Tag: opera

Does Opera Need Gendered Voice Types?

From a 2016 production Higglety Pigglety Pop 2016 featuring Aiden Feltkamp as Pig with soprano Sophia Burgos

This is the first of a four-part series about operatic voice classification for the 21st century which will explore the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. All experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general.

My path as an opera singer has been a strange one. I started out as a coloratura mezzo-soprano with a high range, but then I slowly developed into a low, full lyric mezzo. Then, just when I thought my voice couldn’t get any lower (or higher), both occurred when I started hormone replacement therapy (testosterone) as part of my medical transition. Now, my countertenor range sits higher than my mezzo range did, but my chest voice’s range is that of a low tenor. If I were to step into an audition tomorrow, what could I possibly list as my voice type?

Granted, this isn’t anywhere near the average experience for an opera singer. It’s estimated that about 0.6% of the United States population identifies as transgender. Even fewer people identify outside the gender binary. While the mere existence of trans and nonbinary artists should be enough to change things, I’m not arguing for an ungendered system of voice types for our sake alone. However, my experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

I began my operatic career as a female-presenting mezzo-soprano. I almost exclusively played trouser roles, first out of coincidence and later out of desire. It was during my preparation for these trouser roles that I first discovered the online transgender community. Even though I was 19 at the time, this was my first introduction to the idea of transitioning and the first glimpse of something that had been nagging at me since I was very young. I’ve always felt out of sorts in the gender binary, but I could never pinpoint the issue or explain how I was feeling. For example, when I was in third grade and we used the gym locker rooms for the first time, I didn’t understand why I was in the girls’ locker room. I lived with the pressing anxiety that they’d find out I was a fraud and assign a punishment. But feelings like this were inexplicable to me at the time, and for long after. As an opera singer, I loved learning how to present male onstage. It felt comfortable and right, like pulling on a well-loved, nostalgia-inducing sweatshirt that I’d found unexpectedly in the back of the closet after giving it up for lost. While playing those roles, I felt, for the first time, something much more like “me.”

My time as a graduate student in the Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory served as the catalyst for my acknowledgement of my gender identity and the beginning of my social transition. The faculty there, Kayo Iwama and Dawn Upshaw especially, continually pushed me to dig deeper, to understand myself, and to be myself without reserve or shame. With this new courage and some study of gender theory, I started to put things into place.

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

As I came into myself, my physical dysphoria made everyday life extremely difficult and I could no longer put off starting hormones. I’d never intended to take hormones, because I wanted to keep my mezzo-soprano voice. The vocal changes caused by testosterone are inevitable and irreversible. When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself. It has absolutely paid off, since I’m more myself and more centered than I’ve ever been before. I’ve accepted my new voice, no matter what it is or will be, and I’ve grieved my mezzo-soprano voice as I’ve grieved the end of a relationship or the completion of a spectacular experience. But that’s a story for another time.

We can’t assume that a transgender singer has experienced, or will experience, a vocal change. Hormones do not make someone any less/more “legitimate” or “trans.” They were necessary for me, but they’re not necessary for everyone. There is no universal trans experience. My experience is singular. It might resemble someone else’s, but it equally might be completely different. Therefore, trans singers could fall into any of the current voice types.

Let’s return to my first question about the hypothetical audition and dig into that a bit. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I’ve decided to train and identify as a countertenor. I’ll be walking in with a resume full of mezzo-soprano roles, male clothing, and an androgynous appearance. Since I’ve written “countertenor” on my resume, most judges will assume that I identify as male. Since many mezzo-soprano and countertenor roles overlap, there will be less question of what I’m capable of singing. However, when the audition panelists read further down my resume, they’ll see that I’ve played female roles that are generally sung by cisgender women, such as Hermia and Jo March, in addition to my trouser roles. They may have read my biography and know my current gender identity, but they may not have. They have a lot of material to work through and it’s not on them to know or remember my gender identity. Unfortunately, this may lead to confusion that overshadows my singing, making the audition interaction more about my gender than my performance. Perhaps this is an issue caused by the lack of gender education in our society. Regardless, the outcome is the same.

Elizabeth’s Act I Aria from Sweets by Kate sung by Aiden Feltkamp
Music by Griffin Candey; Libretto by Thom K. Miller
Stage Director: Amber Treadway; Music Director: Griffin Candey; Costumes: Kaitlyn Day
Piano: Peiharn Chen; Cello: Spencer Shen; Violin: Sara Sidley
Video: La Cuarta Productions
Performed live at The Stonewall Inn – July 12, 2017

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard mentors tell singers, myself included, to go out of their way not to “confuse” the panel by listing roles of different voice types on their resume. This isn’t to say that audition panelists are uneducated or incapable; it’s to illuminate the fact that auditions are short and your singing is easily overshadowed by a preoccupation with other details or the unintended bias caused by those details.

  • My experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • This isn’t a gender issue, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • The onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist

Let’s go to a more common example. Imagine a soprano who has just changed her voice type from mezzo-soprano to soprano. She’s immediately at a disadvantage if she lists every role that she’s performed on her resume, because it will immediately cause the review panel to question the legitimacy of her soprano-ness. The next inevitable step is that they’ll question her ability to sing the role for which she’s currently auditioning. This isn’t a gender issue any longer, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

And perhaps you’re thinking, “Our current voice types aren’t inherently gendered. What’s the issue?” Stay tuned, because while I won’t get to that here, I’ll go more in-depth into that aspect of the discussion in the next part of this series.

Voice type classification doesn’t only relate to the vocalists performing existing repertoire – this system also relates to the operatic roles we’re creating now and the roles we will create in the future. As a librettist, I’ve found that the current system severely limits and/or complicates the characters I write. When I write a trans or nonbinary character, many composers (rightfully) ask, “How do I write for this?” or “How do I identify it in terms of casting?” It’s quickly discovered that it’s not enough information to state a range or a standard voice type.

In the past, opera has intelligently dealt with the gender/voice interaction with its trouser and skirt roles. It’s still working with a gender binary, but it made a point of deciding how best to express certain variations and experiences in gender. I believe that changing the voice classification system can continue that adeptness into the future of the art form, allowing opera to continue to grow. The system has been purposefully designed; it can similarly be redesigned.

More and more trans artists are realizing that they can be both trans and an opera singer, something I once believed impossible. How can we be welcoming to their presence and artistry if the very structure of our system works against them? We’ve revised the operatic structure again and again, allowing it to flourish for hundreds of years. We can do it again to dismantle barriers for gender-diverse artists.

I’ve asked a lot of questions and I’ve purposely left most of them unanswered. First, I’m not a pedagogue; I’m speaking from my experience and the experiences that others have shared with me. Second, I don’t think that this is something that should be decided by one person. I’m far more interested in opening up the conversation to as many as are interested as a way to lead to a change in protocol. In later parts of this series, I’ll map out my ideas for the necessary elements of this new voice type classification system and how we can begin to combine these into a new system.

In the end, the onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters. A system that no longer serves its purpose, or that cannot expand to meet its purpose, must be redesigned.

Retaking the Stage: What Artists Can Be In Our Society

Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance, which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.

“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.

“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”

That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”

Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.

“On the one hand we’re at this experimental music center [UCSD’s music department], redefining what music can be,” said Liang, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang (which has its own political subtext). Like Xiaoxiang—indeed, like most of his works—Inheritance tests, and even expands, the limits of the opera’s eight-member instrumental ensemble (two clarinets, trumpet, two percussionists, guitar, harpsichord and contrabass), creating a unique and wide-ranging sonic palette that extends far beyond the mere use of harmonics and multiphonics. “You can discover a lot of new things in things we thought were old,” said Liang, who is also research artist-in-residence at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “It’s just the way of thinking was old, the way of playing was old.

“[On the other hand,] Susan and I share this passion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves in a box. Of course there are a lot of things that are kind of fun just because you discover something new, but they have to find their right context, their right message, their relevance to the story. With all these inventions and creating our own new music language, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the importance of what is really urgent in our society. We have to face it.”

PURITY AND IMPURITY

While it’s difficult to generalize that Liang’s impulse to engage with social and political issues is shared by a growing number of composers in an increasingly polarized and politically charged environment, politics is proving to be fertile ground for composers looking to connect with an audience, and not only in chamber opera (a form Du Yun also used in her 2017 Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, which offered an allegory on human trafficking) and opera (whether John Adams, who has repeatedly relied on current social and political themes, most recently in the 2017 Girls of the Golden West or David T. Little, in particular his 2016 opera JFK, but also his earlier Soldier Songs and Dog Days).

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean and Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields both gently raise contemporary issues (climate change and the culture of coal), and both won Pulitzer Prizes (Adams in 2014; Wolfe in 2015), while younger composers such as LJ White, are dealing with issues that are no less immediate and in White’s case, particularly personal.

“There is a school of thought in contemporary classical music that music should be above everything else, that it should have a purity about it,” said White, who is on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. “To me, that doesn’t make sense. Everything we do in art comes from what’s around us and who we are as humans.”

White uses his own life as a metaphor. He is transitioning, and has been coming out over the last several years, which has inevitably affected his music. But even before that, he found himself interested in which musical elements signify genre. “I’ve been fascinated with the boxes we put ourselves into and how we can sort of combine signifiers from different worlds to create something that isn’t easily classifiable,” he said. “And I think that has a lot to do with the way I present myself in the world as well.

“I like my music to be a series of microdecisions, any of which could go in any direction to best convey what I’m trying to convey, the feeling or the purpose, rather than something that starts from a large decision that automatically makes a lot of your smaller decisions. That’s kind of what genre is, and also what being male or female is in a way. And that’s something else that’s charged and political, especially in the current moment.”

White’s compositions include pieces that are overtly political, such as his most recent work, Shuffled ‘Notes from “A Guide to Drag Kinging”’, based on a poem by Franny Choi and commissioned by Pushback, a new “modular contemporary music ensemble” whose mission is to advocate for groups that are “underrepresented and oppressed,” both in and outside the world of music.

I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate.

“We feel that a lot of the art we have made, and we have seen others making, seems a little distant from our sociopolitical lives, and the rest of our lives, really,” said soprano Ally Smither, who co-founded the project with bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. (They met while students at Rice University.) “I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate and they didn’t interact,” said Roidi-Ward. “I think it’s important, especially within the community and in creating new work, that the work has something to say about the world that we live in, and the world we want to live in, and the type of community we want to build.” Pushback, which formed earlier this year, has already commissioned pieces by Binna Kim, Karim Al-Zand (Songs from the Post-Truth Era), Theo Chandler (Tamora Monologues) and White, who has also just completed a work for Schick and the La Jolla Symphony, which will be premiered at UCSD on February 9, 2019.

White’s new orchestral piece for La Jolla, Community Acoustics, is inspired by phenomena in natural ecosystems where, in White’s words, “a stratification develops among species where they all kind of have a certain register that is theirs alone and that they use for their calls and communication with other members of their species. It forms this sort of interlocking registral environment that allows everybody to be heard…And scientists have observed this and seen cases where it’s disastrous when this gets disrupted.”

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see that even nature can be political. “Maybe ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been a charged topic,” said White. “But it is now. Everything is political.” Schick, who commissioned the piece and is music director of the La Jolla Symphony, increasingly eschews the term “political music,” and in a new commissioning program he and Brenda Schick (his wife) are putting together, he’s focusing on music with “optimistic social values,” of which White’s piece is the first commission.

“I really realized that my objection to, in quotation marks, ‘political music,’ is that it is so often proscriptive,” said Schick, a faculty member at UCSD and an esteemed percussionist in addition to his activities as a conductor. “It is a statement built on a negative. ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ ‘We can’t have that.’ ‘Look how horrible this is.’ ‘Look at the problems here.’ I wouldn’t say that is the definition of political music, but I think it turns out that a lot of the music that takes on things that cross over into real life takes a remedial approach. And what I’m trying to do, and I believe this is what distinguishes my interests from at least some people, is that I see the job of music in this regard as an affirmative action toward a moral society as opposed to a punitive action toward an immoral society.”

GUNS AND HUMANITY

Liang and Narucki had similar concerns. They were not inclined to make a piece with an overtly political message, but were committed to doing something on the topic of guns. “There are works that are the result of some circumstance, some commission, some external reason, but there are also works that just have to happen,” said Liang, whose own experience with guns dates back to 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when as a teenage protester, he found himself face-to-face with armed soldiers.

“This is one of those topics we have to do, especially because it is so hard,” Liang said. “It’s such a difficult topic to deal with. It’s such a black and white thing (in terms of people’s opinions). It’s so easy for people to think, before they even see it, ‘I know what the conclusion is going to be,’ and it seems people have already made up their minds. It’s so hard to find the right angle, to say, ‘No, there’s a humanity in this we must face and we must rediscover as we find ourselves in this conversation.’ I think that’s the thing that took us a while to find: what is the perfect angle to do this, a personal one for us?”

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

Liang had met Donovan, the librettist, while both were fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and Donovan, a poet who is director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, had been doing research on gun violence. “I’m really concerned about gun violence in this country, so it seemed like something that would be worth thinking about as a subject,” said Donovan. “But I will say I was reluctant. I was cautious from the outset about pursuing the topic because I didn’t want to write anything that would at all be didactic. I wanted to write something that would address the issue, and allow the issue to resonate for the audience, but I didn’t want to be presumptive, and write something that would be any way instructional about how this very complex issue might start to be resolved in this country.”

By chance, Donovan came across an essay about Sarah Winchester and her San Jose “mystery house,” where she moved after the death of her child and then her husband, and she renovated and expanded continually for nearly four decades. Donovan explained how that shaped the work itself:

Clearly there are some apocryphal stories that are all wound up in her legacy, but if you believe the legends, or at least take them at face value for a moment, I think what we have is a woman who is concerned about bloodshed from guns, but complicit in it in a very direct way. But then, her response to that concern, and her response to the violence that was caused by the guns [that her late husband produced and which now supported her] was to move out West and create a labyrinth from which there’s no real escape and no clear resolution.

And that for me became a rich metaphor, because I see America in Winchester. I see a lot of people, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, who are concerned about gun violence, but we are at such an impasse given how polarized the topic is, that I don’t see a clear resolution, and I don’t see anyone building a clear path toward any kind of change. So the labyrinth metaphor, it resonated with me right away and aligned with this idea this piece will be suggestive rather than instructive.

Liang and Narucki immediately embraced the idea and engaged Donovan to write a libretto and began developing the production, supported by grants from Creative Capital, the NEA, ArtPower, UCSD, and New Music USA. “It was beautiful to discover Sarah Winchester, this person who embodies the complexity of this issue,” said Liang, continuing:

The thing that moved me the most was when I went to the Winchester House, and saw she was such a wealthy person and everyone thought she was keeping some hidden wealth in a safe. It was typical of her; she had a safe within the safe. And when she died, they [her servants] rushed to get the key to the safe and discovered only two locks of hair [of her husband and her daughter]. It was such a powerful moment; it really showed what meant so much to her. It was life, it was her daughter’s life, it was her husband’s life, and she was living in this long period of grief because of loss of life. So that just made me feel there’s something we all can connect with.

It’s the humanity of it. We can let go of everything else in life, but not the ones we love. That is just something as a father, as a friend, as a son, I can relate to very, very deeply. I thought she gave us a really great opening to discover who she was, and in that process, discover what’s happened to us.

In developing the score over a period of three years, Liang said he wanted to build his own “mystery house,” his own sonic labyrinth. Within it he incorporates references to Winchester, whether in the use of the number 13 in the work’s rhythmic scheme (Winchester’s favorite number) or the inclusion of a Japanese scale, as Winchester had a close relationship with her Japanese gardener and his family.

Divided into ten scenes within a single act set in Winchester’s house, the piece juxtaposes past and present, myth and reality, the character of Sarah and three ghosts who double as a tour guide and two tourists (sung by Josué Cerón, Hillary Jean Young, and Kirsten Ashley Wiest in this production). At the end of Scene 8, the character of Sarah finally gets fed up with hearing the tour guide explain her life and her motivations and confronts him:

This, then is madness? To mourn the dead, to at least attempt to respond? To keep the hammers pounding in order to bear the dead in mind? …

Madness is not to be haunted, to ignore the dead, to act as if they’ve never been alive. Madness is to do nothing as the numbers of the dead grow.

That’s as close as Inheritance comes to making an overt political statement, but in the context of the opera, it seems an inevitable conclusion as we realize we’ve somehow normalized the “insanity” of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women, and children needlessly dying on a routine basis.

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

“Right now, given the political climate not only in our country, in the world of culture, the world of politics and society, there’s a lot of upheaval,” Narucki said. ”I do think, no matter how much I revere and adore the works of the operatic canon, that new works that are small scale and address contemporary issues in this way, puncturing the balloon, or puncturing that wall, will end up adding more vitality to the form, and attracting new audiences.

“Hopefully, it’s actually much more. It’s not as much about attracting new audiences as it is about retaking the stage for what artists can be in our society. I feel artists in our field, in the classical field, have in some way ceded their power. Music and performance is an incredibly powerful way to connect people. We doubt that power. We doubt the power we have to move and connect, and works like this bring people together in a way that’s very unexpected. That’s what’s very interesting to me, the idea you can create community and discourse and new ways of understanding each other through pieces of art like this. We do it with film, we do it with some museum installations, we do it with popular music. Why can’t we do it with this?”

Vireo, My Tenacious Muse

Having grown up in a house full of composers, I hit my college years with a heavy dose of curiosity about what else lay out there besides new music. At Yale, I was not required to declare a major right away, and I took many courses in music while also falling slowly and deeply in love with the literature major. It was 1986, the heyday of American poststructuralism, and – unlike the composition faculty – the department’s pantheon of literary theory superstars was strikingly diverse: Harold Bloom (father of the Theory of Originality), Shoshana Felman (French-Israeli feminist deconstructionist), bell hooks a.k.a. Gloria Watkins (proto-postcolonial poet and theorist), and pioneer queer theorist (and nascent opera librettist) Wayne Koestenbaum. It was rigorous and nerdy and glamorous all at once. I was hooked.

Eventually, much to the chagrin of my music professors and some of my family members, I left the music major behind, thinking perhaps that I was turning my back on the “family business.” I embarked on a massive senior thesis in the literature major, with Wayne Koestenbaum as my advisor, entitled “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Originality, closure and reproduction in the collaborative discourses of psychoanalytic hysteria and Surrealism.” Here is a bit of nostalgia: a paragraph from my dot-matrix prospectus in 1990 that articulates, for the first time, a phenomenon in Western cultural history that ended up haunting me for the next 27 years:

Vireo: PROSPECTUS

Here are some images used in my essay and in the research for Vireo:

Vireo-Salpetriere

Painting: Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière. Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887
Dr. Jean Martin Charcot, Parisian neurologist, demonstrates the symptoms of hysteria for a roomful of male students. Charcot was Freud’s teacher.

Vireo-Hysteria

Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie
Louis Aragon, André Bréton
1928: The Surrealists celebrated “The 50th Birthday of Hysteria” as “the most important poetic discovery of the 19th century,” with images of Dr. Charcot’s patients

Little did I know that this discovery was the seed of what would later become my most ambitious compositional endeavor: Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser.

Stream Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser on-demand at KCET.org.

I got an A on the essay, I graduated, and I disappointed my literature professors (there is a pattern here perhaps) by not going on to graduate work in comp lit but moving to New York City to couch surf, audition for singing work, and write music. I became the vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble and went on the 1992 world tour of Einstein on the Beach. But all the while I also kept reading and reading, about these girls whose fits and starts were the subject of assiduous study by groups of ministers and magistrates in Colonial America, priests in 15th-century Italy, neurologists during the Great War. My essay had focused primarily on psychoanalysis and surrealism, but my fascination with these visionary women continued and the scope of my research expanded. My library grew. Today my bookcase dedicated to this area of inquiry is bursting with wide-ranging works from multiple disciplines and centuries:

Vireo BOOKS

In 1993 I was accepted into a two-week program at New Dramatists in NYC called the Composer-Librettist Studio. Four composers and four playwrights created new opera/music theater scenes in a compressed round-robin workshop environment, and brave singers sight-read these scene-lets into being. One of the playwrights was Erik Ehn, whose writing seemed to trigger something in me that made the music write itself. I was in love with his writing, and so I approached him at the end of the session and asked him, with sweaty cold palms, if he would consider working with me on something bigger. I felt like I was asking him to the prom.

We began corresponding, mostly by fax, and I started to send him hefty packages of source materials from my research into young visionary women and the male authority figures who used these girls’ visions and behaviors as proof of their own various theories.

Vireo: RESEARCH-FAX

In a rush of dot-matrix pages came the first draft of a libretto for a traditional opera about a young girl named Vireo: “A fourteen year old girl genius. Lives in the 16th century, born in the 19th, does forward roll into the 20th.”

Vireo: ERIK LETTER

Erik had integrated and assimilated this vastness of source material and created one girl. And on page 29 of this libretto draft, she sang an aria called “The Bat” that seized me immediately:

The Bat.

(Vireo alone in a dark cell, walking circuits. At first she bumps into chair, bed, bucket… but gradually grows accustomed.)

VIREO

In the morning in my house
Before it’s light
I can walk as if the light
Were shining through our
High windows

If in the dark a chair has moved
I can move around it
I know the room so well
There is no out of place

I am not out of place in a jail cell
I close my eyes and cross to make
A breakfast fire
I remember very well and
Solitary suits me
Decorative as a memory

(To the dark, speaking.)
How well do you remember? Are you going to stop?

Here is the very first sketch of music for Vireo from 1993. This eventually became the aria that opens Episode 9 – Alcatraz:

Vireo: BAT SKETCH

My own singing voice was still very young then, and when we went into the studio to record the few songs and arias that I created in that first year, I sang the title role myself, with a variety of archaic sampled instruments accompanying me. This was a cutting-edge MIDI demo in 1994!

The Bat 1994 Demo Recording

Erik and I revised. I kept composing. We went into the studio again. We created packets with synopsis, budgets, and cassette tape work samples (with baritone Gregory Purnhagen as The Doctor, a role he would develop further with terrifying precision 20 years later). I applied for every grant I could find. I sent packages to every opera company in the country, with a letter of support from the then-president of the board of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which I was an alumna. The SFGC had given me my first performances and my first two commissions, and they took special interest as I began work on this ambitious undertaking.

Vireo: SFGC LETTER

I followed up my mass-mailings with phone calls, leaving message after message. But I was just 25 years old and had almost no track record of professional performances of my music. A few kind souls offered bland encouragement; most simply ignored us. After a year and a half of dedicated partnership-seeking, it was clear that Vireo was not finding a home. It wasn’t her time.

I told Erik that I couldn’t foresee any project of this size happening before I built a professional life from the ground up. I felt we needed to shelve Vireo for the time being. He and I both undertook other creative endeavors, sometimes in collaboration on smaller-scale projects. Many years passed, during which time I wrote many, many hours of music – solo, chamber, orchestral, chamber opera, and music theater. Commissions and opportunities grew, and slowly the scale of my projects ramped up. I created massive public-space works for up to 800 professional, amateur, and student musicians. My community of collaborator colleagues grew and deepened: Kronos Quartet, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Alarm Will Sound, cellist Joshua Roman, violinist Jennifer Koh – these musical friendships sparked with possibility.

In all this time, the two years of sketches I made for Vireo lay largely untouched. Correspondence, research, grant applications, and drafts were boxed up. Life took its twists and turns; the box and I moved from the Bronx to Queens, then from Queens to Manhattan. I never “mined” these musical materials for other works, but I always felt their presence at the back of my mind.

The internet came to be. Collaborations unfolded over email instead of fax. Research exploded online, rendering my weeks buried in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale a kind of nostalgic curiosity. In 2009 I made a simple setting of “The Bat” aria for solo English horn, for a series of 15 short works I wrote, each bearing a six-word title. I titled it “I Know This Room So Well.” Vireo was coming back into my consciousness. The remounting of Einstein on the Beach found director Charles Otte, who had been Robert Wilson’s assistant director in 1992, and me back on the road together again, talking about new opera, film, and new media on the bus. In 2013 I became the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, bringing my artistic focus back to the voices of exceptional young women.

Meanwhile, I had started exploring new project ideas as artist-in-residence with the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. GCAC’s Chief Curator and ED John Spiak introduced me to a wide range of potential partners to help generate ideas for how I might make work that could catalyze new relationships in Southern California. He introduced me to Juan Devis, chief creative officer of KCET in LA, and Maria Lazarova, then director of the Classical Voice Conservatory of the Orange County School of the Arts, one of the premier public charter arts schools in the nation. A coin dropped in my mind – here was a school full of young women with superb classical voice training. Maybe Vireo was here! And KCET was at the forefront of arts streaming programming. What if we made a TV/internet series that was an opera? What if that opera was Vireo?!

Things moved forward very fast then. Kronos wanted the pilot. KCET signed on as a partner. Charlie Otte brought a visionary concept and design. The box came down from off of my top shelf, and I excavated.

Dragon-and-Girl

A page from “The Box”: from Draft 1 of the libretto, with notes scribbled during a collaborative meeting between Erik & me in 1994.

It was like seeing the work of a student – a student full of promise but also in way over her head – and yet this student was a younger me. All of the musical ideas felt familiar yet strangely distant. Major structural reworking of the libretto ensued, to embrace the new episodic format. I sifted through the original musical sketches and discovered that I had taken at least a cursory stab at melodic or harmonic material for slightly less than half of the opera. Sometimes I just kept the essence – a harmonic color, a certain phrase, a rhythmic figuration – and other times I started over.

Vireo: SCHOOL

I lifted this one phrase out of early sketches. From it grew the whole “Birth of Caroline” scene in Episode 6, in which you can hear this exact phrase in a whole different setting.

In a few cases, like “The Bat,” I revised only lightly and honored the original. I let the obsessive energy of my earlier self inhabit me, and I felt the power of 20+ years of experience serving to bring the piece to its deserved epic scale. And I let the prodigious gifts of young Rowen Sabala, just 16 years old and a junior at OCSA, breathe new life and inspiration into the role of Vireo.

I would never have dreamed, back in 1990 as a literature major at Yale, or in 1993 when I spent so many months back and forth between the fax machine and the piano, that Vireo would eventually find such complete fulfillment. Now, 350 cast members and musicians, 400+ participants including designers and crew, 12 episodes and over 250,000 viewers later, I feel a certain wonder at the delicate thread that kept the project alive in the back of my mind, in a box at the back of my closet, for so many years. Its protracted latency period gave Vireo the opportunity to feed off of many life lessons, relationships and maturations. Her metamorphosis is complete.

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Remsen Allard

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In a 2015 interview, Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the non-profit service organization OPERA America, conveyed his optimism for the future of American opera:

Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today. There are composers, librettists, directors, and designers who really want to do new American opera for a whole variety of reasons…We now have an American opera repertoire.

OPERA America was established in 1970 by professional opera companies for opera companies. While their professional company membership today continues to predominantly feature traditional opera companies in North America, they now offer artistic services to a wider range of nontraditional entities that operate within and beyond the field of opera. As a national organization, it makes sense that OPERA America’s current mission statement prioritizes the creation and excellence of North American works especially. But OPERA America was not always devoted to new works. In fact, this priority only developed after the organization’s first decade in response to critical changes in the field. OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they designated a landmark suite of grants to cultivate new music theater collaborations.

American opera’s previous heyday occurred in the 1960s when the Ford Foundation commissioned 22 works, two of which were produced by the Metropolitan Opera, one each by San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and 11 by the New York City Opera. Familiar titles include Robert Ward’s The Crucible (1961), Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966), and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1967). These new operas had mixed reception among audiences and singers, who often preferred 18th- and 19th-century standard repertoire. Opera houses also found that the new works required more costly preparations, such as extra rehearsal time for roles that singers usually never had an opportunity to perform again. Although the Ford Foundation successfully extended the American opera repertoire, their commissioning program was not sustainable and it ceased when the money ran out. Thus, during OPERA America’s formative years in the early 1970s, U.S. opera companies encountered a relative downturn in financial support for new works.

Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra

By the late 1970s, a cohort of progressive opera and theater administrators reached beyond the boundaries of opera by galvanizing grants for collaborations. The National Endowment for the Arts debuted the Opera-Musical Theater program in 1979, which enabled interaction between opera and theater companies that previously had been assigned to the separate divisions of music and theater, respectively. The NEA Opera-Musical Theater program’s advisory board listed diverse figures, including opera company general directors David Gockley and Kurt Herbert Adler, opera composers Thea Musgrave and Carlisle Floyd, musical theater composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and theater producers Hal Prince and Stuart Ostrow. Although the Opera-Musical Theater program successfully funded premieres and fostered new works in their early stages, this program alone did not enact the transformation OPERA America professionals were pursuing. In the early 1980s, productions of new American operas by U.S. companies remained limited: 1981 saw four world premieres in the United States, 1982 had seven, 1983 had five, and 1984 had only three. At this juncture, the forward-looking members of OPERA America hoped to stimulate the creation of any new works, even if their ultimate desire was for the works to become canonical with repeat performances.

It was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields.

A network of arts professionals, including Rockefeller Foundation Arts Director Howard Klein and impresarios Harvey Lichtenstein and David Gockley, believed the solution was to look beyond opera establishments to the vital world of experimental music theater, most successfully represented by the collaborative efforts of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach (1976). Many of these music theater artists were active in the Downtown New York scene—Glass, Wilson, Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, and Lee Breuer—but others, including Paul Dresher and George Coates, worked in San Francisco. They had little or no contact with U.S. opera companies at the time. OPERA America President David DiChiera contended that “it was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields, for that would serve to accentuate even more the atrophy current within our industry.”

OPERA America initiated new undertakings to address these issues with the help of Klein and Ann Farris Darling, director of the NEA Opera-Musical Theater Program. In August of 1983, Klein, Darling, and OPERA America Executive Director Martin Kagan and President David DiChiera held a three-day meeting in Detroit with 32 participants: composers, conductors, playwrights, stage directors, and opera house general directors with experience in new opera and related music theater works. The invitees were strategic: the meeting planners specifically wanted to bring together artists from the worlds of opera and musical theater. All attendees considered the particular limitations or opportunities that influenced opera companies in the creation of new American works. They brainstormed methods to minimize the artistic and monetary risks that determined whether or not a company would commission new operas.

Klein believed that opera companies ought to observe the theater world for inspiration: “Unlike theater, which nourished playwrights through workshops and productions, opera had no farm team for creators.” This issue, along with the time and money needed for commissions and productions, drove Klein and others to set up a support system for creating new works titled “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” (hereafter OFTEAB). The program offered three types of grants: Exploration Fellowships (allowing personnel to see new works and meet artists), Team Building Grants (funding artist/administrator meetings for potential works), and Development Grants (subsidizing creative costs for commissions and productions).

Money was only part of the problem.

Yet even as OPERA America personnel launched OFTEAB, they were not convinced all opera companies would take advantage of its grants. Consequently, OFTEAB’s first project director had the key duty of visiting and interviewing opera company administrators across North America to diagnose the reasons why they did not program new works. Their hire, Ben Krywosz, was a stage director who had experience with innovative music theater creation through the National Institute for Music Theater at Minnesota Opera. After meeting with dozens of opera companies, he noted in his final report that “money was only part of the problem. In fact, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) mission of most opera companies was to produce masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European opera. Creating new work was a completely different activity that was not particularly compatible with the production process of most opera companies.” In order for OFTEAB to work, Krywosz felt these companies needed to broaden their horizons and mission statements to include the creation of new operas. Some companies resisted OFTEAB, as they were not keen to change their approach. “Playing a pro-active role in challenging the field’s assumptions about the operatic form,” Krywosz explained, “was seen by some in the field as a subversive activity, inconsistent with OPERA America’s broader goals of supporting opera.” The Detroit meeting participants had predicted this issue, which is why OFTEAB’s funding, namely the exploration fellowships and pre-commissioning grants, functioned as educational outreach for general directors who were unfamiliar with emerging artists and new processes of creating music theater.

For more details about the particular works that resulted from OFTEAB and the risk-taking arts administrators involved, see “Funding Opera for the 80s and Beyond: The Role of Impresarios in Creating a New American Repertoire” in the Spring 2017 issue of American Music.

The influence of “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” on the American opera landscape became clear by its completion in 1990. Nontraditional opera companies, among them the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group in New York City, now appeared as OPERA America member organizations, which continued to grow in number throughout the 1990s. The annual number of American opera premieres had also increased throughout the decade (e.g., 1998 had 31). In fact, this rate has remained constant to the present day: an average of 30 works premiered each year between 1995 and 2015.

The above average of 30 new works per year resulted from a 2015 OPERA America study that tracked the numbers, names, and composer demographics of North American world premieres over the past 20 years. This document offers a useful window into the organization’s more recent institutional priorities. For instance, the report found that only 71 (11%) of the 589 works premiered during this period have had more than one production. OPERA America’s programs have triumphed with the rise of annual premieres, yet most of these works have not entered the operatic canon with revivals. The exceptions belong to composers Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, who according to the report enjoyed the highest number of revivals: Adamo’s Little Women (1998) had 66 and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) had 42. Philip Glass followed with 25 revivals (of multiple operas) and the highest number of world premieres (12 operas). Another area of concern for OPERA America is the lack of gender diversity. Only 41 out of 373 total composers were female. Today OPERA America has addressed this gap by facilitating a Women’s Opera Network and new grants for female composers.

Despite these achievements, Krywosz looks back at the 1980s as “heady times” compared to today, in which new works are more common. He assessed the situation over email in 2014: “Most of the work is fairly staid, new wine in old bottles, and we are headed dangerously toward a rather boring convention of naturalistic prose librettos, set in an arioso/recit style that doesn’t even begin to take advantage of the power of music-theater.” Today Krywosz continues to advocate for boundary-crossing works over in Minnesota as artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater, where he works as a producer, director, and dramaturg of new operas and other forms of music theater. Some may perceive OPERA America’s mission of reaching “within and beyond the opera field” as empty talk, but Krywosz points out “there is a contingent within the organization (Beth Morrison, Paul Dresher, HERE, etc.) that [is] more adventuresome and can’t be discounted.”

At the same time, as John Pippen argues in a previous article in this series, “New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people.” Perhaps the same could be said of new American opera. Debates over its future highlight a complex web of expectations concerning not only the importance of radical artistic vision but also the commercial realities and conventional operatic norms of larger institutions that cannot afford to fail in the same way that smaller organizations might.

Returning to Scorca’s point at the beginning, if “we now have an American opera repertoire,” what kind of repertoire is it? In addition to Beth Morrison Projects, American Opera Projects and the American Lyric Theater aim to shape this repertoire from the ground up. A range of small organizations, Opera Parallèle and The Industry among them, also champion contemporary opera and music theater, and their influence has radiated outward: Opera Parallèle’s artistic director Nicole Paiement is now a principal guest conductor at The Dallas Opera. Such larger institutions continue to sprinkle new works into their programming, often working with arts incubators and shouldering costs through coproductions. But the “American New Opera Machine” still has its downsides: Frank Pesci, for instance, recently described the challenges emerging artists face when trying to break onto the American opera scene. As the field continues to work for change, the legacy of OFTEAB remains at OPERA America with its New Works Forums, Exploration Grants, and Audience and Repertoire Development funds.


Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf will begin a new position this fall as a program analyst at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program. Her research, featured in NewMusicBox and American Music, examines the interplay between administrators, artists, and performing arts institutions during the late 20th century. Previously, Metcalf was a visiting assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Getting close with Saariaho and L’amour de loin

Kaija Saariaho

The arrival of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in New York is a big deal. As Zachary Woolfe informed us last Saturday in his New York Times guide to the opera’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera this December, it’s “one of the most important events of the fall season.” This is certainly true for the Met, for New York City’s cultural denizens, and for audiences in about 2,000 movie theaters around the world who will attend the HD live broadcast on December 10. But many of us—composers, performers, musicians, and academics—already knew this to be the case, given the growing interest in Saariaho’s work, including in the United States. In 1999, the New York Philharmonic commissioned from Saariaho her Oltra Mar: Seven Preludes for the New Millennium. Last fall, the University of Berkeley invited her for a semester to deliver the prestigious Bloch Lectures, accompanied by performances of her works. She was also featured at the 2015 Louisville New Music Festival. This fall, she is in residence at the Mannes School of Music and, last month, the New York Philharmonic celebrated her 64th birthday on October 14 with two all-Saariaho programs conducted by her favorite conductor, colleague, and compatriot, Esa Pekka Salonen. This year will culminate with the performance of her opera at the Met throughout the month of December.

L’Amour de loin was chosen to be the first opera composed by a woman to be presented at the Met in more than a century.

But in the 1980s, it was not clear—not even to her—that she could compose a compelling opera. It took her almost a decade, throughout the 1990s, to conceive what would become her first opera. She then composed L’Amour de loin over eighteen months in 1999 and 2000. The premiere took place in 2000, in Salzburg—before the productions that took place in her native Helsinki, or in her adoptive city of Paris, where she has lived most of the last three decades. After more than ten productions in Europe and America, L’Amour de loin was chosen to be the first opera composed by a woman to be presented at the Met in more than a century, following Ethel Smyth’s 1903 Der Wald.

Saariaho’s professional beginnings were not easy. Born in Helsinki in 1952, she had to struggle with her education in a male-dominated culture, like most female composers of her generation. Two professors refused to teach her composition because she was, in her own words, a “pretty girl, getting soon married, and, you know, they have more important things to do”—an attitude that, at least during the initial stages of her career, compelled her to disavow any label or commentary about her as a “female composer.” Her meetings with spectralist composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail in the early-1980s in Darmstadt seem to have released her from the new complexity of the avant-garde at the time (and perhaps her teacher, Brian Ferneyhough), and she soon settled in Paris, the only woman composer to work with electronic music at IRCAM. Motherhood—and not only the revelation of listening to two heartbeats within her own body that she later incorporated in her music—led her to the themes in her music of the last two decades, especially her other theatrical-vocal works, Adriana Mater (2005), La Passion de Simone (2006), and Emilie (2008).

Given this evolution and after years of composing what might have been construed as “masculine music,” Saariaho has become more inclined to talk about the feminine sides of her profession and in her music. In my interview with her during the 2015 Louisville New Music Festival, she candidly disclosed her struggles as a young woman and her new openness with her femininity. Her initial interaction with performers was not much different than what she experienced with her first teachers. When she approached her favorite cellist to perform her Im Traume, the response was far from what she had expected:

I called him and asked if he would like to make the recording for the Finnish radio, and he found it so funny—that a girl would call him up and ask him to play her music—that he was just laughing. He was just laughing. He was so surprised that so finally he never played my music. So I already then realized that it was not completely their fault. It’s the cultural situation, and that has evolved a lot, and yet, of course, we all know that there is no equality.

Perhaps this formative experience taught her to lead her career with more deliberation regarding contact with performers, even much later in her career when “compliments” about her music—which did not sound as if it were “written by a woman”—had become an old memory. In order to prepare methodically to compose L’Amour de loin and to secure its success, Saariaho preceded it with three works—Château de l’âme (1995), Lonh (1996), and Oltra mar (1998-99)—and she concluded her work on the opera’s themes with a symphonic poem with soloists and choir, consisting of five lieder/chansons encapsulating the whole opera: Cinq reflects de L’Amour de loin (2001). These were not merely experiments with moods and concepts for the opera, but also a way to initiate contact with her ideal partners through relatively smaller projects. The first was soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom Saariaho composed her Château de l’âme (The Castle of Soul, also dedicated to the composer’s daughter, Aliisa) for soprano, eight female voices, and orchestra, setting texts from the Hindu and ancient Egyptian traditions. Since she had previously composed almost exclusively for instruments and stayed away from melody as a core element in her music (during the 1980s, she had focused on timbre and structure), Château de l’âme was a milestone in her music, now re-embracing vocal melody, which had inspired her very early works. In Lonh (Afar, also dedicated to Upshaw), her experiment focused on the vocal lines against the electronic background, initially planned for the prologue of the opera.

Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim and Eric Owens as Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The profound skill and beauty of Saariaho’s work resonated in her third work, which was later used in the opera, mostly in the fourth act: Oltra Mar: Seven Preludes for the New Millennium for large orchestra and mixed choir. Here, expressions of spectralist techniques are clearly audible not only through her seas of shimmering noises-turning-into-songs but also in their melodic ornamentations and the heterophonically consonant (listen; this is not an oxymoron in Oltra Mar) waves, clearly following the harmonics with the fundamental perfect fifths repeating as a natural ostinato, more like ocean waves crashing on the shore than metronome-mechanic pulsating musical ostinati. The sixth prelude of Oltra Mar, “Mort: in memory of Gérard Grisey”—he passed away during its composition—evokes death through the stillness of the texture, repeating almost the same cluster about fifteen times and then turning chillingly to an arresting climax. Its stasis, however, is imbued with the richness she extracted from Grisey’s style, which inspired her to transform her own two decades earlier.

L’Amour de loin (literally “love from afar”) is inspired by the poem “Lanquan li jorn lonc en mai” by the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf worked on the libretto with Saariaho, creating a captivating, highly poetic text which materialized into an opera that conveys beauty, first and foremost. It is a work about an emotional and spiritual journey—about the eternal themes of love and death embodied in a medieval troubadour. He is a character tired of the life of a Lothario and longing for a real love, but who dies at the moment he finally attains his desire. As such, it could well be tagged (dangerously, of course) as anti-masculine: it lacks the common “action” that we might expect from some operas. No wars, no fights, no murder or mayhem, no violence. Indeed, L’Amour de loin has been described as an opera with no drama—a misnomer. The opera’s dramatic elements are almost entirely internal, occurring within the minds of its three protagonists: Jaufré, who yearns for his real love, Clémence, his love from afar, from Tripoli, and the mediating Pilgrim between them, all supported by their respective quasi-Greek choruses. The chorus of the Tripolese women, Clémence’s friends, tries to ground her while she gradually falls in love with Jaufré; his chorus of companions does the same, balancing his unrealistic yearning. Both choruses seem to give voice to the inner dialog of the lovers’ minds. Often, there is only the one character on stage—and audiences are mesmerized throughout.

Beauty in contemporary opera might be seen as rather rare. Saariaho’s sweet dissonances dissolve into simple, pure sounds again and again, creating the desired sense of tension and release—leaning on minimalist techniques for temporal stasis and spectralist idioms for the beauty of her sound. She does cite (her interpretation of the original notation of) Rudel’s original medieval songs. Her syntheses of the medieval style, minimalism, and spectralism—with touches of Debussy’s vocal style from his Pelléas et Mélisende and echoes of Wagner’s Tristan (the latter, clear at the end of the opera)—are just that, compelling syntheses; the seams are unseen, making us blind to yet transfixed by the stylistic transitions, a Saariaho hallmark. All that said, it is not this, or the stirring beauty of Maalouf’s poetry or of the troubadour singing, that gives L’Amour de loin its unique sound. It is the charm of Saariaho’s orchestral music, the musical echo of the inner drama that has captivated audiences and critics. At the foundation of her skillful, rich timbres lies a thin but iridescent fabric woven out of a handful of harmonic threads which span the entire opera. She might also mean to take us back to classical concepts of harmony, where three main functions are sufficient for creating powerful harmonic drive and structural coherence—both of which also characterize L’Amour de loin. In his search for his real love, Jaufré is yearning for a woman who is “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety”—characteristics it would not be far-fetched to attribute to L’Amour de loin as well.


Ronit Seter studies 20th-century music and specializes in Israeli art music. She served on the faculties of the Peabody Conservatory, the George Washington University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and American University (DC). A contributor to the Grove Music Online, she has published in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Jewish Women Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Judaica, Tempo, Notes, Min-Ad, Journal of the American Musicological Society, and Musical Quarterly. Her book in progress on Israeli composers is under contract with Oxford University Press.

Queer and Loathing in Las Vegas: Performing Community in Hagen’s Vera

Vera of Las Vegas
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

Opera is not readily known for portraying inclusion; while many works perform some kind of exoticism seen mostly through colonialist lenses, the locales reflect a mostly Western world and the characters are generally confined to some kind of heteronormative, European sameness. Opera does have its moments; othering, mis-gendering, and bodily discrepancies do appear, mostly in the guise of the otherworldly or magical, in the strange bodies of the castrato or the playful deceit of the trouser role. However, these attempts at difference do not look to address inclusion. If anything, these bodies and voices are isolated and marginalized, if even human. Aside from these instances, the typical operatic character framework does not present difference of a sexual, gendered, or racial kind.

New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.

The first half of the 20th century saw the demise of the great operatic heroine and out of the fracture arose a focus on male roles, ensemble casts, and female roles singing in a completely new way. And as opera became a more racially integrated affair, new disconnects emerged while similarly allowing for new audiences to see their bodies presented as operatic vehicles. The combination of extended vocal techniques, technology, and radical staging stood as an operatic representation of a seemingly more progressive society. Opera and contemporary culture, for example, have come drastically close to each other in works like Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna. New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.

Shequida Hall

Shequida Hall (Vera); Center for Contemporary Opera, New York City. Photo by Mel Rosenthal

Daron Hagen’s 2003 opera Vera of Las Vegas stands as a meeting of both character and vocal difference set in the underbelly of Las Vegas—a world of strippers, drag queens, INS agents, and gamblers. The opera is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-lite, recalling the structure of Weill’s Mahagonny-Singspiel. The eponymous character is sung by a countertenor, a voice type that is still integrating itself into current performance practice and repertoire. The operatic countertenor is a construct of the late 20th century, one that is now synonymous with historically informed operatic performance practice. Recent operas that use countertenors, such as those by Glass, Adès, and Benjamin, exploit the fantastical, comic, and regal attributes associated with countertenor performance—a recalling of those otherworldly bodies from 18th-century Italian opera. In Hagen’s opera, however, we see something quite different. Here, a male countertenor sings in drag, performing a kind of inverse trouser role. This is most notable when examining the opera’s premiere which featured opera singer and drag artist Shequida singing the role of Vera Allemagne.

Vera herself is a drag queen, complicating matters further as the type of drag vocal performance to which we might be accustomed—where a drag queen either lip syncs or sings “as a woman”—does not seem to translate onto the operatic stage. The Lacanian disassociation of voice from body that often happens by audiences attending opera is further removed here: not only do we not recognize the voice, we do not recognize the body from which it comes. Just as Strauss’s Octavian makes us question exactly who we are listening to in Der Rosenkavalier, Vera’s many gendered levels obfuscates any attempt at locating an Ur-voice or Ur-body. The character of Vera is African-American, an important aspect to the narrative of the story. The singers who have performed Vera have been primarily countertenors of color including Brian Asawa and Eduardo Lopez de Casas, and in his program notes, Hagen compares Vera to Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, conjuring up images of black bodies performing a kind of transcendent yet palpable otherness. While all of these bodily markers may seem defining, the separation that still occurs with the presentation of the high male voice gives the role an emptiness onto which several bodies can be mapped. Hagen notes that this quality made the role “viable for many more audiences.”[1]

Vera and Doll

Brian Azawa (Vera), Heidi Moss (Doll); West Edge Opera; Oakland, CA. Photo by J Buschbaum

Visibly and dramatically, there is always that flash of maleness, both for the characters within the opera and for the audience as well. We know that Vera is more than she seems. But what some would call the inherent vocal drag nature of the countertenor—a term that musicologist Jelena Novak applies to the castrato—locks the character into a state of femininity, however altered that state might be. This is reinforced dramatically when Vera participates in the act of heteronormative marriage, where she stands in as a bride wed to a male groom. The groom’s awareness of Vera’s double self seems of little issue, reinforcing the female role in this performative marital act for the audience. But despite this final act, Vera’s character is different, and she proclaims as much in her last aria. Her references to Aschenbach and Tadzio, Abelard and Héloïse, display the types of love stories in which Vera recognizes herself, much to her chagrin. The plausibly more well-known relationship of Aschenbach and Tadzio from Thomas Mann’s novella Der Tod in Venedig and popularized in Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, recalls to those in the know complicated constructions of desire, masculinity, and ephebophilia. For Abelard, the 12th-century French philosopher, and Héloïse, the young French girl of letters, the reference conjures up the secret and illicit, the sacred, profane, mystical, as well as tragic. Vera’s previous encounters with men have placed her in the role of Tadzio and Héloïse, an image she actively denounces while fighting against the realization that this might indeed be part of her truth. She is both normative and non-normative, male and female, empowered and marginalized. And just as those names carry meaning for both Vera and the listening audience, so does her own, as pointed out by John Redmond.[2] Her surname, Loman, connects her back to Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman; she is both the seller and the experience to be sold. She exists as the liminality through which anything is possible.

Catchalls

Catchalls; Opera Theater Ireland, Dublin. Photo courtesy Opera Theater

The ability of contemporary opera to portray radical bodily performances, rather than use race, gender, and voice to uphold ingrained operatic tropes, allows access for underrepresented groups to see themselves depicted on stage. And though, like Mahagonny, Vera presents underbelly and camp, the work is an operatic offshoot of other theatrical arts that present counterculture performance. Vera is a somewhat extreme example—one can look to the male homosociality of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick as another example of the performing of hidden communities—but it identifies the power of the voice-body construct in opera and its ability to make opera a mirror of a more contemporary audience.


Imani Mosley

Imani Mosley is a bassoonist and Ph.D. student in musicology at Duke University, specializing in mid-20th century British and American Music, opera, and the music of Benjamin Britten. Her dissertation focuses on the queering of heteronormative operatic tropes in Britten’s mid-century operas and the reception history surrounding their premieres.



1. Daron Hagen, “Vera of Las Vegas: Evolution of a Cult Opera,” https://youtu.be/hGGp5Ko8vRo.


2. John Redmond, “Distrusting the Self,” The Poetry Ireland Review, 71 (2001), 52-57. “For Vera Loman, a cross-dressing lapdancer, nomen est omen … Vera is a seller, in this case of his gender. He/she, like the opera’s setting, embodies the consumerism at the heart of American society; his is a character available for consumption by the other characters; his is an absence of identity, an emptiness reflected by the kitsch casino environment.” (first italics Redmond’s, second italics mine)

Opera Philadelphia Names Rene Orth 6th Composer in Residence

Rene Orth

Opera Philadelphia, in collaboration with Music-Theatre Group in New York, has announced that composer Rene Orth has been selected as its sixth composer in residence. Funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the position combines an individualized plan of study with a living stipend and health benefits.

Orth’s appointment began on June 1, 2016. She joins composers in residence David T. Little, who was appointed in June 2014, and David Hertzberg, who was appointed in June 2015. Composers Missy Mazzoli, Lembit Beecher, and Andrew Norman have all completed their residencies with Opera Philadelphia.

Originally from Dallas, Orth recently completed her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she held the Edward B. Garrigues Fellowship and studied with David Ludwig, Jennifer Higdon, and Richard Danielpour. Her chamber opera Empty the House, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, received its world premiere with Curtis Opera Theatre in a sold-out run in January 2016. The piece was also selected to be a part of Fort Worth Opera’s FRONTIERS showcase in May 2016.

Orth is a recipient of a 2016 OPERA America Discovery Grant for Female Composers, which will help provide funding for the development of Machine, a new chamber opera with librettist Jason Kim. In 2014, Washington National Opera commissioned Orth for a chamber opera, An American Man. With a libretto by Jason Kim, the work premiered at the Kennedy Center as part of WNO’s American Opera Initiative.

(–From the press release. Read the full announcement here.)

“People Power”—The Communal Ethos of Satyagraha

Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside on Lincoln Center Plaza
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

In the chilly night air of December 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside on Lincoln Center Plaza. Inside the nearby Metropolitan Opera House, the third act of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha drew to a close as the character of Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed: “When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age…for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.” Shortly thereafter, Glass led the Occupy demonstrators in a recitation of these same words. Driving home the link between OWS and the opera, a man exhorted departing patrons to cross the police barricades and join the crowd of activists. “What would Gandhi do?” he bellowed. “It’s a real life play! The opera is your life! Your life is the opera Satyagraha!”

“What would Gandhi do?” Although rhetorical in nature, the question nevertheless hints at an ethos that animates both Satyagraha and the OWS movement: community.

The cultivation of community is fundamental to new music, as other essays in this series demonstrate. Community as an ideal takes various forms, from Bang on a Can’s conscious programming of antithetical musical styles to implicit critiques of traditional musical authorship in collectives such as Pulsa and the Theater of Eternal Music. In these, community finds expression through social practice. But how does this communal ethos actually translate into music (as one audience member asked at the recent New Music Gathering)? In Satyagraha, this value is encoded both musically and dramatically. Moreover, community informs not only the relations between artistic collaborators, but also extends to the audience.

Writing for an NEA review of American opera in 1988, Glass dismissed what he called “simple authorship,” which might be understood with reference to the fact that operas are almost always identified simply by their composer: Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Glass’s Satyagraha. (In reality, the authorship of most operas is more complicated.) Referencing the 1980s influx of experimental artists into the opera world—a transformation brought out in part by a network of risk-taking impresarios and philanthropic institutions—Glass championed a complex model of authorship:

One of the big differences between the Italian tradition of repertory opera and the contemporary tradition—mostly people younger than myself and myself—is that this tends to be group work. You can use the word collaboration…

That’s simply the way we work. I come from a tradition of group theater work…This is the contemporary tradition of theater, which has only just begun to be practiced in the world of opera.

…We’re looking at a real revolution—a revolution in methods of working, collaborative ways of working, ways pieces are produced and ways they ask the audience to perceive them.[1]

Glass’s first commissioned opera, Satyagraha, was the product of this collaborative ideal.

Less than a month after Einstein on the Beach appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1976, Glass had partnered with writer and artist Constance DeJong, a friend from SoHo, for his new project. Within a year or so, Robert Israel—another SoHo acquaintance who happened to be serving a three-year residency at the commissioning institution, the Netherlands Opera—joined Glass and DeJong. Although Glass had the initial idea for the opera’s subject, together these three developed the primary components of the opera—music, text, image. (Movement would come at a later stage via director David Pountney.)

Borrowing a strategy from various mid-century avant-garde theater collectives, Glass, DeJong, and Israel decided that image and movement should carry the weight of the non-linear, episodic narrative of Gandhi’s South African years. In a move that shifted authority away from traditional operatic narrative devices of words and music, DeJong constructed the Sanskrit libretto using excerpts from the Bhagavad-Gita, while Glass composed in a newly developed post-minimalist style that resists narrative and representation.[2] In de-familiarizing text and music, the collaborators worked to destabilize conventional operatic notions of authorship. Under this aesthetic, no single element dominates the theatrical discourse, rendering meaning ambivalent.

This, according to Glass’s understanding of Cage’s maxim, leaves room for the audience to “complete” the work. By bringing together the parallel layers of music, image, movement, and text in their subjective (yet communal) experiences of Satyagraha, spectators join in the process of authorship. They derive their own meanings at different points of the opera, and in doing so become part of a larger community.

Satyagraha expresses community through its internal features as well. Both music and dramaturgy foreground the collective human element necessary for the realization of Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience. Although the opera is nominally about Gandhi, the focus lies more on the communities he fostered. This shift in emphasis took shape over the course of multiple drafts of the plot—one of the earliest of which consisted of twelve chronological scenes. In a 2014 interview, DeJong recalled this development:

At some point, everything crystallized and changed when the interest became not on biography but on the genesis of non-violent civil disobedience…now, not only was the subject vaguely interesting, it was superbly interesting and relevant, and it was about an idea and not a person. And that really mattered to me. Then, soon, the opera really became about the continuity of an idea…

The first page of Constance DeJong’s second outline of <em>Satyagraha</em>.

The first page of Constance DeJong’s second outline of Satyagraha.

Musically, this communal ethos meant that the solo vocal virtuosity typical of much opera was discarded in favor of small ensemble and large choral numbers. The chorus shoulders four out of the seven scenes, leading Glass to characterize Satyagraha as “practically a choral opera.” DeJong stresses the importance of the chorus in starker terms:

If you have a political movement, you have to have people. A real central character to Satyagraha is the chorus. They’re not there supporting the soloists, which is a very unusual feature of an opera. They have those big scenes, the most dramatic scenes, actually, in the first and second act. They function as a character. The dimension that brings to the opera musically is huge.

Dramaturgically, DeJong, Glass, and Israel focus attention on episodes from Gandhi’s South African sojourn that demonstrate the power of community. The opera’s second scene, for instance, reenacts the formation of Tolstoy Farm in 1910, a co-operative commonwealth that served as the headquarters of Gandhi’s South African campaign.

Scene Structure of <em>Satyagraha</em>

Scene Structure of Satyagraha

In an overt testament to their own experiences of communal action, the collaborators chose to have Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as a historical “witness” to the culminating final scene, which represents Gandhi’s 1913 Newcastle March. In a 2014 interview, Israel reflected that the decision to link Gandhi with MLK “couldn’t have happened without young people having been involved in Civil Rights, in concern about the war.” Israel’s wife was one such young person, having served as an activist in 1960s Alabama.

As if to emphasize the importance of collective action, Glass positioned the chorus at the musical center of the final act. Moreover, what is implicit in Gandhi’s closing lines—the reference to reincarnation—becomes explicit in the opera’s staging, as time and space bleed together. In the premiere production, over the course of the final scene Alabama state troopers removed members of Gandhi’s satyagraha army—i.e., the chorus—from the stage, until Gandhi and King were left alone. In the closing moments of the opera, the satyagraha army appeared in the starry night sky behind King, thus visually transferring the idea of non-violent civil disobedience across time and space from turn-of-the-century South Africa to the United States at mid-century.

Production photo of <em>Satyagraha</em>, 1980

Production photo of Satyagraha, 1980

The music of Satyagraha participates in this transfer as well, albeit in a less concrete way. In the opening and throughout most of the Act III, Glass employs a chaconne that slides between two harmonic poles: F minor to E major.

harmony example

In the final section of the act, however, this relationship between F and E undergoes a transformation which, when heard in the context of the third act mise-en-scène, suggests the transfer of Gandhi’s ideals and legacy to King. Once Gandhi and King remain alone onstage, a harmonic transformation crystallizes beneath Gandhi’s repetitions of a rising Phrygian scale on E. The F minor of the opening chaconne evolves into F major; E major becomes an implied E minor. Only in the concluding two measures does the ambiguity of the E minor clarify into C major—virtue is set on her seat again, the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.

harmony example 2

When Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott reimagined the opera for the ENO–Met co-production in 2007–08 (revised in 2011–12), the emphasis on collective action took on a modified form that later resonated with the Occupy movement. In this rendering, members of the Improbable Theatre Company share the symbolic mantle of satyagraha with the chorus. Garbed in the muted, earthy costumes of a lower socio-economic caste, the so-called Skills Ensemble stands in deliberate contrast to the perceived opulence of the operatic genre. Throughout they remain a continuous but silent presence, creating and manipulating huge puppets, changing the sets, and assuming the roles of Tolstoy, Tagore, and King. Crouch’s reasoning was straightforward: “We wanted to create transformations using people rather than big stage machinery.”

The symbolic role of the Skills Ensemble is most apparent in the closing act, where the temporal blending of the 1913 Newcastle March and the Civil Rights movement extends into the present, as police in contemporary riot gear descend on Gandhi’s comrades. At the opera’s conclusion, the stagehands alone remain on stage with Gandhi and King. This reimagining of the voiceless, lower-caste stagehands—the embodied means of production, the 99%—as the embodiment of satyagraha offers a poignant reflection of pressing 21st-century concerns over rising inequality and political disenfranchisement.

“What would Gandhi do?” Foster community, because ideas ultimately rely on people, much as new music depends on a vibrant network of committed performers, composers, presenters, collaborators, and audiences. In Satyagraha, this communal ethos emerges musically, dramaturgically, and in the acts of creation and audience reception. “Gandhi’s leadership,” Crouch pointed out, “was obviously massively important, but what he achieved was done through people power.”


Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach.


1. Philip Glass, “Philip Glass. Composer. New York City,” ARTSREVIEW 5, no. 1: America’s Opera, ed. Dodie Kazanjian (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 1988), 18.


2. See, for instance, Timothy Johnson, “Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique?” Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (Winter): 742–44.

Creating Points of Entry Into Opera Through Video

streaming opera icons

A love of opera can be cultivated through unconventional, video-based viewing experiences.

In my previous column, I argued that making more films of contemporary opera performances available to the public, particularly in the form of streaming video, is important for the future of the art form. This week I consider specifically how video can act as a pivotal force in creating points of entry for people who have little prior interest in or experience with opera—new works and classics alike. I’ll conclude with a discussion of implications for educational media, illustrated by a description of my research and design work on a proposal for multi-platform, mobile-augmented opera viewing experiences.

Opening Doors to Discovery

Much has been written about simulcasts of live operas streaming to movie theaters. I think they’re an enjoyable alternative to live opera and one way to make opera available to more people. Unfortunately, at least some of these programs don’t appear to be attracting new audiences to opera to the extent that one might hope, drawing instead on many of the same viewers who would attend live performances. A survey by English Touring Opera indicated that such screenings will not necessarily generate new audiences for opera and may even lead viewers to choose simulcasts over live attendance.

Even so, I’d like to suggest that the full potential for filmed opera more generally as an avenue through which to generate public interest in the medium has yet to be fully appreciated or fully exploited. Creating viewing opportunities in homes and other informal environments may be one of the keys to making films of opera even more accessible and appealing than attending a simulcast in a movie theater, which requires a higher degree of interest and motivation to begin with. Such experiences provide a setting conducive to discovery and learning, which could open doors for people who’ve not yet stumbled upon that performance of an opera that grabbed their interest and changed their perspective.

My own earliest memories of moments when I felt strongly connected to opera—moments that cemented my interest in this medium and have led me to pursue it as both a consumer and a creator—revolve around films of live opera on DVD. As a teenager, I would curl up in the living room and watch and re-watch The Metropolitan Opera’s 1990 films of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen or the 2002 film of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, among others—all of which I’d checked out from my small local library on Long Island through inter-library loan. Fast forward a couple years and you’d find me spending hours in dimly lit Firestone Library in the basement of New England Conservatory, consuming Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles or rare European DVDs of the better part of Janáček’s operatic oeuvre with fascination and admiration.

(On a related note: After living for several years in New York and Boston, two of the country’s best cities for the arts, I’ve still never had the opportunity to see live productions of many of these favorite operas. Opera companies’ pursuit of popular programming choices, along with the inherent limitations of how many works can be produced in any given season, are yet more reasons why having access to archived filmed operas can be so important!)

By exploring the world of opera on video, I was able to seek out the repertoire that spoke most directly to me—which was made possible by having a vast catalog to choose from and being able to watch older productions “on demand” (in the cases mentioned above, through libraries). Additionally, I was able to enjoy these works with the convenience, focus, and immediacy that a domestic or at least semi-private environment affords. Furthermore, access to films gave me the ability to watch the same pieces repeatedly, which enabled me to develop sensitivity to subtleties of singing and performance, the role of music in drama, and an overall familiarity with a work that a one-off experience of even the most wonderful live performance could not provide, nor could an audio recording without the visual components of staging. In short, I got to know these filmed performance in the same way that you might know your favorite album or movie.

Opera videos provided the “way in” I needed to become a fan, which led me to pursue live opera performances and eventually to compose opera myself. Now I’m looking for ways to help more people find their way in, too.

opera word cloud

The stories and emotions expressed in opera are universal.

Applying Educational Design: Opera Connect

During my recent graduate studies at New York University in educational media, I worked on Opera Connect: a user experience design for social, technology-guided opera viewing experiences that create points of entry into opera for underserved audiences. This project awaits development, as well as more extensive prototyping and user testing, but I offer a description of it here to demonstrate one potentially effective approach to using films of live performances to engage viewers who have little-to-no prior experience with opera. (An expanded version of the following research and design narrative is available on my website, as is a full write-up on the project detailing research sources and methods.)

The fundamental premise for Opera Connect is that stories and emotions expressed in opera are universal: therefore, more kinds of people should have access to learning experiences that foster an appreciation of opera. My first step in approaching this challenge was 1) To identify my target audience—primarily (but not exclusively) adults aged 18-35, who are not already knowledgeable about opera and who may be racial minorities and/or relatively low income—by examining which demographics are underserved by existing opera and opera film programs (an in-depth survey of audiences for The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD was a key source); 2) To begin to understand the needs, interests, and experiences of my target audience with regards to arts attendance; and 3) To examine some of the major products and research in the area of engaging new audiences for opera and classical music. This process involved conducting several one-on-one interviews and an online survey with prospective users. Principles from established learning theories further informed my design.

Everything I observed about my target audience, the successes (and potential pitfalls) of existing programs and products, and the work of learning theorists, suggested to me that effective educational media for creating points of entry into opera would bring opera viewing into familiar, socially-oriented settings, aid users in finding the relevance of opera to their personal interests, and provide subtle-yet-effective guidance to help inexperienced viewers orient themselves to the art form and to interpret and contextualize what they are seeing and hearing.

Opera Connect mobile prototype

Cohen’s Opera Connect mobile prototype in action. Production photograph from The Metropolitan Opera.

In response to this need, I proposed a multi-platform experience bringing films of opera performances into homes and public spaces and augmenting them with a “second screen” mobile app, facilitating learning and generating opportunities for social interaction around the performance’s content. Additional features, such as coupons and local performance listings, would potentially encourage ongoing engagement and long-term impact.

With Opera Connect, audiences would either attend events hosted in nearby bars, schools, museums, theaters, or other public spaces, or download a “Party Kit” to use at home with friends, which would include party games and thematic food and drink menus relating to the opera’s plot. (This last touch was inspired by Radiolab’s delightful story on Ring Cycle super-fans.) In both cases, the experience would center around a library of streaming films of live performances, accompanied by a mobile app that delivers real-time updates (available to whatever degree the user wishes to consult them) that provide minimal, but substantive, context: plot and character summaries, background on theatrical design and direction, and details about the music, all of which would include an interactive glossary for character names and opera-specific terminology. Users would then be able send these annotations to each other during viewing, which would hopefully give rise to discussion.

One could argue that all of the above fundamentally misrepresents the experience of seeing live opera. While that may be true, it also seems evident that merely exposing people to opera will not always be sufficient to generate a meaningful, abiding connection to the art form. I was more fortunate than many to have seen a couple of live operas during my childhood, but those experiences did not stimulate serious ongoing interest. Apart from a maturation of taste that came with age, discovering my interest in opera was, I firmly believe, largely dependent on being able to access operas through home video in the ways I described above. This is part of why I feel so strongly that the many people who may be unmotivated or unable to seek out library loans of obscure DVDs from twenty-odd years ago, or to spend their time hunting around the internet to further understand what they are hearing and seeing, still deserve to have opportunities for discovering opera that truly meet them where they are. Providing people with tactful educational guidance and engaging viewing contexts can only help them to form those all-important personal connections to opera that will hopefully, eventually, motivate them to seek out opera in its purest, un-moderated forms.

We Need More (On-Demand) Films of New Operas

met catalog

Screen shot of Met Opera on Demand subscription offerings.

Every now and then, I like to daydream about a question that’s essentially a variation on the more universal “What if I won the lottery?”: What if I had a foundation? Where might I direct the plentiful resources of my hypothetical endowment? Near the top of my fantastical list of grant programs is this wish: to support the creation and distribution of high-quality films of contemporary operas.

Making more live films of new and recent operas, and making those films readily available to the public, might be much more important to the future of opera than is currently appreciated. It could create new audiences for live opera, give long-term life to contemporary works, and enable young and emerging composers, librettists, and performers to become more aware of the state of the art. Leveraging streaming video on demand, whether through subscription, pay-per-rent, or ad-based platforms (or some combination thereof), is one strategy that could be particularly effective at removing some major barriers to experiencing new operas, both for new audiences and opera devotees who lack access to live performances.

Sadly, I do not have my very own foundation for the arts. Furthermore, I don’t claim to have any special solutions to the logistical, financial, and legal complexities of producing, licensing, and distributing films of operas. Even so, I believe such hurdles will need to be tackled and overcome—for the love of opera.

Barriers to Access

As a young composer starting out in opera—I’m currently in America Opera Projects’ wonderful Composers & the Voice fellowship program—attempting to become reasonably knowledgeable about prominent work being done in the field has led me to many impasses. Surely I’m not unusual in lacking the resources to travel around the country (or the world) to see notable productions, or even to buy tickets to more than a handful of the productions occurring in New York City, where I’m fortunate to live. As such, I’m frequently frustrated by the lack of films available of stage productions of new and recent works.

I cite my personal circumstances only to illustrate a universal problem. For anyone out there who does not happen to live near an opera company that frequently stages quality productions of new operas, or does not have the resources to attend more than a couple performances each season and/or take the risk of attending a performance they don’t already know much about (e.g. seeing a favorite performer or favorite work), the barriers to experiencing the best of contemporary opera are, at present, much too high for too many people—be they opera novices or opera nerds.

The Value of Video on Demand

The problem I’m contemplating is not solely a matter of documenting the work on video (important in its own right) and making it commercially available in some form (such as on DVD or via movie theater broadcasts), but also making video highly accessible. This is true for operas in general, but especially true for contemporary operas: First, because the future development of opera depends on the circulation of new work. Second, because any new opera lacks the widespread reputation of canonical repertoire and its future may be dependent on the impression made with its first production(s). A well-produced, well-distributed film of a new opera could make a big difference to the life of that work.

According to Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report, 45% of U.S. households subscribe to streaming video on-demand services. Consumption of video on PC, smartphone, and tablet is increasing steadily: 2015 showed a 19% growth over 2014. Teens and younger adults appear to be the biggest consumers of digital video: to cite just one statistic, 18- to 24-year olds spent 72% more time per month watching video on a PC than 50- to 64-year olds. Trends in sales also indicate the overall shift in the home entertainment landscape towards digital and streaming: The Digital Entertainment Group’s report for 2014 stated that, while DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales continued to be the primary revenue stream, income from discs (both sales and rentals) has gone down markedly as digital movie sales and subscription streaming are continuing to experience huge growth (showing an increase of 30% and 25.8%, respectively, between 2013 and 2014).

Recordings cannot and should not replace live performances, but that’s true no matter what medium of video is being discussed (online streaming, DVD, live simulcast, etc.). Given the on-demand convenience and wide availability of mass quantities of streaming video of all kinds via subscription and ad-based services, opera—like many other performing arts—is at a major disadvantage in vying for the attention of even very enlightened media consumers if it does not begin to leverage current and expanding forms of distribution more extensively.

Jake Heggie’s <em>Moby-Dick</em>

Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the San Francisco Opera (Great Performances, PBS) is one of a handful of films of contemporary operas currently available via streaming video on demand. (Source)

Current Availability

In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera launched Met Opera on Demand, a subscription streaming service for PC and mobile, with a subsequent release supporting streaming on home TV via Samsung Smart TV or Roku (the most compelling platform for this service, in my opinion, assuming your TV has a bigger screen and better speakers than your PC or mobile device). High-quality films of live operas, including and predating live simulcasts from the Met, have never been more widely accessible. Note that $14.99/month for unlimited access is an exceptionally high price tag compared to other streaming video services (especially considering that the Met also offers a comparatively small video library: while boasting 550 full-length performances, at last count that list encompassed videos of 108 unique operas or opera-related programs, not including multiple productions of the same opera or audio-only recordings). However, this is very affordable when compared to the cost of opera tickets or purchasing DVDs.

Met Opera on Demand is an exciting model, prime for future development. Unfortunately, the last time I checked the selection of operas by living composers available through the Met Opera’s library, they were disappointingly few: The First Emperor by Tan Dun, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China by John Adams, The Tempest by Thomas Adès, and The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano. (Of course, there are only so many contemporary operas being produced or filmed at the Met that would be possible to include. But that’s a subject for an entirely different column!) Notably, Nico Muhly’s recent Two Boys is absent from this list.

Aside from Met Opera on Demand and the occasional full-length video on YouTube (usually of dubious legitimacy), there are several sources for streaming opera videos on demand. However, they feature smaller libraries—typically a rotating selection, in coordination with the current or recent season—and one or two contemporary works at most. Such libraries include Teatro Real, Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall (mostly un-staged, concert performances), Stream Opera, Viener Staatsoper, The Opera Platform, and PBS’s Great Performances.

Imagine the possible impact of a subscription streaming service that included a substantial library of contemporary operas—ideally, aggregated across multiple opera companies to offer quantity and variety. How might such a service expand audiences for new opera? Generate interest in staging new productions of existing works? Further the artistic development of this field, in which even composers and librettists only rarely have opportunities to see the master works of our age?

Certainly, there are some more fundamental, underlying problems with the current situation—it’s challenging even to find a prominent place for new works on our opera stages and in our culture, never mind our streaming video websites—and yet, films are not being made (or being publicly distributed) of even the full range of new operas that are actively being commissioned, developed, and produced by professional opera companies across the country. As I learn more about current operas, I find it increasingly disappointing to have no opportunities to see films of many operas written by prominent American composers. Where are the DVDs or streaming videos of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar? Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier or The Refuge? Ricky Ian Gordon’s many operas?

By contrast, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is currently available via streaming video on the web and connected TVs. From the consumer’s perspective, this is a dream come true: it’s available on demand, in your home, for free. Assuming you have an internet-connected device, the barrier to entry is no greater than the amount of time it takes to actually watch the opera. Kevin Puts’s Silent Night was also broadcast on Great Performances and was previously available on demand for a temporary period. This film appears to no longer be available from any source, free or paid.

How is it that an opera can win the Pulitzer Prize, receive a production by one of the country’s largest opera companies (Minnesota Opera), and be filmed and broadcast on public media—a triumph by any measure—and yet the public cannot presently access this film through any medium? There are likely complex legal or economic reasons behind this, but the outcome is a missed opportunity for audiences and opera-makers alike.