Music of the Queen Victoria Steampunk Opera

Posted: April 30, 2013 by Ben Sargent in Uncategorized

People are asking, so here is the low-down on the music for “Queen Victoria’s Floating Garden of Secrets and Natural Wonders.” As we’ve written previously on this blog, we could have written in a contemporary genre, extending the Western Tradition. We chose to use a more familiar idiom for this opera.

Finale page from Queen Victoria score

Finale page from Queen Victoria score

  • The music is meant to be easy to learn and sing, but also easy to listen to. It’s comedy.
  • For comedy to work, the audience should not have to struggle through the music to appreciate the text.
  • The idea was not to write “new opera” in this case, just to write “a” new opera.
  • The music builds on tropes set loose by Mozart (and in some cases, others), ricocheting off Gilbert & Sullivan like bullets in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
  • In the steampunk genre, there’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. We dollop it on by using folkish elements, including Celtic moments. But this quickly breaks past simple nostalgia into thrilling contemporary world traditions as soon as authentic dancers and drummers appear on the scene. The backwards bending of the bow.
  • We cast the opera nearly a year ago, and did not finish composing the music until a few weeks ago. About half the music in the show was written specifically for the person singing it. I love that. The role of First Mate was not even in the libretto until we met Tony Domenick in November.
  • The Queen’s aria was written for Marlena Hooker Moore, who sang a Handel aria at her audition with us last August. We loved her. We wrote the role for her.
  • The music of Atalantea, the Mermaid Queen, is in contrast to the general Mozarti-ness of the rest. For this we started with a Philip Glass riff, which is then spun out into improvisation by the singers and accompanist.
  • Improvisation is not generally known or accepted in operatic circles. We like it. We selected Daniel Mullens as the music director for this production in large part due to his enthusiasm for (and competence with) improvisational techniques. He added (and continues to experiment with) the incidental music and accompaniments. He encouraged the singers to ornament, embellish, and develop the music. What you hear in the current production is already well “ahead” of the score. In several cases, what seem like polished arias are in fact nowhere to be found in the score. They were created by collaborations between the singer and the music director. Exciting? I think so!
  • The recitative and arias – with exceptions as noted above – were composed by Mary Lin and myself in various combinations. Some by me, some by her, but most written collaboratively in some nebulous fashion that evades description. Much like the libretto.

What is most interesting to me, as a co-creator but not the main force behind this particular work (Mary was that), is how the shaping of the music in this production largely reflects the insights and instincts of the music director and the cast. It’s a huge risk to take, in creating a show. But in the end, taking that risk creates excitement, freshness, innovation, energy – that otherwise would not be so viscerally felt by the audience seated in the theater. It takes a lot of fortitude, as a producer, to run these risks. But that’s what makes great theater. And what is opera, in the end, if it’s not great theater? That’s what we strive for.

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