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from Friday, July2nd of the year2010.

Did everybody read Danny’s good take on the recent Guardian article about John Adams? It’s an interesting situation. John Adams wrote this piece called I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, which is, I would hazard a guess, his least “popular” piece, and I use the word popular in all senses of the word, inasmuch as I have never met anybody who really knows what to do with it, aside from Peter Sellars, who would probably know what to do with a turnip dressed up as Miss Havisham singing arias from Turandot. In any event, it’s happening in London this summer, like, a million times, and so the Guardian sent a dude to New York to be loosely dismissive, and he ended up writing springloaded sentences like:

Alice Goodman, who wrote the text for of [sic] Nixon in China, is now an ordained minister of the Church of England, dispensing piety to her flock in the shires; holy orders did not restrain her from denouncing Adams as a “dickhead” when their opera was performed in Brussels.

It’s a cute two sentences, right? Descriptive, and sassy, and shit? Except that it’s totally not based in reality; AG wasn’t ordained at that time and was, as Danny points out, still a Jewish Librettist Lady. And also, the opera in question was not Nixon, but rather Klinghoffer, so the springloaded sentence which would have been so delicious is just…bitchy? Anyway, that’s fine, everybody’s gonna go see this thing anyway and they can judge for themselves. I hope the formula is that “word dickhead in preview article = butts in seats” and that’s what the writer was aiming for.

I mean, surely, it’s the hope of music reviewers that they’re reviewing to a full house, right? If you review a restaurant, you want to review it at its top form, with the kitchen at full capacity, and the waiters in that ecstatic, sweaty bliss of business. In that spirit, I read with a certain degree of joy and a certain degree of anxiety Anne Midgett’s article about Moby-Dick + its relationship to other new opera, including my own, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Short story: Jake Heggie, a composer, wrote an opera version of Moby-Dick. Everybody was eskeptical. A zillion people went, four opera companies are doing productions, it was a big success. Cool. She goes on to describe other new productions around the country: Seattle, Santa Fe, Fort Worth. And then she asks the question: How many people are really listening? That’s a good question! But then she puts my name in her mouth, and solicits an anonymous quote thus:

(“I can’t fundraise for underage sex,” one opera director said about Nico Muhly’s forthcoming Met opus.)

Oh hell no. First of all, miss thing, you have to call me before you solicit an anonymous quote from “an opera director,” I mean please, what is this, Opera Deep Throat? But that’s fine, whatever, my topic is risqué, if you weren’t a sexual creature until your twenties, like all the heroines and heroes of Britten, Mozart, Wagner…oh, wait. Well, I mean…can you fundraise for Incest? Rape? Is there another codeword you meant to say?

She quotes David Gockley, who has commissioned more new opera than anybody ever in the history of ever:

“You don’t have enough real opportunity to edit,” says David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, who both there and in Houston has been responsible for the creation of more new American opera than most of his colleagues combined. “There are no such things as previews and out-of-town tryouts.” For a long time, therefore, commissioning an opera meant giving a large amount of money to a composer, waiting a few years, getting a score back from the composer and putting it on as written. This resulted in more than a few turkeys – not least because few composers are trained during their studies in how to write opera.

This is totally true. Even though I studied a million operas in school, and I studied with John Corigliano, who wrote one of the great American operas (“The Ghosts of Versailles“), it’s a totally new medium for me, and studying it and doing it are totally different, just as reading cookbooks and cooking are two different things. The solution, of course, is to workshop: you perform the piece with a piano and some voices in front of people who know better than I do, and you ask their opinion, and take it or don’t, but at least you’ve begged for their honest criticism. Composers, it should be said, do not always know best, especially in the very important matters of pacing, length, and dramatic timing. For this, I can approximate, but I rely on Craig Lucas, the librettist, and Bart Sher, the director, and basically anybody else who works in the opera world, to tell me what they think can be improved and what isn’t working. But then, back to the article:

All this collaboration tends to yield the operatic equivalent of Hollywood studio films: big, slick, audience-friendly fare aiming for blockbuster status, rather than indie-style creativity.

You just don’t get to have it both ways. You can’t set up this dichotomy between “Indie-style creativity” (what does that even mean?) and “Hollywood.” This is a really old-fashioned, terrible binary to harp on, and it just perpetuates idiocy. It shines a really ugly light on what is (or can be), in reality, a wonderfully collaborative process. If the other option is me getting a commission, having an idea, and sitting in a cave and writing an “opus” about it without anybody helping me edit, nobody would be happy except my own ass, clapping my hands together like Flipper at the ninety minutes of continuous celeste, organ, countertenor and trombone music I would inevitably produce, on the subject of that one time Bach walked to hear Buxtehude improvise.

The offense I’m taking here has more to do with the idea that asking for editing help is a kind of Rom-Com Formulaic Groupthink. I’ve always advocated for editors in classical music; I’ve blogged about this a million times before and I wish I had somebody to whom I could send my music before it gets performed who would look it over and say, you know what, this is brilliant, but you need to cut, like, forty-five seconds here, and this entire middle section here. I’m getting better at doing this myself, because in concert music no such person exists, but in opera, we are very lucky because there are people whom you can ask if something is too long, too short, too racist, too sexy, not sexy enough, too much crotale, not enough crotale. It’s just the composer’s responsibility “” not chore or forced groupthink agenda “” to ask. I trust the genre to provide me with the people to help me participate in the wonderful history of opera, and, with any luck, to innovate cleverly, venerate respectfully, and make something that everybody will enjoy.

I should add here that since she wrote it, I had a very polite email exchange with this journalist, and she posted a very good Q + A with Peter Gelb here, and the whole thing feels slightly calmer. I guess all those liberal arts just get my knickers in a twist when I read about binaries in the way people think about Art. Gelb says it best:

At the end of the day it doesn’t mean it’s going to be more successful than something else. But we’re trying to provide the support system to help pieces have the potential of being more successful.

Precisely so. And the truth of the matter is that wouldn’t it be worse to put something terrible on stage than to be politely told that what you’ve written isn’t working? I’ve never had any problem at all with throwing music out or back-tracking; there is space in my life “” in most composers’ lives, I would hope “” for experimental, composer-driven projects: spun-sugar, fragile, collaborations, half-improvised Finnish folk music jam-sessions, allegorical evenings with sculpture and hair everywhere where 100 people come, 97 enjoy it, and that’s a beautiful thing. I know that I am incredibly lucky to be working with people who want to put a good opera on stage; having scored something like a Hollywood movie recently and having done all that other crazystuff recently I can tell you that this process is very much outside of that binary A.M. outlines above.

I got tweeted at by somebody who asked the other day, “Is opera a better vehicle for your work than, say, a musical?” It’s a funny question, the idea of a the work needing a vehicle. I’ve never thought of my Work as this beast that needs to be transported around town, with one’s entire life being spent in pursuit of the ultimate vehicle? Like, an Eddie Bauer-branded Ford Explorer or something? I always thought of work as being a continuous reaction, a process, a set of techniques, rather than something so Giant that it requires a continuous Expression.

I am spending the 4th of July in Vermont for the first time in a few years; my town has this fabulous fireworks display on the 3rd, and then a completely traditional and wonderful parade on the morning of the 4th.


  • This is the appropriate vehicle for Nico’s music.

  • No this.

  • Could you PLEASE write the 90 minute piece for celeste, organ, countertenor(s?) and (c’mon now…) sackbut inre: Bach vs Buxtehude?? If you don’t, I will!

  • Could you PLEASE write the 90 minute piece for celeste, organ, countertenor(s?) and (c’mon now…) sackbut inre: Bach vs Buxtehude?? If you don’t, I will!

  • IMHO, there’s never enough crotale.

  • Nico,
    I agree that the transportation of the piece is indeed characteristic of artist more-als.. but I must add notice and remind you of artists– sculptors, painters in rural Ohio, or even LA that have obstacles beyond city life, whose creative technique at times may request a vehicle, anything– to just mooove their work from one place-to-the-next.

    Enjoy Vermont and the holiday weekend.
    I know similarly, your experience of traditional and beautiful …American parades.

    Happy Iceland. 🙂

  • Don’t YOU ever wonder who listens to your music, Nico?

    Underage sex. Please. Sarcasm intended with emphasis on “please” i.e. “bitch please;” begging sounding phrase not intended.

    Seriously though. You must do. Don’t you ever think who might go out of their way to listen to Pillaging Music, and Mothertongue, and Step Town, etc?


  • Thanks for this – especially your comments about having editors.
    And since when is underage sex a deal breaker? I think that anonymous opera director just isn’t asking the right people for money, is all.

  • Yeah, Pinkerton impregnates a fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio-San, but that doesn’t prevent “Madama Butterfly” from being performed all too often.

  • Aren’t Romeo & Juliet underage? Can they fund raise for that? Somehow I thought hot sex sold lots of tickets, did something change?

  • To be fair, I don’t expect the sex in Nico’s opera to be particularly “hot,” in any conventional sense…