Monday, January 14, 2008

In the beginning...

[Eric Melear is an assistant conductor with Houston Grand Opera and likes to divide his time between being a conductor, pianist and amateur photographer. This is first of a series of guest posts about Jake Heggie's Last Acts, which will premiere with HGO.]

Last month I had the pleasure of traveling to San Francisco to conduct the workshop of Jake Heggie’s new opera, Last Acts, which HGO will premiere February 29-March 15. “Pleasure” is a bit of an understatement, as I’m sure you can imagine my excitement at being part of a brand new piece with the likes of Jake Heggie and Frederica Von Stade from the ground up musically. Yes, yes, be insanely jealous, but take comfort in that you will hence forward share in my experiences on Last Acts.

As a conductor and pianist, I’m often one of the last people to get on board for a project like this – usually after the music has been written. Before it reaches me, there have been ideas tossed about by Jake, Gene Scheer (the librettist), Lenny Foglia (the director) and the singers. There are preliminary talks with Terrence McNally (who wrote the play on which Last Acts is based). There are talks about making it a Broadway musical. There are talks of a cast of thousands…and then talks to return to its original three-person intimacy. And somewhere in there comes a commission from HGO and San Francisco Opera. Now with a premiere in sight, contracts are drawn up, words start to be written, music composed, set designs imagined, season brochures created, and a cast assembled. And sometime after all that is when my work begins.

I’m no stranger to world premieres or workshops for them, but each experience is always unique. Usually, a workshop consists of a conductor, singers, and a pianist rehearsing and reading through the piece, while the composer, librettist, director and members of the presenting opera company make suggestions and changes. Jake told me he insists on workshop-ing his operas, and it’s easy to see why. It is the first time that the score and libretto leap off the page and out of realm of ideas into a tangible piece of theater. It gives everyone a chance to decide what needs to be kept, tweaked, cut, and added, and answers very basic questions: Is the story clear? Does it suit the voices? What is the impact on the audience? All of this saves valuable rehearsal time in February and enables Jake to confidently finish orchestrating his score in the meantime.

Needless to say, preparing for all of this when the ink is hardly dry on the page is exciting, and the challenge is always, “Where to begin?”

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