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Finding a voice in opera

David Patrick Stearns of Philadelphia Inquirer

Telling stories with music can be as thrilling and deep as it gets. And creating them can make or break a reputation - so much so that writing operas, musicals, or their various mutations has been compared to possessing the purportedly cursed Hope Diamond: It puts stars in your eyes, but it might kill you.

Not that anybody is deterred, from seasoned veterans to newcomers like Tony Solitro, 29, whose in-progress opera Unclasped is replacing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania: "Big companies are taking chances on young composers, and smaller companies are popping up all over the place. Now is an important time for American opera . . . [and] for me to experiment, ask questions, take chances."

Seemingly en masse, local composers are clearing their schedules to make room for everything from small-scale monodramas to opera at its grandest, from cutting-edge Missy Mazzoli to the more mainstream Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon. A dozen works could emanate from Philadelphia.

Some projects have major commissions - Higdon's Cold Mountain is coproduced by the Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia. In contrast, Melissa Dunphy, 33, has presented major works using the self-produced Fringe Festival model, which could well happen with Ayn (about The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand), which, like Solitro, she's writing for doctoral requirements at Penn.

The fact that Philadelphia is better known for incubating singers than for creating what they sing is relevant. Stage works are rarely created soundly in private.

"The rules of theatrical time . . . move slower and require more sustained and projected energy," says conductor/pianist Tim Ribchester, who helps composers rehearse and record in-progress works. "Until a composer hears a first-rate voice singing the material with accompaniment, it's hard to predict how the compositional decisions will play out."

That's one reason university-level composers approach the art form so fearlessly. "I can pull in young singers and friends who share my vision of the work and are as excited about it as I am," Dunphy says.

An exception is Michael Hersch, 42. He has plenty of resources at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, where he teaches. But his On the Threshold of Winter, based on a series of poems about facing death by cancer, had to be created in private: It deals directly with his own cancer recovery and a close friend's death from cancer.

"I wanted to write the piece that needed to be written and didn't want practical considerations to keep me from doing what I wanted to do," he says. That also meant no one was there to talk him out of writing his male main character for a female voice. He admits that the stage director for next year's New York premiere is wrestling with that one.

Private or public, the process consumes composers more deeply than anything else: They live their character's lives for months.

"I'm taking the brunt of the emotional roller coaster that they're all going through," admits Higdon, 50, whose Civil War odyssey concerns a wounded Confederate soldier finding his way home. While writing his death scene, she would tear up at the mention of his name.

Why do so many composers subject themselves to such creative ordeals? Because as opera becomes visually intense, musical theater gets more serious, and new avenues open up in chamber opera, the forms have become more loosely defined and creatively accommodating.

"The crossover between opera and musical theater can be a beautiful area," says Robert Maggio, 49, the West Chester University faculty member who migrated from classical concert works to musical theater in 2005, when he joined the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York, and who now has four works in progress.

With advanced stage technology and computerized imagery, such works appeal to a contemporary culture that "thrives increasingly on multisensory stimulation of films, video games and music videos," says Andrea Clearfield, 52, who is working on MILA, Great Sorcerer (about a Tibetan yogi), and The Golem at MIT (updating the Jewish legend).

Audiences accept adventuresome music more readily with a good story attached. The interdisciplinary aspect allows composers to wrestle with big ideas. Characters can have complex inner dialogues, allowing composers to access "the tension between terror and beauty" (Solitro's words).

Though a fashionable downtown-Manhattan minimalist, Julia Wolfe, 55, drew on her family history of coal mining growing up in Montgomery County for her oratorio Anthracite Fields (on commission from the Mendelssohn Club), with matters ranging from child labor to the physical beauty of black-diamond coal. Individual characters couldn't embody them all. Thus, the choral medium.

The most basic reason to write these works is the simplest: You can't not do it. So it was with Hersch when a neighbor in Havertown lent him a book of poems by Marin Sorescu, who wrote almost until the day he died of liver cancer in 1996. "It took the wind out of me," Hersch says. "It spoke to me so directly that I had to shut the book and put it aside. Page after page, line after line . . . ."

The biggest stumbling block often comes first. Higdon spent a year obtaining the rights to an operatic subject that spoke to her. Mazzoli, 33, one of Opera Philadelphia's composers in residence, is expanding her reach from her one-character Song From the Uproar to a larger, multicharacter piece, but she can't talk about it until negotiations on the subject matter are complete.

Dunphy knows she's taking a chance with Ayn Rand, the subject of several biographies. "None can claim to own the copyright on the events that took place," she says. "Legally, I'm in the clear. But if one of them comes after me, there's little I can do."

On the other hand, originating your own story, Maggio says, leaves you no preset compass: He and his librettist too easily change direction, slowing the process. Writing one's own libretto is a possibly expedient option, though some say that's like a surgeon operating on herself. But that's what Hersch did - and of all the local composers, he finished first.

Dunphy, who has been a working actress, is writing her own libretto with no illusions. "It's not going to be perfect," she says, "but I've turned much worse things into music."

The enterprise, Maggio says, "is a lot like playing the lottery."

"But the difference between this and a concert hall is that when the lights go down, there's a different level of intimacy and personal experience. A whole world opens up."

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