"Choosing operas for VOX is like online dating," quips Ed Yim, New York City Opera's Director of Artistic Planning and a key member of the team charged with scrutinizing the dozens of scores which annually vie for the ten coveted slots in VOX, New York City Opera's annual festival of free-of-charge, open-to-the-public orchestral readings of excerpts from new American operas. "I've seen their picture and I've read their profile, but I don't really know them yet. And VOX is a chance for us to really get to know each other."
Now in its 11th year, City Opera's VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab gives American composers and librettists: not to mention producers and audiences: the opportunity to hear their works performed by the City Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists. This year VOX presents excerpts from new, previously unproduced works by both emerging composers like Brian Current, David T. Little, and Missy Mazzoli and such established ones as Anthony Davis and Michael Gordon.
In considering their selections, the VOX team focused on several things. "One is a real diversity of musical styles, from works with music theatre roots to the avant-garde," says George Steel, NYCO's General Manager and Artistic Director. "We're also looking at librettos with an extra-sharp eye."
The resulting collection of ten works runs a diverse gamut, from experimental pieces (Du Yun's Zolle) to those written in accessible, all-American idioms (Scott Davenport Richards's A Star Across the Ocean), by a mix of male and female composers and librettists, in languages including Chinese, French, Spanish, Italian and English, with librettos ranging from straightforward narrative (A Revolution of Forms by Anthony Davis and Dafnis Prieto) to impressionistic tableaux (Paola Prestini's Oceanic Verses), and subject matter stretching from classic literature (Julian Wachner's Evangeline Revisited) to history (Daniel Crozier's With Blood, With Ink) to vintage B-movie horror (Michael Gordon's Acquanetta). "There are a lot of different ideas about what an opera is," says Steel. "When is it an oratorio, when is it music theater, when is it a song cycle, and when is it opera?"
In addition to Steel and Yim, the team that selects the works for VOX also includes Beth Morrison, a savvy young new music entrepreneur who recently became Producer of VOX; Kevin Murphy, NYCO's Director of Music Administration; and Cori Ellison, the company's Dramaturg.
Ellison, as one who has worked on VOX from the beginning, explains that it's both new and momentous for City Opera's executive administrators to be involved in VOX in such a hands-on way. Pointing out Steel's commitment to VOX and to new music in general, she observes, "It's extraordinary that George has such a strong interest and background in new music, which is not necessarily the case for every opera company artistic director or general manager. For that reason alone, VOX becomes central to what the company does."
"With George's and my involvement," Yim adds, "the project has been integrated into all aspects of the company's operations: artistic, operational and from a marketing and public relations point of view. VOX is no longer a satellite of the company, but rather an integral part, the core of what we do." Yim continues, "City Opera's mission has, among others, four important priorities: to make opera available to everyone, to champion new works, to promote American opera and to encourage young talent. With VOX, we hit all parts of City Opera's mission. It really is a microcosm of who we are."
VOX also holds an important place in the music world at large, according to Steel. "It's not just a hunting ground for City Opera to find works that we want to do, but rather it is a laboratory in which every kind of musical theatrical impulse can be celebrated and explored."
Morrison adds, "We really want VOX to be seen as the place where regional opera directors and presenting organizations will come to hear what is happening in new opera, and see who the composers are that are writing today, and how we come together and foster this work." Over the years, VOX has proved an outstanding incubator for fledgling projects, as well as an accurate predictor of success. Many works presented by VOX have gone on to mainstage productions at such companies as Santa Fe Opera (Bright Sheng's Madame Mao), Washington Opera (Scott Wheeler's Democracy), Fort Worth Opera (Thomas Pasatieri's Frau Margot), and Opera Tampa (Anton Coppola's Sacco and Vanzetti), to name just a few. Best of all, former VOX pieces like Wuorinen's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Adamo's Little Women and Lysistrata, and Danielpour's Margaret Garner have graduated to NYCO's own mainstage. In fact, City Opera's 2010-2011 season features mainstage premieres of two operas from recent VOX festivals: Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Stephen Schwartz and "La Machine de l'être" by John Zorn.
This success rate may be at least partly attributable to the fact that VOX affords composers the unique chance to work with a full orchestra, a resource that most composers rarely have available to them. "Today, a lot of composers are writing chamber works, out of necessity; they're practical and entrepreneurial, and they want their work to be produced," says Morrison. "VOX allows these creators to be able to stretch their wings and expand the forces, and have a full orchestra at the level of NYCO's at their disposal to orchestrate."
While VOX benefits the opera world by providing a proving ground for new works, it also offers other stellar opportunities for the composers and librettists whose works have been selected for this major-market exposure. In the process of preparing for VOX, they get the singular experience of working with and learning from the full resources of a major American opera company; not only its vocal and orchestral artists, but its production, artistic, marketing, development, and education personnel. "We can teach them how to navigate the inner workings of a major opera company, and show them how to use it efficiently," says Yim. "Seeing their work filtered through the resources of a major opera company will not only give their work a chance to be seen and heard, but give them invaluable perspectives on developing it," adds Ellison.
Many VOX composers have coped admirably with the scarcity of producers and venues for new opera; several have their own ensembles, including Michael Gordon's Bang on a Can All-Stars, David Little's NewSpeak and Missy Mazzoli's Victoire, and many have found ways to get their music heard in locations once thought unlikely, for instance, nightclub environments like Le Poisson Rouge, Galapagos and The Stone. But VOX welcomes the creative process back into the opera house.
The VOX festival also fosters a unique dialogue with audiences. "One of the greatest things about it is that we as a company get to engage in a different relationship with our audiences," says Ellison. "It's much closer quarters, there's a lot of interaction. There are breaks between every two pieces, and people mill around in the lobby and discuss and argue with each other and with us. It's a kind of forum for people to react to and have fun with the newest operas in this country."
"There's no better ride than the front seat of the Cyclone and there's no better cultural experience than being in the front seat of the musical culture as it races forward," says Steel with palpable pride and enthusiasm. Morrison agrees heartily, adding, "What VOX offers the audience is a view into the future of opera. And I don't think it gets any more exciting than that."
Vox Contemporary Opera Lab
Friday, April 30, 7 _10 pm
Saturday, May 1, 2 _5:30 pm
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU
566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South
Tickets are free. Reservations can be made online at nycOpera.com
Gail Wein writes frequently about the arts for Playbill, Symphony Magazine, Musical America and New Music Box.