathering-point for the field, one session specifically dealt with the more outre manifestations of the genre. It was titled, "But Is It Opera?"
There's actually no "right" way to write opera: Success runs the gamut from Philip Glass's avant-garde "Einstein on the Beach" to Heggie's more conventional narrative "Moby-Dick." But one problem that affects all new work in the field is the way young composers are trained. A composer in conservatory will learn a lot about new instrumental scores by contemporary masters. He or she is not likely to learn anything about opera, new or old.
"I don't think we ever discussed writing for theater," says Andrew Earle Simpson, a composer and associate professor of music at Catholic University, of his own education at prestigious conservatories like Indiana University.
Simpson wanted to correct this glaring omission. In Washington, he's established a program that may be unique in the United States: a master's in composition with a special focus on stage writing. Students focus on four areas: theater, opera, dance and musical theater. A series of mini-seminars teach specific skills not often addressed in traditional conservatory programs: setting texts, or scoring for the pit band in musical theater.
This program has resulted in a small but determined new music theater scene. A couple of thesis projects from Simpson's program have ended up at the Kennedy Center. One spinoff is a small group called Opera Alterna, which presents opera every year at the Capital Fringe Festival; July 11-24 will see performances of "Padrevia" (1966), continuing the group's tradition of mining the composer Thomas Pasatieri's early one-act operas. Also at the Fringe Festival is "Oblivion," a chamber opera by another alum of Simpson's program (opening July 8).
Simpson's students, trained in crossing genres, aren't too hung up on what constitutes "opera." Neither, he says, is their audience. "We have such a big theater community here," he says. "These people tend to be the same audience." In other words, this brand of "opera" may speak more to theatergoers than to the core opera crowd.
This is partly because operagoers are still getting used to the idea that there can be something new, different or actually creative in their art form. The core opera audience is more likely to take its cue from the Washington National Opera.
WNO hasn't always thought big. When the company gave the world premiere of Scott Wheeler's "Democracy" in 2005, it was cast with members of the company's Domingo-Cafritz program for young artists. "There is hopefully no reason that this kind of commission, a sort of high-end workshop for a new opera, could not become a regular event," wrote Charles Downey on Ionarts.com -- too hopefully, it turned out.
For the main priority of a large opera company remains filling its main stage, which is not always the best venue for developing new opera. Not every work is suitable for a 2,000- or 3,000-seat auditorium.
"We are in the capital of the United States," Domingo says. "We should have American opera." Turns out we do. But the Washington National Opera, after a couple of seasons without presenting any new American opera at all, may have to go smaller to catch up.