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New Kids on the Block

Beth Morrison Projects has young composers competing for the chance to create a full-length stage work.
By Henry Stewart 

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Beth Morrison, center, and BMP executive director Jecca Barry, center right, with the ten composers in the first round of BMP: Next Generation
© Noah Stern Weber
“Now people aren’t waiting for commissions. They’re just doing it.”
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Singers in the first round of BMP: Next Generation performances at National Sawdust in March
© Noah Stern Weber
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Singers in the first round of BMP: Next Generation performances at National Sawdust in March
© Noah Stern Weber

MORE THAN ANY OTHER figure in the opera industry, Beth Morrison has helped propel the art form into the twenty-first century. She’s a brand, synonymous with cutting-edge music theater. Her company, Beth Morrison Projects, coproduces the annual Prototype Festival, which this month at various venues in New York City features four world premieres, two works in progress and almost half a dozen other contemporary works; BMP is also the driving force behind world premieres all over the country and the world, such as David T. Little’s Dog Days and Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves (both with librettos by Royce Vavrek). 

“I could very comfortably produce the work of all the people I’ve been producing for the last thirteen years. There’s no shortage of work from them!” Morrison says at a Mediterranean restaurant near Lincoln Center, sharing an order of hummus as she answers most of my questions before I even ask them. “But I don’t think that’s enough for what I want BMP to be about. We do have a responsibility, and I take it really seriously. And I want to fulfill that.”

So she has created BMP: Next Generation, which she calls “NextGen,” a competition for early-career composers. The prize is a commission from BMP for a full-length work of vocal theater. “The idea for it really came from me wanting to stay connected to the next generation of composers,” she says. “I think one of the things that BMP is really known for is identifying young composers of promise that go on in the art form and have become the leaders of the field”—composers such as Little, Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini and Ted Hearne. “I’ve had so many general directors say to me that they really do look to me to help them identify who the next leaders in the field will be. So I feel that responsibility, actually—I feel it’s one of the services that we offer the field, and so I feel like I need to stay connected. NextGen is my way of doing that.”

The process started with a call for submissions of existing vocal works, five to ten minutes long. The composers had to be either in school or no more than four years out of any degree program, and they had to be Americans or people living here on student visas. BMP received seventy-two submissions, by composers on average between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-two—“grad-school age”—about half of whom were new to Morrison. She and BMP executive director Jecca Barry winnowed that list down to ten works—half by men, half by women, a welcome but uncontrived result, Morrison says. Those ten works were performed live in March at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and judged by Morrison and a panel of industry bigwigs—Mazzoli; Christopher Koelsch, president and CEO of LA Opera; Julian Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street; and Ed Yim, president and CEO of American Composers Orchestra.

What was Morrison looking for from the composers? “They have to sound uniquely like themselves,” she says, “and they have to have a sense of drama in their writing,” which certainly describes the two ultimate winners—Emma O’Halloran, thirty-three, an Irish composer finishing her doctorate at Princeton, and Michael Lanci, thirty-four, who’s based in Brooklyn. O’Halloran’s winning piece, Cages, is electro-acoustic and eerie, like a dreamier version of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, recast for classical soprano and produced by Björk. Lanci’s, “Will You Listen?,” from his song cycle Songs for Joe Hill, is lyrical and lullaby-like, steeped in Americana. They’re very different pieces by very different composers, yet each is powerful in its own way.

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© Noah Stern Weber

Both composers have now written new thirty-minute works that will be performed on two nights, February 20 and 21, again at National Sawdust, in head-to-head competition. Lanci’s is a political satire, Crude Capital, with an original libretto by Ajax Phillips about a congresswoman in 2028 who upsets the powerful Coal and Cattle Club of America, which finances her, by admitting after a devastating hurricane that she was well paid to deny the effects of climate change. O’Halloran’s is the monodrama Mary Motorhead, adapted from a play by her uncle Mark O’Halloran, a noted playwright in Ireland. In it, the title character compactly tells her life story from a women’s prison—up to the moment when she stabbed her husband in the top of the head with a carving knife.

The composer of the winning piece will be commissioned by BMP to compose a full-length work, which the company will develop and produce in the next three years at an appropriate venue—whether that’s the Prototype Festival, LA Opera or someplace else. And then the cycle will start over again, a process Morrison hopes will attract a mostly new and even larger pool of contenders. “I think that the art form has really taken hold with the younger generation in a way that it just didn’t with the older generations,” she says. “In part that’s because our world has become so visual, with technology, that these composers are by and large seeing the work as well as hearing it. And so opera is a really good medium, then—a good outlet for them. Whereas most of their forefathers, you know—you’re in your forties, and you get a commission. 

“Now people aren’t waiting for commissions. They’re just doing it, because that’s what they’re called to do.” spacer

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