josh gibson

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. 

Opera and Alligator

Catchy title eh? Bet you're wondering what comes next. Well, this will be mainly an update post on things me me me, so if that has you grabbing for Mucinex, it's okay to tune out now. 

Hello, Dear Reader. (actually - I'll note with some glee that readership has been slowly climbing here, despite my near total inactivity the past couple of weeks. Granted with the numbers I play with, a large percentage increase isn't exactly difficult to come by, but still, welcome one and all).

As I have publicized a bit on Twitter, I've been busy this week preparing for and then recording the big Mexican scene from my opera The Summer King.  This (the recording of this scene) is a project that's been coming together for some time now. My goal was to record one of the flashier scenes in the opera - one that's more than just a couple of singers or maybe a trio, but instead features chorus, a vocal trio, and - that most essential of opera ingredients - a mariachi band. It is not, in fact, the most elaborate scene in the opera. That honor goes to Act I Scene 4, the scene in Gus Greenlee's Crawford Grill.  In terms of ambition and scope that scene (clocking in at about 22 minutes) trumps anything I've written. It's been completed for two years now, and I haven't heard a note of it (performed by humans) but that's just what this whole process is - a leap of faith and a game of patience. I judged the scene too difficult to attempt to demo (a judgment that received vociferous seconds from the knowledegable vocal faculty at the institution where I teach), but the Mexican scene is a close second. My hope is that it will be sexy enough for, you know, opera companies and funders to say "oh!" Cuz that's what I imagine you need in this racket. 

Anyhoo, Bob Russell, who directs USM's  elite vocal group, the USM Chamber Singers generously agreed to lend me the services of his racehorse ensemble, complete with him at the podium. But this needed to be done before the school term was out, and would have to take place during one 1.5 hour session. This meant getting my mariachi ensemble (2 violins, 2 trumpets, contrabass, nylon string guitar, castanets) and pianist on board for the session. I was fortunate to receive some funding from both the Maine Arts Commission (an Arts Visibility Grant) and my school (a Faculty Senate Research Award), and so I hired professional instrumentalists and principle singers. No principle singers at that first session though. Here's a little clip:

That session was a happy education for me. I'm used to my music being very difficult to put together, and in some respects this is one of the more difficult scenes of the opera. But the musicians I hired came prepared (as pros do), and pretty much handled what I threw them with ease. The small chorus was similarly quick on their feet (we had had the benefit of one rehearsal together two days before). 

That portion completed, my next task was to find singers for the recording sessions in which we'd complete the rest of the scene - which was in fact the lion's share. Because it has been a priority of mine throughout the development of this project to cast African-American singers in the African-American roles (i.e. almost all the roles), I realized it would be essential to venture out of Maine (where there may, or may not, be one professional black opera singer somewhere...we haven't met yet if he or she's here). My friend Tim Steele, who works as a vocal coach at NEC was very helpful in getting me connected with two terrific singers, Laurelle Mathison (Grace) and Christian Figueroa (Señor Alcalde, the mayor of Vera Cruz), and I had already worked with the splendid (and super rhythmically accurate) Ron Williams when he sang for me here in Maine in April.

Herein lie some of the difficulties of being a composer living outside a major arts hub like NYC or Boston.  I engaged Tim as a pianist/vocal coach, and he met once with the singers without me, and then once in the basement of NEC with me there. That's four hours of driving, and two hours of rehearsal - but worth every moment! This was last Sunday. And then the big sessions with no chorus, but three principle singers, two smaller roles (Wendell Smith and Gus Greenlee, wondefully executed by USM students Jesse Wakemen and Jeff Caron), and in the closing moments, a piccolo (played divinely by Nicole Rawding).

I elected to conduct the sessions myself, which was gutsy considering that my string section consisted of Rob Lehmann (director of the USM orchestra) and Jenny Elowitch (director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival and someone who's played under a TON of great conductors!) And it's not exactly an easy scene to conduct - with tempi generally hovering around quarter = 160, frequent time changes, some very fast alternations of half note and quarter note meters, and some rather death defying accels near the end (oh I can't wait for you to hear it!) But I believe in the two sessions we forged, ensemble and I, a rather loving pair, as I never really claimed to be other than what I am, a composer with a slightly broken stick, and they helped me by telling me what they most needed from me! I was also able, being at the helm, to make changes quickly, on the fly, to attempt sections as often as I wanted - to decide exactly what was the priority, and what was good enough. When things weren't working, I had the option of slowing down and figuring out why not. (Not panicking is the thing I'm proudest of this week!) A defter conductor may have pulled off the task with greater finesse, but I think I ended up getting most closely what I wanted this way. 

It is so thrilling to hear a big complex scene come to life after living with it for a year (I wrote this scene last August-September) in midi and my imagination. Just hearing Bridget Convey, my awesome pianist (she just smiles and blazes through the tied-over and syncopated quarter-note triplets in the right hand over straight running eighths in the left...never a hiccup) warming up sections in the down times sent chills through my works. And to finally hear Josh and Grace, stoned, exuberant, singing of "high living" with big, beautiful voices, it was all I could do to suppress the inner Chris Farley ("that was awesome!") demon and wave the stick up and down more or less correctly. 

What remains is the Mariachi vocal trio, who sing intermittently throughout the scene. I was originally planning to do it up here with USM students, who I know would do a fine job of it. But after hearing Christian, a native spanish speaker, give life to the role of Alcalde (exactly as I imagined it all these months) I realized I needed to strive for some greater authenticity. So I am now in the process of putting together a trio of native Spanish speaking tenors in New York City, and I will travel down and book a little studio time to have them do the overdubs there. I am long since out of grant funding and running through what pawltry numbers still exist on the family ledger (i.e. stealing food from the mouths of babes), and running on fumes, eager to get my operatic demo package together and out to opera companies (some of whom are actually waiting for it). But I've also learned to accept the pace of working on such a monstrous project. What's another few weeks, a month, (and another five bills!) when I've been working on this opera for nearly ten years?

And all this time you're wondering, yeah, but what about the alligator? Well here's what. Thursday morning (July 5), after the beautiful 9 foot Steinway was good and tuned up, I found myself alone in the hall, with a bunch of microphones, and my handy little Tascam 4 channel digital recorder. I couldn't resist the opportunity to record my Alligator Song, which is a condensed history of the New York Alligator-in-the-Sewer urban legend. The song tells not only of the events, but also of their ascendence to myth and eternity. The song was actually instigated by my son Pablo, who one day just started singing "The Alligator, The Alligator, The Alligator." I offered to finish the tune and he grudgingly aquiesced, and then I did LOTS of research (no really!) and thus was the Alligator Song born. It's recorded here with just the stereo built-in condensers of my Tascam placed near about five feet from the open lid of the Steinway, and a single Miktech C7 on my vocals. Oh...and some slop thrown on the vocals after the fact in Logic. Forgive me! And enjoy!