Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

2010 Vista Competition - What I look for. (Part 1)

We spent a good amount of time last week selecting the semi-finalists for the 2010 Vista Competition, so I thought it might be interesting to talk about what I look for in a new opera, orchestral piece, or other contemporary music.  As an Artistic Director, it’s my job to constantly research operas and projects to make sure our programming is fresh and interesting.  I also have the joy of helping select our semi-finalists for the annual Vista Competition, an American-Idol-style competition for opera.  The quick rundown – composers submit their works, the selection committee selects 6 semi-finalists, we perform a maximum of 10 minutes of each opera (to give the audience a flavor of the piece), the jury grills the composer, and the audience votes.  The winner gets a full production of their opera the following season.  The cool part is that the audience gets to ask the composers questions in the final round. I think the competition has been one of the most educational experiences of my life.  It is fun to watch the audience as the composer tells them what they were thinking when they put pen to paper (or more often these days – mouse to screen) to write their works.  I love the format of this competition because it works beautifully for both opera fanatics and newbies.  I think many people think of opera as a rarified “upper crust” art form, but when you hear the composers talk about their work, the opera fanatics realize that there is a great deal of craft that goes into creating great opera, and the neophytes realize that they understand more about opera than they give themselves credit for.  I am here to tell any contemporary composer out there – if you write a great piece of work, no matter the language, the audience will get it.  I am always amazed at how thoughtful the audience’s questions are – especially from the ones who swear up and down, they know nothing about opera.  It’s proof that classical music still speaks to the public.

For last year’s competition, we had 120 submissions for the competition, and this year we had 40 submissions.  As you can imagine, it’s difficult to go through 40 complete operas to select between 6 and 8 works.

Each year, I chair a selection committee which is tasked with going through each score.  (A score is what we call the book that has all the music in it – the full orchestra music, plus what the singers sing).  Each opera tends to be between ½ hour and 2 hours long, so going through the works is a time-consuming endeavor.  This year’s committee had a stage director, an orchestra musician from Houston Grand Opera, a singer who has sung in major opera houses, the OV apprentice conductor, and me.  The hope is that each person will lend his/her expertise to interpreting the work that is before them.  We put together a rudimentary critique sheet that serves mostly to help organize people’s thoughts.  It does have a point total, but we’ve never actually used that as a basis of discussion.  I use my points system to make sure that I think through each of the issues faced in interpreting an opera – stageability, musical quality, quality of vocal writing, quality of orchestral writing, and pacing.  (There are MANY other issues to putting an opera on, but those are the basics we go for).

Before giving out the operas, I cover up the composer’s names as much as possible and number each opera with a post-it note, so the works are then discussed by number.  We start with 1 and work our way through the list making a series of cuts until we have the final 15, and that’s when the fun really starts.  For the most part, the initial cuts are usually quite easy and argument free.  It’s the final few cuts that get to be rather tense.  (The committee is made of musicians, so there is definitely an emotional component to the discussion).

Thus ends Part 1 of my view on the selection process.  Stay tuned for more info.