Composers often fly blind with new operas

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The task before composer Ricky Ian Gordon was indeed Gordian in nature, with the knot being John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

Commissioned to turn the American treasure into an opera, Gordon and librettist Michael Korie had to find the right musical tone and shoehorn the novel into a much shorter libretto.

"Talk about asking for it," Gordon said. "If it is bad, you have insulted and degraded every lover of the greatest book ever written in the United States."

Creating the work, now playing at the Pittsburgh Opera, was so complex and packed with pressure that he didn't get to see the complete opera until the week of its premiere at the Minnesota Opera last year.

That's actually par for the course for today's opera and orchestra composers. By the time of rehearsals that come the week of the premiere, it is too late to make anything but superficial changes.

Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Grapes of Wrath'
  • Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
  • When: 7 tonight; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: Start at $16. Call 412-456-6666.

In sharp contrast are musicals, which often preview out of town before heading to Broadway. This system allows producers to vet a potential blockbuster such as "The Lion King."

Similarly, Hollywood and the publishing industry, even new food products, allow ample time for editing and test marketing. But in the world of classical music, this isn't an option.

"'The Lion King' is a for-profit," said Christopher Hahn, general director of the Pittsburgh Opera. "Everyone in our industry would be delighted if we could afford to do previews. It is hard enough to raise money the first time around."

It's a process that needs reform. Asking for perfection and success without providing enough time for evaluation puts composers in a tough situation, one at which even past masters might have balked. It lessens the likelihood that new works will achieve their potential and is a partial reason why so much new music fails to connect with audiences.

Director Francesca Zambello has been on both sides of the fence. "In theater we are lucky for 'previews' [which give] all involved in a show a chance to refine and make changes," she said. "Hopefully this practice will soon begin in opera. I think opera companies and creative teams are waking up to the reality that an opera is not an opera until it is before the public and the public teaches us something."

Gordon and Korie learned immensely from the audience and their own reaction when they finally got to see "Grapes" in its full production in St. Paul. And it wasn't a fun lesson.

"We thought we could do it better," he says. They felt they had overplayed some vocal and orchestral parts and thought Act 1 in particular needed to be streamlined.

While it certainly depends upon the composer, substantially re-writing a work after its premiere hasn't been typical, either.

"Part of it is simply cost," says Leonard Slatkin, principal guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. "To re-evaluate a work and go back to the publisher and say you have to redo the whole thing, that is tricky." Especially when, in Gordon's case, not only had the opera's score been printed for orchestra, choir and cast, it had been recorded for commercial release. But Gordon felt it was worth the money and pleaded his case to his publisher, Carl Fischer, offering to "kick in some of the cost."

"We had to completely recopy a gigantic [section] of full orchestra music and redo all the parts of Act 1," said Gordon. "It was big-time money! I had to sign a contract saying the opera right now is the opera."

One way to avoid such a situation is to increase workshops -- early partial stagings of scenes.

"Many operas in the position to commission a new opera now have the singers to workshop it," says Hahn, who cites his own company's Pittsburgh Opera Center. "In the past you had to find the extra money to find new singers to workshop it. Now there is a group of people who are on salary, and it is a good project for them."

But "Grapes" had workshops in Minnesota, and it took viewing the whole opera for Gordon to realize it needed changes. While he hasn't written many operas, Gordon is a veteran composer for the theater. He knows what he is looking for, but a long and complex work is hard to get right all at once.

Just ask Beethoven, who revised "Fidelio" several times. Or Debussy ("Pelleas et Melisande") or Gluck ("Orphee et Eurydice"). Many more were reworked in productions with input from directors and singers.

"We must never forget that great theater composers like Mozart, Verdi and Puccini all constantly re-wrote their works over time," said Zambello. "It is only in the 20th century have we grown into this rather absurd attitude that once it is written down that is the 'word' or the 'notes.' Luckily, now people are revising and rethinking."

For Gordon, revision is just common sense. "Michael and I come from theater," he says. "We were in at every single rehearsal at Minnesota. We were re-writing lyrics as we went along, we were cutting, we were shaping it like a musical."

The organizations and foundations that back opera and classical music need to take a cue from musical theater if developing great art is the goal. It would seem to be more risky to present an unpolished work as a premiere than funding the opportunity for a composer to correct a mistake or make improvements.

Even so, Gordon knows, you can't revise forever.

"I am hoping that what we see in Pittsburgh is this opera," he says of "Grapes of Wrath." "I have other operas to write."

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He blogs at Classical Musings at . First Published November 18, 2008 5:00 AM


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