Author: Frank Pesci

The Big, and Ever-Present, “What’s Next?”

On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In this final installment, I reflect on the experience and plan my next steps.

I’m sitting at a bar two days after my Frontiers performance. It’s a bar where the Frontiers composers spent many hours socializing and talking technique, plans, and projects. Now, I’m alone; most of my colleagues have left Fort Worth and I am waiting for the shuttle that will take me to the plane to begin my journey home.

As ESPN plays on the screen above me, I’m flipping through the small stack of business cards that I collected in the previous days. I’m also making a list of the names of people with whom I’ve been speaking, but who didn’t have a card handy—Frontiers panelists, general directors, librettists. In a motion that has been well practiced during the last week, I reach for the interior jacket pocket that holds my business cards. I’m pleased to find only one remaining.

This is why I came. I came to meet people, to make connections, and to begin relationships with creative partners who are looking to build projects from the ground up. In my hands are the spoils of my experience at Frontiers.

Post-show blues

I’m heartbroken that it’s over, but by many accounts, my performance was a gigantic success. My singers—soprano Rachel Blaustein, tenor Brian Wallin, and baritone Alex DeSocio—were prepared, professional, flexible, and totally killed the performance both musically and dramatically. My music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly, and pianist Matthew Stevens—dug into my score and found more than I had realized I had put into it.

The audience’s response to my music was overwhelmingly positive, I think. I actually don’t really remember the audience’s response as it got wrapped up with my choreography. (Don’t fall down the steps. Hug conductor. Shake pianist’s hand, then male singer’s. Kiss the soprano’s hand. Don’t knock over the stands or the microphones. Arms open wide to the audience and bow. Are my shoes tied? Yes they are! Drag it on as long as possible before the company bow…and we’re done!)

I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options.

The next morning involved a discussion with six members of the Frontiers panel, a group of decision makers from across the country who had also selected the pieces that were presented in the showcase. I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options, being told that the absence of “preciousness” in my work and presentation (defined as a reluctance to let go and let collaborators in) was evident. I felt the warmth of comments regarding my lyricism, the balance of my vocal and piano writing, and the creativity of weaving Poe’s poetry (what one panelist called “found material”) into the libretto and the multiplying effect it had on character development. A review in the local paper said about my opera (which takes place in an mental institution), “…needless to say, you wouldn’t want to be in this asylum – as either patient or caregiver.” I’ll take that as a positive.

Everyone involved in the 2017 Frontiers Showcase at Fort Worth Opera

Everyone involved in the 2017 Frontiers Showcase at Ft. Worth Opera.

The unseen impact

The day before my show, I went to a big-box grocery for a few items and gifts for my cast. And older woman waved me over to her to her checkout counter and we started talking, as strangers often do in this part of the country.

“Would you like to sign up for a rewards card?” No thanks, I live abroad.

“What brings you to Texas?” I’m here with the opera.

“What are you singing?” I’m a Frontiers composer.

This stops her in her tracks. “Isn’t that fabulous! What else have you done? I’m a choral singer, do you have any choral music?” I have quite a bit (handing over my card) if you wouldn’t mind giving this to your choir director.

She flips my card over in her hands and looks at me with wide eyes. “We HAVE done your music! It’s WONDERFUL!”

She looks a little star struck, and wants to shake my hand. I mumble a bit, but give in to the serendipity of the situation, accept her praise, and thank her profusely for her kind words. Leaving the store, I start laughing. This has NEVER happened to me in over a decade of writing and I’m a little unsure what to make of it. The basic reality sets in that when I send things out, either through my publisher, through my online and social media interactions, or through rare opportunities afforded by exposure like I experienced at Frontiers, I welcome the ripples of interactions they produce, and am grateful that something I have done has reached a complete stranger.

I was struck by this again the day after my showcase, when I went to Dallas to attend the New Works Forum at the Opera America Conference. Walking into the room, I immediately started recognizing faces I had only seen online – general directors, Pulitzer winners, singers, directors, librettists—a who’s who of leaders in the field. Everyone had their first names in large print on their ID badges, and I could see eyes darting towards my own as I walked around the room, trying to radiate maturity and positivity—or at least, not panic. Most moved on after glancing at my name badge, but a few stopped and came forward, saying that they had been at my show the previous night, or that they had seen my first essay on NewMusicBox two days before.

Hin und zurück (There and back again)

From the perspective of my relatively secure, European composer bubble, the amount of exposure I received between the announcement of, and participation in, Frontiers bordered on empowering and overwhelming, with a dash of terror for good measure. The response I received from audiences, colleagues, and the staff of Fort Worth Opera affirmed my Brand—“I am becoming a better opera composer”—for the foreseeable future. But no matter how well things turned out (or at least appeared to), it’s important for me not to believe my own “hype.” What I’m really left with, in the end, is an opportunity.

Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn.

In a previous incarnation of these essays, I mused that my goal would be coming home from Frontiers with more work than I could possibly handle. While this was a bit naïve, I do find myself with many avenues of communication on which I need to follow up, opera and non-opera projects that will keep me busy through the summer and fall. Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn. Projects develop over years, not months. The reality is that I put down roots during those two weeks in Texas, and every single one of them has the potential to develop into a new project. I just have to tend that garden. One win does not make a career, and a particular win does not necessarily mean I will be veering in the direction that win suggests. My immediate task is to kindle the relationships that I struck up, maximize the amount of time that I can spend on developing new projects, and be patient.

Preparing for Performance: What I Didn’t Know I Knew

On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I recount the program’s rehearsal process and performance highlights.

On the plane, somewhere between Frankfurt, Germany and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I decided that I was going to crash the first rehearsal. It was explained to me that this was to be an initial, getting-to-know-you music rehearsal for only singers and music staff, but my excitement was such that I simply had to jump in to this experience as quickly as possible. Bleary-eyed, I asked my cab driver to drop me off in the 90-degree soup in front of the opera building at Texas Christian University. Unexpected as my presence was, dropped jaws and raised eyebrows quickly melted into warm greetings from the music and administrative staff who were collected to dig into my score.

In retrospect, perhaps jetlag and hubris played a role is this decision, but this initial greeting set the tone for the ten days that would follow. In that first rehearsal, any trepidation I had vanished in the face of the care and interest that the music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly and pianist Matthew Stevens—had for my music.

The next day was “First Day of School,” as it is known in the opera world, and the composers and librettists assembled at McDavid Studio in downtown Fort Worth, which was to be both our rehearsal and performance space. Directly adjacent to the formidable and gorgeously designed Bass Performance Hall, McDavid is a sleek, multidimensional space, part of which had been transformed into a black box for Fort Worth Opera’s use.

Nervous, excited, and jetlagged out of my gourd (I had woken up at 4:30 a.m.) I was struck by a familiar serenity upon entering the theater. With lush, velvet black curtains hanging floor to ceiling, and rows of simple single chairs, this was the type of space in which I had worked for a decade as a musical theater director and conductor. What it lacked in acoustics (those hangs ate all the sound) it excelled at in terms of both intimacy and possibility. As for my new colleagues, we instantly got on like a house on fire. They brought a wealth of experience and a devotion to the art form, and for a week, we geeked out over performances we had attended, technique, our teachers, our “real jobs,” other projects we were starting, and what notation programs we used.

The excavation of artistic knowledge

The terror and exhilaration of having nothing to do in rehearsal is both a welcome and dreaded experience.

The terror and exhilaration of having nothing to do in rehearsal is both a welcome and dreaded experience. Once the double bar is printed, there is, theoretically, a point in time when a piece is handed over. My role in the process having come to a pause, I’m then overshadowed so that well-trained conductors, pianists, and singers may immerse themselves in the piece. In rehearsal, my dictum is “less talk, more music,” which puts the pressure on me to make sure that my score is impeccable. During the Frontiers rehearsal process (in which I was afforded more than four hours of rehearsal time—an embarrassment of riches for 20 minutes of music), I was able to allow the cast and music staff to explore the score, organically extending their interpretation throughout the process, and encouraging me to add dramaturgical and compositional nuance, when appropriate.

I’ve always been amazed how the rehearsal process produces in me a higher awareness of what I have written. To think that I know every motivation behind every note and gesture is, for me, conceit. I need another’s inquiries to drag out the nuggets of meaning and all the things I didn’t know I knew about the piece. The particulars of melodic gesture, harmonic choice, or rhythmic figure are made in private, worked out in the vacuum of the studio. While they are important to me as a composer, overt knowledge of these details, in my experience, does not necessarily inform the application or performance of the score.

Until it does. Case in point: at the end of the soprano aria, there is a section marked “suddenly cheery,” in contrast to previous sections. It wasn’t working, and I soon realized that it was because this marking had not made it to the soprano’s part. Further, I was able to connect this hopeful moment to a later arietta, in which she sings to her estranged father of her hope that he see the light, metaphorically, which presents blindness as another example of perception, the work’s general theme. Light bulbs went on across the rehearsal space and the impact on everyone’s performance was immediate.

The rehearsal in McDavid Studio

The rehearsal for the reading of my opera The System of Soothing at the McDavid Studio.

The joy of live performance

Arriving at McDavid Studio on show day came on the heels of an outpouring of support from the Fort Worth Opera staff and my composer colleagues. (Side note: The administrative staff at Fort Worth Opera is a typical collection of dedicated administrators, all of whom—each wearing too many hats—collectively bust their cans to put up a good product and engage the community. Their encouragement and handling of our Frontiers composer clique contributed to a relaxed atmosphere that made the work process easy and productive.)

While composing is a lonely endeavor, collaboration is not.

In the months preceding Frontiers, I admit that I obsessed over the gravity of the opportunity. While the upside of this manifested itself in intense and detailed preparation, especially in how I talk about myself and my operas (detailed in the second essay of this series), the downside for me dragged into the success or failure of the showcase itself:  whether anyone would come; whether anyone in attendance would be a decision maker in the field; and whether those decision makers would take an interest in my work. These thoughts exist in the bubble of the solitary artistic practitioner. But while composing is a lonely endeavor, collaboration is not. As the work with my cast and music staff progressed, my concern about the work’s impression dissipated. I became enveloped in the process of rehearsal, in the drawing out of character, in the communication between conductor, pianist, and singer that squeezed every drop of music out of my arias.

Some of the show is blurry in my memory (this is normal for me – thank God it was recorded), but most of it is crystal clear. Amanda Robie, who ably administered Frontiers, opted for a live, pre-showcase discussion of each work, in which my preparation and practice paid off. One by one, my cast nailed each aria, and when the cloudy penultimate chord of the last aria resolved to a ringing open fifth, I rose to hug my conductor, thank my pianist and cast, raise my hands to the audience, and bow in honor of the work we had done together.

Next week – the now, and ever present, “What’s next?”

Taking Tweed Seriously–Lessons for the Emerging Opera Composer

On May 3rd, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase—a major step into the American new opera scene for an emerging composer. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I consider how I prepared to present myself as an emerging opera composer, and how I fared putting those skills to work.

“I am becoming a better opera composer” is my brand, to borrow a word from the marketing world. When I was in non-profit administration, we would talk about this quite a bit. We were trying to distill our “soul”—what drove us, as an organization, to do what we did—and then make that into something recognizable to the public that we could, in turn, utilize at fundraising time.  While not my favorite term, The Brand provides a compass, an overarching explanation as to why I make my decisions regarding my work and how I advance plans that will hopefully lead to collaboration. Just saying it—identifying The Brand—doesn’t necessarily translate into anybody buying what I am selling, but it does remind me of my true north.

Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor.

Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor. My understanding of the inner workings of the writing and production of opera, and the collaboration required to make it all happen is the bridge that connects The Brand (which is theoretical and internal), and the reputation I want to develop in the real world: the impression I make on those around me as work proceeds.

It’s a bit of a tall order to get that across with a few website tweaks and a new set of headshots, but embodying The Brand is my responsibility, as is communicating it to potential collaborators.  I could easily represent myself as a safe choice, saying, in effect, “I’m not going to be a problem for you. I’m not one of those crazy egocentric composers who is going to make ridiculous demands and make you sorry you wanted to work with me.” I can assuage these preconceptions with a picture that pretty much sums me up: “I’m normal!  I’m a nice guy! I’m wearing tweed, for God’s sake!” But safe is not safe when so few opportunities exist. What The Brand demands of me—and the reputation I wish to establish—is to present myself as an engaging collaborative professional with a clear artistic vision and a solid understanding of the art form, while also demonstrating the leadership skills necessary to bring it to life.

Love in an Elevator

Frontiers was my first foray into the American opera machine. I met other composers, singers, conductors, and general directors both at Fort Worth, and later at the Opera America convention, which ran concurrently in Dallas. Everybody talked, networked, and traded experiences and plans. I knew this was coming, so I quickly had to prepare for succinct conversations about myself, every aspect of my portfolio, and every opera in my portfolio.

In my admin days, the “brand” discussion was always followed by the obsessive for the perfect elevator speech—a pitch given in less than 30 seconds to someone with undivided attention. Mostly used when approaching new donors, the goal was getting a check or a pledge of future support.  I actually followed quite a few marks into literal elevators, so the name wasn’t too misleading.

The same thinking applies when prepping myself to pitch completed, current, and dreamed-about opera projects. With these pitches, I throw things against the wall in hopes that either they will stick or result in a “positive rejection” (a pass on the project at hand, but an expressed interest in a potential future collaboration).

Who am I, anyway?

Pesci in a tweed jacket inside Bass Hall for a performance by the Ft. Worth Opera

I have a diverse background. My writing and performing experience spans rock, pop, jazz, funk-fusion, liturgical music, pit bands, musical theater shows, opera, lonely coffee house singer-songwriter stints where the only thing I was serenading was the coffee, and a smattering of orchestra gigs. On top of that, my work history includes teaching, working with special needs communities, administration, executive leadership, grant writing and fundraising, and restaurant work. I even sold women’s clothes for a while. I don’t exactly embody the traditional compositional pedigree. To practice talking about my musical self, I had to be able to talk to everyone about my musical self—not just other musicians, and certainly not just general directors, conductors, and dramaturges.

The pitch is about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds.

I developed one pitch for non-professionals, completely devoid of jargon. It was liberating! Crafting an easily understandable, yet engaging personal pitch became much less threatening. It focuses on the “what” of what I do, and less so, the “why” or “what I’m trying to accomplish.” I extended that technique into my opera pitches. I initially thought that I simply needed to describe what happens in the course of a show and could leave out leitmotivs, dramaturgical nuance, or what the piece “means.” I started big, by reverse-engineering a “treatment”—a scene-by-scene narrative format, complete with descriptions of arias, plot devices, and even some general staging recommendations. One size smaller is the synopsis, which is more general, focusing on what happens act to act. The show could then be distilled into the pitch, about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds, answering the question, “Why should I be interested in this opera?” The hardest-hitting part of the pitch is the hook—the first sentence that should set up what piqued my interest, and why I wanted to write the damn opera in the first place.

The best laid plans…

In the months ahead of Frontiers, I wrote and rewrote my opera pitches, and practiced with colleagues and friends. The feedback quickly coalesced into a common critique: I had written myself out of my pitches. I was pitching interesting shows that in no way could be traced back to me as the creator. I had followed my own advice so meticulously that my pitches were “correct,” but completely impersonal.  Also, I had somehow convinced myself that the show would be seen as more important than the work I had done to write the show. Two nail-biting weeks before I flew to Texas, I started from scratch, rewriting my pitches with myself, my skills as a composer, and what drew me to the subject as the hook. In doing so, I was now selling my craft and myself; in practice, I became The Brand, and The Brand became me.

The long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration.

In doing so, I averted a potentially fatal flaw in my presentation. This was made aware to me in my first meetings with conductors, singers and general directors. As I learned in my initial telephone outreach with American opera companies, the long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration. Leading with who I am, what I’m working on, and how (and why) I’m approaching my work is far more engaging, open and fulfilling.

Next week: Rehearsal and performance, or, “All the things I didn’t know I knew about my opera.”

A Fine Mess: An Emerging Opera Composer vs. the American New Opera Machine

By the time you read this, I will be nearing the culmination of Fort Worth Opera’s “Frontiers” showcase—a major step into the American new opera scene for an emerging composer. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and participating in, this opportunity. As a point of entry, I’ll detail how I got myself into this mess to begin with.

I live with opera, literally.  I regularly perform as an opera chorus member and supernumerary, I’m married to a coloratura soprano whose career has led us to a European address, and opera takes up the vast majority of my current workload. I was led to embrace the art form by my father, who unwittingly instilled in me what would become the two pillars of my musical aesthetic—jazz and opera. He was a “dance band” bass player in his New Jersey youth who later became the middle-aged man sitting in his recliner and sobbing along with La Bohème during the Met radio broadcast. He took me to my first opera—Carmen, presented by the now-defunct company in Baltimore—where an old man directly behind me mercilessly booed the Toreador, planting the seed of my fascination with music for the stage and the effect it could have on those listening.

After college, I laid out a ten-year plan to develop the skills I thought I needed to write opera.

After college, I laid out a ten-year plan to develop the skills I thought I needed to write opera.  Beginning with the voice, I wrote and sang choral music and art song, learning how singers thought and operated (no small feat). Next, I worked my way from solo instrumental pieces to chamber music to full orchestra, settings songs for voice and chamber instrumentation and simulating Puccini arias and duets along the way.

About six years into this project came an opportunity. Axe 2 Ice Productions was an alternative theater troupe in Boston whose mainstay was Bent Wit Cabaret, a monthly mashup of burlesque, spoken word, performance art, musical numbers, and other oddities.  The music director, a colleague of mine, asked if I would write a seven-minute opera for a “mystery” themed show.  Of course I said, “Yes! What could possibly go wrong?” and quickly settled on Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” with its maniacal asylum proprietor, a melodramatic sense of foreboding, a slew of fantastic side characters, and an unpredictable—yet inevitable—climax that could only have come out of the mind of Poe.

Time being very short, I surgically cut away at Poe’s original text, coalescing the action into a single scene with a brief introduction and afterword.  The original version came to 15 minutes with piano accompaniment.  I trimmed it down to around 8 minutes for Bent Wit and scored it for their house band.  A year later, Boston Opera Collaborative presented the original 15-minute version on a program that was aptly titled “Opera Goes to Hell.” Three years later, I expanded the work in order to realize a more complete adaptation of Poe’s story, resulting in a three-act, 90-minute piano/vocal score.

Oper Koeln Neuen Staatenhaus

Good for me…now what?

I soon learned that cold-shopping an out-of-the-box stage work is a thorny, if not downright impossible, proposition.  In the autumn of 2015, I reached out to roughly 200 small- to medium-sized American opera companies. In a 100-word email, I introduced myself and asked for a five-to-ten-minute phone conversation about trends in the commissioning and production of new opera (a subject that obviously interested me but was benign enough for an initial discussion). I received about 40 responses and eventually spoke with representatives of around 20 companies. My lone question was: “What conditions would need to be in place for your company to consider commissioning a new work, or producing a recently composed work?”

Cold-shopping an out-of-the-box stage work is a thorny, if not downright impossible, proposition.

Along with the wealth of information I received on a wide range of topics—including the desire to produce new works in line with the needs and wants of the constituency, the lack of new female roles, the challenges of the heavy subject matter of many new works, and the industry-wide discussions surrounding successfully raising funds for commissions—it was said in almost every conversation that relationships are paramount to developing new works. None of the companies I spoke with would consider premiering a completed opera from a composer with whom they had no relationship, and most would opt for the chance to build a project from the ground up.

Sidebar: In my experience over the last four years working in German opera houses, it appears that many of the same rules apply for a composer trying to break in, particularly the development of a relationship with administrators to foster a work that resonates with the particular audience of the commissioning house. Beyond that, the opera culture—not to mention the new opera scene—is rather different from that of the USA in a number of ways. Germany is, for better or worse, a bit of an opera bubble. Its undeniable opera tradition can weigh heavily on itself (sometimes to the point of ignoring the obvious contributions of other cultures), but it’s generally not afraid to take risks in presenting new works or new concept-driven adaptations of the repertoire. This is simply part of their opera culture, and they have developed an audience for it. On the other hand, the interest in new works in Germany still favors very dense, difficult, and abstract composition (in some ways, the train never left Darmstadt), and newly commissioned works from non-Germans have been extremely rare. One thing in my favor, however, is that Germans love competition winners, and mentioning my being selected for the Frontiers showcase at Fort Worth Opera has given me a few second chances already.

The need to be heard and venues in which to be heard are precious few.

One of my calls in 2015 was to Darren K. Woods (the then-General Director of Fort Worth Opera) who encouraged me to apply to Frontiers, which is one of the few new opera development programs with an unrestricted public submission process. This in and of itself is at the heart of the struggle I have felt as an emerging opera composer: the need to be heard and venues in which to be heard (outside of a sheltering institution) are precious few but, in the course of my phone calls, I learned that being aggressive in attacking these opportunities doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere. Realistically, however, in no way are these opportunities a silver bullet. They are, at best, a chance to meet with decision makers in the field and to present my best work: that which, for me, demonstrates my understanding of the repertoire, of the voice, of dramaturgy, and of a sincere compositional aesthetic.

Seven years after the first phrases were written, I am enjoying the opportunity to work with singers and the music staff at Fort Worth to bring twenty minutes of my Poe opera to life. I am days away from the showcase and the opportunity to present my work and interact with decision makers from all over the country.

Next week: How did I prepare to present myself to the opera world? Or, “Does this tweed make me look like an opera composer?”

Frank Pesci writing music.

Frank Pesci’s compositions have been performed across North America and Europe. He has written nearly 100 works for the concert stage, including forty choral works, eleven song cycles, nearly twenty chamber and concert scores, and five operas. He lives in Cologne, Germany.