We’re now in our second week of rehearsals for AFTER LIFE/JOSEPHINE at UrbanArias, and I am again struck by what a pleasure it is to work on another opera (or operas) by composer Tom Cipullo. In particular, our cast of excellent singers are really enjoying sinking their teeth into his work. Why is that, you might ask? It’s pretty simple.
Tom writes music that is both challenging AND gratifying to sing. Put another way – he knows how to write powerhouse moments for the voice. People talk a lot in new music about “whether composers understand how to write for the voice”; this usually has to do with how the composer constructs a part, where he or she places it within a singer’s range, and how well she or he understands what a given vowel is likely to sound like on a particular note. Does a composer make a singer stay uncomfortably high (or low) for pages at a time? Does the whole role feel like one long relentless climax? Or is there variety in the writing which allows the artist to keep massaging her sound, to recover from the more strenuous passages and reset for the next difficult one? Certainly, singers can rise to all kinds of crazy challenges, and they do – but a good opera composer knows how to pace things well so that a performer doesn’t feel like he’s hanging on by his fingernails all night.
Tom takes it one step further: he not only knows how to pace and structure a sung role, but he also knows how to let singers show off. And let’s be honest, what singer (or any performer, for that matter) doesn’t want to show off from time to time? One big reason, in my opinion, that the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and others have stood the test of time is that they present singers with tough but surmountable challenges that are exciting for an audience to hear achieved. High notes are thrilling – but they’re even more thrilling when they’re sung with utmost confidence, perhaps held long enough to carom around the skull a few times, and then released effortlessly, sending their energy right into the audience’s hearts. Soft passages will draw an audience in, making them crane forward in their seats. Ensemble writing lets us hear not one, but several fantastic, unamplified voices at the same time – and in harmony.
It’s like anything else in theater or music – certain things just work. We know they work. The trick is to do them in a different or new way, but one that does not rob them of their original, visceral power. Tom does that in spades, which is why opera singers all over the country love him. And it’s also terribly fulfilling for the audience. When you hear AFTER LIFE/JOSEPHINE, you will know you came to an OPERA.