Reflections on the Premiere Production of The Long Ride Home

Thomas Rimes, September, 2008

It has been nearly two months since the first performance of my opera, The Long Ride Home, in July 2008 in Sydney, Australia. After the all the excitement and intensity of the months leading up to the premiere production it took me several weeks to unwind and to get back into a state of mind where I could begin to reflect on the things that had been achieved.

At the time of the first performances I was overwhelmed by the positive response that the show received from the audiences. When I wrote the opera, I had dreamt of creating an experience for the audience that was moving, emotional and filled with beauty. In arranging the first production in Sydney, I wanted to share something with the audience that I felt would strike an emotional chord. To have received such a positive reaction from the audiences was one of the most gratifying artistic experiences of my life. 

The production was the culmination of a very long process for me, both creatively and organizationally. The writing process - the creation of the story, the writing of the words and the composition of the music, was a very slow and extended process. At the center of this process was the desire to use the medium of opera to tell a story which I felt was intimate and personal which at the same time communicated universally. Alongside my belief in the power of this particular story was my belief in the ability of opera to convey intense human emotions in a very direct and beautiful way. In writing The Long Ride Home I wanted to demonstrate that a contemporary opera could be accessible whilst at the same time exploring subject matter that was challenging and provocative. I wanted to demonstrate the ability of opera to express extremes of human emotion through sound, visuals and story telling.

The months leading up to the premiere performance of the opera was an incredibly intense period of organizational and creative work. In putting together the premiere production we experienced all the usual difficulties associated with launching a new show – late changes in the cast, struggles to work within our allocated budget, difficulties in contacting members of the press and so on. The weeks leading up to the first performance were a real rollercoaster ride for all involved. I am forever indebted to the cast for the courage they showed in being involved in this project and for preparing the show with the budget and time constraints that we had. It was only in the last few days of rehearsals that the shape of the production took a solid shape and that everybody involved could see that we “had a show,” so to speak. The whole process leading to this point was one of continual uncertainty for the performers, which made the positive response to the finished product all the more gratifying.

Looking back at our experience promoting the premiere production in the Sydney press, it seems that we were both hindered and helped by a lack of expectations. When I was talking to people about the production it was clear to me that members of the Sydney arts community do not have any expectation that new operas could have any kind of significant popular appeal. This is due in part to the fact that there have been no definitive “Australian Operas,” let alone operas based in a contemporary Australian setting that have established a permanent place in the repertoire. For these reasons, in promoting the performance of the opera, I came across many people who wished me the best of luck but who I felt did expect that they would enjoy the opera and that the piece would have something to say to them. This expectation worked both for and against us. In some instances it made it difficult to attract media attention and coverage (why would anyone consider a performance of an opera to be “news?"). On the other hand, the absence of expectations led to some wonderfully surprised reactions from the audiences that eventually came to the show. I was amused to hear some people’s reactions to the performance when they spoke to me after the show. One audience member told me that she had “sat through” numerous contemporary operas in the past, and that she had attended my opera more out of feeling of duty than of a desire for enjoyment.  “I actually enjoyed your opera” she told me, with a look of seeming disbelief. The cast members also got similar reactions from friends of theirs who attended the show more out personal loyalty rather than out of an expectation of attending an enjoyable, uplifting, moving or memorable show. It was very gratifying to be able to demonstrate to a skeptical audience that attending a contemporary opera performance could be such an entertaining and moving experience. 

The nerve-wracking aspect of the premiere performance for me as the writer and composer was that it was the first opportunity I had to see whether the show worked in the way that I had hoped. This is to say, it was the first time that I could know whether the audience “got it.” Throughout the writing process I had thought about what I wanted the audience’s experience watching the show to be: what emotions I wanted them to feel, what ideas I wanted them to think about, which parts would be funny/tragic etc. and what impressions I wanted them to leave them with at the end of the show. In the case of The Long Ride Home I intentionally made some things in the story very explicit and left other parts open-ended. It was my hope that rather than irritating the audience, the end of the opera would prompt the audience to speculate on what happened to the characters: to think about what the untold family secrets were, what happened to the characters after the show was finished and so on. I hoped that the audience would adopt the story for themselves and come up with their own versions of how the missing parts of the story played out. I was delighted when different members of the audience (and the cast themselves) described their version of what happened in the lives of the characters to me – often with great differences to what I had imagined. One cast member told me after the performance that they had been inspired to create their own “sequel story” to The Long Ride Home!

I took all these reactions as a positive sign that the people who saw the opera were affected by the story – that there was something in the story that expressed something about their families and themselves. I found this to be the case with both the “family drama” aspects of the show and the “September 11, 2001” elements. It seems that, as I had hoped, there is something in the opera’s expression of these two experiences that is very universal and at the same time very personal and emotionally-charged. The audience’s reactions suggested to me that these overlapping experiences greatly enhanced the overall power of the piece, rather than distracting from one another.

Looking back on the production, I am so happy with the performers’ reactions to the opera. When I was preparing for the production I had hoped that the Australian singers creating the roles would relish the chance to play characters “in their native tongue,” so to speak. I hoped that they would be able to directly connect to the characters and the situations in the opera and that it would speak directly to their personal experiences as Australians. I got very positive feedback from the singers all throughout the rehearsal process on this point. They repeatedly told me all the ways that aspects of the story connected with their personal experience. They would say things like: “my granddad used to say those exact same words to me,” or “this situation reminds me what it’s like between me and my sister” and so on. It was very exciting to have a rehearsal process where the performers could connect so directly to everything that was begin said. In the case of this opera where I was interested in situations being presented in a very “realistic” way, the performer’s connection to the subject material made it very easy to “weed out” any moments that sounded artificial, or that didn’t strike the right chord. Part of the motivation for this type of work was knowing that our audience would be very familiar with the situations and characters in the show, so they would notice any moment that wasn’t true to the subject matter. The connection of the subject matter to the performers and the audience members was one of the remarkable things about the first production.

The experience of presenting the premiere production of The Long Ride Home has convinced me of the value of new opera and the impact it can make. The overwhelming reaction of those who saw the show has encouraged me to organize many future productions of the opera, both in Australia and in other parts of the world. The experience has also inspired me to continue my writing efforts and to think creatively about how to write operas that appeal to audiences in a new way - expressing powerful subject matter in a beautiful and direct way. 

Thomas Rimes, Washington, D.C.; September 2008

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