What Happens When Composers Make Opera

A collaborative conversation at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall featuring some of the most prolific and interesting composers, librettists, and singers working in New York’s new opera scene.

Written By

Aaron Siegel

As part of the New York Opera Fest this past June, I led a collaborative conversation at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall featuring some of the most prolific and interesting composers, librettists, and singers working in New York’s new opera scene:

James Barry – composer
Lauren Buchter – composer
David Cote – librettist
Daniel Felsenfeld – composer
Elisabeth Halliday – singer and co-founder of Rhymes with Opera
Joan La Barbara – composer and singer
George Lam – composer and co-artistic director of Rhymes with Opera
Jessica Meyer – composer and violist
Pamela Stein Lynde – composer, singer, and founder of Stone Mason Projects
Stefan Weisman – composer
David Wolfson – composer, librettist, and music director

The idea behind the talk was to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities that composers face when they set off on their new opera project. Prior to the actual conversation, I sent a questionnaire to the participants to gauge some of the experiences they have had making new opera. I found that the initial responses in the conversation grouped together under four main ideas: collaboration, process, vision, and quality. Our conversation together was framed by these big ideas and also by the request to reference as much as possible everyone’s real experiences making work. We had a wide-ranging and light-hearted exchange buoyed by a wealth of different experiences, opinions, and attitudes.

Aaron Siegel: We’re going to jump right in and start talking about collaboration. David [Cote], you had some very interesting things to say about collaboration.  You said that the composer may not be the king that he or she was in centuries back, but they still make the project live and breathe. They have maximum impact but must have support and preparation. My question for you is: what does it mean for an opera to live and breathe?

David Cote: I think that most operas begin with a composer and a librettist, whether that’s the same person or two different people. Maybe with a producer or a commissioning person who has a particular idea or subject that they want them to write about. Who knows where it starts? Or it might just start with those two writers together.

I am working with Rob Paterson on an opera called Three Way. We’re working on the third act right now, which is set at a swinger party. It has a lot of recitative in the first ten minutes, and it has a lot of different sections to it, even though it’s only a fifty-minute opera. And then there was a whole recit section that I realized, after we worked on part of it, had to go because we had already had a bunch of recit—we already knew who these characters were, and the music needed to drive the car. So that was a case where, dramaturgically, I just cut whole pages out of the libretto because the music has to drive this now.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m going to just quibble with the metaphor a little bit. There’s certainly nothing you said I disagree with, but it’s performers and directors who actually make an opera live and breathe. All the writers do is put things on paper. I would say that it’s not alive until it’s on bodies.

AS: I heard some composer/performers squirming at that. Do you guys feel that way? Is that your responsibility to bring the piece to life?

Elisabeth Halliday: Yes. I appreciated the earlier point about the commissioner and the performer being one and the same. I think that often the commissioner lays the groundwork for what they’re looking for, but also can be the source of inspiration. Both the composer and the librettist, if they’re in a vacuum writing a piece for a soprano, they’re going to feel very differently than if they’re writing a piece for Pam Stein Lynde, knowing what she can do. So there’s a bit of a circular aspect to a lot of music that’s happening now: it’s commissioned, then the process, and then it’s ultimately realized by the person or the group that began the process.

Pamela Stein Lynde: Yeah, I’d agree with that as well. I think it’s really important not to let any one person in the process be at the helm all the time. In order to create something that’s an organic experience artistically for the audience, it has to be something that was created by all parties involved.

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall (June 2016)

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote

DF: When I’m writing the operas I’ve had the luxury to write, I like to put Pam Stein Lynde’s name in the score, rather than Soprano or Soprano Two. If a composer can kind of get in touch with the idea that this is going to be performed, and that it is ultimately nothing without the people who make it happen, I think that is a really beautifully symbiotic way of approaching it.

AS: James [Barry], I’m going to ask you to chime in here. In your comments to me, you said that you thought the impact of your leadership as a composer on the overall shape of the piece was one of inspiring your collaborators, performers, your creative/technical staff, to bring the highest caliber of artistry to the production and to create an opera that resonated with them. How do you know when a piece has resonated with your co-collaborators? What does that look like? How does that look for you?

James Barry: I think we’ve all written music that we don’t feel confident about. And it just doesn’t go very well. It doesn’t feel very good. And sometimes, you come up with an idea on a project that people really take to. With Smashed, the Carrie Nation Story, that’s what I felt like. Everybody really gave one hundred percent all the time. And I think that’s where the success came from. It was kind of raunchy and had a lot of bad language. And there was also a lot of improv built into the show, so it was different every night. And I think that’s why people—this cast at least—very much enjoyed rehearsals and performing on stage.

George Lam: I just worked on this opera about Dolly Parton even though I am not a huge fan of hers, and it has been ten years in the making. One of my singers, Robert Maril, is a big Dolly Parton fan, and I had worked with Robert for a long time. I said, “All right. So what would it be like if, as a composer…” and I’m sort of being an actor in that sense, I’m sort of slipping into a character of you, Robert, and pretending that this might be a project that would be interesting. I want to write about fans of Dolly Parton. And that was the germ of it. So, to start a conversation about making a piece with asking questions, or doing oral history, or figuring out how to talk with people that are going to be the audience for this piece. I think those are the things that make me resonate more with the process, and also hopefully with the artists.

Jessica Meyer: I feel like a lot of the sounds that I’m creating usually come from what inspires the performer. For instance, I wrote a piece for Amanda Gookin of the PUBLIQuartet. When I see her on stage, she’s at her sunniest and happiest when she’s improvising and slapping the heck out of a cello. I know that when I write for her, those things need to be in here. And so the song cycles I’ve been writing for singers, I’m really starting from a place of “what text really resonates with you?” Send me poetry that you love. And then we usually find something that we’re really both excited about, that both matches the kinds of things that I usually write, and then what the singers really want to sing. And so I guess that’s when that magic vibration happens, when you’re just excited, and you can’t ignore enthusiasm. And that’s the actual nucleus of a project. It’s a great place to go.

AS: Elisabeth, you said something that I thought was very interesting. You said that while you put a crude emphasis on composer/performer collaboration, you’ve also found it important that, once you get to the production, that the composer hand the reigns over to the director. What does it mean to hand over an opera? What does that look like? How do you do it? Do you have a meeting where you hand a box of stuff to someone?

EH: Well, of course, when you think of opera that isn’t new music, all these operas that have been performed for hundreds of years, the composers are not involved because they’re dead. And everyone’s comfortable with that concept. We reinterpret operas that have been around for a while. But I think once you bring in living composers, there’s this shift that happens where I think a lot of people have an assumption that since the composer is alive, they should have sort of ultimate say over their creation. But I think often there’s a blurring of roles between composer and librettist, and then director.  Where does one end, and the other begin?

I think for us [at Rhymes with Opera] it has been a question of figuring out what works best for us. Because of course, librettists have a right to their own interpretation. And of course, composers do as well. For us it’s definitely an ongoing process, but we’re interested in working with directors. And for us that seems to mean that at some point, the vision is handed over in a box, or a Dropbox…

DC: I’m in the middle of a process right now with Rob [Paterson] doing this opera for Nashville Opera, and we had a workshop recently. It was really interesting. I feel like this idea of process and collaboration has several phases. Right now, we’re in the process of trying out a new piano vocal [score] with our cast. And when they’re like, “Oh, can I change this note here? I can hit that higher,” we’re like, “Great, okay, write it in.” Or, “That phrase is a little awkward.” “Okay, let me rewrite it.” And so you’re collaborating. You’re inspiring them. They’re inspiring you. It’s a terrific, bubbling process. But to me, it’s all leading to a point—and this is a really terrible, terrible phrase we use, and it’s very uncreative and anti-process—where the score is singer-proof and director-proof, you know? Where basically we deliver you the box, and the idea works. It has bones. And it’s not just some sort of amorphous thing that you can set wherever you want. It is what it is.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara: For me, the initial impetus is what it is I’m dealing with. What’s the inspiration of the piece? How do the techniques that I have developed work into that? How much traditional singing do I want to use, as opposed to non-traditional singing? I’m also now struggling with trying to get outside the issue of just writing for myself, and trying to write for other singers. How much do I want them to be able to replicate some of my techniques? How much am I willing to move out of that situation and really write for a larger section of the vocal population? Not just the ones who can do some of the techniques that I do.

I’m in the process of writing a piece for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. When we went into one of the first rehearsals, I came in with drawings. And Francisco Núñez, who is incredibly generous, said, “Wow!” [Laughing]. But I said, “Just relax.  This is just part of my process. I will get to the point of turning my drawings into more traditional looking notation.” Which I have done. And so that’s been a really fascinating thing for him to come to grips with. And for me to come to grips with, as a composer, that I have to create something that other people can look at and make some sense of.

AS: I guess one question for you all, but specifically for you first, Jessica, is what’s the right time for a composer to influence the direction of the piece in this process that we’ve started to discover here? Obviously there are different varieties of this. But for you at least, what’s the right time?

JM: As a violist, I’ve been part of the whole chamber opera renaissance, the black box opera thing that’s happening. And I’ve noticed that there are these moments where the music has been workshopped, the opera is just a couple days away, and there are just some things that are still not working. And people are arguing about it. But the composer isn’t really involved in that moment anymore.

And so when I started thinking about the first opera I was going to write, as I’m reading a short story, I’m already thinking of the material I want on the stage. The dance is going to go like this. People are going to go in and out. I’m already thinking this way. When I started talking to other composers, “Well, what happens when you write opera?” some said, “First someone writes, you come up with the idea, and then someone writes the libretto, and then hands it to you.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” I feel like the composer should be part of the process all the time.

DF: Sometimes the composers are out of the process, because this is the third production of their piece and they don’t care anymore. And sometimes, there is the moment where they say, “We need to fix this. We need a new aria.” And it’s very much more like, “Go to the hotel room and write the big number.” And it is so different. This is what I love about opera: there is no opera. There’s no one thing that’s opera. There are a bunch of little strings and strands, and we are a healthy representation of just the way you kind of get around the big system.

But the point is that we are not just redefining opera. We’re up here trying to redefine the way people perform, make, sing, produce, compose, and write librettos for opera. Because it’s up for grabs. It’s the Wild West at this point.

EH: I would love to just briefly negate what I had said previously, by saying that I think something that is often lacking is the luxury of time. If we had the time, we would absolutely get your composers with your singers and your librettists, and then you bring in your director, and then the composer comes back, and then maybe the librettist comes back, and then the director comes back, and it could be this really beautiful, beautiful thing, where there is maybe no ultimate timeline and it’s just this wonderful collaboration and revision. The problem is that we have two weeks for production and day jobs. And I think that’s what’s driving this compartmentalization of roles, rather than a feeling that artistically there should be a separation between the different processes.

AS: Let’s talk a little bit about this notion of vision. It’s not meant to be one thing. Right? Someone doesn’t have a crystalline vision and then try to create it. But I think one of the things that happens when you’re working in a collaboration is there’s kind of a push and pull around what it is that you’re actually doing, right? What is it that you’re creating? What does it look like?

JLB: The difficulty is that I have to raise all the money. I have to write the grant applications. I have to find a venue. So I have to cover all bases, which is difficult. I would love to have an opera company come to me and say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a shot at doing your thing. How can we manage to support what you want to do, and your vision?” And they let me build a team, and say, “We’ll give you x amount of dollars to do it.” Boy, would I love that. That’s not the position that I’m usually in. So I’m generally in the driver’s seat, as it were. Not comfortably, but that’s what I’ve had to do.

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson

David Wolfson: When you have a final draft, the objective is to make it reflect not necessarily a single vision, but a range of visions, so that any given group of singers and directors who looks at it will come up with new ideas. But they’re not going to be like, “Oh! Well this is a farce,” when in fact it was meant to be something else. So then I think the idea of a vision, because it has to then go through performers and directors, is probably better thought of as a range of visions. A spectrum maybe.

AS: David [Wolfson], you write that, because you write your own libretti, that for you the shape of the music is hovering in the back of your mind from the very beginning. And this is something that I can relate to, because I really feel strongly that it’s a delight as a composer to write and imagine music at the same time, and not have those things be ordered. When you have the words and you have the music in your mind, and you’re in the process of transferring them into something that other people can see and work with, what else is in there? How are you processing all the things that are interacting in your head?

DW: The most difficult part of that is translating it to a stage picture. I very much live in words and live in music, and my first attempts in this direction were very static, physically—you know, talking heads. People sitting around talking to each other. I was lucky enough to have directors work with these things and discover that there was more that could be done  than I had originally thought about. That was a big lesson for me. I’m trying to incorporate this idea into the things I’m working on now.  There are people in space, and people do things. Panelists notwithstanding, they don’t just sit around and talk to each other.

DF: I don’t want to have a vision, because that means I’m going a little crazy—like an actual vision is like a visitation. But I think my job is to have a stage vision so I have at least done due diligence in thinking this is something that can be staged. And then to either tell the director, or never tell the director, depending on the director, but hopefully it’s someone I trust.

AS: I want follow up with Stefan [Weisman] on that same point, because one of the things that he said, which relates directly, is that he actually finishes the music before any real staging has been settled. So the director and designers have carte blanche to do their work. I wondered what you thought about that?

Stefan Weisman: I’m just a composer. So I write the music, and I am okay with letting other people do their job. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a vision or don’t have an opinion. I work a lot with Dave Cote and sometimes we make something and I wonder, how is that actually going to happen? And it’s nice to see it come to life. And if I don’t think it’s working, I can say so, but I’ve been humbled many times by people saying, “What’s your role and what’s my role?” And it’s an interesting process, that kind of collaboration.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam.

AS: We haven’t really talked about audience tonight at all. And I think that’s fine. But I want to just touch on it a little bit here, because something that Pam said made me think about that. You said that, more or less, composers are basically performers, educators, writers, producers, multimedia artists—that’s just the nature of the beast right now. And then you said that “because these artists are multitasking, they’re doing many things, wearing many hats, that it leads to a less segmented artistic process, and ultimately a better audience experience.” I’m really interested in what you mean by that.  How does a multitasking artist, someone who’s wearing multiple hats behind the scenes, impact on the experience of the people who are there to see the work?

Pamela Stein Lynde: One of the issues that I’ve had as an audience member is having the experience dictated to me. I want to create something where the experience is a little bit more open-ended and interpretive for the audience. I feel that when you have a process that’s more organic, and you have people working in a very even way, and people doing a lot of different jobs at once, you end up with a product that’s a little bit less segmented and more organic, and maybe more sincere, because of that. I would hope, at least.

EH: Well, I know that in Rhymes with Opera’s sordid past, we’ve had one or two experiences where we’ve controlled the music, and we’ve done a concert, park and bark type event.  But we decided to get some visual artists involved, because that’s what you do in contemporary music, when you’re not having any blocking. But we didn’t have the communication between the two groups, so we sort of showed up to do our music, and they showed up to do their visuals. The two had nothing to do with one another, and the vision was lost.