Influence of traditional opera repertoire on his opera composition

Thomas Rimes talks about the influence of traditional opera repertoire on his opera composition

[Excerpts from Thomas Rimes’ Interview with Ingrid Scott]

I.S. What is it about older operatic styles that appeals to you as a composer?
T.R. What I admire about the works in the standard repertoire is the way in which the composers wrote beautiful and substantial music that connected with their contemporary audience. I think this is in stark contrast to the composition of new opera in the last couple of generations. Composers writing in contemporary operas seem to pride themselves on writing things that are intellectual and ‘serious’ but tend to be inaccessible to audiences. I have always felt that when you have something that’s very simple and that people respond to, it means a great deal. I also see the power of melody all throughout the standard operatic repertoire. Those composers had a genius for writing music that was simple; direct and very importantly, tuneful. If an audience leaves a performance of a new opera not being able to hum any melody from what they have just heard, then there is a real problem. I feel that writing with this kind of directness and simplicity is the most difficult thing - it’s more difficult than writing something that overwhelms the audience with complexity.

I.S. The final hymn, the soprano duet and Frank’s aria in The Long Ride Home are gorgeous, lyrical pieces - not what you’d call modern.
T.R. They were my best attempts of writing the kind of music that I would like to listen to myself. I hadn’t come across that sort of opera at the time and I wanted hear more of that. To give you an example, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been learning Verdi’s Aida for an upcoming show in America that I’m working on and I’m stunned by how much memorable material he packs into the music. Every minute or so there’s just a gem of a melody, so direct, so strong and so memorable. This is quite staggering to me, particularly when you compare it to the work of contemporary opera composers. I don’t think that recent composers consider writing with this simplicity. I sometimes get the feeling that if they stumble across an idea that may be simple and direct, they’re almost embarrassed by it and have to do something complicated after it, to save face.

I.S. Tell me more about the Aida.
T.R. It’s a production in Baltimore that I will be assisting on. The work that I do in opera houses has had a big influence on my writing. My day job for the last couple of years has been working in opera houses. I’m surrounded by these pieces, living with them for a couple of months at a time. I have the good fortune to be able to work on these operas by Puccini and Verdi and Mozart, and it’s no coincidence that these opera are done time and time again. They’re beautifully written and really powerful. When I put on my composing hat, I find that there are so many things I’ve learned from being around them. These composers have ended up being my primary “composing teachers”.

I.S. So you work in an ideal place for an opera composer.
T.R. I am very happy to have worked in the theatre in the past several years. Aside from being a performer, I’ve always loved writing. I have always loved combinations of words and music in any form. I always loved that when I was playing in bands and writing songs. I also love the theater so writing and composing opera is a very happy mixture of all the things I’ve been involved with in the past. Having said that, there aren’t many people working in the opera houses these days who also work as composers. I don’t come across them very often, if at all.

Quite a lot of opera composers don’t do a lot of work in the opera houses and they don’t have much direct experience working in the theatre and that can be a problem as well as sometimes their works ask for things that aren’t possible or very feasible in the voice or in the theatre. I’ve been really happy to work in opera houses, as a performer and in preparing other people’s pieces as I have learnt so much from these experiences. When you go to write your own you have so much more to draw on. You learn a lot when you see the singers go about their business and see how they overcome problems.

I may be different from other opera composers, but I’m happy to say that I have a great love for nearly all the classic repertoire pieces that are done time and again because I have a great respect for the craftsmanship and inspiration that goes behind them. I respect the fact that they’re done again and again so I’m always trying to learn what it is about those pieces that appeals. It’s no surprise to me that after several generations, people go back to Verdi and Mozart and Puccini. There’s something intrinsic in the pieces and something in the technique that you can learn from performing them. I’ve heard some opera composers talk about consciously trying to do something against the grain of traditional opera, something that shies away from classical pieces, but I think that when you look at how these established composers write for the voice and the way they tell stories through music you find universal principles that work in the theatre. These composers had a really great understanding of these things, a great mastery of them. I combine these influences with the things I like about the contemporary, popular music that I’ve been around for a long time.

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