Each winter, Darren Woods heads to Opera America to represent Seagle Music Colony at the annual New Works Forum. Keep reading to find out what he learned about and loved at this year’s event!
I am currently on a train heading to one of my favorite events of the year: The New Works Forum at Opera America, where composers, librettists, producers, vocal artists, directors, conductors, designers – heck, anyone who has anything to do with opera – gathers in New York for a three day conference. Here we will talk about new technologies in production. We will deal with the nuts and bolts of commissioning and spend some time seeing showcases and full productions of new opera. It is a grand time.
But all music was, at one time, new!
My train was right on time AND my hotel room was ready early! Lucky day! I got to drop my things off and head around the block to the first session of the day. Marc Scorca, Opera America’s President and CEO, welcomed everyone and then walked us through the amazing history of opera in America that stretches back to the mid-1700s. And New Orleans Opera was basically born in 1796! Most of the companies and audiences back then wanted to see new works and the companies in the 1800s were full of them – new works by unknown composers like Puccini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer and other “youngsters.” I think that when our audiences say that they don’t like new work, they forget that “The Marriage of Figaro” was once a new piece; in fact, it was censored because it was subversive and it was not incredibly popular at first. It is only in the re-hearing and re-viewing of it for centuries that we regard it as a beloved classic. But all music was, at one time, new!
The first session was about adaptation in opera and musical theater. It was the nuts and bolts of taking an existing book or play and adapting it into an opera. The composers and librettists reminded us that a great deal of the operatic canon (even back to Verdi, Puccini and the rest) are adaptations. You might remember Evan Mack and Joshua McGuire’s ROSCOE that Seagle premiered in 2016. It was adapted from the novel by William Kennedy. Evan and Josh had to secure the rights and work with the author to get the opera written.
Dinner with my longtime friend Kurt Howard and his husband came next at a great Italian restaurant. I was supposed to go to the showcase, but after being sick for three weeks, I was spent and went back to the hotel.
Tomorrow’s day starts with a meeting with a composer and producer about a brand-new immersive opera. I can’t wait to see what that’s about!
Day 2 started with a bang of introduction to new technology. I had an 8:30 a.m. meeting with composer Kamala Sankaram, the composer of our children’s opera from this past summer, “Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers”; Kristin Marting, from the experimental opera/theater company HERE and one of the artistic directors of the Prototype Festival in NYC; and Anne Hiatt of Opera on Tap, which started out as opera singers singing opera in a bar to a really revolutionary company that is now represented all over the United States. These amazing ladies had a project that they want to develop at Seagle that involves “Augmented Reality” which is different than “Virtual Reality” in that you still see the real world around you, but “films” or “visions” or “objects” are superimposed over what is happening in real time. I can’t go into the plot or the concept as it is…well, still a concept, but I can say that audience members would be led around a town or space following a character – seeing what they see and hearing their stories or “songs” in an augmented reality setting finally arriving at a communal place where all the audience would see a chorus and all the principals for the finale. The concept is mind-boggling and I hope that SMC can be a part of this cutting-edge production.
The ideas that came out of this were — again – mind boggling…
After breakfast we moved into a session of the New Works Forum (NWF) that was completely about technology. San Diego Opera got an innovation grant from Opera America and the Getty Foundation to hold an “opera hack” event where people from the tech world met with people from the theater/opera world for a two-day brainstorming/problem-solving workshop. The ideas that came out of this were — again – mind boggling (I have never felt more of my 61 years on the planet than I did today). One of the prize winners to develop their idea was OPERAMAP. One of the designers said that it was so difficult to design for several theaters because she would have to fly to each theater or send an assistant to the theater to construct a 3-D map of the space, all so she could see if she could design for Houston Grand Opera, Dallas Opera and San Diego Opera, to name a few. A concept was developed that would “map” each theater – and eventually every theater in the world — so that she could virtually design the set and put it on the stage. She could virtually “BE” at the theater standing on the stage, looking at the fly loft. She could go into the house and look at the stage from different points in the theater. The need to fly there would be erased because she could “BE” in the theater in virtual real time. This brought up implications for fundraising. Imagine being able to ask for a patron to invest in a show, “take them there” via virtual reality and let them see the set, touch the set and actually go into the house and pick their seats! There were so many possibilities. There were SO many other great ideas. [You can read more about the summit here and find out more about the winning proposals here.]
After a quick lunch we came back for the session that I co-led with Opera America’s Program Director, Laura Lee Everett. It was called “The Nuts and Bolts” of commissioning. Over the years we have identified “pressure points” between composers and producers, challenges in the workshop process, and the need or rejection of feedback. We decided to break up the groups into producers and creators and pose these challenges and have them present the main pressure point and why. The surprise is that tomorrow they have to solve the challenges – but the producers have to wrestle with the creators’ challenges and the creators with the producers’. We hope that this will spark more dialogue and communication with the two groups. During this session I was lucky to run into Sgt. Ben Hilgert, who you might remember was instrumental in the commissioning of “The Falling and the Rising” that we workshopped at Seagle in 2017 and then toured the following year. Our opera has now played in Fort Worth, Arizona, Washington DC, Memphis, Seattle, and of course all over the North Country (NY).
We finished the day with a sneak preview of a new opera by Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith that will premiere in Cincinnati this summer. Greg Spears has no direct connection with Seagle except via our alumni. His first opera “Paul’s Case” starred Jonathan Blalock and catapulted him to stardom. His opera “Fellow Travelers” has seen Jonas Hacker and Vanessa Becerra in its cast. So you can imagine my wonderful surprise when I saw in the program that Phillip Bullock (another SMC alum) was in the showcase. He sang so well. Bravo, Phillip!
I finished the day with dinner with Anthony Rohr, another Seagle alum who recently moved to NYC. As I write this I am fading fast. Tomorrow brings another meeting with another creator and a day of thinking about new work and new opera.
What a rich time we are living in and how important our work (yes, OUR WORK – including YOU) at Seagle matters in the world of opera creation. Good night.
Tomorrow marks the end of the forum and then — a train ride to Boston to begin the SMC 2020 audition tour!
Today began with a meeting with John de los Santos. John has directed several times at Seagle Music Colony over the course of many years. Last season, he directed our production of Carmen in collaboration with Lake George Music Festival, but over the years he has directed Anything Goes, South Pacific, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and several others. John is now also an accomplished librettist. His newest opera with composer Clint Borzoni, The Copper Queen, will see its premiere at Arizona Opera. It is a wonderful piece and a really good ghost story! Maybe we’ll see it in an upcoming Seagle season.
It was interesting to see how different people choose the theater they want to see.
The first session today was basically a ‘coffee talk’ where we discussed operas we had seen recently and what drew us to them. Was it the plot? The marketing? The title? Did we know the creators? It was interesting to see how different people choose the theater they want to see.
The next session was a continuation of the one I hosted with Laura Lee Everett. Remember yesterday when we asked a group of creative artists and a group of producers to tackle five main topics we identified as pressure points in creating new work? Each group came up with a set of challenges that needed to be solved. Today, we gave the producers the creators’ answers and vice versa. It was a lively conversation to say the least. What was wonderful and remarkable is that these two groups in two separate rooms came up with many of the same solutions, the main thing being that frank communication at the beginning of the process is key and setting timelines that everyone understands is crucial. There should also be series of topics covered at that first meeting, including casting, workshop process, and when to give feedback – and more importantly who should give feedback. Creators need to be told when a workshop becomes a “backers audition” as donors would be invited. There were so many good ideas. This session wrapped up at 1:30 p.m. and I scooted over to Penn Station to grab a quick bite to eat.
I am now on the train to Boston, due to arrive around 7:15pm, when I will check into the hotel, grab some dinner and go to sleep early. Tomorrow is the first round of SMC auditions on this trip and it starts at 10:00am! I’ll write more on the road!
Follow us on Facebook for Darren’s SMC Audition Tour 2020 travelogue!