“The greatest priority in creating a new opera is finding a story and characters that need music.” Celebrating National Opera Week with David Conte

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.

David Conte

David Conte (b. 1955) is the composer of over one hundred works published by E. C. Schirmer Music Company, including six operas. He is Professor of Composition and Chair of the Composition Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 2010 he was appointed to the composition faculty of the European American Musical Alliance in Paris, and in 2011 he joined the board of the American Composers Forum. In 2014 he was named Composer-in-Residence with Cappella SF, a professional chorus in San Francisco.

What is your all-time favorite opera?
I have two:  Verdi’s Othello, and Janacek’s Jenufa.

What was the first opera you ever saw live?
Carmen, at the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit, 1976.

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
Krzysztof Urbanski, one of the most gifted and exciting young conductors working today.

Who is your opera role model?
Puccini, Janacek, and Conrad Susa

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

What is the biggest challenge in composing opera?
Finding the right subject for your particular gifts, and working with the librettist to get the libretto you need.  There is a trend now, partly because of supertitles, which are indispensable, for libretti to be more like screenplays than true librettos.  The result is that the music is merely accompanying the dramatic unfolding, rather than animating it and illuminating the characters and their motivations.  Also, the audience is always being told in literal terms what is going on, but librettos, while they don’t have to be “high poetry,” need to have a tone of language that invites singing.  There can be a poetry “of” the opera, rather than “in” the opera.  This means that the language and structure of the libretto serve the music, in providing both varying tempos, which reflect the emotional tempo of the character at a given moment of his or her existence, and that there are opportunities for various kind of rhetorical composing, including music that both is “vertical,” in that the emotion of a situation is explored in a deep way, as in an aria, or “horizontal,” meaning that the plot actions are being advanced in a more practical sense.

What is your greatest priority in creating new opera?
Finding a story and characters that need music.  W. H. Auden said: “In order to sing, the characters have to be a little mad.”  One can make an analogy between high mass and low mass; what is sung, and what is spoken. Opera is sung. Fashioning a quality of language that “lifts of the page,” meaning that needs to be sung, and whose message is intensified when sung.  Building into the libretto a variety of tempos that reflect exactly the “rise and fall”  of the dramatic unfolding.  This is also a reflection of the dramatic structure of the work, which for me is best when it affirms classical Greek dramatic structure, with its clear climax and resolution.  When this is present, the audience can experience, again in the Greek sense, a true catharsis, which for me is the purpose of art, and is what leads both performers and audiences to bond with a work.  The most important quality to build into the libretto is what Somerset Maugham called “direction of interest.” It is the method by which an author causes you to concern yourself with the fortunes of certain people under certain conditions and keeps you attached to them until he has reached his solution.

For more information about David Conte and his catalogue, click here.

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