Working with new operas

Thomas Rimes talks about his experiences working with new operas.

[Excerpts from Thomas Rimes’ Interview with Ingrid Scott]

I.S. Tell me about some of the other new opera projects you have participated in as conductor and pianist:
T.R. During the two year period that I was at graduate school in Memphis, John Baur, one of the composition professors at the school was finishing writing an opera about Martin Luther King. He’d been working at it a while and was at the stage of finishing scenes and having the opera department workshop them. We rehearsed these scenes quite intensely so John Baur could get an idea of how the piece would look, and if he needed to make any changes. It was the first, big, full new opera I’d worked on and I liked that experience a lot. It was very exciting being in the middle of a big piece and in this case I felt that he was working with a very strong idea for an opera because Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and the ties between Memphis and his story were very strong. People throughout the city had strong opinions and strong memories about the story. It was very exciting process and the opera got a lot of discussion and press. People had strong emotions invested in it. Over the course of a year we work-shopped half the opera and the year after I finished studies in Memphis and living in New York, the school asked me to return to Memphis to be the Assistant Conductor for the World Premiere production of the entire opera. I worked on it for a month and a half and conducted one of the performances. I learned a lot from that experience: from being part of the preparation process, and from observing the creative process. Having rehearsed the piece, I then observed the audience’s reactions when it was finally performed. I learnt a lot from seeing that. This whole experience was a big influence on me as a writer and composer, as it happened all around the time that I was drafting the libretto to “The Long Ride Home”.

I.S. What happened to John Baur’s opera?
T.R. As far as I know, it hasn’t been staged since. The story and the subject matter interested a lot of people and in cities like Birmingham and Alabama and Atlanta which have strong ties with Martin Luther King. There was some talk of them doing it again, but the response to the music was not as positive as they’d hoped. As far as I know, they didn’t pick up the opera for other performances. I formed my own opinion about what I liked and didn’t like. Around that same time, I was coming in contact with other new operas, contemporary pieces. In the time I lived in New York I got to work with quite a few scenes and new pieces and met new opera composers.

I.S. Can you name any of these other influences?
T.R. There were a couple of fellow writers I met in New York, colleagues who knew that I was writing an opera. I got to see a large amount of new opera in rehearsal and performance. On many occasions I saw things I didn’t like: things that didn’t connect to the audience and complicated avant garde elements that I didn’t respond to as a listener. These opera didn’t make the right connections with me, unlike the music of composers such as Verdi, Puccini and others. I felt that many new operas weren’t well-put together and that not enough thought was given to storytelling and how to make the audience understand and get involved with the story. The new composers hadn’t given enough thought to the experience of the audience and to whether they would be moved by the story and the music, and whether the combination of words, music and visuals would be powerful. As time’s gone on, I’ve seen many new opera premieres, in some cases where huge amounts of money were spent on the productions, but invariably I have been left cold. These experiences got me thinking about how I would go about writing something different.

Through the process of writing my own opera I came away with a new appreciation for the composers whose operas we do year in year out in the standard repertoire. I admire these composers who were able to write with complexity, but were still able to produce music that was immediate and visceral. Whilst there are huge complexities that went into the writing of these pieces, it’s still possible for someone in the audience doesn’t have much experience in opera to have a direct and powerful response to the music. I feel that there has been a big division in opera which has prevented new pieces from having any kind of connection to popular culture and popular appeal.

Return to interview list