Keturah sits down with Lawrence Edelson, founder of the American Lyric Theater, and Artistic Director of Opera Saratoga. They discuss the Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), what makes a good librettist, the art of dramaturgy, and creating new opera in America.
Keturah sits down with Lawrence Edelson, founder of the American Lyric Theater, and Artistic Director of Opera Saratoga. They discuss the Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), what makes a good librettist, the art of dramaturgy, and creating new opera in America.
00:01 – [Underscore Mozart played on a piano]
This is Words First: Talking Text in Opera. I’m Keturah Stickann.
00:08 – [Mozart played on a piano]
Over and over again in my interviews for this podcast, I hear people mention ALT.
Royce Vavrek 00:42
And then, after that, I immediately did ALT, which was truly the start of my operatic career…
Mark Campbell 00:49
…American Lyric Theater…
Stephanie Fleischmann 00:50
I applied for American Lyric Theater…
Lorene Cary 00:52
I was in the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program…
The American Lyric Theater, or ALT, was founded and is still run by director and producer, Lawrence Edelson, who has become one of the most influential people for contemporary American opera. His mentorship has fostered in countless operas, and the Composer and Librettist Development Program, ALT’s signature initiative, has produced a number of now prominent American composers and librettists, many whom have already appeared on this podcast. Not only is Lawrence the head of American Lyric Theater, but also – since 2014 – he’s been the artistic and general director of a more traditional producing company, Opera Saratoga, and he continues to direct. On August 18th, I spoke with Larry about his work at ALT, his philosophy around the development of composers and librettists, and his thoughts on opera in America. Take a listen. Lawrence, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. I’m really excited to speak with you after your name has been spoken in hushed tones by so many of my guests, so welcome.
Well, thank you. It’s great to be with you.
You and I have a similar background, having both come from dance, then moving into directing. But you, however, also had opera in the mix for a time there as well. Were you a professional singer?
I was. I started as a voice major and musicology major at the University of Ottawa in Canada. And at the same time I was studying dance. And so, as you know, we do have a somewhat similar path that brought us into directing. But I did…I studied voice. I was a tenor. I still am a tenor, but now only in the shower. And I had the opportunity to come to New York and to study at the Joffrey Ballet school on scholarship. I went for a summer. My parents, I think, knew at the time that I was never coming back to Canada once I got to New York City. And I love Canada, but they were right. I stayed in New York. And that was an incredible experience. I danced professionally for about seven years. Dancing for me was always an extension of music. It was a way to express music physically. I was not an athlete dancer per se, you know, a lot of people get into it for other reasons, but for me it was always about the music. And, that actually led me to focus more on choreography when I was dancing, which eventually brought me to directing. I always knew I was going to go back to opera in some form. I love opera, and I went the dance route because I knew I could only dance when I was young. And my voice was still maturing. I went to university when I was 17, and as a tenor at 17, there was just a lot that wasn’t working and I think my head was very ahead of my body, so to speak, in terms of what I wanted to do, and I got very frustrated, you know. So dance was a great outlet for that. It also just let me come into my own as a person, and moving to New York I think there was just a lot of maturing I had to do quite frankly. And when I stopped dancing, I moved back to New York City. I was choreographing, but I went back to studying voice, and I did the young artist’s circuit…
You know, like most singers do. And I was a young artist actually at Des Moines Metro Opera. But also, when I got hired as a young artist, because of my dance background they asked me to choreograph one of the shows as well as be a young artist. That was a weird dynamic. So one of my first real opportunities professionally was to choreograph a production of Carmen, and the director asked me to also work on the knife fight, which of course is a very intricate scene. And I really enjoyed it and actually got to be involved in the staging of much of that act. And the singers sort of pulled me aside and said, “You know, you’re really good at this. You should think about doing this.” And it was at that time, even though I was starting to work professionally as a choreographer, and assisting some directors, I was also studying singing again and doing young artists’ programs as a singer, that I thought that I really love being able to be part of a creative team that puts something on stage, but at the same time also, as a singer I had a good voice, but I didn’t have a fantastic voice. And to work with these amazing artists and help make them better, you know, they may have incredible instruments but may not have been so comfortable in their bodies, or may not have had the awareness in terms of dramatically what they were doing.
And so I decided to go back to school and do a directing degree.
Oh wow. So you really took the directing, like, you took it back into the academic realm. That’s really interesting. It doesn’t…everybody’s path is so different coming to opera directing, or coming to this space that you and I sit in a little bit. And it’s always so interesting to me that everyone I speak to starts out as a performer but then also has these moments of just sitting there with a critical eye, just eyeing the other side of the table. But it’s always fascinating, then, once that choice was made, which direction they go.
You know, at the time, there wasn’t really an opera directing degree. There are now some degrees. So what I did was I went to NYU, actually to the Gallatin school which we jokingly called the “School of Make up your own Degree,”because it is a program that allows you to customize a degree based on your interests. And so I was able to take, you know, design classes at the Tisch School of the Arts with people like John Conklin. I was able actually to use assisting gigs, so assisting like at Glimmerglass and New York City Opera…
…as actual practicums for credit. And, then really using that sort of professional apprenticeship as part of my degree. I was able to take language classes, dramaturgy classes, I was very interested in adaptation, so classes…literature classes, and the study of how works were adapted from one form to another. All of this, of course, eventually informed the work that I now do at ALT. But, you know, the real, I think, learning happens in the studio, as I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s working with other directors, learning from them, learning from the greats, learning from the not-so-greats. You know…
Well, you gotta get in the fire. You can’t just sit there and warm your hands by it. You actually gotta climb into it. I really feel that’s the only way to figure out how to do this crazy thing we all do.
And it was actually Robin Thompson, who I know you know as well from New York City Opera…
Who after…so my first assisting jobs were actually at Glimmerglass, and that led to an opportunity at New York City Opera. My first job at Glimmerglass was working on Little Women, where I met Mark Adamo, who has become a close friend and incredibly important in my life, and to the work we do at ALT. And I was assisting Rhoda Levine, a brilliant director. That opened the door for me at New York City Opera. And I restaged Little Women, twice there actually, when it premiered at Lincoln Center, and when we went on tour to Japan. And a couple of years after working at City Opera, Robin Thompson told me to stop assisting. He said, “You’ve got to actually get out there and do it,” just like you were saying, you know. And it was also at this time that I was doing my master’s degree, at this point, in arts administration.
Oh interesting. Okay.
So a lot of things, sort of, started to converge. I always had been interested in contemporary opera, as a performer and after I stopped performing as well. And when I met Mark at Glimmerglass, we had a really…I didn’t realize it at the time, but what ended up being a really important drink. And we were talking about young artist programs, and how all over the country there were these young artist programs training singers, really bridging the divide between academia and professional life, but if you wanted to write an opera, there was nothing like that for composers and librettists. And I sort of fatefully said, “I’d really like to start something like that.” And he fatefully said, “Well, if you ever do, give me a call.” I went back to grad school, two years later – fast forward – I called him, and I said, “I’m going to start something, and is this is what I’m thinking of” you know. He was my first call, and my second call was Cori Ellison…
…who I had met at City Opera. And, you know I said to them, “listen, I have this idea about creating a real professional mentorship program for composers and librettists who want to write opera, creating something that doesn’t exist. I know what I want to do, but I know I can’t do it alone. And let’s figure this out together. Let’s figure out what this curriculum might look like.” Yeah, and that was in 2005 when I started ALT, and in 2007 we actually launched the Composer Librettist Development Program.
I want to back up for just a second, because I want to talk about ALT a lot, but I just want to back up to your master’s degree. And I just, you know, I read a bunch of stuff about you, and I want to point out your master’s thesis name, which I think is fabulous.
It’s “Opera: The Irrelevant Art. Uniting Marketing and Organizational Strategy to Combat the Depopularization of Opera in the United States.” So you know I read that, I laughed out loud actually because it’s such a perfect…
It’s such a perfect thing. And you had your future career inside you before you even got there. I mean, it’s been there for a long time sort of churning in you, and you read the name of that thesis and you think, well, there it is, he was already there. When did you really start thinking about opera being an art form in crisis? Was it much earlier than that, and do you still think that that crisis is happening in this country, and I’m actually disregarding right now the current crisis of Covid-19, even though I know that’s set everything back.
But where, you know, from that germ of an idea that you had in terms of putting that thesis together, do you feel that change has happened in a way that has taken opera out of a crisis space, or do you think we’re still sitting in it?
I’m gonna not use the word crisis…
Intentionally, because I think opera and all performing arts are in crisis, specifically because of the moment that we’re in, and they were, all live performing arts have been in a really challenging situation even pre Covid. But for opera specifically, the real key is here in the United States, you know, we don’t have this sort of cultural heritage of opera belonging to the popular American culture in the way that it does in Europe. And the history isn’t there. It’s not valued the same way. I had a really interesting experience participating in the World Opera Forum in Madrid, I was one of seven general directors who was invited by Opera America to represent North America. And hearing general directors and artistic directors speak at that forum about opera being a right, this inalienable right. I mean, we’re talking about health care is a right that we should all have access to? That’s how they were talking about opera.
And I was like, Wow!
It was kind of mind blowing. Like, I can’t even imagine that being, you know, the tone that a conversation would happen here in the states. But that ultimately is part of the issue, right? Opera is, or has historically been perceived as an elitist foreign art. And in fact, part of what my thesis explored was that didn’t happen accidentally, that actually was something that was constructed, was made to happen by a series of things that happened as opera was introduced in the United States. So it was removed from popular culture quite consciously, and we have never ever recovered from that.
So, my thesis title, you know, “The Irrelevant Art,” calling it irrelevant is obviously a little tongue-in-cheek because I don’t think opera is irrelevant, but the majority of the American population does. And that’s the point. I also think at the time as a cocky grad student, I was competing for the longest thesis title possible, so I, you know… [Laughter]
Fine, but you know, like, I’m so thankful for all the cocky grad students out there. Just it…you know, they do make you think, yeah.
Yeah, I reread it every once in a while, and the basic premise of the thesis I continue to agree with. Having now worked professionally in the field for over fifteen years, you know, when you’re a grad student you think you know everything, then your hypotheses are challenged and you work through them, and you realize, okay this is right but, hmm maybe this isn’t. Or, the idea is right but the approach to fixing it isn’t. So, the thesis really served as a first strategic plan for ALT. I knew I wanted to have impact in the field. It was really important that I was able to affect some sort of change. And that document was my way of consolidating my thoughts beyond an academic form into an actionable form. I always think about anything I do as, like, how is this actionable as opposed to just being idealistic.
And so, that’s really what the thesis was, it was trying to extend the ideas from academic to actionable.
Yeah, and you have. American Lyric Theater is fifteen years old, essentially, and just two years behind that is the Composer Librettist Development Program. Can you tell us a little about that program, and how it was started, how it works.
Sure. Well, it’s really the core program of ALT from which everything else springs. And I sort of mentioned how it came to be was over drinks with Mark Adamo. But really, thinking a lot about myself having been through young artist programs. As a dancer I was an apprentice with Boston Ballet. There are professional apprentices in most of the performing arts careers. But, you know, to apprentice in the United States as a composer or even as a librettist, which is even harder, I think something we’ve really been addressing, just didn’t exist before ALT. And so the goal is really to fill that void, and to create a, what would be a rigorous sort of master’s level curriculum, outside the framework and the constraints of an academic institution.
Where we could work with gifted composers and writers, whether they be playwrights or poets, that were really passionate about writing for the opera stage, and to give them the tools to build upon their unique talents, so that their work could be heard in opera. ALT is not a producing organization. We don’t have a season, we don’t have subscriptions. You know, we do present workshops of operas in progress, but ALT really is a service organization, and our constituents are writers, are composers and librettists, and actually now we have a program for dramaturges as well. So the whole purpose of the program is to train this next generation of artists who are going to write for the American stage, for the opera stage.
God, that’s wonderful, yeah. How many operas has ALT helped to foster?
So, I have this number, well, the number depends on whether they’re operas that ALT has commissioned, or ALT has co-commissioned, or ALT has helped to workshop…
…or that artists that have graduated from ALT have gone on to write outside the framework of ALT. So there’s multiple…the bottom line is that there are works written by ALT alumni being produced by almost every opera company in the country that does new work, ranging from, you know, Beth Morrison Projects, to the Metropolitan Opera, to Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, ALT alumni are everywhere and that, for me, is the biggest sign of success that we could have.
We have 47 alumni of the program. I think that’s probably the metric to start with.
Yeah, that’s great.
And of those, about half of them are actively working in the field. I mean I think, you know, there are some who have decided that that’s not their priority, or that they do some opera, and they’re doing other things as well. But a lot of our alumni are really making opera a priority, and they’re making waves in the opera field in really exciting ways.
Give me a few recognizable titles that have come out of ALT. I know The Long Walk is one of them because I just spoke about that with Stephanie, but can you tell me some other titles that you have started that you feel proud about where it’s gone.
Sure. Well, The Long Walk is one that I actually produced as well as commissioned because I felt so strongly about The Long Walk. And because of its scale I brought it to Opera Saratoga, and it went on to Utah Opera and to Pittsburgh Opera, and there is a future for it that we can’t talk about quite yet, but that is exciting. And that, of course, is Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann, based on the novel – excuse me, the memoir, not the novel – by Brian Castner. In the realm of work that we have helped to foster that was not actually initiated by ALT, I think it’s interesting to talk about something like JFK.
Royce Vavrek, who I know you interviewed, is an alum, actually from the first cycle of the CLDP, and he and David T. Little met at the first public CLDP concert at Symphony Space. That’s the first time they met each other.
Right. Very interesting.
And David was not an alum of the program, he was already writing, but Darren Keith Woods, who was the general director of Fort Worth Opera at the time, saw Royce’s work at another showcase of ALT’s that was part of Opera America’s New Works Forum, and David and Royce were pitching things to him. And when Darren decided to commission JFK, and to be clear, this was a Fort Worth Opera generated project, we started talking, and ALT came in as a co-commissioner and facilitated all of the developmental workshops, so the libretto workshop, the piano vocal workshop, etcetera. So that was an example of us supporting one of our alum as they were being given the opportunity to write a really large-scale work…
…and at the same time, providing direct support for a producing company, and in that way lowering their risk and lowering their financial outlay in the commissioning and development process as well. So that’s another sort of way that ALT has worked with some of our alumni.
Got it. What are the other reaches? You sort of started with that, just talking about supporting these new works happening in other companies, but what are the other reaches that ALT has? I was just reading a little about InsightALT, which is a new program, but, was that scuttled by Covid, or did it happen, and do you plan to continue that program, and what are other ways in which ALT is in the opera community?
Sure. So, InsightALT is an outlet through which we show works and progress in New York City, and fortunately, this year’s iteration of InsightALT was at the end of February, right before everything blew up with Corona Virus. So, we were not scuttled, very fortunately. We featured two commissions in progress, which I’m sure you’re going to be hearing a lot about. The first this year was a piece called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant. It is a family friendly opera, but a full length opera, that is being written by composer Evan Myer, and librettist E.M. or Ellen Lewis. It is a mash-up of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.
And it’s a really wonderful piece. A chamber opera, so small in scale and really reasonable to produce. And so, at InsightALT this year….last year we actually did a workshop with piano and singers. This year we did it with the full orchestra. And it’s about a fourteen day workshop that culminates in a public showcase. And at those showcases we also do a critical response method to engage in a dialogue with the audience about the work in progress. The other work we highlighted or showcased, I should say, at InsightALT this year is The Halloween Tree, which is an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name. Written by composer Theo Popov, and librettist Tony Asaro. This is a wonderful…also a family friendly opera, larger in scale, it’s a slightly larger orchestra. I believe the orchestra is 24…22 players. There’s a chorus in this piece as well, and this is about a bunch of kids on Halloween night who get whisked away by a mysterious man to save their friend, and in so doing they discover some of the world traditions that historically have influenced how we celebrate Halloween today. So it’s a really cool piece. Each of the scenes after they get whisked away are actually in a different language, so there’s a scene that revolves around the Day of the Dead, which takes place in Mexico and is in Spanish. There’s a scene that’s in ancient Egypt, and it actually is sung in ancient Egyptian and English. So, it’s a really cool piece that I’m very excited about. And again, the showcase presents us the opportunity to show the process of how operas are made, not only to the public, but it’s also an opportunity to invite potential producers, and for us to make professional archival recordings so that we can share them. Because part of what we do is also advocate for these pieces and for our artists to get their pieces produced elsewhere.
Got it. Let’s talk a little bit about, actually, developing skills as a librettist. As you know, this is a podcast specifically about librettists. Composers do sneak in there.
When you read somebody’s writing that is not a libretto, can you tell if someone will make a good librettist or will be able to transfer their skills into that type of writing just by reading something else that they’ve written: a novel, a story, a play, or whatever. Are they one to one or is it a skill that can be developed regardless of what somebody’s writing style is?
So, I think that when you’re reading someone’s writing, you can tell if the ingredients are there. You can tell, do they have a unique voice? I mean, what I’m looking for is a perspective, you know. Is there a voice that lights a fire, that’s interesting. Skills can be taught, absolutely. I think one of the things we’ve discovered over the years is that some people are more embracing of being taught than others. [Laughter]
Of course [Laughter] Yeah, absolutely.
You know, I think it’s the same in anything, you know. So, you know, I think of, you know, what makes a great librettist? For me, opera is, this may sound obvious, but opera is a storytelling art form. And I think that a lot of libretti that I see, even professionally produced, quite frankly, lack what I consider narrative rigor. A lot of operas are dramaturgically vague. And there are some writers who intentionally are writing work without a narrative in a traditional sense. I mean, you and I worked on Hydrogen Jukebox together, which is not a traditional narrative, it’s really more of a song cycle, you know. So there’s a decision, if a writer’s making a conscious decision to embrace a form that is more about theme or atmosphere or something that doesn’t have a story in a traditional sense. And I should say it’s actually not that narrative needs to be traditional, it doesn’t necessarily need to be linear. But I think, for me, I’m interested personally in opera that embraces opera’s storytelling potential, whatever form that storytelling takes place. So, a great librettist is able to use their voice to tell a great story while embracing what opera does best. And a great librettist understands that the composer is as much the dramatist as they are, which is not the case in straight theater, right?
When we’re talking about libretti, the libretto isn’t just a script, it’s also so much of the structure. It’s the architecture of the piece, and the textual architecture of the libretto has to align with the musical architecture of the score. In a great opera, that’s what happens, that the two architectures align properly and symbiotically. In some works that doesn’t happen, and I think that when we feel that imbalance, that’s part of what’s happening. A great librettist needs to write text that leaves room for music to do its job, and so…
I feel like that’s just…that is like the paramount thing, right? That’s it, is that leaving room for the music. And I’ve actually heard…I would say I’ve heard that phrase from…I’ve interviewed twelve people, and I’ve probably heard that phrase six or seven times from people, and I just feel like that’s the thing that keeps coming up as the skill that somebody feels that they need to master in order to really feel like they’re writing libretti. I just want to point that out. I think that’s really interesting.
No, I think you’re absolutely….if you look at the librettists who are working a lot, you know, and these are actually people who are members of our faculty, someone like Mark Campbell, Mark Adamo, Michael Korie, Royce Vavrek, an alum but also who guests for us sometimes now. This is what they have all in common, that they are great storytellers, they are great collaborators. That’s the other thing I haven’t mentioned is that this is a collaborative art form, you know? That you have to have give and take, and I loved listening to Royce talk about “the best idea wins.” First of all, it shouldn’t be a competition, but ultimately it is! It’s about what is going to tell the best story and optimize the piece. You know, optimize may sound like a scientific or clinical term, but you’re trying to make decisions together with your collaborator. I remember being in the JFK workshop, sitting at the table with David and Royce, and just listening to how, not only they talk to each other, bounce ideas off each other, challenge each other, but ultimately how they respect each other. And, where I’ve seen collaborations fall apart is when there isn’t that respect and when people can’t listen as effectively as they talk. And I think that’s a key skill. So when going back to your question, Keturah, you know, can I tell if someone can make a great librettist just off of the page, I think the answer is ultimately no. Because there are skills that aren’t just about the writing that make a great librettist, you know. I can tell if the ingredients are there, I believe, filtered through my own aesthetic sensibilities, obviously. You know, everyone has certain preferences and tastes…
…as I’m reading something, obviously, you know, my taste falls into to it to some extent. But the way a librettist needs to work and the role of collaboration and the give and take in successful collaborations is so so critical, no matter what type of opera you’re developing, what sort of form you want to write in.
I’m thinking about just pieces that exist in the operatic canon, and we talk about ridiculous libretti, which I think is sometimes not the case, it’s just that we don’t know how to interpret. But, do you think that a great opera can exist with a bad libretto, or do you feel like both of those items have to be…the music and the libretto have to meet in order for an opera to truly be great?
I think that there are great canonical operas with less than ideal libretti. They are, in some cases, the product of their environmental circumstances. They are in some cases, though, the product of the conventions of that time. And I think that that’s a really important thing to consider is that…it’s challenging. You know this as a director as well, when we look at a piece and we’re going to direct it, and we’re, you know, becoming interpreters. The…it’s challenging to impose the conventions of today on something that was written 200 or 300 years ago.
Right? I mean, it’s a part of our job as interpreters to align…find alignment between expectations and conventions of different periods, Right? Or to consciously not align. I mean, you could do that as well, right? You could do anachronism and all sorts of things, so…but we’re getting into another area of discussion for another time.
So when it comes to looking at libretti, so yeah, I don’t think it’s fair to judge the libretti of some operas by today’s standards because our expectations for storytelling are somewhat different, the way that we tell stories, the storytelling modes of theater in the United States in the 20th and 21st century…
Yeah, I think also the way that we perceive stories or receive stories I think is…
…has a lot to do with…do you feel like in today’s operas, the operas that are being produced today, that story itself is more important than it used to be?
A lot of the time, however, I think there is an area of new opera that is less concerned with narrative rigor than the type of work that I prefer. That doesn’t mean they’re bad works, that’s a conscious choice. That’s just not the focus of those works. It’s interesting, I go back to poetics. I go back to Aristotle. This may seem like a strange thing to bring up, but Aristotle in poetics had his six elements of tragedy or of a play, depending on the translation. I think those are important to consider in a work, and so whether you’re looking at a libretto by Boito for Verdi, or by Da Ponte, or a lesser libretto, you know, or something contemporary today, I’m still…I’m attracted to works where those six elements are functioning optimally, right. So that there’s plot, for anyone who’s not familiar with those six elements. So there’s plot: so conflict, story, key points and structure. There’s theme: sort of the message or the why of them piece, the intent or the purpose or the reason. There’s character, right? You know, the tools of the playwright. And when I say playwright in this case, I’m talking about both the librettist or the composer. All six of these elements are neither the providence of the librettist or the composer. It is both writers working together to create these. They don’t work without that symbiotic relationship. I can’t stress that often enough. But you have character, you have rhythm, which is the pacing of the piece. There’s…sorry, I’m forgetting my poetics now. Melody, music, rhythm….um….spectacle, right? You know…
And you know, it’s interesting, you may think that spectacle is the providence of the director and the designers, but a great writing team is thinking, “what is this going to look like on stage?” I love that Royce brought this up in his interview, that Mark Adamo, when he’s writing, he’s imagining how a director might realize something. It’s important to realize that, in opera, the composer actually in many ways with the librettist, is becoming the director because they’re giving line readings to the actors, because they’re setting the dialogue in a way that establishes the tempo, the pitch, the space, or the timing between lines, and at the same time, they are giving the stage directions – not in the little things in brackets and italics that says, you know, “this character now runs across the stage and grabs the knife,” or whatever. But the stage directions in a great opera, I believe, are embedded in the score.
You know, if you listen to a great score. If you listen to Act I of Der Rosenkavalier for example, I mean, Strauss basically orchestrates a teacup in that, it’s just so intricate and detailed. So, the composer and librettist together are really creating a road map for interpretation, and I think that’s what the goal is through the collaboration. And again, it goes back to the librettist and composer being in sync. We often ask, “are you writing the same piece? Are you writing the same scene? Are you writing the same dramatic moment together?” Because without that alignment, it makes it much more difficult for who is ultimately going to be the interpreters of the piece: the singers, the musicians, the director, and the designers.
Right. I want to circle back, actually, to something that I was going to ask you, and then I got stuck in my script. [Laughter], because you brought it up. Can we just talk for a moment then, about Liz Lerman and her methods of critical talk. Liz was in residence at my university when I was in school, and we did a lot of work with her on this. Can you talk a little bit about the method, and then how you incorporate it into your librettist and composer teams?
Well, I’m an opinionated guy. I think you know that.
I do, yes.
You’re an opinionated woman…
A little. [Laughter]
Like, that’s fine, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion. But sometimes your opinion, my opinion, does not matter. I was asked once by a dramaturge apprentice in the program, “why don’t you just tell them the truth,” when I was responding to something in a workshop. Well, artistic truth isn’t absolute or binary. One can make observations, you know, and observation that a narrative doesn’t make sense, or that the vocal writing for a character might be in a part of the range that makes it difficult for the singer’s text to be understood. But, what if the writers are intentionally trying to make the narrative confusing? Or, if the high tessitura of the vocal writing is meant to create a sense of tension that’s more important to the writers than the text being sung? So, understanding what guides artist’s decisions is critical to anyone who is mentoring them. And, when I am a director, I am an interpretive artist, right? When I am a dramaturge, I am NOT an interpretive artist. I am a facilitating partner. There’s a big difference there. And I have to very consciously turn off part of my brain, or at least part of my mouth, to function effectively as a dramaturge, and Cori has been a great mentor to me in that way. We have to take time to get inside their process, and respect that their approach, or even their goals, may be different than ours. So that is what underlies the use of the CRP, the Critical Response Process for us at ALT, which is something that Liz Lerman, a dancer and choreographer, developed. And she developed this, my understanding is, because she was sick of audience feedback sessions, where the dialogue at these sessions was more about the opinions of the audience rather than helping the artists realize their best vision of their work.
Ultimately, that’s what CRP is all about. So, the process actually is a very specific “for stage” process that was designed to be used in public settings. And we use it in both closed and open workshops. The core of it is that it keeps the control of the dialogue in the hands of the artists, and that there is respect for the artist’s vision as being the primary driver and the primary emphasis of all of the conversation.
I think it’s a really fascinating and interesting way of talking about work, talking about other people’s work, ultimately, and being able to really facilitate feedback.
So, the CRP is divided into four steps, and it’s led by a facilitator, and I am a facilitator for the Critical Response Process. The first part of the process is what’s called “Statements of Meaning,” right? Where I would ask the audience,…they’ve just seen a work, they’ve seen a workshop of a new opera in process. And I would ask the audience to respond by saying what was meaningful or evocative or interesting or exciting or striking about the work they’ve witnessed. We try to avoid things like, “I loved this…” or “I thought that this was…” It’s not about opinion, right, it’s just about… “at the moment that her husband died, it was deeply meaningful for me because of”…whatever. I’m just, you know, making stuff up off the top of my head right now, but it’s reacting to a specific moment in the piece and why that moment was meaningful or evocative. So we go through that, and the reason we do this first is because artists build on what they do well. So it’s really important that we take the first part of our response session to acknowledge what has been really successful and what has been meaningful, and exciting, and interesting, and striking for the audience that’s just experienced this work for the first time. You have to remember, when we’re workshopping a piece, we’re so deep in it. We know the piece so well, or at least we think we do, right? And we are so close to it, it’s hard to get the distance, which is part of why I feel so strongly about inviting people, inviting an audience to workshops. And there’s a lot of people who don’t feel that way, but I think it’s incredibly valuable. But it’s only valuable if you create a safe space for the artists, and that’s what CRP does, right? So the second step is “Artist as Questioner”, and this is where the artist asks questions, and by artists here I mean the composer and the librettist, they ask questions about the work. And I encourage the artists to be as specific as possible, not like, “did you like the opera?” Like, that’s not helpful. It goes back to my idea of being actionable. Ask a question that will help you refine your work, right? So, “did you understand what happened when this character found the secret bible under the bed?” Again, I’m making something up off the top of my head. “Did you understand what that meant?” And…or, something that will give the writers information that will help them refine their work. And in answering, it’s really important that the facilitator ensures that the responders stay on topic, and that they’re only expressing opinions in direct response to the question that has been asked. The third is called “Neutral Questions.” It’s one the funnier parts of the process, because it makes you, as an audience member, form questions in a neutral way. So, if you have a question about something that you’ve just seen, you can ask the question, but it can’t have an opinion couched in it. And it’s amazing how often we, in our regular lives, ask questions that have opinions embedded in them.
So, in my preamble to this process, I always use a similar example, a chocolate cake example. And if I was doing a critical response session about chocolate cake, I wouldn’t ask, as a neutral question, “Well, why did you use dark chocolate?” Because laden in that question is that I have some sort of opinion about dark chocolate. The way to create a neutral question is, “what guided your choice as to the type of chocolate to use in this cake?” Right? It seems like this incredibly artificial construct, but I’m going to get an answer to a question about the type of chocolate, and I have not suggested that I feel one way or another about what I’m asking.
And so often the facilitator will help the audience members form these neutral questions. It’s one of the most fundamental and often challenging steps of the process, but it can be incredibly, incredibly useful. And finally, there’s something which is called “Opinion Time.” And this is where, if members of the audience or responders have opinions, and they feel those opinions will be helpful to the artists in realizing their vision – I always give that caveat, because a lot of time, people have opinions that have nothing to do with the development of a piece. So I ask people to think about, is this going to be helpful as these artists are continuing to develop their piece? Then you can say, “I have an opinion about X. Would you like to hear it?” Right? So, “I have an opinion about the Act I finale. Would you like to hear it?” And the artists have the option to say yes or no. The purpose here is about, again, making sure the control stays in the hands of the artists. This is a process to help the artists, and I find that most often the artists will say, “Yes, I would like to hear it,” but there are times where artists are still trying to reconcile their own feelings about something in a piece, where hearing an opinion is actually counterproductive. And so there will be times where they say, “you know, actually right now, we’re still working on something with this, so we’d like to sort of table that for another time.” And if this process has been moderated properly and has been taken sequentially, it’s incredibly, incredibly effective, and so this is why we use it. The structure process is meant for interaction with an audience or group of responders, but the basic tenants of the process actually can be applied even to one-on-one mentorship. I mentioned this before, like, I’m opinionated, you’re opinionated, great. But it’s not a dramaturge’s job to give your opinion unless of course, you’re at a a stage where there’s a trust and sort of a bi-directional trust that’s built up and your opinion is explicitly being sought. But we’re very Lerman-like in the language we use when we’re in private sessions with the artists a lot of the time.
I like that. “Lerman-like.”
And you know, sometimes, I’ll have artists…you know, Lila Palmer, a brilliant librettist who’s in the program, she’ll be like, “Don’t Liz Lerman. Just tell me what you think.” Because she’s at a point where…I take that as a compliment if someone thinks I’m being too neutral, but there are times when someone does want my opinion, or does want Cori’s opinion, or Mark Adamo’s opinion…they want real opinion. But I want to make sure that I’m giving my opinion when I’m invited to, and you know there is…I will admit, there are times though at the producer side of me, where I will feel that I have to give an opinion, and I will express, “I need to share this with you because X, Y, or Z.” But imposing my opinion when it’s not valuable is just counter-productive to the process, and I think that’s, you know…there’s this temptation to tell artists how to fix their work. Nobody wants to be told how to, you know, quote unquote fix their piece. They want to be given the tools to realize their own visions, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to provide at ALT.
That’s great. In this time that we’re in right now, and we can include the pandemic in it, because we’re going to be living in it for a while, what type of stories should we be making at this time, or does it matter? Should it be anything and everything?
That’s a great question. I’m going to slightly rewrite the question because it has to do with the artists telling the stories.
Who is telling our stories influences the stories we tell. I always think back to a quote I read from George C. Wolfe, who of course was the leader of the Public Theater for many years. And he had said that he wanted the Public Theater to resemble a subway stop in New York City. To have that sort of incredible diversity in everything within the company, on stage, backstage, front of house staff, administrative management, leadership staff, the board. And there is not a single opera company in this country that has the diversity of a subway platform in New York City.
So, that is problem Number 1. We at ALT have a strong commitment to diversity. Over half the artists in our program have been women, a third have been BIPOC artists, something we’re actually addressing with a new program that’s called the Opera Writer’s Diversity and Representation Initiative, which you’ll be hearing a lot more about coming in the fall when we launch it. But we need more diverse artists writing for the opera stage, because we want the stories that are being written for the opera stage to represent the diversity of perspective of the sort of people that you would see any day on a subway stop in New York City. So, once we get to the point where there is real diversity, real genuine diversity and representation among librettists and composers, we’re going to see the stories being told being more reflective of contemporary American society, and that’s going to be really exciting. I am all for adaptation. Some of the most successful works that have been done in recent decades are adaptations of novels or memoirs or movies. But I think there can be more diversity in the works that are adapted.
I am all for works that come from very personal places, personal stories. I think that there are works that can be written on very timely and socially relevant subjects that are very powerful and exciting, whether they are pieces like The Long Walk, which we discussed, or recently Blue that premiered at Glimmerglass. You know, these are important works. And I think that, you know, we need to have…you’ll hear everybody say, “Oh, we need more comedies!” Yes, we definitely need more comedies, but I think ultimately the stories that are being written should reflect what the artists who are writing them are wanting to write…the stories they want to tell. The slight potential misalignment that we have to address in the field is the difference between the stories that artists want to tell, and the stories that companies are willing to produce, and that’s a really big issue. I sit in two positions, as you know, one is as the leader of ALT, but also as the General and Artistic Director of a more traditional producing company in Opera Saratoga. And there is…it’s a real issue. It is what are we going to produce as the producers of work, and how many spaces are there in our seasons for new work, and how are we curating that work? First of all, who is curating that work, so going back again to the diversity question. But also, how are we making sure that we curate the work in a way that is reflective of our audiences, and that also, you know, just to be perfectly blunt, can be done in a financially sustainable manner. There are a lot of works that opera companies quote unquote should be producing, but they don’t because it’s riskier, so the opera field in general needs more risk capital. So we’re getting into more of a business discussion, you know…
I am very much one who subscribes to the “no risk, no reward” philosophy. Again, if we want our opera companies and our audiences to reflect the diversity of contemporary American society, then the works were putting on stage, also have to reflect that society.
Larry Edelson, thank you so much. I’m so happy that we were able to get together and have this chat. This has been really meaningful, so I appreciate it. Thank you.
Well thank you for having me, and it’s great to speak with you.
Yeah. I want to thank Larry again for his insight and generosity. Tune in next week when I present an interview with author, activist, and librettist Lorene Cary. An advocate for Philadelphia youth and arts education, Lorene has written a number of books including two memoirs, “Black Ice” and “Ladysitting.” She turned the latter into a one-act opera entitled The Gospel according to Nana, while attending ALT’s Composer Librettist Development Program. It’s a wonderful conversation about art, life, and that all important intersection. Until then, thank you for listening. I’m Keturah Stickann.
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This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, TN. Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband for keeping the dog quiet. Thanks for listening, and until the next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.
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