Tag: new opera

Elodie Lauten (1950-2014): Channeling Cosmic Forces

Elodie Lauten

Elodie Lauten in 2011 (photo by Rod Goodman for LESPA inc.)

Praise, admiration, and respect in elegy for the artiste-musicienne composer Elodie Lauten continue to resound since her death on June 3, 2014, with tributes far and wide: she was distinguished, diverse, cross-cultural, international, and—as per her own quest—even cosmic. With conviction and certainty, she proselytized about the scientific-magical powers of music, its essential role in the course of the universe. While she marveled at exploring sound potentials in electronic music, microtonal and foreign idioms, above all else she wanted her music to be performed acoustically with the detailed nuances of Baroque music, and she altogether respected vocal (or as instrumental) lyricism, counterpoint, idiomatic instrumental sounds, and traditional orchestration. She smiled with glee when comparing her music to that of early French masters Lully and Rameau, then of course, Faure, Debussy, Messiaen—realizing that indeed she, and truly all of us, live and work in the ongoing cycle of tradition. She loved and respected music as a spiritual force and, with the wisdom of a sage, passionately instilled in others its importance, power, and significance. Using music, she nobly changed lives; there is no greater compliment.

For the past year, I worked closely with Elodie preparing the debut of the now-definitive version of her opera Waking in New York on the libretto crafted so purposefully by hero-poet of the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg. Vibrant and contemporary, altogether it unites old and new world musical styles to express visionary poetry that is considered the voice of modern life. Much admired for its message about community, love, and friendship, it is altogether one of the most beautiful and poignant scores I have ever had the privilege to lead. Though always persnickety and precise about musical details, it was moreover inspiring to witness Elodie praise a young virtuoso, crystalline-pure singer (“my favorite voice type,” she said) with, “That was so enchanting. Do you realize that with such a marvelous sound wave, how you’ve created such a beautiful moment into eternity? Now let me tell you about its meaning; [like Messiaen] it has a . . . (blue, red, yellow) color aura.”

Early this spring, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts gave its 2014 Robert Rauschenberg Award to Elodie Lauten, a peer-nominated accolade recognizing her exactly: for her innovation, risk-taking, and experimentation. This truly honored, humbled, and then inspired her. In his recent tribute, Kyle Gann recognized Elodie’s capacity to create new, certainly inventive, platforms for her music, but stated that it was accomplished by sacrificing herself and living in a state “near-penury.” Actually Elodie was an excellent and hardy businesswoman—skills she claimed were instilled in her from her father, the great jazz pianist (and sculptor) Errol Parker. She was a model of the modern artist’s lifestyle: simple living, strong development-funding skills, “everything lives for the music.” She consistently produced respectable productions of her works, altogether treating (and promptly paying!) musicians as professionals. (Now, in retrospect, they all comment on this.) With her Rauschenberg Award, and also the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on her support team, she envisioned a future for her music launched with her testament opera, Waking in New York.

Arriving so chic in a re-styled mink coat (after all, her mother was a noted fashion doyenne with a boutique nearby Paris’s Arc de Triomphe), I accompanied Elodie as she braved New York City’s bitter cold winter, traveling in a friend’s donated gypsy courier limousine from the Lower East Side up to 7th Avenue and 29th Street, to proudly become a professional member (for the first time) of OPERA America. It was a major step for her. She launched her association with our week-long public rehearsal and video filming at OPERA America’s splendid National Opera Center. Surprising and delighting her, the uptown refined national opera association enthusiastically and respectfully welcomed this funky downtown composer into their ranks with glee, full of cutting-edge marketing ideas for production and promotion. Following this meeting, living the appreciative life-of-the-moment she professed, we chose lunch at a nearby café because they displayed flower-shaped cookies painted with psychedelic-colored marzipan. Elodie noted, “Allen is with us… How can we resist?”

Waking in New York program

The program for the June 1, 2014 performance of Waking In New York featuring Elodie Lauten’s design.

Over the few months since that special day, surely a turning point in her career, Elodie suddenly began her health decline through a sequence of challenges. She was secretive about her condition, steadfast to keep her strong producer-composer image, always managing business details along with the artistic particulars. We rehearsed with the brilliant cast (Mark Duer, Meredith Borden, Catherine Rothrock, and Mary Hurlbut) in Elodie’s large, open studio apartment, with its range of keyboard instruments, acoustic and electronic—some of her own design patents. Elodie would recline almost glamorously on a sofa at the end of the room and listen to the rehearsal, always stopping to discuss “what” Ginsberg’s poetry “meant” with enthusiasm for the details of prosody expounded by great singers. Her coughing and wheezing she would dismiss as “allergies.” To the few of us alert to her declining condition, she vowed that she was “determined to live through for this performance: her music brought to life so splendidly.”

When moved to the hospital “for tests and a few treatments,” she joined and commented on our now-expanded rehearsals, including a celebrity orchestral team, by first complaining about and then even helping construct connections for the hospital’s wireless Skype connections. When finally she was moved to palliative hospice care, still in secret to the cast, declaring, “I want them focused on my music, not on me,” I brought to her bedside on May 31 the superb, just edited film/streaming-broadcast from the National Opera Center made the day before and a copy of the just-arrived, multi-colored printed program. (She even designed the cover artwork.) Always gasping for air in her last days, she grabbed my hand, removed her oxygen mask and muttered the words, “Oh, so beautiful, thank you.”

On Sunday afternoon June 1, she was aware of the successful, well-received public performance at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. She died on Tuesday, June 3 at 7:15 p.m.—uncannily, on Allen Ginsberg’s birthday.

Kooky, quirky, yet all-the-time brilliant, Elodie brought passion to life, igniting human spirits. Even stories of her travel escapades—when lost, she would rub various colored-crystals to find directions (it worked!)—suddenly make the rest of us wonder and dream and ride along with her with confidence. Brilliant and engaging through her collaborative music, poetry, and visual multi-arts—indeed the true definition of her operas—she continues to ponder, guide, and foster a beautiful, eternal life journey.

Waking in New York cast

From the June 1st performance of Elodie Lauten-Allen Ginsberg’s opera Waking in New York at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (photo by Milton Fletcher).

Grant Enables Major Expansion of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program

ALT Banner

From the banner on the American Lyric Theater’s website

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $150,000 grant to the American Lyric Theater to support capacity building and the national expansion of the company’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), which is the only full-time professional mentorship initiative for emerging operatic writers in the country. The new grant will enable the company to expand CLDP from a 10-month program offered annually, to a comprehensive three-year artist mentorship cycle through which artists will not only receive personalized mentorship, but also be commissioned to write new operas. In addition, newly acquired high definition videoconferencing equipment will increase the geographic scope of the program, allowing gifted emerging artists with an interest in writing for the operatic stage to participate regardless of where they live. Previously, the program was only able to serve artists living in the metropolitan New York City area. A total of eight new resident artists have been selected to join CLDP beginning in September, selected from a national pool of applicants: 4 from the New York City area and 4 from cities across the nation.

The eight new resident artists who have been invited to join this season are composers Clarice Assad (New York, NY), Elizabeth Lim (New York, NY), Evan Meier (Silver Spring, MD), and Kamala Sankaram (Brooklyn, NY); and librettists Rob Handel (Pittsburgh, PA), EM Lewis (Woodburn, OR), Jerome Parker (New York, NY), and Niloufar Talebi (San Francisco, CA). They will be introduced to the public during a salon featuring their work at the National Opera Center in New York City, on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Biographical details about each of the new resident artists as well as previous participants in the program are available on the American Lyric Theater website.

The American Lyric Theater was founded in 2005 to build a new body of operatic repertoire for new audiences by nurturing composers and librettists, developing sustainable artistic collaborations, and contributing new works to the national canon. CLDP, which was established in 2007, is a tuition-free program that includes a core curriculum of classroom training and hands-on workshops with some of the country’s leading working artists and has been regularly recognized for artistic excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts. The principal faculty for 2013-2014 includes composer/librettist Mark Adamo, composer Paul Moravec, librettists Mark Campbell and Michael Korie, stage directors Lawrence Edelson and Rhoda Levine, and dramaturg Cori Ellison. Recent guest teachers and lecturers have included composers Kaija Saariaho, Anthony Davis, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nico Muhly, Stewart Wallace, Christopher Theofanidis, and John Musto, and librettists Stephen Karam, Donna DiNovelli, and Gene Scheer. Composers and librettists who participate in the program also have the opportunity to observe the development of productions at The Metropolitan Opera. Plus additional networking and membership resources are provided through a partnership with OPERA America.

(—from the press release)

New England’s Prospect: Twistin’ the Night Away

Folio from Jâmi al-Siyar by Mohammad Tahir Suhravardî, illustrating the meeting of Mavlana and Molla Shams al-Din in Konya

Folio from Jâmi al-Siyar by Mohammad Tahir Suhravardî, illustrating the meeting of Mavlana and Molla Shams al-Din in Konya
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If operas are rituals, Guerrilla Opera gives the rituals a good old-fashioned Boston tryout. Adam Roberts’s Giver of Light, given its first performance on May 23 at the Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box Theater, is the eighth opera the group has commissioned and premiered since 2008. The offerings—compact-sized repertoire, small casts, chamber-sized orchestration, intimate dimensions—are an interesting intersection of scrappy and polished: consistently excellent singing and playing in an atmosphere that often seems to emphasize little theater, “Let’s put on a show!” qualities. The group (led by percussionist Mike Williams and composer Rudolf Rojahn) is all about getting new operas into the world, conscientious productions with cheap tickets (and, as of recently—and of particular benefit to a reviewer who arrived late because of Red Sox traffic—streaming broadcasts over the internet). Guerrilla Opera’s own ritual is one of DIY empowerment. New opera? Just do it.
It was a nice parallel, then, that Giver of Light put ritual itself at its center, and, perhaps, that was the reason that the ritual was the most compelling part of the work. The opera presents a modern translation of the relationship between the Sufi scholar Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrīzī; Rumi’s meeting with Shams led to a short but intense relationship that inspired Rumi’s turn towards poetry and ascetic mysticism. In Roberts’s libretto, Rumi becomes John (Johan Budris), enrolled in the American Dream quadrivium of house, wife (Aliana de la Guardia), kid (Jennifer Ashe), and job; Shams becomes Darren (Brian Church), the new school bus driver, who becomes John’s unlikely/inevitable soulmate. (Whether or not the relationship has a sexual component is—much like Rumi’s own writings and the historical record—left vague, though the suspicion is explicitly mentioned.)

The setting was “the American Midwest”—and it was quite clearly not an actual American Midwest, be that Wichita or Chicago or any of the region’s other strikingly particular locales, but the great symbolic Midwest that has become one of the go-to stand-ins for suburban ennui. Roberts, whose biography traverses a host of American landmarks (Eastman, Harvard, Tanglewood) but who is currently based in Istanbul, is out to delete the story’s historical and geographic distance. “We are more ‘connected’ than ever before and perhaps more lonely,” Roberts writes about his opera. “I can only imagine that people today must relate to Rumi’s longing for intensity.”

Sure enough, Giver of Light was most compelling at its most intense, when Darren, and then Darren and John, meditate themselves into ecstasy. An undercurrent of electronics (realized by Anıl Çamcı and manned by Rojahn) opens out into a landscape of overtone singing, as clarinet (Amy Advocat), saxophone (Kent O’Doherty), cello (Javier Caballero), and percussion (Williams) pile their lines into appropriately dervish-like whirls. Gloriously weird and sonically rich, these scenes tapped into opera at its most transporting, when the liturgy leaves behind any justification of its unrealism and simply takes off into pure musical spectacle.

The rest was diverting, but, in an odd way, almost too schematic for its own good. The characters were all archetypes, as Roberts admitted, “general enough that we may see our own reflections in them,” he wrote, but his bright outlines weren’t quite fully filled in. Roberts’s division, musically and textually, between inner and outer life—Darren and John’s rapture vs. suspiciously uncomprehending family and society—was effectively drawn but not really bridged. Shifts from one world to the other, especially as the drama telescoped and scenes commenced at an immediately heightened pitch, were jarring. Part of the point, perhaps, but it had the effect of making the non-mystic characters seem more brittle and less sympathetic. One of opera’s great magic acts is its ability to have melodrama and ritual, the worldly and the sacred, provocatively intermingle; Giver of Light achieves something of that in its first half, but then amplifies the melodrama into opposition.

There was still a lot to like: Roberts’s busy, burbling music, his clarity with vocal writing, his flexibility in changing his text setting to match the drama (the way angry characters’ words break down into stuttering, fractured babbling, for instance). Andrew Eggert’s direction told the story with a minimum of fuss; Tláloc López-Watermann’s lighting was both splashy and evocative; Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set made efficient use of pop art tropes and a great, psychedelic reveal, Rumi’s texts in black light radiance. The quartet of singers was excellent: de la Guardia an energetic, dramatic clarion, Ashe bright and clear, Budris pouring out lyrical warmth, Church giving Darren an inviting but also unsettling resonance.

Mostly, I liked the piece’s sheer risk: Giver of Light takes chances, and if not all of them pay out, still, it’s a lot better than cautiously going through the motions. It’s the sort of piece that Guerrilla Opera is made for: original and a little bit speculative, in need of realization to hone in on its identity. Opera is hard: its pace, its tone, a libretto perched between dialogue and poetry, characters that read quickly but still have texture. Composers and, in a way, the works themselves learn by doing, in production and in performance. The path to operatic enlightenment is, in both the ritualistic and utilitarian senses, practice.

Conrad Cummings: In Conversation With My Peers

A conversation at Cummings’s Chelsea apartment
December 6, 2012–9:30 a.m.
Transcribed by Amanda MacBlane
Videotaped by Alexandra Gardner
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Composing music is usually a solitary act, but Conrad Cummings is by nature a very sociable person. This has drawn him into some of the most fascinating collaborative projects, such as the political satire Photo-Op whose text is by the painter James Siena, the provocative Positions 1956 for which he partnered with operatic librettist and Tony-nominated Broadway lyricist Michael Korie, and—perhaps the work that has occupied him for the longest time thus far—The Golden Gate, an extraordinary opera based on a novel in sonnets by Vikram Seth that seamlessly weaves together first and third person narratives. But even when he is writing pieces which don’t have words, such as I Wish They All Could Be…, which exists both in versions for solo piano and for chamber ensemble, or Zephyr’s Lesson, in which a quartet of instrumentalists is joined by otherworldly electronically-generated sine waves, Cummings views the act of composition as a form of conversation both with the music of his contemporaries as well as with composers of the past.

“When I’m writing it’s in conversation with my peers,” Cummings explains. “And I really try to think of all those 18th and 19th and 20th century people as not so different from us, trying to write something that makes sense to them and to make a living. I try not to deify the past and I think that makes it easier to have a conversation with it. I think there are probably a lot of composers who still are a little in the ‘classical music religiosity/awe’ thing, in awe of greatness and therefore you can’t really talk to it because it’s too big and too impressive and so you have to separate yourself and create your own private garden. I just like talking to them all.”

Cummings’s personal level of engagement has made him open to an extremely broad range of aesthetics, all of which inform his music—Baroque flourishes meet rock and roll rhythms meet rigorous computer synthesis (he actually trained at IRCAM) meet cheeky allusions to Brahms, Schoenberg, and even Michael Jackson. Being such a generous and omnivorous listener has also made Cummings a treasured teacher to generations of younger composers who studied with him at Oberlin and now at Juilliard.
“I like to think that I’ve helped them to trust their own instincts, to trust where they want to go,” says Cummings. “I’ve moved obstacles out of their way when I could. I’ve suggested ways to find a door when they’re pounding their heads against a brick wall. I’ve created an environment where they feel safe to try things and where they feel like they can really plumb into the deepest part of themselves and that they’ll be safe and they don’t have to put a façade of correctness or theoretical underpinning or whatever the thing is that protects you from revealing your own self in music.”

Being able to reveal himself in his music took a long time for Cummings. While he grew up in San Francisco in an eclectic environment that included hearing Janis Joplin at the Avalon Ballroom, studying Beethoven piano sonatas with a Schnabel protégé, and living with a step-father who choreographed dances to music by Boulez and Stockhausen, Cummings did not realize at first that all of these elements shaped who he is.
“It probably took until I was 30 to realize that those experiences were both a part of me and that they actually could inform each other,” Cummings acknowledges. “I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of different things going on around me, and part of coming into them on my own was figuring out how to integrate them. … The first opera I did … was a commission from Oberlin; they all thought I was crazy. … The whole thing was in da capo arias. Totally diatonic. … I remember showing that score to Jacob Druckman, who’d been a very important teacher for me, and he looked at it with a great deal of puzzlement and said, ‘Conrad, I see nothing of you in this.’ And I was like, ‘Jacob, this is the first thing I’ve ever written that I feel is totally me.’ … When I started my ensemble and I started doing concerts at The Knitting Factory, my academic colleagues thought that I’d gone hopelessly pop and The Knitting Factory referred to me as the Professor. The part of the outfield that I ended up in didn’t have a firm position in either of these camps.”

Things have certainly changed since then and the outfield that Cummings once occupied now feels like almost mainstream.
“One thing I’ve noticed that’s heartening is that stuff that I did 15 or 20 years ago that seemed to perplex a lot of my colleagues, now people just seem to get,” Cummings says. “I have on some level a feeling that I may have been out there, you know, a little bit off in left field but I have way more company there now.”

Being in the company of Conrad Cummings is as delightful as it is thought-provoking. On the chilly December morning we visited him for this interview for NewMusicBox, he welcomed us with hot coffee and gourmet donuts before regaling us with so many fascinating anecdotes about his life and his work. Refreshingly he was just as interested in hearing about what we were up to as he was in sharing his own story. And we continued chatting long after we stopped filming. It was, after all, a conversation…


Frank J. Oteri: There seems to be a duality in your music. There are clear references to the past—a harpsichord here and there, a recitativo, chord progressions that give a very Baroque kind of sound. Yet at the same time there’s a love of technology, new things, the future. And then in terms of topics that you choose to be inspired by, it’s very much the present. So you’re engaging with the whole arc—past, present and future—so I wonder if that’s what you feel is the compositional zeitgeist for right now or if, rather, you are pushing against it in some ways.

Conrad Cummings at Carnegie Halll

Conrad Cummings putting finishing touches on a new piece in front of Carnegie Hall circa 1985, photo by Barbara Petersen.

Conrad Cummings: That’s a lot to think about. One thing I’ve noticed that’s heartening is that stuff that I did 15 or 20 years ago that seemed to perplex a lot of my colleagues, now people just seem to get. I have on some level a feeling that I may have been out there, you know, a little bit off in left field but I have way more company there now. But in terms of zeitgeist, I’m just aware of so many different flavors going on right now. I mean, I think of the Bang on a Can flavor—and I know, that’s a terrible generalization—but, you know, the harder edge, more rock heritage-based music. And then I think about Sleeping Giant, the kids just fresh out of Yale with an elaborate lyricism that I love. I think about Mike Daugherty and Jennifer Higdon, people who are writing big gorgeous orchestra pieces. I think about Aaron Kernis who had an amazing song on last night’s OPERA America Songbook show. Just the scope of what he does—he’s so big and generous with what he does musically. The night before that at the New York Festival of Song there was a new song cycle by Mark Adamo—similarly an emotional and musical and formal and structural bigness. Not a hint of aphoristic standing back, not a hint of aloofness; just there, really present as a musician, as a musical mind for the audience.
FJO: One of the extraordinary things about that comment is how careful a listener you are, how devoted a listener you are to other people’s music, to other composers. You engage with other people’s music more than most composers I know.
CC: I’m really interested to hear that because I’m not aware of that, but I’m happy to hear it. I get fueled by exciting work by my peers and my colleagues. And it may have something to do with what you were talking about, about spanning past into present. I’m a sociable guy, so I like conversations, and I guess when I’m writing it’s in conversation with my peers. And, this is admitting something that I probably shouldn’t admit publicly, but I tell my students this—it’s really good to think of those old masters as just fellow people out there making a living writing music. I really try to think of all those 18th and 19th and 20th century people as not so different from us, trying to write something that makes sense to them and to make a living. I try not to deify the past and I think that makes it easier to have a conversation with it. I think there are probably a lot of composers who still are a little in the “classical music religiosity/awe” thing, in awe of greatness and therefore you can’t really talk to it because it’s too big and too impressive and so you have to separate yourself and create your own private garden. I just like talking to them all.
FJO: You like hanging out in the gardens.
CC: Yeah, I like hanging out in a lot of different gardens!
FJO: I found it very revealing when you said that nowadays you have way more company in terms of people who share your compositional aesthetic and after that when you said that you’re a very sociable person. I’m curious about what thing were like for you before that, when you were, as you put it, off in left field.
CC: Well, I guess my piece I Wish They All Could Be… speaks to it. It’s something I wrote in my 30s, but it was really a response to something I’d experienced as a teenager growing up in San Francisco in the mid and late ‘60s. I had a wonderful German émigré piano teacher, a Schnabel student, and every Saturday I was there doing my Beethoven sonatas with him. I was a very serious pianist and that was very, very important to me. But then Saturday night we were at the Avalon Ballroom listening to Janis Joplin. It probably took until I was 30 to realize that those experiences were both a part of me and that they actually could inform each other. I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of different things going on around me, and part of coming into them on my own was figuring out how to integrate them.

I Wish They All Could Be Excerpt

The first page of the score for the solo piano version of Conrad Cummings’s I Wish They All Could Be… © 1986 by Conrad Cummings. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I Wish They All Could Be… is obviously a line from The Beach Boys’ song “California Girls.”
CC: Yeah, exactly. I have to admit that I wrote it a little reactionarily, too. The summer before I’d been an assistant to Philip Glass at the English National Opera for a month and the staging of Akhnaten there and then I’d gone up to Orkney for Peter Maxwell Davies’s festival. So I’d spent a lot of time in the London musical world and I did get the feeling that I was being looked at as a bit of a barbarian, that I was this rough American guy that just didn’t get the right way to behave in proper English musical society. And furthermore, working with Glass?! [gasps] So when I got a commission to write a piece for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players that they were going to premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in England the following summer, I was like “I’m gonna wear my American-ness on my sleeve.” [laughs] What could be more American than my experience growing up in San Francisco, you know, one foot in Beethoven and Mozart and one foot on the beach? So you know, it’s a piece that is about The Beach Boys and about Mozart and Beethoven and Handel.
FJO: Now, in terms of these divides, these pockets we put things in, I mean, people love to say the distinctions between classical music and popular music and all of the various subgenres of everything were created by marketers in the 20th century. But what you’re speaking to is somewhat different. There’s a certain mentality that deifies a certain kind of music to the point that it’s not allowed to be something that you can be in dialogue with.
CC: That’s exactly it! Yeah, maybe that’s true right now, that it’s easier to have a dialogue with popular music than it is to have a dialogue with classical music of the past. Yeah, maybe still, we may be still in thrall of that excessive reverence.
FJO: But as a creator, even though you’re influenced by popular music, you didn’t pursue doing popular music.
CC: I dreamed of it, but I could never quite put it together. You know, I picked up a guitar, but it didn’t work. Everyone has a fantasy as a teenager that they want to be a rock star. But I couldn’t quite take the step into doing it, so I had to, you know, try to be a rock star pianist I guess [laughs] and then just listen to a lot of rock star music.
FJO: A lot of those aesthetic divides got shattered with the advent of minimalism, but I remember minimalism being a dirty word in the early ‘80s in academic music circles. There were things that you did and there were things that you didn’t do. But you became an academic; you taught composition at Oberlin for years, you still have a relationship with Juilliard, although it’s changed a great deal.
CC: Juilliard is a very altered place right now.
FJO: But, at the time you began teaching composition at Oberlin, you went into the lion’s den with this other aesthetic.
CC: In retrospect if anyone had told me, I would’ve been “Oh, I shouldn’t do that,” but I was foolish enough to just do it and somehow made it work. Oberlin actually turned out to be a great place for that. The program that I joined and that I eventually became the director of was actually much more open than any other academic environment that I’ve ever been around. If it was interesting, you could use whatever materials you wanted and do it in the style you want. It was liberating for me in a way.
FJO: But you did say on the onset that you were in this place and no one else was there and didn’t quite get what you were doing and it seemed to me that you were sort of hinting at—and maybe I’m inferring—your academic colleagues at the time.

Cummings Ensemble at Knitting Factory

Cummings Ensemble at the Knitting Factory c. 1988, photo by Peter Flint Jr.

CC: Well, the anecdote that perfectly sums it up is when I started my ensemble and I started doing concerts at The Knitting Factory. You know, my academic colleagues thought that I’d gone hopelessly pop and The Knitting Factory referred to me as the Professor, so there you go. The part of the outfield that I ended up in didn’t have a firm position in either of these camps.
FJO: Too uptown for downtown, too downtown for uptown.
CC: Yeah, pretty much!
FJO: Now, the other divide is that you’re originally from San Francisco. People always talk about differences between East Coast and West Coast composers. You’ve lived on both coasts. Is there actually a different approach to writing music?
CC: [laughs] Oh the things you remember! Sometimes I feel like the Vampire Lestat because I can remember so many things. There are two things that I can’t believe I can remember actual conversations about: I remember as a 15-year old at Aspen having actual conversations there with my fellow musicians about whether a woman could ever be as strong a performer as a man. This was a serious conversation that men and women, you know, boys and girls, were having in 1963. I can’t believe that I lived so long ago that there were serious conversations like that. Five or six years later, I remember having serious conversations with fellow composers about whether it was possible to write music if you lived in California [laughs]. I can’t believe we had those conversations, but we did!
FJO: But aside from growing up there, California has remained a huge influence for you going all the way back to your Beast Songs, which use texts by the iconic San Francisco poet Michael McClure, all the way up to your recent opera The Golden Gate, which is based on Vikram Seth’s novel set in San Francisco. And yet you moved East, first to Ohio to be at Oberlin and now New York City.
CC: Yeah, well I think I have that particular affection for a place that comes from not living there anymore, so it’s invested with a romance that it might not have if it was a part of my daily life.
FJO: So do you feel you could’ve done the kind of music you’d wanted to if you’d stayed?
CC: Oh, I’m sure. But it’s hard to imagine different paths than what you took. When I finished high school I was planning to go to UC Santa Cruz, which was like trailer parks in the redwood forests at that point; it had just opened. It was all the right philosophy, but Yale happened to be on its new admissions kick and they wanted to be national and they wanted to have a lot of people from public schools and they wanted to have people with unusual traits. And so they came and found me because I’d built a couple of harpsichords and I was also performing harpsichord concerts around. They thought that was weird enough and so they basically said, “Come east and try it out.” Santa Cruz said I could always transfer back but Yale said, “You have really only one chance.” So it was an opportunity. But sometimes I think what if I’d stayed in Santa Cruz? I think the zigzag would’ve been a different zigzag, but I’m pretty sure I would’ve ended up in the same place 15 years later aesthetically and personally.
FJO: But given those aesthetics, how’d you wind up at IRCAM?
CC: Well, there’s another part, I guess. O.K., there’s the Schnabel student piano lessons, there’s the Avalon Ballroom auditorium, me as a 15, 16-year old. There’s also the fact that I basically grew up in my stepfather’s dance studio. He was a modern dancer; he’d danced with Graham and he’d been Louis Horst’s assistant. He came to San Francisco and started a company and a school. And he was a dedicated modernist. So I was hearing Bartók at his studio when I was 7 or 8, and I was hearing Le marteau sans maître. I can practically whistle it because he choreographed it in 1962 or something. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge was one of the last things he choreographed. This was just part of life. I do admit that I remember as a 10-year old arriving home with my mom from a concert at his studio and asking, “Mom, why does the music he uses sound so ugly?” And she said, “Well, it’s modern music, I think.” [laughs] So, yeah, the reverence with which my stepfather talked about Boulez and Stockhausen was, you know, a big part. And also the fact that he made his own tape collages for his own scores and there he was slicing magnetic tape on the dining room table and assembling stuff, so it all seemed natural. There was a lot of admiration for it. And I love Paris. So I thought, this is a way of going to that part of my tradition and really immersing myself in it and getting to live in Paris for a while.
FJO: Well, if you were an American barbarian in England working with Philip Glass, what on Earth were you at IRCAM?
CC: [Laughs] I was developing my barbarian credentials at IRCAM. It was a great experience. Also part of growing up in San Francisco with a stepfather who’d moved from New York and whose dancers would be two or three years in the company, then POOF! They’d go off to New York to join Paul Taylor or something. So there was always this gravity toward the east. And my mother was an immigrant from Russia as a teenager, so she had this very Eurocentric view of things. So everything was tilting back toward there; it was a pilgrimage. Let’s go and really see what this European experience is about. And the work I got to do there was super exciting and by the end of it I was like, “Oh, I really am American, aren’t I? I really like the anarchic character of our country and its cultural life. I really like the fact that nobody is subsidized so everyone is scrambling. And, you know, no one has been knighted by the president to be THE leader of contemporary music.”
FJO: The leader of contemporary music—Boulez. Did you get to work with him at IRCAM?
CC: We had a few long conversations, that was about it. I worked most closely with Gerald Bennett, who was the head of one of the divisions and we got to work on some very exciting software that surprisingly entered the rest of my life. It was the first experiment in synthesizing human singing voices. There had been a lot of work in computer transformation of singing voices but there hadn’t ever been any effort to synthesize believable singing voices from scratch. And so it involved a lot of study of singer anatomy and singer acoustics. And it turned out to be really useful for writing for voice later. Who knew?
FJO: I know Charles Dodge did those early experiments with computerized speech songs at Bell Laboratories. While what you did with Beast Songs, which was a by-product of your IRCAM period, was somewhat different, I will say that it’s a much more rarified sound world than the sound world that you’ve come to be known for.
CC: I was still finding my way. You know, that was 1979, 1980. I’d only finished my degree at Columbia in ’77, I think. The thing I remember about Columbia was feeling incredibly free while I was a student there. Really feeling like I could write what I wanted to and that I had a lot of support. Then when I finally wrapped up there and about six months later, it was whoa! That was an illusion! I had no idea what freedom was. Now I got it. I had no idea at the time how subtly constrained I was by the expectations and the environment that I was working in. So in a way, my own search for myself started after that. And I guess it was a trajectory from ’77-’78 to the big break, which was 1983. It was only four or five years from the sound world of Beast Songs—which, by the way [laughs], I took around to some of the biggies at IRCAM; I was very proud of it. I thought it was really quite a beautiful piece. And Péter Eötvös said, “Conrad, there are too many repeated notes in this piece. You are doing too many repeated notes.” [laughs] Then I took it to Vinko Globokar and he was like, “Where are the special instrumental effects in this?! You are only using the instruments the way they normally play.” [laughs] Berio said, “Cool piece, I like it,” so…
FJO: Now, one of the things I find really interesting about Beast Songs, in terms of where your aesthetic went after that, is the ambiguity of it. You’re setting these Michael McClure poems which combine words that are comprehensible with invented language—
CC: [simultaneously] They’re mostly these sorts of growls and roars and things. Yeah, yeah.
FJO: —and then you’re setting for a human voice but also this computer voice, which, as you described them in the notes for the eventual recording that came out on CRI, is beyond gender. That also seems to be a running thread. In your opera Photo Op there are two singers—a man and a woman—but their gender is really not the issue. They were just voice types that you were working with and I seem to trace that back to Beast Songs and this whole idea of a genderless voice.
CC: Well, maybe it was something that happened late at night in one of the underground studios at IRCAM. It was a very kind of brain stem experience because you’re constantly refining these sounds that start out as brute, totally electronic sounding sounds and it’s late at night and you’re going through pass after pass. It turns out that there’s a threshold phenomenon and it is really startling. Maybe it takes 15, 20 minutes for the old main frame to chew through the numbers and put out the next 10 or 15 seconds of sound. You’re waiting and then it comes out and, O.K., alright the sound’s getting a little better, and then on the next pass, Oh my God! There’s someone else in the room! There’s this brute, way in the back of your brain, identification: This is my species; this is the sound of my species. And then you think what gender is it? Those are the two things that, as an organism, you have to identify: is it my species is the first question and the second question is, if it is, what gender is it. These are so deep in our neurology. It was really extraordinary to experience them in this brute form. It was like OH MY GOD IT’S HUMAN (and it’s a guy). Or OH MY GOD IT’S HUMAN (and it’s a girl). Then we discovered that you could transition between the two without a moment where you could identify where it changed and we were like “Well, of course we’re gonna do that!”

Beast Songs Excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Conrad Cummings’s Beast Songs © 1979 by Conrad Cummings. Text by Michael McClure. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The sociological and political ramifications of that are very interesting because it challenges the whole notion of male versus female being a binary. Of course, reality is a lot more complex than binaries.
CC: Well, hey, I’m the guy who was quite convinced I was straight for 20 years of my adult life until it finally dawned on me that I was gay, so I’m quite aware of how ambiguous life can be. [laughs]
FJO: So does that inform the gender ambiguity in some of your music?

Photo-Op the interview

From the Ridge Theater production of Photo-Op at the La MaMa Annex, 1992. Photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

CC: I don’t know. In Photo Op I wasn’t thinking so much of the ambiguity of gender as I was of the richness of possible relationships. By having a soprano and a baritone singing, delivering stump speeches, more or less, there were so many different relationships that they could have with each other. As the piece came into shape for me, as I was writing it, it can be candidate and opponent, it can be candidate and running mate, it can be candidate and spouse. Now, given the genders, you’ve got at least six possibilities there. The woman can be the candidate, the man can be the spouse or vice versa. The woman can be the president, the man can be the V.P., or vice versa. I liked this shifting sense of who they might be and what their relationships might be to each other. That keeps something very rich in the span of an hour piece while you’re learning what their relationship might be.
FJO: What’s amazing about Photo Op is that you have two candidates and they say the exact same thing.
CC: Pretty much.
FJO: The only thing that is different is their gender. It’s a different vocal range, but they’re spouting the same positions. It’s a wonderful commentary on the idea that although the opposing candidates are supposed to be different, they’re really exactly the same.

Photo Op Excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Conrad Cummings’s Photo Op © 1989 by Conrad Cummings. Text by James Siena. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CC: You’ll enjoy looking at the video of the UrbanArias production from September because the other thing about it is the piece turns out to be a wonderful invitation to a director because all it says in the score is “soprano, baritone.” So every time it’s been staged, the director has had to come up with identities and a story to project around it. And in this case, down in D.C., it was candidate and spouse. The man was the candidate—a wonderful, wonderful singer with a striking resemblance to Romney—and the soprano was an African American woman who had elements of Michelle Obama but also of Hillary Clinton. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t come up with a fabulous story that just runs seamlessly through it, involving, you know, team work and campaigning together and disillusionment and maybe a scandal and maybe exposure of a scandal and then maybe a terrible opposition of the husband and wife over the scandal and maybe the wife picking up the mantel of the husband’s candidacy and carrying him and then, maybe, the whole campaign organization re-putting themselves into position and then somehow coming out on top at the end, but at what cost?

Photo Op UrbanArias

Laurie Williamson and Michael Mayes in the UrbanArias Production of Photo Op, photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

FJO: That’s so different from the piece I know! [laughs]
CC: Right! It was really good that we had some very detailed talks about it with the creative team early on and then I carefully stayed away until the first orchestra rehearsal in the theater. My experience is that when people produce my operas, it’s always a good idea to stay away in the beginning because there are a lot of things that if I saw them early on I would totally freak out. But if I see them later, it’s like, they’ve made them work. They can show it to me and I can see, I never would’ve thought of this but, wow, is it good.
FJO: Now once again, this goes back to the beginning, this is not a typical composerly response to abdicate that much control.
CC: I’ve gotten so much better about that in the last 10 years—that if you’re going to collaborate with people, make your selections carefully. For example, John Henry Davis expressed a lot of interest in being involved in The Golden Gate, but I didn’t pick anyone until I saw someone whose work I saw and thought I can trust. Then I saw several pieces of his, particularly one large production that he did at Avery Fisher. He then directed The Golden Gate workshop brilliantly and was a tremendous part of the creative team doing the rewrite that led up to that. He’s a full collaborator; I let him do his thing. It just seemed so important to pick carefully and then have confidence. And that’s how Steven Osgood has been as a conductor. That’s how the whole team with Bob Wood down in D.C. has been [for Photo Op]. It’s a little bit like being a teacher; it’s a similar impulse. Do you want to micro-control the people you’re working with or do you want to give them what they need to flower most fully as who they are and what they can do? I’ve learned to pick carefully and then allow.
FJO: In terms of your allowing things to evolve, it’s interesting to compare Photo Op and The Golden Gate. In Photo Op, you only identify a male and female character and they sing the exact same things. The Golden Gate is much more elaborate than that, but it also has an unconventional set-up. It’s based on a novel, but it’s a novel written completely as a chain of sonnets, even though they flow so naturally you can sometimes forget that it’s all sonnets as you read it. You’ve done something similar to that in the opera by having the characters both sing dialogue as well as narrate the story around them—you’re actually hearing them sing a novel rather than a play which is weird dramatically but it totally works.
CC: That’s the thing. It does, yeah. Who knew, right?
FJO: It’s evolved over a very long period of time. At first was it going to be a plot driven opera? At what point did it become what it is now?
CC: The book came out in 1986. I read it. I fell in love with it. I got in touch with the author; we got to know each other. I knew I wanted to do an opera about it, but there was no way I could figure out how to do it. So I wrote a series of concert pieces taking fragments of the text. And they went over very well.
Then I saw a teeny little workshop of 20 minutes of a new piece called Gatz done by Elevator Repair Service, an experimental theater company here in the city. It had to do with The Great Gatsby. Three years later, it was a six-and-a-half hour verbatim reading of the entire Great Gatsby, fully staged in an unbelievable way that has now toured the world and, when it finally made it to the Public Theater last year, it was cited as the theatrical event of the year by most critics. You’re aware of the “he saids” and the “she saids” for about the first 15 minutes and then you aren’t at all for the next five-and-a-half hours. Yet you have the beauty and the rhythm and the magic of the book. And I was like, “O.K., there’s my idea!” But I still didn’t quite believe it would work.
I was in a workshop with American Opera Projects and Steven Osgood. We had to prepare a libretto and the night before I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing but let’s give it a try.” And we put it out on the table and Ned Canty, a wonderful director, and Mark Steven Campbell, a brilliant librettist, were there and we read it and the two of them looked across to me at the table and said, “You have to write this opera.” And I was like, “What, really?” “Yeah, it’s there.” “O.K.” And what it was was this mixture of third person and first person.

Golden Gate Cast

The cast for The Golden Gate (l.-r.): Kevin Burdette (Phil), David Adam Moore (John), Katrina Thurman (Liz), Keith Jameson (Ed), and Hai-Ting Chinn (Jan). The scene is a bustling Chinese restaurant in the Mission. Photo courtesy Conrad Cummings.

A long process of developing that libretto led me to one really important principle, which is any time any character is describing what another character is doing or thinking it has to also have emotional weight for the person who is saying it. As soon as I figured that out the whole thing really coalesced. It’s paradoxical that it works so strongly, because you would think that the structure where you’re moving in and out of first person, where people are talking to each other but sometimes they’re even referring to themselves in the third person, you would think that it would have a distancing effect, but it just doesn’t seem to. And of course the fundamental reason to do it that way is that there is such music in Vikram Seth’s verse and I absolutely wanted to capture and keep that music. As soon as you start slicing it down to just the dialogue, just the direct quotes, the verbal music’s gone. So you have to have it. It’s about a close group of friends and they’re always saying “did you hear what so-and-so said to so-and-so last night?” You know, they’re always narrating each other’s lives. It’s part of being this really close circle; often people narrate themselves. Often people are like, “Wow, I did that, didn’t I? And then I walked into the room. Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” So it seems like it has resonance.

Golden Gate VS Excerpt

An excerpt from the Vocal Score of The Golden Gate Act One Scene Two © 2006-2011 by Conrad Cummings. Text adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Now in terms of the music in it, you have a character who’s a visual artist but who also plays drums in a punk rock band. Your music was quite an unusual take on punk rock.
CC: Well, wait ‘til you hear it in the full orchestration! [laughs] It’s really good.

Golden Gate FS Excerpt

How Conrad Cummings evokes punk rock in the orchestration of The Golden Gate © 2006-2011 by Conrad Cummings. Text adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I can’t wait! Then you have the protagonist and his then girlfriend going to hear Schoenberg and Brahms at a string quartet concert, and that gave you an excuse to do tropes on Schoenberg and Brahms that are really hysterical, I think.
CC: Well, it was fun. It was an invitation that I was going to accept.
FJO: But the text also offered you another invitation, which was a loaded gun, because it references Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It.”
CC: Yeah, two characters meet at a disco. “He sees her face across the crowd through Michael Jackson’s taut rendition of ‘Beat It’ shatteringly loud.” So you have to have it, right? At least you have to have some reference to it. There was a little bit of a concern after the workshop that there might be some rights issues in terms of quoting the basic lick from “Beat It” and so I explored it legally. It’s an interesting legal matter. Everyone agrees that it’s fair use. However, it turns out that the way fair use doctrine works legally is it’s the user’s responsibility to defend against any claim of infringement. So while the law says it’s fair use, all the owner has to do is say it isn’t and then you have to defend in court that it is. So the price tag suddenly is like, whoa, I don’t want to get into this. So after some very, very careful research, it turns out that it’s possible to change it just enough—what I particularly enjoyed was inverting the whole pattern [laughs]—that surprisingly it reads as that’s what we’re talking about here. But it’s not the music by any means. There’s our solution.
FJO: It’s it and yet it’s not it.
CC: Yeah.
FJO: So it becomes more like your referencing of punk rock.
CC: It’s not punk rock. It just tells you this is pointing at it. It just seems far more powerful to reference it in a way that has a little bit of my personal stamp on it as opposed to just take it out and drop it in.
FJO: Now that’s been a hallmark once again, the full arc going back to all of these pieces. You know, I Wish They All Could Be… references all of this music without directly quoting any of it. It’s all your own music. And another piece of yours that sort of turns the tables this way is your early electronic piece Zephyr’s Lesson. Here you have this studio electronic piece that because of its subject matter is referencing ancient sounding very simple music. But once again, it’s completely your own music and not any direct quotation from anything. And you’re also totally subverting the whole raison d’être of electronic music with what you did. Back then creating electronic music was about creating music that no human could play, whereas I imagine your piece could be reworked for an instrumental ensemble.
CC: Yeah, now for sure, maybe not so easily back then. Part of the pleasure was that the idea of Zephyr was the god of the west wind that blows favorably on lovers and instructs lovers in the ways of love, that it was nice that the voice of Zephyr was invisible. That the players on stage were being wafted by his voice…but you don’t actually see him.
FJO: Now, in terms of going against a challenge, earlier we talked a bit about going against the grain, being the barbarian. Here you wrote a piece of electronic music that could very well have been done by an acoustic instrument. It was done actually for the sake of making a more dramatic performance rather than for a specific musical end. Did colleagues react to that the way Globokar did with Beast Songs?
CC: Of course. Well, even more about it, Zephyr basically speaks in sine waves and at the time it was considered that everything we’re about right now is richness and complexity of sound. How could you possibly write something that’s just these simple sine waves? And I’m like, “Well, I think they’re really beautiful and I think they really complement the richness of the acoustic instruments.” To have this dialogue between the richness of an actual acoustic flute, in dialogue with a little, wiggly sine wave.
There’s an important piece that you’re probably not familiar with that I’ve got to get you familiar with. It’s called Eros and Psyche and it’s the first opera I did. It was a commission from Oberlin; they all thought I was crazy. They had a 150-year anniversary commissioning program and they very loyally listed every ensemble and every faculty member was invited and I saw Opera Theater, so I said, “O.K.! I’ll write an opera!” And they were like, “What?!” [laughs] But I had a really good relationship with the opera director. We’d worked on a lot of projects already and she was like, “O.K.! Let’s try it! I read Andrew Porter’s review of Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s Orlando that was happening in Boston. I got on a plane to go see it and came back knowing what my opera was going to be. The Eros and Psyche story, it’s just a beautiful piece of literature actually written in 2nd century Rome that’s thought of as a myth, but is actually some very sweet literature. And as it emerged, the whole thing was in da capo arias. Totally diatonic. At least the vocal lines were. And I thought, “O.K., I’ll go back and I’ll make it properly modern music by what I do with the orchestra.” But then when it came time to do the orchestration, I was like, “I don’t like any of this. I just want these completely transparent triads. This music is going to tell the story in the clearest, leanest way possible.”
They mounted a fabulous production of it and I kept thinking that it was the first time that I’d experienced a real public. You know, when you write in a university setting and you write sort of new music things it’s for a particular group of people who either know you or are one or two degrees of separation away and they’re committed to this particular world. But the experience of having an opera house full of people who were just there to see a show and have them yelling and screaming and going wild over this thing. I had no idea that I could do this. I wanted to do more of it. It was an audience that was everything from aficionados and opera lovers to just people who heard it was a great show and wanted to see it, and it changed things for me. I remember showing that score to Jacob Druckman, who’d been a very important teacher for me, and he looked at it with a great deal of puzzlement and said, “Conrad, I see nothing of you in this.” And I was like, “Jacob, this is the first thing I’ve ever written that I feel is totally me.” [laughs]

Eros and Psyche curtain call

The curtain call from the Oberlin Opera Theater production of Eros and Psyche (1983). Photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

FJO: The other thing that’s striking about your taking on writing an opera at that time is that unlike nowadays it was quite difficult for a contemporary composer to get a new opera done anywhere then.
CC: I have to tell you a story about that. So Phil Glass had been a really important advisor through all of this and he looked at drafts of it. He’d been on tour for the two or three months after the premiere of the opera and I was doing what you do to try to get another production. Three months later he comes back from tour and I walk over to his house on 3rd Street. I walk up the stairs and ring the doorbell. He opens the door, I say, “Hi Phil.” He looks at me, looks me up and down. I haven’t said anything other than “Hi Phil” and he says, “I get it. You thought the hard part was going to be writing it the first time. You didn’t realize that getting the second production is far harder, did you?” He saw it just in the look in my face! It was amazing! I hadn’t said a word. He could just tell by how frustrated and discouraged I was.
FJO: So what did he tell you to do?
CC: Oh, write another one. [laughs]
FJO: As opposed to pushing for another production?
CC: Well, yeah, keep it out there, sure, but don’t let waiting for a second production keep you from going on to the next thing.
FJO: Have there been subsequent productions?
CC: Of this piece, no. I keep dreaming of it. It’s a piece that’s good for a school, because it involves the largest possible cast and there’s even a classical ensemble on stage that’s at 432 [Hz], which is a quartertone below modern pitch In the scene where Eros seduces Psyche, it goes back and forth from pit orchestra to the classical ensemble a quartertone higher, a whole series up quarter-tone upward modulations. To make that work, you have to have a fortepiano and a Classical flute and Classical violins probably easier to do at a school, but I’d have no objections if an opera company wanted to do it.
FJO: Wow, I would love this.
CC: And it has the oracle. The Oracle at Delphi sings in the IRCAM computer voice. She’s this wild-haired woman and there’s a speaker behind her onstage and she’s mouthing it. She just goes “Ah ah oo ah ah,” while the character who’s the priest is interpreting what she is saying. And then she goes crazier and crazier and it goes from a super high C to a low G below the bass clef, and it usually brings the house down. [laughs]
FJO: So let’s talk some more about getting an opera done then versus getting an opera done now. It’s fair to say that opera has become the main focus of your life as a composer.
CC: Yeah, I just love it so much. I love the storytelling. I love the scope of it. I love the intrinsically collaborative nature of it.
FJO: Getting back to The Golden Gate, one of the things I find so fascinating about it—and mind you, I only know it through workshop readings—is how dramatically intense it is when it’s done as a workshop reading. Just as the libretto is this thing that’s going in and out of first person and third person, by having it without sets and having the cast mimic sleeping and even seduction scenes standing up is extremely effective. And at some point, you shatter the fourth wall and you no longer worry, the mind fills in the rest of it. In a way I would hate to see it done with a full production because I love that aspect of it.
CC: I think that’s part of the paradox. That given the invitation to fill in with your own imagination what’s happening around these intense relationships, as an audience you become more engaged. And any production of this piece will have that element to it. Don’t worry. There’s never going to be a literal production of it because—it’s not like I wrote it with that in mind, but I was happy to see, as it took shape, that there never would be because there are way too many scenes, ever! And the flow between one setting and another setting is vastly too fast to ever be able to have a physical set trucking on or another thing trucking off. It’s always going to be suggestive, so I think we’re safe.
FJO: One piece that we didn’t talk about yet, which we probably should talk about, is Positions 1956, the opera that you did with Michael Korie, which evolved through a very different process than The Golden Gate where you were working with a pre-existing text. We didn’t talk too much about the process of working with James Siena on his texts for Photo Op and how collaborative that process was, but I take it the project with Michael Korie was a real collaboration rather than getting a finished libretto for you to set.
CC: Well, it felt like a real collaboration, but the latter is closer to what it was. The first part of it we did, the part that’s based on 1950s marriage manuals, we did quite a long time ago. It was a concert piece. And basically, I said, “Michael, I want a 30-minute piece. What do you want to do?” And he said, “I want to do something instructional in nature.” And then he gave me two options. The first one I hesitate to mention here, and the second was 1950s sex manuals. So I said, “O.K.! Let’s do 1950s sex manuals!” And he knew my music well and three weeks later he basically presented me with this brilliant sequence of numbers, every one of which was a sex position. But what the amazing thing is that it actually charted the relationship of a newlywed couple. It appeared to be only instructions, but there was this very powerful emotional narrative running through it. So we always wanted to make a full evening out of it, but we kept scratching our heads. We could never quite figure out how. And then last summer all the stars aligned: he had time, there was a commission from UrbanArias and he was like, “I got it. I got it! 1950s physique magazines. We’ll be in the gym. It’ll be the groom and a tenor will be the trainer and then the third part will be social dancing, the tenor will become the instructor.” I said, “O.K., I’m ready!”

Jesse Blumberg and Amadee Moore in the 2012 UrbanArias production of Positions 1956. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen, courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

Jesse Blumberg and Amadee Moore in the 2012 UrbanArias production of Positions 1956. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen, courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

I had to wait a long time for these lyrics, because two shows that had been put on hiatus for him that are both coming to Broadway next year got un-hiatused about 15 minutes after we agreed to do this project, but when the stuff arrived, I said, “Michael, it’s perfect. There’s not a thing I want to change. Let me just start writing.” He’s the only librettist I can imagine working that way with. Well, actually probably with Mark Campbell I could imagine the same way. And I had to write this stuff really fast, but it was possible because of the dramatic progression through the other two parts—I shouldn’t talk so enthusiastically about my own work, but I can talk that way about Michael’s work. It’s so brilliant, so amazing! And I’m still in awe about what it turned out to be. Because here you have an 80-minute piece that is a sequence of instructions: descriptions of how to have sex, then how to do exercises, and then how to do dances. It’s this panorama of, as he puts it, all the things that fucked us up as kids. [laughs] And it’s also this span of a year in the life of a newlywed couple, trying to work out in the context of this difficult 1950s time, how they’re going to build a life together. And it’s so moving in the end, because they get to something.
FJO: There’s one final area I’d like to talk with you about which will probably take us to another place entirely. You talked quite a bit about different teachers and the reactions they had to you. And you sort of alluded to teaching and working with students, comparing it to letting pieces go when you’re writing an opera. You’ve taught a lot of composers, generations of them in fact, and many of whom have gone on to really do exciting things.
CC: I’ve got to say that my partner Robert complains about it when we travel, “Conrad, yet another one of your former students wants to have dinner? Can’t we just be on vacation?” [laughs] I find it very touching. By the way, he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter: Robert Katz. You should know him.
FJO: But I’m just curious about the seeds that you plant in your students and the role you’ve continued to have in many of their lives. You keep up with your students in a way that’s really admirable. You’ve been such a mentor to them. So I wondered when you talked in the beginning about once feeling alone in left field with your musical aesthetics but nowadays there you have a lot more company, might part of that be because you’ve had all these students to influence?
CC: I absolutely hope not! [laughs] That’d be terrible! That would be terrible. I like to think that the people I’ve worked with over the years have found their own wonderful voices; that I’ve helped them to trust their own instincts, to trust where they want to go. I’ve moved obstacles out of their way when I could. I’ve suggested ways to find a door when they’re pounding their heads against a brick wall. I’ve created an environment where they feel safe to try things and where they feel like they can really plumb into the deepest part of themselves and that they’ll be safe and they don’t have to put a façade of correctness or theoretical underpinning or whatever the thing is that protects you from revealing your own self in music. Those are the things I care about.

I of the Storm

It’s been a week since Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, and life in the New York City Metropolitan area has been quite surreal ever since. Things that most of us take for granted— like electricity, running water, and relative ease of mobility—were suddenly no longer givens. The lower Manhattan office of New Music USA where I work was without electricity for nearly a week and today is our first day back in the office. It feels great to be back. Luckily, my home neighborhood was mostly unaffected—we never lost electricity, water, or heat, although tons of trees were uprooted and the nearest subway station remains closed. On top of all of this, however, major structural repairs are currently taking place in my apartment, which has resulted in my enforced stay at home triggering a heavy dose of cabin fever.

So in the middle of all of this mayhem, I actually ventured out to attend a performance last week. Many concerts throughout the five boroughs and beyond have been canceled and some places have still not re-opened. That dangling crane on 57th street continues to silence the music at Carnegie Hall. Yet on October 31, the Metropolitan Opera was already back in operation and I did not want to miss the only production of an opera by a living composer being staged there this entire season—Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, which even features the composer conducting! It took me more than two hours and three buses to travel the seven miles that separate my home from the Met, but it was totally worth it. Aside from being an utterly compelling performance both musically and theatrically, it was extraordinarily cathartic. I had initially thought that seeing an opera about magical spirits would be the perfect way to spend Halloween; I hadn’t realized that this story of a group of people suddenly thrust into a storm at sea and miraculously rescued would be an even more appropriate narrative to watch unfold in the aftermath of Sandy. I know that we are extremely resilient and that this will pass, but somehow watching the people on the Met stage experience a similar calamity and ultimately become better off as a result made me feel hopeful. (A presentation of The Tempest, transmitted in high-definition video via satellite, will be shown in theaters worldwide on Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm ET. Hopefully there will be no more storms by that point.)


A scene from Act 1 of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest with acrobat Jaime Verazin as Ariel. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. Taken at the Metropolitan Opera on October 15, 2012. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

By now most folks have seen, heard, and read countless horror stories caused by this natural disaster and on Friday, Rob Deemer reported on members of the new music community who were severely affected by the storm. But we want to hear more Sandy-related stories from people. Please share your experiences with us in the comments below and at New Music USA. By all of us coming together, we will get through this.

Sounds Heard: Gene Pritsker—William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience

Arnold Schoenberg usually gets credited for the emancipation of the dissonance that defined much of the music of the 20th century. But if there’s anything that can be claimed to categorize the music of the 21st century a mere 12 years into it, I’d argue that it’s the emancipation of cognitive dissonance. In much of today’s music, elements that seem like they don’t belong together co-exist and, in so doing, frequently yield sonic experiences that can be initially jarring and which sometimes never intellectually resolve. As recently as the 1980s such contextual ambiguities would have been considered an irreconcilable aesthetic assault, much like those emancipated dissonances were to folks in fin de siècle Vienna even though to our 2012 ears they sound somewhat quaint. But like the expressionistic plunge into atonality and beyond mirrored the zeitgeist of a century ago, today’s ambiguous-seeming free-for-all recontextualization of any and all stylistic vocabulary is an accurate reflection of our current uncertain, contradictory times.

One might even posit that the reluctance toward having one’s creative expressions confined exclusively to a single musical style is a clear manifestation of this phenomenon. Today’s almost de rigueur amalgamations of contemporary classical chamber music, jazz, and rock (genres which now sometimes don’t even really sound all that different from one another) might actually belie a response to the world in which we live that goes far beyond any attempt at crossover. It’s not so much that the composers of today are embracing every sound by which they are surrounded in an effort to attain some kind of meta-style; such an effort would be indicative of the aesthetic positions of a previous era. Rather, this blurring of boundaries is the only possible reaction to being surrounded by all of these sounds and the musical styles from which they originate. We’re no longer attempting to make them all get along with each other so much as we’re resigned to the fact that it is impossible to separate them from one another anymore; perhaps those rare moments where stylistic disparities still result in clashes are the only remaining breakthrough moments we can have.

The creative output of a musician like Gene Pritsker, who self-identifies as a composer, guitarist, rapper, and D.J., seems emblematic of such a world view. Over the years I’ve heard his music both in symphony orchestra halls and clubs. In another era, it would not have fit comfortably in either setting but now it’s at home in both. And yet Pritsker’s chamber opera, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, recently released on Composers Concordance Recordings, still manages to sound unsettling to me. It still somehow defies any paradigm I try to create for it as I listen to it. Perhaps I still listen with 20th century ears.

Or perhaps it’s because of how I first came to hear the music Pritsker composed for this opera. A few years back, Innova released a recording of Pritsker’s Varieties of Religious Experience Suite performed by his group Sound Liberation in which he plays electric guitar and is joined by another electric guitarist, electric bass, drums, and cello. The music is a visceral jazz/rock/contemporary classical hybrid that comes across as something by a latter-day Frank Zappa, though probably more Jazz from Hell era than Mothers of Invention era. Zappa indeed would seem like a perfect role model for Pritsker, since in addition to being one of the first American composers to ignore the firewalls between commercially driven stylistic categorizations, Zappa also relished the role of provocateur. In our own time when these firewalls have long been eroded, and therefore there’s little provocation in continuing to mine their erosion, Pritsker’s attempts at doing so herein still manage to sound raw.

In the notes for that Innova release, the music was described as originally being the score for an opera derived from a somewhat unlikely source—a lecture by the 19th-century American philosopher William James. But since the music on that release was all instrumental, I didn’t think much about its operatic origins. However, now that I’m finally hearing Pritsker’s Varieties of Religious Experience in its original operatic context, my impressions of it have completely transformed. I originally thought of this music as an extremely effective genre-blurring romp whose effectiveness is in part attributable to its roughly hewn edges. But now what is center stage is the barrage of cognitive dissonances—narrative drama vs. non-linear narrative, sacred vs. profane, contemporaneity vs. historicism. These go far beyond the music’s combination of idioms (think Zappa’s jazz/rock/postclassical stew mixed with contemporary opera and musical theatre as well as hybrids like Adams’s Ceiling/Sky). And that barrage now completely defines my listening experience.

So much so, that rather than attempt to describe the opera play-by-play (which I think could run the risk of giving away the goods for anyone who hasn’t yet heard it and which would somehow diminish its impact), I will impart here a couple of the responses Gene Pritsker offered me after I sent him an email asking him to describe exactly what he is aiming to do in this opera.

Since my starting point for this music was the earlier recording of the instrumental suite, I was curious, now that the original opera was available on a recording as well, what Pritsker’s thoughts were about the relationship between these two recordings and if he considers the suite and the opera to be separate works. His rejoinder was as follows:

The two works treat the same material in a very different manner. The opera is focused on the narrative of the William James lecture and on supporting the vocal expression, while the suite takes more of a chamber jazz approach where the music is in a constant transition between the written material and improvisation, and the musicians play off each other. Since the opera was written first and the main musical ideas were composed while creating this opera I feel that it is the definitive composition for this material. But I think the suite takes this music to such a different place that it stands alone as a brand new piece of music, almost a variation on the opera. I have done this in the past with other music. A good example is a solo drum set piece which I turned into a solo violin piece.

I was particularly eager to learn more about Pritsker’s decision to convey the words and ideas of someone from the historical past with music that could not be construed as anything but 21st century, so I asked him about that as well, to which he responded:

The instrumentation of the chamber opera being scored for 2 electric guitars, cello and contra bass was intentional, since I knew I can perform it with my band Sound Liberation, so the adaptation of this music to a suite was pre-planned as I was writing the opera. I was not trying to create a period piece in any way. The most fascinating thing for me was the question: “How can I turn a dry (yet brilliantly written) lecture in to an operatic narrative?” As soon as William James enters the hall in my mind he steps into a no time place. It is not any century or any country or any period. It is a man with ideas trying to express his thoughts to the world and my job is to heighten and further enlighten these ideas and thoughts through music while creating a narrative (even a loose operatic one) in a lecture that never intended to have a narrative.

Beyond that, I think it’s best for everyone listening to do so without any additional baggage. We’ve certainly had enough of that in the 20th century despite all the attempts at emancipation.

Making The Face

Face Rehearsal

The Face in rehearsal on August 21, 2012. Photo by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

The Face, my new multidisciplinary chamber opera premiering in Los Angeles on August 25, 27, and 28, has been in the works for more than seven years and involves an international team of creative artists. Most operas these days—especially new ones—have lots going on, so to call an opera “multidisciplinary” isn’t exactly surprising. In The Face, though, “multidisciplinary” is intrinsic and fundamental in several crucial ways. The principal extra-musical elements—poetic text, choreography, and film—are not intended as laminations but rather built deeply into the structure from the ground up. The Face is an intimate, intense psychological drama with a tightly woven musical narrative.

The libretto is by the poet David St. John, a colleague of mine (and now a good friend) at the University of Southern California. The text comes from his novella in verse, a cycle of forty-five poems also titled The Face (Harper Collins, 2004); it is indeed highly poetic, just what I was looking for. The language is concise, emotionally charged, colorful, and downright beautiful. I had previously set two of David’s poems in a piece commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble (The Village: Two Poems of David St. John), and I had also been interested in his poetry for a number of years, so exploring the idea of a libretto from David St. John felt somehow inevitable. After the premiere performances of the Hilliard Ensemble piece in Europe, I approached him about collaborating on an opera. We had a meeting in late 2005 at which he proposed several possible ideas. His first choice by far was to use his recent novella, and he gave me a copy of the book to read. Both the poetic language and the dramatic possibilities immediately struck me, so I agreed. David created the libretto by following one of several narrative paths through the novella, a path which, in eleven scenes, focuses on the main character, a poet named Raphael, as he struggles with the recent loss of his lover and muse while juggling the demands of a Hollywood movie being made about his life and his increasing notoriety. A crucial element in the process of creating the libretto involved David asking me to identify passages in the cycle of poems which contained language that I, as the composer, was especially drawn to—and lines that David fashioned into a stunning libretto. David St. John has been an ideal librettist, a dream to work with.

Not surprisingly, quite a number of people in my world knew I was hard at work on an opera and that I was on the lookout for a stage director with a theatrical vision suited to this project. A young singer with whom I’d worked in Los Angeles, the French soprano Myriam Zekaria, was touring France in a revival of the opera Les Enfants Terribles (Philip Glass/Jean Cocteau), and she urged me to see the show in person. On a whim, I followed her suggestion and traveled to Paris and Lyon to experience the work of the theatrical production company—Heliotrope—who were working on this project. I was bowled over by the power of their artistic vision and promptly arranged a meeting with two members of the company: Paul Desveaux (director) and Yano Iatrides (director/choreographer). The meeting resulted in the birth of an artistic collaboration on The Face between two organizations separated by a large ocean—Heliotrope (based in Paris) and Firebird Ensemble (based in Boston). We subsequently decided that Paul Desveaux would create the dramatic and film concept for the work and that Yano Iatrides would direct and choreograph The Face. In addition, we added another two members of the Heliotrope team—Laurent Schneegans as lighting designer and Amaya Lainez as assistant director.

One of the things that engaged me most about the work of Heliotrope was their ability to fuse various elements onstage (lighting, dance, staging, poetry, and film). Many productions take a layering approach to multidisciplinary works, but I wanted to create an opera which integrated the elements in an organic way. Working with performers who do not come from a classical dance background fascinates Yano Iatrides. (She frequently choreographs works involving actors, street artists, singers, and comedians.) Her uncanny ability to instill in them an approach to movement, of “dancing the staging” in a way, is in part how she communicates her very unique dramatic vision on stage. This is far beyond blocking; our four singers embody the discipline of dance while singing new opera. Rehearsals each day start with an extended and rigorous session of movement training as the singers embark on a process of physical and emotional exploration of themselves and their characters. Stage direction and choreography follow naturally from this starting point as Yano begins working through various scenes from the opera. Breaks tend to feature what are evidently her three staples: coffee, cigarettes and air. Yano is intense, to be sure, but we all find her to be very lovable.

The process of obtaining visas for our international group of artists has been a huge hassle, to be sure, and several experienced opera people pointedly suggested sticking with a domestic team. We needed O-1 and O-2 visas requiring peer review from American professional unions, signed contracts, and extensive evidence of “extraordinary ability” in order for U.S. immigration to approve the applications, even for only temporary employment on our project. This required more than six months of work, and the seemingly inevitable procedural delays necessitated the considerable help of senatorial offices in Boston so we could get our team into the United States on time. (My advice: begin the process well in advance, use an immigration lawyer if possible, and keep pushing.) As it turned out, Yano Iatrides’s paperwork was completed in time for her scheduled flight from Paris, but Amaya Lainez was delayed six days. Our lighting designer is coming in on time later in the rehearsal period. The three weeks preceding our first day of rehearsal in Boston were quite harrowing as we, and especially our producer, Kate Vincent, were waiting for final visa approval and processing. In spite of all this, I don’t regret a minute of it, and that exploratory trip I made to France over spring break a few years ago to experience their work was well worth it.

Last but certainly not least in the “multidisciplinary” aspects of The Face is the film element. In this opera, Raphael’s lost beloved and muse Marina—a crucial character—is a silent role on film. Marina died in some terrible, unnamed catastrophe, and Raphael is unhinged. I knew from the beginning that Marina would be a “home movie” character and made space for her in the music, but neither David St. John nor I knew exactly how this film element would play out. Enter Anton Nadler, a young filmmaker who is active in New York and Los Angeles. Our story is set in Venice Beach and the movie-making world of Hollywood, so Anton seemed to me a perfect choice. The film of Marina can be imagined as a collection of home movies made some years ago by Raphael, and Marina plays to him and his camera in casual and intimate scenes. Anton Nadler shot the film in and around LA during a preview/residency of the opera at the University of Southern California on its Visions & Voices series last April. Jane Sheldon, the young Australian who is our soprano (Cybele) in The Face, also plays the silent role of Marina on film and adds to the poet Raphael’s (the British tenor, Daniel Norman) very considerable emotional confusion. The results are quite striking; the camera loves Jane, as they say. From early in the rehearsal period begun in Boston in late July, Marina was a presence on stage, a fifth character intrinsic to the staging.

A decidedly-not-insignificant aspect of this project is the fact that The Face has been produced outside of the world of traditional opera companies by Boston’s Firebird Ensemble and its founder and director Kate Vincent. I had worked with Kate and Firebird in recent years on several projects, including a recording, and Kate decided to take the opera on as a new adventure for her ensemble with Kate herself producing. The Face has an acoustic score without electronics and whiz-bang sound effects (though I admit we do have an electric guitar), so Firebird, with its superb musicians and chamber music ethos, was for me the ideal choice. Gil Rose, founder and artistic director of Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a respected champion of new music and new opera, came on board as music director.

In addition to creating this production of The Face, Kate Vincent and the Firebird Ensemble wanted to develop a significant educational component for the project. This has been achieved through the creation of an internship program for young people in the theater and music fields. We have given a group of students from theater schools, colleges, and universities from across the country the opportunity to assist and be mentored by the professional team. These students are now functioning in assistant roles for the stage director, producer, stage manager, repetiteur, film crew, and costume designer; three talented young singers serve as covers for the cast during the production.

One inevitable result of the Firebird Ensemble taking on The Face was that it has more than tripled Firebird’s operating budget for its tenth anniversary season. Los Angeles, where David St. John and I are based, seemed to be a logical choice for the premiere run. (We will do an additional concert performance in Boston, Firebird’s hometown, on August 31.) Working independently from an opera company is both challenging and freeing. A big company has a significant infrastructure and the financial resources to handle production, stage and musical direction, casting, and promotion, while a new music ensemble has to build this from the ground up. On the other hand, while a major opera company tends to focus on a full season of standard favorites with perhaps something from the 1940s onward and just maybe a premiere added in, a new music ensemble or small independent production company can dream and create independently. In addition, the scope of a project like this for a small organization such as the Firebird Ensemble has resulted in an enormous artistic investment on their part. On the production side, I as the composer have had direct input into the choice of the stage directing team, the cast, and the music director. I’ve been involved in decisions about staging, set, costume, publicity, marketing, lighting, personnel, travel, and myriad other details. While this process might not be for everyone, my deep involvement in every aspect of this opera and the experience of working with a passionate and exceptional collection of artists, singers, and instrumentalists from all over the world is an experience which I would not trade for anything. The Face has taken me seven years to create, and I want to follow its every step to opening night on August 25.


Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett is a composer, conductor, and chair of the composition department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music where he also directs the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble. His chamber opera, The Face will be performed at Los Angeles’s Aratani/Japan America Theater on August 25, 27, and 28, and at Boston Conservatory Theater on August 31, 2012.

Philadelphia’s Changing Opera Landscape


Soprano Tamara Mumford (kneeling) and soprano Elizabeth Reiter in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s U.S. Premiere of Henze’s Phaedra in 2011. (Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography)

This week, Opera America will hold its 2012 conference in Philadelphia, with a focus on new works and innovative strategies. It is fitting that this conference should take place in Philadelphia, which in the past few years has become a center for new opera in the United States. This is a significant change for a town long known for its conservative musical tastes. It was not that long ago that German and French repertoire was considered exotic in an environment which equated opera with traditional Italian fare. Performances of 20th and 21st century opera had been even more of a rarity.

Over the past two seasons, however, the Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) made international waves when it presented two operas by the iconic German composer Hans Werner Henze and announced a plan to present ten new American operas in the next ten years. In 2011, they launched an innovative collaborative Composer In Residence Program, together with New York partners Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, funded by a Mellon grant of $1.4 million over five years.

Why this burst of new opera? David Devan, OCP’s general director, decided to steer the company in this direction when he came on board as managing director in 2005. His first task, he said, was to consider the role opera should play in Philadelphia. “It is the original American city, in that the United States started here. Opera has to embrace the ethos of the community in which it is performed,” so American repertoire would be a natural fit. Furthermore, “in my work on the board of Opera America, I subscribe to the idea of ‘churn’: that the genre must stay alive through the creation of new work, to prevent the music industry from stagnating.”

Margaret Garner at OCP

A scene from Margaret Garner, an Opera Company of Philadelphia co-commission from composer Richard Danielpour and librettist Toni Morrison which debuted at the Academy of Music in February 2006. (Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography)

The OCP team developed a plan to keep opera viable in the dense Philadelphia music market. With the Metropolitan Opera a short drive away, and opera companies in Baltimore (until 2009) and Washington, D.C. within striking distance, Devan said OCP decided that opera in Philadelphia must take a “diverse and different path,” and that the company needed to curate carefully to provide offerings that would give audiences different choices and draw them in. Then-General Director Robert Driver started OCP on this new path by bringing to fruition the company’s first commission in 25 years, Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner, which received its East Coast premiere at OCP in 2006. The Opera Company underwent a strategic analysis process in 2007-08 and decided to adopt a new branding key for OCP. Informally, Devan describes it as a shift from the company serving as the Turner Classic Movies of opera to being its HBO.

Just when the plan was going to be implemented, however, the financial crisis of 2008 hit. “Funding dropped in all areas, but it was important to us to make it easy for people to keep opera in their lives,” Devan said. To weather the recession, OCP engaged in an act of “creative destruction,” eliminating one production from their regular season in the Academy of Music (the home of the company), and adding the new Aurora Series at the more intimate Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center. At 650 seats, the Perelman seats less than a quarter of the audience of the 2900-seat Academy of Music, but it enabled OCP to stage newer and experimental works at half the cost. According to Devan, productions in the Academy of Music cost around $2 million, for five performances, while those in the Perelman total around $1 million for three to five performances. The Aurora Series, which has included performances of Berg’s Wozzeck, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and Henze’s Phaedre and Elegy for Young Lovers, has seen strong ticket sales. Devan reports that the mean age of OCP’s audiences has dropped over the past five years, and though such demographic trends are difficult to track with certainty, he attributes this to the Aurora Series reaching out to new audiences, more design-driven productions on both series that showcase a diversity of artistic aesthetics, and an emphasis on emerging talent: singers, composers, and directors.

Barber Anthony and Cleopatra

A scene from the Curtis Opera Theatre’s production of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in 2010, performed in association with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Perelman Theater. (Photo by Pete Checchia)

Devan noted that international media attention to OCP has increased exponentially due to several factors, starting with the Composer In Residence Program, which has drawn significant attention in the field. Other companies are following Philadelphia’s lead by creating training programs for composers. OCP’s announcement about producing ten new American works, starting with Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain and Theodore Morrison’s Oscar, co-commissioned with Santa Fe Opera, also boosted the buzz, as did the fact that the 2012 Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Kevin Puts for his opera Silent Night, slated for the 2012-2013 season. In addition, OCP will present Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, a co-commission with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, this month.

OCP traditionally fosters the careers of young singers who emerge from Philadelphia’s top opera training institutions—the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). OCP’s partnership with the Curtis opera department, which began in 2008 with a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, has also made possible the mounting of newer operas performed by Curtis’s talented and versatile student singers and orchestra. Mikael Eliasen, director of Curtis’s opera department since 1988, explained how this partnership, which provides OCP with lower costs while enabling Curtis students to perform at the Perelman, came about. Normally too expensive for Curtis to rent, the Perelman has a bigger pit than Curtis’s regular venue and therefore allows for more adventurous, experimental scorings. Eliasen had worked closely over the years with Robert Driver, who assumed the title of artistic director of OCP last year, after 20 years as its general director. Together, they had created an unofficial relationship in which Curtis students would sing small roles in OCP productions, prior to the official partnership. In fall 2011, Eliasen was appointed artistic advisor to OCP, in which capacity he assists in selecting the Composer In Residence, further solidifying the close artistic ties between OCP and Curtis.


A scene from the Curtis Opera Theatre area premiere of Golijov’s Ainadamar in 2008, performed in association with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Perelman Theater. (Photo by David Swanson)

Curtis’s opera singers regularly perform new American opera under the guidance of Mikael Eliasen. He considers learning new opera repertoire to be of tremendous importance in the careers of young singers and during his tenure he has programmed John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, Copland’s The Tender Land, and Argento’s Postcard from Morocco. A recent Curtis alumnus, bass-baritone Eric Owens, has built a brilliant career in which he is known for his singing of John Adams as well as the canon.

OCP’s relationship with the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) is less formal and less focused on new music than its partnership with Curtis. As Denise Stuart, AVA’s director of marketing and public relations, pointed out, the school emphasizes standard repertoire for its students rather than training them to sing new music specifically.

Training Young Composers of Opera

As for young composers who wish to write operas, Eliasen says, “My big beef is that they may want to write an opera but they don’t know opera; 90% of them don’t know the major 20th century operas – Pelleas et Melisande, Peter Grimes, Dialogues des Carmelites, Wozzeck, Lulu – so there is nothing to inspire them.” As artistic advisor to OCP, he will encourage the young resident composers to study operatic repertoire and learn how to write for the voice in this context. Jennifer Higdon also advises young composers to study as much opera as possible in preparation for writing their own. She has been meeting with Lembit Beecher, OCP’s first composer in residence appointed in 2011, and will be seeing his work and sharing excerpts of her own opera score with him during his residency.

As David Devan noted, many young composers who try to write operas fail, as American music schools leave out training in writing dramatic vocal music. Kyle Bartlett, OCP’s new works administrator, agrees that young composers usually have no idea how to write for the stage, even if they have experience writing vocal music. OCP is currently in the search process for its second composer in residence, who will join Beecher in the program. They are looking for composers with some experience writing vocal music and a dramatic impulse, but not composers who are already so successful they do not need support, such as composers with publishers or numerous commissions.

Defining the “New” and the Future of Opera

Philadelphia is also home to another professional opera company specifically devoted to new works, Center City Opera Theater (CCOT), founded by Andrew Kurtz in 1999. According to its mission statement, the company is “the only professional opera company in the United States whose primary mission is the creation and production of new work.” The company gave the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Paul Moravec’s Danse Russe, and regional premieres of Mark Adamo’s Little Women and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men.

Dorian Gray

Jorge Garza as Dorian Gray in the Center City Opera’s production of Lowell Liebermann’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Photo courtesy CCO)

When asked how CCOT defines its role in a city with so much new music and now new opera, Kurtz replied that “our mission is unique. New work. New artists. New audiences. AVA and Curtis do fine work, but they are still schools, their musical choices are still bound by the students they accept. OCP is still grand opera. I am thrilled they have made a commitment to new work, but it isn’t their primary function, rather they consider it a “product line.” It also represents a smaller percentage of their focus. And while they are partners in these new works, the primary developmental work isn’t being done in Philly by OCP professionals, but other partner companies. For CCOT, we have carved out a national niche of creating new work.”

Dark Sisters

Soprano Caitlin Lynch stars as Eliza in the OCP’s latest production, Dark Sisters, by Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam, which tells the story of a woman who desires to leave a polygamist marriage. (Photo © 2011 Richard Termine)

Devan thinks that “we are at an evolutionary point in opera which will lead to the increase in original material.” Higdon also sounds an optimistic note, calling opera “the area of most growth in classical music, with lots of commissioning and therefore an intensive financial commitment. Orchestras are backing away from contemporary music for fear of financial stress, but opera is charging ahead.”

Mikael Eliasen, however, sees ominous signs for the future of opera in America. While it looks like opera is thriving with commissioning activity, “opera in a way is slowly being killed off.” He describes American opera as “unrelentingly conservative” and thinks that American composers are writing opera based on what they think audiences and boards want to hear, and that boards are constantly shying away from experimental sounds in fear of declining ticket sales. Eliasen successfully urged OCP to present Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face as part of the 2012-2013 season. He cites Adès, who is British, and the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino as examples of people creating more adventurous operas in Europe, and whose works are seldom staged in the United States. He thinks opera companies should take bigger chances, trust their audiences more, identify and reach out to the right audiences for each work, and understand that this process will take time and skill from marketing departments.

It was clear in speaking with the leaders of Philadelphia’s opera ecosystem that what constitutes “experimental” and “adventurous” repertoire is highly subjective. Ultimately, it becomes a question of definitions, as each of the opera experts has his or her own take on these terms. Not only do they disagree on aesthetic and stylistic grounds, but the question of perception is crucial. What do administrators and boards think the audience wants to hear? How do they serve loyal subscribers as well as seek out new audiences? Do the people commissioning and programming new American opera put the artistic vision first and rely on marketing to bring in audiences, or do they let considerations of audience and funder taste drive the artistic decisions? These are the questions being asked in all areas of the music industry. In Philadelphia, a city quickly becoming a center for new American opera, these questions are being posed for the first time. The more new American operas that are born in the city, the more opportunities there will be for the issues facing the genre to develop and evolve alongside them.


Mimi Stillman

Mimi Stillman by Steve Anderson Photography

Philadelphia-based flutist Mimi Stillman, is the founder and artistic director of Dolce Suono Ensemble. A Yamaha Performing Artist, she performs internationally as a soloist and a chamber musician. A writer on music and history, she is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and holds an MA in history from the University of Pennsylvania. In the fall of 2011, Odyssey: 11 American Premieres for Flute and Piano, her 2 CD set recorded with pianist Charles Abramovic, was released on Innova.