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Opera and Collaboration: Working with Librettist Laura Fuentes


Me and Laura Fuentes (ft. taco socks) at the Kennedy Center

An important focus of my creative work in recent years has been composing opera. People always ask, why opera? I was never an opera fan growing up—the few operatic experiences I had before college left me cold (I remember seeing Strauss’s Rosenkavalier at the MET because my dad’s cousin’s dog was in the production… I fell asleep, and found the plot tedious, although I kind of like the show now). As the years passed, I kept listening to opera, mostly as an “eat your vegetables” exercise. I took an opera literature course at University of Miami with Alan Johnson, a big proponent of contemporary works. My friends and I would catch MET On Demand Streams of Verdi and Puccini classics at the movie theatre in Coral Gables, Florida. During my master’s degree at Rice, I discovered Sondheim through Sunday in the Park with George. I tried my hand at making my own Sondheim-esque musical, called North Pond, about a Maine hermit. You can read about it in some of my older blogs. I don’t really enjoy the piece anymore, but I keep it in my portfolio as a reminder of how my music has changed over the years.

 

I also found that all my music, even my chamber music, was telling stories, whether I liked it or not. I had kept opera at arm’s length, I think primarily because of the “big” singing style, but always felt a magnetism to the form. It made sense for me to want to pursue it, as my father is a filmmaker, and film music has its roots in Wagnerian leitmotif and operatic music. Over time, I grew to appreciate the beauty and subtlety of classical singing, as well as the centrality of storytelling and collaboration to the form. Much can be conveyed in a singer’s approach to phrasing and musicality, but in opera, it's often so much more about the music—you're working with someone who crafts words, someone who visualizes drama onstage, and many other creatives who contribute to the intricate working parts of a production. It's not just you, and that's an electrifying and exciting process, as so much is added to your work that is out of your control (in a good way). The work changes and evolves beyond your wildest expectations.


Early on, I wrote a few chamber works featuring voice, including two settings of children’s books (The Very Hungry Caterpillar and If You Give a Moose a Muffin) for the Da Camera Young Artists program in Houston. By then, I had built up a little portfolio of vocal music, mostly fun music for young audiences, which I used to apply to the Washington National Opera American Opera Initiative Program. I was ready to write a full opera once I had written enough music for each of the voice types to learn how musical lines work for many different types of singers.

 

The American Opera Initiative is an annual program that produces new works on American subjects, taking composer-librettist teams or pairing up new composers and librettists to create short 20-minute operas. In 2019/2020, when I applied, one of the mentors was composer Anthony Davis, whom I had met previously at the American Composers Orchestra Jazz Composers’ Reading Sessions, and with whom my former teacher Alan Johnson worked extensively. He’s a jazz pianist also immersed in opera and storytelling. That year, I was selected and paired with a librettist named Laura Fuentes. We both had applied with preexisting teams, but the artistic team at Washington National Opera thought we were a good fit for one another, and they were quite right. So they (consensually) broke apart our teams and provided us an opportunity to work together.


Working with Anthony Davis for the American Opera Initiative

Laura and I had an email and phone conversation about each other’s work, connecting on various values. Our conversation consisted mostly of nerding out over Pixar, TV, Sondheim, and Disney. Her work has a clarity, accessibility, rhythm, and simplicity that paired well with my rhythmically driven, often humorous music. She also has a love and respect for history and the repertoire—something we share.

The cast of Las Auténticas

She sent me a list of 5-6 possible ideas to write for our 20-minute opera, but one stood out to me the most—a short piece about a taco truck and cultural authenticity. This turned into Las Auténticas, which we workshopped virtually during the pandemic. At the helm of the workshop were then-artistic director Rob Ainsley, composer Anthony Davis, librettist and dramaturg Kelley Rourke, and Maestro David Neely—all offered helpful feedback on writing for the voice and making sure the accompaniment supported the singers and the drama, and the libretto had the effect we were after. Maestro Neely was particularly helpful with refining my orchestration and the dynamics such that the singers cut through. The piece was staged and recorded in April 2021 at the Kennedy Center with full orchestra. Feel free to watch the piece here, and let me know what you think!

 

Laura and I became fast friends and consistent collaborators, seeing eye-to-eye on most projects. Within the four or so years after our Kennedy Center Collaboration, we worked together on three more operas: Colorado Sky, The Fall of Man and Other Tales, and The Rip Van Winkles.

 

Colorado Sky began as a collaboration with talented soprano Sabina Balsamo, my former classmate at University of Colorado Boulder. In 2020, Colorado voted to reintroduce grey wolves to the state, generating controversy in the state. Sabina and her partner Chas, a member of the Lirios String Quartet, approached me with the idea to turn it into an opera, and I reached out to Laura to flesh out the libretto and story. The piece, written for young and old audiences alike, tells the story of a wolf cub named Sky who returns home. Sky struggles to adjust to living in Colorado but eventually learns to adapt to his new world, encouraged by his mother Luna and the ancestral wolves.

 

Claire McCahan singing Sky in "Colorado Sky"
Katy and Melanie working their shadow puppetry magic

We knew that we wanted to have puppets in the piece, but we were looking for options more creative than building large wolf puppets or using wolf costumes and goofy wolf ears for the opera singers. We found puppeteer Katy Williams and designer Melanie Bindon, who brought to us the idea of incorporating shadow puppetry, with cutouts of wolves and other animals illuminated by high-power flashlights. Katy and Melanie supplemented the cutouts with a variety of household objects like nets and jars, bringing to life an intricate world.


The piece was promoted by Art Song Colorado, a great local organization that promotes new work run by Eapen Leubner. The opera had a workshop in January 2023 in Boulder and premiere in summer 2023 at the Dairy Center to a receptive audience of children and adults. I got to work with baritone Andrew Garland and close collaborator, mezzo soprano Claire McCahan. Apparently, I can’t get away from operas and pieces about animals and/or food! Check out more of the piece here.

 


I had two more opportunities to collaborate with Laura in 2022. As part of my doctoral fellowship, I was tasked to use the ATLAS B2 Blackbox at the University of Colorado for my dissertation. This is a unique immersive space with a 44.4 ambisonic speaker array, meaning that there are 44 individual speakers and 4 subs to create a kind of immersive sonic environment where you have 360-degree spatial manipulation of sound objects. You can even move them vertically within a space.

 

When I applied to the ATLAS Fellowship at University of Colorado, I proposed an immersive song cycle that dealt with several different time periods in human evolution. It was very broad and vague (more structural and form-based). That’s very much how I think as a composer—conceptual, in broad storytelling strokes that often need refining and limiting. In my process of writing North Pond, I realized that I don’t have as much talent for writing lyrics or libretti than I do music—I usually now depend on my librettists to come up with the emotional arc and core of the story. My initial concept was to reach out to nine different librettists/lyricists, each to write a song independently that emphasized the individuality of each rather than building an overarching structure. The singers would be archetypal characters, returning in different eras in time (like something in Cloud Atlas, for example).

 

Nine librettists ended up writing me short fragments, and I kept some of these, but when I asked Laura to join the project, she ended up writing all nine movements by herself, unprompted. Her work lent a sense of unity that the piece needed, and I ended up keeping all her text. I recruited a large creative team to realize her libretto, including director Ben Stasny, conductor Kedrick Armstrong, costume designer Sasha de Koninck, and projection designers Holiday Darling and Josh Westerman, who managed to create an immersive work that far exceeded my expectations. I was able to write for specific singers and good friends (Claire McCahan, John Boggs, Tommy Bocchi, Olivia Lerwick, and Melissa Burke-Manwarring) for the project, tailoring my work for their voices. Check it out here!

 

"The Fall of Man and Other Tales" in the ATLAS B2 Blackbox

The second major opportunity we had in 2022 was to compose a youth opera for the 2023 Glimmerglass Festival. The artistic director of Washington National Opera at the time, Francesca Zambello, was also the artistic director of Glimmerglass, and the librettist mentor for AOI, Kelley Rourke, was the dramaturg for the festival. Rob Ainsley was then tapped as the artistic director at Glimmerglass to replace Francesca, so the timing worked out to commission us that year. Kelley Rourke, along with composers Ben Moore and Kamala Sankaram, had established an annual tradition of creating a world-premiere youth opera for the festival.

Cast of "The Rip Van Winkles" (p.c. Evan Zimmerman)

Given the comedic and lighthearted approach we took with Las Auténticas, the Glimmerglass team tapped Laura and myself to write an hour-long youth opera for the 2023 festival. The challenge this time was that I had to write for young voices, not just young audiences. We broke the vocal writing up into a group of young children, teens, and four young artists, keeping the writing for the youngest singers essentially within an octave.

 

As became a tradition in our process, Laura pitched me three page-long pitch ideas, and this time the Glimmerglass creative team chose their favorite pitch. They went with The Rip Van Winkles, a comedic piece about a small town in upstate New York that’s suspiciously short on cell reception (read/listen more here for the full synopsis ;) ). Laura, with Kelley’s help, worked up a well-structured libretto. We broke the piece up into clear scenes, manipulating a few simple motifs that repeated throughout the show.

 

Over the course of writing, we had to simplify things a few times to keep the music catchy and singable for the kids. (We even included a little disco number). I had the fortune to present the show at the National Opera Association conference in Tempe, Arizona, for potential producers and performers. We hope the show has a future!


Cast, Crew, Creative Team, and Beautiful Set of "The Rip Van Winkles"

I’m looking forward to the many collaborations Laura and I will make in the future. It’s a fruitful and constantly rewarding collaboration, and I learn something new with each piece!

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