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Making an Opera (From Scratch)

Posted on: January 14, 2020

Two parts direction, equal parts score and libretto, a dash of design, and a whole lot of signing. Throw that all together, pop it on the stage, and in about two and a half hours, you’ll have yourself an operatic world premiere.

Okay, so maybe (err… definitely) making an opera is not that simple. But with three MacArthur Geniuses and an incredibly talented cast and crew, the process can be as fun and exciting as trying out a new recipe (just on a much, much larger scale).

We spoke to librettist Sarah Ruhl, director Mary Zimmerman, composer Matthew Aucoin, and leading lady Danielle de Niese about what’s it was like collaborating with each other to make an opera from scratch.


Photo credit: Richard Termine, 2019

How did this all start?

[Matthew Aucoin]: So, I read the play, and I wept, and I wrote to [Sarah] and we got together and sort of that was that. I'd already had the idea of doing something with the Orpheus story because I also am a little bit obsessed with it, but I think over the course of our early conversations, I became a little bit depressed about the idea of approaching it again from the perspective of tortured male narcissism alone, and quickly evolved from saying ‘How about we work together to adapt the Orpheus story,’ to actually let's just adapt the play. I learned very quickly that every time I tried to deviate from the play, the play has this kind of internal force field that sucked me back in. And so, we ultimately didn't change very much at all.

[Mary Zimmerman]: It’s almost as if this project and I have been marching towards each other for quite a while. Sarah had actually written to me years ago and was familiar with my work. There are these little connections in the past, with Sarah and I, and now Matt, joining hands to then step forward on another iteration of the story. There’s my Ancient Echo of Avid in the past, and there’s Sarah’s script that puts such genius twists on that story, and then Matt’s contribution carrying us even further. So in a way, we’re all related.

And can you talk about the process of collaboration and bringing the work together?

[Matthew Aucoin]: I think it was unusually smooth. I think that's safe to say. We're not at each other's throats. We did not refuse to meet in person… It tended to be, once we got over the initial decisions, it was largely that I would go away and work for three weeks and get stuck on something and call Sarah. She would have an elegant solution immediately at hand, and then I would go back and call her again three weeks later.

[Sarah Ruhl]: I love working with them. Matt has been such a joy. The collaboration has been kind of liquid and seamless. And it's true that Matt would call me from a field in Vermont with the wind blowing and have a question about the scene. And then I would explain the scene, and then he would run away and write something brilliant and send me a photograph of the pencil line and the staff, and that would make my day because it was such an excitement to see the pencil line of a great melody. And Mary has really been a hero of mine since childhood, because I grew up in Chicago going to the theatre and have seen everything she’s done from a young age.


Photo credit: Richard Termine, 2019

And what’s it like tacking this piece with no reference?

[Mary Zimmerman]: The largest challenge in this project is that I do not have a recording of the orchestration. All of our work as designers and singers has been based on a piano score. And we will not hear an orchestra before a week or ten days before the audience hears the production. That will be a startling and trippy experience. On the one hand, suddenly [the work is] going to be in three dimensions. It will go from black and white to technicolor. I know there will be little accents and moments of instrumentation that I haven’t heard or considered. I always say to Matt that he has heard [the orchestration] already because he can hear it in his head. I can’t look at the score and make the recording of that in my head. So that is very unique.

[Danielle de Niese]: It can seem daunting when you think about creating a piece from scratch. But for me, there’s nothing greater than a blank slate in a way. You really have the creative floor. Working with this incredibly creative team, and Matt who is with us in the room every day, it’s a hive of creativity. Even though, yes, it must seem like you’re creating something out of nothing. But we artists, we love doing that. That’s what I adore about this profession. Bringing one’s personal creativity and original finger print to a production. One already does that in a classic opera. To do it in a modern opera is to put and original fingerprint on top of an original fingerprint, on and to put my original fingerprint on top of that is explosive.


Photo credit: Richard Termine, 2019

What do audiences have to look forward to?

[Matthew Aucoin]: I hope that my music offers people real moments of catharsis and recognition and ecstasy. I think one of the few things music can do is to bring us to this alternate world. And just the fact that this is possible is inspiring to me. We don’t know what it means, and we’ll never know what it means. But we know that its possible. And I hope that’s what my music can do for others.

[Danielle de Niese]: I think this will be an incredibly theatrical piece. I think it will be very visceral for the public. I think they’ll feel like they were part of the whole experience. And I think they’ll walk away with a few different new perspectives and a few questions too, and I hope that they do leave with some things unanswered.

[Sarah Ruhl]: I’m just excited for them to experience the breadth of Matt’s music wedded to Mary’s beautiful staging. This cast is extraordinary. They’re like Gods and Goddesses that walk the Earth. I mean, to see Dani, who is obviously an incredible singer, and is also such an emotive actress, bring this role to life is just an absolute joy.

Want to know more? Check out this podcast with Matt, Sarah, and Danielle where they “deconstruct an opera.”