How to write an opera

A conversation after dinner in Belfast the other night ranged onto the subject of new operas, and why it seems so rare to come across a really good one, even when a lot of resources are thrown at the creative process.

If staging an existing opera is hard, creating a new one is a herculean task. To my mind the key element a composer needs to take on board is that an operatic score is not so much a piece of music, as a blueprint (in musical form) for a theatrical production. By this I mean that, when opera is Working As Intended, the whole show: not just the singing and the orchestral music, but the action on stage, the technical cues, the lighting – the theatrical piece in its entirety: emerges from and is governed by the score.

To understand this you need to see a genuine Musical Director at work; it’s something I didn’t begin to comprehend fully until I watched Tony Pappano run a Stage & Orchestra rehearsal for the first time a couple of years ago. It was like watching the captain of a state-of-the-art battleship at work – he had complete trust in his crew, but he also wanted – demanded – to know about the workings, and most crucially the timing, of every single aspect of the show: musical, dramatic, technical. The score calls the shots, and therefore the conductor, as guardian and conduit of the score, has to be in charge. (This, I would argue, is the most fundamental distinguishing difference between opera and other forms of musical theatre.)

Considering the scores of all the greatest operatic composers, from Mozart to Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Britten and everyone in between, what is obvious is the clarity of the theatrical vision they possessed from the very beginning of the creative process – that, when sat with a pile of blank manuscript paper, they already had a clear image of what would be happening on stage at any given point, and so the score is constructed meticulously with this in mind from its very germination.

The curse of the 20th Century, in every field of human endeavour, was over-specialization, which led us to a situation where composition is a task often carried out not by working practical musicians but by people who have set out, from the very beginning to train as composers and nothing else. To their detriment, this has meant that they are more often than not excluded from the later stages of the creative process, when their work is put into practice.

That this is so is not the fault of the poor composer, but of the system bequeathed to us by history and tradition. In the days where the composer would have conducted the first performances, or have been embedded in the day-to-day life of the company in some other way, the issue of what role the composer played in the practical preparation of the opera would not have arisen.

In today’s more delineated set-up, it requires some effort on the part of all involved to get the composer back at the heart of that process, so that he or she can see and hear in the rehearsal room what does and does not work, why that might be, and how to remedy any problems. There is a responsibility on the composer to be a positive and supportive influence in the rehearsal room – and to be fair, the vast majority of those I have worked with are incredibly sympathetic to the problems of putting a new work on its feet. And there is also a responsibility on those of us in the rehearsal room to welcome their presence and input. That’s not always easy – the idea that a composer is real, living and breathing human being, and not some mercifully long-dead bloke to be disparaged and railroaded at our convenience, is often an unfamiliar one to many of us, and can easily upset the ever-precarious balance of power between director, conductor and singers. An operatic rehearsal room is (necessarily) a fertile hotbed of insecurities at the best of times, and the introduction of another artistic personality into that room is rarely going to simplify matters.

But if the effort is not made on all sides to integrate living composers into the creation of their new works – if a genuinely two-way continual artistic dialogue cannot be set up between the creators of new opera and its executors – it is the artform itself that suffers, running the risk of becoming a museum piece, rather than the living, breathing, organic, beautifully-flawed progeny of its time that all meaningful live performance art must be.


About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at:
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