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Posted at 08:06 AM ET, 03/24/2011

Opera residency: music to composers’ ears

[Correction: in the original post the name of David B. Devan, General Director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, was misspelled.]

For a composer, there are not many opportunities to earn $60,000 a year, plus benefits, for writing music. The Opera Company of Philadelphia, in partnership with the Gotham Chamber Opera and the Music-Theater Group, is creating just such an opportunity.

Today, the OCP is announcing the creation of an unprecedented new composer-in-residence program, a three-year post involving the collaboration of all three organizations. Requirements? Write music, preferably operatic music. Be willing to work with all three organizations, on all levels, for three years. Be willing to participate in outreach programs. Be willing to spend four to six weeks a year, twice a year, in Philadelphia and New York. Did I mention that transportation and housing will be paid for?

The wording of the initial announcement suggests that the program was created with a younger composer in mind. “The program,” says David B. Devan, OCP’s newly-appointed general director, “really is about providing opportunities for a composer to develop enough skills or experiences to help [him] make opera be a primary part of [his] musical language.” Part of the point, he adds, is to go back to a 19th-century model of composers who were true men (or, in this century, women) of the theater. “It’s not just about their work,” Devan says, “but about them understanding our work.”

Devan emphasizes that this is not a commissioning program. “It’s an R&D program,” he says. “We are not anticipating a work that we would put on our stage. We are anticipating ideas that we would want to commission.” Still, if a composer were to write some songs, or a few opera scenes, there will be opportunities for workshops.

Training or no, applications are not restricted to the young; in fact, the program is not open to anyone who is currently enrolled in a degree-granting program, and the announcement specifies that mid-career composers are also welcome. Given the generous terms (made possible by a $1.4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation), it’s quite possible that experienced composers will be interested. The deadline for applications for the first round is April 22; the winner will be announced in August. Another winner will be selected next year, so that two residencies will overlap. The Mellon funding envisions a five-year project.

This announcement certainly spotlights the transformation of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, which was long known for its well-meaning conservatism. Now, the CIR program is one of three initiatives focused on promoting the new and less traditional. Another is the company’s chamber opera series, which in 2012 will present the Philadelphia premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” commissioned by the same triumvirate involved in the CIR program. (The opera will have its world premiere through [ corrected] the Gotham Chamber Opera and the Music-Theater Group in New York in November.) The company will host a chamber opera conference during which people in the field will discuss ways to promote the genre.

Another is an American repertory program. The OCP already has a decent track record of presenting American work (Danielpour’s “Margaret Garner,” DiChiera’s “Cyrano”); now, it’s committing to produce one American opera every season for a decade, starting with “Dark Sisters” in 2012.

“Our approach is that being stuck in a 19th-century model of what opera is -- a 3000-seat venue in America, or a 2000-seat one in Europe, as being the only important place where opera happens -- is a ridiculous notion in the 21st century,” Devan said. “Having partners who are outside of that model” -- smaller, non-traditional companies like Gotham and the Music-Theater Group -- is an important indicator that there are lots of opportunities for a composer. It’s not the Holy Grail to write a 3-hour, $225 million, orchestrated-for-128-player opus.”

The residency is also, he says, “a really important way to make it really clear what the future looks like at the Opera Company of Philadelphia.”

By  |  08:06 AM ET, 03/24/2011

 
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