ICYMI: 10 Things Every Opera Composer Should Know

The National Opera Association hosted their annual conference in New Orleans last week. Composers Michael Ching and Tom Cipullo collaborated to give a great session on getting new opera produced, complete with Ching singing a selection from his hit opera, Speed Dating Tonight. Both Cipullo and Ching have experienced great success in getting their operas performed, with several dozen productions to each of their names.

Here are their lists!

Tom Cipullo

1) Excerptible Arias
If you want your opera to have a life beyond its premiere, it has to have excerptible arias. For better or worse, singers’ auditions are where opera professionals are most likely to be introduced to your work.

2) The Orchestra
When you think you have pared down the accompaniment as much as possible, the orchestra will still be too loud.

3) Instrumental Interludes
Put in lots of instrumental interludes! The orchestra needs to become a character that comments on the action.

4) Ensembles
Ensembles are the most exciting place in an opera, particularly when the characters have differing points of view. They are also the most fun thing to compose.

5) Building to the End of the Act
Study the ends of individual acts by the Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini. In the best of their works, the momentum of the last 10-15 minutes of an act is unstoppable.

6) The Libretto
Many composers would be better off writing their own libretti. It need not be the finest literature of all time, but aside from a handful of libretto-writing specialists in the world, a fairly literate composer will do just fine – and often better than a renowned poet or novelist. Why? Because only the composer knows just what he needs in order for his score to blossom.

7) The Piano-Vocal Score
There are arguments to make on both sides, but I strongly believe a composer should make a piano-vocal score early in the process. A composer needs to make one at some point because that’s what singers use to learn the score and rehearse, so why not do it sooner rather than later?

8) Drama!
There really is only one priority when composing an opera – drama, drama, drama! The composer is asking people to sit in a dark theater after a hard day at work and a big meal. You have to give the audience enough red-meat moments that they can’t look away or lose interest for a moment. Of course, every one of those dramatic moments must be earned. Nothing can be manipulated or false.

9) Style and Eclecticism
Since an opera is all about building characters and creating drama, a composer should feel free to use anything – any device, any style, any effect – to develop those characters and amplify the drama.

10) Practicality
It’s difficult enough to produce an opera without adding extra unnecessary challenges. Be guided by the doctrine of practicality in every choice – from the orchestration to the vocal lines to the demands of the set design to scene changes to the number of characters to …everything!

Michael Ching

1) Write arias (or ensembles)/minimize recitative
Funny how we both have this one. It’s important to learn how to write recitative, but it’s also important to minimize it. If you are coming to the opera to hear recitatives, you’re weird…

2) Remember, they have to memorize it
Don’t write the vocal lines so hard or disconnected to the accompaniment that singers are always worried about getting lost.

3) Build characters
The initial header for this was “tell stories,” but building memorable characters is even more important. Novels do a better job of telling stories.

4) Ponder a preponderance of periodicity
Wouldn’t you have liked to have written “voi che sapete” or “Summertime?” I sure would. You don’t have to use this through the whole show if you don’t want to. While you’re at it, write some incredible melodies.

5) Avoid excessive subtlety
I’m sorry, but PELLEAS has this problem. Maybe if I was high on psilocybin it would work for me. Opera is a blunt instrument.

6) Learn to write words and bend the libretto to your musical strength
Writing at least some words will help you understand what you need as a composer. Make sure the story/libretto shows you off depending on your strength–choruses, orchestration, tunes etc.

7) Write for replicability
Study the classics and figure out why they have lasted. Learn from them. By the way, WOZZECK and PETER GRIMES are not “the classics.”

8) Be humble and collaborative
The humble chorister and violist have spent more time learning your music than you have, so respect them. If you don’t want to collaborate, go write songs and perform them yourself.

9) Repeat yourself, repeat yourself
If you don’t repeat yourself, both in the text and the music, the audience can quickly get exhausted trying to keep up. Attending the opera is like spending time in a foreign city. Exhilarating, fascinating, but sometimes exhausting.

10) Make your producer active, not passive
Don’t let your producer say “Do whatever you want, I give you artistic license.” Try to understand what they want out of the project–east coast reviews? local grants? a happy audience? satisfied performers?

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