UofT Opera | Michael Albano Discusses Composer Collective & Current UofT Opera Production
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Michael Albano Discusses Composer Collective & Current UofT Opera Production

Second year Opera Masters student, Camille Rogers, talks to Librettist and Stage Director, Michael Patrick Albano, about the Faculty’s Opera Student Composer Collective and UofT Opera’s current production

How did the Opera Student Composer Collective start, and how long has it been running?

It’s been going on for 20 years officially, so our production of Prima Zombie will be the 20th anniversary production!  It really started even earlier that that, as a workshop which we presented in the Torel room with pieces from contemporary, existing literature.  And then, just for fun, we found two composers here who were willing to come on board, and they did two scenes from The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.  And that was, in a way, the most exciting part of the program!  I wondered, could we possibly put together an annual workshop where all the pieces were new, from composers in the faculty’s composition program?  And so that was step two.  And then we all realized we couldn’t ask these young student composers to do all this work without getting any credit for it.  Therefore, we presented it to the School of Graduate Studies as an actual course, in which composers would learn from beginning to end the development of a libretto, the dramaturgy, the requirements of writing for the human voice, and the elements of orchestration, ending with a final public performance.  I think a strength of the program is the fact that we present them in the MacMillan Theatre, in a real opera house.  

What do the student composers learn from this experience?

Two things.  I think the first is how to write for the voice.  That comes not from any teaching that I do, but from their interaction with the singers, who give feedback, and also from just hearing it.  They hear it, and immediately realize the difference between the theoretical—what’s on the page—and what it actually sounds like.  For example, a mezzo singing a high note sounds higher to a composer than a soprano singing a high note, because it costs the mezzo more.  

The second thing is, how do you write music for the theatre?  How does the music become part of the storytelling?  And, perhaps the most important thing, what dimension does the music bring to it?  It cannot be just words set to pitches.  The music brings in something psychological, it brings in something emotional.  Sometimes it brings in subtext—what’s really going on in the scene.  Sometimes it’s the music’s immediate ability to suggest atmosphere.  One of my favourite operas in the world is Strauss’s Elektra, because in just two bars, you’re there in that psychologically tortured world.  The theatre without music can’t do that.  That’s the harder aspect, though, because it’s harder to analyze, and it’s harder to know when it’s a success.

And what do the singers learn from the experience of working with the composers?

I’m hoping that there’s something enriching about simply the process of working with a living composer.  I always feel sorry for singers: in a strange, artistic way, they spend a lot of time around the Ouija Board, trying to figure out the composer’s intentions!  So it’s kind of wonderful to get inside a composer’s head, to see how they think.  It’s often a very fruitful and exciting collaboration, because singers work so hard to realize the composer’s intentions.  And then, what I like very much is that the product is something that’s written specifically for that singer.  No one else in the world has done it, no one else in the world has a recording of it.  It’s a wonderful antidote to that awful situation when a singer sings something very well, and then someone comes backstage and says they heard it done better in Vienna!  To have something specifically written for their voice, their personality, with their input, there’s a bit of ownership.  I think suddenly the scene doesn’t one hundred percent belong to the composer.  The moment the singer says, “Let’s do this instead of this; I think this works better,” they enter the composer’s world.

What can you tell us about the plot of the opera, specifically the zombie angle?

The obsession with zombies is hardly anything new.  In fact, it has much more to do with my generation than with younger generations: we were set on our ears when we went to see a film called Night of the Living Dead in the late sixties.  So the zombie idea has always been in the back of my mind.  But in this particular piece, the zombie aspect of it is just a vehicle for other messages, particularly our culture’s obsession with diva worship and the very, very fickle nature of performance art.  Performance art, in my mind, flirts with disposable culture.  Suddenly something which is absolutely the rage of the planet, two weeks later is in the dustbin.

Where did the idea for a zombie opera come from?

It actually started four years ago when we did Antigone.  Every group of composers varies quite a bit in dynamic: they really have their own personality, individually of course, but also when they meet as a group.  And that year when the composers came into my office, we hadn’t even talked about it yet and they were asking, “Can we write a zombie opera?”  That group was particularly outrageous and extroverted!  I remember saying, “No, I’ve already done a lot of work on this libretto, we’re going to write Antigone,” and they did, and did a great job.  But that seed was planted.  I kept thinking about it over and over again.  And then last year we did The Machine Stops, which, even though it’s science fiction, was tremendously serious.  We like to alternate comedy and drama year to year, so it was comedy’s turn.  So that zombie idea, which had been bouncing around in my head, it was time for it to come out.

Who should come to this opera?

I think it’s a great first-timer opera.  I say that having made a lot of mistakes!  Years ago I wanted to bring some friends to an opera who had never seen an opera, and I took them to Die Walküre!  Prima Zombie is short, we’re clocking it in at about an hour, certainly no more.  It’s in English, and even with the English text we’ll still have projected surtitles for the audience.  It is a bizarre, irreverent subject, and it’s a comedy, which gives you permission to laugh!  And you don’t have to bring anything to it.  People can come to this, sit down, not know a thing about opera, and get an experience out of it.

Prima Zombie: the Diva that just wouldn’t stay dead

Sunday, February 5 @2:30 pm   MacMillan Theatre    Free Admission