Daron Hagen on Composing Contemporary Opera
Q. How do you select a subject for an opera?
A. The themes of the opera must reflect the core issues I am working through at the time I am composing the work. The characters must be worth caring about; the through-story that carries the themes must be strong enough to motivate an audience member to remain engaged.
Q. What is the secret to a successful working relationship with a librettist?
A. The librettist must understand that the composer is the pilot.
Q. Do you have specific singers in mind when you develop roles?
Q. Do you compose at a piano or a desk with a pencil and manuscript paper, or do you now use computer composition tools?
A. I compose the vocal score at the piano; once the first draft is done in pencil, I engrave it using Sibelius; subsequent edits are transferred from my print of the engraved vocal score into the Sibelius file by an assistant; I then orchestrate directly into Sibelius, using the vocal score as a template and transferring it to the larger, full score file.
A. I do not think about how much sets will cost, or what they will look like. Scenic and lighting designers can create enormous magic on a shoe-string, and they know their job better than me. If a scene description says, "In the middle of the desert, in mid-air, holding a lily" a talented designer will find a beautiful way to do it within budget. Size of the orchestra is agreed upon before a contract is reached, so that is in the realm of building with the bricks you are given. Whether or not to use a chorus is a valid cost concern, but not for major companies. One must decide at the beginning whether one is willing to forgo performances by a number of smaller, more financially-challenged companies; if you're okay with that, add chorus!
Vera of Las Vegas, Center for Contemporary Opera
New York City (Photo: Mel Rosenthal)
Q. Do you compose at designated times of day or only when inspired?
A. Inspiration is mainly discussed by amateurs; professionals rarely think about it. I compose in the early morning, when it is most quiet, and when my son is asleep. When he is awake, I would rather be with him.
Q. On average, how long does it take to complete an opera?
A. About four years. A little longer, if I am working on two at the same time.
Q. Describe the feeling when you see a run through of your opera for the first time.
A. Ecstatic / terrified.
Q. How does teaching influence your personal growth as a composer?
A. Teaching is a passion for me. My teaching essentially consists of doing for my students' works what I do for the second and third drafts of my own pieces: target the weak points and strengthen them; determine what was really being said, and help try to say it more clearly; don't change what works; understand that learning is not offered so much as it is seized.
Q. What is your next project?
A. I am currently orchestrating AMELIA, a two act opera for the Seattle Opera, and beginning a new opera for UCLA based on an original libretto.
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