Dawn Upshaw has taught me far more than three things in the years I've known her. It's easy to say that she's bestowed upon me a lifetime's worth of wisdom. But, today I'm going to talk about what she taught me about New Music.
["New Music" is a generally problematic and confusing term. In this article, I use it to refer to contemporary music in the "classical" style: symphonies, art songs, and operas.]
1. Give Composers Opportunities to Fail
Unless you're Mary Shelley, you don't write a best-seller on the first try. Opera composers are the same way. They can't be judged on the very first major work they compose. Imagine if your first big project determined the success of your entire career. It's insane to think about! And, yet, there are so few opportunities for contemporary opera composers to create and premiere a new work, that they're often judged on their first symphony or opera.
Think about Beethoven's 5th Symphony. We never would have gotten that piece if he hadn't been paid to write Symphonies 1-4. Now, I'm not sure if you've listened to Symphonies 1 and 2, but they are no Symphony 5 (sorry, Beethoven).
We need to take a chance with composers who don't have a crazy-long track record and we can't get down on them when they don't create The Next Great American Opera on their first commission. We need to let them have their Symphony 1 and 2 and 3 and 4; we need to let them find their compositional voice and develop it over time with each new commission. And we need to continue to champion them as they move forward in their careers.
2. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
Dawn Upshaw worked alongside composers to create new song cycles and operas, opening a dialogue between singer and composer. How better for either of us to learn but to be in the process together from the get-go.
Also, what better way to promote something than to work on it yourself? It shows a deep level of trust and respect for the composer's work. It shows that this isn't merely another gig for you. You're putting your own artistry into the project and bringing it to life with your own voice.
And I think about big point about this is that you can't force your ideas on a composer. I've seen the best work created when the composer is genuinely inspired by the source material they're working with. Let the composer choose the text. Compromise at times. But the spirit of collaboration should be present from start to finish, with no one party making all the decisions.
3. Say Something Relevant
You should never create new music just for the sake of creating new music. It must say something, be relevant to the audience and the world. People like to whine about opera being a "dying art," but then they do nothing to help create new, living opera!
Opera should never be created in a vacuum. Like any organism, it needs an environment in which to live, and our world is its environment. Reach outside of the art sphere and bring others in. Get people excited about what you have to say through the powerful form of music.
New Opera in NYC
When I think about new opera in New York City, I think about these companies:
Center for Contemporary Opera
Fresh Squeezed Opera
And I've been trying to do the same with my own company, OperaRox Productions. We have new operas coming up in our Summer Double Bill at The Stonewall Inn.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary opera composers? How do you think we can keep opera relevant and exciting in the 21st century?