A Busy January at NOA and OA

Not even halfway through the month, and it’s already been a busy January!  First we had a presentation at the National Opera Association convention down in New Orleans on January 4, with Dara Rahming, Valerie Francis, and Ivan Griffin.

Now we’re off to New York for the Opera America New Works Forum for a showcase on January 15.  In addition to Dara Rahming, Valerie Francis, and Tyrone Chambers–who’s flying in from Germany to sing!–we’ll be working with our new friend Justin Hopkins, a baritone from Philadelphia.   Special thanks to Lidiya Yankovskaya, Charlotte McKechnie, and Juventas New Music Ensemble for arranging this presentation.

We will be trying to attract some interest in a production from a professional company, so please wish us “Toi toi” as we try to bring Freedom Ride to a theater near you!


Boston New Music Festival

As part of the Boston New Music Festival, Juventas will be presenting a few scenes from Freedom Ride Sunday night, September 24 with soprano Kristin Young and baritone Robert Honeysucker.  Artistic Director Lidiya Yankovskaya will accompany on the piano.

The performance will take place at 7:30pm at Killian Hall, on the MIT campus.  Tickets are $12, or $8 for students.

Composer and librettist Dan Shore will also participate in a panel discussion on opera and new music at 1:30pm that afternoon, part of the Boston New Music Festival Symposium, which runs from 11:30am to 6:00pm, also at Killian Hall.

Details of Juventas’s spring 2018 production of Freedom Ride are coming soon, so watch this space for more information!

Freedom Ride comes to Boston!

I am absolutely thrilled to share with all of you that Freedom Ride will have its full premiere next spring in Boston, produced by Lidiya Yankovskaya and Juventas New Music Ensemble.

As a preview, this week, on March 22 and 23, Juventas is presenting short excerpts from the opera on their Music in Flight program at Club Oberon in Harvard Square, with soprano Kristin Young as Sylvie and tenor Davron Monroe as Russell.

The dates for the premiere are still being finalized with the theater, so please watch this space for more information!

As always, thank you all for your support and interest in this project over the last five and a half years.

And if you would like to contribute financially to the production, please visit http://www.juventasmusic.com/contribute.html.

Video from Mexico!

Our final performance in Mexico City (August 28, 2016) was filmed and broadcast live over UNAM television, and that video is now available on YouTube.  The whole concert is fantastic, including performances from violinists Philippe Quint and Vadim Gluzman on the first half.  The suite from Freedom Ride starts at about 1:12:00, followed by a suite from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and several spirituals.  Our soloists here are Dara Rahming as Sylvie, Chauncey Packer as Russell, and Ivan Griffin as Clayton.  The chorus is the great New Orleans Black Chorale, under the direction of John Ware, and la Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería is conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. 




Very excited to announce an upcoming weekend of performances in Mexico City, August 26-28!  We will be presented four excerpts from Freedom Ride in concert with la Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, the New Orleans Black Chorale, and soloists Dara Rahming, Chauncey Packer, and Ivan Griffin, all under the direction of Carlos Miguel Prieto.

It’s been a breathless summer of preparing the parts and score from Boston while conductor John Ware rehearses the singers down in New Orleans, but we are all looking forward to a terrific experience together.

Thank you as always for supporting our work, and if you happen to be in Mexico City at the end of the month, please stop by la Sala Nezahualcóyotl and say hello!


Goodbye to New Orleans

April 27, 2015

Dear Friends,

Today I taught my very last class at Xavier University of Louisiana. I am pulling up my proverbial stakes and heading back up north, where I look forward to spending more time with my wife and family and more time writing music.

I don’t need to tell you that living in New Orleans has been a real adventure for a kid from suburban Pennsylvania. I was a witness to my very first shooting here, I had a knife pulled on me outside my apartment, and I was almost—almost!—the victim of a carjacking. But I accepted this as the price I had to pay for the privilege of living in one of the most magical cities in the world, a city which also showered me with a tremendous amount of love. You let me march in a Mardi Gras parade leading a drumline. You and your mayor cheered me on during my very first road race, the UNCF 5K, despite my utterly abysmal time (38:20, just ten seconds faster than the winning speedwalker). You have played and sung my music all over the city, including performances at French Quarter Fest, at Bach Around the Clock, on the breathtaking grounds of Longue Vue House and Gardens, at Roussel Hall, and at the astonishing new Marigny Opera House, where Dave Hurlbert presented me with one of my most prized possessions, my very own set of keys. Those of you in the press and media have been unbelievably kind and generous to me, and I thank all of you not only for me, but also for my mother, who has read your reviews, interviews, and articles aloud to everyone in Allentown. One week I actually made the New Orleans Times-Picayune three times: once in a feature article by Chris Waddington, once in Nell Nolan’s society pages (!), and once in the police blotter for having had my phone and wallet stolen.

I will miss most of all my students at Xavier, who have taught me so much more about life than I could ever teach them about music. You are some of the warmest, brightest, funniest, most unflinchingly honest, and most enormously talented young men and women I have ever known, and certainly the best group of students any teacher anywhere could ever hope to have in a classroom. In one of our last classes, some of you remarked that you had never once seen me get angry in all of my years of teaching. But the truth is, I enjoyed having you in class and in rehearsal too much to ever get angry at you for anything. Besides, I needed to save my anger for my daily commute on the I-10.

And of course I will miss just as much those of you who collaborated with me on Freedom Ride, including the quintessential gentleman Wilfred Delphin, who has the uncanny gift of always doing and saying the absolute right thing at the right place and the right time, and my dear friend Dara Rahming, my favorite soprano in a world of favorite sopranos, one of the world’s most truly beautiful people, who has been the heart and soul of this project and without whom I would have left the city of New Orleans many years ago.

Although An Embarrassing Position will forever remain my love letter to the old New Orleans, Freedom Ride is my true love letter to the people living in the Crescent City today. So many of you have supported and encouraged this opera from the very beginning, and I still would like to premiere it here—somehow, some way!— in the near future. It is an opera about New Orleans, set in New Orleans, based on historical events that took place in New Orleans, with characters from New Orleans, featuring the music and language of New Orleans, and of course written in New Orleans. So if any of you has any brilliant fundraising ideas, please let me know. And of course if I miraculously win the lottery, I will let YOU know.

My deepest regret is that Xavier is not hiring a replacement for me, which means the already overworked music department faculty will have to find some way to cover the twelve or thirteen courses I teach each year and the nine or ten students on average that I accompany for performances and juries. This, I fear, is only the first step in the eventual elimination of the music department, something I have worried about ever since the academic restructuring of the university. Xavier has been training young African American singers and presenting opera to the New Orleans community for eighty years.    It has been an honor to help keep that distinguished tradition alive, and I am sorry to see that it is in such imminent peril. You are a city that prides itself on its music and culture, and you deserve a university that values music and culture as well. I can only hope that the arrival of a new president and a new provost in the fall will signal a revival of the school’s original mission and St. Katharine Drexel’s original commitment to the arts and humanities.

Thank you to all of you, and please do keep in touch! I’ll be here for another week and a half, long enough to see one last class of seniors graduate, and barely long enough for one last walk along the Mississippi, one last burrito at Felipe’s, one last run through City Park, one last plate of red beans and rice at Napoleon House, one last browse through Crescent City Books, and one last time hearing someone playing “Second Line” on the trumpet as I order one last café au lait at Café du Monde. Then, like the wandering musician I have always been, I will toss my suitcase in my car, drive one last time over Lake Pontchartrain, and finally, after all these years, know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Best wishes, and thank you all again,


A Score of Beautiful Bridegrooms

Something incredible is happening this week—the twentieth production of my opera The Beautiful Bridegroom. And then, a few days later, the twenty-first. With double-casting, that means over 150, and maybe even 200 women have performed in this comedy, many of them making their operatic debut. I’ve been asked a few times to talk about the history of this bizarre little piece, most recently by a student in Chicago (sorry it’s taken me so long, Kacey!), so I thought maybe now it was finally time to put it down on paper.

In 2002-2003, I spent a year in Denmark on a Fulbright grant, studying with the fantastic composer Andy Pape, attending the composition seminar at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and eating some of the worst food known to mankind. We can talk about the lack of sunlight later.

In the process of completing my Fulbright application and preparing for the trip, I read—literally—absolutely everything Danish in the circulating collection of the Boston Public Library. Well, at least those books that had been translated into English. (Although to be brutally honest, I just skimmed the Kierkegaard.) In a collection of one-act plays by the playwright Ludvig Holberg, I ran across The Changed Bridegroom, the last play Holberg ever wrote. What struck me immediately was the cast—six women! There had only been five women in the company Holberg was writing for, so one of the parts had originally been played by a man in drag.

Now, if you know anything about the opera world, you know that for every ten young singers, one is a tenor, one is a baritone, two are mezzos, and the other forty-seven are sopranos. So when you see a story that features a lot of female roles, you get pretty excited.

The play told the story of the aging widow Terentia, who, when trying to arrange a marriage for her elder daughter, decides that she herself should take a husband. A young husband. A very young husband. The dialogue was brisk and funny, the characters were sharply drawn, the action was clear, and the story itself took on the nature of a parody—it was like the age-old commedia dell’arte plot of the old man chasing the young girl, but with the genders reversed! Wouldn’t that make a great opera?

The problem was the ending. Holberg’s play was an eighteenth-century “comedy of character,” where the personality flaw of the main character is exaggerated to the point of ridicule. For that reason, Terentia, looking for love, was utterly humiliated at the end of The Changed Bridegroom, while the other five women stood by and laughed. Sexist ­and ageist? What a horrible ending for a comedy!

I photocopied the play and put it in the back of my filing cabinet. But six women! If only there were a way to solve the problem of the ending…

A few years later I ran into the fabulous Patricia Weinmann, one of the directors of the opera department at the New England Conservatory. The conservatory had produced my opera Works of Mercy when I was a student in 2002, and I still kept in touch with everyone there. Trish and I were at a performance of Mark Adamo’s extremely successful Little Women. Mark’s genius, I argued, was taking an unworkable story like Little Women and finding a way to make it dramatically effective on stage. All of those sopranos! And a strong libretto to boot! No wonder it was so wildly popular with opera companies, and good for him to have accomplished the impossible. “Well, Dan,” Trish asked me, “when are you going to write us an opera for that many women?”

I went back home, dug the Holberg play out of the back of my filing cabinet—easier said than done, I might add—and looked at it again. Terentia was punished at the end. But what was her crime? That she was lonely and wanted to get married? It seemed like a perfectly reasonable desire. Although I agreed with Holberg that it was selfish for her to steal her daughter’s groom, I knew that she deserved one of her own. One who really loved her. After all, if there’s no happy ending, it’s not really a comedy, is it? I did make sure never to bring the man onstage. If Holberg could keep his cast all-female, then dang it, so could I.

I rewrote the story, making sure that all of the problems faced by the six characters were solved relatively adequately by the end. One of the many things I learned writing children’s musicals (ooh, that’s another blog post right there) is that for a show to be successful, every person on the stage has to feel that she is vitally important to the action, with a series of genuine needs that have to be pursued and ultimately either met or not met. This is how actors think of their craft, and it’s the responsibility of the playwright and composer to give them some raw material to work with.

The music itself ended up being the easy part. Partly to reflect the time period, the 1750s, but mostly to indulge my fancy for pastiche, I conceived of the score as an homage to Mozart, the greatest of comic opera composers. My work method was very simple: I took out all of my Mozart scores and stacked them up on my desk. I never opened them, but there they were, winking at me all the time as I banged on the piano and scribbled on my oversized green paper. By the time I was done there was a minuet scene and the entire work was sprinkled with dozens of references and allusions to his operas. There was no effort to try for pure Mozart, obviously—who could possibly presume to do that? This was Mozart filtered through the lens of Prokofiev, that wittiest of all neoclassical composers and a constant source of inspiration to me. If the “Classical” Symphony was Prokofiev pretending to be Haydn, then The Beautiful Bridegroom would be me pretending to be Prokofiev pretending to be Mozart. And let the harmonic chips fall where they may.

Trish handed the reins to director Greg Smucker and music director Dan Wyneken, who had been the pianist and coach for Works of Mercy and who remains one of the most brilliant musicians I have ever had the pleasure to work with. (Side note: although I often complain that there are a lot of composers and librettists out there who have no idea how opera works, there is a large group of people who really do. They are called coaches. They work at your college or university and they are worth their weight in freaking gold.) Greg was filled with brilliant ideas and probing questions from day one, and among other things talked me into completely rewriting the beginning of the third scene, which I’m pretty sure singlehandedly saved the entire opera from being incomprehensible. And Dan suggested so many tiny changes and details that it’s impossible for me to remember after all this time precisely which ones, but suffice it to say that absolutely everything he touched he vastly and miraculously improved. Dan is one of two people I know about whom I can say that when he and I disagree, I simply assume that I am wrong. The other one, of course, is my wife.

And the rest is just a long stream of amazing luck. I was lucky to have, in addition to Trish, Greg, and Dan, a great cast and a great premiere. I was lucky to have Elaine Craine produce it later for Worcester Opera Works with Rebecca Grimes directing, and I was lucky to have received such fantastic publicity from them and the local media. I was lucky to have won the National Opera Association Chamber Opera Competition, which allowed the opera to be seen by even more singers, directors, and voice teachers. And I was lucky that so many schools, workshops, and companies decided to program the opera and that so many musicians worked so hard to perform it so beautifully. Most of all, I’ve been lucky to have been invited to meet and work with so many students across the country. The Beautiful Bridegroom is more than anything a piece for young singers, something I hope will be fun for them to study and something that will help them learn their craft and grow.

Because if there is a secret to the opera’s success, it is undoubtedly that so many opera workshop directors have thought it to be an effective teaching piece. Well, that and luck. And some very old jokes. And an enormous sword. And possibly some lesbians. And you know, putting six talented women on stage doesn’t hurt, either.

Upcoming performance at Xavier University of Louisiana

I’m very happy to announce that the Freedom Ride presentation at the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts annual convention will indeed be open to the public, and no admission will be charged.

The performance will take place Saturday, September 27 at 1:00pm, in the Administration Building Auditorium of Xavier University of Louisiana.  The cast features Dara Rahming, Valerie Anne Jones Francis, Chauncey Packer, Ivan Griffin, and the Xavier University of Louisiana Concert Choir.  Directed and conducted by John Ware, and with Wilfred Delphin, piano.  More information on the conference can be found here: http://www.xula.edu/lillyconference/index.php

Children, Can’t You Hear

We posted a rehearsal clip back in March, but here is the video from the Friday, March 22 performance of Freedom Ride at the Marigny Opera House in New Orleans.  Featuring Dara Rahming, the Xavier University of Louisiana Concert Choir, and Wilfred Delphin on piano, directed by John Ware.  And special thanks to videographer Bill Blanke!

Let Me Sing and I’m Happy

A little while ago I received an email from my friend Stacey Mastrian.  She was giving a presentation on writing for singers, and she wrote, “I was wondering if there is anything that you wish you’d known earlier or that you have learned through all of your work with them.”

Well, of course there are plenty of things I had wish I had known earlier, and plenty of things I’ve learned working with so many singers over the years.  And I thought I would share all of that here, in case it’s useful to anyone else.

(By the way, this is November 2013; I’m sure if you ask me again in a year, or five years, or fifty years, I’ll have something else to say then…)

So here we go:

(1) If you don’t love singers, and you don’t want them to sound their best, DO NOT WRITE FOR THE VOICE.  EVER.  Vocal music is not about the composer, it’s about the singer.

(2) Write the kind of music a voice teacher would assign to her students, not the kind of music your composition teacher wants you to write.  So, yes to the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, yes to Mozart, yes to Menotti, yes to Schubert, yes to Schumann.  No to Schoenberg, no to Berio, no to Crumb.  I’m not saying this isn’t great music; I’m just saying these are not good models for composers.  In fact, they are TERRIBLE models for composers.*

(3) If it’s a long piece, like an opera, make sure you warm the singer up properly in the beginning.

(4) Nobody wants to sing those big, stupid leaps.  Nobody wants to hear them.  Stop writing them.

(5) Don’t ask your singer to sing anything that you can’t sing yourself, accurately.

(6) The vocal line has to be supported by the harmony.  Make sure your singer can always find her pitches in the accompaniment.  She has enough to worry about onstage without trying to figure out where her note is.

(7) There is a difference between range and tessitura.  (This is one that I’m STILL learning.)  Just because she CAN hit those notes doesn’t mean she wants to hit so many of them over and over again.

(8) A singer needs to be able to connect to your piece musically and emotionally.  And ultimately you the composer have to take responsibility for that.  If she can’t understand it after she’s been working on it for a while, YOU are doing it wrong.  Composers who complain about singers will never write good music for them.

(9) Always write for a specific voice.  Does she have a great high Bb?  Make that the climax.  Does she have trouble around an F or F#?  Don’t give her a long note there.  Even if the person you write the piece for doesn’t end up singing it, it’s always better in the long run to have written it for someone in particular.  If you’re really living on a desert island, imagine you’re writing for your favorite singer.

(10) On a related note, the best compliment you can ever get from a singer is “This is perfect for my voice.”  The best compliment you can ever get from an audience member is “She sounded fabulous.”  Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the singer.

(11) Pay very, very close attention to stresses, accents, how words and phrases are pronounced, and what you want them to mean.  The music needs first of all to clarify the text.  A lot of that is rhythm, but a lot of that is also range and harmony.  Try speaking the words aloud the way you want them to sound, and then compose an appropriate setting.  If your text is in English, study the songs of Irving Berlin, who is one of the absolute masters of this.

(12) Sometimes the words are more important, and sometimes the music is more important.  Decide which it is from measure to measure.  If you want her to float a high B pianissimo, don’t expect anyone to understand what she’s saying at that point.

(13) Your accompaniment tells the singer a lot, including how free she can be in terms of rhythm.

(14) I said this before, but it really is the most important thing: There is only one reason to write for the voice, and that is because you love singers and you want them to sound their best.  There is only one reason why a singer will want to sing your music, and that is because it makes HER sound her best.

Finally, if there were a way to sum up absolutely everything I’ve learned about writing opera and vocal music in one sentence, it would be this: Find some good singers and make them happy.  It may not be easy, but it really is that simple.


*Note from November 24, 2013:

I’ve received a lot of comments about this over the weekend, so I’d like to clarify something:

I deliberately brought up Schoenberg, Berio, and Crumb because they are three excellent and highly regarded composers who have written a lot of excellent and highly regarded music for the voice.  I actually had the privilege of being in Crumb’s last composition seminar at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, and I remain a huge fan of his work.  Night of the Four Moons in particular is, I think, one of the most beautiful pieces in the repertory.

But when we young composers set out to compose our first pieces for singers, we are given these 20th-century works—and often ONLY these 20th-century works, as models, which I think is dangerous and misleading.  And considering the extremely conservative nature of his own Models for Beginners in Composition, I’m pretty sure Schoenberg would agree.