Monday, June 1, 2009

The Hungry Monster that is Opera

“Opera is an omnivore and can eat everyone alive.” Anne Bogart at VOX 2009

At VOX 2009, I had the pleasure of hearing George Steel, the new general director of New York City Opera, moderate a panel of prestigious artists involved with the making of new operas on May 2, 2009. Steele, who seems to be embracing new American opera with culinary gusto (he said he had just consumed Elise Kirke’s wonderful reference book American Opera), started the discussion with the preternatural question, What is opera?

Who were the panelists? Let’s start there.

Mark Adamo is composer librettist of Little Women and Lysistrata.

Eve Beglarian, characterized as post minimalist composer. Her work has been performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and others. She approaches music from all timeframes and styles and is considered in your face, outrageous, and intellectual.

Anne Bogart is an award-winning dramatic director who made her debut directing opera through the work of composer Deborah Drattell.

Carlisle Floyd is composer librettist of many operas including Susannah, Of Mice and Men, and Cold Sassy Tree.

Nico Muhly, known as a wunderkind composer (he was born in 1981), he is working under commission from the Metropolitan Opera on his first operatic project with Craig Lucas.

Quotable lines from this panel discussion:

“Performing arts is about changing time.” Anne Bogart

(I agree and think that is why any artist pursues his work – to get some control over the speed at which our lives go by and to help our audience experience what is happening right at this moment.)

“We listen faster (in opera).” Mark Adamo

(The operatic experience brings life into warp speed so that we can experience the full compliment of activities from birth to death. Yet the performance of opera can make time slow down so we can take in a whole life time.)

“The operatic story is ruled by the emotional content of the music.” Carlisle Floyd

(The music helps clarify and deepen a story.)

“In opera, the story has to be the right size.” Nico Muhly

(Everything in the arts is a question of balance.)

“Don’t worry about whether it is an opera. Anyone asking doesn’t matter.” Nico Muhly

(There is a lot of debate about what constitute an opera. Muhly’s advice to a question from the VOX audience was if the creators say the work is an opera, it is an opera.)

According to Floyd, the libretto contributes 60% to the success of an opera. He also said you would think that the playwright is the artist best suited for writing opera libretti but he thinks that poets can better adapt themselves to the job.

Because I am weighing the idea of creating a new libretto based on the same source text for existing music, the panel seemed a timely bit of counsel. I will add that Carlisle Floyd was skeptical that one could effectively rework the music to good effect because he feels the libretto provides the inspiration. Another Steiny Road challenge for me.