First Operas

by Barry Drogin

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Those who are used to writing musicals a la Broadway should not suddenly try and write an opera, or you'll get a sprawling mess like "Porgy and Bess" (which nevertheless has some beautiful Gershwin music). Nor should "modern composers" suddenly be asked to write an opera, as they usually don't know how to write for voice, or to structure dramatically, or other matters. That's why the information that Elliot Carter is writing his first opera is met with such stunning silence. He's writing an opera? Oh, my god, no!

The only people who should be writing operas are career opera composers --- people who have learned the hard way, through trying again and again, how to write for voice, have established a personal style, and are familiar with the history of opera. The problem is that very few of us get our works performed regularly enough to qualify and to learn how to do this, which is why opera is pretty dead. There is a short list of such composers, and some of their work is tolerable. Maybe even some of them are members of the listserv. And maybe some of the producers out there will give us sufficient space to fail so that eventually we can succeed.

Britten was a career opera composer, thanks probably to his long-term relationship with Peter Pears, and Menotti was, too, thanks, perhaps, to a start with Samuel Barber, as well as early successes.

My general theory is that effectiveness and original contribution in ANY art form takes about ten years to develop. This is why I am so doubtful when 23-year-old composers claim to have created a successful fusion between jazz and classical, or some other such. If it takes ten hard years to learn jazz, and ten hard years to learn classical, how could they have done it? Beethoven had no idea how to write for voice, as anyone who has attempted his choral symphony can attest. When I wrote my first pieces for voice, I had no idea either.

I take proselytizers for a fusion of opera and American Musical Theatre about as seriously as those proseletyzers for a fusion of jazz and classical. I have too much personal experience in the practical fall-out of such attempts to believe that it will ever really exist.

I think it is useful to admit that instrumental and orchestral composers are not very impressed or influenced by great operas and great opera composers. Verdi, Puccini, Bizet (well, one work that's standard rep), Menotti, Britten --- opera composers who identify themselves as such have so much to learn from studying these composers' works, while other composers could care less. When Corigliano wrote "The Ghosts of Versailles", I saw it and thought: "Hey, good first try. Now let's see if you've learned something and your next opera is better." But the media is not interested in this way of thinking.

I am not saying, of course, that "First Operas" should not be produced --- I have mentioned the right and need to fail. My words cannot be blamed for discouraging young composers, either --- it is already so discouraging to anyone to have anything at all to do with the contemporary opera world, that one must assume an inner desire and drive well beyond any simple words from here or from anywhere else. But I do not believe that a composer who has spent ten to twenty years perfecting his twelfth string quartet or seventh symphony or fourteenth chamber piece is suddenly going to be able to demonstrate an innate ability to write an opera, or to be able to "study" enough on his/her own so that when sitting down to write, all the difficult elements necessary for a successful opera are there.

It's like saying a lifelong painter's first sculpture will be a masterpiece; an architect who has designed thirty office buildings is going to make an original contribution to personal home design on his first try; a famous cabinet maker will design a brilliant first chair. There's a failure to acknowledge that the late Mozart operas and Verdi operas and Menotti operas are much better than their first one (acknowledging that the first one may be so exciting because it shows the potential of the new voice on the scene). Is "Trial by Jury" the perfect G&S operetta? Isn't "Lulu" a stronger piece than "Wozzeck"?

My purpose here is not to kick-off a historical study of first operas and their supposed worth --- I'm sure someone will find exceptions to every rule --- but to seek an acknowledgement that opera is its own tradition, creating one involves a unique skill set that cannot be totally taught or learned without practice, failure and feedback, writing for voice well is much more difficult than writing for an instrument (ask the singers), and, moving into emotional territory, it's damn frustrating when that composer who has made a reputation and name in concert music, film music, pop music, WHATEVER, is handed a plum commission to try and create his/her first opera, while us poor shmucks who have written smaller pieces, then larger, been working for years with singers, etc., don't see a damn DIME. Well, I've gotten that off my chest.

A choral conductor of my long acquaintance said it best: Remember, singers don't have buttons or keys to push. In writing for voice, the notes selected must belong to some kind of harmonic world that will make sense for the singer. For entrances, singers cannot just pick opening notes out of thin air. Composers who ignore that the vocal instrument is attached to a human brain, that must first be able to imagine the correct pitch, will scare away singers, or get performances riddled with errors.

The last few decades have been rife with composers who had no idea what pitches in their pieces were played correctly or not. You can decide for yourself whether that is relevant or not. But in vocal writing, if a composer can't hear his/her own notes, how can a singer be expected to?

The technical side, the tessituras and breath capacity issues and balancing and such, these all impact, too, and perhaps can be taught or read about. But a modern instrumental composer must think differently when writing for voice, and ignores doing so at the peril of his success.

(I am NOT saying be tonal or consonant, whatever this year's definition of that may be. But a vocal composer without his/her own definition of harmony and lyricism that makes sense will find few advocates.)

I don't dare give examples. I can't imagine a purpose in reproducing the complaints of orchestra conductors about bad, young serialists, or in starting a catalog of bad vocal writing.

Other singers on the list have been particularly mum about this topic, perhaps out of politeness, or fear of reprisal.

I guess it's a somewhat delicate topic --- is the singer having trouble because the piece is trying to do something new and more effort is involved, or is the singer having trouble because the composer is completely clueless about what is really possible or reasonable? Suffice it to say that any good singer can look at a piece, start reading through it, and tell you very quickly whether the piece is well written for the voice or not. Virgil Thomson wrote a monograph on words and music.

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007