Few things can be more rewarding for a composer than a standing ovation after the premiere of a new work, but last weekend I got to experience the same rush of excitement inside a rehearsal room, with only four people present. As I write these lines, I’m on board a plane on my way back home. I spent the last three days in Chicago for a new round of meetings with Kevin Newbury and Sir Andrew Davis with Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein as a witness. I went there to show the latest music I’ve written for Bel Canto, but it was a pivotal moment in Scene 2 of Act II that made Sir Andrew Davis burst spontaneously into a “Yesss!!!” followed later by a remark where he said that I was “pushing all the right buttons”. As usual, I had prepared a short score and a MIDI recording for all those present to look and listen to, and this time I showed some rewrites from Act I, the ending of Scene 1 of Act II, and the complete Scene 2 of Act II. After we finished listening, all present could barely contain their enthusiasm and praise, and that, ladies and gentlemen, paid off all the hard work I have been doing for the past 16 months. Yes, “Bel Canto” has not yet been premiered, but it is already generating excitement.
The knowledge I am gathering from these work sessions is tremendous and I am privileged to count with the feedback of such distinguished collaborators, but as important as it is, showing my work and getting feedback from both director and conductor is not the only thing we do during our meetings. In fact, for me, the most helpful moment comes when we discuss those passages that remain to be set to music. When doing this we take the libretto, read it carefully, and start imagining how to bring it visually and musically to life. This is when Kevin Newbury‘s input becomes invaluable because he is already envisioning some parts of the opera and it is incredibly helpful for me to know what’s going on onstage before writing the actual music. The feedback is mutual, of course, and sometimes Kevin wants me to tell him what do I envision in certain passages, and that is the seal of a true collaboration: information flows both ways and we are both very receptive to each other’s ideas. In this sense, I am incredibly lucky to be working with Kevin, who is young and energetic and with whom I have developed great chemistry in and out of work.
Back in February of this year I traveled to New York where I had individual sessions with Kevin Newbury and Renee Fleming, and I had the privilege to watch Renee in action at the Met in her signature role as Rusalka. Renee received me warmly in her NY penthouse and we spent two hours looking at the music I had written. Her feedback is essential because in an opera vocal writing takes center stage and whenever she, an undisputed master, makes a remark about my vocal writing, I make sure to take notes. During our last meeting she had a few suggestions, but she also made a point of saying that my vocal writing was making great progress in a very short time and that, in terms of orchestration, I was raising the bar for other young composers to come, an incredible compliment that has encouraged me to push myself even further in this aspect.
After these 16 months I can already tell that my understanding of opera has grown exponentially. Now I know that years of listening and watching opera cannot compete with actually writing one. Only now I finally feel that I’m getting to understand the inner mechanics of this complex art form. One might take some things for granted and, in fact, some of the things I’m about to point out might seem obvious, but this is exactly what I’m talking about. I thought I understood how opera works, but only now in the midst of writing it, I’m getting a true sense of what it takes to do so. For example, when writing orchestral music I am concerned by several parameters, but an orchestra piece has a dramaturgy of its own, pure, untouched and self-contained in the sense that it is entirely abstract, unless we are talking about a programmatic piece. Opera however, is telling us a story, so we have, sort-to-say descended from an ideal and abstract realm into a more mundane world, contaminated by words, actions and physical space. Metaphorically speaking, I see purely instrumental music as existing in an immaterial world, but opera, however, is music incarnate.
In opera music must serve as a vehicle that must perform several functions at once. It must help move the story forward; convey the characters’ emotions; create an atmosphere that might be in tune or at odds with the characters’ feelings, depending on what we are trying to communicate; and it must also elevate us to a place that exists beyond the physical action we are witnessing. This last point might seem arbitrary, but this is exactly the moment when vocal music can also be elevated to the realm of pure music and this is done usually in the arias. Arias are self-contained songs that can exist within or outside of the opera, and they are usually the ones that help keep an opera alive when it is not being staged. But of course arias have words and they are not as abstract as pure music, or can they be? Although arias must invariably have a strong connection with the plot, they can also take us away from it because here language becomes poetry. It is here when the words take flight, suspend the action for a few moments, and take us someplace else where music reigns undisputed. Here we are not concerned with moving the plot forward, quite the contrary, they help us have a moment of introspection so that we can resume the action later on. Finally, opera also contains a few extended instrumental sections, so as a matter of fact, the whole repertoire of resources is available to a composer when writing in this art form. No wonder it is also referred to as Gesamtkuntswerk.
My latest Chicago trip was complemented by an excellent meeting with the Marketing and Public Relations Department of Lyric, a meeting led by Alexandra Day, who is Director of PR and Magda Krance, Manager of Media Relations. Kevin and I wanted to let them know that we are more than happy to make ourselves available whenever needed, and that we want to be involved in the process of spreading the word about “Bel Canto” among press and audience. Nothing is more exciting for an opera company than a world premiere, and Lyric has not commissioned a new opera in more than a decade, which means that everyone in the company is completely determined to making “Bel Canto” a success.
Our next milestone will be our piano/vocal workshop, which will take place this summer with singers from Lyric’s own Ryan Opera Center. The whole creative team will be present for this occasion and we will workshop four out of six scenes from the opera. I am now working on Scene 2 of Act I, which I intend to finish right before the summer. Mind that I do not work chronologically; this means large sections of Act II have already been composed. I’ll make sure to make a report after our summer workshops. Can’t wait!