Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

2010 Vista Competition - What I look for. (Part 2)

In Part 1, I mentioned that each member of the search committee brings a different perspective to the discussion, so we all tend to see different strengths and weaknesses in the same score. So, what do I look for in new opera?  I think the best comparison is probably the show Top Chef.  First, I don’t believe that it should have a specific language – and I don’t mean English vs. Italian, etc.  I mean more the musical language.  I have to admit that I enjoy music from atonal through tonal to jazz, pop, hip-hop, etc., so the operatic language is not an issue – it just has to be done well.  Think of it like this – on Top Chef, you have chefs who have an expertise in everything from Mexican food to BBQ to Asian to cooking with chemistry.  The judges usually don’t care what the chef’s specialty is as long as it is done well.  I tend to have the same view when it comes to selecting pieces.  I am also convinced (after 3 years of the competition) that the audience feels the same way.

In the first year of the competition, I was thoroughly surprised that the two pieces I thought were the most “audience friendly” were not actually selected by the audience as the winners of the competition.  We had the same issue in the 2009 competition.  The winner of the 2009 competition was the one I thought might pose the most challenges to the audience.  In talking to people afterwards, they felt like it was a great work of art, and they wanted to see more of it.  I was truly impressed, but it reminded me that great art will translate on many levels.

My first criterion has always been craft.  I tend to look for pieces that have a thoughtful sense of structure and balance.  Each year, there are a number of pieces that show interesting sections of music, but the interest is not sustained because there is not enough balance between musical ideas, the proportions of each section don’t work, or transitions between the ideas are poorly thought through.  Orchestral and vocal writing also fits into the “craft realm.”  This is tough because I know some composers out there are thinking of all the past composers who stretched the limits only to have musicians catch up and make what was previously thought of as impossible look easy.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is one of these works.  The opening bassoon solo was considered to be unplayable, but now it is played with ease by good high school players.  But, I also believe that pushing the envelope is not a bad thing – as long as it’s done for a purpose.  We saw some operas this year that had extended techniques and pushed the envelope, but it was done haphazardly, and I could not tell WHY those techniques were used and what was trying to be communicated.  (I believe that Stravinsky wrote that ridiculously high bassoon part to sound hard.  I think he was trying to create a tension with the extended range, but that’s one man’s opinion.)

That being said, there are things that are just out of the realm of possibility to perform.  We had some operas that had vocal ranges that crossed over two voice types – there are voices like that, but they can be rare and difficult to find.

Finally, craft can actually extend to the preparation of materials.  As much as I try not to let it, it can impact our final decision.  We had one score that was missing the final few pages of the work.  One score was held together with a paperclip.  Now, it is true that these sorts of things do not officially impact the final musical production, but it is difficult to give a score merit when the composer does not seem to have enough care to put a $5 binding on it or will not take the time to photocopy pages front to back and simply tapes them together.  We have a number of works to go through (even if we were not running a competition), so time is always an issue.  If we have to spend time wrestling with the materials, it just puts you in a very critical frame of mind.  (Even outside of the competition, Opera Vista receives about 10 scores a month from opera composers and publishers – we are one of the few companies that simply specializes in new opera, so we are almost always facing a backlog of scores).

Creativity and innovation is always a big question when looking at works in the competition.  There were a number of operas that were quite well crafted and well-thought out, but I don’t know that they brought something “special” to the table.  Our Top Chef analogy here are the craftsmen cooks.  You often see those chefs who have been cooking for years and have perfected their craft.  They make standard dishes, but they make them well.  They are also the cooks who tend to progress deep into the competition, but they don’t seem to make it to the finals.  Again, the opera competition can be much like that.  Now, I’m not saying that craft is insufficient to make a wonderful performance, but when you are talking about selecting 6-8 out of 40, craft becomes only part of the story, so we look for those operas that show great innovation and/or inspiration in their creation.  Perhaps innovation isn’t the right word, but it’s a tough concept to put in words for me.

So, what am I searching for when I sort through those scores?  I’m looking for homeruns.  It tends to be my philosophy as a conductor – every performance must be the next great one, so I aim to swing for the fences every time out.   I think the audience deserves composers and artists who try to make each performance life changing, so I think we must swing for the fences.  I look for those works (again – remember, we’re picking 6-8 out of up to 100 submissions) that feel like a homerun – a great combination of craft and inspiration.

We rarely pore through the resumes and biographies of the composer until we’ve gone through the works and selected our semi-finalists.  We want great works, not simply great backgrounds.  Given these criteria, there is no doubt that the standards are high, and some very excellent operas were not selected.  It is a tough process, and I really wish we could select 15 operas, but that proves impossible given the nature of the competition (and the nature of arts funding).

In the end, we might miss some!  (Tanglewood missed Sir Simon Rattle, so mistakes do happen).  Each year, I look back to a few from the previous year that might have been very competitive this year with a few tweaks.  Many of our criteria are judgment calls and based on the the opinions of the selection committee, so as the committees change and the opinions grow and shift, maybe the selection would be different even given the same operas.  When you are dealing with the level of quality that faces us each year, we may not nail it every time, but I think in the end, I would be proud to perform any of the final operas.  I think the audience would find any of the final 6-8 a memorable and enriching event.

You can get more information about the 2010 Vista Competition for new opera here.  You can also catch my Houston Chronicle Blog here.