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