In With the New

October 22, 2019
Erich Burnett
Composer Rachel J. Peters with 7 members of the workshop cast and crew of her opera The Wild Beast of the Bungalow.
Composer Rachel J. Peters (second from right) works with students and faculty in a fall workshop on campus. Seated next to Peters is Christopher Mirto, director of the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program. Photo credit: Conservatory Communications

The Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program brings freshly written works to life on campus.

Mozart and Verdi are among opera’s finest composers, but they’re crummy when it comes to feedback.

It is this unfortunate reality that gave rise to the newly created Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program, the mission of which is unmistakably straightforward: Bring living composers to campus to collaborate with Oberlin students.

For each of his two-plus years teaching and directing winter-term operas at Oberlin, Assistant Professor of Opera Theater Christopher Mirto has managed to do just that. Now he has a mandate to do it.

“I kind of see my job as figuring out how to say yes to anything the artist needs," says Mirto, who will oversee each commission. "I want to give them as much latitude and resources as possible so that they can dream."

Launched this year, the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program was made possible with support from Elizabeth and Justus ’71 Schlichting.

A former English major at Oberlin, Justus Schlichting sold his healthcare financial services company in 2011 and began to commission, with his wife, a wide range of music projects the following year—some 30 of them annually, according to a 2018 interview with Financial Times. (Among the recipients of the Schlichtings’ generosity was violinist Jennifer Koh ’97, who received funds to help pay off the loan on her Stradivarius, in exchange for commissions from numerous composer friends of Koh.)

A self-described “super-hardcore commissioner of new music,” Justus Schlichting and his wife have worked with some 130 composers and funded nearly 200 pieces since 2012. Their support is fueled by the desire to ensure that there are audiences for classical music for generations to come.

“And how do you bring in young audiences?” Justus Schlichting asks. “You play music from composers of their time. You put enough new music in front of an audience, and what eventually happens? They go wow, this is good stuff. It can be hard, and it can take a couple of years, but I have seen it happen.

“At Oberlin, students are going to be a part of this process right from day one. I can think of nothing more valuable for young musicians than to be a part of the creative process from the start. It is the essence of what musicians are all about: to continue to grow and bring vitality to the art form.”

The Opera Commissioning Program has roots that extend to Andrea Kalyn, dean of Oberlin Conservatory from 2013 to 2018, who was an advocate of the concept from its earliest days. Before leaving Oberlin to become president of New England Conservatory in early 2019, she ensured that the program's foundation was in place.

The first project in the pipeline is the forthcoming world premiere of Rachel J. Peters’ The Wild Beast of the Bungalow, which will be presented as Oberlin’s winter-term opera in January and February 2020.

In early September, the New York-based composer made the first of several trips to Oberlin for a week of workshopping the piece with a student cast and crew. Peters will return in January, along with librettist Royce Vavrek, as the production draws nearer to opening night.

During Peters’ initial visit to campus, students selected for the workshop sang through the entire score, extensively discussed the work—touching on matters ranging from the composer’s vision to the performers’ feedback of the material—and ultimately created a recording. (Learn more about the workshopping process on Oberlin Conservatory’s Tumblr, where workshop cast member Charlotte Maskelony ’21 chronicled the experience.) Formal auditions for the production will be held in November.

Though Wild Beast came to Mirto relatively close to completion, future works funded by the Opera Commissioning Program will be developed from start to finish over a three-year span.

“The fact is, American opera is really its own animal, and it’s evolving all the time,” says Peters. “Why not have the students be a part of that evolution? This is my first true chance to work with undergraduate students on a full production, and they have been terrific. It’s really great to be here and to have multiple stages of the opera’s development supported. It’s exciting!”

Thanks to the Opera Commissioning Program, Mirto expects to welcome two sets of composer/librettists to Oberlin each year: one that will make recurring visits to campus to work toward a fully staged world premiere at Oberlin (the next one will be in early 2023), and another pair who will prepare an existing work for Oberlin’s winter-term spotlight in 2021 and 2022.

In the past two years, Mirto directed winter-term productions of Angel's Bone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by Oberlin Conservatory alumna Du Yun ’01, and Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli. Vavrek was the librettist for both works, and both productions involved extensive interaction between the creative team and cast.

“I’m thrilled to play a role in bringing living artistry to campus,” says Mirto. “It’s revelatory for our students to be able to ask living artists a question and to see the amount of work that goes into an opera.”

“It’s just a different way of thinking about the music too,” Peters adds. “If you’re working on Verdi, that score is the gospel, and you can’t ask him a question about it. You’re also not contending with 150 years of performance tradition in terms of how to perform a given aria.”

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