Working in the Theatre: Chamber Opera


One of the craziest things about opera, is
just the idea that we’re living in song. We tell the story in song, tell our thoughts
in song, reveal ourselves in song, hope and dream in song. I’m fascinated by it, I’m into it. The singing voice has the ability to carry
emotion in a way that the spoken voice does not, and that emotion affects people on a
cellular level. Like sometimes someone will sing and you’ll
just get chills all over your body or you’ll have tears well up in your eyes. It may have nothing to do with the words that
they’re singing, but simply the sound that they’re making. Opera is a very esoteric art form, but it’s
musical theater. In many cases, what we’re talking about
is, “Is there a difference to beer and wine?” They’re different genres and people have
different ways in. To distinguish an opera from a musical is
a debate that’s been happening over time. It’s not an easy question to answer except
to say aesthetically the compositional choices are different. Oftentimes, also, in musicals there is spoken
word so a standard book musical will have three writers, which would be a lyricist,
the book writer, and the composer. A standard opera would have two writers which
would be the composer and the librettist. (Singing) I think that musical theater certainly comes
out of the operatic tradition. You think of the traditional operatic canon
it’s traditional western Europe that we’re thinking about. When you think about the musical, it’s really
the American musical that we’re thinking about. There are composers like Bernstein and Stephen
Sondheim who will crossover into either category and musical theatre houses will do them and
opera houses will do them. And oftentimes what separates the musical
versus the operatic style is the casting. And so if you cast more operatic style singing
it will sound more operatic and that will be the opera houses production. If you want it to sound more musical theater
then you cast a Broadway style singer and it will sound more musical theater. The compositions themselves are quite rigorous,
and would stand up in either arena. (Singing) Structure-wise, if we think about the way
time moves in a theater piece, and the way time moves in an opera piece, those two feel
very different to me. And what I love about opera is that you can
have these moments of aria that are just kind of sore and that exist in a different way
than say a linear straight play. When I decided to form my company, it was
clear to me that what I was interested in was telling stories of today to create a new
American operatic repertoire that was theatrical in a way that felt relevant and was musically
relevant to a contemporary audience. So, it was clear that I was only going to
be working with living composers. I wanted to try and revolutionize the way
we told operatic stories and to really bring the best of the avant-garde theater movement
into the opera stage. Oh. Testing, one, two, three. The good thing about where we are today, with
opera, is that it can be pretty much anything. The same way dance can be anything or any
performance can be anything. We can be more abstract, thanks to music being
the carrying element of it, and you can surprise people. (Singing) And it can finally step away from issues that
don’t feel that relevant anymore. No one is shocked by love across societal
boundaries. No one is chocked about a murder, per se. But you have to look at what really scares
people now, if you want to scare people in opera now, and I don’t think it’s as simple
as blood on the stage. Now we have to create under the skin of people. You can look at many operas as being derivative
of Greek theater, which sort of brought us to Monteverdi and the first operas that exist. It’s a style that in certain senses anachronistic. It was developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries and you have to go back in time to realize there’s no film, there’s no
television, there’s no Internet. And you know, people are primarily going to
the theater and they’re going to concerts, and they’re going to Church. Today one of the questions composers have
to ask themselves is “Am I dealing with a orchestra of 80 musicians who are making
the sound of the 19th century? Or am I dealing with a more modern sound,
that is amplified, that might employ, electric instruments, electric guitar, that may be
able to make as big a sound with much fewer instruments?” Well, what century am I living in? When you say chamber opera, it’s a very,
in a sense, antiquated term but it gives me the opportunity to say “We’re in 2018. Electric guitars exist. There’s amplification. I can make this work in a way that sounds
like I’m alive right now.” Chamber opera is a smaller version of a larger
grand opera. You have various levels of opera and it’s
usually, sort of, defined by the forces that are involved in order to be able to perform it. (Singing) What’s happened in American Opera over the
last five years has been a revolution. Most companies now are programming contemporary
work in some format. A lot of them are taking that opportunity
to collaborate in spaces outside of their opera house. So, smaller spaces. The American chamber opera movement has really
taken hold and there is an unbelievable treasure trove of operas being written. My process of creating is very similar, and
I have to say its very boring, its really like someone in a room by themselves, figuring it out. In the process of working on an opera, you
realize you’re going to be working with theater people and there’s a whole other
process that happens. Now, I write music and everything I write
is notated, and music notation is like rocket fuel. The musicians come in, all the instructions,
and very very subtle musical nuances are all written down and in a very very short time,
musicians come in, they can play everything and they’re ready. The theatrical process is something that takes
a very long time. (Singing) I think the most instinctual thing that I
do is create marriages between the composers and librettists, composers and librettist
teams, and with directors. It’s about knowing each of their work deeply
enough, knowing their personalities enough, to get a sense of what their connection would be. Acquanetta by Michael Gordon and Deborah Artman
was a piece that I was obsessed with for about eight years. So I called and asked Michael if he’d be
interested in doing a chamber version of Acquanetta, so what he wrote was an orchestral reduction
from 80 to 7. To me, it needed a director who was going
to come in and have a very strong concept for the opera. Daniel Fish has the ability to come up with
a very strong concept and so it was a perfect match. Acquanetta is about the B-movie film star
Acquanetta. She was in the 1940s was a bombshell is Hollywood. Acquanetta is mostly about identity and wanting
the person on the other side of the camera to see you for who you truly are rather than
how the industry wants you to be presented or how the director wants you to be seen. And, kind of, just that calling for wanting
to be identified for who you actually are. It’s based on three minutes of a movie called
Captive, Wild, Woman which was a big sensation in the 1940s. It’s a really terrible movie about a scientist
who turns an ape into a woman. I wrote the opera with the perspective of
each character as the character they play in the movie and also as the actor playing
the character. So you get this dual, or simultaneous information
of how the person is feeling playing the character and how the person is feeling in the movie. The Hollywood studio called her the “Venezuelan
Volcano” making her this sort of exotic figure from Venezuela. In fact, she was a light skinned black woman from Ohio. She couldn’t fulfill her dreams in the 1940s
being who she was. Here she is playing a role in which an ape who has been converted into a woman and is going through this horrible transformation where the ape is first being
turned into a black woman and then a lighter woman. In a certain strange way, echoing her own life. (Singing) The Echo Drift is a piece about a human being
in isolation. In this case, the convicted murderer Walker
Loats, who is in solitary confinement in the Hirsch, which is an infinite, nonrealistic,
solitary confinement prison. It’s the story of what she goes through
with herself in isolation and she is visited by characters, you might say, of her own creation,
including the moth, which appears in a cocoon that she finds in her soup. The Echo Drift, within the piece, is a place
where time does not exist. And that is very appealing because I’m in
a place where there’s no time, really, anyway. There’s no windows, there’s no interaction,
there’s no schedule but I’ve created it for myself. So to go where I want and not be in this box
is a pretty magical idea. The animation and the electronics are such
a huge part of the opera. We have the moth character that is animated,
something like 600 sketch paintings and he, thanks to out amazing projection designer,
Simon Harding, is tied to the voice actors…when he speaks. So he gets larger and he moves around, and
that is just… incredible what we can do today. The reason I think this stiry works as an
opera is that it allows for the fantastical. It allows for trickery. It allows for a lot of stage craft. If you’re dealing also with the perception
of a person who is slipping away, mentally, so to speak, and to me that’s something
that has a lot of dramatic potential and it has a lot of operatic potential and I can
do a lot with the music. Text in opera can be very difficult for people
to understand because of the testator or the range of the voice. We have to work really really hard to make
sure that we can get as much comprehension from the audience so that we don’t have
to use supertitles or disconnect. You know, it’s pretty through composed like
a play would be. So, people don’t get the opportunity to
hear the line 50 times and go “Oh, that’s what they said.” Getting those words out and making sure you
have clarity of consonants and vowels is super super important. Daniella, our conductor did an amazing job,
bringing out so many emotions and characters in the music. I felt I could dive into the character of
Acquanetta a little bit more. Especially in the horror genre of what we
were trying to do. In terms of the writing process, I try to
create a language that is more poetic and I am also thinking of the rhythms of the words,
sounds of the words, even more than I would with regular playwrighting. For example, how a particular line might sound sung. I’m not necessarily writing a rhymed verse,
but the idea of sometimes an internal rhyme or a sense of the sound of the words, that’s
something I think about a lot more when I’m doing my libretto work. The Prototype Festival came about from not
getting the kind of work that I produce which is contemporary opera-theatre and music-theatre
work into any of the festivals and I decided to join forces with my co-producers at HERE
Arts Center and create our Prototype Festival. Prototype directors have a very strong vision
of what new Opera can be. I think they really have an interesting format
where they allow artists to do what is right at the core of what they want to say, but
also push people further which I think is amazing. (Singing) The definition of opera is maybe changing. To a lot of people, it is simply a theater
piece that is sung through with an orchestra with a lot of big costumes. But now I think opera has really become theatre
in which you have an operatically trained actor that is performing. It’s also, I think, a conglomeration of
all performing art form because you have dance and you have theatrical elements and you have
music, you know and visual art, and now you have technology, as well, all coming together. People who are studying theatre should absolutely
study opera because there are a lot of jobs to be had in the field and they tend to be
quite well paying jobs. So, directors should absolutely learn how
to read music, they should study the operatic canon, they should get a sense of what they
want to say in the art form. Designers absolutely should, oftentimes opera
companies have significant resources for design in a way that theatre companies do not. And vise versa, so for singers who are working
in opera I think their training in theatre is essential. So you can really understand the nuances of
acting and bring that into the operatic form. Producers are looking for an integrated performer
who has really everything. Also, it’s important for composers to study
theater so they have a sense of storytelling in a way that they wouldn’t get from just
studying the operatic canon. They get a sense of different aesthetics through
theater and they get a chance to really explore what’s happening in the avante-garde with
theater.

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