June 21, 2008

Daron Hagen on Composing Contemporary Opera

In this member interview with a prolific American composer Daron Hagen we take a look at composing operas. Hagen is a versatile composer who receives commissions from soloists, chambers groups and orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His operas include Shining Brow, Vera of Las Vegas, Bandanna, Broken Pieces and The Antient Concert. His latest opera is Amelia, commissioned by the Seattle 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?

A. Yes.

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.

Shining Brow, Chicago Opera Theater
Chicago, Illinois (Photo: Dan Rest)

Q. Sets, chorus and orchestra size are all serious economic considerations for any production. In this context, how do you achieve the initial vision so that the final product makes you happy?

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.

Join | Since 1996 | USA/Canada

June 14, 2008


Join | Since 1996 | USA/Canada