Music Secrets: How to Write an Opera, Part 1

Feel like writing an opera is only for big name composers with big budgets? Or are you willing to take the plunge and create a work in one of the most compelling and cutting edge musical opera?

modern opera
Almost two years ago I embarked on the largest musical production I have created to date -  Libertaria: The Virtual Opera. After writing the award-winning Creation Oratorio and dozens of multimedia works, I wanted to combine my love of the audio and the visual into a single large scale work. 

Find a Great Dramatic Story
You need a strong story to write a compelling opera. Fortunately you can easily borrow from thousands of public domain works and modernize them. Think of West Side Story (just a contemporary version of Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet).  

Many great operas use Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, and Biblical stories, all of which include interesting characters, strong themes, and action.  

Libertaria borrows heavily from messianic stories, but is set in the future and changed to include the complexities of the parent/child relationship, sociopolitical ideologies, and ethical issues of invention.

It's all about the Libretto
Before you start your opera, you need a libretto. The libretto is the storyline, lyrics, and dramatic direction of your opera. Think of it as a screenplay or script, but for music. If you are not a writer, like I happen to be, then I highly recommend that you pair up with a poet or seasoned librettist. This partnership will ensure that your opera combines the best talents of both artists. The last thing you want to hear is that the music was great but that the story, well, stunk.

CHECK OUT "Open Your Ears to Modern Electronic Opera".

Opera Preproduction Thoughts
While we traditionally think of opera as enormous grandiose productions with full orchestra, choir, and three story high sets, many modern operas include simple productions:
English: American Performance Artist Mem Nahad...
Performance Artist Mem Nahadr in "Madwoman: A Contemporary Opera
1) Single singer with multimedia "set"
2) Small casts in a community theater
3) Electronic scores instead of full orchestra
4) Works for small chamber ensemble and small cast
5) Works that use multimedia exclusively

If you have connections at a university music school, you may be able to arrange for a small opera production using the university stage and singers. 

There are many programs through New Music USA, Meet the Composers, the Center for Contemporary Opera, and many professional opera companies that will fund a larger operatic production. Some schools like University of South Florida try to present at least one full opera per year in a collaboration with the theater department. 

Even if you have to go low-budget for now, you can employ the work of talented students that are eager for experience (especially lead roles), emerging artists that like a fun project, and even paid professionals that you can connect with online. I found my cast and crew through social media, Music Xray, Wreckamovie, Moviestorm forums, internet auditions, music publications, listserves, and personal connections. I am fortunate that I have an entirely volunteer cast/crew that is excited to create this new project. 

If you do opt for low-budget opera, compensate your cast/crew with in-kind services. 

For example, I offered to write film scores for the Lead Animator's upcoming projects next year and have written articles giving additional exposure to the opera cast members' other music projects and albums. Because I am a writer with several platforms and film composer, I am able to provide useful in-kind services as an exchange for work on my opera. And always be grateful and respectful to your cast/crew (paid or unpaid).

Depending on the level of collaboration, you may find yourself working with a much larger group of artists than normal. This works well for the more garrulous of composers, but for those who often enjoy the solitude of composition, the amount of interactive work may be a shock. I suggest getting organized, or as organized as a right-brain creative person can get. 

When I began Libertaria I had a large spreadsheet that helped me through the first year. The spreadsheet included cast members, paperwork info, and contact info. Another spreadsheet had a mega list of scenes, songs, characters, and other notes. After almost two years, and several changes in the personnel, I use the spreadsheets less.

So Much More...
Of course, writing about how to write an opera can fill a book! So stay tuned for more on how to write an opera. And thanks for checking out my blog!

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karl breyer said…
Thanks for info! Sounds like there are options for a composer starting out and wants to get their work performed!
karl breyer said…
Thanks for info! Sounds like there are options for a composer starting out and wants to get their work performed!
ALISON said…
Hi, I don't have contacts in the music industry, but I wrote a libretto, a complete story in fact. What would you recommend that I do to find a composer? Thanks! Alison
Hey Alison,

I would recommend contacting members of a music organization like Vox Novus, the International Alliance for Women in Music, the New York Women Composers Association, the Society of Composers Inc (SCI)...etc. Find composers that write music for opera and musical theater and contact them with your opera. Depending on the funding available, you may need to apply to grants to support the project.

If you don't have a lot of experience in opera production or are short on funds, contact your local college music departments and see if there is a student composer or music ensemble that would be willing to either write the full opera, a single scene, or "workshop" the opera. In the workshop setting, the opera can be read through by a small ensemble.

I wish you the best of luck!
Alex David said…
A very nice article Thanks for this information.

Peace Quarters
So glad that you found this article helpful! I found that when I was looking for info on how to create an opera that there was not a lot of information available. I'm trying to change that. :)
Kivanc Kilicer said…
Thank you for sharing this information. It is very useful............ film composer
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