Tony Arnold, Esther Nelson, Cynthia Lee Wong

From left to right: Tony Arnold, Esther Nelson, Cynthia Lee Wong

Three Perspectives on Dramatic Vocal Music

One of the joys of artistic collaboration is the chance to work with a wide variety of people. That’s especially true when it comes to opera or any kind of staged musical production. For our “All About Opera” issue, we at 21CM decided to reach out to a mix of creators who all had different perspectives about the development of dramatic vocal music today, how they expect it to continue evolving and what they hope their current projects will contribute to the field. We were pleased to speak with:

Tony Arnold, a vocalist described as “a luminary in the world of chamber music and art song” by the Huffington Post. As the soprano for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and an artist with over 30 recordings, Arnold has specialized in performing and debuting contemporary music.

Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of the Boston Lyric Opera. Nelson oversees a company that regularly seeks out innovative venues. This month, BLO transforms an ice rink into a 1950s nightclub for a double billing of Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” and “Arias & Barcarolles.” 

Cynthia Lee Wong, an internationally acclaimed composer who is currently working on her first opera, “No Guarantees,” which will have a workshop premiere this November and an anticipated completion date in the summer of 2019. With a libretto by Richard Aellen, “No Guarantees” is a comic piece about an android designer who models a robot after his former girlfriend. 

Can you talk about your inspirations?

Tony Arnold: Every performance I saw as a kid I wanted to be a part of. It didn’t matter what it was. … That being said, there were a couple of things that always stuck with me. When I was 15 I went to a composition program where, for the first time, I heard the music of George Crumb. [The instructor] played “Ancient Voices of Children.” He didn’t tell us what it was. He didn’t tell us it was singing. I thought, what are those sounds? They’re from the forest. You’re kidding me – people are singing that? That stuck with me. Although I didn’t perform it until I was 29 or 30, I always knew that [kind of music] was out there. 

Cynthia Lee Wong: I grew up watching musicals. Later, when I attended the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, I reacquainted myself with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. I became fascinated with opera when I was studying in New York and had the opportunity to attend performances at the Met, Juilliard and the New York Philharmonic. Around the time of conceiving “No Guarantees,” I was inspired by György Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” and Leosˇ Janácˇek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” I’d always loved the humorous, whimsical quality in Ligeti’s music as well as the beauty in Janácˇek’s. More recently, I enjoyed Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de loin.” I also love Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” It mixes comedy and drama so effectively – it really sets the bar high!

How have you seen opera and vocal music evolve over the last several years?

Tony Arnold: What I see happening is more a fusion of the concert music realm and the theater music realm. Concert music is becoming more theatrical. … Another thing is that singers nowadays have a predisposition to use their voices differently than even 20 years ago. It’s being affected by crossover into musical theater, into pop music, into ethnic music of all kinds. Just amplifying opera allows you to use your voice in a different way. There are also a lot of technologies available that are letting [singers] use their voices [in ways that their] original training wouldn’t have previously allowed for.

Esther Nelson: [When Boston Lyric Opera] launched Opera Annex, we committed to a riskier repertory choice, as well as choice of venue. In the process, we found interesting results, one of which was that we attracted people who might ordinarily not think of going to an opera. What we didn’t expect was that a lot of our very traditional opera folks enjoyed it also. They were far readier to embrace something that was not by Puccini or Verdi because it was the whole experience that they embraced. Now that’s what we do with most of our operas. We’re constantly looking for spaces that are not traditional theaters.

Cynthia Lee Wong: I think today’s audiences have high expectations for stories, which have become very sophisticated in TV series and films. Although opera is a different medium, the audience has become accustomed to strong storylines. 

What are you looking forward to, whether it’s your own music or someone else’s?

Tony Arnold: There’s a piece by Christopher Trapani called “Waterlines.” He’s made something entirely new from a deep understanding of spectralism and Delta blues. This is not a crossover project, or blues songs with window dressings. He’s invented a new sound world and this gestural language that’s just amazing. 

Esther Nelson: Oh God, I have so many. Two of them are on the next season [at BLO]. We have a world premiere of a piece by Tod Machover. He has an incredible range of doing the unexpected. And then we have “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is huge. It’s by Danish composer Poul Ruders, who did a slight re-instrumentation for us. 

Cynthia Lee Wong: Richard [Aellen] and I are very excited to experience Act I of “No Guarantees,” presented by Opera Workshop at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in November 2018. Until then, we’re more interested in the learning process. Writing your first opera is like writing your first novel – you learn only by doing. [With “No Guarantees,” I chose] to use electronics, quotation and stylistic variety to bring out the comedic nature of our characters and story. That challenged me to compose in new ways – that is perhaps what I find most exciting about this project.

What do you think opera and dramatic vocal music can offer modern audiences? Do you feel hopeful about the life of the art form?

Tony Arnold: The creative work being done today is undiminished and even more lively because of the economic state of music. When I hear “the sky is falling on classical music,” it’s not true. There’s more creative activity happening now than ever, certainly in my lifetime. The crisis that music is facing is an institutional crisis. It’s not a creative crisis at all. The grand institutions of the 20th century in the history of music are the anomalous things. 

But in terms of the relevance of the creative work that’s going on nowadays, and the amount of it, the number of people it’s reaching – it’s working differently than it has in a long time. So I’m extremely hopeful about what’s going on.

Esther Nelson: Companies have to evolve alongside changing demographics. What will Boston and other cities look like 30 to 50 years from now? Where are tomorrow’s classics? [To make them] you have to take risks. You have to commission works and present works that aren’t often done. You also have to present works by people of diverse backgrounds. … We have audiences who come [to see that] because they’re curious. Our mission statement is to create curiosity about the art form – not to do the art form. It’s a subtle but very significant difference. 

My dream is that [BLO] continues to forge ahead and explore what opera means. [Opera is] essentially telling emotionally powerful stories through music and stage. And we may come up with a type of an opera that we don’t fully know yet. Because of the tremendous melting pot that is the United States, the potential of opera is very likely going to come from here. That’s the goal that I see: planting a seed, providing a path where the unexpected can develop. 

Cynthia Lee Wong: New opera is terrific because it’s so flexible. Writing musicals can be very strict: [you need] perfect rhymes, a preference for AABA form. Of course, that’s why musicals often work so effectively, but I enjoy the openness of contemporary opera. I’ve seen such a variety, all with different musical styles and different stories. A John Adams opera is very different from a Knussen, Saariaho or Ligeti. I find the variety inspiring, and I don’t see [opera] going away any time soon.


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