The cover of The Opera Issue of The Dramatist
TABLE OF CONTENTS
So, You Want to Write An Opera?
Photo of a keyboard, headphones, music score, and The Opera Issue

Say that you are a playwright or a theatre composer or a lyricist or a crossover artist who wants to expand their range by creating work in an entirely new venue, reaching out to a new audience that may or may not be familiar with your previous works. Say that you have a story in mind with a larger statement and impact to make than can be done on a postage-stamp-sized stage. Say that you have conceived a controversial work that properly needs to be done in a three-thousand seat house, or staged in an empty swimming pool with a cast of ten, a cello, and a zither, or outdoors in a natural stadium, or in a boxing arena, or on the Great Wall of China. All of those have indeed been done, only not by you.

Or in other words, say that you have been bitten by the opera bug.

In that case, you are not alone, according to Paul Cremo, Dramaturg and Director of The Metropolitan Opera’s new works commissioning program. “In the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in new opera, from both creators and audiences,” he points out, citing a study made by OPERA America, the national organization of opera companies. “In 2018, 29 new operas received their premieres in North America, in contrast to just a handful of premieres even five years earlier.”

And yet despite being intrigued by the prospect of creating your own opera, you don’t know where to begin, how to locate a like-minded collaborator, make the transition from spoken text to sung, or get an opera company to pay any attention. Perhaps you may have previously ventured into opera and didn’t get very far before you began to feel confused by an off-putting plethora of unwritten rules and time-honored practices and strange terminology which feels non-inclusive, to say the least. Well, not to worry, or not too much. Navigating the world of opera is more logical than it seems at first glance, if not entirely so. What follows here is a run-down of some of the differences you can expect to encounter between making new theatre and new opera.

 

Learn the Lingo

Learning the lingo of opera might seem intimidating at first. Seriously, there are dozens and dozens of foreign words and phrases dropped into casual conversation by opera-makers used to describe musical passages, types of singers, performance techniques, rehearsal practices, structural underpinnings, artistic interpretations—what have you. Mastering them all is a matter of practice and application. Fluidity comes, eventually, just as when you absorbed the language and lexicon of theatre-making. True, when someone at an opera rehearsal announces “The wandelprobe is scheduled for Tuesday” you are liable to burst out laughing until, that is, the cast begins wandeling and probing the singing and staging of your opera together for the first time (a.k.a. a “stumble-through” in theatre) and making a mess of it. Then it’s not a laughing matter.

When you are collaborating on an opera, you may find that all the new terminology actually helps you to understand the similarities and core differences between music theatre and opera. A shared language puts all the ball players on the same baseball team. In opera, the script that is set to music is called the libretto, and the playwright is called the librettist. Whereas in musicals, words are separated into lyrics and spoken dialogue called “the book.” In opera, librettists are the sole playwrights and merit their own title even though opera companies don’t always accord it equal prominence to the composer’s. But that’s another article for another time.

Take the Italian word passagio, used by opera singers to describe the tricky transition between vocal registers. In musical theatre it’s referred to as a “break” for which the solution is to “mix,” make a seamless blend of chest and head voices. But because sound is produced differently by un-miked opera singers and over-miked theatre singers, different terms help define the distinctions. To get the gist of them, you don’t need to take language courses at night school; a quick Google search will give you three pages of websites listing essential opera terminology.

 

Get a Feel for the Form

If opera interests you but you haven’t actually seen a great deal of it, the internet is filled with filmed operas that can be watched, streamed, downloaded, often for free. Look for the ones with subtitles; whether the librettos are in English or a foreign language, you’ll need to read the words to fully understand what’s being sung. Check out Operawire.com. Though the internet may have destroyed civilization, it’s made learning the operatic repertoire so much more accessible than it used be when one had to sit in the fifth tier of an opera house with a flashlight and a musical score to study how it worked in real time. Listen to as many operas as you can, from all eras, in all languages, tonal to atonal, from all periods, baroque to 21st century. You will begin to assimilate the pacing and flow of story dramatized through music, the crests and peaks and transitions, the range of performance forces at a writer and composer’s disposal. And since no one knows yet how this season of COVID will affect ticket sales, opera companies may be papering the house to get an audience. Make some phone calls and see live performances again.

 

Understanding the Differences

For the last 150 years ever since opera and musical theatre took divergent paths, critics and musicologists have been arguing about what defines one or the other. They have frequently used arbitrary qualitative judgements about “tone” and “seriousness.” In that narrow view, operas containing anything resembling popular song were suspected of being stealth musicals. But one of the best explanations of the differences between the two genres was given by composer John Corigliano who noted two particular criteria. First, if an opera’s authors call it an opera, then it is an opera, period. Secondly, it’s not about defining the nature of the work’s music but about how the music is performed. If it takes opera singers to do it right, it’s an opera. And if it takes singer-dancers to perform it as it was originally conceived, such as West Side Story, it’s a musical.

Remember that opera singers and theatre singers approach their art differently. Each takes enormous amounts of training, talent, and dedication to craft, and both deserve the undying admiration of everyone who writes for them. But what you create for them must acknowledge the profound differences between their training and technique, how they physically produce the sound audiences hear. The tongue-twisting lyrics of Sondheim’s “Not Getting Married Today” are not designed to be sung by an opera singer, nor might you ask the ideal singer for that song from Company to perform “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca. For that you want Maria Callas. Ask of these artists what they can do best. You are the one who needs to adapt your approach to the musical gifts they offer you.

In addition to producing sound differently from theatre singers, opera singers are more differentiated than the standard SATB vocal divisions of theatre. These differences affect the comprehensibility of words and notes. It is imperative to make whatever music and text you give them singable as well as audible over a large orchestra in the pit and a choral ensemble in the background. And speaking of the chorus, in many larger opera companies, they are on contract and therefore you have to figure them into the narrative, not just stick them behind a scrim crooning “Ahh.” Opera companies and audiences expect the uplifting sound of the ensemble as part of the operatic experience. If that’s not your thing, write a chamber opera for a few principals. Just don’t expect it to premiere in a large house or receive much critical attention. And don’t expect to buy a new convertible on your earnings from chamber opera.

In approaching writing an opera, musical theatre composers might consider what it is that opera companies excel at doing: presenting works with live performers and musicians in an acoustical environment unassisted by amplification. When you ask an opera company to do what Broadway musicals do routinely, namely, mike everyone, design the sound, replace sections of the orchestra with banks of keyboards, and have all it mixed electronically on the spot by a sound technician turning dials in the back of the house, then you are not taking into account what opera does best: creating a palpably felt connection between the people on stage and those in the audience through musical sound waves that bridge the ether without being re-directed through speaker systems. In other words, when you write an opera, write for the performing forces that are already in place. If you need to employ high tech and electronics in your opera, fine, go for it. But maybe it gets done initially in an avant-garde crossover festival or in a theatre. Allow posterity to declare such works as Tommy or Sweeny Todd or Hamilton the truest operas of our times. They might well prove to be so, though none were born in opera houses.

 

Meeting Collaborators

Say you are ready to take the plunge into opera but don’t have a collaborator. Start meeting folks in opera. If you are completely inexperienced, find someone who isn’t. Say you are a playwright who lives near an opera company; entice their dramaturg or artistic director to come see your reading. Chat with them in person. Not to pitch them, but to learn about the composers who are on their radar, and then go and find those composers. If you are a composer in need of a librettist, start going to see plays by living writers. If you feel potential for sung drama in their dialogue, musicality, and passion, they might have a natural predilection for opera. Or, if they write like certain masters of understatement and half the play is guttural grunts, “Um,” “Yeah,” lines of three words, implied action, and wall-to-wall subtext, well, keep looking. Unlike in a play, in opera, you can’t sing a convincing sigh.

 

Just as you joined the Dramatists Guild, join the national nonprofit organization OPERA America (www.operaamerica.org) and see who needs what you do and vice-versa. Learn about the work that is getting produced out there nationally, and where the grants are to assist opera companies in commissioning you. If you help an opera company figure out a way to budget you into their season five years down the road, that’s half the battle. Memberships in OA for individuals are inexpensive, and their conventions, new work forums, website, magazines, and listed membership will all prove invaluable.

 

Things Composers Need to Know

Composers of musical theatre know that nothing is set in stone until opening night, and even then, it changes. They create piano-vocal scores which are not fully orchestrated until rehearsals for the opening are well underway. Composers of concert work, however, may need to unlearn some of the precepts imbued in them from academia before they tackle an opera. To their surprised dismay, in a theatrical venue, the composer is not God. As in musicals, operas these days get workshopped and rewritten before they premiere. Composers who are taught to compose directly to orchestra score (and then have an assistant create a piano-vocal reduction for rehearsals) are living in the mid-twentieth century. An orchestration that is finished before the first rehearsal of the cast is an instant waste of a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more. A score that isn’t adjusted to the needs of the singers may prove a misery to perform. Mistakes like that put an opera into the red before it opens, making it unproduceable to other companies. Even Verdi had to take La Traviata on the road where it flopped five times before he got it right.

 

Things Playwrights Need to Know

Playwrights are often wary of writing the book to a musical, and who can blame them? If they are not writing lyrics as well, other parties will appropriate their work, dismember it, lift the juiciest parts and refashion them into song. In worst-case scenarios, playwrights feel demoted to writing lead-ins and lead-outs to a collection of songs. No such thing, though, in opera. Librettists remain the playwrights of record, except that every word of the play is sung. Being offered the opportunity to retain artistic control over their work only in a new venue, opera, may prove irresistible. And having all the large-scale resources of opera at their disposal can be a thrilling challenge. As composer Stewart Wallace puts it, “It’s fun to play with the big toys.”

Playwrights be forewarned, though, one has to leave room for the music to give the subtext, the emotionality, the power to the text. That means the libretto needs to be simple, direct, singable, and allow for the repetition of musical phrases and passages, e.g. “theme and recapitulation.”

 

Supertitles: To Rely On or Not

If you have attended an opera live, or watched one livestreamed, you have noticed that it is simultaneously translated with titles. In an opera house, they are usually projected above the proscenium, and are called “supertitles.” They have taught audiences to watch opera in a new way, and permitted librettists and composers to introduce more complex ideas than the old standbys of love-at-first-sight followed by death-by-consumption. But a playwright/librettist doesn’t want to give the audience a stiff neck from “reading” the entire opera, thereby rendering the staging work of the director and the acting of the singers superfluous. If the libretto is written concisely, if there are open-vowel words on key phrases, then ideally the audience need only consult the titles when necessary and get most of the meaning from context.

Therefore, participation by librettists in the rehearsals is vital. In order to make adjustments on the spot, librettists need to get their presence written into their contracts with opera producers, as well as their travel, hotel, and expenses—equal to all the key players in the collaboration.

Conversely, if playwrights would rather be absent, and assume that they can write their libretto, slip it to the composer through the transom, and not show up again until opening night, then they, too, are living the mid-twentieth century. Back then, there evolved a respected practice of collaborating on failed modernist operas which nobody cared to attend, and once produced, were never programmed again. For a change of literary pace, noted writers, often non-dramatic ones, would submit a completed libretto-in-verse to an atonal academic white male composer of a certain age, say 82. The composer would set the words from beginning to end directly to orchestra score as the crowning achievement of a distinguished oeuvre of non-dramatic twelve-tonal symphonic works for the concert hall.

Luckily, as Mark Campbell’s article in this issue details, all that has changed. Opera companies have wised up to the fact that they, like every other form of entertainment, are in competition with Netflix for a changing audience. That makes them open to bold new ideas, current events, and conceptual crossover work, even more so than producers of Broadway jukebox hits and musicalized movie rom-coms.

As Paul Cremo of The Met points out, “Operatic subject matter has grown more diverse and timelier, addressing vital social and political issues of the day. It’s no coincidence that during this period opera attendance by the 18-34 age bracket has increased by nearly 38%.”

 

Making the Leap

All of this is stimulating news to a playwright and would-be librettist. But how to make the transition from the spoken word to the sung one? Playwright Lynn Nottage faced the question of how to adapt her play Intimate Apparel into an opera composed by Ricky Ian Gordon, premiering in January 2022 at Lincoln Center Theater.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge I faced when adapting my play was wrestling with a new form,” she recounts. “I’d never written a libretto before, and as such there was a bit of a learning curve. I was very protective of my characters and the dialogue that I crafted, but I knew that in order to meet the form I’d have to find a different vocabulary.”

As she recalls, her initial attempts to write a libretto failed. “I was merely rewriting my play,” she says. “I was not leaving room for the composer to be a collaborator in the story telling.”

“Finally, I was able to surrender absolute narrative control and allow myself to be in complete dialogue with the composer. Once I did that, I was able to find the music in the language, and the words began to take a more lyrical shape. Music can express the interiority of characters in an expansive and beautiful way, which opens up space for the writer to delve deeper into the inner life of their characters. That process is liberating.”

 

What Collaborators Need from Each Other

Playwrights need composers to be aware of dramatic structure right from the beginning of the project, and how to build to a shattering climax—and abstain from climaxing every ten minutes. One cannot create an opera of all show-stoppers or the show will be all stop-and-start.

Sometimes an upcoming deadline can make a composer grow impatient to begin setting the libretto to music. Often a libretto takes longer to find its shape than expected. But if enough of it isn’t figured out in advance of setting the music, then better to get an extension on the deadline than compose the score prematurely. Experienced opera composers know what they need from the librettist before they begin to set notes to paper, or computer-monitor as it were.

To Anthony Davis, composer of the Pulitzer Prize winning Central Park Five and the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming production of X, what he needs from a librettist is tangible:

“My first reaction is to say, ‘Their blood, sanity, and first born,’ but a more reasonable request would be a plot treatment and summary, and the text of an aria with a sense of the context.”

Musical theatre lyricists know about emulating patterns of speech in song, finding phrases that sound natural when sung, and differentiating characters from each other by the length or brevity of their lines. Lyricists may find it a natural progression to go from song writer to librettist. Playwrights can make the transition, too, if they find the musicality in their language, and don’t fall back on structural crutches like writing a complete libretto in verse or iambic pentameter because some other librettist once did that. Operas composed to formalistically contrived librettos where everyone’s lines are of an equal length and meter can come out sounding like “musical wallpaper,” a term used disparagingly by other composers to describe talky, shapeless opera that sounds churned out.

What helps a composer the most is to be handed a significant chunk of the libretto all at once, not one lyric or scene at a time in the piecemeal manner musical theatre is often constructed.

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon enjoys having an entire act to consider before he begins to compose, although he can get a sense from a complete scene. “I need at least a scene to get a sense of how the story will be told,” he says, “and only then, when I have finished the scene does the badgering of the librettist to give me more begin.”

In his process, he might not compose the work chronologically, preferring instead to begin from a “hot spot” in the middle, a character moment from which musical themes can emanate forward and backwards allowing him to originate musical leitmotifs which recur throughout the opera.

“I can begin an opera without words but only by poking around the theme, the atmosphere, the period, and the location, the music of the interstices,” he explains. “It is when the words start coming that I can begin to shape characters, find my motifs, my building blocks, and become fully engaged in the story.”

 

Getting a Foot in the Door

If all of this seems like a lot to take in, take heart, you don’t have to learn it all on your own. American Lyric Theater (Altnyc.org) and American Opera Projects (AOPopera.org) are two renowned programs that help pair composers and playwrights, and shepherd new operatic collaborations to workshops and productions. Nautilus Music-Theater in Minnesota, New Dramatists in New York, and others also team up composers and playwrights, and unlike masters and doctorate programs in academia, all of these organizations are run by experienced opera professionals and are tuition-free and hands-on.

Playwright/screenwriter Jason Kim’s first opera with composer Joseph Rubinstein came about through such a program. “It began while I was a fellow in the composer and voice program at American Opera Projects,” he reports. “Now a full length work, House of Legendary has come full circle and is being produced by AOP.”

True, opera mentoring programs are highly competitive and accept few applicants. But they aren’t they only way to find you way in. If you are a playwright or lyricist, a production track record helps. With new operas performed in English with supertitles, audiences are engaged in the plot and no longer content with a purely musical experience; they want a stage-worthy drama. And opera companies have produced enough failed operas by composers collaborating with noted poets and novelists with zero stage experience to have learned the value of working with produced dramatists and composers who can write for the operatic voice. But credentials alone are not enough to secure a commission. Show your affinity for writing opera by writing smaller works or portions of larger ones, the way composer Missy Mazzoli did.

“When I wrote my first opera, Song From the Uproar with my longtime collaborator and bestie, Royce Vavrek, we didn’t start off with a commission from an opera house,” she recounts.

Along with their other collaborators, they presented a work-in-progress of fragments on a small scale in Brooklyn. They filmed that presentation and used it to interest an independent producer who helped get the full work developed and produced at a downtown New York venue.

“I think that starting small is key,” she says. “In my late twenties, I knew I could write songs but the opera writing process was still a mystery. So, I started by writing songs. Something concrete that presenters could get excited about, as opposed to approaching them with just an idea.”

 

Don’t Dot the Is or Cross the Ts… Yet

Today, Missy Mazzoli is completing an operatic commission for The Metropolitan Opera. Her journey to the top demonstrates a key difference between creating and developing works for opera and for musical theatre. She and her collaborators presented “fragments,” not an entire work. None of the Is were dotted, none of the Ts were crossed. Why? Because when a first-time opera team goes through the Herculean task of creating a complete score and libretto to a new opera, it is an almost guaranteed method of it never getting produced. That may seem counter-intuitive, especially as most musical theatre companies demand full scripts and at least half the score before they will even consider reading a new work. But consider this: musical theatre producers and companies are inundated with new musicals. They have the luxury of demanding to see nearly completed works. Same thing with festivals, whose guidelines have requirements like “Send a complete script and score and demo recording for a work with no more than seven performers and two sets.” Whereas opera companies approach doing new work differently – they want to first see the potential of artists’ work, “fall in love” with a project, as it were, and then be involved in producing it together with several partnering opera companies of a similar size. They like to “grow” the work from the ground up in a manner that fits the artistic profile of the commissioning companies and the needs of the communities where the work will first be seen.

Then there’s the matter of profit vs. non-profit. Opera companies have learned that by budgeting a new work carefully they can premiere it without losing a bundle. New work may cost more than renting another company’s reimagined Rigoletto set on the space station, but not much more. Operas only need to break even; they don’t have to earn a profit and pay back investors like in the commercial theatre. Opera subscribers will for the most part be there in the seats whether the opera is proclaimed a critical hit or a miss. And new operas run for a maximum of eight performances at each co-commissioning company.

Not only are opera houses willing to take a gamble on an as-yet unwritten work; they actually prefer it that way because then they can take a hand in shaping it, seeing early on what kinds of singers the work suits because in opera, lead singers are cast years in advance of the premiere.

All of which means that when opera creators arrive at the entrance lobby of an opera company headquarters toting three cartons and a backpack containing the fully orchestrated score of an operatic adaptation of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss labored on for the past eight years, they probably won’t make it to the elevator before getting the polite brush-off. Opera is a small enough world that if you start shopping a completed opera from company to company, they will hear about it, and like a used car, nobody wants to program an international world premiere around a “used opera.” If you’ve already made the mistake of completing an entire opera with a full orchestration for 86 players because that’s how Wagner did it, better hide nine-tenths of it and humbly declare what remains as “very much in progress.” Or chalk it off as a learning experience and use it as a “calling card” to acquire a commission for a completely new work.

 

So, Why Even Go There?

As appealing as it is to contemplate conquering the world of opera, finding a place for your voice in an entirely new, expansive, and challenging medium, it can’t be said that it’s as easy as one-two-three, or that it works in a logical, proscribed way. The journey is different for everyone.

Initiating, developing, rewriting, and premiering a new operatic collaboration takes years, as many years as it takes to write a new musical, and many more years than it takes to write a new play or screenplay. And yet the number of performances the finished work will receive are far fewer than in theatre where if a musical is successful, it can have an open run and go on to be produced in many other venues. Not so in opera, where even successful and critically hailed works may only receive fifteen or sixteen performances in three separate venues over three years, and then never get revived again. Yes, never. The number of excellent yet neglected new American operas is discouragingly high. The number of opera-goers who will experience a new work is, in total, not vast, and the monetary remuneration for the authors following the original commission arrangement is most likely negligible if it never gets revived or picked up by other companies.

Despite all that, more and more playwrights are compelled to stretch and expand into opera, and opera companies appreciate the knowledge and discipline of theatrical construction they bring with them to the opera from the theatre. Opera companies are growing more open than ever to composers from all areas of music as long as they demonstrate a knack for the form and their work can be performed by opera singers. Subject-wise, operas can be torn from the headlines, mythical, historical, original or adapted. Stylistically, the old musical barriers are eroding. In addition to classical and symphonic composers, commissions go to composers of jazz, rock, musical theatre, crossover, international, and experimental music, and to artists who have been ignored for far too long.

Interest in creating new opera among the membership of the Dramatists Guild has been growing exponentially. It’s for that reason, at membership’s persistent prompting, that the Guild formed an active and engaged the Opera Committee to explore issues of relevance to writers and composers of both theatre and opera and is here devoting an issue of The Dramatist to the subject for the first time in its history.

Thanks to vastly improved dramaturgy and development models borrowed from theatre, new operas have gone from being musical medicine that is “good for you” to the season’s hottest headliners of many opera companies. New work today is a bigger draw to subscribers than the old star system of singers which exists no longer. Younger ticket buyers gravitate to works that capture the zeitgeist of today’s concerns, and stay away in droves from the old warhorse “ABCs” of opera programming, namely Aida, Boheme/Butterfly, and Carmen, while interestingly enough, theatre has reinterpreted all of them in Elton John’s Aida, Rent, M. Butterfly (soon to be a new opera), and Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man.

So then, despite all the time and effort it takes, why go to the trouble of writing a new opera? Very simply, because it’s there, like Mount Everest, a challenge that must be met in order to navigate the scale of what you need to express through the power and majesty of music.

Michael Korie

writes librettos for operas and lyrics for musicals, whichever feels the least improbable at the moment. This season, his musical with James Lapine and Tom Kitt, Flying Over Sunset, opens at Lincoln Center Theater. His opera with Ricky Ian Gordon, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, premieres at New York City Opera/National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. He co-chairs the DG’s Opera Committee with Mark Campbell.