The perception of opera as a stagnant art form that hasn’t changed over the past century was recently knocked on its head as Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music collaborated in the premiere of “Opera Fusion: New Works.” This innovative program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, gives composers and librettists the opportunity to workshop their unfinished operas using students from CCM. Composer Douglas Cuomo (of Sex and the City theme music fame) and playwright John Patrick Shanley were chosen for the premiere of the project. They are currently creating an opera based on Shanley’s Tony award winning play Doubt: A Parable. The Minnesota Opera will premiere the finished work in January 2013, but, thanks to Opera Fusion, Cuomo and Shanley had the opportunity to showcase part of the work on November 12 at CCM and November 13 at Northern Kentucky University.
This cooperative project is a unique new venture in the field of opera. Normally, composition of an opera is a private collaborative process between the librettist and composer; they use a piano or computer program such as Sibelius to write out the score. The work is largely kept hidden from the public until it is completed and ready for debut. Opera Fusion seeks to break down the shielding of an unfinished work from an audience. The mutual benefits of students being able to work with composers of this caliber and a composer-librettist team having a cast at their disposal to sing through their music are further enhanced by the exposure of a work in progress to an audience. However, there were several limiting aspects of the program.
The time frame was one: the students and writers had only 10 days of rehearsal to put together a 30-minute performance of excerpts from Doubt. Many changes were made over those 10 days; an aria could be sung one way at one rehearsal, but the student might receive a completely different version at the next, edited and rewritten by Cuomo. In addition to the three main characters, there was a chorus made up of 10 students; during the rehearsal process the students were often asked to improvise parts in crowd scenes or female students were asked to play male characters.
CCM Director-in-residence Robin Guarino was at the helm of the project as stage director, along with Marcus Küchle, Cincinnati Opera’s director of artistic operations. Küchle and Guarino introduced the performance, marveling at the flexibility and professionalism of the student singers. They had worked hard to embody the characters of Doubt, which was chosen out of more than 50 possible operas because of the story’s complex, interesting characters. Shanley affirmed Guarino’s observation; Doubt is based on actual people and scenarios from his youth in the Bronx, where he attended Catholic school, though the tale itself is fictional. Shanley’s drama centers around Father Flynn, a modern priest who has been accused of inappropriate conduct with an altar boy. He denies he’s done anything wrong, but the cynical Sister Aloysius is not convinced and seeks to destroy him.
After the production team’s introduction, the lights dimmed and a projection screen lit up the stage, with three quotes on it: “The bad sleep well” (Kurosawa film title), “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18), and “Everything that is hard to attain is easily assailed by the mob” (Ptolemy). The stage having been set with a seedy, unsettled feeling of unfortunate truths, the show began.
Music from five scenes in the opera was presented, serving to the main characters of the story. What was presented reflected a dynamic amalgamation of musical genres. Many styles were represented in the score for the chorus to sing, from Romanticism to Minimalism and even some popular music themes from the 1960s. The changes between each scene were eased by the projections, the music, and the seamless transitions of the cast. The singers used in the project were selected from the aster’s, artist diploma and doctoral students of CCM. Though the work was clearly, its singing was polished and the intentions of its characters were clear. Father Flynn’s aria, sung by Jonathan Stinson, had broad, booming tones, conveying Flynn’s power and pomp. The innocent Sister James (Emma Char) had lilting major arpeggios and soft, simple melodies. The stern and suspicious Sister Aloysius (Jesslyn Thomas) alternated between mocking Sister James’s melodies and asserting her own power with strong lyric soprano lines. It was a tantalizing hint of what will hopefully become an iconic work of American music.
Following the performance, the audience was invited to a question-and-answer session with the production team. More insight was given into the program, the process and the production. Cuomo talked about the ease with which he could write when he had a team of students at his disposal; he called it a true “cross-pollination of minds” among himself, Shanley, Küchle, Guarino and the students. Having a group of singers available allowed them to work on new ideas as the workshop progressed; in fact, the ‘60s pop music was incorporated into the opera during the 10-day workshop period. Shanley’s reasoning was that pop music during that time was considered spiritual: love for country and God and romantic love were all tied together.
Doubt was the first work selected for Opera Fusion, but it won’t be the last. The grant that funds the program will allow for three more years of new operas-in-progress to be presented. Applications for future compositions will be accepted beginning in the spring of 2012. Having their operas work-shopped by students at one of the country's top music conservatories is truly a fantastic opportunity for compositional teams to have their operas work-shopped by students at one of the country’s top music conservatories. The production was a fascinating, insightful look into the process of birthing an opera.