The writing process for his opera

Thomas Rimes talks about the writing process for his opera, The Long Ride Home.

[Excerpts from Thomas Rimes’ Interview with Ingrid Scott]

I.S. How did you work on the opera?
T.R. Well, when I look back on the process, by far the most important part of the process is choosing the story. In the case of The Long Ride Home, the story came smoothly and easily and I never had any doubt that that it would make a good opera. It was a process of discovering the words and music that would clearly communicate the story to the audience. In thinking about other operas I want to write, I have given a lot of thought to what has a strong emotional hook for the audience. I feel that the opera can be very effective in exploring those big emotional extremes, so we as writers have to find material that the audience has a big emotional connection to. That’s what the great operas do really well. If you look back to the time when those earlier composers were working, the subject matter of the operas made an immediate connection to the audiences. That’s why Verdi and Puccini were in a big part of the popular consciousness of their times. They were part of the popular culture in way that classical music hasn’t been for the past hundred or so years. Since the time of Strauss and Puccini, no one has really been able been able to write music that legitimately operatic which has the ability to move people.

When I was in the process of trying to get this opera produced I told many people that I thought that my opera had a strong commercial appeal, and a very broad potential audience. This idea was a new one to most people. New opera works have had such a limited audience in the past few generations that many people inside the opera industry don’t consider the possibility that a new piece could have widespread appeal. So many new operas come and go and are written with no particular audience in mind, struggle through a couple of poorly-attended performances and then are never performed again. I was attempting to do something dramatically different to this. I think people that write and produce opera should think more ambitiously about the impact that new opera pieces can have. Too often we think of opera as an old, antiquated genre that’s good in its place, fringe, or an intellectual exercise.

I.S. Is there a particular voice or style you write for?
T.R. I think of the voice in a traditional way. I like grand, romantic opera and I love the sound of a beautiful well-trained opera voice: I love the expressive potential of this sound. That sound really moves people and it’s such a powerful thing just in itself. The question of writing for the voice is an important one that I’ve thought about a lot. With nearly all the new operas I’ve come in contact with I have not liked the way that the composers have written for the voice. I think that contemporary composers tend to write with too many extremes. They have extremely high notes and low notes and big intervals, where the singer has to pitch difficult notes. I’ve worked hard in rehearsals for several new operas where I’ve had to work with singers hour after hour learning these complicated parts. In this situation it’s easy to see what the singers respond to, and what types of vocal lines make it easy for them to sing expressively and soulfully and what type of vocal lines make it hard.

Often I’ve had to work incredibly hard to help singers learn a part that’s really hard to execute in a new opera. Then the audience hears it and all that complexity and difficulty leaves them cold: it’s too complicated for the ear to take in. In the new operas I have seen I often feel that the singers are so preoccupied with executing difficult parts that they don’t have any capacity to express the music, or put their own soul into it. I think this is a big contrast to the writing of the great opera composers who wrote with incredible simplicity and great depth of feeling.

In terms of the types of voice types I have written for, I have learnt a lot about this from working in opera houses. I have learnt that there are certain types of voices that have particular characteristics, and which combine with the orchestra in certain ways. This has had a big influence on the types of voices that I imagined would be suitable for my music as I wrote The Long Ride Home. I find it fascinating that so many of the opera composers whom we consider the greats like Strauss, Wagner, Mozart and Verdi, did a great amount of work as conductors and pianists in opera houses – this was the place where they learnt about singers. They knew, even if they were pushing the limitations of the singers, what the parameters of the voice were and what would work well for the voice.

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