What is your opera about and what is your ritual?
My opera is about morning coffee...and what happens when the ritual of morning coffee gets taken way too far.
Is this your first opera? Do you have experience writing for opera singers?
This is my second opera. My first, Cake, was written back in '08-'09 and premiered by Remarkable Theater Brigade in NYC. I've done several other pieces for voice including a large song cycle- Dance of Disillusionment and Despair- and some smaller "songs." You can check out my website to see and hear all the works. But it's not my first rodeo.
How has writing your second opera compared to your first?
It was easier and faster. I've grown much more comfortable writing for voice in the almost 4 years after writing my first opera. Things like range, agility, and tone colour are much more engrained in my mind now.
My first opera, I spent about 4 months writing a single 6 minute aria. It turned out to be a great experience. I worked closely with my composition professor and a vocal teacher at Brooklyn College. But, 4 months to write 6 minutes? I obviously had a lot to learn, as I revised, revised, revised. In fact, I have to revise that opera again for a performance next fall. It's a bit painful to look at.
This time around, I felt much more comfortable with the voices. I "banged" this puppy out in about 2 months, including writing the libretto. I heard the lines from the beginning, knew I what I wanted melodies based on, and just ran with it. It's not any "easier" than my first opera, but it's definitely constructed much better.
You volunteered to serve as conductor for this project. How has that experience been?
First off, my arm hurts. Conducting for the 2+ hour rehearsals is a lot of waving it around. Should have spent some time lifting weights and toning before rehearsals started.
The hardest part has been rehearsals. I haven't done a huge amount of conducting in quite some time. I originally trained in music ed, and did a fair bit of conducting in undergrad, but nothing even close to running long rehearsals of multiple pieces. the mental focus needed, the constant scrutiny in listening...it's incredibly difficult. I think I've gotten a lot better at running rehearsals, choosing what to hammer on and run, and ways to get the sound out of the group as rehearsals have gone. My respect for professional conductors has grown exponentially. I had wanted to go that route at one point in my life, but after this engagement, I'm not positive I have the mental fortitude to take a full time gig doing nothing but new music. My brain would explode...and arm would fall off.
Who wrote your libretto and how did you pick it out?
I wrote my libretto. I had a librettist lined up, my brother, but the stars didn't align, time became an issue, and so I threw something together based on his ideas. My brother came up with the idea of morning coffee as soon as I told him about the theme for the evening. He wanted to take a normal, every day idea and blow it up to operatic proportions. Unfortunately, he got a new job and didn't have time to work on the libretto, so I put it together, with his blessing.
You've recently been awarded a Fulbright. What will you be doing and where will you be going?
I will be interviewing death metal bands in and around Stockholm, Sweden. The interviews will focus on the bands use of folk elements and mythology. Death metal bands have very serious agendas, specifically about immigration and religion, and they use their music as a way of espousing their political ideals, often times hidden within folk tales and obscure cultural references. My goal is to learn about how they take these folk tales and mythologies and twist them to their own end. It may end up being simple, it may end up being deep. Who knows!
What have you learned during this process?
The metronome is your best friend...and that my arms have become a lot weaker since the last time I conducted regularly.
What are you hoping to get from this project?
I hope to get a dramatic performance from the entire group, and give Kansas City something to talk about. It's an exciting time for new opera in Kansas City with tons of premieres popping up in 2013. I would love for this project, and all the other premieres, to catapult Kansas City into the front of new opera. It's a form that needs more attention from the new music crowd. I love Mozart as much as the next classical guy (hey, he has trombones in the pit. It's a gig!), but it's time living composers started cementing new traditions for this dramatic form. And this night full of exciting new works can really do that.
What made you want to be a part of this project?
I came to this project by a combination of happy coincidence and what a dear friend once named "a personal culture of 'yes'". More specifically, I ran into /Fair Looks and True Obedience/ librettist Jennifer Coates at an Artist Inc event years after we had subbed in a church choir together. A few weeks later, her project needed a singer and I made myself available. Those people who say that half of life is showing up are on to something.
What are some of your favorite operas and roles?
Oh geeze, this is so dependent on my mood. I really love Handel. His music sparkles, his characters take on as much depth as you're willing to give them, and the music is just so fun to sing. I think the same can actually be said of Richard Strauss and of the John Adams/Peter Sellars collaborations. Perhaps it's the grand scope of those operas, the virtuousity required of the musicians, and the intimate portrayals of people who seem (and maybe are) larger than life. Some other shows that are likely to be heard coming from my stereo at home while I cook or stretch or tidy up: Ravel's /L'enfant et les sortilèges/, Bernstein's /Candide/, and a lot of Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gilbert and Sullivan.
I personally enjoy singing pants roles (that's when a woman, typically a lighter lyric mezzo, plays male characters, typically young noblemen) because it's such a mental and physical challenge and because the gender play is an open secret that supports a certain suspension of disbelief that is especially delightful and necessary in opera. Though it's a role I'm unlikely to sing again, I had great fun in college playing Baba the Turk, a bearded lady of great fame, in /The Rake's Progress/. She's so egoistic and so fragile, and she gets to just wail from the top to the bottom of her voice--a fabulous drama queen if ever there was one.
Do you have experience singing new music?
Sure do, early and often. Primed by the experience of having workshopped and premiered a few plays as a teenager, encouraged by the wonderfully collaborative and supportive faculty at KU, and led by curiosity, I began singing new works as a sophomore and just had way too much fun. I got to premiere song cycles, create roles in chamber operas, collaborate with dancers and puppeteers--it was really hard work and really fun play at the same time, and it helped me bring deeper vulnerability and freshness to all my repertoire.
Last summer my enthusiasm for this kind of work led me to Italy and the Cortona Sessions for New Music, where I not only got to premiere and workshop new pieces, but also forged some seriously great friendships with composers and new music specialists from around the world (a few of whom live right here in Kansas City, imagine that).
What are you hoping to get out of this project?
More work like this! Or, you know, the honor of having helped to midwife new art into the world or something like that.
After you agreed to be a part of the project, you came to the most recent Black House workshop performance. What were your expectations going into this project after that?
I'd heard about the Collective from some of my jazz friends, but had never made it to a concert. The workshop I heard featured works inspired by art on display at the Nelson-Atkins, and I thought all the composers did wonderfully evoking the moods of different rooms there. The texture of the works were similar (everyone was writing for and playing in the same band) but there were very clear voices speaking. I got really excited about the prospect of working with so many distinctive styles, but still had no idea what to expect from the opera project. The three operas I wound up singing were all very, very different thematically and stylistically, and they each required different things within the creative process. It's been a great exercise in artistic flexibility, and great fun.
Heaps of fun. The singer is a strange animal, and opera is a total beast. I'm impressed by composers brave enough to undertake the Gesamtkunstwerk, and tickled to be included in any part of that process. My advice to other young composers who want to write operas: go to lots of operas, and befriend opera singers who like to talk about what we do and how we do it (that would be most of us).
How do you feel about playing Kim Kardashian?
I really didn't know what to expect with Kim. Before I got into that first rehearsal with you and Jennifer, before I sang her monologue, I was mostly curious what side of her we would see. It could have been a farce, it could have been a snarky social commentary, it could have been vapid or downright mean. Instead I was pleased to meet a woman who knows herself, who loves her family unconditionally, and who grapples with choices that were made for her. I guess I should probably watch the show at some point now.
What other projects doing you have going on?
Right now I'm developing a season of concerts with the newly formed Fabula Quartet. Our programs center around migration narratives, spanning continents and generations. It's an immense pleasure to work with smart, talented, and musically adventurous women, especially when they know how to brunch.
On the docket for this summer and fall: early music cantatas with a fellow tea enthusiast, a benefit concert series featuring song cycles by friends far and near, and perhaps a little pop-up Reich and Riley to keep things interesting. Oh, and would someone please talk me out of wanting to learn jazz standards?
We’re now four weeks away from the premiere of Rites of Being and it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. For a project this large, it’s been so essential to have great collaborators. I feel bad for all the singer jokes I made in college because Anna, Emily, Jessica, Nathan, and Stacey have been fantastic to work with and their professionalism has been downright inspiring. In rehearsals I am reminded of how much more difficult they have it than the instrumentalists. We get to simply sit and read our music while they must memorize everything and act while performing. It’s really impressive.
That being said the composers and players in the pit have done and continue to do an amazing amount of work to put the music together. Alison Heryer and Lisa Cordes have also helped to keep me sane with their vision, experience, and strong organizational skills.
My ritual is "weddings" and my opera is called Fair Looks and True Obedience, otherwise known as the Kardashian opera. It takes place the hour before a fictional wedding between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
I have never written an opera before and have absolutely no experience working with opera singers. I've had to do a lot of score study just to figure out what an opera is supposed to look like on a page. Luckily I've had the support of fellow composers Brad Wick and John Chittum who have been incredibly generous in guiding me through the dark arts of score preparation.
What composers have inspired your work for this project?
I love the minimalist operas of Philip Glass and John Adams and have studied their works extensively in preparation for this project. I also have to say that I have a soft spot for Wagner. I caught one of the movie theatre Met performances of Tristan and Isolde a few years back and fully expected to be bored since the work is so long. But, I absolutely loved it and I still can't get over how much audacity that man had to write music like that. The orchestra is huge, the concept is huge, the execution is huge. A century later and it's still stunning.
Who wrote your libretto and how did you pick it out?
I originally didn't know what I wanted to write about but I had a vague notion that I wanted to use the Kardashians as my characters. I spent a few weeks trying to get people to talk me out of this but I kept getting positive response so I decided to transcribe an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians to use as the libretto. But, it quickly became apparent that wasn't going to work. Way too many scene changes and other problems like that. I flirted briefly with writing it myself but quickly realized that wasn't going to work either.
So I reached out to writer and my fellow Artist Inc. alum, Jennifer Coates. She didn't hate the idea and we worked together over a few weeks to put together the libretto. I knew that I didn't want to satirize the Kardashians and wanted to portray them in a serious way. She's been great to work with and it really helped that she has singing experience and can read music.
What were your expectations going into this project? Have they been met?
I expected that it would be complicated to put together and that has certainly proven to be true. This is the biggest project I've been a part of and my first time to function as a producer. I don't have any real theatre experience so I didn't really know what to expect in that sense.
What I didn't expect was how expensive it would be to make the parts and scores. I had to drop $35 at Kinkos before each rehearsal.
What have you learned during this process?
The biggest revelation for me was in the actual writing of the music. I've written some music with words before, but this was the first time that the words were a script with a plot that had to be moved along by the music itself. This had a profound effect on how I thought about the music as I wrote it and the kind of music I ultimately produced.
This is also by far the longer composition I've ever done and it's been satisfying to have a piece of music that is over 100 pages long
This project has been a logical next step for Black House as we look to do larger and more ambitious projects. I think that I, like most of the composers involved, hope to one day be able to expand this work into an evening length work and have that produced in a real theatre.
Tickets can be purchased here.
Molly's work is sweet.
If you've noticed that a few of your musician friends have bags under their eyes and have seemed perpetually distracted for the past few weeks, it could be because they've been writing operas. Thanks to an Inspiration Grant awarded by the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, the Black House Collective and the Kansas City Electronic Music & Arts Alliance are producing a series of newly composed chamber operas, collectively called "Rites of Being."
Six composers have written 15 minute mini operas based on the theme of ritual. Each composer interpreted ritual differently; the featured rituals range from morning coffee to human sacrifice. The composers are: Eli Hougland, John Chittum, Russell Thorpe, Simon Fink, Brad Van Wick, and Hunter Long.
We're now a few weeks into rehearsals and I can say: I thought I understood that writing an opera would difficult, but this has proven to be quite an involved and complex undertaking. Luckily, I have wonderful collaborators. Alison Heryer is our collaborating artist and will help us tranform the Paragraph Gallery into a suitable venue for opera, and Lisa Cordes is our production director. We're also lucky to have the singing talents of Stacey Stofferahn, Jessica Salley, Emily Charles, Anna Louise Hoard and Nathan Granner.
There will be two performances on May 16th and 17th with very limited seating. Information about ticket sales is coming shortly.
I would like to thank the Nelson-Atkins for documenting our performance. Here it is, in performance order, by composer.