Making an opera

19 Feb 2018

Discover what it takes to bring a new opera to the stage. From the initial concept to opening night, learn about all the steps in the process of making an opera.

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Victorian Opera's 2014 production of The Riders. Photo: Jeff Busby

In our latest ‘Art of Opera’ podcast, Artistic Director Richard Mills, Managing Director Andrew Snell and Head of Music Phoebe Briggs discuss what it takes to create an opera.

According to Richard Mills the most important step is the very first one: the idea. ‘It’s perfectly possible to set anything to music,’ he says. ‘The question is whether one should. For a subject to be a good operatic property it has to have a dramatic and symbolic potency. It has to be able to be read on different levels. And it has to allow the composer and the librettist to explore emotional states.’

While opera may not be the best medium for a complicated narrative, it is perfect for exploring the human condition. After you have the right idea, it needs to be put into words.

Richard explains that a libretto needs to ‘sing’ to be successful. ‘It has to have internal structure and rhetoric that’s capable of rendering it comprehensible in song, that may, though not necessarily has to, involve rhyme, but it has to involve structure and imagery.’

Victorian Opera commissions at least one new work every year and the Managing Director ensures that the development of new works is in the budget. ‘If you don’t have new work, you don’t have a developing artform. It’s vital for the survival of opera as an artform,’ says Andrew Snell.

The commission will go through many stages. First comes the treatment which outlines the ‘basic look and concept of the project’. The treatment may go through a process of refinement depending on the scope and budget.

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Victorian Opera's 2016 production of Banquet of Secrets. Photo: Jeff Busby

Workshops begin 18 months to two years before the work is due to be performed. ‘A workshop period allows you to test whether the piece flows dramatically and how it sits vocally,’ says Richard.

Head of Music Phoebe Briggs joins the process once the score has reached a certain point in its development process, for example when two scenes or over 10 minutes of music has been written. ‘A workshop would usually consist of a week of music and drama discussion in a rehearsal room. Usually present would be the librettist, composer, director and possibly the orchestrator, ’ says Phoebe.

During the workshop period, the team will often add, cut or reorder music and text. While workshops can’t fix everything, they can help improve pacing, tempo choices and adjustments to vocal minutia.

Once the workshops have been completed, preproduction begins. For a new work, it’s important for the composer to have the music finished on time so the director, designers and crew have all the information they need to get on with their jobs. The vocal score is usually due nine months before the show’s opening and the orchestral score six months before.

Approaching the show’s premiere, the artists will usually spend 3 to 4 weeks in the rehearsal room, followed by stage rehearsals. If the production has a long run including previews the work might continue evolving right up to opening night.

After two or more years of development and lots of hard work, opening night arrives and there is little more that can be done. As Richard says, ‘The public vote with their feet. If they don’t like it, they won’t come.’

For Andrew, the joy of making an opera is new experiences. ‘Going into a theatre on opening night of a new work and knowing that nobody in that room, apart from a few people from within the company, have any idea what they are going to see. It’s a voyage into the unknown.’

By Beata Bowes

Listen to the podcast