Wherefore Art New Opera?

 
I used to be concerned by Stuck Elevator. After all, this work hovered awkwardly outside opera, musical theatre and performance art. Hip hop writer Aaron Jafferis and I nonetheless continue to develop this project encouraged by our experience last month.

Stuck Elevator was developed in June as part of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven. Director Chay Yew started the workshop process with the question: Is this an opera or a musical?

Aaron and I decided not to answer this question but rather focus on character and narrative. Performer Francis Jue played the Chinese take-out guy stuck in an elevator with nuance, intelligence and humor. Music director Perry So helped with the clarity of what I was composing. The comic-rap-scrap-metal string/percussion music came alive through Perry's conducting.

These past few weeks, Aaron and I heightened the drama through surprising yet conventional ways. For example, the bladder rap now has a workable groove and we have a sketch of a rapping General Tso battling our singing delivery man. The most exciting discoveries for me included figuring out ways to integrate rap with classical music and learning how to earn a musical moment. Now, I consider adding a beat-boxer and bass to the instrumentation of violin, cello, percussion, and bicycle wheel.

Anne Midgette wrote recently in The Washington Post (Is anybody listening?) about how contemporary American opera faces a crossroads because of audience expectations, unwieldy budgets, the question of genres and the paradox of presenters. How can new opera survive within outmoded infrastructures?

For me, being part of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre felt like camping out at the crossroads. Aaron and I chose to inhabit the unknown and write what the characters and story needed rather than what budgets or presenters wanted. The audience at the two sold-out showings provided a helpful gauge. Between the two performances, we switched songs around and inserted new material. The work made more sense after these changes. One audience member wrote:
I was not looking forward to watching a man go berserk in a confined space.... but what a miracle worker you are -- you managed to make his confinement very real but bearable. His flights of  fancy, his dreams, his sense of humor, his conversations with his wife and child, pulled me into his life while sympathizing with his predicament.
Yale offered a support team that included vocal coach/rehearsal pianist Andrew Byrne, sound designer Hillary Charnas, percussionist Candy Chiu, violinist Sun Min Hwang, cellist Alvin Wong, mentor Scott Frankel, co-producer Belina Mizrahi, stage manager Maria Cantin, and production assistant Greg Nobile. Aaron and I had access to two grand pianos, rehearsal rooms and printers for our revisions which helped us learn more about how to make Stuck Elevator compelling.

Producer Beth Morrison and artistic director Mark Brokaw have created a viable solution to incubate new opera even if we choose not to define the work as an opera or musical. Additional kudos to Mary Lou Aleskie and Cathy Edwards at Arts/Ideas for believing in Stuck Elevator. Far from concerned, I am now energized by this work knowing that growing pains are necessary when stretching existing systems of music, genre and presenting.