Opera? or Musical? or Musical Drama?

February 27, 2008

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“Poppa, My Poppa” — first draft of accompaniment
Music by Roger Bourland
Words by Daniel Keleher

What is the difference between Opera, and Music Theater, and Musical Drama?

I don’t really have the time to truly answer this question, but let me point out one difference that I just learned this week.

In this musical drama I am currently composing with Mel Shapiro and Daniel Keleher, I am providing music that is prerecorded, and not with live musicians. If the piece ever gets legs beyond UCLA I’ll orchestrate it. Until then, I enjoy the process of writing music, knowing that it is an element in the dramatic production.

In a discussion about “how do we rehearse this piece” I reassured the team that every number has a piano-vocal score that the accompanist can use while everyone is learning their parts. I will also give everyone a copy of ME singing the various songs so they can have it as a point of reference. Mel is an old hand at all this, and I am a novice. He wrote me about the rehearsal procedure in a musical:

“My concern is how the music evolves in rehearsal and the back and forth collaboration between actor/director/choreographer and music.

We will stage the number, then through the emotional storyline and character evolve the tempo, use vamps or not if necessary, add “bridges” if needed for movement and dance and connect it to together as we are discovering it all in rehearsal. The score is a living thing along with the book and lyrics. Cuts, changes, colorings improvements as we work on it with the performers.

All this with the rehearsal pianist.
In other words, we are not locked in to a final recording, until we need to be.

–from an email from Mel Shapiro

So, the piano-vocal score will get edited in rehearsal and then fixed later for future playback and score editions. One of the team is encouraging me to just give over my Logic files (Logic is the program I use for composing electro-acoustic music). I am hesitant to do that because I hate to give TOO much control to someone else. But I realize that in contemporary theater, like film, certain sonic elements need to be isolated for a variety of reasons: bass lines, the melody and its doubling lines, percussive sounds, and then a stereo mix of the accompanimental element.

In opera, it’s all “in the score.” In music theater, songs go through this reality stretching to fit themselves to various situations and timing issues before the final score gets fixed.

It was writing music for films where I first learned that someone could say NO to your music. “Nice cue Roger, but it doesn’t work for the scene: rewrite it.” And I did, as have all film composers. Having a “boss” is a real challenge for many concert composers, but one that I recommend.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

chris_foley February 28, 2008 at 6:38 am

I’ve been involved in the new opera creation process for the last 6 years as a coach/repetiteur at Tapestry New Opera Works in Toronto. One of the most fascinating parts of the process is the extensive workshopping that happens before an opera goes to production. We are very blessed to have the resources (at all three levels of government as well as numerous private sources) to be able to workshop each and every new opera that eventually makes it to the stage. And it does make a difference–a big one. Whatever insecurity at a perceived loss of control by composer or librettist is gained by tightening up the works’ form (and adapting it to the singers’ unique abilities) and the confidence that the work will indeed ring true by the time production starts.

From what I’ve heard it seems that there isn’t so much of a workshop process in the American new opera scene, perhaps because of a lack of funds (which all end up going to the production itself), lack of musico-dramaturgical experts, or lack of singers experienced in the craft of utilizing text, acting, voice, and their own body to collaborate on helping to perfect the composer/librettist’s work.

Again, best of luck and I look forward to following Homer in Cyberspace’s progress!

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