Shaping the American Operatic Canon
It is essential for any composer who wants to write opera to have an extensive background as a dramatist, wordsmith, orchestrator, and musician. But currently, this expectation is also impractical, unreasonable and highly exclusionary. In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.
The last decade has seen an explosion of new American opera. In 2010, productions of American operas written after 2000 represented 5% of total productions by Opera America Professional Company Members; by 2018, this number more than tripled to 18%, and is on track to rise.
We are entering a time of opportunity to develop an American operatic canon and leave a musical legacy for future generations. But how do we discover and train the next generation of composers and librettists? How can we shape a legacy that represents the many voices within contemporary American society? Given the exceptionally high level of training necessary for operatic composition, how do we ensure that limitation of opportunity does not hinder a diverse pool of creators? While we are moving in the right direction, I believe that professional American opera companies and leaders within the field can take a more active role in cultivating the next generation of opera librettists and, more specifically, opera composers. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to this Golden Age for American opera.
Gaining the Skillset
Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings. In addition to being masters of shaping sound, opera composers must be exceptionally skilled at writing for the voice, impeccable at setting text, and in full command of large-scale form. Just as importantly, they must be people of the theater—actors and stage directors—able to shape dramatic timing, impetus, subtext, and flow seamlessly through music. Furthermore, opera composers must understand the operatic creative process—the enormous collaborative mechanism essential for the work to reach the stage successfully. For the rare composer who manages to come by all the necessary knowledge and skill, understanding the business side of opera poses another hurdle—writing a great work is not enough to ensure it is performed. In the end, many qualified composers are disillusioned, and others not ready for the challenge find no opportunities to develop the necessary tools.
There is no traditional path for opera composers and no clear training ground. University programs must focus on the general skills composers will need before they even begin to think about writing opera. Many of the skills that are essential cannot be taught in a traditional classroom, and must be gained through observation and experience. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the most prolific and skilled composers on the scene today have had unconventional paths that allowed them to obtain the necessary tools. Many of them came to opera only after years in other artistic areas. Jake Heggie’s background in theater—as pianist, coach, and even administrator—contributed to the varied skillset necessary to become America’s preeminent opera composer. Mark Adamo and Ricky Ian Gordon also have backgrounds that combine theater and composition. That multifaceted background is also a defining characteristic of the now long-established Philip Glass, who had worked in film, dance and experimental theater. Up-and-comer Dan Shore likewise came to opera as a playwright, composer, pianist and coach.
These composers all had exceptional opportunities to gain the skills necessary for writing opera, but they represent a very narrow sliver of American culture and society. It is essential for any composer who wants to write opera to have an extensive background as a dramatist, wordsmith, orchestrator, and musician. But currently, this expectation is also impractical, unreasonable and highly exclusionary. In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.
The state of training for opera composers
Over the last decade, a small number of composer training and development programs in the American Northeast have emerged to fill this training gap. American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), the most comprehensive of these undertakings, provides a three-year certificate course to composers, librettists, and dramaturges. The participants meet weekly in New York City to study vocal writing, text setting, the collaborative process, dramaturgy, and various other ins and outs of writing opera. ALT has additionally produced some wonderful work through their development programs for new works—I recently had the privilege of being involved in the exceptionally detailed, multi-year development process for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, a phenomenal opera written by composer Justine Chen and librettist David Simpatico.
Additionally, American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice works with New York City-based composers and librettists in workshops on writing for various voice types, dramatic training, and mentorship from top creators in the field. Opera Philadelphia has also maintained a well-resourced training program. Concurrently, Opera America has taken an active role in developing new work, including the organization of the New Works Forum, dedicated grants for women composers and, as of this season, grants for composers of color.
A number of the most successful composers who have emerged from these opportunities have not had a traditional profile and have brought new experiences and musical languages into our field. One standout example is Kamala Sankaram, who has an unconventional background as a psychologist, soprano, accordionist, sitar player, and even voiceover actor (to hear some of her crossover work, check out her band Bombay Rickey). Kamala received training from the CLDP at ALT and support from producing organizations like Beth Morrison Projects—a company that has championed contemporary chamber opera for the last decade and a half. Likewise, Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little are two composers who took full advantage of Opera Philadelphia’s training program to build enormous skill and embark on major careers. Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves immediately made an impact, and David T. Little’s rock-inspired Soldier Songs is being performed by mid-sized opera companies throughout the country.
It has become clear that the combination of comprehensive, multi-faceted training, together with championing by smaller new music initiatives, can give a composer the initial skill-building needed to move on to a major operatic career. American Lyric Theater, and to a lesser extent, American Opera Projects, had recently become the principal programs providing longer-term, comprehensive training for opera composers and librettists. But the collaborative nature of the work requires that participants be available for regular face-to-face meetings. This is a highly limiting factor, not just culturally and geographically, but also financially, as New York City continues to be prohibitively expensive for most artists. As of 2017, ALT does provide partial cost-offsetting stipends to aid participants who want to commute or relocate, but this does not resolve the many other job, family, or personal limitations that may prevent someone from moving. Furthermore, centering training in just one American city by nature limits cultural and musical representation within the field, gearing operatic writing toward New York City’s musical and societal views and tastes, which (for better or worse) are hardly representative of most of this country.
Becoming a composer already poses massive barriers to entry for individuals of limited means or from non-traditional musical backgrounds. Geographic limitations and lack of training opportunities makes these barriers insurmountable and simultaneously limit the scope of the stories and voices heard by American audiences.
The field’s responsibility
Professional opera companies across America can and should do more. In order to ensure a future for opera, we must promote stories told by a variety of individuals, who represent the many regions and cultures of the United States, and bring a breadth of musical backgrounds to our field. Opera’s strength throughout the form’s history has been in its ability to unite the arts in an effort to tell powerful, moving stories. Those of us in the position of running opera organizations can take ownership of ensuring the art form’s continued impact by nurturing the next generation of opera composers.
At the time when most of the operatic classics were written, composers were working within fully government-funded European opera theaters that produced many new works each season. These organizations could take the risk to invest in new compositional talent, allowing creators to experiment, to have ample rehearsal time (which, in turn, allowed rewrites and further experimentation), to develop relationships with the same performers over an extended period of time, and to have the permission to create several flops while honing the skills to compose a masterpiece.
Today’s structure, especially in the United States, is much more rigid. Most companies produce a total of only 3-5 operas a season (including standard repertoire), so the competition is fierce and the programming limitations extreme. There is rarely a sufficient workshopping or development process for new work. It is also nearly impossible for larger American opera companies to commit to a new work, unless it’s by a proven composer and on marketable subject matter. Furthermore, unsuccessful performances of new work lead to general audience disillusionment and skepticism of pieces outside the standard repertoire, making future commissions even more risky. Most companies cannot afford to take a risk on a brand new composer.
But we can do much better—we can develop the composers of the future by providing them with the tools necessary for success.
Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers. Emerging opera composers largely do not have access to regular rehearsals, administrative support, and the behind-the-scenes structural and decision-making processes of a producing organization. Minnesota Opera, founded partially by composers, stands apart by engaging in a rigorous and systematic development process for the new operas regularly seen on its stage. However, Minnesota’s focus is on single works, and the pieces produced are usually by already established composers, not those who are just embarking on a career. Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and Forth Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase provide very short-term mentorship opportunities on specific short works. While very important for the field, these short-term initiatives do not provide the comprehensive training essential for emerging opera composers. As I began my tenure as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, I realized that a vacuum exists, and with it, an opportunity to make a difference in helping to ensure a future for our art form.
At Chicago Opera Theater (COT), we are attempting to do our part through the newly formed Vanguard Initiative, a two-year, fully comprehensive residency program that provides composers with the myriad tools necessary for a successful career in the field. The program is geared towards skilled composers who want to venture into the world of opera, but have not yet had sufficient opportunities to do so. One composer is chosen annually, provided a stipend, and invited to embark on a two-season comprehensive study of opera. The training includes a survey of the canonic repertoire, detailed examination of operatic fachs, attendance at a large number of operatic productions at various institutions, access to the administrative side of an opera company, and ample networking opportunities. Most importantly, the Vanguard composers learn the full scope of the interpretative process by attending full staging rehearsal processes for different productions and observing contrasting interpretative styles. The composers also work with our young artists and an experienced librettist, dramaturge and director as they develop a new, full-length opera.
Opera companies have a responsibility to take part in ensuring the future of our art form. While most organizations are unable to create something as extensive as the Vanguard Initiative, or program a season of world premieres, we can all do our part. Providing some opportunities to standout local composers and/or librettists is a low or no-cost opportunity to engage with the next generation of creators. Simple initiatives like granting access to staging rehearsals, mentorship, and networking opportunities with guest artists, as well as free tickets to performances can be a start. Pairing young artist programs with local composers could be a mutually beneficial training opportunity. Smaller, more nimble organizations and new music ensembles can make producing brand new work by first-time opera composers a priority. Larger producers can seek out partnerships that allow them to identify composers and offer full development support for new work. Perhaps more extensive collaborations with university graduate composition departments, like Pittsburgh Opera and Carnegie Mellon University’s Co-opera, can be explored. At COT, we are also hoping to plant the seeds of opera composition for a younger generation: our Opera for All educational programming works with Chicago Public School children, who collaborate with a composer and professional creative team in writing and producing their very own opera.
Larger opera organizations can further help promote new work by partnering with smaller, less risk-averse startup companies. MassOpera in Boston recently modeled a successful partnership, working with Washington National Opera to workshop Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s Taking Up Serpents, which went on to be premiered at WNO last season. This year, MassOpera will also workshop Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater. The synergy makes sense—MassOpera uses their access to flexible emerging artists with new music experience to give composers and larger producing organizations the development process necessary for success. Beth Morrison Projects has had similar successful workshopping collaborations with university departments across the nation.
There is no single means of promoting new work, or of fostering a new generation of diverse compositional talent. But ultimately, it is essential that opera companies, no matter their size, ask themselves how they can support a new generation of creators. We are in the midst of a Golden Age for opera in America, and we have an opportunity to empower those who will define the American operatic canon. As leaders of operatic institutions, it is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer. The resources are at our fingertips, but we must make developing new work and supporting emerging creators once again a priority for our field, shaping the operatic canon through the plurality of today’s compositional voices.