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An Interview with Lawrence Edelson, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the American Lyric Theater

Nobody can turn away from the fact that the economy is difficult and money is tight. In a society that doesn’t value the arts the way it used to, performing arts companies, opera companies, in particular, have suffered. However, under the skillful leadership of Lawrence Edelson, the American Lyric Theater located in New York City hasn’t just worked with the economy, but thrived. Recently, I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Edelson about The American Lyric Theater, his business model, and the new and innovative type of opera this forward thinking company is producing. My questions and his answers are below:


What is the overall goal of the CLDP(Composer Libretist Development Program) and why do you believe that the libretto is such an integral part of an opera?

Almost every opera company in the country has a young-artist program for singers, and you can see the results on stages around the world. In the past 30 years, American opera singers have become some of the best-trained, most versatile singers around.  This would never have happened without the abundance of young artist programs available to mentor them. I started the Composer Librettist Development Program in 2007, because at that time, there were no programs to mentor operatic writers on the same scale as those that had become so successful at mentoring singers. 

In developing the CLDP, we took a hard look at what already exists in the field. There are programs that provide opportunities for librettists to work on their craft, but most of these do not address issues of the unique collaborative relationship between librettist and composer – which is very different than in other theatrical genres. In addition, working with librettists without thoroughly exploring the role music plays in the dramatization of a work simply does not make any sense to me.  A great libretto is not the same thing as a great play. Libretti need to have space for music to do its job, and this is a crucial element of the collaborative process we work on at ALT.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are opportunities for composers to be in residence at bigger opera companies and to learn through observation and even write small-scale works, but we did not find any opera company that has a dedicated artist mentorship faculty whose expertise is focused not on performing – but on writing.

All of the programs that existed have merit, but they tend to be isolated in their strategy. The bottom line is that we identified a real absence of integrated programs that provide an extended period of time for emerging composers and librettists to be immersed in an environment dedicated to their artistic development; and, that also helps to bridge the gap between training, workshops, and the realities of writing an opera for production at a professional producing company.

What is the CLDP audition process like?

Resident Artists are selected through a competitive application process and represent some of the most gifted emerging operatic writers in the country. The application period for our upcoming season of the CLDP, for which we will accept 4 new composers and 4 new librettists, just closed on April 1st.  We received over 70 applications from an incredible variety of composers and librettists from around the country, and we will announce our selection of Resident Artists in June.

Applications are welcome from any emerging composer or librettist who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident. ALT defines an emerging opera composer or librettist as an artist who has acquired significant skills as a composer and/or playwright/librettist through academic study, practice and professional experience; who demonstrates a unique and important musical and/or theatrical perspective that could benefit from intensive mentorship as part of the CLDP; and who has not yet had a main stage work commissioned and/or performed by a professional opera company. Artists’ work in other genres often has been performed professionally, as ALT’s definition of emerging applies specifically to an artist’s development and career stage as a writer of opera. There are no age minimums of maximums for participation.

Applications go through three rounds of evaluation by a panel which, this season, will be comprised of me, composer/librettist Mark Adamo, composer Paul Moravec, librettist Mark Campbell, and dramaturg Cori Ellison. We are looking to see which applicants demonstrate a unique artistic voice, strong theatrical inclinations, true desire to write for the opera stage, strong collaborative abilities, and potential to add to the national canon.


Your three new opera commissions are all stories that are either true, or relevant to today’s audiences. Why did you choose these works?

I think relevance is very important for opera, especially if we are seeking to attract new people to opera (which is certainly one of ALT’s goals) – and we all know that opera has the stigma of being very elitist and not particularly relevant to a large portion of the population!  That being said, there are many ways an opera can be relevant – and there are many masterpieces from Monteverdi to Glass that are extremely relevant.  I think the key to the three works we’ve commissioned this season is that they are all based on subjects with which the writers have deeply personal responses and relationships – and they feel that they have something to express through these stories in an operatic context.

Operas based on topical subjects are nothing new, of course, but certainly some of what we consider topical now is different than what was topical to audiences during other periods of time.  La Reina, by composer Jorge Sosa and librettist Laura Sosa Pedroza, sheds light on violent, real life events taking place in Mexico and the United States in the ongoing drug wars. Composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico are developing The Turing Project, which explores the life Alan Turing, one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Perhaps best known for cracking the Nazi U-Boat code that proved crucial to the success of the allied forces in World War II, Turing was later charged with Gross Indecency for the crime of being homosexual by the British government, and was punished with chemical castration. At 41, one year after his sentence was carried out, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide – according to the official coroner’s report. Many have speculated that Turing’s apparent suicide was inspired by his life-long love of the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! For our third commission, we are deeply grateful that American veteran and author Brian Castner has entrusted us with his critically acclaimed book, The Long Walk. Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann were inspired by Castner’s haunting memoir, which makes the paradox of coming home from war and the near impossibility of a smooth reintegration come alive.  So, as you can see, while the three works are all relevant to today’s audiences, they really couldn’t be more different!

We actually didn’t set out to commission three works that were based on actual events or true-life stories this season, but these were the stories that the writers I was interested in were drawn to. When a writing team I want to commission approaches me with an idea for an opera, I always ask them the same questions: Why opera? What about this story, and the way you propose to tell it, begs to be told through opera? What is it about opera that you feel has the potential to bring this story to life in a more compelling way than on another medium? Would it be a better musical? Or a film? Only when both the writers and I feel that a story begs to be told through opera do we make the full resources of ALT available to them. Because, lets face it, there are many stories that can be better told in other ways. But when the right story is told through opera, I truly believe it is the most thrilling musical-theatrical experience we can have – and I want to provide gifted composers and librettists the opportunity to create works that do exactly that.


What would a student or an emerging artist get out of an ALT program? What programs are available to them?

ALT provides emerging operatic writers with unprecedented, tuition-free mentorship from some of the leading working artists in the country. The principal faculty for the 2013-2014 CLDP will include composer/librettist Mark Adamo, librettist Mark Campbell, composer Robert Beaser, dramaturg Cori Ellison, librettist Michael Korie, stage director Rhoda Levine, and composer Paul Moravec. Recent guest teachers and lecturers have included composers Kaija Saariaho, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nico Muhly, Stewart Wallace, Christopher Theofanidis, and John Musto, and librettists Stephen Karam, Donna DiNovelli, and Gene Scheer. 

As I mentioned, after participating in the first-year CLDP curriculum, select artists are then commissioned by ALT to write their first operas. They receive commission fees while continuing to receive extensive mentorship as they develop large scale works. ALT also promotes operas by the artists with whom we work, with the goal of introducing them and their work to company leaders across the country. Our goal is to provide the most comprehensive professional mentorship environment available, while guiding emerging composers and librettists through the creation of new works, and building their capacity for lifelong contributions of the highest artistic standards to the American opera repertoire.

Where do you see the ALT moving next?

One of the most important developments for the company is the recent national expansion of the CLDP. To date, over 30 artists from the metropolitan New York City area have benefited from the intensive mentorship provided by the program. This coming season, artists from around the country will be able to participate in the CLDP remotely through the use of HD video conferencing technology. The acquisition of this new, high speed, high-resolution technology will now enable us to invite the most exciting artists from all over the country to participate in the CLDP and to collaborate with other artists, without geographic restriction.

Of course, so much of what we do at ALT takes place behind the scenes. With that in mind, we are starting to increase the number of public events presented by ALT each season, and we are very excited to be launching the InsightALT Festival this spring. This week-long festival will offer an intimate, inside look into American Lyric Theater’s process of creating new creating new operas at all stages of their development. The inaugural Festival will take place between May 28th and June 3rd, 2013, at the Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Family Auditorium, The JCC in Manhattan’s state–of–the–art theater located at 334 Amsterdam Avenue (at West 76th Street). The festival kicks-off with a special public master class by world-renown soprano Catherine Malfitano, which will explore the challenges of creating roles in new operas.  At the center of the festival are concert readings of the three new operas recently commissioned by ALT: The Turing Project, The Long Walk, and La Reina. All three operas will feature leading singers and rising-stars from the country’s preeminent opera houses, and themes behind these works will be explored in two symposia led by ALT and Glyndebourne dramaturg Cori Ellison, one of the leading creative figures in the opera world today.

How have you handled ALT through this difficult economic time?

Fortunately, for a number of reasons, ALT has not been as seriously affected by the financial challenges of recent years as many companies. First among those reasons is that we are not a company that produces a season of regular performances. As a service organization, our entire business and operational model is different. Our focus is on providing highly specialized services to composers and librettists, and as a small company, we are able to do this with much lower overhead than large organizations that have more diversified programs. Specialization has its benefits – as does collaboration. For the new operas we develop, we are essentially two pieces of a larger puzzle. The first piece is artist mentorship. The second piece is developing and promoting the new works we commission. The third piece – and it’s the most expensive piece – is actually producing the operas. For this third piece, we partner with companies whose expertise really lies in producing. We’ve been fortunate to partner with some great companies to produce operas developed at ALT, including Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Wexford Festival in Ireland, and The Atlanta Opera. Upcoming partnerships include Tulsa Opera, Fargo Moorhead Opera, and Fort Worth Opera.  These relationships benefit ALT because these companies have a producing infrastructure set up that we do not have.  At the same time, it benefits them, because they are able to discover new writers and new operas without the financial risk of investing in their development. When a company chooses to partner with ALT, they have the opportunity to assess a new opera at a stage far beyond a concept or idea for a new work.  If an opera company decides to produce an opera we’ve developed, they save hundreds of thousands of dollars in artist mentorship, commission fees, and workshopping costs — all of which are paid for by ALT, and which we are able to do more cost effectively than larger companies for whom new works development and artist mentorship are not their primary focus. So in some ways, I think the recent economic challenges have actually helped us, because is has forced everyone in the opera field to look more carefully at less traditional collaborative models – and this has provided an entrée for ALT to really have an impact behind the scenes of American opera.




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