My summer has been in the key of Db major. The opera I’m composing, called “The Days Between,” has its feet so firmly planted in Db that the note has been stuck in my head for the past three months.
Most of my classmates at Brown have never been to an opera. I’ve found that nearly all of the people my age who’ve ever been to an opera have been music students – further leading to a perception of the art form as highbrow and irrelevant. But this is bittersweet for an aspiring composer. It’s thrilling to bring a new work to Brown, where it may likely be a first encounter with opera for many audience members.
I began the summer with little idea as to how to go about writing an opera. I’d composed music before and written a decent amount of lyrics and poetry, but this summer stared me down with the task of unifying the two in a way I’d never attempted.
How do you jump in? Story or music first? With key signatures and formal structure or with character sketches and poetry? I didn’t know whether to consider myself mainly musician or lyricist.
As it turns out, I’ve found it most useful to consider myself neither of the two, but to view opera-writing as an entirely different beast. Instead of viewing the creative process as having two distinct tasks (music and lyrics), I found it more comfortable and practical to view an opera as the sum of its parts – and to create the music and lyrics during the same process – attempting to express something which, missing one of its halves, would be rendered incomplete.
At the beginning of the summer, I knew that it was necessary to plot out a schedule and a detailed process for writing the opera. The only catch was that I knew that I wouldn’t fully understand the process until I’d already gone through the experience of writing it!
And so I took stabs in the dark and made the beginnings of a schedule. Some things were clear. I was going to write the first draft for piano and vocals alone, in order to flesh out the music, the lyrics and the story, before moving onto the next draft with full orchestral accompaniment.
I’ve learned from this summer that schedules can actually work well when they’re fluid. A schedule can be written, scrutinized and changed as you go along, provided that you keep a constant eye on the date and that you often evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.
I still haven’t come to terms with the most practical process for creating an opera. I’ll need more time and distance from the actual creative process to think it over. But I’ve come to view opera itself in a different light than I’d previously seen it. The story is just as much in the music as in the lyrics, and the melodies are shaped as much by the plot as by the notes themselves.