Nine leading opera creators to mentor Composers & the Voice fellows

November 20, 2015

C&V Chairs

BROOKLYN, NY – AOP (American Opera Projects) announces the nine “Artistic Chairs” who will provide one-on-one guidance to the Fellows of the 2015-16 Composers & the Voice training program.  Professional artists of high repute from the worlds of opera and musical theatre, the selected Chairs for the eighth season of Composers & the Voice are composers Ricky Ian Gordon (27, A Coffin in Egypt), Daron Hagen (Amelia, Shining Brow), Tobias Picker (American Tragedy, Dolores Claiborne), David T. Little (Dog Days, Soldier Songs) and Missy Mazzoli (Song from the Uproar, Vespers for a new Dark Age), librettists Michael Korie (Harvey Milk, Hopper’s Wife), Gene Scheer (An American Tragedy, Moby Dick), Royce Vavrek (JFK, Dog Days) and composer-librettist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Séance on a Wet Afternoon).

The Composers & the Voice workshop series is a competitive biannual fellowship offered to composers, librettists, and composer/librettist teams that provides experience writing for the voice and opera stage. Created and led by Composers & the Voice Artistic Director Steven Osgood, the two-year fellowship includes a year of working with the company’s Resident Ensemble of Singers and Artistic Team followed by a year of continued promotion and development through AOP and its strategic partnerships. Since launching in 2002, C&V has fostered the development of 44 composers & librettists.

With each new group of fellows, sponsorships are named in honor of mentors and their support of Composers & the Voice. During the workshop session these “Composer & the Voice Chairs” make themselves available to our fellows for one-on-one discussions and feedback. Past chairs have included composers Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Tan Dun, Jake Heggie, Lee Hoiby, Libby Larsen, John Musto, Richard Peaslee, Kaija Saariaho, and librettist Mark Campbell.

Librettist Mark Campbell (The Manchurian Candidate, Silent Night) gives a lecture to the 2015-16 C&V fellows. Photo by Steven Pisano for AOP.

Librettist Mark Campbell (The Manchurian Candidate, Silent Night) gives a lecture to the 2015-16 C&V fellows. Photo by Steven Pisano for AOP.

The composers and librettists selected for the eighth season began their year-long fellowship starting in September working closely with the company’s Resident Ensemble of Singers, an artistic team of music directors, guest composers, and instructors in drama and improvisation. All sessions are held in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, home of AOP. More information on this season’s participants can be found at www.aopopera.org/composers_voice.

Composers & the Voice is made possible in part by a generous multi-year award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Victor Herbert Foundation sponsors one fellowship as The Victor Herbert Foundation Composers & The Voice Chair, created in memory of longtime opera supporter Lois C. Schwartz.


Gordon RickyRicky Ian Gordon (b. 1956 in Oceanside, NY) studied piano, composition and acting, at Carnegie Mellon University. After moving to New York City, he quickly emerged as a leading writer of vocal music that spans art song, opera, and musical theater. A highly prolific composer, Ricki Ian Gordon’s recent catalog includes Morning Star (2014, libretto by William Hoffman, Cincinnati Opera), 27 (2014, libretto by Royce Vavrek, Opera Theatre of St. Louis), A Coffin In Egypt (2014, libretto by Leonard Foglia, Houston Grand Opera, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and Opera Philadelphia), Rappahannock County (2011, libretto by Mark Campbell, Harrison Opera House), Sycamore Trees (2010, libretto by composer), and The Grapes of Wrath (2007 and 2010, libretto by Michael Korie, 2007, Minnesota Opera, 2010, The American Symphony Orchestra). Additional works: Green Sneakers (2008, libretto by the composer, Miami String Quartet), Orpheus and Euridice (2005), My Life with Albertine (2003), Night Flight To San Francisco and Antarctica (2000) from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, Dream True (1999), States Of Independence (1992), The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1996), Only Heaven (1995). Upcoming and recent projects include the opera Intimate Apparel with Playwright, Lynn Nottage as a commissions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and an opera based on Giorgio Bassani’s novel, The Garden of the Finzi Continis with librettist Michael Korie. http://rickyiangordon.com


 

Hagen DarenDuring the course of his thirty-five years on the scene, Daron Hagen has become one of the most comprehensively experienced and knowledgeable theater composers of our time. Of his eleven regularly-revived operas, he has co-written all of the treatments, co-written several of the libretti, written the book and lyrics for his own commercial musical, stage directed several, conducted the cast recordings and premières of several, coached them all from the piano, and supervised set and lighting teams executing his designs. He has extensive experience playing in opera and musical theater pit orchestras, from the regional bus-and-truck level to Broadway; he’s served as a copyist, proofreader, arranger, and editor on Broadway, ghost-written film scores, and executed electro-acoustic soundscapes for integration into his own theatrical scores. He has served as a dramaturgical consultant for a dozen major operatic projects. Hagen has composed new works for the New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony and Opera, National Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Houston Symphony, and Buffalo Philharmonic. Collaborators include Nathan Gunn, Kate Lindsey, Robert Orth, Stephen Wadsworth, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Spano, JoAnn Falletta, Gary Graffman, Jaime Laredo, and Gerard Schwarz in premieres at the Louvre, Royal Albert Hall, and the Ullens Center (Beijing). He graduated Curtis and Juilliard. http://daronhagen.com


 

KORIE MichaelMichael Korie is a Tony-nominated American lyricist and librettist. Writing for musical theater, he created the lyrics to composer Scott Frankel’s music for Grey Gardens, Far From Heaven, Doll, Happiness, and Meet Mister Future. Their scores have been nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards, received The Outer Critics Circle Award, and have been produced on Broadway, Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center Theater, throughout the USA, in Europe and South America. In winter of 2016, Grey Gardens will make its London premiere. For opera, Korie adapted John Steinbeck’s novel for the libretto to The Grapes of Wrath, composer Ricky Ian Gordon, and created the original librettos to operas with composer Stewart Wallace including Harvey Milk, Hopper’s Wife, Where’s Dick?, and Kabbalah. His opera works have been produced at San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera, New York City Opera, BAM Next Wave Festival, Carnegie Hall, and Disney Los Angeles Symphony Hall. Concert works include Gay Century Songbook with composer Larry Grossman at Carnegie Hall, and Positions 1956 with Composers & the Voice alumni composer Conrad Cummings at The Knitting Factory and Urban Arias. Korie’s lyrics have received the Edward Kleban Prize, Jonathan Larson Award, and the ASCAP Richard Rodgers Award. http://michaelkorie.com


 

Little David TDavid T. Little is “one of the most imaginative young composers” on the scene (The New Yorker) with “a knack for overturning musical conventions” (The New York Times). His operas Soldier Songs (PROTOTYPE) and Dog Days (Peak Performances/Beth Morrison Projects) have been widely acclaimed, “prov(ing) beyond any doubt that opera has both a relevant present and a bright future” (NYTimes). Recent/upcoming works include the grand opera JFK with Royce Vavrek (Fort Worth Opera/ALT), a new opera commissioned by the MET Opera/Lincoln Center Theater new works program, the music-theatre work Artaud in the Black Lodge (Beth Morrison Projects), AGENCY (Kronos), CHARM (Baltimore Symphony / Marin Alsop), Haunt of Last Nightfall (Third Coast Percussion), Hellhound (Maya Beiser), and new works for the London Sinfonietta, The Crossing/ICE, and eighth blackbird/The Kennedy Center. His music has been heard at LA Opera, Carnegie Hall, Park Avenue Armory, Bang On a Can Marathon, BAM, and Holland Festival, and 2015-16 brings performances at Atlanta Opera, LA Philharmonic, NYFOS, PROTOTYPE, Theater-Bielefeld, Theater-Schwerin, and more. Educated at Princeton and the University of Michigan, Little is co-founder of the New Music Bake Sale, serves on the Composition Faculty at Mannes-The New School, and is Composer-in-Residence with Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group. The founding artistic director of the ensemble Newspeak, his music can be heard on New Amsterdam and Innova labels. He is published by Boosey & Hawkes. www.davidtlittle.com


 

Mazzoli MissyRecently deemed “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York” (New York Times) and “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” (Time Out New York), Missy Mazzoli has had her music performed globally by the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, New York City Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra and many others. She is Composer-in-Residence with Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music Theatre-Group, and in 2011-2012 was composer-in-residence with the Albany Symphony. In February 2012 Beth Morrison Projects presented Song from the Uproar, Missy’s first multimedia chamber opera, which had a sold-out run at venerable New York venue The Kitchen. The Wall Street Journal called this work “both powerful and new”, and the New York Times claimed that “in the electric surge of Ms. Mazzoli’s score you felt the joy, risk and limitless potential of free spirits unbound.” Recent months included the premiere of an extended work for her ensemble Victoire and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, and new works performed by pianist Emanuel Ax, Kronos Quartet, the LA Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony. With librettist Royce Vavrek, Missy is currently working on an operatic adaptation of Breaking the Waves, a 1996 film by Lars von Trier. Breaking the Waves will premiere at Opera Philadelphia in 2016. Missy recently joined the faculty at Mannes College of Music, and her works are published by G. Schirmer. http://missymazzoli.com


 

picker tobias

Tobias Picker, called “our finest composer for the lyric stage” (The Wall Street Journal), has composed works in all genres including five operas to date. Picker’s operas have been commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, (Emmeline), The LA Opera, (Fantastic Mr. Fox), The Dallas Opera, (Thérèse Raquin), San Francisco Opera (Dolores Claiborne), and The Metropolitan Opera (An American Tragedy). His operas have gone on to be produced by New York City Opera, San Diego Opera, L’Opera de Montreal, Chicago Opera Theater, Covent Garden, Opera Holland Park, English Touring Opera and many other distinguished companies. In addition, Picker has composed numerous concert works, commissioned and performed by the greatest orchestras, ensembles and concert artists of our time, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic, L’Orchestre de Paris, Munich Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Opéra de Montréal, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Vienna RSO, and Zurich Tonahalle, among others. His concert works include three symphonies, four piano concertos as well as concertos for violin, viola, cello, and oboe, and numerous other compositions. Mr. Picker has received numerous awards and prizes, including a Charles Ives Scholarship and Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012. http://tobiaspicker.com


 

Scheer, GeneGene Scheer’s work is noted for its scope and versatility. With the composer Jake Heggie he has collaborated on a number of different projects, including the critically acclaimed 2010 Dallas Opera world premiere, Moby-Dick, starring Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab; Three Decembers (Houston Grand Opera), which starred Frederica von Stade; and the lyric drama To Hell and Back (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), which featured Patti LuPone. Other works by Scheer and Heggie include Camille Claudel: Into the fire, a song cycle premiered by Joyce di Donato and the Alexander String Quartet. Mr. Scheer worked as librettist with Tobias Picker on An American Tragedy, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Their first opera, Thérèse Raquin, written for the Dallas Opera in 2001, was cited by Opera News as one of the ten best recordings of 2002.  Other recent collaborations include the lyrics for Wynton Marsalis’s It Never Goes Away, featured in Mr. Marsalis’s work Congo Square.  With the composer Steven Stucky, Mr. Scheer wrote the oratorio August 4, 1964. The work, recently nominated for a Grammy, was premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008 and last season was performed by the orchestra, with Japp von Sweeden conducting, at Carnegie Hall. Also a composer in his own right, Mr. Scheer has written a number of songs for singers such as Renée Fleming, Sylvia McNair, Stephanie Blythe, Jennifer Larmore, Denyce Graves, and Nathan Gunn.  http://genescheer.com


Schwartz_Stephen_Schwartz01New York City native Stephen Schwartz has been a major force in the American Musical Theater since the early 1970’s, when he had three hit shows running on Broadway: Godspell (recipient of two Grammy Awards), Pippin, and The Magic Show. Schwartz went on to write the music and lyrics for The Baker’s Wife and contributed four songs to a musical version of Studs Terkel’s Working. More recently, he composed lyrics and music to the long-running Broadway smash, Wicked, which brought him another Grammy. Schwartz has become one of the best-known creators of animated film music, contributing Academy Award-winning lyrics to Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas, and writing both the music and lyrics for DreamWorks’ Prince of Egypt which included the Academy Award-winning song, “When You Believe.” The song score of the 2007 film, Enchanted, contained three Oscar-nominated songs by Schwartz and composer Alan Menken. Among Schwartz’s best-known songs are “Corner of the Sky,” “Just Around the Riverbend,” “Colors of the Wind,” “Defying Gravity” and “Popular.” His first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, was developed by American Opera Projects in its Frist Chance program. It premiered at Opera Santa Barbara in the fall of 2009 and was later produced by New York City Opera. http://stephenschwartz.com


 

Vavrek Royce

Royce Vavrek is a Brooklyn-based writer of opera, musical theater, and concert works.  His notable lyrics/libretti include Dog Days, Am I Born and Vinkensport, or the Finch Opera with David T. Little; 27 with Ricky Ian Gordon; Song from the Uproar with Missy Mazzoli; O Columbia with Gregory Spears; Strip Mall with Matt Marks; Yoani and The Hubble Cantata with Paola Prestini; Violations with Hannah Lash; and The Hunger Art and Maren of Vardø with Jeff Myers.  Upcoming projects include Stoned Prince with Hannah Lash for American Opera Projects; JFK with David T. Little for Fort Worth Opera/American Lyric Theater; Angel’s Bone with Du Yun for the Prototype Festival; Midwestern Gothic with Joshua Schmidt for Signature Theatre, Virginia; The Wild Beast of the Bungalow with Rachel Peters for Center for Contemporary Opera; Knoxville: Summer of 2015 with Ellen Reid for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Epistle with Julian Wachner for VisionIntoArt; The House Without a Christmas Tree with Ricky Ian Gordon for Houston Grand Opera and Breaking the Waves, an adaptation of the film by Lars von Trier, with Missy Mazzoli for Opera Philadelphia/Beth Morrison Projects. Royce is Co-Artistic Director with soprano Lauren Worsham of the opera-theater company The Coterie, and an alum of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University (Montreal), the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU, and American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program.


ABOUT THE PRODUCER

Founded in 1988, American Opera Projects is at the forefront of the contemporary opera movement, commissioning, developing, presenting, and producing opera and music theatre projects, collaborating with young, rising, and established artists, and engaging audiences in unique and transformative theatrical experiences. AOP has produced over 30 world premieres, including the Nathan Davis/Brendan Pelsue dance chamber opera Hagoromo starring Wendy Whelan (BAM, 2015), Kaminsky/Reed/Campbell’s As One (BAM, 2014), Nkeiru Okoye’s Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom (Irondale Center, 2014), and Lera Auerbach’s The Blind (co-production with Lincoln Center Festival, 2013). Other notable premieres include Kimper/Persons’ Patience & Sarah (1998), Weisman/Rabinowitz’s Darkling (2006), Lee Hoiby’s This is the Rill Speaking (2008), and Phil Kline’s Out Cold, also at BAM (2012). AOP-developed operas that premiered with co-producers include Stefan Weisman’s The Scarlet Ibis at PROTOTYPE Festival (2015), Gregory Spears’s Paul’s Case at Urban Arias (2013) and PROTOTYPE Festival and Pittsburgh Opera (2014), Jack Perla’s Love/Hate at ODC Theater with San Francisco Opera (2012), Stephen Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon at New York City Opera (2011), Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness at London’s Royal Opera House (2011) and Opera Parallèle (2015).  www.aopopera.org

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“I knew that I was the kind of composer who would write music in almost all genres, and that the end goal was to write operas.”

August 22, 2013

AOP SPOTLIGHT: AUGUST 2013 PART 2

Composer Tobias Picker

Our spotlight on composer Tobias Picker continues. He and composer Mikael Karlsson examines the characters of his latest opera “Dolores Claiborne”, his new opera company The Opera San Antonio, and what spurred him to write opera.

I’d like to move on to talking about your new opera in more detail. It’s your fifth and is based on Stephen King’s novel Dolores Claiborne. It has three women at the crux of its story. There are a lot of strong, often sacrificing, women in your operas. What draws you to that type of character?

Tobias: My mother.

Hah… Would you explain further, please?

Tobias: I have a strong and very powerful mother so I know more about strong and powerful women than I do about other kinds of women, having been brought up by one.

That makes a lot of sense. In this story, Selena, a star reporter from New York, returns to an island where her mother, Dolores Claiborne, has been accused of murdering Vera Donovan, an elderly upper-society woman for whom Dolores worked as a domestic. There are three interesting relationships- one between Dolores and Vera, another between Dolores and Selena, and a third between Selena and Vera. The most important one is between Dolores and Vera. What drew you to their relationship?

Tobias: There is a relationship between mother and daughter too and that’s why it’s Dolores Claiborne’s story. She’s at the center of the triangle. Actually, in the opera version, Selena is not a reporter from New York; she’s a lawyer from Boston.

The relationship between Vera and Dolores is fertile ground because it starts in one place – the relationship of ‘top-down’. Vera, as the rich and powerful employer, is on top and Dolores, as the working-class employee, is down. It goes somewhere over the course of the opera until they become equal. Really, in a sense, after Vera dies, Dolores is on top and Vera is down, literally under the ground. There’s a complete shift, and when Vera leaves her thirty-five million dollar fortune to Dolores, Dolores gives it all away to a school for homeless children. In that sense, Dolores ends up having achieved the upper hand. Vera has nothing; she’s dead and gone, and all that she left on earth was left to Dolores. To me that was very compelling. There’s such a clear direction [to the story].

Relationships in an opera are just like abstract music… an idea must go somewhere. Music needs to go somewhere. Music takes the listener on a journey.

The same is true about the theater, including operas. The relationships have to go somewhere. Selena and Dolores’ relationship also goes somewhere. It’s more complex in its direction, but it’s fascinating and very touching. The relationship between Dolores and her husband Joe goes somewhere too – from bad to worse.

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Dolores Claiborne

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Dolores Claiborne

Do you think that there is a moral lesson to the story?

Tobias: I think that Dolores Claiborne is the first opera I’ve written that is not a morality play. It’s not like Thérèse Raquin, which is based on the sixth and seventh commandments. So, no… I don’t think that [Dolores Claiborne] has a moral. I actually don’t think that Emmeline has a moral at its core.  To me, Thérèse Raquin and An American Tragedy have similar moral lessons. Fantastic Mr. Fox certainly teaches us something about human values. Emmeline and Dolores Claiborne are much more complex stories than the other three.

Dolores’ husband Joe is not very fleshed out in the novel nor is he in the film. I find that this shallow depiction of him makes it very easy to hate him and almost see him as “evil” in the primal sense of the word. Do you think there are any forgiving sides to his character? It’s difficult to feel empathy with his character due to his terrible actions and demeanor, but it’s almost too easy to hate him blindly since we know so little about him. What do you make of his character?

Tobias: He’s a bad man. He’s a bad seed… A bad apple. David Gockley, who commissioned Dolores Claiborne for San Francisco Opera – I believe it’s the 42nd or 43rd commission of his career as a General Director between Houston and San Francisco (and to whom I dedicated Dolores Claiborne for his service to the arts)– asked the same question over and over. He asked whether we really want him to be this 2-dimensional. Do we really want him to be this monster?

We added a small section in which he explains how misunderstood he feels and what a horrible life he thinks he has. Basically, a man who beats his wife, steals his child’s college fund money that his wife has worked her fingers to the bone earning; who sexually molests his daughter on a regular basis, poses a challenge to portray as a human being. To call him an animal is an insult to animals.

That said, the song he sings whenever he has sex with his thirteen-year-old daughter is a very infectious little tune that evolves throughout the opera and which people will undoubtedly go home humming. They’ll have heard it that many times. It’s very catchy. He has the catchiest tune in the whole opera.

That reminds me of the tune that the Erlkönig sings in Schuberts setting of the Goethe poem in order to lure young children into death or bondage.

Tobias: Yes, there’s a great tradition of this device in classical music.

Switching gears slightly, what attracted you to writing opera? Have you always wanted to write opera?

Tobias: I was exposed to it as a very young child by my grandfather who was a German Jew. He felt that there was only one real composer, namely Richard Wagner. According to him, music began and ended with Wagner and he tried to instill this in me from the time I could walk and talk. It probably did plant a seed at least: that opera was something important. He said this to his kids (my little cousins) as well. One day, one of those little cousins said to me, “Wagner is the best composer who ever lived”. This was when I was just about to start my musical training and I said to him that I don’t think that’s true. My cousin replied, “Yes, it’s true. Daddy says so, so it’s really true.” I said, “I’m going to ask my mother.”, which I did, and she said, “Certainly not! What about Beethoven? What about Brahms? Don’t believe that!”

That was helpful. I then encountered [Gian Carlo] Menotti. He was a living, breathing opera composer who had Amahi And The Night Visitors on network television every Christmas. Everybody watched that. It was very popular, so I was exposed to contemporary opera at a very early age. They also taught opera in my school and anyone who made it to the fourth grade had to spend months studying one. When I was in fourth grade, we had to form teams of two and make a maquette and give a presentation. Then there was a contest to pick the best maquette and the one I made with my friend for Girl Of The Golden West (or La Fanciulla Del West) was chosen as the winner. Our entire class was taken to the old Met to see a performance of La Fanciulla Del West.

Those were formative experiences but moreover, I realized that I was born to be a composer. I was born with it, like a congenital disease or some neurological defect, which I was also born with. I have suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome since the age of five. Perhaps being born a composer is a kind of defect because you can’t really live without feeding this need. If you don’t do it, you go out of your mind.

I knew that I was the kind of composer who would write music in almost all genres, and that the end goal was to write operas. I felt that I would know when I was ready. I was forty when I began composing my first opera, Emmeline. I had at that point already written three symphonies, four piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello, oboe, tone poems, string quartets and songs. Plunging myself into the field of opera, I found a whole new world that I had not been prepared for by the chamber music and the symphonies, and I liked it very much. It’s a world that is very, very attractive.

That’s one of the reasons that there is such a pull among composers to write operas. It’s so exciting. I still love writing chamber music and symphonies, but operas are so much more fun.

For an orchestral premiere, you fly in for a Wednesday rehearsal and there’s a premiere on Thursday night and that’s the end of it. The musicians may not even have realized what they were playing because they just played what was put in front of them on the stand. They simply do not have the time to explore everything about every piece that they play in a fifty-two week season. A symphony orchestra musician has different repertoire to learn every week and some teach on the side. It’s just too much for them to be able to do that kind of research.

With opera you arrive on the first day of rehearsal and all the singers are prepared. The first time I had this experience, I was just astonished. There were all the singers sitting in a row, a pianist and a conductor, and they sang through the whole opera off-book (from memory in other words). They had already internalized as much as possible of the music- the notes, the words, the rhythms. That is their starting point. Singers in an opera are like the soloist in a concerto. They come to the first rehearsal with their part memorized.

Composer Tobias Picker

Composer Tobias Picker

I suppose they’re comparable to a soloist in a concerto in that they will have lived with  the piece for a much longer time than the members of the orchestra. With an opera, the orchestra lives with the piece for so long between the first reading and the time they get to perform the premiere. They have a lot of time to learn about the piece by then. If they want, they can ignore what’s going on upstairs and not be interested, but usually they’re quite interested and are very curious about what’s going on outside the pit. Everybody in the opera house knows what’s going on. The ushers know! The guards even know. Everybody in the opera house knows your name, and the name of the opera, and the vast majority of the people working in the opera house are familiar with the source material or they get familiar. An opera is in rehearsal for four to five weeks so they have enough time to explore it. Of course, everybody then has an opinion about it. It’s a completely different experience than any other musical situation.

You’re starting a new opera company in San Antonio. Why would you do something that time-consuming when you’re as busy as you are? You’re writing so many pieces right now. What compels you to do that?

Tobias: I feel that I have something to contribute to opera aside from my own operas. There is no other opera company in America where the Artistic Director is an accomplished composer of opera so I bring a unique point of view to repertoire choices among other things.  San Antonio is the seventh (or maybe at this point, the sixth) largest city in America and has had no opera company until The Opera San Antonio was born. We will be the opera company in residence in San Antonio’s brand new (opening in 2014) state-of-the-art Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

There’s a need there.  I have a fondness for and a history with Texas having served as Composer In Residence with the Houston Symphony for 5 years. I put down strong roots in Houston and I wrote a big opera for Dallas. Part of me is Texan. Houston was the first big city in Texas to get a new opera house and performing arts center. San Antonio is the last big city in Texas to get an opera house, and it’s going to be the most state-of-the-art house as it is the most recent. They used to have an opera festival in San Antonio that began in 1945, right after the war with a German conductor Max Reiter who was friends with Richard Strauss. The festival was the first of its kind in Texas and it continued until 1985 when it went under. Previous efforts to create a new viable company have since failed.

I have a sense of history and I believe in continuity and the continuing of history. There was a hole in that continuation in San Antonio. To me, it’s important that Kirsten Flagstad gave the US premiere of Strauss’ Four Last Songs in San Antonio! There is a connection in San Antonio with the great tradition of Western European and American culture. It’s an opportunity to create works that I don’t have to write; to commission works and to give works that are deserving of being seen productions for which there’s a great need. Instead of having to reinvent an opera company that already exists, which many opera companies are having to do now, we have an opportunity to invent an opera company as it comes into existence; an opera company for today.

I have one final question. Which is your favorite opera other than your own?

Tobias: Dialogues Of The Carmelites [by Francis Poulenc].

Why is that your favorite?

Tobias: It’s the most perfect opera that exists. The Met’s John Dexter production is the best production of any opera I have ever seen.

a conversation with Mikael Karlsson, 2013

Dolores Claiborne (composed by Tobias Picker, with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on the novel by Stephen King, conducted by George Manahan) premieres at the San Francisco Opera on September 18 and runs until October 4. Tickets are currently on sale on the San Franciscio Opera webpage. Tobias’ webpage is tobiaspicker.com. For more information on The Opera San Antonio, go to http://www.theoperasa.org/.


“Relationships in an opera are just like abstract music…an idea must go somewhere”

August 15, 2013

AOP SPOTLIGHT: AUGUST 2013 PART I

Composer Tobias Picker

The composer of the upcoming opera “Dolores Claiborne” discusses his musical upbringing and his current work with C&V composer Mikael Karlsson.

Tobias Picker

Tobias Picker, composer of Dolores Claiborne

This fall another composer will occupy the Tobias Picker Chair. How does it feel to be a ‘Chair’?

Tobias: I’ve been a chair for so long. Don’t you think they could graduate me to a loveseat, a chaiselong or a small sofa? As a chair, people reside with me for a year and from this experience they blossom and go out into the world and automatically know how to make not only chairs but tables and all kinds of furniture. There were some chair-sitters in the past that I never met. You were the last chair-sitter. What was it like?

In the past year, you advised me on what to do and what not to do in terms of writing opera arias. You became my opera composing mentor. When you were a budding opera composer, did you have mentors yourself and if so, what did they teach you?

Tobias: Yes I had mentors – lots of different people. All practitioners that I encountered, I learned from. I learned from my old friend Joe Machlis, the author of “The Enjoyment of Music” who taught for forty years at your college – Queens College. Before I wrote my first opera Emmeline I asked him if he would write the libretto for it. He was then in his late eighties. He said that he had written a libretto on Joan of Arc for composer Norman Dello Joio and that, after that experience, only had two conditions under which he would write a libretto again:

“One- I must see a copy of the death certificate of the composer. Two- I must be shown the grave.”

So… he wouldn’t write my libretto. So then I asked him “How do I write an opera?” He replied “Just make it sing!”

What did you make of that instruction?

Tobias: I made a lot out of it. I made Emmeline out of it.

Haha, fair enough. Did you have any other mentors?

Tobias: Yes. Before I wrote Emmeline, I asked Norman Ryan’s [head of promotion at Schott Music – Tobias’ publisher] predecessor, the late Ronald Freed, the same question: “How the hell do you write an opera?”.  I had at that point written symphonies, concertos, chamber music, some songs and a melodrama, but certainly not an opera. Although I had always planned that I would, I didn’t feel ready. Apparently, though, I was ready because I had gotten a commission to write one. He said; “You’ve been composing for twenty years… use everything you’ve got! It’s all yours, just use everything at your disposal.”

That gave me a very good idea because I then learned the art of retrofitting. For the most famous aria from Emmeline – the “Letter Aria” – I decided to take my orchestra piece Old And Lost Rivers and retrofit it to the words that Sandy McClatchy gave me for the “Letter Aria”. That worked out very well.

I used the entire last movement of my violin sonata Invisible Lilacs for the “Mill Scene”- scene 2 of Emmeline. I simply added the words after the fact. I learned how to recycle. I had written quite a lot of music as a mature composer already, and most of it wasn’t being performed anywhere except once or maybe twice at the most. It was just sitting collecting inches of dust on the shelf so why not breathe new life into it? The music was there before the words.

I learned about the “art of cutting” from my first director- Francesca Zambello- who had experience working with Philip Glass and many others. At first, of course, I felt as though I was being castrated whenever she would suggest a cut. When I understood how a cut could tighten an opera and make it better, even when we cut something that I thought was brilliant or that my librettist thought was crucial to the story, we cut it if it made the story move forward. I became an excellent cutter.

One writes too much usually so one has to know what, when and where to cut. Some composers who don’t understand ‘the stage’ or ‘the theater’ will, if they write an opera, forbid any cutting because they consider every single note a pearl that they have received from God and therefore could never be cut or changed. Those composers should never write opera, but often do anyway. They have caused many audiences to suffer greatly.

One of the first pieces of feedback you gave me when I showed you the first draft of the aria “Internal” from my opera-in-progress Decoration was that I had set the words too awkwardly. It was impossible to understand the words. I had been too busy trying to be a clever composer and had put my love of complexity before the story. You unlocked the process for me, and the aria started to work after that.

Tobias: Yes, I still want all the words to be understood. Words are very important to me. Joe Machlis also said that “Nobody will understand all the words, so you want to make sure that for every sentence you set, they get at least one word. That’s the most you can expect.” When the Santa Fe Opera gave the World Premiere of Emmeline back in 1996 and it was broadcast on television by PBS Great Performances, there were no supertitles. There was good word setting and there was diction. Why were there words there if you were not supposed to know what they were? So much work goes into the staging and the acting that you want the audience to trust your text setting so that they don’t have to look at the supertitles all the time.

I wanted to set the very last word of Dolores Claiborne on a high C for Dolora Zajick as she is a freak of nature mezzo who has very low notes while also being able to sing a pianissimo high C. I wanted to end the opera using that pianissimo high C. The word was a word that should never be set on a quiet high C – the word was “could” and the sentence “I did the best I could”. What I did was to have her sing it three times in a very understandable register in a very straightforward way before I had her deliver it on that high C, and that way I knew the word got across.

I know that the drama needs to be in the music, but if the words didn’t need to also come across, they wouldn’t be singing any words. They’d be singing phonemes… so…

That makes a lot of sense…

Tobias: I don’t stop learning how to write operas. I’m learning all the time. Each day and each opera is a learning experience. You can never know everything about the most complex of art forms.

You often compare being an opera composer to being a tailor. Can you expand on that, please?

Tobias: Yes, well, every voice is different. There aren’t just “sopranos”; there are several different kinds of sopranos, as there are with every other voice type, and within each of those types, each singer is like a snowflake: no two are alike. Sometimes I make adjustments for one singer who has certain abilities that another doesn’t, or one that doesn’t have the ability to sing something that the first one could.

Dolora Zajick gave me SUCH a lecture about F# a tritone above middle C that I did not use that note once in the entire opera for the part of Dolores Claiborne. When I was rehearsing the workshop, Cathy Cook, who covered for Dolora, asked me when we came to a certain spot: “This D above middle C, and the D#… is there anything you could do to help me here? I’m dwelling on it a lot and that D# is very hard for me because that’s where my lower passagio is.” I explained that F# above middle C was where Dolora’s lower passagio was and asked if she had noticed that there was not a single F# for her in the whole opera. She said “Yes I did notice. D# is to me what F# is to Dolora.”

Do you have any pet peeves about operatic writing in general?

Tobias: [long pause…] I hate recitative! I hate it.

And why?

Tobias: I think it’s so unnatural to sing things that should simply be spoken, but at the same time I don’t like speaking in operas. I never have speaking in operas unless the singer cheats and speaks where they were supposed to be singing, which they sometimes fall into because they’re struggling with a very difficult passage and do it in the heat of the moment. I’m not against it in other composers’ operas. I just don’t want any talking in mine because that, for me, belongs in a play.

I think that recitative is one of the things that has given opera a bad name in popular culture. It sounds so stupid- people singing on one note, then dropping a fourth, then going up a fifth, then coming back down. It’s silly. Puccini’s solution was to write ariosos. Everything was through-composed so getting information about the plot was part of the musical fabric.

Tobias discusses his new opera “Dolores Claiborne”, his emerging opera company The Opera San Antonio, and his favorite opera in Part 2 of our spotlight. Stay tuned!  


MSM Opera Program to Showcase Scenes from New Opera “Decoration”

September 11, 2012

Selections from an eerie, hallucinatory new opera Decoration by Composers & the Voice fellow Mikael Karlsson will be presented by the Manhattan School of Music’s opera department in a program of new operas in March 2013. One of the “Six Scenes” performed this past weekend at an AOP showcase of various operas in development, Decoration follows the pre-apocalyptic journey of two sisters – one pregnant, one dying – and their extremely different outlooks on the future.

Composer Mikael Karlsson (photo by Anna Österlund)

Decoration scenes, libretto by the composer and David Flodén, will be performed in a staged reading by MSM voice students at Greenfield Hall as part of the annual New American Opera Previews, from Page to Stage series, hosted by WQXR’s Midge Woolsey, produced by Opera Index. The selection was made by a panel of judges including Assistant Dean of Opera Studies/Opera Production at MSM Gordon Ostrowski and Head Coach William Tracy.

The nationally recognized Composers & the Voice (C&V) is a fellowship for six composers or composer/librettist teams to work with an artistic team, headed by Steven Osgood, and AOP’s Resident Ensemble of Singers. The primary focus of C&V is to give composers extensive experience working collaboratively with singers on writing for the voice. With each new group of fellows, sponsorships are named in honor of mentors and their support of Composers & the Voice.

Tobias Picker

Composer Tobias Picker (American Tragedy) served as a Mikael Karlsson’s “Composer Chair,” providing a one-on-one mentorship throughout the year. Other Composer Chairs during the past C&V season included John Corigliano, Daron Hagen, John Musto, Kaija Saariaho, and Stephen Schwartz.

Decoration marks the ninth presentation by MSM of opera excerpts to come out of  C&V.  Previous C&V operas have included “The Summer King” by Daniel Sonenberg, “Exiles” by Renee Favand-See, “Dream President” by Jennifer Griffith, “The Golden Gate” by Conrad Cummings, “Death in Summer” by Gregg Wrammage, “Paul’s Case” by Gregory Spears, “Henry’s Wife” by Randall Eng, and “Love/Hate” by Jack Perla, which went on to a world premiere in April 2012 in partnership with The San Francisco Opera.

Music from C&V fellows will also be programmed at upcoming presentations by OPERAtion Brooklyn and the BEAT Festival, Opera Memphis and AOP Artistic Partner The Walt Whitman Project.

“For the composers selected the implications are many and very rewarding,” said C&V Artistic Director Steven Osgood. “Each of them will have their music brought to a wider and diverse audience [and] each of them will forge relationships with major artistic institutions, which is today an increasingly difficult hurdle for emerging artists.”

Composers & the Voice is made possible in part by a generous multi-year award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Fellows in the C&V program are supported by funding from The New York Community Trust Edward and Sally Van Lier Fund and Musical Arts Fund.


New Digital Music Publishing Site, PSNY, to Feature Select AOP Composers

November 2, 2011

Schott Music, one of the world’s leading music publishing houses, has launched a new digital music publishing platform called PSNY, Project Schott New York.  AOP composers and collaborators Kamran Ince, Hannah Lash, David T. Little, Tobias Picker, Alvin Singleton and Gregory Spears will be among the group of artists participating in the pilot phase of this new and innovative publishing strategy.

Check out PSNY here: http://www.eamdllc.com/psny/about/

AOP Composers with corresponding Projects:

Kamran Ince—Judgment of Midas (January 2011)

Hannah Lash—Composers & the Voice (2006)

David T. Little—Opera Grows in Brooklyn (July 2009)

Tobias Picker—Composers & the Voice Composer Mentor

Alvin Singleton–Brooklyn Bones: Requiem for the Revolutionary War Prison Ship Martyrs (November 2008)

Gregory Spears—Paul’s Case (June 2010) and The Lost Laïs of Albion (September 2011)

Kamran Ince

Kamran Ince, one of several AOP composers to be featured on Project Schott New York


Introductory lunch with Tobias Picker

October 17, 2011

Mikael Karlsson, Guest Blogger
Composers & the Voice composer, 2011-12

 

We had decided to have lunch at P.J. Clarke’s near Lincoln Center. I had, after being so instructed by Tobias, printed a few copies of a synopsis to an opera that I’m writing with my friend David Flodén. The name of the opera is Decoration.

I had already started my first aria assignment for AOP, but Tobias insisted on a synopsis in order to be able to assess the aria’s potential as part of an opera.

The days leading up to the lunch, David and I worked a lot on our strange story. It will most likely take another couple of years before the synopsis is complete and the libretto in the can, but the key elements are coming together now. We have already taken a few years to get to where we are, and there are plenty of holes to patch, cosmic phenomena to research, mythologies to build and nurse outfits to fashion before the first high C floats off the Decoration stage.

That said, the first Decoration aria – Internal – is already in the hands of Rebecca Ringle (mezzo soprano) and Kelly Horsted (pianist and AOP co-music director) for workshopping in November. VERY excited.

The sum of all this is that I had to present a rather unfinished version of a rather abstract story (it has a concrete storyline but that storyline takes a few good turns into the fantastical) to Tobias Picker, Steven Osgood and [AOP Managing Director] Bob Lee for feedback.

Tobias Picker

Now, what am I doing using an introductory lunch with Tobias Picker for feedback on a synopsis? I don’t even know the guy…

Or do I? (evil stare)

Yes, I do. I have been Tobias’ assistant since the production of An American Tragedy at The Met in 2005.

How did that happen then? A tech savvy and good friend of mine was unable to do some midi tech work for Tobias back in 2005 while he (my friend) was traveling, so I stepped in and went to Tobias’ apartment in Manhattan to meet him. He was very friendly and funny and asked me what I do. I told him that I was just about to get my master degree in composition. He then said that he’d like to hear some of what I’ve written, so when I got back home I sent some pieces to him to listen to (I was lucky to already have some great recordings of early stuff, recorded by some astonishing musician friends).

Upon my second visit to his apartment for follow-up work, he told me that he had listened to what I had sent, and laid on me some very lovely things about my music. He then asked me whether I would want to be his assistant, since he needed one now that his workload had become so great that he had better focus on only the composing as much as possible. Needless to say, I said yes yes yes.

It’s been a great six years so far. I have learned a lot from him, I have grown familiar with more of his wonderful, rich, complex and very honest (this is so key to my taste) music and how he thinks about the compositional process. I have seen a huge opera come to life (two more coming up shortly) and I have seen a praised and very famous composer deal with what it means to truly be in music. I have seen the vast amount of legwork and office task stuff involved in commissions and production work. I have had a steady job (granting me the crucial O1 Visa that allowed me to stay after I graduated) and a dear friend from it. He has been very generous with his time when I’ve asked for feedback. It’s a privilege to get to bounce ideas off someone trustworthy, open-minded and experienced.

That’s why saying our hellos didn’t make much sense in 2011.

Back to the lunch then…

I sit down with Bob and Steven and a minute later Tobias shows up. I hand out the synopsis to see if anyone has any feedback to give, and I am asked by Tobias to tell the core story in “25 words or less”.

A few thousand words later, the tangled, mangled and twisted version of the story I had managed to convey was being discussed with a lot of energy and sincerity. Why this? What about that? How do you make that fit with this? I’ve never seen this kind of detail work without this way of presenting it and so on.

It was a lot to process, but I got some really good ideas to bring back to David to address the questions the lunch participants had had and see how we feel about them.

The best advice is usually that which can be generally applied. That way the advice is not changing the intended destination of what you’re trying to do but rather giving you the map of getting there faster. I received a good handful or two of really important things to keep in mind that David and I had not addressed.

Halfway through the lunch, J. D. McClatchy dropped by (to meet with Tobias) so Tobias, in his typically playful manner, dropped the challenge of explaining the story to McClatchy (who has written countless libretti, including that for Tobias Picker’s hugely successful opera Emmeline) on me once more. I think I shaved a few hundred words off the “25 words or less” presentation, but strings still spaghetti-ed untied all around us when I finished. McClatchy listened intently and introduced the matter of abstract concepts in narrative storytelling to our discourse, and recommended the last and unfinished story of Nabokov, which deals with a man who erases himself, for some pointers on how to and how not to go about such a venture.

As the lunch drew to an end, I thanked all for taking time out of their ridiculously cluttered schedules to do this. It’s so very New York to me to be in situations like this, where accomplished, and unusual persons who certainly do not have to be helpful still choose to be because it’s in their nature.

In 2000, when I first moved here from Sweden to study composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, I was assigned a mentor by the college to make sure that I felt welcome and at home. Her name is Maxine Fisher, and she did this mentoring for no pay. She introduced me to a lot of fun music and to Passover with her family! She was a stranger to me, but she made me feel so incredibly welcome.

I once asked her why it is that New Yorkers, who are rumored to be so rude and cold, keep being so friendly and helpful all the time. She explained it this way: In New York, if someone does you a favor, they don’t expect a favor back from you. They expect you to do someone else a favor.

I truly believe that without that pay-it-forward attitude in its inhabitants, the New York new music scene would consist of one rich lady in a room with a string quartet playing Philip Glass music around the clock for her only. There is so much art that needs nursing to expand our communal experience of music. The amazing roster of Composer Chairs for this year’s Composers & the Voice is testament to that that attitude isn’t going away anytime soon.

After goodbyes were said, my tummy, the poor Waldorf Salad inside it, and myself walked happily down 8th Ave in the Indian summer sun.


Tan Dun and Stephen Schwartz join Composers & the Voice!

April 1, 2008

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Tan DunEsteemed composers Tan Dun (pictured top right, The First Emperor, Marco Polo) and Stephen Schwartz (pictured bottom right, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Wicked, Godspell) have joined AOP’s composer development program Composers & the Voice! As “composer chairs” Mr. Tan and Mr. Schwartz will join Mark Adamo, Lee Hoiby, Dick Peaslee, and Tobias Picker in supporting and fostering AOP’s trailblazing program for emerging composers. Each of these distinguished composers will be personally associated with a selected C&V composer throughout the season with opportunities to hear their work, join C&V discussions, and provide one-on-one feedback.Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. Stephen Schwartz

The 2008 Composers and Composer Chairs are:

Clint Borzoni – Lee Hoiby
Kristin Kuster – Tobias Picker
Raymond Lustig – Mark Adamo
Jack Perla – Dick Peaslee
Greg Spears – Stephen Schwartz
Andrew Staniland – Tan Dun

Music from this season’s composers will be presented at C&V First Glimpse on May 8 and 9. To meet this season’s composers, click here.


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