By JEREMY EICHLER • May 6, 2003
New York Times
Composers will tell you that writing an opera is a Herculean task. They toil away for years on a single work. Ferruccio Busoni labored over "Doktor Faust" for more than a decade, leaving it unfinished at his death in 1924. "Even writing a small opera is like sculpting the David," said Mark Adamo, the New York City Opera composer in residence.
Now imagine taking your David, completed at last, and stashing it in the closet because there is nowhere it can be displayed: the commission has fallen through, or perhaps there never was one to begin with. Such is the situation for many American composers, who often have no way to hear how their own operas sound. Computer programs can bleat out tinny approximations, and there are plenty of chances for readings with piano, but the idea of hiring a top-notch professional orchestra and singers to render even part of a new work is unheard of.
For this reason City Opera's annual readings series is a boon for the composers who take part. It presents excerpts from new operas, performed by the company's full orchestra and a selection of its talented singers. Called "Vox 2003: Showcasing American Composers," this year's event begins tomorrow morning at 10 at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, at 263 West 86th Street in Manhattan, and runs through Thursday afternoon.
Portions of 10 new American operas be presented, including one by Lou Harrison, who died in February. This year's other composers range from the young and unknown (Patrick Soluri, 28) to the decorated (the Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands). All events are free and open to the public, offering a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of the country's operatic future.
From a performer's perspective There is nothing else quite like it in the country. Opera scouts and industry insiders have been present in past years, and there are stories of works being picked up at the Vox and slated for full production. Scott Wheeler's "Democracy: An American Comedy" was performed in the 2000 showcase, with the company star Lauren Flanigan as one of the soloists, a composer's dream come true. Plàcido Domingo's manager, Edgar Vincent, was in the audience and was taken by the work. With Mr. Vincent's help, Mr. Wheeler eventually sent Mr. Domingo, artistic director of the Washington Opera, a previous recording of the work along with the libretto, and a match was made. Mr. Domingo's company now hopes to mount a full production for its young artists program in the 2004-5 season.
"In terms of service to the art, the showcase is the greatest thing that anybody is doing," said Mr. Wheeler. His success is unusual but not unprecedented. "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" by Charles Wuorinen was also presented in 2000 and is now tentatively scheduled for a production at City Opera in 2004-5.
In Mr. Wheeler's case his opera was only partly completed when his excerpt was first performed. Sometimes entire works have been sitting on the shelf. Roberto Xavier RodrÕguez, for example, spent a year and a half writing "The Old Majestic" for a 1988 premiere at a San Antonio Festival only to watch the entire festival fold before the first performance.
Fifteen years later the opera, a backstage comedy set in an old vaudeville theater, will come to life before an audience on Thursday afternoon. "Taking an opera from the page to the stage is much like taking a recipe from the page to the table," Mr. RodrÕguez said. "It's a great thrill after looking at it for so long to actually taste the dish." In these days of shrinking foundation support, funds for the showcase have been reduced this year to $345,000, down from $428,000 last year. With other arts organizations feeling a similar pinch, Mr. Adamo is not expecting national companies to send representatives this week, he said. In the past the event's visibility has also been compromised by the City Opera's request that critics not review the excerpts because they are not polished staged productions, and some are still works in progress.
Still, Mr. Adamo said he was heartened because the numbers of scores submitted kept rising. He chose this year's group from more than 100 submissions, trying to create an "interesting dissonance among the compositional visions." As for the opera scouts, well, there's always next year.