CU NOW presents a work in progress with libretto by CU alumnus Mark Campbell
By Peter Alexander
It’s mostly hard work.
It looks like magic from the outside, the process of creating a large-scale, complex work of art like an opera. But the more you are able to see inside the process, the more you see the hard work it takes to get from an idea to a viable piece of art to a fully committed production in front of an audience.
It is part of the wonder of the University of Colorado, Boulder College of Music CU NOW (New Opera Workshop) program that it offers a glimpse into the magic-producing hard work of making a new opera, while advancing students’ careers and the world of opera.
The program, started six years ago by Leigh Holman, director of the CU Eklund Opera Program, and Patrick Mason, a professor of voice, opera and choral studies in the CU College of Music, brings composers to campus to work on developing a new operatic work, working over a couple of weeks with student singers in the CU College of Music. In a win-win-win situation, the students benefit from working closely with a composer on a new work, developing skills useful in the professional world; the composers benefit from hearing their work performed as they write it; and audiences benefit from seeing inside the creative process.
This year’s CU NOW program will come to fruition Friday and Sunday (June 12 and 14) with performances of scenes from an opera in progress by composer Zach Redler and librettist Mark Campbell, a CU alumnus whose other libretti include Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer prize in music, and the recently premiered Manchurian Candidate.
Scenes from Redler and Campbell’s A Song for Susan Smith will be performed with a cast of CU student singers at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the ATLAS Black Box Theater on the CU campus. The scenes will be stage directed by Holman.
The performance will feature six or seven of a projected 15 scenes in a one-act, 90-minute opera. Based on the notorious 1994 case of a woman who was sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of her two sons, A Song for Susan Smith does not dramatize or feature the killings. Instead, it focuses on the period between the killings and Smith’s eventual confession nine days later, and on Smith’s mental state during that time.
Between those two performances, CU NOW will also present the Composer Fellows’ Opera Showcase, scenes by CU student composers who have been working with Redler and other operatic professionals brought to campus for CU NOW, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13, in the Music Theater inside the CU Imig Music Building. All CU NOW performances are free and open to the public.
A Song for Susan Smith started as a scene that Redler wrote for his wife, soprano Brittney Redler, to sing for a doctoral voice recital. The text came from a completed libretto that Campbell had never used and forms a prologue to the opera, portraying Smith before the killings. That scene has now been performed several times, including as part of the Ft. Worth (Tex.) Opera’s Frontiers program. It will not be included in the CU performances but can be viewed on the composer’s Website (scroll down to the video, featuring the composer at the piano and Brittney Redler singing).
Redler is not unaware that Susan Smith is a difficult subject for an opera, one that might be disturbing to some audience members. “I’m drawn to characters that are hard to comprehend,” he says. “Susan Smith has been through a lot, but because [infanticide] is a too common thing—500 cases a year!—I don’t think it’s exploitive. I think it’s using a very specific instance to tell a very general story.
“It’s a horrible problem, because it’s not that these people are necessarily inherently evil. Susan came from an extremely dysfunctional childhood and household. So it’s about mental health and about mob mentality (when the town turns from supporting Susan to shunning her). A lot of the music is kind of trying to show Susan’s perspective.”
Holman and Mason started CU NOW to give students experience tackling completely new music and new roles. At the time, there were few programs devoted to new opera, but that has changed in the past six years.
“When we started this six years ago, there weren’t many people doing what we’re doing,” Holman says. “Now, people are doing it everywhere.
“The most important thing that was happening at the Opera America Conference two weeks ago was new works—composers there, librettists there, all these big companies looking for new works to do. That’s what audiences want. That’s where the market is now. Six years ago it wasn’t.”
CU’s unique niche in this world is taking works in progress that have not been completed or received a commission, works where the composers are just getting started, and giving them the chance to mold it to living, breathing singers. “We like to do brand new things,” Holman says. “We want our students to have the opportunity to work with a brand new piece.
“The composers are hearing their piece for the first time with our students. And our students get the opportunity to work with the composers. Our students can’t listen to a recording and learn it. There’s no other singer that has already said, ‘This is how it’s supposed to sound.’ It’s really their own interpretation.”
Redler seconds Holman’s comments. “It’s really great for (the students),” he says. “In professional opera companies, it’s the young artists who are doing the workshops and the readings of new works. It’s just such an important skill for them to have, to be able to pick up a new piece of sheet music that no one has ever recorded and learn it.”
He is equally enthusiastic about what the program means for him as a composer. “Hearing scenes that I’ve only heard in my head is just so important,” he says. “The piece changes in front of an audience as well, so to get to see that is fantastic.”
And the value for the audience? You can tell the rest of us: Go to the performances, and post your reaction here afterwards! You too might help open doors for new creations.
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Scenes from A Song for Susan Smith
An opera in progress by Zach Redler and Mark Campbell
7:30 p.m. Friday, June 12
2 p.m. Sunday, June 14
ATLAS Black Box Theater on the CU campus
Composer Fellows’ Opera Showcase
Operatic scenes by CU student composers
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13
Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building
All performances free and open to the public