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.

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.

Musgrave is one of several operatic composers of the day who follow the Wagnerian tradition of writing both libretto and music. This is not necessarily a happy idea, witness the ghastly texts Sir Michael Tippet has given his operas "The Knot Garden" and especially "The Ice Break." When a composer is not literarily gifted, the results tend to be insufferable.

Musgrave's librettos may not rank in history as pinnacles of the form, but she knows her language, and its imagistic possibilities. Both "Mary" and "Carol" read smoothly. They do not make their own "music" when encountered away from the score. Rather they fit comfortably into the framework the composer gives it.

As Musgrave elaborates "the whole thing grown hand in hand -- organically -- music and words. I don't polish the libretto until the music comes along. The music dictates what would happen, how long it should be, and so forth." It is not the solution for every composer, but Miss Musgrave has been singularly successful. And her libretto-writing came out of necessity.

In fact, it was "Mary" that caused the switch. An inability to see eye to eye at a crucial point in the work's development made Miss Musgrave realize that she should at least try it herself. She saw so clearly where the music was taking her, and her librettist was fighting that direction. When Musgrave did it herself, the opera fell together.

"I was particularly worried how to make the emotional temperature of the big confrontation between Mary and her brother reach the right degree. I did [my libretto] as a reading and saw clearly the holes and pacing problems in the emotional planning." One of the marvelous, if at first deceptive, aspects of "Mary, Queen of Scots" is its low-key, narrative first act. It sets a subtle foundation for the next two, without specifically preparing the operagoer for the incredible impact of the second and third acts, or the tug of intensity that sweeps throughout those two acts right to the historically condensed action that precedes the final curtain.

"A Christmas Carol" runs by a different muse, considerably more narrative, telling a far more detailed story (undoubtedly because it is so familiar, and, under the best of circumstances, very hard to condense). Miss Musgrave's incorporation of Christmas tunes, Westminster chimes, and other distant yet recognizable details gives the listener an acoustical-imaginative perspective, and the turbulent undercurrent that links the storyline keeps attention pitched forward inquisitively. The sound on the "Christmas Carol" is marginally less good than on "Mary," but both works are of the sort that one goes back to with pleasure and increasing admiration for the composer's literary gifts, her musical mettle, and Mark's vibrant communication of them.

Miss Musgrave is silent on the the subject of future projects, but Mark is more than willing to elaborate on the next season at VOA. The operas will include "Faust," "La Cenerentola," "The Magic Flute," and "La Traviata" -- the latter with Miss Putnam and Jake Gardner, two artists dear to VOA audiences. Mark will conduct them all, Mr. Farrar will direct. Mark is adamant that the comedies must be performed in English translation, but not necessarily the standard favorites.

Funding is always a worry for a growing company, especially now with massive arts endownment cuts more than likely. A need for money never ceases, particularly in this most expensive of art forms. Mark is pleased to note that the VOA books are always balanced, that the money is always as well and efficiently used. He must blow his own horn, because, as he wryly notes, "You don't get brownie points for black ink."

Meanwhile, the couple continue to divide their time between Norfolk and California. There is no time to compose throughout the season, such are the demands on Miss Musgrave's time as wife of the artistic director. Mark is seeking ways of expanding his conducting career. This summer he has been in Los Angeles, again with Farrar, working on "La Boheme" for the Los Angeles Opera Repertory Theater (LAORT), another young company. The Marks collective energies will focus on the London production of "Christmas Carol" in late November at the Sadler's Wells Theater, put on by the Royal Opera in the VOA production.

Meanwhile, if you are passing near or through Norfolk, you could hardly find a better place to sample what a small company with tomorrow's stars is capable of.

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