A scene from "Soldier Songs"


How DIY Opera Composers Reinvented a Genre

Opera has always been a game of big bets. Companies invest entire annual budgets in a handful of productions, relying on long show runs and broad appeal to turn a profit. When opera served as the main form of entertainment in 19th-century Europe and America, new operas flourished as companies readily funded composers, hoping to find the next big show. 

However, by the turn of the 20th century, attitudes – and as a result, economics – had changed. As sociologist Paul DiMaggio put it, “efforts of urban elites to build organizational forms that, first, isolated high culture and, second, differentiated it from popular culture” worked to enshrine opera in its modern trustee-governed, nonprofit model. “La traviata” didn’t change, but the way in which opera companies monitored their audiences did. One of the casualties of this market shift was that investors looking for the next big hit migrated to musical theater, which took on the role of popular entertainment that opera once held. Today, opera institutions recognize that new opera is important for the art form, but the economics often lead them to behave like big budget Hollywood studios, looking for something tried, true and familiar to audiences in order to keep their books in the black. All of this has made it incredibly hard for living opera composers to get a foothold in the field.

“We were driven to just figure out how to do it. Even if it’s small, DIY and we’re doing it in a bar, it’s still going to be an honest expression of our artistic vision.” —David T. Little

And yet, among the annual announcements of yet more “Tosca” and “Carmen” performances, you can find an inventive, scrappy class of young artists working to revitalize the American opera scene. For many, creativity and reinvention are at their most fertile when they become an act of problem-solving; that was certainly true for David T. Little when he was working on his first opera, “Soldier Songs.” He remembers, “We were driven to just figure out how to do it. Even if it’s small, DIY and we’re doing it in a bar, it’s still going to be an honest expression of our artistic vision.” 

Commissioned by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, “Soldier Songs” began in 2006 as a semi-staged chamber work. Little did not have the musical forces of a full opera at his disposal, so his challenge was to make its sound come across as operatic. In 2008, Little worked with producer Beth Morrison to give the piece its workshop premiere at New York City’s (le) poisson rouge. (Incidentally, Yuval Sharon directed this production four years before launching his now famous opera company, The Industry.) The piece evolved around what the artists had to work with, which was, in this case, a venue that lacked a theatrical stage. Since receiving its fully staged premiere in 2011, “Soldier Songs” has seen performances by companies across the country, but Little says the artistic evolution of the piece can be attributed to the fact that he did not wait for permission to write a conventional opera.

A scene from JFK

A scene from JFKA scene from David T. Little’s “JFK.”

By now, Little has become a recognized and in-demand composer. He recently finished his fifth opera, and he’s earned commissions for works like “JFK,” a surrealist piece debuted by Fort Worth Opera in 2016. But when Little was writing “Soldier Songs,” he wasn’t so sure about his place in the field. “I didn’t know anybody else who was writing opera,” he explains. “It felt weird to say I was writing [one], because opera was not a thing you wrote as a young composer … or as the type of composer who also plays in rock bands.”

Rather, Little saw himself as a troublemaker and outsider, looking to shake things up a bit. It wasn’t until a 2010 installment of the VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab, when Little found himself seated with other young composers – the likes of Du Yun, Paola Prestini and Julian Wachner – similarly bent on making opera despite its challenges, that he realized, “Oh, this is kind of a thing.”

Since then, young artists have continued to find their way into the genre, creating a vibrant generation of American opera. When Missy Mazzoli (who was also at that VOX lab) dove into the form, she says it “felt like coming home.”

“There are a lot of programs that have emerged over the last 10 years that weren’t there when I was in college. And I think they bring younger composers into the opera world a little earlier.”
—Missy Mazzoli

By that point in her career, Mazzoli was already well known in contemporary classical circles for her chamber music, typically performed by her group Victoire. She had crowdfunded the recording of her chamber opera, “Song from the Uproar,” but it wasn’t until she began a residency with Opera Philadelphia that she had the full forces of a company available to her. Once in that space, she knew it was where she wanted to spend her career.

“I think my music is very narrative or cinematic at times,” she says. “Even my instrumental music usually tells some sort of story. I’m always thinking about the psychology behind a melody or instrumentation. And so being able to verbalize that narrative and share it with the people who are bringing it to life, it was thrilling. I felt like I had found my place.”

Mazzoli also thrives in collaboration, which is something else that attracted her to opera. Whereas a new piece for orchestra might get three rehearsals and prompt five questions from a conductor, operas require a long-term, back-and-forth process. They also involve input from lighting experts, projectionists and costume designers, who Mazzoli says often bring in influences from their experiences in film, TV or visual art.

Song from the Uproar

Song from the Uproar A scene from Missy Mazzoli’s “Song from the Uproar.”

Still, that time and those many moving parts are why new operas can be prohibitively expensive. “As a young composer, you can write a chamber piece and have your friends play it,” Mazzoli says. “You can’t really put together your own opera company.” Even as composers have turned to DIY approaches – like Mazzoli did with “Song from the Uproar” – new opera still requires institutional support.

However, Mazzoli says she’s seen renewed efforts by institutions to train musicians in developing new work. These take the form of workshops and festivals, such as American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice (launched in 2002), American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (2007), the PROTOTYPE Festival (2013) and Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative (2012). “It’s changing all the time,” says Mazzoli. “There are a lot of programs that have emerged over the last 10 years that weren’t there when I was in college. And I think they bring younger composers into the opera world a little earlier.”

Little agrees that there is more commissioning now, particularly among smaller companies who want chamber works, or who partner with other groups to sponsor projects. Equally important, he points out that there has been an evolution, led by OPERA America, in how the industry thinks about the workshop process – something that’s crucial for giving a new work life beyond its premiere. “I’ve been seeing [that rethinking] in recent years,” Little says, “and I really think it’s contributed to changing the conversation at all levels.”

American opera is still primarily placing safe bets on its well-worn canon, but composers like Mazzoli and Little see a changing landscape that gives cause for optimism: institutions that think more flexibly, provide more opportunities and embrace a DIY, upstart spirit to find ways to make it work. But most importantly, they see peers writing timely works for responsive audiences. 

“I love the standard rep, but there is power in having something from your own time that can connect to you in a visceral and emotional way,” Mazzoli says. “That’s the power of modern opera.”

Ricky O’Bannon

Ricky O’Bannon has both written about and worked within arts organizations. Previously a government, data and arts journalist, he was the writer-in-residence with the Baltimore Symphony and currently works in digital storytelling at The Kennedy Center. …more 

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