Not sure why, but I’ve not yet ever posted anything in this blog about my own participation in the creation of a new opera. Well, today’s the day. Tempting though it is to devote this week’s post to urging you to attend tomorrow’s Met in HD Encore of Tosca–you should!–or this weekend’s Aïda at Opera Columbus–can’t wait!–I need instead for today’s post to be a personal one.
Fourteen months ago, in November 2016, I approached then sophomore at Kent State University Scott Little about a possible collaboration on opera. (I write words, not music, so if I wanted to play in this game, I was going to need to find a willing composer.) The collaboration has been even more amazing than I’d hoped, and this past Saturday, we had the pleasure of hearing two wonderful professional singers sing a twelve-minute excerpt from the opera we’ve been working on. It was awesome! Slotted into the New Opera Forum session of Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works (N.O.W.) Festival, those twelve exquisite minutes were sandwiched between a panel discussion about the creation of new opera works and an audience talk-back about our opera in progress, The Story of an Hour, based on the Kate Chopin story of the same name.
Here are 5 things that were awesome about the experience:
Having family and close friends in the audience to hear words I’d written sung so beautifully.
The stunning voices and gracious support of soprano Rachel Copeland and tenor Timothy Culver.
Hearing such significant improvement in the Scott Little’s composition in the less than two months since we had a chance to hear five Kent State University vocal performance majors sing through the piece on December 1.
Seeing Scott, who just turned 21 last month, blossom in the opportunity to direct rehearsals with professional singers for the first time in his young career.
Coming away from the weekend more confident than ever that a) we will get a fully staged version of this one-act opera produced one day soon (don’t resist any temptation you might feel to send money to help with production costs) and b) that The Story of an Hour will not be the last opera for either me or Scott. In fact, I hope it won’t be our last opera together.
Now, go find a movie theater near you presenting Puccini’s Tosca tomorrow night–you won’t regret it!
The Opera Evangelist had the pleasure of chatting with Hiram College professor, vocalist, pianist, and composer Dawn Sonntag, whose opera Verlorene Heimat (Lost Homeland) will be performed on Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 P.M. and Sunday, January 28 at 3 P.M. at the Maltz Performing Arts Center in University Circle. The performances are part of Cleveland Opera Theater’s N.O.W. festival. The opera, which depicts the experiences of an “East Prussian refugee family and the Jewish-Ukranian girl they sheltered,” is based on a true story told to Sonntag by her mother-in-law.
Opera Evangelist: You’ve shared with me that you started thinking about composing an opera in 2009. What made you decide that you wanted to try that form. Are you a passionate opera fan?
Dawn Sonntag: As a child, I used to create “musical shows,” forcing my younger siblings to rehearse and perform, creating sets with my bedroom furniture, and dragging my parents to my room to see our shows, and I sang in musicals in elementary and high school. I did not have opportunities to see opera as a child, but my father has a beautiful singing voice and used to listen to the Met broadcasts that were aired Sunday afternoons, and my parents had a friend who was an opera singer, so the idea of opera was not completely foreign to me as a child. At the same time, I had always loved theater and creative writing. My doctorate from the University of Minnesota is in both voice and composition, and I have performed opera as a singer and worked as a vocal coach/accompanist with singers in the U.S. and in Germany, where I was a substitute repetiteur for the Heidelberg Opera Theater. So opera seems like a natural fit for me as a composer; the idea of composing opera had always been there for me, but I did not want to commit the time to composing opera without knowing when and where it would be performed; it is a large time commitment. When I started teaching at Hiram College in 2008 and took over the opera workshop program, I decided the time had come to realize this idea and to compose something that students could perform.
OE: After casting about for a libretto for a while, you decided to write your own. What were the challenges of finding a libretto? Did you consider and reject several, or was it more a matter of finding a librettist?
DS: I looked at a few librettos that writers had submitted to the American Composers’ Forum opportunities listings, but I could not connect to the topics and themes I found. A good friend of mine, Gracia Grindal, a writer and now professor emerita of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, had written a moving and dramatic libretto based on historical novels about Norwegian immigrants, but the copyright owners would not give her rights to the story, so I could not set that. And I think because I like to write myself, I realized that maybe I could write my own libretto .
OE: You were discouraged by some from writing an opera that offers a sympathetic portrayal of ethic Germans during World War II. Why did you feel that this was a story that needed to be told?
DS: I thought it was important to show how private citizens who had been deceived by Hitler’s promises to “make Germany great again”—and Hitler uses that phrase in his speeches—withdrew their support for the Nazis and became resistors, even risking their lives to do what was right, once they realized that Hitler was a dangerous and destructive fraud. I also wanted to show how an entire culture was destroyed because of its initial support for this demagogue and how even small villages were divided because of politics. The Germans in East Prussia had their own beautiful, rural culture, and not only did they lose it because of the war, but more than 300,000 of them died in that winter of 1945 as they tried to escape. The story of the Germans living in Eastern Europe who were trapped between the Nazis and Russians and either forced to flee to western Germany or trapped in what is now Poland or Russia is not widely known, even though there are actually many of these former refugees living in Cleveland now, especially in the Tremont area. I also saw such strength in Elise, who refused to bow to small-town social pressure to support the Nazis and who not only had the composure to secretly prepare for the evacuation, risking her life to do so, but also refused to treat Hedwig like a slave although she was a forced laborer and kept her Jewish heritage a secret, which was also very risky considering that Elise had already been threatened with being sent to a labor camp. The weight of war that women carry is often overlooked. My mother-in-law was very upset about the increasing neo-Nazi activity in Germany, and she was afraid that once her generation had passed on, this activity would increase as the memories of World War II were forgotten.
OE: You took this opera from it’s first few bars to full student production in a very short period of time. Tell us about that.
DS: Between 2009, when my mother-in-law told me the story, and September 2013, when I actually started writing the music and libretto, I had mulled over the idea, but I also had several other commissions for chamber music and choral pieces during that time and a heavy teaching load, so I had written neither a libretto nor a note of music. And I had attempted to start writing the libretto, but it felt stilted and I kept discarding what I wrote. Part of the problem was lack of time to think and concentrate. But in the fall of 2013, I was approved for a 12-week pre-tenure sabbatical from Hiram College. The following spring, I was scheduled to teach the opera workshop course. I decided to dedicate my sabbatical to composing this opera, and I set a goal of having a workable score printed and ready to distribute to students by the start of the spring semester in January. During the summer of 2013, just before my sabbatical started, I read Roger McKee’s book entitled Story, which is about screenwriting, and came up with an order of scenes and what was happening in each scene. In late August and early September, I spent three weeks in Visby, Sweden, which is on the Island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, at a composer residency as part of the residency program at the International Centre for Composers that is sponsored by the Swedish government. This gave me three weeks of uninterrupted work time, as well as time to talk walks along the Baltic Sea. While I was there, I completed the initial draft of the duet between Elise and August and came up with basis for the musical material for the rest of the opera. When I got home, I made a goal of completing one scene a week, and it flowed well. Getting started is always the hard part.
Getting started is always the hard part.
OE: What were the challenges of composing an opera? How was it different from other composing experiences you’ve had? What was the biggest challenge?
DS: Composing an hour of continuous music seemed daunting, but once I started, it flowed naturally and became less and less scary. In fact, I found that immersing myself in the story and characters as I was writing the music was freeing. And since I wrote the libretto, I was free to create a text that worked well musically and vocally. The biggest challenge is time, I think. My best work happens mid-day, after my mind has warmed up but before I am tired, and I am usually teaching during that time. And then on the weekends one has to deal with the other obligations of life and catch up on rest. Committing to composing an opera also means saying no to other smaller compositional opportunities—chamber music, choral pieces, etc. So one has to set priorities and try to create a schedule that allows one to compose when one feels fresh and creative.
OE: For your next opera, what are you looking for in a libretto? Do you feel that there are stories that lend themselves better to opera than to other forms? Why?
DS: I am especially drawn to librettos that make history come alive and help the audience connect with the past in a personal way. I could imagine that some stories might be better told without music, as theater works rather than opera, just as I feel that music can get in the way of some poetry, but whether a story lends itself to opera really depends on the composer’s personality and imagination. And flow and beauty of the language—the vowels and consonants—are important to me when setting a text to music. This past summer, I attended a program in Halifax, Nova Scotia entitled “Opera from Scratch,” in which six composers create one-act, ten-minute operas for a solo singer, who is paired with the composer. The composers and singers then spend a week together rehearsing and performing the new works. All of the composers at last year’s festival composed their own librettos, and it was fascinating to see the wide variety of subject matters and settings. This is what I love about opera—it is such a diverse art form, full of creative possibility.
OE: Opera seems to be undergoing a revival in the US. New opera festivals have been emerging over the past several years, and many of the major opera houses have commissioned or are featuring new opera works. How hopeful are you for the future of the art form?
DS: I am excited to see opera blossoming in the U.S and optimistic about its future. Opera is and can be so much more than many people realize. I am glad to see it becoming more accessible to audiences of all ages and socio-economic levels through the efforts of directors of new, small opera companies and through education programs of larger companies.
OE: What are you listening to these days?
DS: I still practice and perform regularly as a pianist and singer and conductor, and I am always studying and playing scores that I use in teaching music theory, composition, and voice as well, so all of that is part of my “listening” experience. And when I study an opera score, I do it at the piano, playing through it. I do not sit and listen to music much without a score; and I can’t listen while I am driving or cooking – I can’t “see” and listen to music at the same time, and I forget where I am and what I am doing. Last fall I accompanied rehearsals the Bach B-Minor Mass for a semi-professional choir, Kantorei, in Spokane, and I will be singing with that choir this spring, so am learning rep for that, for example, Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs. I love early music and want to put together an ensemble to perform Leonhard Lechner’s Passion, so I have been listening to recordings of that with a score I have. The other day, a friend reminded me about Fauré’s nocturnes for piano, so I decided to find those and play through a few of them, and earlier last fall I played through Scriabin’s preludes and made my way through his piano sonatas. I also listen to a lot of new works by composer friends of mine and to works by composers whose music is new to me, like Robert Kyr, whose name I have known for a long time but whose music I only discovered a few months ago. In the past year I have heard new operas by about twelve different composers at festivals in Hartford, Halifax, and Cleveland. Recently I listened to Margaret Brouwer’s opera about Lake Erie, Voice of the Lake—such an evocative and moving work. I’ve also been listening to new, energetic chamber music written and performed by ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and avante-garde music by composers like Amy Beth Kirsten. So although I feel that opera composing is where I would like to concentrate my efforts as a composer, I listen to and perform a wide variety of music.
If one barrier to getting into opera is the sense that opera doesn’t connect to real life, attending Pittsburgh Opera’s upcoming production of The Long Walk will certainly change that. Based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows, the opera covers challenging physical and emotional terrain that will be familiar to viewers of American Sniper and even more directly of Hurt Locker. The “long walk” of the title refers to the experience of the soldier who, when remote efforts failed, must put on an 80-pound blast suit and manually dismantle an explosive device. In the course of this work, soldiers are exposed to repeated blasts at close range. Castner, who lead an Explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) team is Iraq, returned from war with blast–induced neurotrauma (BINT), a debilitating brain condition caused by repeated exposure to blast waves from explosions. The symptoms, familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the NFL’s issues with CTE, include otherwise unexplained anger, confusion, attention and cognitive challenges, impaired decision-making, and sleep deprivation.
The opera, which takes place in and around Brian’s home in Buffalo, New York—and in Brian’s mind—depicts compellingly the challenges of coping with life back home, with the ghosts of war, and with the changes to his brain caused by BINT. Coping proves enormously difficult for Brian (beautifully sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor) and his family, as Brian’s brain trauma makes it difficult to remember details of his children’s earlier childhood and leads him at one point to arming the family car to protect his children en route to school. As his wife Jessie (compellingly performed by mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl) tries to hold the family together, Brian turns to running in and around Buffalo to try to outrun “the Crazy.” His marriage, his family life, and his sense of sanity all fraying dangerously, Brian at last finds self-understanding and a path to healing with the guidance of “the Shrink.”
Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann had worked together at the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program, but had not planned to write a full-length opera together until they were called “out of the blue” with a commission from ALT. Receiving news of the commission filled them with “equal parts excitement and terror,” Beck told Pittsburgh-area teachers gathered for an all-day workshop dedicated to The Long Walk and the upcoming Ashes & Snow. “It was an arranged marriage. We read a lot and talked to each other, and we soon realized that there was very little overlap in our interests.” One day, Beck walked through a bookstore texting Fleischmann pics of book covers of recent releases. The Long Walk caught her eye, and a few days later she told Beck he needed to read it. According to Pittsburgh Opera’s education department, in Castner’s memoir the two had found “a story that demanded to be sung and that would hit the ‘sweet spot’ between the introspective, poetic librettist and the emphatic, thrill-seeking composer.” Brian Castner, who was surprised to be approached about turning his memoir into an opera, co-operated generously with the project.
Attendees will find themselves moved by the heart-wrenching difficulties of Brian’s story as well as by the beautiful singing of Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists’ cast, and I believe, compelled to reconsider some old notions about opera being disconnected from our lives and times.
Dear Reader, this blog isn’t just an online diary of my opera obsession. I’m truly eager to get you to check out some wonderful opera over the next few months. In fact, this blog is a failure, my efforts a waste of time, if readers don’t choose to come along and give it a try. Take a look at the following listing of opera-tunities—either at a cinema near you or within a two-hour drive of Cleveland—and put one or two of them on your calendar. If you choose to attend, you can count on The Opera Evangelist to be there with you, to offer insights about what to expect and how to get the most out of your experience, and to engage in stimulating the conversation afterward!
Pick a winner:
Opera at the Movies. The easiest way to take in some of the world’s best opera is to head over to your local movie theater for a live broadcast of a performance from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In its 11th season, the “Met in HD” broadcasts ten productions per year, of which seven remain this season, including a Valentine’s Day screening of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love and works by some of opera’s greatest composers–Mozart, Rossini and Verdi.
New live opera in Pittsburgh. In January (20, 23, 26, 28) the Pittsburgh Opera will feature The Long Walk, a contemporary work based on “a deeply personal exploration of a soldier’s return from Iraq, where he served as an officer in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit,” and in February (17, 20, 23, 25) the world premiere of a new opera work, Ashes & Snow, based on the same poem cycle that Shubert used for his lovely Winterreise.
Perfectly Puccini. Known for his gorgeous melodies, Puccini offers an accessible and musically delightful introduction to the world of opera. Three of his best-known works are available in a four-month period, with Tosca (Jan. 27, 31) and La Bohème (Feb. 24, 27) appearing via Met in HD and Madama Butterfly (April 27, 29) being staged live by Cleveland Opera Theater.
Want to learn more about how new opera works are being created? Mark your calendar for January 26-31 and head down to University Circle for Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works Festival, featuring a reading of a new libretto based on a Garcia Lorca play; full production of Verlorene Heimat (Lost Homeland), a contemporary opera set in Nazi occupied East Prussia by northeast Ohio’s own Dawn Sonntag; a new opera forum; and presentations of various scenes from new opera works in progress, including The Story of an Hour with libretto by your very own Opera Evangelist, Tim Tibbitts!
Please comment on this post–or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or to join me for a performance. (For your convenience, I’ve included below a printable PDF version of the lovely January opera calendar pictured above, created by the talented Rachel Elson.) C’mon, open your calendar app now and add something wonderful to your next month!
You despise music, especially classical music.On the other hand, if you love classical music but have thus far found opera to be a bit off-putting or intimidating, stick around. In the coming months I plan to tee up for you some lovely classical music experiences folded into the theatrical storytelling of opera. In fact, it was a desire to get more out of concert music that first drew me to opera. I don’t have the best ear for music, and I can get lost in a lengthy symphony. Opera, with its storyline, its drama, its visual spectacle—and yes, with it’s words—gave me access to classical music on a deeper level than I’d ever experienced before.
“Donald and I don’t see eye to eye on much at all, but I can tell you this for sure: we agree 100% that Tim Tibbitts is the most dangerous opera blogger in America today.”
–Hillary Clinton, What Happened
You despise choral music, have never felt moved by high church music or religious music of an sort, and hearing the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season makes you cringe.On the other hand, if you love choral music, get a little weak-kneed when a church organ starts up, or have always felt that Handel’s Messiah scratched the Christmas itch better than any jingly carol ever could, stick around. As an admittedly controversial recent study reported in Musical Pharmacology Today found, “Handel’s Messiah is the number one “musical gateway drug” into the realm of opera.
You hated Les Mis, refused to see Rent, and would rather stay home and needlepoint with your cat than attend your kid’s high school musical.On the other hand, if you know all the words to “I Dreamed a Dream,” and “525,600 minutes” is exactly how you measure a year, don’t trade in your tickets to the Broadway series, but stick around—you might be more at risk of becoming an opera fan than you realize.
You’ve always felt Shakespeare was overrated and the classical Greek tragedies a bore.You see where this is going, right? Shakespeare’s plays have provided inspiration for more than 200 operas over the centuries, including Verdi’s amazing takes on Macbeth, Falstaff, and Otello; more recently, the contemporary composer Thomas Adès brought new life to The Tempest in opera form. There’s nothing Shakespeare-inspired in the region or on HD for this spring, but in April The Opera Evangelist will guide you through a pair of trips to the underworld with two different operatic explorations of the Orpheus myth (Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Opera Columbus and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Apollo’s Fire in Cleveland).
You are an opera fanatic and regularly attend live opera in your area, and you never—literally never—feel frustrated in your efforts to convince your otherwise intelligent, thoughtful, and cultured friends and family members to come along with you sometime to see what they’re missing.On the other hand, if the response of a full 98% of your friends and family is a resounding “No!” accompanied by a look that indicates your good sense is being questioned, then this blog might be for you. The Opera Evangelist will be here every Tuesday morning to offer useful introductions and thoughtful content related to every single Met in HD production this season, as well as a number of wonderful live opera experiences in Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh throughout the winter and spring. I hope you’ll find something in upcoming posts to help you communicate your love of opera to others and to entice some friends to tag along.
Don’t miss out. Start following today the opera blogger that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agree is “the most dangerous opera blogger in America today,” the man Jennifer Anniston calls “the sexiest opera blogger of my generation”—me, Tim Tibbitts, the opera evangelist!
Disclaimer: In the interest of glamourizing the idea of following this blog, today’s post may contain what some people have come to call fake news. Oops.