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On collaborators

My recent piece on American opera, and some of the ensuing discussions, led to some thoughts about artistic collaborations. It’s a theme that’s always topical in opera, which depends on the joint work of a librettist, composer, director, set designer, singer, conductor, etc. Ideally, what happens in a collaboration is a dialogue between two or more artists from different fields: it pushes them beyond their comfort zones, shows them new ways to look at things, and helps create a work that none ever would have come up with on his or her own.
(read more after the jump)

This is a pretty compelling idea - so compelling that in the last decade or so, more and more artistic institutions have taken an active role in creating such collaborations: take Lincoln Center’s New Visions series. Plenty of opera companies take pride in acting as a “matchmaker,” as the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb describes the joint commissioning program he launched with the Lincoln Center Theater in 2006, which among other things paired off composers with librettists. Nobody would argue that it’s an interesting idea for a good composer to work with a notable playwright. The Met’s pairings so far include Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas, and Michael Torke and Michael Korie, who are working on a piece about the life and death of the Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna.

Where I start to have trouble is with the idea of collaboration as an end in itself, as a way for an institution to play a creative role in the process. There’s nothing malign about this either. In fact, it happens from an excess of well-meaning excitement. For a team of opera administrators, it’s thrilling to get involved with creating something absolutely new. There aren’t many truly creative outlets in opera, a field largely devoted to reproducing and recreating works of the past; one reason that stage productions have gotten wackier and wackier over the years is that they represent a rare chance in opera for actual creativity (something that’s led to some notable excesses).

A number of the administrators I spoke to for the opera article emphasized the creativity of being involved in a new work’s creation. “Doing this brings back the artist in me,” said Darren K. Woods of the Fort Worth Opera (who was for years a character tenor). Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera said that the reason Wolf Trap commissioned new operas had to do in part with “wanting as creative professionals to be involved in something that is completely built from the ground up to participate in its growth the emerging of its identity.” She added, “That feeds what we do.” That’s well, good, and understandable. But in some cases, similar sentiments have led to organizations trying to steer the process.

The fact of the matter is that collaboration can be wonderful, and it can be not so wonderful. It can yield a masterpiece; it can lead to a train wreck; it can produce some promising components that never quite work together (the Leif Ove Andsnes/Robin Rhode project "Pictures Reframed," created for New Visions, might be an example of this latter category). It’s unpredictable. You can see the positive sides in opera productions that work; you can see the negative sides in productions that bring in a new director who appears somewhat out of his or her element in this brave new world.

Plenty of excellent artists have been involved in collaborations that weren't so great. That's not to say the experience may not have been enriching for those involved. And it certainly casts no aspersions on anyone's authority or professionalism to point to cases when someone is swayed from his original idea, and the result was less than ideal. But when a collaboration is created by an institution, and money is invested in it, it's already too late to back away gracefully from a less-than-satisfactory result - you can't tell your investors you backed the wrong horse with their funds. I think collaborations have a much higher chance of success if an artist feels he or she is able to walk away if it just isn't working.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 29, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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"it's already too late to back away gracefully from a less-than-satisfactory result - you can't tell your investors you backed the wrong horse with their funds. I think collaborations have a much higher chance of success if an artist feels he or she is able to walk away if it just isn't working"

Well that's it exactly, isn't it? But on the other hand, to try and reconcile this a bit, you end up with works stuck in a constant workshop cycle (WHEN are these much-discussed Met commissions going to start seeing the light of day?).

Posted by: ianw2 | June 29, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

ianw2 - stay tuned for next week's Part Two of the opera article, plus associated blog posts, for more about the Met commissions. But one short answer to your question is fall of 2013, when Nico Muhly's TWO BOYS is slated for its Met premiere (after opening at ENO in 2011).

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 29, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Oh yes, I'd forgotten about Nico's work, which was stupid considering I referred to the very same piece in the earlier Part 1. So that's Nico and Rufus who've emerged from the workshop.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 29, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

As you wrote, the results of collaboration can be a great work or art, or it can be a bad work of art. The results of an artist working all by him/herself can be a great work of art, or a bad work of art.

My conclusion, it's hard to end up with a great work of art, no matter how you do it. The creator(s), whether working alone or in a group, often are not the best judges of what works or doesn't.

For example, the many written accounts of how various Broadway musicals (one of the most collaborative art forms there is) came to fruition, contrasted with accounts of how bad ones got that way, are not that different. They all think they're creating hits, and they really don't know which it is until they go before audiences and critics.

How many reality show contestants go on and on about how great a job they've done with this or that design, then the judges have their say that it's horrible. That's just how it goes with art.

Opera is an art form I love. I love that it's being kept alive by creating new ones. If collaboration is the way to make that happen, Yay for collaboration!

Posted by: c-clef | June 29, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I like your Broadway comments c-clef, but (and someone correct if I'm wrong here, I'm hypothesising) one of the primary stresses is the way the money works. Broadway composers/librettists aren't generally 'commissioned'- so there's no money down. They only get paid in grand rights from tickets, so if the show is a total dog, you don't have a foundation or donor out of pocket (there are now some non-profit foundations who fund new musicals, but let's ignore them for the moment).

Operas however are paid up-front, with grand rights on subsequent productions and revivals. So you've got, at least, $60k down the gurgler on the commission. Even if the administrator bailed on the work before the final payment of the contract (say at the orchestra score stage) they'd still have lost $30-40k of a donor's cash.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 29, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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