Rainbow's End

I am returning to Pittsburgh for the final three performances of The Summer King, which has played (since Saturday) to very responsive, near-capacity audiences at the 2,800 seat Benedum Centre for the Arts. Tomorrow’s morning performance - the student matinee - has been sold out for some time - and the hall will be filled by school kids as young as 8 years old. Which is a very good thing, since I’ll be attending with three eight-year-olds of my own. My boys Satchel, Pablo and Levi are taking their first plane trip, followed shortly thereafter by their first opera (one that just happens to have been written by their dad). 

The euphoria of the last week has been tempered only by exhaustion, as I trudged through a seemingly endless array of telephone interviews, rehearsals, campus visits, and family arrivals in the run-up to the opera’s premiere this last Saturday. We composers of concert music and opera don’t so often find ourselves smack dab in the center of the limelight, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place to be. But also, quite draining. I’m an extrovert by nature, and my inclination is to say yes to everything - to share myself whenever it seems it might be meaningful or helpful to do so. And I also have this strong desire - in the face of family and friends spending hundreds of dollars and traveling hundreds of miles to support my creation - to be demonstrative in appreciation. Devin - my partner (romantic, not business) - arrived during our final dress rehearsal Thursday night, and was instrumental in getting me to rein it in, stay focused, and not spread myself thin to a point where I would simply disappear if I turned sideways. 

Saturday night, when the Summer King officially launched itself upon the world, was unforgettable, and hard to describe. Some time late on Friday, the day after the final orchestral dress, I submitted my final notes to Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker. My notes for the final rehearsals all had to do with balance - a critical component in the world of opera, where singers sing without microphones and need to be heard above a lush and potent orchestra. I brought dynamics down, and cut certain percussion hits - things like tambourines and cymbals, whose transients have the capacity to completely obliterate the comprehensibility of text. Sometimes it was as simple as having the brass start their crescendo two beats later. Bit by bit, we got it sorted. 

The moment I hit send on those notes, and thus essentially completed my real, creative responsibilities to this production, I started to feel genuinely nervous. It was nervousness without specificity - inner acknowledgment that the piece I’d worked on for so long was now spinning into existence, and the arrival of family, friends, former students, reviewers, and a healthy-sized general audience just added to the reality of it all.

On premiere night, after a luxurious, if rushed, dinner with Devin, Sam Helfrich (stage director) and leadership of Pittsburgh Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre (who will present this production in 2018), I was whisked across the street to the Benedum and thrust upon the stage in the closing five minutes of the pre-concert talk, where I uttered words that were - according to Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting, then in the audience - “brilliant, if not necessarily coherent.” 

A short while later, after hobnobbing and greeting and hugging and smiling my way through the warm and eager masses - and dashing briefly backstage to impart upon the cast my babbling cocktail of goading and gratitude - I made it to my seat, reconnected with Devin, and let the opera wash over me. 

The Pittsburgh Opera production of the Summer King is so strong - each element so tightly hewn, the singing, orchestra, lights, sets, costumes, and video design - and is so generously representative of my intentions for the piece, that I felt the strange sense that what was really and truly up for consideration was the piece itself. So often as composers we have the sensation that an audience is hearing 73% or 85% or 61% of the piece we actually wrote. The humble among us blame ourselves - the piece was too hard, impractical, especially given the rehearsal time. And to be sure, all of these statements are true about the Summer King, and yet somehow all of the performers are living up to just about every note, and I’m hearing a piece that is in the 98-99% range of what I wrote and conceived [and even closer, after each successive performance]. It’s better than I ever imagined was possible. So what’s left is: is it good? Does the structure work? Are the characters clearly enough delineated, and are the larger points of the opera coherently (to use that word again) articulated?

Fortunately, I’ll have three more viewings during which I can contemplate these issues. On opening night the room was feverish with excitement, and the audience was wonderfully responsive, including leaping to their feet at the final curtain for one of the loveliest standing ovations I’ve experienced (rivaled only by the standing ovation this piece received when given its concert premiere, in an earlier version, by Portland Ovations in 2014). 

A mostly complimentary review hit the Pittsburgh Post Gazette almost immediately, followed by several more. As I mentioned to my friend, composer Matt Schickele, the review we composers generally really want to see is: “this opera makes any subsequent effort in the genre pointless.” And these were not that - but they were intelligent and thoughtful, positive in sum, and had kind things to say about my music, the production, cast, and the ambition of the project. 

The overall response to the piece, for me, is still to be ascertained. For the next period of time, I’ll receive an influx of feedback, and all of it is welcome (if sometimes painful). At some point, I expect general opinion to coalesce around two or three central points (in terms of criticism - apart from the everyone-should-stop-writing-opera-now thing), and I’ll have some time to decide what, if any changes, I might wish to make for subsequent productions. 

I came home this past Monday to find my opera plastered all over the front (and back!) page of my hometown paper, the Portland Press Herald, (no sign of my OLD hometown paper, the New York Times, at these performances so far, and that’s a bit of a disappointment). And I was treated very kindly when I briefly showed my face at the University of Southern Maine for two days of lessons and classes. 

Now - back with my boys for the last shout of this tumultuous but wonderful period in my life. Devin and her son Parker (also 8!) join us on Friday, and more friends and family will be attending in the coming days. I am looking forward to some restful and peaceful days in the coming weeks - maybe stealing off to an island someplace with Dev, drinking some tropical drinks, and skimming rocks and cellphones into the turquoise sea. The immense desire to be thoroughly lazy won’t stay with me long - given my history - but I’ll embrace it while it’s here.

The Summer King at Opera America's New Works Forum

Last week I had the privilege of being a featured composer at Opera America’s 3rd annual New Works Forum in New York City. The event is designed for those opera professionals throughout the country interested in new American opera to gather and discuss the associated challenges in bringing such works to the stage. Generally four or five operas are featured during the three-day conference as well, usually about 20-45 minute excerpts in piano-vocal format with singers.

Steve Osgood leads the ensemble. Photo by Audrey Saccone, courtesy of Opera AmericaThis year, however, it was my good fortune to have the Summer King slated for a more featured role. Almost the entire final day of the New Works Forum was devoted to my opera, with a libretto reading by actors in the morning, and then two consecutive performances of three scenes from the opera in the afternoon, the first in piano-vocal format, and the next, the grand finale, with orchestra. This is the first time a work has been featured with orchestra at the NWF, and the size of the ensemble (16 players, including two percussionists with reasonably large setups) prompted a venue change from the National Opera Center, on 7th Avenue near 29th street, where the conference’s other events all took place, to the Mary Flagler Cary Hall at the Dimenna center on 39th Street near 10th Avenue.

It is self evident that the opportunity to hear three scenes from an opera with orchestra, a little bit beyond midway through the orchestrating process, is a tremendous advantage for its composer. By itself, that made the entire endeavor worth its weight in gold. And I was pleasantly surprised with the effectiveness of the orchestrations overall. I seem to have held percussion in check, the surface of the music is colorful but not overwrought, and I do not seem to have buried the singers for the most part.  Several attendees did raise some concerns about balance and prevalence of brass, while some noted the discrepancy between hearing the work in a concert setting, with instrumental musicians on the stage, versus employing a theatrical pit for the ensemble as you would in a full production. This experience has certainly nudged us towards stashing the orchestra in the pit for the Maine concert premiere in May. Fortunately I will soon have a professional recording of the day’s events to study, and hope to attain full mastery of the specific challenges attendant to marrying my music to this particular assemblage of tone color. 

Stephen Salters as Josh Gibson. Photo by Audrey Saccone, courtesy of Opera America.In addition to the golden chance to hear my orchestration in process, the day of Summer King had more to offer me and my audience. The morning libretto reading presented almost the entire libretto (not the first scene, or the two short final scenes), read without music by actors, who had had several rehearsals in advance, yielding something closer to a full fledged “performance,” though still on book. This allowed the audience members to have a broader contextual understanding of the piece than that they could get from only the three scenes presented with music. Also, it provided a glimpse into the painstaking process of opera development, as conference-goers who attended all three of the day’s workshops were able to trace the development of the opera in much the same way I’ve experienced it – drawn over ten years, of course. It is amazing that even at this late stage of the opera’s incarnation, I still heard new meanings in many of the opera’s lines as they rolled of the tongues of these talented performers.

A word about the attendees of the New Works Forum. This was an event not open to the general public (and thus does some general confusion exist among friends and colleagues about what, in fact, I was doing in New York last week). Only individual and institutional members of Opera America who had registered for the event could be there, and these included opera general directors, artistic directors, young artist program directors, publishers, and a smattering of composers and librettists. To call it an elite crowd from the perspective of opera would be an understatement. These were people who know the craft and the business intimately, and could extrapolate the dramatic effectiveness of raw  material with significantly more quickness and depth than you would expect from a lay audience. Included in the mix were representatives from several companies I would very much like to see mount the staged world premiere of The Summer King. Not a bad opportunity to grab their ears for a little while.

After each of the three workshops – libretto, piano-vocal and orchestral, I found myself on the hot seat, taking questions from a moderator, and also from this illustrious crowd. Some questioned the logic of not having the lead character, Josh Gibson, have an aria of his own. Though this is very much by design, and not unique in the opera literature, it was a thoughtful conversation that actually lingered throughout the day (prompted in no small part by the singer playing Josh’s interest in the matter). Fortunately, for my sanity, quite a few people seemed to be genuinely moved and impressed at each leg of the day, and expressed as much publicly, giving me the requisite courage to march on to the next segment. It is not really a question of not feeling confident in the work. More about the intensity of experiencing this work that has existed so privately, inside my head and my imagination, given voice for the first time in public, and co-processing both my OWN reaction to the performances and the audience’s, which was almost immediately related back to me after each segment.

In the end, I was more than satisfied – I felt blessed. A troika of partners was involved in getting me to this wonderful moment in my operatic journey: Opera America, who sponsored the entire thing, American Opera Projects, who has been involved in the opera’s development since the very beginning, and Portland Ovations, whose courageous decision to present the concert premiere this coming May has been the catalyst for all of the wonderful developments the opera has enjoyed this year, including this one. I was treated like royalty, like Cinderella (in her good moments) every step of the way – from generous accommodation in New York, to eager, inspired, and respectful treatment by all of the many performers involved (around 40 when actors, singers and musicians are tallied up), to loving and supportive guidance from the benevolent staff and leadership of Opera America. The beautiful informational video Opera America produced as an introduction to the events around my opera gives some idea of the level of professionalism and passion they brought to every aspect of this venture. The commitment and abilities of my creative team, led by Conductor Steven Osgood, Assintant Conductor Charity Wicks, and Director Lemuel Wade, cannot be overstated. The information gleaned in rehearsals, and particularly on that magical last day, will guide me significantly in the frenetic weeks to come.

The wealth of opinions by important opera people about my work must, of course, be treated with care. I feel the need to bottle the feedback, continue working, and then allow myself to fully grapple with the various ideas offered after such time that I – and a public – have experienced the work in entirety, with orchestra. As much as the combination of a libretto reading and almost one third of the opera’s music can tell such an elite audience, I must balance that with the fact that I have been living with this opera for a decade, its music, its characters, its plot. There is virtually no moment about which I have not agonized, and I made the decisions I made for a reason in almost every case. This is NOT to say that the decisions were all right, or that objective and experienced listeners aren’t capable of offering insight that I, in my closeness to the project, would never otherwise have stumbled upon. But more just an acknowledgment, after seeing how much more of the opera’s emotional impact audience members were able to absorb from the orchestral version than from the piano-vocal, that I need to allow the original conception a true and full airing before diving into revision mode.

These are joyous “problems” to be thinking about, alongside the more urgent one of simply getting the work done on time – which must be my religion for the next several months. My carriage may have turned back into a pumpkin for now, but I am hoping one of those I danced with last week will arrive before too long with the glass slipper. After having toiled for so so very long in isolation on this project that is so very dear to my heart, it was simply splendid to be allowed to sparkle for an afternoon. On this, the 67th anniversary of Josh Gibson’s death, I hope for more sparkling days ahead, so that this opera may sing long and proud, as Josh deserved to.