Site Search

New Members

Other Resources
News Archive

Search Forums:
  chamber opera  Team Gaughan at 11:42 on 25 May 2008

Recently someone asked me for a chamber opera, and after asking what seems like a million people for librettos I opted for my first idea which was to do a version of Medea.

I would be interested in peoples thoughts on chamber operas, if they have tackled anything so large, and Medea herself, I have been toying with both soprano and mezzo. Any thoughts or suggestions are more than welcome.

  Re: chamber opera  Nicolas Tzortzis at 01:16 on 26 May 2008

I think a chamber opera is a very interesting project,but why go for something that has been done so many times?
why not try to find someone to write an original libretto for you?on an original story/concept.
My suggestion would be to do just that.You must know someone whose writing you enjoy and who would be able to work with you as the piece advances,based also on your needs,on your aesthetics etc.

  Re: chamber opera  Team Gaughan at 10:14 on 26 May 2008

Indeed you are right.
I have asked 4 or 5 writers I know, and as yet they have not come up with a thing, in many ways it's frustration that has made me turn to Medea. I would love something original.
Now I am considering writing Medea as I have quite a lot of definate ideas and perhaps waiting too and see what appears from my writer friends and writing a second chamber piece.

  Re: chamber opera  scott_good at 13:09 on 26 May 2008

Dear Team Gaughan,

I actually think doing the Medea is a great idea because it has been done so many times before - the test of greatness. For a first project, this makes sense to me. Once you have this project completed and performed, you will have material to show to librettists to have as an example of your work. Also, when you want to show future producers who might be interested in a commission, you will have an example of your work that wont shall I put any compromise due to a potentially weak libretto. Writing a libretto is a very special skill, and few have significant training in it, and the ones who do charge a fortune.

About 6 years ago I did a setting of "The Bacchae" (the most gruesome and bloody - heh heh), and it was very rewarding. I would like to give a few pieces of advice based on my experience.

1. Libretto: The text must be severely reduced, and many of the minor parts can easily be cut. Stick to the bare bones of the story, not the side plots. Spend the time focusing on developing the main characters. Nothing is more annoying than an opera with too many words - let the music fill i the spaces. Work with the director on this (oh ya, research translations, as there are many and they are all very different).

2. Actors?: Consider speaking roles. This can highlight the qualities of certain characters. (my setting was almost entirely performed by non-singers, with only 1 singing role + chorus - however, it wasn't a play as music continued throughout the entire performance).

3. Form: Map everything out ahead of time in terms of dramatic and theatrical devices, depending on what elements are important to your own methods of composition. Harmony, orchestration, tesitura, motives, density etc etc. Things may (and should) change during the course of the composing, but with such a large project, it is all the more important to have a focus. When composing the first bar, you should have an idea of what the last bar will be etc.

4. voice types: for me, composing for singers is so personal. Perhaps you should think more about what singer, in terms of their personality and dramatic flair, is best suited to the parts, rather than the range they sing in. Any voice type has the potential to emote the full range of emotion - in essence, compose for people, not types.

5. rhythm: I would strongly encourage using non metric devices. some elements of improvisation allows for the performers to react to the moment. This is more key in dramatic settings, as the actor/singer will feel the vibe of the audience acutely, and will want to milk the drama. Also, some of the dialogs in the Greek plays can be very intense and playful if the players can just "go". Try not to let the music get in the way, but help propel the drama.

Hope something in this helps. Feel free to ask any questions if you might have any. Good luck with the project.

Go Team go!


  Re: chamber opera  Misuc at 23:34 on 29 May 2008

That's great! Actually being asked to write a chamber opera! Phew! I've got at least three I'd like to write, and have started but the sheer unreality of getting them performed frightened me off every time.

When I went to Darmstadt one year, next to all the Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage figures was one composer whose down-to-earth practical seminars I much appreciated: Boris Blacher. He said: "Opera?" "In England?" "I don't think so. Now in Germany there's a theatre/opera house in every town of any size, each of which is subsidised more than the entire Arts Council in Britain...and opera is part of people's culture. But in Britain?".

"Who needs it?""What would it be for?"

If you do write a chamber opera you have to be clear about this. English as sung in fourth wall opera is usually embarrassing, particularly without the lush blanketting of a big orchestra. It is bound to be artificial. There has to be a very good reason why that singer is wobbling upper-class vowel-gurgles at you to a story which usually has less content in it than an average episode of East Enders before an averagely sensitive or intelligent listener will be able to stand more than a few seconds. This does not mean "just give up". On the contrary. It means "be inspired" The Medea was a wonderfully shocking and unsettling drama in its day (2500 years ago) recalling the .relatively recent overthrow of women's rights and the terrible means of revenge that were -according to Euripides, the only counterweapon in women's hands (the black side of the Aristophanes Utopias where women take over the State). this is the sort of theme that cannot be undertaken lightly. A women killing her own children! Chekhov had one piece of good advice for writers:"Don't guess!" Don't go for effects. It won't work anyway in an intimate opera which is not staged under studio acoustic conditions. Go for reality. But also be very knowing in your choice of 'style' and musical 'gesture'. Literal reality ot 'suspension of disbelief' is actually all-but impossible. So genuinely scary or shock effects (e.g. with electronics...) can be judiciously hinted at within styles that consciously echo classical (Gluck? Monteverdi? Berlioz? or Cherubini, of course? Also do you know the wonderful Benda 'Melodrama': "Medea"?) I'm not saying you have to know all these works before you start, but I do think that how you stylise the singing/action is crucial.

There are traditions where it can sound natural and not out-of-place for someone to be singing at you in English: Purcell, for example. He is setting rhetorical words that demand to be recited, intoned or sung to many people. Only very occasionally does it work in modern English. To my mind, Stravinsky did it best, because of his canniness. He knew how to put the right distance between himself and the notes. Of course your model might be something quite different. my imagination is very limited.

  Re: chamber opera  michaelw at 05:48 on 30 May 2008

I am currently writing my second chamber opera, my first opera which has been performed extensively throughout New Zealand I had the libretto written by a university professor (Literature) he is also a well respected poet.

The librettist for the second opera is a university colleague Lecturer in the Drama department (he is also a director)

hope this helps
Michael Williams

  Re: chamber opera  Team Gaughan at 13:33 on 30 May 2008

Guys thank you.

Interesting comments indeed. I would like to tackle Medea, I am writing smaller pieces for perfromers, piano pieces, songs with voice and piano, and Medea would be a wonderful challenge. I certainly take on board everything you said, esp about opera full stop, voice types, (I have considered Jason as a Counter- Tener for example) and in English, as much as I love Birtwistle, Tippett, Britten and Purcell, I am also aware of how dreadful it can be. I also listened to and studied Pli Selon Pli recently, and the way Boulez tackles texts (if you dont know it, you should listen).

Interested in any other further comments.

  Re: chamber opera  Misuc at 15:56 on 30 May 2008

'Pli selon Pli'? Of course I know it. It's not English of course - [and hardly French!] But, yes, of course! Why didn't I think of that? That is really the way to do it! Avoid the prosaic. Let the instruments capture the voice and give it wings......

  Re: chamber opera  scott_good at 19:38 on 30 May 2008

Pli selon Pli eh? boulez is a clever man - perhaps too clever...

I think if you did this kind of setting for a chamber opera in England, "they'd" not look upon you favorably. maybe i'm wrong.

But then, using this kind of treatment as an aspect of the work could be very effective. Might I suggest a reading:

"The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" by Michael Ondaatje

This is such an exceptional treatment of multiple forms in a story...

wait! don't read it...that's going to be my opera, and you will want to do it right away - it reeks of modern chamber opera ;-)

but seriously, i'd be very wary steeping into the waters of text abstraction in an opera - concert work, no problem, as there are different expectations - that is all about the music. in opera, the audience wants a story. you should contextualize the abstraction, and not have it exist for it's own musical sake. it should serve the form and the plot.


btw, my favorite place to draw inspiration from the boulez work is the form and orchestration.

  Re: chamber opera  Misuc at 23:12 on 30 May 2008

Of course serve the form and the plot. definitely. But I think Medea is both so elemental and universal and yet so irrelevant in the everyday detail and allusions that an abstracted expressionistic summoning up the passions - a modern-day 'representation of the affects' is the only way to treat the major part of the text [Think: 'Bluebeard's Castle']: to achieve catharsis and not ridicule.

But aren't you flattered, Team, that everybody's rushing in to write your opera for you? You must have hit on something good.

Actually you seem to be quite able to come up with your own ideas (though I haven't had the chance to hear any of your music. Do you feel like putting some on line?)

  Re: chamber opera  scott_good at 00:05 on 31 May 2008

I like this thread because it is about composer issues.

BTW, has anybody read "The Collected works of Billy the Kid"? seriously interesting read. old story heated up with amazing prose, original poems, letters, abstract meanderings. i love how it demystifies much the romantisism of the cowboy - lonely, dirty, rotting teeth, pain, fear etc..

but ya - bluebeards castle - amazing work.


  Re: chamber opera  Team Gaughan at 19:07 on 31 May 2008

Yes I am flattered, I wont need to write a note at this rate. Pli Selon Pli is certainly a fasinating vocal thought but I also heard Ades recent opera The Tempest and without starting another thread was not that impressed, was almost obvious if you know his music. Of course Boulez said burn down all the opera houses and then conducted The Ring Cycle.

An opera appeals fpr so many reasons, the Alban Berg-esque planning of Acts, part song or number opera which Peter Grimes is. Then English itself? And the subject and the voice, a big voice a small 'early music' voice. The Modern operas that stay with me are those by Birtwistle with the re-telling and systems and almost a new genre in its own right.

  Re: chamber opera  Misuc at 13:21 on 01 June 2008

FORMAL DECLARATION: Fellow contributors to this thread will be pleased to learn that I have made a very important decision. After much consideration and in the higher interests of the development of the art of music i have decided not to attempt to write Team's opera for him.

But (and this is the end of the supercilious remarks) I want to say that this site is performing an invaluable role. I have found great encouragement from it. It can allow us to release and transcend attitude problems and the like. And I agree with Scott that this is the sort of discussion we should be having more of.

This particular thread has encouraged me to look back over one of the opera projects I have been excited about for many years, and to want to summon up the patience and concentration to actually do it now. i might have managed to do this before, but could not imagine that there could be any reasonable prospect of performance. And without the chance of the idea becoming reality everything (which becomes nothing) is possible!

I am quite keen to talk about the idea and how I wish to realise it, but, before that, I would seriously like to ask Team or Scott or anyone else how one can get to a situation where one is actually asked to write an opera or at least told that a submission might be given serious consideration: this would be the moment of 'wave function collapse' when one or many worlds could achieve reality. To speak less fancifully, it would set necessary limits to work with and against.