06 Nov Escape Room: A Sneak Peek
This year’s Opera Composer Collective has just been announced- congratulations to Paul Kawabe, Evan Tanovich, Prokhor Protasov, and Paul Lessard! These four student composers have now embarked on the journey of writing an entire full-length opera, Escape Room, which will be staged, filmed, and broadcast in January 2021.
To give us some background information about the Opera Composer Collective, and what our audience can expect from this year’s offering, we check in with Michael Albano, stage director and librettist of this year’s show.
Would you give us a brief history of the Opera Student Composer Collective? How did it come into being?
We started by putting together various scenes from the contemporary opera repertory, things that had already been written. Our first scenes were presented in the Geiger-Torel Room with piano. Then as an experiment, we said, why don’t we ask a couple of our student composers to write some new scenes? That year’s program ended with two new scenes by student composers, and right away it was like a lightbulb. We thought, that’s the exciting part of this program, what these young composers had done. Right away we made the switch. We did the workshop again the following year, but with all student composers’ material.
As we did more and more work, we moved gradually from the Torel Room to Walter Hall- for quite a while we presented them in Walter Hall with a very small orchestra at the side. Then we made the big switch to the MacMillan Theatre. At that point we decided it was way too much work for no credit, so we introduced it into the School of Graduate Studies as an actual course in operatic composition for budding composers.
Maid & Master: The Massey Murder, 2020- Adam Kuiack, Saige Carlson, and Korin Thomas-Smith
What makes the Opera Student Composer Collective a unique opportunity?
This program is no where else in the world. Period. It does not exist in any conservatory or any opera program anywhere. A lot of conservatories and opera programs including very high-profile schools do contemporary works, or concerts with student composer works, but no one else does a complete opera written by students. I’ve been asked to go start something at the University of Michigan, because people have now heard about it and think it’s a good idea.
Would you tell us about the process of creating an opera from scratch?
We start with a libretto, because it’s a pretty concise timeline. We never know which composers we are going to have for the year until we get a chance to interview them in the fall, and yet we’re having to have it all composed by the time we go away for Christmas break. That’s quite compressed, so for that reason I’ve usually either written the librettos, or taken them from classical texts. We’ve done Antigone, we’ve done Hamlet, two years ago we did a show called Vengeance which was actually an adaptation of a very famous play called The Visit of the Old Lady.
What we want to do is get the composers composing right away- get them right into the process, so we know where we’re going with it. If we had a year or two years, we could maybe start by hiring a writer and having them come in and work with the composers and start from scratch, but the composers do have input into the libretto. When they read the libretto and hear the singers, right away they have questions, input, and suggestions for editing.
The Machine Stops, 2016- Victoria Marshall
What is the workshop process like?
At a certain point, when there is enough material written, the singers will sing snippets for them. This year we have well over a week near the end of November, after our concert, to really workshop the music, so they can make revisions. In point of fact, when you’re a composer you don’t really know what you want to revise until you hear it- particularly with singing. And it’s not just a one-way street. The singers in the past have been extremely instructive, saying, I think I know what you want, here’s how we can do it. Singers are very good about trying to accomplish the goals of the composer. Sometimes it’s just not possible if the writing is not vocal in some way.
What do the student composers gain from this program?
I would say two things. One, very pragmatically, is of course to learn to write for the voice. And you only learn that by doing it. They come into the program with various degrees of experience- some of them have already written a lot of vocal music and so they already have a feeling for it, and for others it’s maybe the first time. The second thing, which is even more interesting and harder to define is how to write for the theatre. Opera is a theatrical form. I always say to them, the music is part of the storytelling. Music often can tell us what a character is thinking. This is why when you look at the librettos of the really great operas, including great contemporary pieces, they’re always really short in order to give room to the music.
This has become a long-standing tradition at the faculty, running for well over 20 years. Have there been any highlights for you over that time?
I would say last year’s (The Massey Murder) because it was just such an interesting piece of Toronto history, and it seemed to be the right story for our time. Also, I loved working with Lori Dolloff and the UofT Women’s Chamber Choir (whose name was changed this year to UofT Chamber Choir). They were just fantastic and so involved.
Going back, I think of the piece we did called Prima Zombie. It was a zombie opera about musicologists digging up Nellie Melba and electrifying her. Besides the fact that it was just bizarre and silly, it was meant to be a parody of performance art, of trends and the new flavour of the month. In the piece, Zombie Nellie becomes a great success, but then she’s replaced by the next new thing. It was just so off-the-wall that it couldn’t help but be fun. I think the most fun thing about the rehearsals was- we never had the theremin until we actually went with the orchestra- while we were rehearsing Sandra always sang the theremin part, and that was just so much fun.
Maid & Master: The Massey Murder, 2020 – Saige Carlson
How will this process change this year to accommodate the current COVID restrictions?
I start thinking about what we might do in the new year, and then I actually write it in the summer. So, of course at the time I was thinking about it, that was exactly when we were all sent home and the plague came upon us. I thought right away, if we’re going to the anything it’s going to have to have social distancing built into it, which means no love story, nobody clawing at each other. Out of that came the idea of people in an environment who don’t want to get close to each other because they don’t trust each other. Later on, pragmatically, when we made the decision to film things, we thought this kind of odd thing will work very well to be filmed.
It will be filmed on the MacMillan stage in tiny little bits, just the way they make films, so we don’t have a lot of people on stage at any time and no one is close to each other. The composers who normally write for orchestra, this year they’re going to write for keyboard and one acoustic instrument. Three of them want to write for percussion and piano, and one of them wants to write for clarinet.
Would you give us a sneak peek into the premise of year’s show?
It’s a premise that’s not exactly completely original. This scenario has been used a number of times, most recently with an opera done at the Met two years ago, The Exterminating Angel. It’s about people trapped in a space, wondering how to get out, and sometimes they wonder how they got there. I think the best treatment of that kind of story is a play called No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, and that really was my inspiration. But everyone was telling me about going to these things called Escape Rooms, so those two things kind of melted together. Plus, I was very much looking for some kind of scenario where people weren’t together, weren’t near each other, and where there was no traditional love story.
So, it’s an escape room, but not the kind you’re thinking of?
Exactly. In a way they’re trying to escape, so therein lies the pun.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
I’m just thrilled that the program is still running. And I’m thrilled that over the years, of course this year we will have a virtual audience, but I’m so pleased that over the years we have built a real following for these things, it’s quite fantastic. Sometimes people come to these contemporary operas, and they don’t come to anything else. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that, but I think it’s really interesting.
To our newest members of the collective, congratulations, and we can’t wait to hear what you come up with!
Escape Room will be broadcast on Sunday, January 17th, 2021 at 2:30 pm.