“Opera is the best way to tell a musical story…” Celebrating National Opera Week with Elena Ruehr

In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.

Elena Ruehr says of her music “the idea is that the surface be simple, the structure complex.” An award winning faculty member at MIT, she is also a Guggenheim Fellow and has been a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute and composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Dr. Ruehr was a student of William Bolcom at the University of Michigan, and Vincent Persichetti and Bernard Rands at The Juilliard School. Her work has been described as “sumptuously scored and full of soaring melodies” (The New York Times), and “unspeakably gorgeous” (Gramophone).

Elena Ruehr

What is your all-time favorite opera?
The Magic Flute

What was the first opera you ever saw live?
The Magic Flute

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
Renee Flemming

Who is your opera role model?
John Adams

If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?
John Adams

What’s something about composing opera that people don’t know?
It’s really fun to compose an opera and really frustrating to produce one!

What is the biggest challenge in composing opera?
The hardest part is getting a great libretto and finding a way to make the words into a true play.

What are three important things to keep in mind when producing an opera?
Budget, Budget, Budget.

What is your greatest priority in creating new opera?
Two things:  writing beautiful lines for great singers and finding librettos that tell a story that seems crucial or exciting to me.

How did you come to create your first opera?  
I had worked with a singer, Stephen Salters, and was approached by Opera Boston to write something for him.  It lead to Toussaint Before the Spirits, still one of my best works.

What are some of the differences between your first opera and your most recent one?  
I now have a slightly bigger orchestra and a much bigger cast.

Are you able to really enjoy a performance of your own opera, or are you mentally editing from you seat?  
When I’m in my seat, I am watching the audience.  I notice when they are paying attention and when they are drifting off.  I file that away for the next one.

How closely do you work with a commissioning organization?
Always very closely.

Tell us about how opera inspires or energizes you.  
I love telling stories and opera is the best way to tell a musical story.  There is something so exciting about setting text to music, where every word can interpreted in so many ways.  It’s like being a film director, but you actually time out the words the actors/singers speak and give them the emphasis you want them to have in the musical score.

Who’s another opera composer we should be watching?  
Daron Hagen.  Laura Schwendinger. Julian Wachner.

Who is your favorite opera company to watch? To work with?  
Well I love the Met but I also really love Beth Morrison’s productions. And for local Boston productions I like Odyssey Opera and Guerrilla Opera.

What do you hope for the future of opera?  
That it does not start using amplification, which destroys the sound of a voice in my opinion.

Have you ever written the libretto yourself? Would you do it again? 
I once wrote one part of a scene, and I didn’t like how it turned out.  I think professional writers are really important, if you can find someone good.

For more information about Elena Ruehr and her catalogue, click here.

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