“Make the opera attractive enough that somebody wants to do it again…” Celebrating National Opera Week with Michael Ching

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.

Michael ChingE. C. Schirmer publishes Michael Ching’s Buoso’s Ghost which will play this season at SUNY Potsdam, the University of Central Florida, and OperaDelaware where the composer will also conduct the production. Michael’s newest project is Anna Hunter, a one act opera about historic preservation in 1950s Savannah. It is part of the 2017 National Opera Week festivities at the Savannah Voice Festival.  Speed Dating Tonight! was commissioned and premiered in 2013 by the Janiec Opera of the Brevard Music Center and will have its sixtieth production in 2018. It has been called the most popular opera of the 21st century. Michael has new projects as composer/librettist at Cedar Rapids Opera Theater and the Performing Arts High School at Rancho Mirage, California. Michael currently serves as Music Director of Amarillo Opera, Composer-in-Residence at Savannah Voice Festival, and Opera and Vocal Music Consultant for E. C. Schirmer and Galaxy Music. Email him.

What is your all-time favorite opera?

What was the first opera you ever saw live?
Trouble in Tahiti.

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
Swedish Soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter.

Who is your opera role model?
Robert Ward, my teacher and composer of The Crucible.

If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?
Gershwin, and I’d bring along something to try to cure his brain tumor.

What’s something about composing opera that people don’t know?
It’s terribly fun!

What is the biggest challenge in composing opera?
Getting the story with an absolute minimum of recitative and dialogue. No one goes to the opera to hear recitative and dialogue. There are some composers that admire Debussy or Strauss and all the dialogue they have, but I personally find them dull. Call me a philistine.

What are three important things to keep in mind when producing an opera?
Replicability, Replicability, Replicability. Make the opera attractive enough that somebody wants to do it again after the premiere. Otherwise it’s way too much effort for one production!

What is your greatest priority in creating new opera?
Pleasing the producer and myself. Writing for the audience that I imagine will be attending the premiere.

How did you come to create your first opera?
I was studying with Robert Ward at Duke and he let me write an opera as a senior project, which they then produced the summer after I graduated.

What are some of the differences between your first opera and your most recent one?
My first opera sucked, my latest one’s really good. 😉

Are you able to really enjoy a performance of your own opera, or are you mentally editing from you seat?
I’m a really good audience member, and have learned to let go and enjoy the element of live theater and the choices made by the producers and performers. If you can’t let go, opera really might not be a good thing to write.

How closely do you work with a commissioning organization?
The closer, the better. The worst kinds of commissions are those that give you free reign. The best specify the subject matter, the size of the cast and orchestra, and even give suggestions about the musical approach.

Tell us about how opera inspires or energizes you.
I live and breathe it as a composer, librettist, conductor, and former administrator and coach. I’m very glad to be alive during a period of time where there’s a bit of demand for new work. I love taking something that you wouldn’t imagine would make a song and turn it into one. For example, my new opera, Anna Hunter, has a song about a “revolving fund” which is a financial lending instrument for historic preservation.

Who’s another opera composer we should be watching?
Bonnie Montgomery, an Americana singer-songwriter who has a background in opera, including an opera about Bill Clinton. I’m not saying that everyone should write shows like Porgy and Bess or West Side Story, but the field would be better off if there were more shows that used them as models.

Who is your favorite opera company to watch? To work with?
I’ve been delighted working with Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves at Savannah Voice Festival. It is singer-centered and they want music that is fun to sing and characterize. And their working model is opera-as-Greek-family, so there’s a lot of food and fun mixed into shooting the breeze about opera.

What do you hope for the future of opera?
I hope opera can be more central to our culture, like it was in Verdi’s time in Italy. Contrary to most composers, I think the answer is to be loved, not respected.

For more information about Michael Ching and his catalogue, click here.

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