Before and After the World Premiere

By Paul Hopper, HGO Dramaturg

Have you ever heard of Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne? Even the greatest composers have written works that do not succeed. That is one reason why opera companies and funders have taken an increasing interest in holding opera workshops during the creative process. The hope is that if you invest in a better process before a piece premieres, it will lead to more co-productions and a greater chance of life for the opera afterwards.

Last month at HGO we had two workshops while also performing It’s a Wonderful Life and preparing for Nixon in China in January. It wasn’t exactly a festival, but it felt like one! One of the workshops was for a new work we will produce next season; the other was for Some Light Emerges, which premieres in March. As HGO’s dramaturg, I love to participate in these workshops because it’s like being a midwife. Sometimes I am more involved; other times I stay out of the way, but it’s always about helping the creative team give birth.

Each workshop brings the creative team together with singers and our music staff to work through the first draft of the opera, identify and make necessary changes, and plan the next stages of the work’s development. Before the workshop, our artistic and music director, Patrick Summers, reviews the score and libretto and approves their distribution to the artistic staff. We provide comments, which may be relayed back to the composer and librettist before the score is distributed to the singers.

To prepare for the workshop, the music staff have to learn the new pieces and build in the prep time to coach singers on challenging scores that they may not actually perform, because the final cast could be different. But it is exciting to work with living composers and librettists, who often spend all night making changes during the workshop process. It takes smart musicians to work with music they are seeing for first time that morning.

During the workshop, I pay attention to the storytelling, the characters, the singability of the parts. I might ask the team to explain why they made a certain word choice, which gets them thinking, and I might suggest a change that allows the singer to take a breath. I trained as a singer, and for one of these workshops I was actually drafted at the last moment to sing the tenor role in the chorus.

At the end of the week there is usually a brief presentation of excerpts for a small invited audience of donors and staff. It’s a moment of anticipation and reward for people who have an investment in the creative process.

Recently we learned that Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players, which we premiered last season, will be produced in New York in February and in Milwaukee next season. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life is already scheduled for performances in Indiana and San Francisco in future seasons. As exciting as a world premiere can be, it’s those later productions that remind us that we are truly advancing the art form we all love.