May 22, 2013
The weather's gotten hot in NYC and we're heading to Palo Alto CA for From Lyric Novel to Lyric Stage, what's turned out to be a very ambitious mulit-media show at Stanford University celebrating Vikram Seth and The Golden Gate as novel and opera. Here's a fabulous article in the Stanford paper. The show sold out completely two hours after tickets became available. It's going to be very exciting. I'll report in after the 30th. When I get back, the project for the summer is a new song cycle for tenor Keith Jameson. I am so incredibly fortunate to get to write for him and to have the dream lyricist Mark Campbell writing the text. More about that as it comes along. Class members of my Juilliard evening division composition course scored some coups this year: admission to masters programs in composition at Queens College, Brooklyn College, Peabody, and Manhattan School. Congrats Chris S., Mavis,Chris C., and Matt! Everybody did fabulous work, and I already miss them now that summer's here. Enjoy the great weather folks. More soon.
March 12, 2013
Busy fall and winter, folks. Here's the high points: Opera America presented a showcase of "The Golden Gate" at the new National Opera Center as part of their New Works Forum. An invites-only audience of opera company general directors and decision-makers. The cast of Katrina Thurman, Abby Fischer, Will Ferguson, Jesse Blumberg, Kenneth Kellogg, and Elliot Kahn did brilliantly with superb conductor Reuben Blundell and the always-amazing Charity Wicks on piano. You can watch it here. It was pretty smashing. I was thrilled. The reception was enthusiastic. I'm beginning to think that Golden Gate is everyone's favorite not-yet-produced opera. A few weeks later Amy Burton and Randall Scarlata performed "Soon" on the Aids Quilt Songbook at Twenty concert at Cooper Union. So movingly. Tom Bagwell put together a great program and played so sensitively in "Soon." Not long after that, tenor Keith Jameson (Golden Gate workshop Ed, full-time at the Met this season) asked if I would write a song cycle for his debut CD. More details on that coming soon. Over the summer I had the joy of writing and recording a new song with Keith for the Opera America Songbook. You can buy it here. I couldn't wish to be in better company. And two weeks ago – and I'm still celebrating – Golden Gate orchestra score FINISHED! Two big fat books, one for each act, ready to go. A trip to San Francisco back in October to meet with Shelley Fisher and Chiyuma Elliott at Stanford to plan a presentation we're doing in May, "From Lyric Novel to Lyric Stage." It's part of the celebration of the opening season of their new Bing Concert Hall. Current Wallace Stegner Fellows – that's the program Vikram Seth was in when he wrote "The Golden Gate" – read excerpts from the novel intercut with video from the staged workshop of the opera, with yours truly providing commentary about how one form becomes the other. May 30th, 8:00 p.m. Stay tuned for more details. Two very thoughtful profiles online recently: one from the Juilliard Journal, the other by the wonderful Frank Oteri for New Music Box. Other high points: Columbia Football game as research for Robert's new one-man, ten-mango musical "Quasimango, the Lunchbox of Notre Dame." Yes, the climax is at a Columbia football game. Thanks to "Positions 1956" director Noah Himmelstein, a chance to see Lincoln Center Theater's production of Golden Boy, astounding, Noah assistant directing for Bartlett Sher. My Juilliard colleague and dear friend Jonathan Dawe's opera "Cosi Faran Tutti" at the Italian Academy. Brilliant, hilarious, completely original, strangely touching. John Corigliano's Circus Maximus at Carnegie. I'll never be the same. And Kevin Put's and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night" at Philly. Moving, inspiring, fabulous. More soon. Enjoy the onset of spring.
September 12 , 2012
Gush alert: I'm still floating from the fabulous production of James Siena's and my "Photo-Op" by UrbanArias in DC which opened Saturday night and runs through this coming weekend. It's just the finest production a guy could wish for, in every way. Here's what the Washington Post had to say about it (they like it), and here is where you can see a video clip (scroll down to find it) of the two leads, presidential candidate and wife, on an only slightly surrealistic version of The Ellen Show. It gives a great taste for what the production is like as a whole – detailed, inventive, imaginative, and expertly realized. Yay director Alan Paul, choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley, conductor and producer Robert Wood, leads Michael Mayes and Laurie Williamson, and the fabulous ensemble of dancing actors/acting dancers. OK, done with gushing.
August 20, 2012
Whoa, did the last four months ever go by fast. First news first, UrbanArias is mounting a new, full, bang-up production of James Siena's and my political campaign opera "Photo-Op." It kicks off the presidential campaign season right in the center of DC's political cauldron. Four performances the two weekends after Labor Day, click here for dates and tickets. I'm so thrilled to be working with them again after April's "Positions 1956." They're a wonderful company and one of the bright lights for the future of opera. Stay tuned for details; I head down there for rehearsals September 4th. Other news: a great privilege to be asked to contribute to the Opera America Songbook in honor of the opening of the new National Opera Center, even greater privilege to get to write it for tenor Keith Jameson. It comes out next month in a big CD compilation and, wonder of wonders, in a printed score by Schott. Other fun: working with synthesizer meister Randy Cohen to create modern versions of my beloved 1980s Yamaha DX7 voices for Photo-Op. And rediscovering the joys of this now-antique keyboard with its edgy, characterful sounds. And of course ever onward with orchestrating Golden Gate, rounding the corner, looking like early November to finish. And in November Golden Gate will be presented at Opera America's New Works Forum, the first to be held in the new National Opera Center. Basically a command performance for most of North America's opera company general directors. Juilliard's Summer Dance Intensive was as demanding and exciting as ever, amazing high-school age dancers from all over the country, lots of work together with crazy meters and rhythms, then they do their own choreography to them. And Juillliard Evening Division Composition courses start up in three weeks. Every year suprising new talent comes through the door. More soon. Enjoy the tail end of the summer.
April 18, 2012
Just got back from DC, opening weekend of "Positions 1956." I feel so proud of this piece. Michael Korie's libretto is deep and nuanced and multi-layered, and forgive my immodesty, but it sounds great and works wonderfully as theater. Forgive even more of my immodesty, here's from Anne Midgette in the Washington Post: "Conrad Cummings obviously had a lot of fun writing the music. He drew on the rhetoric of Handelian oratorio in the sex section to give a faux decorum to Korie's arch couplets ("Women vary as to foreplay: Some like less play, some like more play"), and adapted to various dance styles of the Arthur Murray episode, from an un-cha-cha-like but lovely cha-cha to the Viennese waltz." And here's a link to a longer piece in DC Theatre Scene. Urban Arias is a great up-and- coming company, and the cast of Amedee Moore, Jesse Blumberg, and Vale Rideout is a composer's dream. Back down there this coming weekend for the last of six performances. Yummy!
March 26 , 2012
Wow, did we ever have a great workshop of "Positions 1956" last week down in DC. Urban Arias is a wonderful company, full of spirit and commitment, and the cast is a dream, totally a dream. At the end of the workshop they presented the music in concert for a large group of supporters and interested public, and the response was really encouraging. Working with Michael Korie is such a privilege, he's a total theater meister, and I learn so much just watching how he refines the lyrics and story structure and works with the cast and the company. We open two weeks from Friday. It looks like I'll be down there for the final rehearsal week, which should be exciting. Right now putting finishing touches on the music. Get details and tickets here. And watch out for a feature on the piece in this Sunday's Washington Post. Major fun!
January 24, 2012
Golden Gate excerpts with orchestra are LIVE on the Golden Gate site, listen to them here!
December 27, 2011
Great news on many fronts as the year wraps up.
The Opera America Salon Series showing of The Golden Gate last month went fabulously with Justin Hopkins joining the cast from last year's workshop: Katrina, Hai-Ting, David, and Keith with Charity masterfully at the piano and Steve leading in a way that made every phrase feel freshly breathed. Packed house. Then two days later we take over Merkin Concert Hall to record thirty minutes with full orchestra and it all goes so smoothly I can't quite believe it. That same Masserati group of freelancers, the spotless acoustics of Merkin, their newly installed recording studio, Damon Whittemore at the console. MP3s will appear shortly on The Golden Gate website. It's thirty minutes out of about 100, and they're ready for opening night. The dozen or so producers who have expressed interest in the piece will find CDs on their desks next week.
And it's official now: Urban Arias, a wonderful new opera company just outside of Washington DC has commissioned the phenomenal Michael Korie and me to make a full-evening version of our Positions 1956, to open this coming April 13th with six performances. I can't believe my good fortune on this; Michael and I have wanted to do this for twenty years, and finally everything converged for it to happen. Between Positions 1956 and orchestrating the balance of Golden Gate, it will be a full winter and spring.
Then there's a new song cycle for Keith Jameson for next year and contributing to Amy X Neuburg's multi-composer cycle for the Paul Dresher Ensemble. Yummy!
My Juilliard evening division composition students did great for the fall semester; five are applying for graduate composition programs for next year. I'm very proud of Derek Baird and Sayo Kosugi, members of last year's course. Derek is now in the USC Film Music program, Sayo is in the masters program in composition at Juilliard.
Balazs Rumi, an artist diploma student in clarinet at Juilliard, played a concert earlier this month in the new Willson black box theater at Juilliard, all American music, including my Reunion for clarinet and piano four hands. The whole concert was on an extraordinary level, and he played my piece like a fierce angel.
While all of this has been going on, my partner Robert's singer/songwriter career is blossoming. He's playing a different New York venue every month and he just got back from playing Boston. I think I'm dealing fairly well with having another diva in the family. He's really good.
Wishing you the best for 2012!
July 17, 2011
Wow, that Summergarden concert was exciting! The place was packed, the energy was really electric in the crowd, the band played fabulously, and there seemed to be a lot of yelling and clapping after my piece, which went great. Click here to read the Times review. Both Keeril Makan's piece and Richard Causton's were gorgeous, and it was fun to hang out with both of them. Richard's music is new to me, and I really recommend it. Getting to work with conductor Joel Sachs was a real honor.
Now it's back to more Golden Gate orchestrating, aiming to finish the first act by the end of August. And Juilliard Dance Intensive starts tonight, three weeks of really intense dance for high-school-age dancers. I work with them on music: counting, crazy counting, rhythmic layering, complex meters, metric drama. And they choreograph short pieces to the crazy counts I give them which they perform on the final showcase. Totally fun if a little daunting, working super-intensely with large groups of teenagers. They come in limp from four hours of ballet and modern, look like spaghetti on the floor, and are up in a second and working once a challenge is put in front of them. They're the best. Oh yes, and biking the Hudson River Bikeway practically every morning and killer swim workouts/coachings with the amazing Susan Murray once a week. Ah, summer!
A new version of my Beach Boys octet, "I Wish They All Could Be. . . " receives its New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art's Summergarden Series Sunday July 10th at 8:00 p.m. Details here. Doors open at 7:00, and I'm told it fills up fast. It's a cool program, and I'm particularly thrilled to be in the company of Keeril Makan, one of my absolute favs among up-and-coming composers. Hoping to see you there.
June 27, 2011.
Let's see, where to start? Last Tuesday we did an orchestra reading of thirty minutes of Golden Gate orchestration. The band was a Maserati of crack New York musicians, which I could never have put together without the help of the superb woodwind player and composer Andrew Sterman. It went great, and I think I finally have the sound right. Very few changes to make, most of it feels ready for opening night. This was a reading with instruments only. I'll polish it up, and in the fall we'll have a reading with orchestra and full cast of the same thirty minutes with a recording which will give a really good idea of what the opera will actually sound like. I'm the luckiest composer in the world to get to work with conductor Steven Osgood, who led the reading with such authority and grace that my pulse never went over 80 a minute.
There was quite a run-up to this reading, starting with a meeting with conductor Steven Osgood and producer Emma Lively in the Juilliard Cafe in early March. We'd stollen Steve from a City Opera rehearsal where he was conducting Steve Schwartz's "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (which he did brilliantly in the theater in April). I'd been looking down an endless well of expense, imagining that I would need to fund multiple readings, scene by scene, for the whole opera. With Steve's help and Emma's concurrrence we figured out the most important thirty minutes, including a re-do of the first scene we'd tried out in December. One or two orchestra-only readings of that in late spring or early summer, then a fall recording with cast. Yay! Emma was great, she was like "you have to set a reward for yourself for each day's orchestrating, and a big reward for finishing the first pass for the first reading." Let's just say that Billy's Bakery got fairly regular late night visits from me for three months. And a couple of hours after the reading last Tuesday I bought myself a lime-green-covered iPad. Yay again!
More good news about Golden Gate: Opera America has invited me to present the piece on their Salon Series at their New York City headquarters. This is a pretty prestigious invite. Presenters at past seasons include Steward Wallace for "Bone Setters Daughter" at San Francisco Opera, Lewis Spratlan for "Life is a Dream" at Santa Fe, and Tod Machover for "Death and the Powers" at Chicago Opera Theater. It's scheduled for Wednesday November 16th, details to follow.
My Juilliard students did me proud this spring, mounting a spectacular concert of pieces for two pianos and for Pierrot ensemble. Next semester's special topic: tentatively preludes and fugues via Shostakovitch and Bach, the less academic the better
Robert and I spent two and a half weeks running around Italy and France at the beginning of June, joining my wonderful cousin and her husband on Lago Maggiore, meeting up with my best college buddies and spouses in Provence, eating with best friends in Paris, and visiting with actress and force of nature Vanda Monaco in Bologna. Back to NYC barely in time for the orchestra reading. Many late nights before we left finishing score and parts. PLEASE, save me from having to do parts ever again (useless plea, of course I'll have to do more and more and more).
The rest of the summer: bike in the morning, orchestrate all day in front of the AC, swim at night, go nowhere. Yummy!
February 18, 2011. Wait a minute, how did I forget this?
My dear friend Vince Watchorn calls me from Pittsburgh last month and says, "Conrad, get a copy of Opera News and look on page 32." It turns out Golden Gate is cited as one of the best operas of the twenty-first century. Wow! Click here to see the list, and here to read the whole article. Let's hope this nod helps in finding Golden Gate a production home. I can't name names, but there's some pretty serious interest out there. Keep your fingers crossed.
February 17, 2011. Yikes! Where did the time go?
Well, first thing, orchestrating. With lots of excitement and some trepidation I dove into orchestrating the first scene of the The Golden Gate. It's an orchestra of 17 players, very heavy in keyboards, percussion, and pluckers: 2 keyboards on everything, 2 percussionists on everything, harp, guitar (electric and maybe acoustic), string quintet, woodwind quartet, trumpet and horn. By the third draft my wonderful conductor Steven Osgood and I figured we were ready to try it out. By a complete miracle, there turned out to be one night in a two-month window when my entire cast from last January's workshop and Steve were all in town at the same time. Jason Karlyn, my miracle-working Juilliard violist, put together a crack band of Juilliard kids, we rented the biggest studio at Carroll's Music so far west on 55th Street that you might as well be in New Jersey, and on a freezing night in December, over three hours, we went from sight-reading to a full run-through of the 14-minute scene. What an eye-opener for me. Lots of great sounds and textures and atmospheres, in fact probably too many all at once. Onward to draft number four, and onward to orchestrating the whole first act, and onward to trying for a second miracle when cast and conductor and Juilliard kids are all available at the same time for the next reading -- May? over the summer? September? Stay tuned. Click here to hear a 2-minute montage of excerpts from the reading. They actually sound quite cool.
On other fronts: American Opera Projects nudged me to make a piano version of Positions 1956, a chamber opera I wrote for my amplified ensemble with lyrics by Michael Korie drawn from 1950s marriage manuals. I put together about 15 minutes of excerpts, which AOP presented at Galapagos Space in Dumbo in early December. Katrina Thurman and Michael Zagarsky were wonderful as the newlyweds. Mila Henry did great with the new piano part. It works this way; this summer I'll do the whole piece for piano. Perhaps not far behind: By Keeping Things Exactly the Way That They Are for non-amplified singers and piano.
Other fun: road trip to Maine, Vermont, and Montreal with Robert in August with lots of use of Montreal's fabulous BIXI system of shared bikes; and a long weekend in San Francisco where I got to have lunch with my namesake composer, Conrad Susa, at the Hayes Street Grill.
Juilliard composition courses are a delight this year. One section has been devoting themselves to every combination of chamber ensemble and percussion we can think of. This week they're doing their own settings of Pierrot Lunaire lyrics in any one or combination of English, German, and French; next month it's new dances for Stravinksy l'Histoire ensemble. The other section just did dynamite pieces for mezzo, soprano, and piano where the two singers needed to be in opposition to each other or in common purpose with each other, or both. I'm hoping they put these pieces and the string quartets they did last semester into a concert they organize themselves.
July 11, 2010. OK, OK, I've been sorely remiss here. It all seems like a blur since January. Great news: the DVD of the Golden Gate workshop is finally done and mostly out the door to many, many opera company decision-makers. It took a long time to edit and subtitle and author and do the graphics, but I couldn't be happier with the result, and it was totally worth the time it took. Kudos to John Henry Davis, an extraordinary TV director in addition to being an amazing opera stage director, to Kendrick Simmons, a master artist video editor, and to Susan Shaw and Kurt Hoss for fabulous graphics for the DVD package. And more good news: thanks to the artistry or Susan and Kurt, the Golden Gate website is now online.
Did I mention that we got these two amazing reviews for the January workshop? Check them out here.
I was blessed with an extraordinary group of students in my Juilliard courses spring. They totally outdid themselves, one group working with several different brass, wind, and string ensembles, the other completing a four-movement piano sonata during the semester.
A happy event last month: three other college classmates and I were drafted into a concert and panel for our Yale reunion, and they prevailed on me to write a new piece for the event. James Baker, head of the music department at Brown, Paul Green, principal clarinet at Florida Grand Opera, and I played it. Scored for piano four hands and clarinet, it's called Reunion for J and P. It came out really, really nice, and it seemed to be very moving for the audience. Our fourth classmate Tony Tommasini played Debussy Claire de Lune masterfully, and he and Paul played the first movement of the Brahms E-flat sonata like angels. We had the pleasure of honoring Joan Panetti, our formative teacher for all four of us when we were undergraduates. Most of us hadn't seen her in more decades than I want to count. It was wonderful to be back in touch, and none of us looks any older
The rest of the summer: rewrites (maybe the last pass) and orchestration for Golden Gate and a New England, Maine, and Montreal road trip with my partner Robert Katz, whose dual careers as psychologist and singer/songwriter are thriving. Check out another Susan Shaw and Kurt Hoss-designed website for BobKatzMusic.
January 18, 2010. WOW! I just got home from the video pickup session for "The Golden Gate." It's been some two weeks! There will be details here about it soon, I promise. I simply couldn't be happier about how it turned out. I feel like I have a grown up piece now. On to orchestrating!
Saturday January 16 and Sunday January 17, staged workshop of the complete "The Golden Gate" at the Rose Studio at Lincoln Center.
Wednesday January 6, The Avian Orchestra presents Fantastic Music for a Fabulous Time, including my "I Wish They All Could Be," a solo piano fantasia based on fragments of Beach Boys tunes, played by the incomparable Blair McMillen. Details here. This is also a release party for Avian's latest CD which includes "I Wish."
December 30, 2009. I'm so excited I can hardly sleep at night. This coming Monday, January 4, the whole cast converges on my micro-apartment at 10:00 a.m. for the first music rehearsal, all day, then half of Tuesday, then they move to the rehearsal studio and start staging. Something like seven tickets are left for both nights, all the rest sold already. I'm still looking at a scary deficit -- that is, my credit card is staring at it -- but it's less than seven weeks ago.
Blair McMillen's recording of my Beach Boys piece "I Wish They All Could Be," on Peter Flint's new Avian Orchestra disk, is probably the best performance of any piece of mine I've ever heard recorded. You'll be able to purchase it here.
I'll keep you posted as the rehearsal process moves along toward the 16th and 17th.
If you get "Sold Out" when you try to buy tickets, we'll do our best to accommodate people stand-by the nights of the event.
November 6 , 2009. Yikes, it's been since January. Sorry! The big news is the upcoming staged workshop of the complete Golden Gate in January 2010. Details will follow soon, but save the dates, January 16th and 17th, both at 8:00 p.m., in the Rose Studio, tenth floor of the Rose Buildling next to Juilliard at Lincoln Center.
Golden Gate catch-up: after a round of further revisions following the September 08 staging of the second act in Philadelphia, with Steven Osgood's always wonderful help we set up a working day with singers and Steve at the piano and conducting to work through and run both acts. Hearing the complete opera twice, once in the morning and again after lunch, I realized the two acts were not working together. The dramatic shape was a parabola when it needs to be an ascending ramp.
What to do? John Henry Davis to the rescue. John Henry has been at every outing of the GG, he's a distinguished director both of stage and TV, and I finally got to see his work in a miraculous staging of a new adaptation of Babes in Toyland with the Little Orchestra Society at Avery Fisher in December 08. John Henry joined our team, and along with amazing composer and up-and-coming producer Emma Lively, Steve and I now had a foursome that could conquer anything.
We met every three weeks starting in May 09, charting out the dramatic changes the opera needed, from back to front. The meetings were Tuesday mornings around the table in my apartment with strong coffee and muffins from Joe the Art of Coffee downstairs and lunch ordered from the deli next door. By the end of each meeting I had my writing assignment plus the next meeting as deadline. The four of us came up with some amazing solutions that I know I never would have found on my own. By mid-August I'd re-done every scene. The drama is taut and the music is that much better.
What's the next step? To see it in a staged workshop. With Steve's extensive connections and the strong loyalties singers feel for him – OK, and also maybe the attraction of the piece and the roles – we've put together a world-class cast. There will be a two-week rehearsal period, they'll be completely off-book and they'll have real rehearsal time with John Henry and Steve to fully enter their roles. And we'll do a three-camera video of the whole opera. That's the last ingredient we need to promote the piece to opera companies. After that: orchestration.
None of this comes cheap, even though the cast is being incredibly generous about their fees. American Opera Projects is providing valuable non-profit sponsorship, but all the fund-raising is up to Emma and me. We've raised about half of the budget so far, and I'm trying not to lose sleep over the fact that any deficit will come straight out of my credit cards. If you'd like to make a contribution, please email me for details!
And Another Past Event :
Happy New Year and all the best for a better 2009!
There's a fun show by Avian Music that includes one of my favorite pieces, "Positions 1956."
It's a thirty minute piece for two singers and ensemble with an inspired libretto by Michael Korie suggested by popular marriage manuals from the 1950s. There will also be love/lust/sex/jealousy-inspired pieces by Corey Dargel, Ray Lustig and Peter Flint, interspersed with performances by the world famous burlesque artist Miss Dirty Martini.
The show is Monday February 2nd at 7:00 p.m. sharp (note the early time) at the hippest place for new music in New York City, le Poisson Rouge, at 158 Bleecker Street in the old Village Gate space. I hope you can make it. It will be a superbly good time. You can also catch the show in Philadelphia on January 31 and Wilmington on January 29. Click here for details and tickets.
Another Past Event :
"The Golden Gate" staged workshop performance of act 2 by Center City Opera Theater, September 12, 13, and 14 at the Ethical Society, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Conductor and General Director Andrew Kurtz, stage direction Jonathan Loy, cast: Kirsten Chambers, Eve Gigliotti, Neil Darling, Jason Switzer, and Joshua Bouchard. Presented as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Even More Thoughts Along the Way:
October 1, 2008. OK, don't get mad, my site was locked down for a month and I couldn't get access to it until today (vagaries of Adobe Contribute software). I would have let you know about this fabulous show in Philadelphia last month, but I couldn't.
Here's an update since January: great after-glow from the January concert performance of act 1 of the Golden Gate by American Opera Projects. Many, many rewrites of the act 2 libretto during February, March, and April. It kept drifting toward prose, and I couldn't stand it. Then seeing two operas in quick succession (Ned Rorem's Our Town and Lee Hoiby's This is the Rill Speaking) convinced me that prose librettos and my music would never ever make a happy marriage. I threw away every libretto draft and started from scratch, honoring as much of Vikram Seth's rhyme and meter and stanza form as I could. May, June, and July were house arrest, nailed to the composing table writing the second act start to finish. OK, there were early morning bike-rides to the George Washington Bridge and back and weekends off with Robert, but still, pretty darn focussed.
The first week of August we had a one-day readthrough of the second act. Again, wonderful Steve Osgood and wonderful Golden Gate veteran singers Caroline Worra, Jessica Miller Rauch, Daniel Neer, and Joshua Bouchard, along with newcomer Jeff Gavett, brought the act to life in mere hours.
I can always count on Steve Osgood for the most perceptive and penetrating notes, and when he could spare an hour from intensive rehearsals for Xenakis's Oresteia at Miller Theater, he had major and valuable rewrite suggestions (over falafel at Amir's on Broadway and 114th St.).
And then the Center City Opera Theater opportunity came in basically over the transome, and barely a month after finishing the act and doing a full round of rewrites, I was seeing it onstage. Nothing short of a miracle what conductor and cast and director accomplished in barely one week of rehearsals. By the second performance they were largely off-book. Jonathan Loy's direction brought the story-telling complete clarity and gave the singers what they needed to make to me amazing emotional moments. Andrew Kurtz's directing was first-rate. The cast was first-rate. This was the first time the piece had been done by (except for Joshua) people who hadn't been with it from the beginning, and I was concerned about whether they would get it. They more than got it.
I had the privilege of appearing on the program with two one-act operas by Stefan Weisman and Jeff Myers to librettos by David Cote and Royce Vavrek. It was great to get to know their pieces so well over the weekend.
Now what? Major rewrite of both acts in time for a staged workshop of the complete opera in January or February. Stay tuned.
Another Past Event :
"The Golden Gate" concert performances Saturday January 19, 2008 at 6:00 p.m. (note the early time) at the Rose Studios, tenth floor of the Rose Building at Lincoln Center; and Sunday January 20 at 8:00 p.m. at South Oxford Space, next to BAM in Brooklyn. Come hear the complete first act (ca. 55 minutes) from "The Golden Gate," an opera in progress with music by Conrad Cummings and libretto from the novel in verse by Vikram Seth adapted by the composer. This performance is a production of American Opera Projects. Also on the program are excerpts of a new work based on the songs of a famous Soviet era dissident singer-songwriter. On Saturday you can stay for the second show, a concert performance of Steven Schwartz's new (and first) opera "Seance on a Saturday Afternoon." Tickets are $20 ($15 students & seniors). Call AOP at 718.398.4024 to reserve, which is highly recommended as both shows could sell out.
More Thoughts Along the Way:
January 21, 2008 – Wow! It feels like a year ago that I left for that last rehearsal. Ned Canty did miracles in 35 minutes of staging, giving the singers just enough of a structure to let their acting instincts fly. Chocolate chip cookies provided generously by Bunny's Bakery cut through lots of the last rehearsal tension we all felt. The space at Lincoln Center was gorgeous to look at and sounded great. Rehearsal done by 4:00, just two hours to pace around outside and get a coffee and try to meditate away my nerves before the 6:00 curtain. Total sell-out crowd, the room packed, and pretty much a who's who of New York opera and musical theater. An electric buzz in the room, not just me. The first piece, Unruly Horses, was passionate and funny in equal measure, and got a deservedly warm response. I moved to the back of the hall for Golden Gate so I could sort of watch how the audience stayed with it or not. The performance knocked my socks off. Yes, there are some fluctuations in focus, a couple of moments I need to figure out how to make sharper, but the 55 minutes flew by. The audience seemed to make an awful lot of noise at the end, and the response afterward, including from some of the movers and shakers, was way more than polite. After a dinner break we all went back in for Stephen Schwartz's Seance on a Wet Afternoon, which will be coming to an opera company near you very soon, I predict. Skillful, dramatically riveting, perfectly paced.
Sunday's show was that much more relaxed and nuanced from the wonderful cast. In ten degree weather outside we had a warm and very attuned audience, who kept asking these really fascinating questions during the post-performance talk-back. They kind of wouldn't let us go, like they all had more to say.
I think the act works great. The next three weeks I'll be meeting with my wonderful team of advisors, tuning up the act two libretto, then it's back to house arrest to finish act two by mid summer.
If you don't see too much of me here for the next couple of months, don't worry. I'm keeping busy! Thanks for being along for the ride.
January 19, 2008 – I'm just about to leave the house for the final rehearsal before tonight's showing. Monday's and Thursday's rehearsals were solid; Thursday I got to hear the first complete runthrough of the act. I'm still not sure whether the fourth (of five) scenes is tight and focused enough. The performance will be excellent, I'm just not sure the story is moving right yet. We'll have twenty minutes this afternoon to work out whatever staging there's going to be, mostly when people stand up and sit down. I'm nervous and excited, even though the only thing I have to be nervous about is whether I trip taking a bow at the end.
January 12, 2008 – First rehearsal last night, and to my surprise they wanted me to be there. It's great to see Grant Clarke and Joshua Bouchard, the John and Phil from the Manhattan School production last year; Caroline Worra, who did Liz the very first time any of the opera was performed, a year and a half ago; Daniel Neer who sang and acted with amazing presence for my composing opera class in the fall and who will be a dynamite Ed, and Jessica Miller who looks to have just the right ferocity and vocal nuance for Jan. I sat behind the singers so they couldn't give in to the temptation to look at the composer to see if he looks happy. Working on the first half of the act felt like coming back to an old friend with a fresh look; the second half felt brand-new. I've been worried about the shape of that second half, but the initial impression from last night is that it balances out fine. After the reading we did in September I knew I needed more moments for Jan in the second half, and I wasn't sure whether I'd been able to find enough of them. I think I may have succeeded there. Still, I'm being very Bhuddistic about it, deferring any thoughts of revisions until at least next Thursday after two more long rehearsals. As always, Steve Osgood feels like my mind-reader, giving notes and suggestions at the same moment they occur to me. Chairity Wicks is a poet of a pianist. And we're blessed with the presence of Kathryn LaBouff, the highly respected diction coach for Juilliard opera. There is an even better chance, thanks to Kathryn, that all the words are going to be heard without supertitles.
By the way, Caroline Worra was one of three singers in a remarkable evening of one-character operas by Lance Horne on Wednesday night at the Zipper Theater, with libretti by Mark Stephen Campbell. What a singer and actor she is, and the pieces were better than first-rate.
January 9, 2008 – Yikes! Where have I been since March 20 2007? Here's the short answer:
April and May – many meetings with opera and music theater professionals to help chart the production future of the Golden Gate. Big question was (still is) whether it's a better fit for an opera house or a theater. So many people who came to the Manhattan School showing in March felt the piece just had way more immediacy than an opera-house piece; some felt it could have the kind of beyond-opera-audience appeal that could support an Off-Broadway run. No clear answer, and anyway after a couple of months it was clear enough that the one thing I needed to do was finish the damn thing. At the same time, Juilliard students were outdoing themselves with their final two pieces for the year, a duet for tenor and bass singers with piano (they share a memory, they have a conflict, they resolve to put aside the conflict in favor of unity in pursuit of a common goal) and a duo for flute and guitar (a melody slowly emerges from running sixteenth notes with lots of metric options). For the fourth year in a row, class members organized and produced their own concert at Don't Tell Mama's in the theater district. They even had a little money left over after paying the instrumentalists and the fee for the space. Way to go!
June, July and August – house arrest to finish act one of Golden Gate. Long bike rides every morning up and down the Hudson River Park, followed by five or six hours at the composing desk. With Steven Osgood's help, I set up a private reading for the first week of September, which gave me an August 15 deadline to deliver the score to the singers. Made it barely. To celebrate, rode all the way across the George Washington Bridge and through the Palisades. Robert at singer-songwriter camp the week I was finishing; no fiddle and dance camp for me this summer, but a happy three weeks in July teaching music to the high-schoolers in Juilliard's Summer Dance Intensive.
September – Steve and singers did such a great job with the reading, which made really clear how much I had to shift around and revise the second half of the act. On the Juilliard front: in addition to the composition course I got to begin teaching a one-year Composing Opera course, which has been a delight. Seven class members, all on a very high level (more than a few composition MA's among them), and four solo pieces in dramatic forms: aria and cabaletta for soprano, passacaglia lament for mezzo, romantic aria for tenor, mad scene for baritone.
October and November – house arrest again to revise the second half of the first act. Delivered on time in December. Revisions are a lot harder for me than doing it the first time. I have to enter into the same mental space I wrote the thing in, get all the notes back into my head, and tackle whatever the problem was that certainly didn't have an obvious solution the first time or I wouldn't be revising.
January – first rehearsal is this Friday. As usual I'm pawing the ground I'm so anxious to hear how they're doing. I promise to report.
"The Golden Gate" semi-staged workshop performance, Sunday March 18, 2:30 p.m., Manhattan School of Music. Come hear and see the first two scenes (ca. 30 minutes) from "The Golden Gate," an opera in progress with music by Conrad Cummings and libretto from the novel in verse by Vikram Seth adapted by the composer. This semi-staged performance is a co-production of American Opera Projects, Opera Index, and the Manhattan School of Music Opera Program. Also on the program are two additional operas in progress from American Opera Projects and Encompass Music Theater. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door; call 212.721.9828 to reserve.
Thoughts Along the Way:
March 20, 2007 – Still floating from Sunday. The performance so exceeded anything I thought possible in the limited time we had. Did I say something a couple of weeks back about realizing that writing an opera is giving a gift to the cast and production team? Guess what – they give the gift back to you, with interest, at the performance. They gave me a piece so much more detailed, so much more emotionally nuanced, and so much more beautifully musically executed than I ever expected. Plenty of practical things learned: where the audience laughs (lots of places, but not necessarily where I thought they would); the actual dramatic topology of what I've written so far – where the high points are (end of scene 1), where the valleys are (not sag spots, but quiet times that allow for the windup to new high points, surprisingly including the end of scene 2); and where the audience catches every word and where they don't. This last is of particular interest. The composer Emma Lively was telling me today that it's the difference between an American opera and a piece of completely sung theater: if it's American opera, you assume there will be surtitles and you write as big and as high as you like; if it's completely sung theater then it really matters not to have surtitles and for every line to be heard, even for the soprano. I think we had between 70 and 80 percent intelligibility on Sunday; I need to go for at least 95. Opera America is doing a panel next week about composer and librettist in the rehearsal process. I have one conclusion to draw from this production: trust your collaborators and stay away until the very end. I'm sure I would have freaked out with some of the astoundingly inventive approaches Caren took if I'd seen them when she was first trying them out; seeing them fully realized it was incontrovertible that they were brilliant solutions. That's all for now; maybe some news of my Juilliard class later this week. Thanks for following the road to March 18th!
March 16, 2007, 6:45 p.m. – I'm speechless, sitting on the F train going to Robert's house. At noon I watched Caren work with six-year-old Jackie as Paul and bass Joshua Bouchard as Phil, Paul's dad. Caren's a mom of a five-year-old. She, conductor Steven Osgood (father of a three-year-old) and Joshua worked so beautifully with Jackie. I'd been totally ready for a grownup to do the role, but with Jackie the emotional stakes are so much higher, you feel her liveliness and vulnerability so acutely. Then lunch break and pizza for everyone, the first chance to get to know the cast a little. Then two complete runthroughs. Like I say, I'm speechless. I don't think a composer could dream for more. Grant Clarke as John – handsome, stiff, prickly, but so vulnerable underneath; Yoosun Park as Liz, radiantly beautiful, peaceful and self-assured; Joshua as Phil, as emotionally open as John is closed; Margaret Peterson's Jan – all passion and anger and John's perfect match in prickliness; and Jeff Nardone's Ed, all desire, affection, and confusion. Ray Calderon, Colette Boudreaux, Jorell Williams, and Shelly Wade – covers for Ed, Liz, John, and Jan – are as much part of the stage action as the principals. Charity Wicks on piano, always part of the action, lyrical one moment, rocking out on the nine-foot Steinway the next. I know I wrote the music and arranged Vikram Seth's words, but I'm so taken up in the experience of watching that I forget I'm anything but audience. I'm so not nervous. When we were all done I told the cast that whatever life the piece has after this, they created the roles for the first time on stage, and the roles will always belong first to them. Paul Rudnick once said about screen writing that you have to be careful what you put on the page. In Addams Family Values he wrote one sentence: they have dinner in an elegant, decaying French restaurant. When he arrived on the set, there was a couple of hundred thousand dollar's worth of very elegant, very decayed French restaurant, all because of one sentence he wrote in the screenplay. There's no couple of hundred thou here, but it's like that – the sheer complexity of the logistics, even in this no lights, no set staging: the beer bottles, the concert programs, the sweater and tie, the telephones, the blanket with the Last Supper on it. What a strange undertaking an opera production is. Lucky me! Tomorrow is a day off, then our one single crack at it on Sunday. Yeow!
March 12, 2007 – Break is over, everyone is back for staging rehearsals all week. I made it to MSM half an hour earlier than anticipated, stuck my head through a crack in the back door to Greenfield Hall, saw everybody on stage doing acting exercises, slipped invisibly out and had a coffee in the cafeteria until the time I was supposed to be there. Small tragedies for a composer: on my last opera, I did all the improvs along with the cast the first two days, then came that moment when the director said, "Conrad you can't continue, we're actually developing the staging now." Sidelined. So I'm wary of acting warm ups. Everyone was on break when I got back, warm greetings all around, and then the first complete sing-through off book and the first hearing of the lead baritone. All amazingly strong. They're sounding less and less like opera singers, more and more like singing actors with a story to tell and characters to be and language and music to have fun with. I had a short page of notes for Steve, then they started actual staging. I lurked at the back of the house, coat and hat and backpack on, unable to leave. Darn, they are really staging this baby! There's Golden Gate Park, there's the Chinese restaurant in the Mission, there's the red Frisbee, there's the beer and the rice! Then I started to feel really uncomfortable and figured it was time to leave. In fact, I felt like my clothes were being taken off and new ones put on me. That's because, try as I do not to, I'm always imagining a staging as I compose the stuff. Caren's staging is fantastic, vastly better than anything I could have thought up, but it's DIFFERENT, it's clashing with what I'm used to imagining. Talk about feeling naked. Time to leave. I don't want to see the process, I'll wait to see the result. Letting go, letting go, letting go.
March 2 , 2007 – The final music-only rehearsal today, then the singers take a one-week break, and staging starts a week from Monday. We worked for two hours with everyone except the baritone who was stranded by the subway flood. Did an almost-complete run through at the end. It's really, really hard to accept how unnecessary I am right now. It just never occurred to me before that writing an opera is making a gift, giving the entire team that's going to stage it, from principal singer to conductor to stage hand, an opportunity to do the thing they love best in a new environment with fresh challenges. The couple of times I opened my mouth either didn't help or were matters Steve was about to work on right then anyway. Frankly, it's hard to believe anyone will be applauding me when the performance is over because I feel so invisible now. But. . . not entirely invisible: who else is going to do the last-minute rewrite or the extra twenty seconds of transitional music or the new and better approach to the high note than me?
Talk about an opera as a gift: Juilliard Opera Workshop's production of The Mother of Us All tonight. All undergraduates, a masterful staging by Ed Berkeley, and complete honesty and commitment from every singer. I wasn't the only one laughing with delight and then getting all choked up. Reed Woodhouse summed it up: "The opera is about America being challenged to live up to what it says it is. That's what makes it alive in any decade it's produced." The right to vote, the right to marry. Current as you could wish.
March 1 , 2007 – First musical rehearsal of "The Golden Gate"! Actually, first one they let me come to, which is fine because singers need to get comfortable with just singing the stuff and a composer sitting in the corner never ever made a singer feel comfortable. But there are holes in my floor from where I've been pawing it the last four weeks, waiting. Today was with the bass and tenor, singers Joshua and Jeff, characters Phil and Ed, including their boy-boy love scene. It's spooky how well Steve Osgood reads my mind, and it's that much clearer why I don't have to be there all the time. He gets the music, the style, the intent, and he's so technically and psychologically attuned to the singers that they get it too in short order. What a luxury for me! I think the chemistry between the two guys will be fine – they seem to be forgetting who they are and getting very much into who they need to be. Mastering the dramatic specificity of the music seems to be the route to becoming the characters. Weird to think that so much of the character and interpretation is set by the end of the musical rehearsals, before anything happens with staging. Actors would never ever work this way.
February 28, 2007 – Actually seeing Eugene Onegin onstage might be a good idea considering that "The Golden Gate" is closely related to it and even shares some musical material. What a production at the MET (standing room for Act I, fabulous orchestra stubs pressed into our hands at intermission). Onegin is such a dark hole of a character. There's no sense that he has a life ahead of him at the end. Moving without pause from the duel to the ball as this production does is blood-chilling.
February 27, 2007 – These Tuesday nights are getting out of hand: tonight thanks to V. and E.'s amazing generosity and connections, we got to see "A Chorus Line." Sure, saw it twenty-five years ago, but it's still so good. The famous songs that have been endlessly sentimentalized are anything but in their original setting – tough, clear, and honest. It's remarkable how fast you forget which eight get chosen and which don't, because they're all stars in the finale, which is how life ought to be.
February 26, 2007 – Blair McMillen (piano) and Yonah Zur (violin) played the HARMONIC GROUNDSWELL pieces (see below) like a single angel. Little whiffs of my figured bass at the start of some of the pieces but completely original dramatic impulses and some absolutely shocking continuations. Now it's on to CONCERTO GROSSO BIZARRO for trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bassoon, violin, and cello – bizarro just because the combination of the six is so outlandish and because there have to be soli passages with combinations like trombone and violin or bassoon and trumpet.
February 24, 2007 – Olga Neuwirth's opera "Lost Highway" at McMillen Theater, the exact opposite of "Company": everything about the subject – the David Lynch movie – is blurry and uncertain, and you never know exactly whether you're hearing direct sound from the orchestra, real-time processing of it, or pre-recorded material. The uncertainty works perfectly in context, and the show, by my honorary alma mater Oberlin Conservatory, put many a New York experimental opera production to shame. Sound design by Tom Lopez was nothing short of magical, same for direction by Jonothan Field.
February 20, 2007 – Another amazing Tuesday night, this time "Company" on Broadway. As life-changing as "Sweeney Todd" was. Having the actor/singers also be the orchestra has such a powerful effect. They're not in a world you're observing from the outside; they're presenting their world very directly to you. And there's never any doubt about whether you're hearing a real instrument or a sample.
February 15, 2007 – HARMONIC GROUNDSWELL part 2: everyone in my Juilliard class chafed at the idea of taking a figured bass part I'd written for them and making it into a short piece for violin and piano. But darn if each of them didn't come up with a completely individual, radically different from each other piece. It's like they squeezed the same fruit and each one got a different juice out of it. If you looked closely you could see that they shared a common kind of background trajectory. That's the secret of harmony I guess, it's the emotional skeleton behind the music.
February 13, 2007 – The incomparable Judy Collins opened tonight at the Cafe Carlyle, voice as pure and flexible as ever, performance a model of honesty and penetration. Russell Walden at the piano played like a poet. Everyone in the audience looked famous. Robert, my partner, was in heaven. Major thanks to Julia Cameron and Emma Lively for encouraging us to take the plunge and join them.
February 8, 2007 – HARMONIC GROUNDSWELL: not a new big orchestra piece, but what happened in my Juilliard evening division composition class last week. Everyone wants to learn harmony over again, now that they're actually using it for something.
February 4, 2007 – looks like we have the right tenor and bass, and it's going to be a splendid cast. It was exciting to hear Steve sing through both scenes, conducting Charity at the same time while Caren and I listened. Everyone seemed pretty excited when it was over. Now I have to sit tight while the cast learns the music. I won't get to hear any of it before the week of February 26. It's hard to wait.
February 1, 2007 – heading up to Manhattan School of Music this afternoon to meet with American Opera Projects Artistic Director Steven Osgood, MSM stage director Caren France, and Charity the pianist/coach to go over the score for scenes 1 and 2 of my new opera, The Golden Gate, based on Vikram Seth's novel in verse. AOP and MSM are co-producing a semi-staged workshop performance of the two scenes on March 18 at 2:30 p.m. at MSM. Three out of five roles are cast, wonderfully; we're still looking for the right tenor and bass. All singers are currently in MSM's masters program in opera or are recent grads. This is great since the characters in the opera are all in their mid twenties and the singers will be too.