Last May, I was an observer at the John Duffy Composer’s Institute, sponsored by the Virginia Arts Festival, which serves the cluster of towns at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, home also to the world’s largest naval base. Norfolk, where the Institute convenes - courtesy of Old Dominion University, enjoyed an operatic renascence some twenty years ago when the Scottish composer Thea Musgrave married the conductor of the Norfolk Opera, Peter Mark; and four of her operas were created here. Today, the Virginia Arts Festival, a separate entity, headed by director Robert Cross, has taken over the sponsorship and espousal of the new, by investigating process rather than promoting a completed product. The five-year old John Duffy Institute is a two-week residential course tailored to the needs of aspiring opera composers. Five scenes from works-in-progress are rehearsed and examined by professionals experienced in creating the new, including director Rhoda Levine, baritone and voice coach Patrick Mason and conductor Alan Johnson; in addition masterclasses were held by visiting composers Libby Larsen and Charles Wuorinen.

The octogenarian composer John Duffy, founder and president (1974-1995) of Meet the Composer, an organization dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of new American music, which has initiated countless programs to aid American composers, is a central figure in American musical life. Take a look at the Institute’s guest book and you will find composers Mark Adamo, Robert Ashley, William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Anthony Davis, John Harbison, Lee Hoiby and Tania Leon, jazz great Billy Taylor, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. John Duffy, a prolific composer in his own right, writes operas on intriguing subjects: Edward Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident in Black Water (1998), and he is now at work on a life of Muhammad Ali. He maintains that composer training is weighted so heavily to manipulating pitches and instrumental know-how, that writing for voices, and dramatic timing are not addressed, and evidence of this can be found in some very high-profile and lauded new work. However, Duffy is, refreshingly, without a stylistic agenda, evinced by visiting composers Larsen and Wuorinen, who are poles apart in terms of musical language, as well as by the five diverse participants. Their operas-in-progress covered many early 21st century trends. There was a version of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, by Yale graduate Christopher Cerrone, with minimalist musico- dramatic roots. Then came a dramatized setting of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis by Zachary Wadsworth, already a recognized as an neo-romantic art-song writer in his mid- twenties. Wu Kong - Chinese born American based Zhou Juan’s modernist take on Monkey – Journey to the West, challenged western- trained singers and coaches to assimilate Mandarin and some traditional Chinese opera techniques. Edith Stein, by John Tarbet, a late-starter composer but experienced as a musical director on shows, is a serious musical in Sondheim/ Guettel mode, based on the life story of a Carmelite nun who died at Auschwitz; then came two direct and compact retellings of Aesop fables, The Fox and the Hen, and The Fox and the Grapes by Stony Brook professor Peter Winkler – with libretti by veteran director Rhoda Levine.


During rehearsals, the nitty-gritty of technical know-how was to the fore, resulting in last minute rewrites. While no one can expect 100% audibility of words in opera, singers demonstrated from which vocal register words can ‘ping’. Rhoda Levine showed how to highlight a crucial piece of plot information in a scene, giving many examples of how a tiny miscalculation or crucial inaudible word can switch an audience off. Not that there was an erring towards safety and conventionality: Patrick Mason examined extended vocal techniques, and Levine encouraged Zhou Juan to direct her own scenes, demonstrating that composing a score is just part of a process that reaches fruition on opening night. Such technical minutiae brought home to all composers present the responsibility of writing pitches that can articulate, rather than hinder, a vision. In essence, an opera score is not a finished article that is then handed on as a problem for others to solve.


The visiting composers witnessed rehearsals, and gave the five participants individual follow up. Libby Larsen, a self-styled ‘composer-citizen’ with many operas under her belt, shared her experiences of being commissioned, obtaining rights for in-copyright literary sources, negotiating fees, even running marathons (she is a champion) for companies who have commissioned her. She stated that ‘Music of any culture comes from the language the people speak, both their verbal language and their body language. That’s really what makes Italian opera sound Italian and French opera sound French. American English produces its own music in the rhythms and the shapes of the melodies’. In her work, familiar musical idioms, such as jazz songs framing the acts of her setting of William Inge’s Pulitzer prize winning play Picnic (2009), or bar-room music in Every Man Jack (2006), a vehicle for the histrionic talents of Rod Gilfrey, based on the last days of writer Jack London, generate the musical material within, intentionally easing the listener into a known musical environment and then taking them by the hand into unfamiliar terrain.


Nothing like this can be found in the work of Charles Wuorinen, an unashamed elitist, tales of whose intimidating intellect cast an expectant chill over proceedings. It was an inspired choice to have two visitors to the Institute so apparently at odds. Statements such as ‘Most middle-American opera is neo-tonal doo-doo’ were calculated to provoke debate, as was his high-handed dismissal of all popular music. For one whose musical language is rooted in the rigors of late (serial) Stravinsky, Babbitt and Carter, his own choice of opera subjects are populist: Haroun and the Sea of Stories (2004), and Brokeback Mountain. It is rare for a creator to be so open about the vicissitudes of a work-in-progress, and instructive for the wannabe opera creators present. Commissioned by the New York City Opera on Mortier’s watch, though unfinished and as yet unheard, it has provoked controversy online - Google it and you’ll see. It will not be a retreat from Wuorinen’s uncompromising musical language - no I fanciulli del West this, with cowpoke songs. In fact, Wuorinen proved persuasive when questioned why he would want to clothe these buttoned-up ranch hands with his brand of music. For Wuorinen, setting words to music is like pinning a butterfly to a card; it destroys them and so one must digest words in advance of their musical setting. Which is problematic for theatrical immediacy, one would have thought.


The technical sessions were the bread and butter of the two-week Duffy Institute. It is virtually impossible for an aspiring opera composer to learn on the job. Opera conductors can start as rehearsal pianists, but an entry-level composer slot in an opera house is essentially without function, as opera seasons bask almost exclusively in the past. For all the subsequent discussion of what is/might be/should/ should not be a new aesthetic for opera, it was this emphasis on practicalities that proved the most enduring. The performers illustrated a distressing number of new works, from establishment to fringe, that are deficient in basic operatic craft. It is not rocket-science, it can be achieved by watching and listening acutely. Conceiving something carelessly, egotistically maybe, is not a badge of individuality or modernism. Even Wagner, egoist über alles who transformed opera almost more than any other, recognized this in his apprenticeship, conducting, and learning tricks from the commercial Italian bel-canto tradition. It’s not surprising that composers have a rush of blood to the head when they finally achieve a commission or production, as they still get top billing. This is a peculiarity in the field of contemporary audio-visual entertainment, where credits are more evenly attributed. Modern dance has a far more catholic repertoire of music – true, it can be used in a cavalier fashion - yet many fine composers work in, or lend their work to, the field, but with much less fanfare than if they were to produce an opera. They do not front or dominate what is a collaborative process. But we are used to identifying operas solely by composer, and this casts an oppressive shadow and heightens expectations.

Maybe opera houses are to blame, and should simply be cordoned off to new work, functioning solely as museums. The film-director, Paul Schrader, wrote in the Guardian last June:

Movies were the art-form of the 20th century. The traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old. I don't know what the future of audio-visual entertainment will be, but I don't think it will be what we used to call movies. Narrative will mutate and endure. Audio-visual entertainment is changing and narrative will change with it.

So, if the dominant twentieth century art form, film, is being written off, what chance for opera, which climaxed the century before? Why would people still congregate in large spaces for entertainment, when there are so many more options right at home? The Italian opera tradition, long perceived as central, crumpled quickly in the early twentieth century with the advent of film. Opera isn’t quite dead yet, but it is a minority pursuit – like jazz, or Morris-Dancing. Rather, in popular culture, opera has come to symbolize certain things: quality, exclusivity (in advertising), decadence or the bizarre. Alan Ball, writer and director of that astonishing TV phenomenon Six Feet Under and the current HBO vampire saga sensation, True Blood, distanced himself from current media vampire saturation, by stating that there would not be a hint of opera on the soundtrack, by now a clichéd shortcut to denote decadence. As for new operas, in terms of cultural awareness, they are simply off the roadmap. Several times, I have been asked by literate, cultured people, if new operas are written in Italian, or if I mean Phantom of the Opera. In terms of media awareness, the opera that in 2009 has claimed the most attention so far is talented singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s first attempt at the genre: Prima Donna. It could have benefitted from two weeks in Virginia. Critical disagreement between opera aficionados and Rufus groupies, new to the form, and much more welcoming of the work, has been instructive. Are the conventions of opera now so alien, that they require immersion and historical context to be comprehensible to a newcomer?

At the last gasp of English National Opera’s Contemporary Opera Studio, a series of seminars held in 2005, a prominent director summed up the difference of approach to new work on either sides of the Atlantic as follows: in America they look for the new Puccini, and here in Europe the new Wagner. Thus, an advocate for the most challenging of new work resorted to historical exemplars one-hundred years old and more. You don’t see today’s hot film directors referring to D.W.Griffith as a benchmark, or 21st century composers of musicals invoking Show Boat. In most art forms there has been a paradigm shift. Why, in opera, is new work so often compared to what came long before it?

While the pages of Opera bear witness to a multitude of new work around the world, in Virginia it was discussed just how few new pieces get revived, or travel. In particular, many works from Europe, heralded and lauded in the press, were known only by recording or by repute in the USA. The recent DVD release of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur was a revelation, as none of his large-scale operas have ever been staged in the USA. Conversely, the American operas that garner many productions within the USA, which in a less subsidized environment pay court to audiences, do not play well in the UK or Europe, where critics tend to be dismissive. Thus Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), which has received over sixty productions, mainly in America, but also Israel, Mexico, Australia and Japan, has only this year debuted in Europe, at the Bruges Festival. Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) has made more inroads into Europe, but has not yet been staged in the UK. However the prevailing opinion at the composer group at the Duffy Institute was that many American ‘audience friendly’ operas were eclectic to a fault, pushing Puccini’s assimilation of external musical elements to add atmosphere to an extreme, in the manner of a sophisticated film score, but lacking the robust individuality required to mint all the elements as the work of one author. The American operas that do travel tend to be from the minimalist aesthetic, with arguably the most identifiable musical style, in fact defining the zeitgeist. Witness how Philip Glass’s language has transcended cultural borders in advertising, technology and so on, and how the very different style of Steve Reich has jumped the so-called ‘classical-popular’ divide, finding its way into remixes for club use. Interestingly, such works do not necessarily harness the apparatus of the opera house. Though the epoch-making Einstein on the Beach debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House, it did not use the orchestra. Theatrically it rejects a psychological approach. The drama is emblematic, at a remove, with events depicted rather than lived through, akin to a son et lumiere in a stately home. The music is dehumanized, and often alien to those who are drawn to traditional opera because of its emotional voltage. On the other hand, with a more neutral and stately dramatic approach, the sensory overload of new opera, with unfamiliar musical, textual and visual information to process, can be mitigated. Rapprochements with grand scale opera do occur, and the style is morphing, notably in John Adams, whose Nixon in China favours a more traditional dramatic approach; but as his music has renounced the tenets of minimalism, his dramas have become less theatrical and more contemplative. Still they travel, and audiences can make their minds up about them in the flesh.

More discussion centred on the phenomenon of the trained operatic voice, especially delivering colloquial English text. Singers can be obsessed with purity of vowel that in English, or American English irons out regional accent and status, thus making all classes of characters sound ‘posh’. Is it that prosody and singing style in new opera sounds, stilted and - dare one say it – insufferably middle-class?

The Duffy Institute is one of several oases for operatic craft dotted around the world. Elsewhere, American Opera Projects organizes showings of operas-in-progress and has a website which accepts submissions from composers. But otherwise, the situation is grim, in the UK, ENO’s studio is no more, and the Performing Arts Labs, that focused on opera/music theatre from 1991/9 has moved on to art forms that are more experimental with less perceived elitist baggage. It is left to precariously funded small companies to develop new work, though a chance to write a fifteen minute miniature, does not constitute a thorough training in operatic craft. And, since the beginning of the twentieth century, a whole corpus of beguiling small scale new work has emerged that cannot be assimilated into a large-scale opera house. One can think of a couple of energetic, iconoclastic chamber opera debuts that have been followed up with works for a big house of a much more conventional cut, as if all freshness and experiment had been inhibited by dealings with the Heath-Robinson panoply of the nineteenth century opera house, weighed down with outworn traditions.

Certainly, it was an eclectic and articulate bunch that convened under the masterful eye of John Duffy in Virginia – could they be the latest crop of Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, or through them, and those like them, can opera divest itself of its paralyzing baggage, and be on the verge of something new? 


© Julian Grant 2009. This article appeared in OPERA Magazine's 60th Birthday Issue - February 2010