OCP to take on 2 composers in residence

Posted: March 24, 2011

Composers in residence aren't uncommon in symphony orchestras or unknown in opera companies. Yet the shape and form of a two-composer-in-residence program being announced Thursday by the Opera Company of Philadelphia has enough working parts to be what general director David B. Devan calls a "landmark investment in the future of opera."

"For opera to remain vital we need to have a contemporary voice and contemporary sensibility that we, as living people, can connect with as our own," said Devan. To not do this, he added, would be comparable to the Philadelphia Museum of Art refusing to hang new paintings.

The composers will be named beginning in the fall after an extensive screening process targeting two very different specimens: One who is young and wants to break into the lyric stage, and another in mid-career with a desire to redirect energies toward opera.

Though OCP is what Devan calls "the mother ship," the initiative is a three-way collaboration with two New York organizations, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, that also joined with OCP to commission the forthcoming Nico Muhly opera Dark Sisters.

The program - funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation - is distinguished by a range of exposure to the genre that won't just foster grand opera. "The partnership between our three companies will immediately expand the chosen composer's access to different scales and types of compositional activity," said David Bennett, Gotham's executive director.

"Our plan is to connect composers with peers, mentors and producers who, through hands-on experience, can help them hone their skills and enter the field as viable composers of opera," said Music-Theatre Group producing director Diane Wondisford.

The hoped-for result from six-weeks-a-year residencies in both Philadelphia and New York is composers willing and able to make opera their primary mode of composition. Yet Devan said the three-year residencies don't come with the pressure of producing a specific work: The belief is that writing for the theater needs to be learned on the premises, but not with millions of dollars at stake.

"These will be individualized residencies," said Devan. "We'll give them an opportunity to write a song cycle with chorus or allow them to work with a librettist or dramaturgic staff person. It's more a development track than a producing track."

The project came out of a cool assessment of where 20th-century opera has gone wrong - and right. Many great composers made isolated attempts at opera, often with brilliant but not theatrically viable music. One of the 21st century's successes is Jake Heggie, who learned the inner workings of the San Francisco Opera as a press office employee, was subsequently asked to write music for a gala, and went on to write the now-popular Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick.

In Philadelphia, the Heggie model was arrived at more by evolution than design; in fact, Devan said he was thinking along the lines of research and development at pharmaceutical companies. Also, this new initiative isn't to be confused with OCP's American Opera Program, a decadelong commitment to producing American works - starting with Dark Sisters next season - or the Chamber Opera Symposium, in which 14 producers, casting agents, and artist representatives will meet here in June to discuss the future of producing small-scale opera.

The time line for the composers-in-residence program begins with an April 22 application deadline, after which selected applicants will be invited to submit more work. The first composer is expected to be chosen by August, and will begin the residency in September with a $60,000 annual salary plus benefits. The second composer will be chosen next year.

More information: composers@operaphila.org.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com

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