II. Opera Performance as Discourse
The second week of my master’s degree I was selected to compose a new opera for CCPA 2017 OperaFEST. In the first production meeting with Head of Opera Andrew Eggert and Assistant Professor of Opera and Voice Scott Gilmore I tossed around several ideas for what this opera collaboration could become. One of the ideas I presented was a meta-opera where the audience is watching people who are themselves watching an opera—an opera within an opera.
Ideas grew quickly out of this framework--
- the opera these characters are watching is being protested for the way it portrays minorities and women
- their inner monologues are shedding light on real issues within the opera canon
- the goal is to have the audience reflect deeply on the ethical implications of revered cultural institutions that perform outdated and damaging stereotypes.
Eventually six characters were born, each with different motivations and appraisals of the situation:
- Artistic Director
- Board Member
- Conservatory Student
I was able to derive separate motivations for each character from the following quote by Susan McClary, taken from foreword to Catherine Clément’s crucial book Opera, or the Undoing of Women:
...the extent to which she modeled herself after her favorite heroines when she was young; the obvious love of opera she still maintains; her desire to transmit to her son some sense of opera that does not passively accept the stories it articulates; and yet, of course, the recognition that ‘her kind’ are the inevitable victims of an art form that demands submission or death of the woman for the sake of a narrative closure.
(To watch the premiere of “…for the sake of a narrative closure” click here. Click here to view the score and libretto.)
I feel extremely fortunate when anything I have created grows to have a life outside of my imagination. But “…for the sake of a narrative closure” has expanded beyond anything else I have composed to date. The premiere led to a short article on Roosevelt University’s website. This article attracted the attention of several people interested in having this piece as a part of their women and music courses as well as others interested in producing performances. Scott Skiba, Artistic Director of Cleveland Opera Theater and Director of Opera Studies at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music (BWU), was one of these people. Scott was hoping to produce “…for the sake of a narrative closure” for the 6 women in the 2018 graduating senior class at BWU as a part of their capstone project. My only stipulation was to work together, add new sections, and change the libretto if the women felt the text did not fully represent their experiences. Together, the cast, Scott and I devised a new opening section that highlighted the sound world of the protest in relation to the controlled soundscape of an opera hall. We also created a new closing section that led directly into a conversation with the audience by having the performers break the fourth wall and ask the audience “what is opera to you?” Additionally, Scott created a profound staging where eventually each character embodies the death of a famous opera heroin, leaving the stage silent and full of dead women. The picture is clear at this point in the drama, THIS is what we have created as a society with the opera canon.
The performance, on May 3rd at BopStop in Cleveland, OH was profound and enlightening. In the talkback with the audience I learned a lot about the student’s perceptions of the work. Because the work is a cappella they all described a deep-seated trust they had to build with one another in comparison to other opera scenes that lean on a pianist or orchestra. They also expressed relief in learning a work that allowed them to reflect deeply on their own fears and apprehensions as graduating and aspiring opera singers. I had an opportunity to talk about my own ideas of broadening the concept of performance to be more inclusive, and getting rid of the perceived hierarchy where performers are relaying the composer’s intentions to the audience. This naturally led to a discussion about creating devised operas that signify a wider range of experiences and subjectivities. Scott and I are hoping to continue this project and create a series of short operas that explore different ethical issues regarding the opera institution. This project may happen with professional groups around the US, more on that soon!
Finally, if you are in the Chicago area and want to see a production of “…for the sake of a narrative closure” Thompson Street Opera is performing this as part of their Faulty Systems series in January 2019! Check here for updates!
I want to close with the two overarching lessons I have learned from this project so far. First is an age-old adage that we cannot predict the outcome of creativity and exploration. "... for the sake of a narrative closure" started as a simple idea and grew into a concept that sheds light on important social issues both within and outside of the opera institution. The second lesson from this project is the need to broaden ideas of western music and art performance. “…for the sake of a narrative closure” and it’s hopefully subsequent operas, are only able to tell an impactful story when the performance is seen as something that includes the generative process through devising with performers, and includes the audience with a genuine conversation about the stereotypic portrayals of women and minorities within the opera canon. Through this, the performance has a wider range of signification and allows art to do what it does best— communicate. Were this type of approach adapted to fit other performance entities, I wonder if the art world would see an erasure of ethical issues that seem to run latent within these institutions? More on this next time... thanks for reading!