AN INTERVIEW with ANDRÉ BISHOP, PAUL CREMO, and PETER GELB
Our editor, Alexis Gargagliano, spoke with André Bishop, the producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater; Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager; and Paul Cremo, its dramaturg and the director of the opera-commissioning program. In Gelb’s handsomely appointed office, they discussed the creation of the opera Intimate Apparel, the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, and the burgeoning of contemporary operas in the United States.
ALEXIS GARGAGLIANO How was the New Works Program started?
ANDRÉ BISHOP It was Peter’s idea. He was interested in developing new work— the Met could bring many musical forces to the table, and Lincoln Center Theater could bring accomplished playwrights. That was the beginning. P
ETER GELB Shortly after I was appointed as head of the Metropolitan Opera, we met for the first time to discuss this idea. I wanted to develop a whole program of ways to reenergize the Met. One avenue was to create new work. We were intrigued by the idea of developing work with librettists from the world of theater and bringing stage directors into the development process from the onset. André and I both felt that we could help improve the odds for success with new works by nurturing these collaborations at a very early stage.
AG Had you seen something at Lincoln Center Theater that sparked this idea?
PG Seeing things like Contact made me realize that André was encouraging the creation of work outside traditional bounds.
AB We had done a couple of sung-through musicals. So doing something sung through with no dialogue, or hardly any dialogue, was not new to us or to our audience.
AG Had there been much crosspollination among the institutions at Lincoln Center?
AB There has been very little collaboration, and certainly not like this. We wanted to show that companies on this campus could actually work together and learn from one another.
PG The key ingredient in the collaboration was the arrival of Paul Cremo, our dramaturg. He’s been the field general of this whole project.
PAUL CREMO I think your initial conversations happened in 2005, and I came on board in 2007. You decided not to give commissions with a guaranteed premiere date; instead, it was a more theatrical model, where the end result of the program is the workshop. This allows the pieces to develop freely, without the pressures of a production looming.
AG How did you begin?
AB Once we had raised the money, we matched ten composers with librettists. Some fell away and we added a few more. The other rule we created was not to decide whether a work was appropriate for Lincoln Center Theater or for the Metropolitan Opera until after the workshop.
PG At the workshop, each piece is performed with a piano and singers. If we’re going to do a full production, we collectively decide whether it’s a chamber-sized work or a grand opera-sized work. One of the challenges that we face all the time, when I talk to directors who are working here, is how do you connect the audience to the stage? That problem doesn’t exist with the Mitzi. The audience and the stage are one.
AB It’s because it’s small—there are only 290 seats—and it has a thrust stage, which means the last row is only seven rows back. If a director and a designer know how to use that configuration, it’s a wonderful thing. On a larger scale, this is true in the Beaumont as well. That’s why I think these musicals we’ve done in the Beaumont seem so refreshed. Part of it is that the productions, if I can say this, are good productions, but part of it is that the audience is suddenly seeing South Pacific or My Fair Lady on a stage, in a pattern of movement and scenery they’ve never seen before—and the last seat is only thirteen rows back.
PG André is too modest to say it himself, but if not for him the Beaumont would never have been successfully harnessed theatrically. It wasn’t until you took over that the possibility of its really being successfully utilized was achieved.
AB When Jerry Zaks was resident director, he did some very good shows there before my time. But when I arrived we put in the orchestra pit, because I very badly wanted to do musicals.
PG The directors who staged these wonderfully successful musicals, particularly someone like Bartlett Sher, have become masters of moving action around in a way that the audience can appreciate from all sides. When Bart made his debut at the Met with The Barber of Seville we didn’t have a thrust stage to offer him, so he did the next best thing—he created a passerelle, which brought the action of the stage around and beyond the orchestra pit and literally into the audience.
AG Were there writers creating new works, too, or was it all adaptation, like Intimate Apparel?
PG It varied. The young composer Matthew Aucoin wanted to write an opera based on the Orpheus myth. André suggested that we pair him with Sarah Ruhl, who had written one of the great plays based on the Orpheus legend, Eurydice. Matt and Sarah hit it off amazingly well. The opera will have its premiere this season at the L.A. Opera. They joined us as a commissioning partner once we went beyond the workshop stage, and it will play at the Met two seasons from now. On the other hand, the opera Two Boys, which Nico Muhly composed, had an original libretto by Craig Lucas, and Bart Sher directed.
AB Craig had written the book to The Light in the Piazza , which was the first show Bart did at the Beaumont.
Some of the better pieces that have come out of our program so far have been good not only because the composer is good . . . but because the libretto was so strong.
AG How did the Intimate Apparel conversation start?
PC I had been speaking with Ricky Ian Gordon about possible writers to work with. I suggested Lynn, and Ricky said, “I’ll read her stuff.” We initially planned to have Lynn write something original, but after Ricky read Intimate Apparel he fell in love with it, and Lynn agreed to adapt it.
Sometimes even experienced composers forget the capabilities of a human voice, and the workshop will remind them of what’s possible and what isn’t.
AG André, what did Lynn tell you about her original conception of Intimate Apparel ?
AB My memory is of her telling me that she had originally thought of Intimate Apparel as a musical or an opera, but that she was unknown then and it would have been a bigger, more expensive production and she was afraid that nobody would produce it. So she wrote it as a play.
PC Her father had loved opera. In Lynn’s play Ruined, there are monologues that are like arias. We talked about ways to sort of expand the play a bit, adding a chorus, ensembles. Lynn’s an avid student, and read a bunch of librettos. Ricky talked her through what he needed. He started writing the first notes in April 2012.
PG The development of an opera or a musical is much longer than that of a play. There are more moving parts and it requires more development, more workshops— Intimate Apparel had four. The first workshop was in 2015.
AG How did it change?
PG It got better. (Laughter)
PC The basic bones and the structure were always there because the play existed. But Bart, for instance, after the first workshop said that the boundaries between scenes could blur a little and be more fluid. The opening of the piece also changed. We were trying to get the main character, the seamstress Esther, and her situation clearly established up front. And, in terms of the music, there has been some tightening, shortening, making things more efficient. In the third workshop, Ricky discovered the possibilities of the chorus and started using them in different ways, almost like underscoring.
PG When a composer hears his or her work performed, it’s different from just looking at the notes. It inspires him or her to do more.
AG Does that also change the conversation between the librettist and the composer?
PC They work hand in hand. Their collaboration is the key to it all.
AB Some of the better pieces that have come out of our program so far have been good not only because the composer is good—and it is a world of the composer, really, the opera world—but because the libretto was so strong. In the case of Eurydice and Intimate Apparel , they’re both extremely powerful pieces of writing, adapted by the playwrights from their own plays.
Opera was seen as this sort of far-off, grand thing, and too conservative. But younger composers have seen what’s possible.
AG What challenges do the playwrights face?
PC Playwrights have a learning curve adapting an existing piece. They first have to throw out nearly half of their text, and that’s challenging (it takes longer to sing something than to say it). This play was very close to Lynn’s heart. She wrote it after her mother died, and she felt that it was a way of communing with her ancestors. She found it really difficult to cut out so much of the great detail that was in the play, but we worked together to isolate the most important text. Then Ricky could show Lynn how the music could tell that story to fill in some of the colors and details that were cut from the text. It’s hard, I think, for any writer. In the theater world, the playwright rules; in the opera world, the composer rules. So the playwright has to step back a bit and hand it over and let the composer run with it.
PG There’s also a technical aspect of a playwright’s learning to write a libretto, of writing words that can be sung. Not only does there have to be fewer of them; they also have to be fit, in the right way, into a singer’s voice.
AG I marveled at the libretto—how Lynn could write such a complex play and then distill it into essentially a poem that can be sung.
PC That’s something else that changed. Hearing the workshops, Ricky got to see where singers were struggling with certain things—like particular words on high notes—and he could lower them or change the emphasis in a line to make it sound more natural.
PG Sometimes even experienced composers forget the capabilities of a human voice, and the workshop will remind them of what’s possible and what isn’t.
AG Was there a moment in one of the first workshops where you felt a particular electricity?
PG I thought it had great potential and was excited by it from the very first workshop—I think we all felt it. We knew it was something special.
AG How did you decide that it was going to be at the Mitzi?
AB I had assumed this would be for the Beaumont, with a full orchestra. It wasn’t until the third workshop that Bart said, “I think we should do it in the Mitzi Newhouse with two pianos.” He was right. In the Mitzi, the words and the music are just right there. You don’t have to strain. We have these incredible singers in this relatively small theater. It’s going to blow the roof off it.
AG How often are new operas produced?
Opera was seen as this sort of faroff, grand thing, and too conservative. But younger composers have seen what’s possible. They don’t have to compromise their musical style or values, and they see that new dramatic subjects can be embraced. And opera companies have been inspired by the idea that new operas can bring in new audiences.
AG What are your hopes for the program in the future?
PG There are a couple of projects still in the pipeline that are coming along really nicely. And André and I have been in discussion on adding composers, and Paul’s been vetting them.
PC Well, during the thirteen years that this program has been in existence there’s been an explosion of contemporary opera in the U.S. Back then, maybe between two and five new operas premiered in a year. At the Met, prior to this program, there would be years between the premieres of original operas. But in 2018 over forty new operas premiered in the U.S.
ANDRÉ BISHOP Producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater
PETER GELB General manager of the Metropolitan Opera
PAUL CREMO Dramaturg at the Metropolitan Opera