“Human beings are hard-wired for narrative…” Celebrating National Opera Week with Libby Larsen

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.

Libby LarsenGrammy award-winning composer Libby Larsen (b. 24 December 1950, Wilmington, Delaware) is one of America’s most prolific and most performed living composers, whose music has been praised for its dynamic, deeply inspired, and vigorous contemporary American spirit. Her opera Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus was selected as one of the eight best classical music events of 1990 by USA Today. In 1973, she co-founded (with Stephen Paulus) the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composers Forum, which has been an invaluable advocate for composers in a difficult, transitional time for American arts.

What is your all-time favorite opera?
Alban Berg’s Lulu, absolute favorite.

What was the first opera you ever saw live?
Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco.

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
Nicholas Phan, superb artist.

Who is your opera role model?
Beverly Sills; artist, entrepreneur, leader.

If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?
Dinner séance with Hector Berlioz.

What is your greatest priority in creating new opera?
Human beings are hard-wired for narrative. I keep this as my top priority when I work in opera.  I challenge myself creatively to create and maintain a strong narrative – linear, non-linear, mobilesque – whatever the narrative form I use it must be clear throughout the work. Within this, my priorities are to tell a good story with interesting characters and music that involves the audience in their stories and character development.  A “character” can be as abstract as an idea or as concrete as a person.  Whatever or whoever it is the character needs to be deeply interesting and worked out on many levels.

What are some of the differences between your first opera and your most recent one?
One other noticeable difference (at least to me…) is the way in inhabit my characters and their stories. Over the years and the fifteen or so operas I’ve composed, I’ve changed  in how I think about and work with my characters. I used to set them in motion, watch them and respond with music.  Now I put them inside me, live with them, and let the music come through them. I’ve also evolved in the way I set text on character and circumstance.  In my early operas I tended to set text for each character in pretty much the same way.  For instance, if the meter of the score was 4/4, every character’s text was set 4/4.  I now create a customized rhythmic profile for each character as well as a customized tempo map for each’s character development throughout the opera. I’ve found that this way of working allows a character to transcend meter while coordinating naturally with it and with the other characters in the work.

Tell us about how opera inspires or energizes you.
I LOVE that the medium of opera allows a person to dwell deeply, over a long span of time, in an abstract, essential human emotion – love, death, grief, greed, jealousy, lust, avarice, power- lust, etc., When  we attend opera, we are more than willing to take ourselves to the subject at hand and GO THERE emotionally, trusting that we are welcome and belong in this particular world created of music/words/movement/lighting/costumes – maybe best of all, we BREATHE the same air along with the musicians so for this span of time we move together, musically, psychologically and spiritually.

For more information about Libby Larsen and her catalogue, click here.

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