Scott Dunn: The art of collaboration

November 7, 2014

I have been blessed in my recent collaboration with pianist, conductor Scott Dunn who will be conducting the world premiere of my opera, La Paloma y el Ruiseñor at the Teatro Angela Peralta in Mazatlán, Mexico on November 14 and 15, 2014.

Having scored several feature films, I have learned the value of “cutting”——this happens on all levels of the film industry, but in music it means that just because a composer provides good music for a scene, if, in the mind of the director, the music is not helping or doesn’t capture the mood, he asks that the music be rewritten. All film composers, from Danny Elfman and John Williams to beginning film composers, do rewrites. My college professor in music history, Lawrence Gushee, often complained that contemporary music of the 20th century suffered due to a lack of collaboration, or feedback from others (I simplify his comments here). Every damn note was sacred and they wouldn’t consider cutting anything. It’s just not in the culture of concert composers of the 20th/21st century to make cuts. I encourage composers who are reading this to reconsider and learn from Hollywood. And opera. Opera composers regularly revised and cut their operas to make them better. Puccini didn’t have the luxury of workshops where composers could try out their work in private: he had full blown performances and was criticized in the press and from the audiences, and based on that he made changes to all of his operas. The critics and audiences were, in essence, his collaborators. They told him: “this doesn’t work for me,” “this part drags,” “this aria goes on too long.”

My collaborator in the 1990s, John Hall, who directed opera and music theater at UCLA, was a terrific collaborator in our cantatas “Hidden Legacies” and “Flashpoint/Stonewall.” He never minced words: Roger, this is boring; this doesn’t work; you’ve got to be kidding; or just a look he’d give to let me know what I had written wasn’t up to snuff. In the 1980s, I scored three feature films and in every one there were rewrites: “nice music, Roger but it doesn’t work for me. Rewrite it.” And I did, without attitude (with a few exceptions where I stood my ground).

This is all background to the opera we are working on now. Scott Dunn has been a marvelous collaborator. The Mitchell Morris libretto was adapted into Spanish by Placido Domingo Jr. Placido’s work was terrific: he worked hard to fit Spanish into the music that was originally written in English, and avoided changing rhythms wherever possible. And despite his respectful work, I decided to make a completely different version for the Spanish edition. Spanish just doesn’t line up with English. Scott was not as gracious as Placido. He’d say: NO! You need to rethink many of your melodies so that they flow more convincingly in Spanish. Placido was appreciative of Scott’s intolerance of preserving the original rhythms, and embracing the beauty and flow of the Spanish language. Words, notes, rhythms are changed, all done to make a better, more understandable and dramatic work. I had to “get over myself” and take the advice of my collaborator(s).

But Scott’s collaboration didn’t end there. We went over every note in the orchestration, making sure it would effectively accompany and not drown out the singers. I gave him credit on the title page for that assistance.

As rehearsals are going on now, we are constantly making changes, cuts and adjustments to make the opera a better work of art and piece of entertainment. The cast sees all these changes being made in real time and it makes them realize that this is a work in progress. I have made changes to most of the leading roles as well, adjusting and tailoring the music to the their voices and to be sure that they can be heard over the orchestra. Last night we cut a minute and a half from an aria that went on too long.

When I told Scott I was writing this article, he said it should be called “RB: the art of collaboration.” LOL. True, but finding the right match in collaborators is not always an easy job. Scott has been a terrific collaborator and friend during this whole process. So I raise my hat to my wonderful collaborator. The opera is a better piece of music with his help.

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