Sonic Dreams

Classic Arts Features   Sonic Dreams
As New York City Opera gears up for its annual "VOX: Showcasing American Composers" festival of readings from new operas-in-progress, three VOX "alumni" share their City Opera experiences.

Marc Lowenstein made his VOX debut last season as conductor of Crescent City by Anne LeBaron. He returns this May to present his own opera, The Fisher King.

I have to confess that when I was asked to conduct workshop scenes from Anne LeBaron's new opera Crescent City at New York City Opera's VOX festival, I had little idea what to expect. I was dimly aware of the festival, but was deeply wrapped up in teaching at CalArts in Los Angeles and performing on the West Coast. As a conductor, composer, and singer, I had been involved in contemporary opera for many years — long enough to know that there is a continuing resurgence of interest in reimaginings of this four-hundred-year-old, deeply captivating form, and long enough to know that while there are many questionable new works circulating around, there were many, many intriguing and deeply wonderful and valuable ones as well that are going unheard.

Most new operas that make it to the professional stage come with some sort of "hook" that the presenting companies feel will guarantee exposure and success: either a difficult-to-obtain libretto based on a best-seller or a tightly controlled modern classic; an already established composer; or even a sponsoring opera star or director. Opera is by nature hideously expensive, and new opera is seen by most companies as a gamble best not taken. Without some guaranteed draw, it is very hard to get even a small portion of a new opera heard.

This, I discovered last May, is where VOX steps in. Although I came to conduct Crescent City, I was immediately impressed by how well the festival fulfilled its mission by bringing together diverse composers and librettists with City Opera's excellent orchestra and tremendous young singers. I heard snippets of the other works on the festival as I was rehearsing Anne's piece, but it was not until the final two days of concerts that I realized how impressive the range of style and consistency of quality really was.

For Anne's Crescent City, the experience was a dream. The morale was incredibly high and utterly without professional cynicism, and in a very short time, the ensemble embraced the boisterous spirit of this opera. The orchestra, who all seemed to like each other and the music they were playing, quickly picked up on the many different styles Anne uses, the singers shone, and Anne was able to make great contacts that are propelling the work toward its future life.

We can't know for certain the future of any one individual opera that was workshopped during that festival, but VOX itself showed me that high-quality performances can reveal a wonderful wealth of diversity in the soon-to-be-less-unsung modern opera world. More important, as a listener, I found myself transported for a moment into each composer's and librettist's world. Such great performances reveal how much fun modern opera can be.

Now, as I head back to VOX this year to workshop my own opera, The Fisher King, I find myself excited at the opportunity to be once again in the company of the friendly, open, deeply dedicated, and (yes, it's true what they say about opera orchestras!) sometimes-poker-playing folks at City Opera! See you there!

‹ Marc Lowenstein

After her VOX debut last May with Leaving Santa Monica, Jenny Olivia Johnson looks forward to presenting her newest opera, the endings, at VOX 2007.

I responded to New York City Opera's 2006 call for scores with some trepidation. Leaving Santa Monica, which I composed for the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2005, did not exactly conform to the typical definitions of "opera": the characters did not have names, the plot was not exactly clear, and most of the music was relentlessly hypnotic, purposefully "low-fi", gritty, jangly, and loud. I had written it quickly and feverishly, in a burst of sudden inspiration, responding to a series of visceral yet fragmented memories from my childhood. I never had a clear sense of its narrative goal, but focused instead on the intensity of its singular, fragmented moments, allowing them to dictate the action, form, and scope of everything else. Although I still wasn't certain that it qualified as an opera, my dream was to develop "it" (whatever "it" was) into something that was fully staged, with video, lighting, and choreography. So I took a chance and sent it to VOX.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when it was accepted, and even more so when Yuval Sharon, the VOX Program Director, told me that the selection committee had been impressed by the ways in which my piece called into question what opera "is" or "should be." I had already spent years trying to compose a "real opera," complete with a delicately worked-out plot, a beautifully crafted libretto, and a careful understanding of how the drama would translate to the stage — all before composing a note of music. I never succeeded with this task, precisely because I could not access, with the kind of raw emotional power that I felt was necessary, a meaningful story for which there did not yet exist any music. I eventually learned that the only way I was ever going to be able to compose opera was to do it on my own terms — stumbling across intense, dramatic musical ideas that would dictate and guide the story, rather than the other way around.

New York City Opera took Leaving Santa Monica on by storm: amplification of the entire 70-plus orchestra? No problem! An additional chorus of male singers? Absolutely! Gigantic anvils from Das Rheingold banging away at ear-splitting decibels at the climax of the piece? Of course! The singers approached the work with a great deal of focus and intensity, and having Maestro George Manahan at the podium was an incredible honor. [Then-Composer-in-Residence] Mark Adamo and Yuval Sharon were always there to offer comments and support, and the orchestra musicians were extremely gracious and kind. Although the performance wasn't staged, the lighting designer at the Skirball Center had decided to project a rich orange-red hue on the scrim behind the orchestra, giving the stage a haunting Santa-Monica-sunset-like glow. In many ways, this performance marked an apotheosis for me: while I could never hope to resolve the fragmented stories of my past, perhaps I could find a home for them on the opera stage, a place where — as fellow composer David Lang recently suggested to me — people could come together and feel. I am grateful to the New York City Opera and its VOX festival for giving me that chance.

‹ Jenny Olivia Johnson

Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner was among the operas presented during City Opera's VOX 2004 festival. After its successful premiere performances in Detroit, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, a new production of the piece will open City Opera's 2007-2008 season this September.

For any composer, hearing one's own work is essential. For a composer of the theater, it must become a prerequisite for putting a show onstage; an opera composer must balance what he sees and hears. This involves an understanding of pacing, and an appraisal of how the voices work in tandem with his orchestral writing. And the issue of "how long is too long" also becomes a critical one in the theatre.

I found the VOX readings in which I participated in 2004 to be very valuable with respect to all of the above. The sonic dream in one's head is never quite the same as the reality, and VOX helps to build composers' realities.

‹ Richard Danielpour

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