A Modern Method
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A Modern Method

Mikael Eliasen, professor at the Curtis Institute of Music and artistic director of Curtis Opera Theatre, is spearheading a new residency program at the Aix-en-Provence Festival that seeks to immerse young composers in the craft of writing vocal music.
by Brian Kellow. 

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Mikael Eliasen and Rene Orth during a workshop for Empty the House
Photo by Pete Checchia

FROM JUNE 6–18, the Aix-en-Provence Festival’s Académie du Festival d’Aix presents a Melody and Creation Residency, led by Mikael Eliasen, professor at the Curtis Institute of Music and artistic director of Curtis Opera Theatre. It’s an immersion in writing vocal music for young composers, combined with an intensive study of great twentieth-century operas. Recently, opera news spoke with Eliasen about the program’s scope. 

OPERA NEWS: Tell me a bit about how the Melody and Creation Residency in Aix has come about.

MIKAEL ELIASEN: It’s the first time we’re doing it. It’s a little bit experimental. I have been going for quite a few years now, so they have a young composers program. And it has sort of evolved here in Philadelphia that in the last few years I have become quite interested in young composers. In fact, in January, we did an opera by one of the students at Curtis, Rene Orth, called Empty the House. [The work was presented by Curtis Opera Theatre in association with Opera Philadelphia, where Eliasen serves as consultant.] That has also led me over the last couple of years to David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli, and to spend time with them and become involved with the whole process of writing for voice. I had expressed to Bernard Foccroulle that I was interested in this process. So that’s the reason for doing this residency in Aix. 

ON: Part of the residency’s aim would seem to be an effort to turn young composers on to non-traditional role models. 

ME: It’s geared to young composers writing for the voice. Here in America, we have not figured that one out at all. We have a lot of opera writers writing in a nineteenth-century sort of Puccini-style vocalism. Which is why a piece like Written on Skin, first done in Aix, where I first saw it, shows that there are other ways of writing for vocalists—ways other than, let’s say, Jake Heggie, as a complete counter-balance to George Benjamin. Rene Orth came to Curtis a couple of years ago. She is very interested in original opera. I looked at something she’d done and thought she was very gifted. I’m not her teacher at all: Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig are her teachers. I said to Rene, We can sit and talk about opera until doomsday, but it’s like sex—if you don’t do it, then you never really know what it’s all about. So I said, “Write an opera, and I’ll find a librettist for you. So I found Mark Campbell, whom I had known for some time. He agreed, very generously, to work with her. And they came up with a terrific fifty-minute piece called Empty the House, and the Curtis Opera Theatre produced it this past January. It’s for a small ensemble and three singers, and it’s a very powerful piece. I was very happy. So that’s where Aix has catered to my needs. 

ON: It’s not only an old-fashioned musical language that some of today’s opera composers stick to. Some of them choose almost shockingly traditional subject matter.

ME: It’s complicated with this. So many of the great Verdi operas were, of course, political pieces. Maybe now, with the advent of Trump, there will be new interest in political pieces in this country. One could imagine something interesting there. When I look at John Adams—we did The Death of Klinghoffer at Curtis maybe seven or eight years ago. He turns seventy next year, and I want to celebrate him, because he’s one of the great American opera composers. And he deals with subjects that are contemporary. I am looking at Doctor Atomic to do down here in Philadelphia.

ON: In your Aix residency, you’re also going to be talking a great deal about three founding fathers of musical modernism—Stravinsky, Debussy and Schoenberg. Do you find that a lot of your young students already know their works well?

ME: No, they’re not familiar with them. I find also that older composers who are writing operas are not familiar with a lot of twentieth-century works. When I met Rene Orth, I gave her a list of twenty operas of the twentieth century and I said, “You need to have a working knowledge of these operas”—and it’s interesting, because I take pieces like Wozzeck for granted. This is a piece that young composers, whether they want to do opera or not, should be familiar with. But I’m not sure that’s how things are taught by older composers. To Rene’s credit, she has a passing knowledge of these pieces. I feel it’s very important to understand how Thomas Adès got to The Tempest, how George Benjamin got to Written on the Skin. I think too that voice teachers [play into it.] They teach nineteenth-century methods of beautiful singing, bel canto singing, which is fine. But sometimes that means that when someone gets the score of Written on Skin, they look at it and says, “How the fuck am I going to be able to sing this?” There is no help from the voice teachers. That’s the bottom line, and in America we are not really addressing the issue, which is why you have a quasi-fake Puccini or Menotti coming out of these opera composers. They may be popular, like Kevin Puts, but in my opinion, Silent Night is a simply dreadful piece. But the singers don’t know anything else! I was up in Boston to hear this Abrahamsen piece, Let Me Tell You. Barbara Hannigan has been singing it. She comes from a little town in Nova Scotia. How come she found teachers who could do this with her? We need to go down this road. We are not doing a good job in this country of educating singers to sing contemporary music. spacer 

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