It’s one of the most talked-about programs ushering in new opera works in the United States. It’s hosted the likes of Herschel Garfein, Mark Adamo, Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie. It’s well established, celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer.
And it’s located right here at the College of Music.
The CU New Opera Workshop is an intensive, three-week deep dive into an in-progress professional piece. Under the watchful eye of Eklund Opera Program Director Leigh Holman, CU NOW has grown from a neat idea to a trailblazing concept known well (and imitated) throughout the contemporary opera world.
“It’s crucial to have something like CU NOW, which will let us get the first steps down on paper,” says composer Tom Cipullo. “There’s so much that can go wrong that the composer by themself can’t envision before seeing an opera on stage. It’s great to have other eyes and ears.”
Cipullo, the award-winning composer of “Glory Denied,” comes to CU NOW for the first time this summer. He’ll be workshopping his brand new piece “Hobson’s Choice.” He says after meeting Holman—and hearing opera titan Jake Heggie’s ringing endorsement of the workshop—he couldn’t wait to get here.
“With most workshops, you go in and get knocked around a bit, and then figure out what went wrong and proceed from there. But it’s very reliant on audience participation for feedback, and often only a day or two,” Cipullo explains. “CU NOW is much more intense. It’s 17 days where you’re working together—and practically living together—every day. You’re getting feedback from the performers and director, which is more valuable.”
Based on the 1915 play of the same name, “Hobson’s Choice” follows Maggie Hobson as she starts her own business and marries a talented yet illiterate man—against the wishes of her father and in defiance of early 20th-century social standards. It’s a story that hit home with Cipullo’s friend and Met Opera mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe, who approached him about recreating it for the opera stage.
“She loved the character so much and found her to be so inspiring that she thought it would be a wonderful show piece for her. I was flattered that she thought of me.
“It’s a great story—drama, humor, people you care about. That’s what makes a good opera. Without a good story, the message of the piece won’t hold.”
Cipullo thinks the message and the mold-breaking heroine will resonate with 21st-century audiences, much like it did 100 years ago.
“It came out a century ago, but there still aren’t enough stories with strong female characters. When you think about the ‘Wonder Woman’ movie, it was such a breakthrough—but why was it, after all these years?”
In that way, “Hobson’s Choice” is perfect for the 10th anniversary season of the breakthrough CU NOW program. Christie Conover, production assistant for Eklund Opera, sang in the very first CU NOW during her time as a master’s student. She says the experience prepared her for a career singing contemporary opera works.
“It made me not afraid of new music,” she says. “We all learn works by contemporary composers, but it’s very different to be in the room with the composer, learning something that’s never been performed before. That experience is invaluable.”
In 2010, CU NOW featured Herschel Garfein and Robert Aldridge’s “Sister Carrie” and former Professor of Composition Daniel Kellogg’s first foray into opera with “The Autumn Orchard.” Alumnus John Lindsey—who was also in the cast that first year—remembers a hectic trial by fire that was formative for him as a singer.
“It was a crazy few weeks. You’d go into rehearsal with the music in front of you, and then that night you’d go home and anywhere between 5 p.m. and midnight, you’d get an email with revised music and a new MIDI file so that you could have it ready before rehearsal at 10 a.m.”
The practice proved beneficial for Lindsey: He went on to an artist residency at Minnesota Opera, which is known for its New Works Initiative. This fall, he’ll return to his hometown of Fort Collins as both he and his wife—fellow College of Music and CU NOW alum Nicole Asel—take teaching jobs at Colorado State University.
Over the decade since CU NOW first brought “opera from the ground up” to Boulder, one can find countless success stories like this. Conover says these outcomes speak to the dual mission of the program.
“It creates a win-win situation. It’s good for students to learn the professional skills of preparing a living, breathing piece. And it’s good for composers, who are looking for the equivalent of an editor and get more time to do an intensive workshop of their opera.”
In addition to the professional arm of CU NOW, the workshop this year again includes the Composer Fellows’ Initiative. The brainchild of retired Professor of Voice Patrick Mason, CFI brings together College of Music composition and voice students to produce original opera vignettes. Coached by professional composers and librettists (such as CU Department of Theatre & Dance alumnus Mark Campbell), this year CFI features four mini operas, staging stories ranging from the struggles of the women of the Manhattan Project to a dying man's murder confession.
Performances for CU NOW 2019 are during the weekend of June 14-16 in the Music Theatre. The workshop of Tom Cipullo’s “Hobson’s Choice” is on Friday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 16, at 2 p.m. The fully staged Composer Fellows’ Initiative is Saturday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. All performances are free and open to the public.