Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doug' New Opera

I keep mentioning that I'm working on a new opera, but I never get a chance to mention any specifics. To catch you up: I wrote my first opera, showed it around, and nobody had the interest or resources to produce my little epic. I was just too ambitious and, even though I consider it to be one of the best things I've ever written, it will probably never be heard.  Such is life.

So for my second opera, I decided to make everything as different as possible. It will be short (75 to 90 minutes, no intermission), it will be economical (four singers, an orchestra of three), and it will be portable (no set). My goal is college productions, the Cincy Fringe Festival, and/or a tour of local schools.

My manner of writing this opera is also completely different. For opera #1, I wrote a play and set it to music. It's a continuous score with recurring motifs in the tradition of Debussy.  Opera #2 is a number opera – a series of individual songs connected by talking and melodrama, more like "The Magic Flute." "Postcards From Morocco" is a big structural influence as well, since it features the characters singing a series of songs to the audience.  So instead of working out all the text first, I'm taking it one song at a time.  Here's my process:

1. After doing all my research, I figured out what needs to be said and who needs to say it. Then I wrote out a paragraph or two in their voice, outlining what I want each character to say and what I want each song to accomplish.

2. Next, I'll write a piece of music that captures the emotion of what the character is saying.

3. Finally, I'll rephrase the paragraph into verse to fit the rhythms of the music.  Often, I'll need to adjust the music a little to fit the words. It's a tailoring process.

So there's a lot of back-and forth. I've also been careful with the tone of each piece, making sure that it leads into the next piece without an abrupt jump in style.  After years of composing, I've come to realize that my best energy comes at the beginning of a project. So I've decided to write this opera backwards. I wrote the introduction music first and then the finale and have been working my way backwards, song by song, with very little skipping.

I'm about two-thirds done and I have three arias and two choruses to complete. Then I can focus on the book (the talking parts), adjust the lyrics and music, and finish by writing the underscores that connect many of the songs.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fan Mail

One of the best perks of being a published composer is getting fan mail. I absolutely love getting feedback from people who have played, conducted, or heard something I wrote.  (Funny story: A friend of mine, who is an orchestra teacher, tells me that kids get confused when he says they can contact me because they think all composers are dead.)  My e-mail address is readily available with only a little online searching, so I get most of my fan mail online but, occasionally, someone asks for my mailing address and writes out a letter. Some orchestra teachers have even made it an end-of-the year cross-curriculum assignment to write to the composer of a piece they enjoyed playing that year.

Such was the case when I recently received a packet of letters recently.  An orchestra in the Chicago area played Westward Motion and seven of the students wrote to tell me about it in some of the most charming hand-written letters.  In my favorite of the bunch, a young violist writes:

Thanks for being a composer! I love music and I hope you write another piece.

Do you hear that?  That's the sound of my heart breaking.