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From the 2001 Season of Longwood Opera

Composing an Opera for
Longwood Opera Company

by Jeffrey Brody, composer of The Measure of Love

 

While composing an opera is a first for me, the setting of text to music is a familiar creative process as a high percentage of my work consists of musical setting in one language or another, usually German or English. This work is my third collaboration with librettist Richard Sizensky. Our other efforts include "Beowulf", a Musical Legend for soloists, chorus and orchestra and a work for chorus, organ and harp, "O fairest love divine".

When Longwood Opera commissioned us to write an opera there were no preconditions. Whatever limitations we imposed on our creative effort are based on our knowledge of Longwood Opera performance practices. These restrictions created a work of practicality.

Composing an opera means the setting to music of an existing text, a fact that many audiences don't appreciate. Many think the music is written first and then the words are added. While this may be true with popular music it is not so with operatic composition. While there are some arias in which the tune was composed before the text, this is the exception and not the rule. Before I could write any music I had to wait for Mr. Sizensky to finish the libretto. Our collaboration in Beowulf was an ongoing partnership in that he would write his textual adaptation of the narrative in sections and then I would compose and orchestrate a section while he wrote the next. With "The Measure of Love" he had to create an original story suitable for operatic treatment. Once the outline of the story was completed, the transformation of the synopsis into the libretto took a year. During this time I had knowledge of the story and discussed the work from a composer's viewpoint. Musical ideas were germinating even without the text as the Overture was composed before I received the text. Once I had the text, I worked virtually every day for six months straight. Some days a lot of time was spent and other days not too much time was available. The first draft was begun on July 1, 2000 and completed on December 31.

As composer I had certain ideas in mind from the outset. The work had to be performed without break and there had to be ensembles and arias for all. One challenge was how to write an ending to an aria that would seamlessly flow on to the next material instead of coming to a complete stop. Above all, I wanted to write something that would be practical and fairly easy to mount.

While it is impossible to say from where musical ideas come, the fundamental technique of composition is easily described. The creative process for me is one of constant chipping away at an idea, gradually adding more and more detail until the final version is achieved. Even then, it is only a first draft. Because the accompaniment is nonstop from beginning to end, it was usually the first element in the musical texture. Only in a few places did I write the vocal setting first. The next step was to decide the exact rhythmical structure of the sung text. Then pitches were then added to the voice parts. The piano accompaniment was finalized bearing in mind that it is a substitute for an orchestra and had to be playable by pianists other than Rachmaninoff.

The copying of this first draft took a month. There followed several weeks of revision and proofreading before the score was distributed to all, for the cast to begin learning.

The question of what is it like to write an opera is really three questions wrapped in one: How does one compose an opera, what is the experience of rehearsing it and finally, what is it like to perform what one has written. Having discussed the first question it is easy to answer the second question. Rehearsing an original work is merely a confirmation and extension of the creative process. When one brings to life what is black and white on the printed page. Changes and improvements, big and small, are all possible. These changes are made with the feedback of the performers as well as further self-criticism. Assisting singers in learning and performing other composer's music is what I normally do, so it's a true delight to not only prepare, but also to perform one's own composition for a change!

The addition of staging, lighting and costumes is but the final step in the process of creating a new opera, the first step being the request to write something new just for Longwood Opera. From the initial idea of commissioning a new work back in 1999 to the opening night of June 2, 2001, this has been a wonderfully productive and enjoyable artistic period for all involved. We can only hope that future performances by other companies, universities and conservatories will follow these world premiere performances by Needham's very own Longwood Opera.

The Measure of Love was performed on a double bill with Mozart's The Impresario on June 2, 3, 9 and 10, 2001.

June 2 at 8 pm
June 3 at 2:30 pm
Christ Episcopal Church
 1132 Highland Avenue, Needham, MA

June 9 at 8 pm
June 10 at 2:30 pm
First Baptist Church of Cambridge
5 Magazine Street, Cambridge, MA

Longwood Opera
42 Hawthorn Avenue
Needham, Massachusetts 02492-3806

For more information call (781) 455-0960 or send e-mail to Encore@LongwoodOpera.org

Last updated on May 7, 2015 by Marion Leeds Carroll
(longwood at leedscarroll.com)