Opera composing? It still has its champions
There are those who think opera as a creative compositional medium is extinct in this latter half of the 20th century. Many have tried, and many will continue to try, to do battle with an arguably outmoded form to suffuse it with new energy and a fresh viewpoint. One such valiant combatant is Thea Musgrave, one of Britain's -- and the world's -- major musical voices.Skip to next paragraph
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She is also fortunate that the Virginia Opera Association has taken an interest in her work. To date, the Norfolk-based troupe has presented the United States premiere of "Mary, Queen of Scots" and the world premiere of "A Christmas Carol."
One could easily enough assume that because Miss Musgrave is married to Voice of America artistic director Peter Mark, this is all family-connnected vaunting and fluffery. But that assumption would be altogether wrong.
I had a chance to chat with the couple last spring when they were in town for the long-overdue New York City Opera premiere of "Mary," brought up, virtually intact, from Norfolk, with Ashley Putnam repeating one of the singular pinnacle roles of her career to date as the ill-fated Scottish Queen.
Both Marks were quick to point out that "Mary" came not at all at their insistence but by request of the VOA board.Miss Musgrave noted, "At the suggestion of the board to do 'Mary,' I said. 'Are you surem you want to do a contemporary opera?'" They were quite sure. "Mary" had been a big success in its world premiere with the Scottish National Opera in Edinburgh, so it was not exactly an untried commodity.
Nevertheless, for a small community like Norfolk, with a fledgling opera company, to undertake a new opera when its audiences had hardly begun to be exposed to a cross section of the classics, was, at the very least, a bold step. Miss Musgrave pointed out that "Mary" did for the community what any premiere would do. The attention of the music world was focused there. Music critics came from all over. Norfolkians treated it like the bonafide eventm that it was. Even John White from the City Opera was there.
And though City Opera was slow in coming around to accepting the work for production there, the company finally did well by "Mary." Perhaps the release by Moss Music Group of a handsome 3-record box of the opera, (MMG 301) recorded live in Norfolk, helped. That release clearly letthe record-buying public know the company which also makes and distributes Vox Turnabout was embarking on a new venture in an ambitious way.
Concurrent to "Mary" in Norfolk, Miss Musgrave and finishing up an opera that Norfolk had commissioned -- a holiday work that would appeal to young and mature audiences. Not surprisingly, Miss Musgrave had turned to Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" for title, plot, and inspiration. This out-of-the-blue-bolt came while Peter Mark was doubling as interim director of the Omaha Opera -- one of the many posts he has held in his short career.
After Peter met and married Thea, they decided that England was not the country either would prefer to settle down in, even though Miss Musgrave is British. Mark, who had actually begun his musical career singing the Shepherd at the Met as a boy soprano, but by now was an accomplished violist, was on the staff of the music school at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
They broke up Thea's Manchester apartment, had a grand "grab bag" farewell party (no one was allowed out without a bagful of goodies they knew they would not be able to cart off to America). And then they were off to . . . Virginia! Director David Farrar had called Peter to see if he'd be interested in conducting a pilot project production of "La Boheme" in Norfolk, which Farrar would direct. "We were just finishing commitments in England, and a year of absence from UCSB, had shipped everything to California, and were off to Virginia!" There was no hint that this project would be such a smash that a permanent opera company would ensue. . . . the stuff of dreams, and fantasies, in Norfolk of all places -- a smallish naval town of no great artistic pretentions.
The theater they perform in seats 1,732. It is an efficient, not handsome old municipal edifice that is acoustically very satisfactory. It is also the ideal size hall for the young vocies Mark is always looking for to sing leads in his productions. Ashley Putnam got her first big break there, and it is safe to say she will not be the last star-in-the-making to emerge from Norfolk.
"Mary" put Norfolk on the operatic map. "A Christmas Carol" solidified the position. That work, Mark recounts, "was tied in with the decision to expand our season and go into a new area. We decided to add a holiday production around Christmas." Rather than do yet another "Hansel and Gretel" association president Edith Hamilton thought -- and the board agreed -- that something completely different was in order. It was another risk that again paid off -- in visiting critics, as well as another MMG deluxe 3-record set (MMG 302) with a VOA credit -- startling progress and exposure for so young a company.