What if there were only black and white films? Only stage plays about medieval kings?
To Leigh Holman, Director of CU Opera, that’s the big difference between opera and the rest of the performing arts world.
“We don’t think twice about telling new stories with film and playwriting,” she muses. “There are playwriting competitions—entire divisions in theater companies—devoted to new works. Why should opera be any different?”
But opera, inexplicably, has always been different. Throughout the 20th century, despite producing pieces at prolific rates, new composers were discounted.
“For so long, we've seen primarily the same masterpieces performed. The same composers. The same audiences,” says Holman.
Even though opera is just another way to tell a story, Holman says there’s a difference in perception. “Opera audiences often expected it to be a certain way, and that drove the market. Companies used to stick with what’s safe and what they perceived to 'work.'”
That’s why, six years ago, she, Patrick Mason and others at CU-Boulder set out to change that.
A new opera workshop
To the novice, naming an opera that premiered in the last 100 years is probably a challenge. But to professionals in the field today, the most important operas are the ones premiering right now. That’s the future of the art form.
“Not just presenting. Creating.” That’s why Holman says the CU New Opera Workshop, or CU NOW, is so critical. “In the current marketplace, if we didn’t offer this for our students it could be considered to be malpractice. New audiences want to see new pieces.”
CU NOW is a three-week workshop that introduces vocal and composition students to the leaders in their field—the Mozarts and the Verdis of the 21st century. It’s hands-on learning at its best.
“It means our students can be the first people to ever sing these pieces,” says Holman. “They're coached on how to perform new works. And student composers are coached on how to write for specific voices and singers by established librettists and composers.”
“These scores are only in the composers’ minds until we bring them to life on stage,” she adds.
Directing this year's performances will be chair of the CU Department of Theatre and Dance, Bud Coleman. This isn't Coleman's first time working with the College of Music—and he says it certainly won't be his last. "My involvement with the College of Music goes back further, as former Professor of Music Dennis Jackson and I created the BFA in Musical Theatre degree program, which was approved in 1999.
"The two units recently collaborated on a co-production of Terrence McNally’s play Master Class in 2013, which had students and faculty from both disciplines working alongside of one another," Coleman says. "Just as Renee Fleming appeared this spring on Broadway in the play Living on Love, we are all enriched by working in different facets of the performing arts."
The professionals joining the program are composer Zach Redler and CU-Boulder alum Mark Campbell. One of the most important and sought-after writers in opera, Campbell's 2012 opera Silent Night won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
He says initiatives like CU NOW are shaping opera today. “By creating new operas about the American experience, CU NOW helps ensure that opera remains relevant—and that it will have a future."
The opera that students will workshop this year—Campbell and Redler’s joint effort A Song for Susan Smith—digs into the recent past and the psyche of the South Carolina mother who, in 1994, drowned her two sons and lied about the circumstances.
Redler says it was an immersive story for the creators. "I tend to be drawn to characters who exhibit the extremes of the human condition. For me, attempting to understand the 'whys' of these behaviors through portraying them on stage, I hope, helps us all understand ourselves better," he says.
A Song for Susan Smith is dark. It hits close to home. But then again, so did La Traviada in 1853.
“For some audiences, that could discourage them. It could be too real. But for others, that’s what attracts them. Even then it makes them cringe,” Holman says.
In the case of A Song for Susan Smith, the opera is still in development. "The chance for our students to work with celebrated professionals like Zach and Mark during that stage of the process was the biggest reason to bring the piece here," Holman says.
Additionally, Campbell and Redler will mentor five student composers as part of the Composer Fellows’ Initiative, in which each composer will write a brief scene to be rehearsed and performed by student singers.
At the end of all the performances, the audience will be invited to offer weigh in with their response to the piece. Education is key.
“The performance is for the students—not really for the audience,” says Holman. “Feedback from a real audience helps them improve.”
Setting the pace
When it was founded, CU NOW was one of the first university programs to focus on opera from the ground up. Creating truly new experiences for an audience looking for relevance. News reports. Colorado history. World War II. Stories they know.
Now, Holman says, some of the most highly regarded companies in the country—the Met and the Santa Fe Opera—are jumping onto the trend that CU NOW helped set.
“There has to be a commitment to getting a churn going of these newer pieces. The more repetition there is—the more familiarity there is—the more audiences will enjoy these operas.”
Because just like black and white films and the plays of Shakespeare, even classical opera was new opera at one point. So teaching students how to perform and write new productions turns the students of opera’s past into the professionals of opera’s future.
CU NOW Events
A Song for Susan Smith
Friday, June 12
ATLAS Black Box Theatre
Composer Fellows' Initiative
Saturday, June 13
Imig Music Theatre
This production contains sexually suggestive content.
A Song for Susan Smith
Sunday, June 14
ATLAS Black Box Theatre