Sunday, July 31, 2011

Changing Horses Midstream

In the midst of composing a theater piece for woodwind quintet and a set of miniatures for chamber ensemble over the past several weeks, I've also started the libretto for a first opera.  The story is familiar, and it's been told many times over on the screen, and that's a good thing for a new opera.  It's also a rather convoluted story, though, which means that a lot of information has to be conveyed to the audience in order for everything to make sense.  That's more of a challenge in an opera. 

Maybe it's worth taking a moment to explain that comment.  In a book or a movie, even in a ballet, a great deal of information can be communicated through visual cues.  When the camera pans to a particularly illuminating piece of evidence in crime drama, no one really has to say anything for the audience to interpret that it's significant.  Some stories are about car chases and explosions and stunning visual effects.  Operas are about emotion.  In an opera, the most significant moments are when the momentum of the story stops and one or more characters reveal emotional responses to their circumstances that the audience relates to on a very deep level.   Those moments are more difficult to plan when a great deal of detailed factual information has to be communicated as well.

It's possible that I chose poorly in terms of opera subject, but as I was thinking of this a few days ago, the thought occurred to me: Well, what story would make for great opera, given this understanding of the art form?  So I outlined a different tale altogether, conscious of where arias and ensembles would work well, and limiting the amount of factual information that would have to be communicated at any given point in the story.  What I wound up with is a compelling and interesting tale with plenty of opportunity for the characters to give us some glimpse into their psyche.  My only concern with its viability at this point is that it's not a story everyone already knows, and most new operas are adaptations of best-selling novels or award-winning films. 

Still, it isn't easy to let go of the original plan.  I had shared the idea with a few trusted people.  I've already done quite a bit of work on it.  It seems like a bit of a failure to give up on the idea and switch to something else.  Of course, I'm not deleting what I've written so far or throwing my hard drive into the fire, and I can come back to it at some later date.  But there are so many societal lessons that I'm ignoring about perseverance, staying the course, sticking with the plan, and on and on.  You aren't supposed to change horses midstream, right?  I know the new story has more potential as an effective opera, and I'm pretty excited about telling that story.  There's just a bit of judgment against changing course that's getting in the way of fully embracing it.

Sometimes changing course is the wisest decision.
Idioms and platitudes aside, the new idea is more workable, and I'm going to follow through and see what I'm able to create with it.  I actually think that starting with the more challenging idea is what got me to the better idea, so it wasn't wasted time in the least.  There are times when the bit about staying the course might make sense, but there is no reason to remain loyal to a plan that is clearly fraught with problems when another plan avoids those problems while still getting to a desired outcome.  After all, my purpose--my desired outcome--is to compose a compelling and enjoyable opera.  Sometimes, radical change to a plan of action just makes the most sense.

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