Leaha Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian

5 questions to Leaha Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian (composers, artistic/executive directors of Hotel Elefant)

Experiments in Opera has commissioned 10 composers to present new operas that last no more than 10 minutes. These new works will be premiered by the contemporary music ensemble Hotel Elefant on Saturday, February 9, 2013 at Issue Project Room, in Brooklyn. Daniel Kushner asked 5 questions to Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian who both composed an opera that will be premiered that night, and are the founders of Hotel Elefant.

Are there aspects of these two operas that are the direct result of writing with the members of Hotel Elefant in mind?

Leaha: Writing for the members of Hotel Elefant is such a great experience. My opera A Window to a Door is very sparse and exposed: for soprano, violin, double bass, and electronics. I know from experience how comfortable violinist Andie Tanning Springer is with electro-acoustic works, and that Michelle Lou has extensive knowledge with the language of contemporary music. It gave me the confidence to be simple and direct in my writing.

Mary: The music for I am a Fish asks for players who are comfortable performing in the style of rock and hip hop who are also familiar with specifically notated extended techniques and guided improvisation. In writing for Andie Tanning Springer (vln), Michelle Lou (contrabass), Kirsten Volness (pno), and Hannis Brown (e. gtr), I knew that while these players were already pros at nailing contemporary music, they would also enjoy digging into some pop. They’re not afraid to play ugly and aggressively, which are requests I frequently ask for in the piece. They’re all champs in the adventurous category.

Leaha Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian

Leaha Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian

Does contemporary opera have a responsibility to tell stories that are not otherwise being told through other mediums? And if so, how is that sense of responsibility reflected in I Am a Fish and A Window to a Door?

Leaha: I think art in general is a great medium for telling hard truths, and processing all the thoughts and feelings that come along with it. Opera is no exception. I hesitate to say opera specifically has a responsibility, but I think artists have a responsibility to realize their vision. The idea of framing an opera around an abducted young woman is dark, but once the idea was in my mind, I found I had to see it through. To discard it would be dishonest.

Mary: I wouldn’t necessarily say that opera has a “responsibility” to tell any specific stories, as I’m not sure that any area of art has a particular duty outside of being created; however, I will say that today’s opera has an opportunity to catch up to other mediums in the method in which it communicates storytelling. Opera used to be where one would see the newest movements in the Arts, and today it can often fall far behind storytelling risks being taken in film and other forms of multimedia. I think it could dare to make some bigger leaps now and then.

Leaha, can you talk about the challenges of writing a libretto that thoroughly executes a dramatic arc within the time constrictions? Was it at all difficult to reconcile the pace at which the music told the story with the pace at which the words revealed the plot?

Leaha: The scene I set for myself was very constricted by the absence of other characters and the need to stay in “real time.” To accelerate the music or the text would completely alter the opera. It provided an opportunity to get closer to the audience, and not have to explain everything: they see what the protagonist sees. They hear what she hears. When you shift the expectations of the room, the boundaries blur as well.

Mary, has scoring music for films prepared you for writing in the medium of operatic shorts? How is the function of the music in film similar or distinct from its function in an operatic context?

Mary: Scoring for films has affected the way in which I approach composing for opera in that I often choose to “psychologically” score the character(s) in both mediums. Meaning, the purpose of my music in a narrative is to help the audience understand the mental and emotional place of the character – sonically representing the character’s own internal developments rather than bashing the audience over the head with how to feel. The difference in function being that in film, everything is presented to me first – the picture, scene changes, quality and intensity of the acting, editing, sound FX – so compositionally, structure has already been laid out to a certain extent. Aside from aiding storytelling, music functions to “fix” things that sometimes can’t be revisited: to compensate for a potential lack of delivery from the actors, smooth out any rough picture edits, cover unwanted noise that can’t be removed from the soundtrack or dialogue, etc. In opera, the music comes first (with the text of course), so I have a lot more freedom in my musical decisions, and this music can function however I imagine it to.

Hotel Elefant

Hotel Elefant

Both premises of your respective operas read rather like self-contained concept albums. Is it possible that the storytelling mechanism of contemporary opera is evolving toward subjective, micro-level portraiture of characters and away from a more objective, panoramic view of the events of which the characters find themselves a part? Do you find this to be true specifically of I Am a Fish or A Window to a Door?

Leaha: I love the idea of a self-contained concept album! A Window to a Door certainly takes the idea of portraiture and runs with it. This is partially due to the premise and partially due to logistical constraints — sometimes practicality wins. But I think that as a society we are so globalized that the chance to see at a micro-level can bring clarity. It’s been wonderful to examine these themes and layers thorough the lens of opera.

Mary: While I can’t speak on behalf of all modern opera, I will say that micro-level portraiture generally is a common theme in much of my work, so it felt very natural for this fascination to cross into I am a Fish. The human mind and heart are so beautifully complicated, and for now, I’m having a great time exploring these things one character at a time.

Issue Project Room Presents: New Shorts by Experiments in Opera
Saturday, February 9 at 8 PM
Tickets $15 / $12 members+students
The Actor’s Fund Arts Center, 160 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn
..:: Website

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts journalist and opera librettist who swoons anytime he hears the phrase “creative collaboration.”