Opera Blog, part 1

I am in Middlebury, Vermont, with my chamber group, the Meridian Arts Ensemble. We are creating a new opera, and I will be blogging daily, charting the progress of this gigantic undertaking.

Since we haven’t started yet, here is the background. We are a sextet made up of five brass players (a traditional brass quintet) plus a percussionist. We have been in existence since 1987. I have been in the group since 1989, and the newest member has been in the group just over a year.

Back in the mid 90s, we commissioned a piece from composer Su Lian Tan, whom some of our members had known since their conservatory days together at Juilliard. Su wrote us a piece called Moo Shu Wrap Rap after we asked her for some Chinese hip-hop. Su is from Singapore, and is Chinese by heritage. Moo Shu is a fantastic piece, fun to listen to, bizarre in a good way, and accessible to even the most general public. We have performed it at least 200 times, and recorded it.

Since getting Moo Shu, we have been talking with Su about writing us an opera. The idea was for a one-act, compact work. It had to have a small cast and be completely transportable – in other words, we wanted something we could take on tour without tearing our hair out. We had no ideas about plot lines; we wanted to leave that up to Su and anyone she brought into the creative team.

Su is on the faculty at Middlebury College. She has plenty to do, and lots of commissioned pieces to write. Nonetheless, she slowly began to develop a story line. She brought in Anne Babson, a feminist poet, to write a libretto. The plot would be non-linear, and would be loosely based on Su’s situation in life: a Chinese woman growing up in Singapore, transplanted to America to study classical music composition, a field traditionally dominated by men. The story would be about overcoming stereotypes, finding one’s place in the world, and, to put a grand theme on it, changing the world for the better through art.

Su loved the idea of having the band consist of the six of us Meridian guys – we would be supplying the musical juice for the feminist story unfolding in the libretto.

The project moved forward at a slow but steady pace. The libretto went through a few drafts. The cast settled: two female roles, one huge, one supporting. Su started composing. The percussionist would be playing mostly Chinese percussion instruments, but also drum set and vibraphone. We started thinking about transportability for the production, and decided to use video for the “set” – it is much easier to carry around video equipment than furniture. Su brought her former student Tim Bartlett, now a prize-winning videographer, into the picture.

Tim’s presence gave rise to all kinds of new ideas. We could have scenes that were prerecorded on video. Su had set the entire libretto to music, but decided to include a tango that would be presented on video. There was more composing to do. Meanwhile, there was much back and forth with Tim, as we started to coordinate all aspects of the production.

Last year, we gave a concert performance of the opera at Manhattan School of Music. This performance didn’t include the tango, but everything else was there. No video, though, and no acting. It was a workshop performance. All through it, as I was playing, I was thinking that I couldn’t believe we were actually playing our opera.

A few months later, in a rehearsal, we recorded the tango music and sent it off to the videographer. We will find out today what it has turned into.

In five minutes, we will begin our first rehearsal. I am sitting in the hall, computer on lap, as people trickle into the hall. I will be blogging every day – today is Tuesday, and the premiere, fully staged, is Friday. Please check in daily to find out what has transpired.

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