Since General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel's arrival at City Opera in 2009 from Columbia University's Miller Theater: where, he quips, he was "present at its creation" when the very first VOX festival was held on the Miller Theater stage: VOX has been one of his top artistic priorities. "I brought it directly into my office when I came here," Steel says, "since it's a resourceful and an exciting re-use of the company's resources that involves the whole programming team."
VOX: originally conceived to meaningfully utilize the weeks following City Opera's spring season when the company still has its orchestra players under contract: is currently under the leadership of producer Beth Morrison, who is overseeing the expansion of the festival's reach to include both Words First, a librettist program for playwrights now in its third season, and a new performance venue at the West Village club Le Poisson Rouge, which has become the go-to alternative performance space in Manhattan.
"It's great that VOX has become such a central part of City Opera's mission," Morrison says. "Instead of being an ancillary event at the end of each season, it's now become one of the season's major centerpieces." Among the 10 works to be performed during the 12th VOX festival are Sun Yat-Sen with music by Huang Ruo and libretto by Candice Chong, a work which will have its world premiere production this fall at Opera Hong Kong; and Vinkensport with music by David T. Little and libretto by Royce Vavrek, a work which was commissioned by the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College.
Although VOX will continue presenting excerpts from new works at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University (a total of six on May 14), this season it is branching out and presenting excerpts from four works in the more intimate Le Poisson Rouge on May 15. To Morrison, City Opera is staying ahead of the curve with this expansion. "Our big initiative this year is really close to my heart because I run my own company (Beth Morrison Projects) that produces opera and chamber opera in alternative spaces, and the entire industry is looking to do that as well," she explains. "VOX Second Stage takes its name from the regional theater movement that came about when smaller experimental works were shown on other, usually smaller stages. The works we're doing at Le Poisson Rouge are focused on smaller combinations of instruments, have a more experimental nature or are in early stages of development."
Steel is also excited about expanding VOX into a new venue: "Composers are telling us what the future of opera is. We want them to tell us what they're writing for. So the addition of a new venue lets us follow the composers rather than vice versa."
Words First, the librettist training program begun in 2009 at Steel's behest, mentors playwrights in order to have ready-made libretti available for composers. This season, two Words First works will make their debuts during VOX: Arlene Sierra's Faustine, with a libretto by Lucy Thurber, whose plays Scarcity and Bottom of the World were produced off- Broadway by the Atlantic Theatre Company; and Paola Prestini's De Deo, with a libretto by Donna di Novelli, who collaborated with composer Rachel Portman on the 2008 musical Little House on the Prairie.
"We decided that we were going to prime the pump and get great playwrights to write librettos," Steel explains. "On the music side, there are always about 20 or more composers ready to go to write an opera, but the blind spot has usually been the librettist: there are relatively few ready-to-go librettists out there, and we wanted to change that." The success of VOX as an incubator of new and challenging American operas is visible on City Opera's mainstage spring season schedule, with new productions of Stephen Schwartz's S_ance on a Wet Afternoon, the Wicked and Godspell composer-lyricist's first full-length opera, and John Zorn's short (and wordless) one-acter La Machine de l'ê_tre, part of a triple bill titled Monodramas alongside works by Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman.
Morrison says that, in connection with VOX, City Opera has expanded its outreach to the participating composers. "We've gotten behind supporting the composers' copying costs to create parts for the orchestra, which costs a lot of money," she explains. "We went to a donor and were able to secure the amount needed, along with traveling costs for composers who don't live in or near New York City. We also started an orientation last year for the composers with speakers from City Opera who discuss the company, which is very useful because many composers are quite young and this is their first exposure to a large company, which is unlike their own do-ityourself model which they mainly used for their own survival. These composers will be able to get a bird's-eye view of how a major opera company works, which can only help."
Morrison and Steel both see VOX as a model for 21st-century opera organizations in the development of more new works. "We have a lot more new ideas about VOX, even as we've seen how successful it has been so far," Steel notes. "It's thrilling," Morrison says. "George's vision of new works is admirable and necessary for us, and we're looking at VOX to incubate even more pieces that will, we hope, appear on our mainstage and live long lives after that."
Tickets and Schedule for VOX 2011
Saturday, May 14
NYU's Skirball Center
1:00 PM: Panel Discussion:
Producing art in alternative spaces
Open to all ticket holders
2:30 PM: Opera Excerpts
An artist talkback will follow
the afternoon's performances.
566 LaGuardia Place
(at Washington Square South)
Sunday, May 15
Le Poisson Rouge
7:30 PM: Opera Excerpts
Ticketholders are invited to stay for drinks with the artists following the performances.
158 Bleecker Street
For all ticketing, please visit nycOpera.com/VOX.