Tag: opera

If the Medium Is the Message, Then Who Should Sing It?

Photo of a dimly lit empty stage.

Photo by Max Wolfe. (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

Composers of new music theater depend on singers to bring their characters to life. From conception to casting, we often face a difficult choice: who should be performing this material? As the stylistic divide between contemporary opera and musical theater continues to widen, how do we who write crossover material manage to avoid compromising our original intentions? Why is it so challenging to find the right singers to fit the bill, and is there value in writing for and/or casting singers who specialize in the “wrong” style as dictated by the form?

Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom was that classical training was the best foundation for all styles of singing, but that no longer seems to be the case as “legit” singing has fallen out of fashion in new musical theater writing. Of course vocal training for classical music and vocal training for musical theater need different foci, to an extent. Each requires meticulous attention to a separate set of performance traditions. American musical theater is mainly in English; opera singers need to master diction in several different languages. Musical theater performers must produce a healthy sound that will serve them for eight performances every week; opera singers must produce a healthy sound that reaches a hall of 4,000 sans amplification. Training programs have grown to address these individual needs, but they seldom cultivate all that musical theater and opera have in common. New York University offers two different voice curricula, one singer-focused at the Steinhardt School, and one actor-focused at Tisch. These programs do not share resources. Last year I had some opera scenes staged at a top conservatory. Students were required to audition with 20th-21st century arias in English, and they were encouraged to have musical theater songs ready as well. I was shocked to find that many of them did not have any English arias, and the only soprano who knew a musical theater song had to run to the school’s library in the middle of the audition to get sheet music for the pianist since it was not officially part of her repertoire.

I have not taken a voice lesson in eons, and I do not pretend to be an authority on the subject. But as I sit on the other side of the audition table now, I am well aware that the current gold standard for contemporary musical theater writing and performance is now this.

(Full disclosure: I am glad that it has spoken to millions around the world, but it is neither my personal preference nor my strength. I feel like people singing in this manner are yelling at me, and as a New Yorker I encounter enough yelling in my daily life as it is.) Thus I have surmised that there is now a vicious cycle at play: since Wicked and other shows written in that style are the plum gigs, it is important to possess the requisite vocal skills to snag them. So the premier training available for musical theater singers skews to that, whether or not it is what the singer’s voice naturally wants to do. Indeed, several singers I know have expressed frustration that, after many years of hard work, they have had to start their training all over again to build a more acceptable and marketable sound for Broadway. It is now possible to belt the high G flat in “If I Loved You” from Carousel and book the job—I have seen this happen.

The unfortunate old maxim endures: opera is all about the music, and musical theater is all about the text, so one demands top-notch musicianship while the other just requires better acting. I believe writers and performers all do themselves a disservice by using this yardstick. It creates stumbling blocks between all of us that don’t need to exist. Here’s one example: once in an opera workshop the conductor called me out for a lack of dynamics and articulations in my score. I couldn’t justify it at the time, and later I realized I’d gotten into a habit of under-articulating because I was so used to anticipating musical theater singers forging ahead fortissimo all the time, regardless of what I’d indicated on the page. I wasn’t communicating properly because I didn’t inherently trust the excellent performers around me. Here’s another: when I recently asked a well-known musical theater actress to play a role in my opera that would utilize her puppetry skills perfectly, she declined mainly because she was intimidated by opera as a whole. I even set about rewriting the part for her, but ultimately it was a missed opportunity to collaborate.

So what happens when we sit down to write with all of this in mind? Musical theater pedagogy guru Jeannette LoVetri talks about “the newer crop of composers who write for their own ears.” In context, she is referring to those who ignore practical technical considerations in favor of impressive vocal lines, and I am definitely not advocating for that. But when it comes to figuring out what timbre is best suited for each role we write, we must be true to our own ears. As the Baker’s Wife sings in Into the Woods, “Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole was cast with a mix of opera and theater singers. Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities originally featured an operatic mezzo but later starred Jocelyn B. Smith, who bills herself as a soul singer. Both renditions of “Dwell Where the Dogs Dwell” (which starts here around 3:45) in that piece are equally arresting for completely different reasons. The rules are just not so hard and fast.

As my own opera makes its way through the developmental process and I am repeatedly asked to choose between opera and musical theater singers for the various roles, I continue to answer that question with only a question mark. I think there is something in the disconnect that’s worth exploring, a sort of aesthetic friction that happens when a line obviously steeped in musical theater tradition is sung operatically and vice versa. The more singers I meet in both genres, the more possibilities open up. As long as the dramatic moment allows for the “wrongness,” it’s just one more wrench in the theatrical toolbox to create a heightened world.

It’s a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping

The operatic war in N. Y., a lithographic print from the 1880s from the archives of the Boston Library, depicting a clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera, with Henry E. Abbey, opera singers, conductors, and orchestras; some of the identified figures include Marcella Sembrich, Sofia Scalchi, Galassi, Trebelli, Roberto Stagno, Mirabelli, Campanini, and Col. Mapleson.

The operatic war in N. Y., a lithographic print from the 1880s from the archives of the Boston Library, depicting a clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera, with Henry E. Abbey, opera singers, conductors, and orchestras; some of the identified figures include Marcella Sembrich, Sofia Scalchi, Galassi, Trebelli, Roberto Stagno, Mirabelli, Campanini, and Col. Mapleson. (The image is in the public domain and has been made available by the Boston Library on Flickr.)

Every time I encounter an argument about whether Porgy and Bess is a musical or an opera, I am reminded of this.

I won’t rehash any discussions about the technical differences between musicals and operas here. But I am interested in exploring preconceived notions held by those working in both genres and the effect they have on composing for the theater. For example:

Opera is inaccessible, outdated, and made for and by snobs.

A few years ago, I participated in a lab for new music theater. One colleague, who writes musicals exclusively, used “Pompous Mock-Opera” as a tempo marking above a declamatory passage. There was a whole values system inherent in his tempo marking, and the leader of the workshop picked up on it. “Why pompous?” he asked. “Because, you know, it’s opera,” the writer replied.

But wait…

This is an opera. So is this…

And this…

Floor wax? Dessert topping?

A few weeks ago, after hearing some of my songs, a commercial theater producer contacted me and asked what I am working on now. I included an opera on my list. Response: crickets.

Musical theater is full of vapid sentimentality and relentless optimism conveyed by too many jazz hands.

But what about this…

Or this…

Let us also not forget the dark undercurrents in most of the musicals by those great purveyors of cock-eyed optimism, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

This once ran on Broadway, as did this. But both works were billed as operas. Floor wax? Dessert topping?

Yet opera and orchestra musicians continue to groan when I inquire about any scheduled musical theater-oriented performances: Broadway-oriented pops concerts, or even whole musicals on an opera company’s season. Musical theater is ubiquitous in the “serious music” world, yet show tunes are beneath them.

Recently I had a reading of that opera-in-progress, followed by a feedback session with experts for whom I have the utmost respect. There are elements of what we typically think of as musical theater in the piece. Accordingly, I was told that the heroine must not die in the end because: a) a musical requires a redemptive finale; b) it was funny at the beginning and should continue to be funny throughout; c) there are children present onstage and it would no longer be family-friendly. I was extremely confused by these reactions because I have only ever thought of this work as an opera. Has no heroine ever died in an opera? Spoiler alert: it is the children’s chorus who kills her. It is about the dangers of obsession and the fatal effects of a culture of pervasive casual cruelty. It was never meant to be a family-friendly evening. To add to the confusion, I was later told never to mention its musical theater influences while pitching it.

It astonishes me that, a good 80 years after Porgy and Bess opened, these rigid notions about overblown, tragic opera vs. happy, hopeful musical theater endure. (Indeed, a few years ago that very show was retooled to entice an audience more likely to attend Broadway musicals.) There are seemingly endless precedents for “crossover” composing; it is not new or revolutionary to write a piece in one style that constantly nods toward the other. The skill sets for writing musicals and operas differ somewhat, but there is an awful lot of overlap, and the goal is ultimately the same: to provide a rich theatrical experience by presenting a compelling story (which is not to say linear narrative) through vocal/physical performance (song and dance, if you must). The challenges of craft are the same for both, too. It is often lamented that there are no compelling lyrics or libretti today in either arena. (There are as many dreadful examples supporting this complaint as there are magnificent examples refuting it.) And composers of both musicals and operas must strive to write music that is an engine supporting the text rather than obscuring it. History has set the bar very high for all of us, even if that’s not evident in some of what actually makes it to the stage.

Bearing all of this in mind, I’ve noticed that when I sit down to write, a sort of “opera switch” goes on for me. If I’m writing operatic material as opposed to a musical theater song, I suddenly give myself permission to write libretto in free verse, and I’m no longer bound by song form (unless I choose to be) or the often-limited vocal ranges of musical theater singing (more about this in a subsequent post). Unfortunately, I also tend to don this cloak of self-consciousness that says, “This Must Sound Like an Opera.” And when I wear this cloak, I invariably end up tossing out a lot of what I write. Because what does an opera sound like anyway? More high notes? More long notes? More complex rhythms? More repeated text? More tone clusters? More erratic intervals? None of this is remotely helpful. I find that when I write what I think other people expect to hear in an opera, I end up with a wash of notes for notes’ sake and little that illuminates the urgency of the libretto. So I must scrap it and ask instead: Who is the character? What is the moment? Back to the basic Playwriting 101 questions!

There’s a character that shows up very late in my opera, and I struggled for a long time to figure out his sound. He is a goofy, easygoing exterminator who finds himself in the middle of a tightly wound dysfunctional family’s fight. It wasn’t until The Beatles’ “Come Together” popped into my head that I understood what he needed to do. Using that groove as an inspiration, I came up with a silly, funky setting of what originally read as very earnest and straightforward on the page. I’m certainly not saying that ripping off great popular songs is always the solution, and it wasn’t something I ever planned to include. Does it “sound like opera”? Probably not. But it was right for the moment, and it turned out to be one of the more successful arias. People wanted more of him, and more surprising moments like that.

But it’s not only in the writing itself that the divide is evident. Without necessarily meaning to, I have simultaneously established myself as a dark, angry musical theater writer and a kooky, funny opera composer; in order to survive, I know I must find a way to follow both paths. (Contemporary opera is never funny, the experts say, and people are desperate for that to change. Again, I can think of a host of examples pro and con.) But I have been advised to eliminate references to musical theater from my applications for residencies and awards—to hide a significant portion of my education and my body of work for fear of not being taken seriously. (Make no mistake: if I were truly afraid of not being taken seriously, I would never get anything done.) I frequently get mixed up about how I should apply in the first place. Which category do I choose? Composition, where the frame of reference may be George Crumb? Theater, where the frame of reference may be Jonathan Larson? I don’t write like either of those guys. There seems to be no right choice in these situations—I can only continue to second-guess. Heck, there are residencies and awards tailored only to one genre or the other. Where do I focus my limited time and energy in applying for these opportunities to ensure that I can continue composing anything at all?

It would be naïve to ignore the important practical reasons why musicals and operas don’t completely fit under the same roof. Artistic concerns and historical traditions—which are significant—aside, it is also partially a matter of packaging. Producers understand that audiences looking for an opera will have different expectations than those seeking a musical, and they have to signal accordingly, particularly when tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. I only wish that the necessity of proper packaging would not continue to reinforce and deepen our collective need to choose between creating and/or supporting only a floor wax or a dessert topping. The world could use more Shimmer!


Rachel Peters

Rachel Peters

Composer/librettist Rachel Peters’s operas/musicals/scores for plays/songs have been performed by/at Rhymes With Opera, Hartford Opera Theater, New Georges, Huntington Theatre, Arkansas Rep, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan School of Music, Symphony Space, and cabarets nationwide. Recent commissions include a song cycle for the Walt Whitman Project and short musicals for NYU Steinhardt. Upcoming: The Wild Beast of the Bungalow with Center for Contemporary Opera.

OPERA American Awards $100,000 to 7 Female Composers

Opera Grants for Female Composers

(l to r): Jing Jing Luo, Odaline de la Martinez, Kitty Brazelton, Kamala Sankaram, Su Lian Tan, Patricia Leonard, and Laura Karpman.

OPERA America has announced the recipients of Discovery Grants from the Opera Grants for Female Composers program, made possible through The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. From among 61 eligible applicants, an independent adjudication panel selected seven composers to receive a total of $100,000 to support the development of their opera compositions.

The recipients of Discovery Grants are:

Kitty Brazelton for The Art of Memory
Laura Karpman for Balls
Patricia Leonard for My Dearest Friend
Jing Jing Luo for Ashima
Odaline de la Martinez for Imoinda
Kamala Sankaram for The Privacy Show
Su Lian Tan for Lotus Lives

The Opera Grants for Female Composers program, launched in December 2013, is implemented in two-year cycles. The focus of the program alternates between Discovery Grants, which are awarded directly to composers, and Commissioning Grants, which are given to opera companies. This recent group of Discovery Grants initiates the second cycle of granting. Discovery Grants aim to identify, support, and help develop the work of female composers writing for the operatic medium, raising their visibility and promoting awareness of their compositions. In addition to receiving financial assistance, grant recipients will be introduced to leaders in the field through a feature in Opera America Magazine and at future New Works Forum meetings and annual conferences. Supported works will be considered for presentation at future annual conference New Works Samplers.

The independent adjudication panelists for the Discovery Grants included director Sam Helfrich, composer Laura Kaminsky, composer Libby Larsen, mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, conductor Anne Manson, and coach/conductor Laurie Rogers.

Information for the second round of Commissioning Grant applications will be announced in December 2015.

(–from the press release)


Do You Hear the People Sing? Music and Protest in the Street

People's Climate March

All images and video by Molly Sheridan

Last week offered remarkable opportunities to contemplate the intersection of music and protest. For the 300,000-plus people participating in the People’s Climate March in New York City, music was a way to transmit a message over the roar of the crowded streets, to express solidarity with one another, and frankly to keep spirits up during the hours-long process of waiting and walking the jam-packed two-mile parade route.

Musicians met and mingled and joined in impromptu group performances of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the lyrics often tweaked to suit the environmental occasion. When a moment of silent reflection was observed at 1 p.m., it was all the more powerful as a result.

The next evening in a small park across the street from Lincoln Center, the situation was somewhat reversed. Music was absent as a coalition of organizations gathered with the explicit goal of forcing the cancellation of the Met’s planned production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer this season. A crowd of roughly 400, including a bussed-in delegation of high school students, listened as speakers passionately objected to what they considered the opera’s glorification of terrorism and its anti-Semitic libretto.

In a crowd, nuance fades away of course. When the argument is literally framed by a fence in the street, the question of “which side are you on?” can take on a certain stark, if ultimately artificial, clarity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
I reflected on this first during the climate march. There weren’t really spectators for this action, I noticed. Even the weary participants who eventually camped out on stairs and railings along the sides of the route often still held their placards or snapped pictures which, one assumes, would soon appear on their social media channels with opinions, explicit or implied, attached. Actually addressing climate change is immensely challenging, but in this crowd opinions were paired down to whatever would fit on a banner or into a six-syllable lyric. Sentiments were neat in their simplicity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
The Klinghoffer protest offered something both more aggressive and more complex. One lone man who was clearly espousing anti-Semetic sentiments based on his large placard was placed in his own special fenced area at the rear of the action before being moved across the street. And those protesting the production mostly held one of a few versions of pre-made signs, so their alliance was clear. The speeches from the podium became increasingly heated as the event wore on.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
Taking up the mantle of investigative journalist, I started questioning these holders of poster board. Have you seen the opera? Have you heard the opera? Almost everyone I asked—a sample size of 15 or so, so take it for what you will—said that they had not. Some delivered this with a notable amount of pride or disgust at the suggestion that they would have endured such a thing. One woman appeared confused, because, as she informed me, the production “had not opened yet.”

So I was admittedly feeling a little dismissive when two things happened. First, a woman I asked about hearing the opera explained that she had listened to excerpts of it online and she then spoke passionately about why she found it incredibly offensive and inappropriate. I thanked her for her thoughts, but I realized as I turned away that I wasn’t, if I was being honest, really hearing her at all because I had already formed my own tightly held opinions and wasn’t listening. This was underlined with the bluntness of a made-for-TV movie a few moments later when a group of high school kids unaffiliated with the protest stopped near me and asked what was happening. I tried to explain it as even-handedly as I could—they were students, after all—and I was surprised by how thoughtfully they considered the issues at stake, even asking follow-up questions about the real-life events that led to the opera. This was the most productive bit of conversation I had had about the situation all week. Afterward, by truly listening to the various speakers without the earplugs of my own judgment, I began to hear how the root of the protest was actually less about John Adams’s opera, and more—especially since many were not directly familiar with the piece—about broader fears over examples of hate and terrorism and violence, from 9/11 to beheadings in the desert.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
This did not suddenly make demands for the cancellation of The Death of Klinghoffer acceptable to me, but it did produce a more constructive framework for a conversation about the opera. Unfortunately, we were not gathered to have a conversation. We were in the street where the only response requested seemed to be to a single question: “Which side are you on?”

The night before the protest and away from the asphalt, Justin Davidson laid out a powerful analysis of the opera itself for New York Magazine‘s Vulture website (“The Trouble With Klinghoffer Isn’t Quite What You Think“), and James Jorden, writing for the New York Observer (“In Defense of ‘Klinghoffer’“), offered eloquent comments related to some of the same anxieties I felt that night on the plaza:

The function of art, or a least of high art, is not to reinforce existing prejudices. A work of art is not supposed to agree with us any more than we are required to agree with it. On the contrary, art is supposed to inspire a dialogue, even an argument with the spectator and with society as a whole. If that dialogue is quashed by a few hundred, or even thousands of protesters, then art cannot exist.

Earlier this year when reporting on the cancellation of the HD simulcasts of The Death of Klinghoffer, I was called out on this site by a reader for failing to rally unequivocally to the opera’s defense. I don’t deny that there is a time and place for such action, but then as now, I’m actually more concerned that we take care to actually listen to the music and the responses of those around us to it. Shouting either into silence seems to me the most damning outcome of all.

Chicago: Enter the Dollhouse—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre

Although I ostensibly attended eighth blackbird’s performance of Colombine’s Paradise Theatre—the new commedia dell’arte-inspired “fantasy” with score by Amy Beth Kirsten and direction by Mark DeChiazza—as a writer and art observer, I could not help absorbing it with the mind of a performer.

A 60-minute tour de force, performed completely from memory and without pause, Colombine’s Paradise Theatre is a stunning display of physical and musical virtuosity on the part of its performers. It is also a testament to eighth blackbird’s commitment to going the extra mile in the creation of new work. Only a mind-boggling amount of labor—memorizing the score and learning elaborate physical staging and choreography—could have produced such a performance.

Colombine demands significant risk-taking and courage from the ensemble. All six players must deliver physical movement and hissing speech parts with panache. Violinist Yvonne Lam, darting and dancing all over the stage as one of the Harlequins, sang frequently and admirably. Pianist Lisa Kaplan, in the role of Colombine, gave an utterly natural, unaffected performance of a cabaret-style song at the piano. Flutist Tim Munro was perhaps pushed furthest, completely abandoning the comfortable mask of the instrumentalist poker-face. He shrieked, sang, sobbed, and hissed his way through the role of Harlequin. When he exited, wailing his final falsetto lines, we had the sense that he had left his soul onstage.

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Kirsten’s score evokes diverse environments and moods, from cabaret to Sprechstimme, from witchy incantations to sparse percussion solos. Colombine is quite lyrical at times—particularly in the cello solos, played with great seriousness by Nick Photinos as the Harbinger. Yet the piece is dominated by scherzando whimsy and plenty of humor. Kirsten’s inventive use of doublings keeps the score full and lively at all times. She makes particularly effective use of nonsense syllables and percussive sounds to create spooky rhythmic patterns and textures.

The music is often organized to sound as if characters are inventing the musical material on the spot—repeating it in a testing, probing way, finally landing on a gesture that sticks. It sounds organic and improvisatory, but is completely notated. The pacing of each instrument’s “speech” allows Kirsten to create distinct musical characters in dialogue with each other.
The staging and direction by Mark DeChiazza is one of Colombine’s greatest strengths. It was clear both in the production itself, and in the post-concert discussion, that DeChiazza had generously embraced Kirsten’s inspirations and aesthetic. He has produced a visual and physical world which, while supporting the score, also has complexities and resonances all its own. Particularly ingenious was the way the set allows for a visual imitation of the instruments themselves: percussion setups hanging like chandeliers; metal tubes silently wielded as giant flutes.

While Colombine does not have a clear narrative, it is held together by an interesting set of potential questions. As the protagonist Colombine feels the tug of her various puppet-masters and suitors, we are encouraged to reflect on the power dynamics onstage: Who has agency? Who is excluded? Who has control over another? And what kind of contemporary commentary might the piece be making about commedia dell’arte?

For me, Colombine’s main limitation is that it doesn’t always offer a satisfying perspective on these questions. In particular, the choice to simply reproduce, rather than critically reimagine, the gender dynamics of the stock commedia characters feels like a missed opportunity. Contemporary listeners are quite familiar with the love triangle of two male characters “seducing” their puppet-like female ingenue, and it would have been exciting to experience a more contemporary twist on these patriarchal tropes. The virtuosic, erotic four-hands piano duo between Yvonne Lam and Lisa Kaplan—which helps Colombine pass the proverbial Bechdel test—is a promising moment. But their relationship never becomes thematically important, and in the end, the show doesn’t evince much more gender sophistication than the 16th-century texts that inspired it.

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

It might also have been fascinating to see the piece acknowledge—or better yet, dance with—the inevitable historical shadow of Schoenberg. But when asked during the post-concert discussion if she had been influenced by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Kirsten seemed surprised. She firmly said no, and mentioned that she had made a point of not listening to the Schoenberg during the creative process of Colombine. Yet with a character named Pierrot, Sprechstimme scenes, a dark and moonlit set, and an almost identical instrumentation, it will be hard for the piece to make its way in the world without evoking Pierrot.

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

With its dazzling visuals, sumptuous score, and stunning performance, Colombine is a game-changer and a standard-bearer for the world of new music and interdisciplinary collaboration. It is sure to inspire an ambitious new crop of staged contemporary chamber music. This is perhaps why I wanted more to chew on theoretically and why I wanted it to be more than a fun, spooky confection. But when audiences enter Colombine’s macabre musical dollhouse—with a sensual surprise in every cobwebbed corner—they will probably, like me, be more than happy to play by her rules for the night.

On the Met Opera Lockout

Lincoln Center Plaza

Photo by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

This afternoon, all hands will be together at the table, trying yet again to negotiate the Metropolitan Opera’s contracts for 16 unions. If the Met Opera does not sign the contract by Friday, they have pledged they will lockout workers. This means that from August 1 on, the Met’s management will refuse to pay workers or to let them work, only providing the minimum of unemployment and health benefits. Musicians and stagehands alike have been preparing for months for this, and now the moment is upon them.
The Met Opera’s dramatic tactic is meant to shake the workers into serious concessions regarding pay and benefit reductions averaging 16 and 17 percent. It will also have a profound effect on AFM Local 802, which counts the Met’s musicians as 20 percent of their income. Under these terms, the resistance is likely to be long and serious. So, it’s time for a showdown.
It’s really hard to resist placing this in a narrative of villainy, especially given the setting and characters. The media have largely portrayed this as a debacle of ego—general manager Peter Gelb, pseudo 1%er with his 1.8 million dollar salary and lavish production style, versus the musicians and many dedicated workers who shape the space they play into. (The workers run the Facebook page Save the Met, if you’re interested). What is missing here is the fact that Gelb is an emissary of the Met, the whole institution, and that he keeps talking about how he has to get the cuts so that the board and donors will be more reassured. If something’s rotten in the state, it’s got to be more than just the king.

The numbers don’t really tell us why the lockout is happening now. We’re talking about a deficit of $2.8 million dollars out of the Met’s $300 million budget, of which $200 million goes to the workers who make the Met what it is. Gelb said that the smallness of the deficit was deceiving, as it “could have easily been $20 million to $30 million if I had not been calling up our donors and getting them to fill the gap.”

Of course, calling up donors is his job, so it seems that he merely did his job. Is he suggesting that donors don’t want to support such base needs as workers’ pay? This argument doesn’t make sense since giving is generally up at the Met. What’s not up is investments and the pension portfolio, which means they need to be less risky about their asset management.

Another part of Gelb’s job is balancing the budget, which would imply figuring out what the fixed and variable costs are, and minimizing the variables first: a.k.a. production costs, overtime costs, and other costs directly related to his artistic vision. That he brazenly refused to do so amid the financial meltdown and the devaluing of investments is the number one critique leveraged at Gelb, and the thing the unions are focusing on in their negotiations, demanding $20 million in spending cuts rather than curtailing worker wages and benefits.

Someone has to be held accountable for the deficit—but who? It’s going to be the workers, says Gelb. Why should the workers do just as much work for less money? For the ideal great opera? For Gelb’s?

Labor is a fixed cost, unless it isn’t. A union contract is the surest way for workers to ensure that their earnings are accounted for in the budget. To attack such a cost is to attack the power of the union to secure fair pay and conditions at all. Gelb has said that “the short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival,” but what seems to really to be at stake here is the long-term pain of concession at every contract.

A $104,000 base pay for a chorister at the very top of her game is not outrageous––it’s a solidly middle-class income for New York, and likely will go towards paying back years of debt accrued while slogging through the musical trenches of underfunded musical institutions. Met musicians aren’t even the best paid in the United States, if you take into account the cost of living: that honor would be the orchestral musicians of Los Angeles. Still, to kill the possibility of reaching this level is to kill the very dream of “making it” as a professional opera singer, or indeed, as part of the middle class. I doubt that is a reality the Met wants to usher in.

A lockout is like a management strike: Gelb thinks he’ll gain power by forcing the workers to stay idle. This one is timed by Gelb to interfere with the beginning of the season. He’s got to be betting that, come that ruined opening night, sympathies will lay with the impoverished noble institution rather than the greedy workers who would run it into the ground. Where have we heard this doomsday narrative before? Public school teachers? Unionized hospital nurses? It’s not a coincidence.


Photo by Darwin Bell via Flickr

Of course the lockout will be toxic, as we learned from the Minnesota Orchestra and from the last Met lockout, in 1980. Subscribers flee, musicians flee, and the art suffers too. Whatever happens, a lockout will mean bitterness between the workers and Gelb. It will mean a division among the subscribers and donors, and worse, it will mean that other institutions may follow the Met’s hardline example. In other words, something rotten will spread beyond Denmark.

And then there’s that other part of Gelb’s job: presenting opera to a worldwide public, which is one big reason why new music fans should care. He makes decisions about what we hear. In 2009 Gelb told the New York Times that the economic crisis has “affected our endowment, it’s affected our cash flow, it’s affected our revenue streams. What we don’t want is for it to affect our artistic productivity.” But the following season, he replaced the Met’s 2009 revival of John Corigliano’s Ghost of Versailles with La Traviata. And while the focus of the recent cancellation of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer HD broadcast was said to be because of its political content, new music fans cringed at the knowledge that the one work of the season by a living composer was being taken that much further out of circulation.
We as audiences are told that we have to accept this artistic and political conservativism until the crisis has passed, just as the workers are told that they have to give concessions so that the institution can survive. But the crises never pass, and the field of opportunity doesn’t just expand for new musicians or for workers. It’s a real fight to get the lost concessions, artistic or economic, back. Better to fight not to lose them.

What lessons can we as fans, musicians, and members of presenting institutions learn from this situation? Can we prevent this from happening in our home institutions? One of the things that I take away from it is that we have to think about the long-term health of the music institution as something we all have a responsibility for. Perhaps it means putting together an audience coalition that demands to review the books or the investment portfolio. Perhaps it means stating at each fundraising dinner that the workers are why we do this, or standing up after rehearsal to say that the season’s expenses are too high. Perhaps it’s about putting the community back in the budgeting process with something like participatory budgeting. Whatever it is, it is certainly about preventing conflict through responsible budgeting rather than fueling confrontation and demanding concession from those already most squeezed.

Advertising vs. Reality: Opera America Magazine Editor Responds

Sample ad from the Summer 2014 issue of Opera America Magazine.

Sample ad from the Summer 2014 issue of Opera America Magazine.

On behalf of Opera America Magazine allow me to thank Eddy Ficklin for celebrating the presence of contemporary American composers in our pages (“Truth in Advertising,” July 3). Through our print, digital, and social media presence we continually strive to acknowledge the achievements of all opera stakeholders―board and administrative leaders as well as directors, designers, and singers―but we are indeed particularly proud of our editorial coverage of new music: In the past year we have reported on the achievements of dozens of contemporary composers, from the 24-year-old Matthew Aucoin to the 88-year-old Carlisle Floyd. The cover story of our forthcoming issue features emerging female opera composers, including the eight women who recently received grants from The Virginia Toulmin Foundation through a grant program administered by OPERA America.
We appreciate that Mr. Ficklin sees Opera America Magazine as the primary channel for reaching the “small but influential audience” of opera leadership in the opera world, and we are grateful that, as he points out, our advertisers recognize the value of that channel. Our professional company members view Opera America Magazine as a showcase for their seasons (with a heavy emphasis on premieres and new works), just as music publishers see our pages as a marketplace for composers and contemporary opera. Mr. Ficklin humbly acknowledges that his analysis is “unscientific,” so allow me to correct his impression that music publishers have been fickle in their support. Their presence has been continuing and ardent. Indeed, we see Boosey & Hawkes, G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser, Peer Music, and Schott USA not just as advertisers, but as partners in our mission.

Mr. Ficklin suggests that the growth in our advertising reflects the “laudable intention of OPERA America to correct an imbalance by courting new advertisers.” The truly laudable achievement is that over the last 30 years OPERA America has awarded nearly $13 million in grants to opera companies and composers in support of new work, and created a permanent endowment to sustain such grants. It is a sweet irony that so many of the works our advertisers promote―premieres as well as encores of works that have now gained traction in the canon―were nurtured by those grants.

We know we are not alone, and that New Music USA and our sister arts service organizations join us in cultivating the ecosystem that supports contemporary American composers.  Nonetheless, the recognition of Opera America Magazine is greatly appreciated.
Matthew Sigman
Editor, Opera America Magazine

Winter 2013 issue. Design by Patrick Risotti.

Winter 2013 issue. Design by Patrick Risotti. More information about the design here.

Readers Respond to Death of Klinghoffer Simulcast Cancellation

The Death of Klinghoffer
It came as no surprise that the cancellation of the scheduled simulcast of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, slated for production at the Metropolitan Opera this fall, has inspired some very active comment section action (both on this site and on the New York Times post about the issue), in addition to volleys lobbed via social media. Much of what we’re seeing here sits firmly on the side of disappointment that the Met would withdraw the opportunity to experience the work outside of Lincoln Center, and respondents question the validity of the charge that it could be used as a tool to encourage anti-Semitism. As a commenter posting as Jim notes on our initial news story, “There’s nothing anti-semitic about the piece, which flatly condemns violence. The only people who would come away with anti-semitic views would have to have come in with them.”

While most of the conversation since the news broke has centered around concern or outright annoyance that a piece of art could be challenged and removed in this manner, others spoke out in support of the position of the Anti-Defamation League and the Klinghoffer sisters, with Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun tweeting:

Of the many comments, however, Nancy Lederman, posting to the New York Times’ piece, pointed out that “I can’t comment on the underlying debate about the opera I’ve never seen or heard. But controversy breeds sales. I think I’ll buy a ticket so I can see for myself.”

And so on that note, we encourage those on all sides of this debate to listen to the piece! There is a recording, a DVD, a perusal score available (free with log-in) or buy the reduction and play through it at the piano. There’s even a Spotify stream of the recording available, so take your pick and a couple hours. Then let’s chat.

Keep Dallas Wired: The Dallas Opera Plugs Into Death and the Powers

Hal Cazalet as Nicholas in Tod Machover's Death and the Powers

Hal Cazalet as Nicholas in Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers
Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Tod Machover has a real knack for tapping into popular consciousness. While his background is as academically rigorous as it could possibly be, his compositional work, as well as his instrument and software design, leans in a direction that can certainly be described as approachable to a broad audience. It takes a certain sensibility to write music for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell one week then for Prince and Penn and Teller the next [1], one that is flexible and responsive to a wide variety of audiences and performers. This was on display in the recent production of his Pulitzer-nominated opera Death and the Powers by The Dallas Opera—even before I took my seat. Shortly after entering the Winspear Opera House, I noticed a group of people crowding around a simple metal chair with several sensors arranged in a semicircle behind it and flanked by what appeared to be two outsized lightsabers. Acting as a sort of a theremin for the torso, patrons were invited to sit in the chair and shimmy to their hearts’ content while the chair responded to their movements. Used as the focal point of Machover’s Brain Opera and developed initially as part of the Media/Medium project with Penn and Teller, this shiny new version of the Sensor Chair was built by Machover and Elena Jessop specifically as a catalyst for the production. It was quite popular and served as a gentle introduction to the technology as soon as one entered the hall.

There are robots in Death and the Powers, a 90-minute, one-act opera, and they are called Operabots. Perhaps to accentuate the difference between them and the humans who eventually join them on stage, their design is decidedly un-anthropomorphic. Think R2-D2, not C3PO, with one slight nod to human form in the inverted triangle that could be taken for a head. Operating independently and scooting around at various points in the evening, a quartet of these guys sat quietly at center stage as the work began. When they came to life, they announced that they would be re-enacting a drama left to them by their human predecessors, and in doing so they hoped to gain a deeper understanding of human existence through an examination of the concept of death. Accompanying their introductory material (which was voiced in the most stock ’50s nasally, monotone, robot voice you could possibly imagine [2]) were stylized computer sounds which swirled around the audience and read initially a bit more like sound design than music. My first impression was that both the robot voices and the opening audio were a bit dated, but on reflection I think that the use of those “on the nose” sounds served really well to both separate the human from the robot and to set the stage in the clearest possible way for the sci-fi to come.

Robert Orth as Simon Powers - photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Robert Orth as Simon Powers
Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Robert Orth played the part of Simon Powers, a one percenter of the highest order who, as he is approaching the end of his life, has his consciousness downloaded into “The System,” a computer mainframe that will allow him to live forever. Joining him is his daughter Miranda, his third wife Evvy, and his protégé Nicholas, who as a child was rescued by Powers from an orphanage for disabled children. A set of strobe lights aimed at the audience masked the replacement of the robots with human counterparts, as three huge walls served as an ever-changing backdrop to the events. The walls were actually three-sided structures, each one able to rotate and move around to reveal what amounted to large video screens. The “screens” were actually made of dozens of vertical lights in an 8×20 grid which at times showed a variety of shifting patterns, but which were able to display a fine enough resolution to show faces, principally Powers once his transition to The System was made.

Orth’s portrayal of Powers was just thunderous; a stomping, garish, wonderfully obnoxious character who served as a perfect counterpoint to Joélle Harvey’s earnest Miranda. Once inside The System, his solo describing the transition was particularly compelling, though it’s a challenge to have that solo without the singer onstage. This was one of the instances in which Orth’s face does not materialize on the screen, so his work was really cut out for him. Running the gamut from bellowing bombast to a gentle nostalgia for his past, his performance here was even more impressive in that it occurred without his physical presence. Patricia Riley’s Evvy was engaging throughout, but never more so than in her duet with her disembodied husband. What begins as an innocent reminiscence about their first date develops into a full-fledged erotic encounter, one that Riley was able to communicate in every aspect of her performance without going full-Miley. Hal Cazalet’s Nicholas really came alive in the fifth scene while in the lab working with the robots. His retelling of Powers as his personal savior is passionate, as he notes that the prosthetic arm he has built is “post-organic,” a sort of preliminary version of Powers’ transformation. Powers financial standing is on par with many countries, and his exit from human affairs has left a tremendous void in the world. As such, all has gone to hell in a handbasket. A visit from the The Administration, The United Nations, and The United Way (played by Tom McNichols, David Kravitz, and Frank Kelley, respectively) provides comic relief, with Kelley’s piercing histrionics a wonderful foil to McNichols’s booming bass.
In a production with so many strong singers and performances, it was in the final scene where Harvey’s Miranda stole the show. Unable to follow Evvy into the world of The System, she is torn between her love for her father and her love of conventional human life. The 99 percent arrive as The Miseries, all of humanity living in a world turned upside down by the turmoil that occurred in the wake of Powers’s retreat from the world. Having escaped their grip, Miranda confronts Powers who continues to try to convince her that entering The System is the only option for the future of humanity. Miranda rejects this notion, repeating the word “Live, live, live!” as the orchestra ascends to a final climax.

Moody Foundation Chandelier extends from the ceiling of the Winspear Opera House. Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Moody Foundation Chandelier extends from the ceiling of the Winspear Opera House.
Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

It’s not surprising that in a world where the line between human and robot is crossed, the music has a similar dichotomy. Nicole Paiement, artistic director of Opera Parallèle in San Francisco, returned to Dallas to lead her second TDO production, having done Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse in 2012. Paiement and the orchestra not only handled everything Machover’s score threw at them, but did it while being surrounded and occasionally overwhelmed by all manner of electronic audio. And that audio was not fully confined to the hall in Dallas. Simulcasts of opera productions are nothing new, but Machover and a team from the MIT Media Lab developed an iPhone app which allowed patrons at satellite sites to receive secondary audio and video content coincident with the performance in Dallas, as well as the ability to control the Moody Foundation Chandelier, a huge structure with dozens of plexiglass tubes that descend from and contract into the ceiling.

Interactive, robot, remote simulcast, lightsaber, iPhone, Sensor Chair: the word cloud for this piece has everything a 21st-century opera could ask for.
I, for one, welcome our Operabot overlords.


1. This may not be an accurate timeline.

2. Seriously, take a second and do a robot voice. That’s the one I heard.

Invisible Cities: Choose Your Own Opera

Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities
There’s something about Italo Calvino’s novels that makes them seem inherently musical. Maybe it’s the omnipresent interaction between precise mathematical structure and human intuition that recurs again and again in his writing. Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which finds Marco Polo narrating his travels to Kublai Khan, has a prescribed combinatorial chapter structure that dictates what kind of cities Polo describes and when, but the content of those chapters is so imaginative, so free. The structure becomes a kind of window frame that both enables and restricts what we see.

At LA’s Union Station last Sunday, November 17, I saw composer Christopher Cerrone’s opera based on Calvino’s novel, also called Invisible Cities. Wisely, Cerrone doesn’t copy the book’s structure, instead focusing on five particular cities. But as produced by the opera company The Industry and directed by Yuval Sharon, the event brilliantly captured both the ephemerality and rigor of Calvino’s writing. The Industry first grabbed people’s attention last year with a production of Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City, which featured a sprawling set composed of individual parts designed by different artists. Invisible Cities managed to be at once more extravagant and subtle, with the audience listening to the live performance on wireless headphones while wandering freely through an actual, historically scenic train station. The singers and dancers moved through the station too, with varying degrees of conspicuousness.

More production videos available here.

This means that anyone who saw the opera had a unique, unrepeatable experience—or, in Sharon’s words, everyone had a “front row seat.” But the fragmentary nature of this experience that makes it so compelling also makes it difficult to review. I can’t really evaluate the whole opera; I can only evaluate my experience of it.

Thankfully Cerrone’s music provides a powerful throughline for the entire duration. Less overtly dramatic than a typical opera score, there is an undercurrent of placidity to his music even at its most frantic and furious. It mirrors the benignly distant character of Calvino’s writing, unmoved by or removed from the cities’ inhabitants in a way, a kind of storm’s eye, an observer in a world of actors.

As the opera progressed, I felt unsure if I was an observer or an actor myself. After a brief instrumental overture, we wandered into a courtyard where a woman in white holding a large, shallow bowl sang long, lyrical lines. Crossing through the station into another courtyard, we came upon a stoic man in a wheelchair. While he wasn’t singing at the time, he was clearly part of the production. But this line was not always clear. When we re-entered the station, there were several audience members clustered around some chairs where two men were sitting. One looked bewildered, while one was sleeping or pretending to sleep. We had clearly just missed something, but what?

After that we found the bar, which became our stationary vantage point for much of the opera. We saw businessmen on smartphones moving in lockstep, dancers in military uniforms, and some kind of confrontation between the man in the wheelchair and a man in Italian Renaissance garb. As we watched, the man in the wheelchair stood, unsteadily, leaning on a cane.
Finally we returned to the ticket booth area where we began. Most of the audience seemed to be clustered here now, mesmerized by a line of dancers on the counter. A man emerged from the crowd that I recognized as the man in the wheelchair, but he was walking now, and dressed in resplendent robes. It was Kublai Khan. I prepared to follow him to his next destination but the music ended, and the opera was over.

I was left with an immediate desire to see the opera again, but unfortunately, appropriately, this was the final performance in a two-month run.

I should mention that on Sunday, the opera was preceded by a special performance of Cerrone’s Memory Palace, a work for percussion and electronics performed by Ian David Rosenbaum. Based on sounds from Cerrone’s childhood, the piece has a remarkable economy of materials, with subtle variations of a haunting motive threaded through five movements lasting 25 minutes. Rosenbaum’s performance was exceedingly sensitive to these subtleties. The piece was performed in commemoration of translator William Weaver, who brought most of Calvino’s novels to the English-speaking world.