We were all greatly anticipating the performances of our first arias. You could really feel it, the tension, this weird energy very similar to what one can sense when waiting with a bunch of musicians in a green room for a big concert to begin. This was the exciting fifth session of American Opera Project’s Composers & the Voice program, held on November 4th.
Composers who develop a dramatic work should have a good understanding of the elements that fuse into an effective drama. So at C&V we have acting and improv lessons that provide a first-hand glimpse into the dramatic process. The afternoon improv session led by Terry Greiss started with some “brain-frying games,” as he rightly calls them. (There’s one, for example, where Terry becomes “George” and the rest of us have to remember who’s who while we keep switching names and trying to confuse one another. Brain-frying indeed.)
In this session, each of us had to give a speech, deliver an idea or a story, and sustain everyone’s engagement level. The rest of us, the audience, provided an engagement level barometer with our hands – hand is up = curious, hand falls down = not so much. From there we moved to role playing. We improvised a few scenes as a group and in pairs. In one of them we were all in a birthday party. On cue from Terry we had to separate and converge – basically to find a reason and a way to create a unique microcosm for a few short moments, then to converge back into our group cosmos. Of course we had to do this on the spot yet in a convincing, organic manner, all within the boundaries that we have set for ourselves in our birthday party story. The concept of the next scene was to give and take stage space. We split into two pairs. We agreed on a theme and the setting, and improvised two dialogues simultaneously. Each pair had to give or take the space on cue from Terry. I was so happy to reunite with my lost little brother Steven Osgood at an Italian restaurant.
After the improv session we switched to our traditional round table discussion. Each composer was assigned a character to analyze. We shared our analyses of the the emotional transformation that each of our assigned characters have gone through in every musical number in Cosi fan tutte. This soon evolved to be an insightful discussion on the expression of emotions within the context of an opera. The limited time that we had allowed us to explore only the first few musical numbers. However, the lively debate already revealed some fascinating observations on Mozart’s musical expression, and the compositional tools that he uses to highlight emotional transformation.
When time arrived to break for dinner we were already exhausted, but satisfied with all that we had accomplished. I think the improv sessions with Terry provide an invaluable insight into dramatic processes as we apply them ourselves. It is needless to say how enriching the round table discussions are – the rare intellectual exchange that we are so lucky to be part of.