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Opera Études

History and Philosophy

by Roger Brunyate (2001)

  Illustration for The Angel’s Sarabande, 1997
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The practical rationale for the étude program when I started it in 1985 was as Gebrauchsmusik — music written to serve a particular set of performers. Like most music schools, we had a large number of female singers, while the few males available tended to get used up in regular productions. The repertoire of operatic scenes for women is small and quickly gets repeated. So why not write our own? So we got together three composers, presented them with six sopranos, and told them to write a short opera scene for them: a brief story about some situation which they can relate to, set to music that they can perform. In this first instance, all three operas shared a common theme: a young woman on the eve of her wedding day. The étude program was repeated in 1988, 1991, 1994, 1997, and 1999, with different and generally looser themes. Although many of the composers who got their start in the études (and a few others) went on to write longer works which were produced separately, the basic principle of the études themselves remained the same: to create short operas written for the particular combination of people (indeed, for the particular individuals) who, in our opinion, most needed that opportunity. Among the singers, the main beneficiaries of this program have continued to be the women, although in most years other than the first, there have been a few men who could benefit from the opportunities also.

The word "étude" was chosen for a number of reasons. It reflects the value to the composer of being able to write a small-scale study in preparation for tackling some larger project. It also reflects the value to the singer of having contemporary material as a means of studying operatic acting and performance. But the principal intent was to relate these little operas to, say, the piano études of Chopin: short pieces, complete in themselves, but without the superstructure of exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda found in larger forms. All are necessarily short, but the brevity can be achieved by starting in medias res without extended exposition, and ending as soon as a turning-point has been reached, without tying up all the loose ends.

Opera composition presupposes the availability of opera texts. The most usual practice is to work from some existing story. But this introduces the criterion of fidelity to the original author (let alone copyright issues) which might possibly conflict with the primary need in the études to write specifically for the people available. Almost all the études have been based on original subjects, with the texts generated in collaboration with the singers themselves; generally, this has been done by improvisation. I propose an overall theme; the composer suggests a take on this which he or she presents to the singers, who act it out in various ways until a workable idea is found. These improvisations are recorded, and many of the lines are incorporated into the resultant text. Of course, they still require the services of a librettist to shape the whole; sometimes the composer has served in this capacity; sometimes I have written the libretti myself; sometimes other students have been involved — which I think is the best solution whenever it can be managed.

The process of trying the dramatic material out on the singers serves as a reality check, and gives the singers a sense of ownership.

As the program got going, we discovered various unforeseen educational advantages to the way we had set it up. The process of trying the dramatic material out on the singers serves as a reality check, and helps the composers think beyond their first ideas. It also gives the singers a sense of ownership, which can be extrapolated to pre-existent pieces in turn; nobody who has been through this will ever approach even a Violetta or Susanna in the same way again, without remembering that she too started as somebody's imaginings into the feelings and responses of a real woman. The fact that there is a cohort of composers all going through much the same process at much the same time enhances the instructional aspect of the project, and encourages discussion and feedback among people who more usually work in comparative isolation. This aspect would be further enhanced if we could precede the writing by a team-taught seminar phase; this is something I want to make a special feature of the project this year.

Two years ago, we branched out considerably with a program called Faces of Myth. The intent was to break away from the social realism which tended to be produced by the improv-based approach (more suited to television than the opera stage). We also hoped to make more of the traditional operatic qualities of fantasy, color, and flair. So we presented six works all based upon myths from various other cultures; we allowed the cast size to increase to as many as six (men as well as women); we allowed chamber ensembles (including computer music) as accompaniment; and we stretched the original 12-minute time-limit to 20 minutes or in one case over half an hour. While the resultant works included some very fine pieces, the strain on the department — and more importantly on the composers themselves — was more than we could properly handle while still concentrating properly on the educational nature of the project. This year [2001], I want to pull back strictly to the 12-minute time-limit. The études will be written for two people or at the most three. They will be accompanied by piano with, at the most, one obbligato instrument. For the themes, however, I would like to move away from the workaday world, and suggest topics drawn from history, or set in periods other than our own. This is not hard and fast, however. The actual subjects will be determined after consultation with the composers involved. All I require is that they offer a balance between psychological reality on the one hand (which is the main advantage of having the singers as collaborators) and a certain breadth of conception on the other which seems particularly suited to depiction through music.

The notes above were written for the composers of the 2000–01 set of études, which were eventually presented under the title of Women and Memory.

Contrafact, Contrafiction, 2003   Singing Shakespeare, 2005   Facets of Freedom, 2006
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