Anatomy of a Commission Essays – 5

Anatomy of a Commission: Understanding the Institutional Perspective

Designed for both music creators and their collaborators, “Anatomy of a Commission” is a digital resource that aims to increase transparency about the commissioning process. For more information about the initiative, visit American Composers Forum’s website.

Not all arts organizations are set up to commission and develop new works… yet.

It’s not that art organizations don’t want to commission – in fact it’s quite the opposite – but many don’t even know where to start. Much of it comes down to the fact that the structure of our institutions are outdated and based on business models as old as some of the music we program. That and, well, money.

Most nonprofit performing arts companies in the United States hope to just break even at the end of their fiscal year. A very small percentage of those companies land “in the black” and are profitable. The majority land “in the red,” in debt and owing money year after year. And new works are very expensive. All to say, we’re up against a lot, and we all know it.

And while that is daunting, we forge ahead. As Director of New Works & Creative Producer at Opera Philadelphia, I’ve seen that we are at a height of excitement for new music. And yet, while there is demand for new works, not all audiences are willing to “take the chance” and experience the journey.

As things stand now, commissioning tends to feel more like a business transaction, because how on earth can you be prepared to commission and develop a new opera if you are structurally thinking of it the same as presenting The Barber of Seville?

We have conditioned audiences with the over-programming of repetitive repertoire – and a lack of education along the way – so arts organizations struggle to sell out presentations of new works. Then, after these shows don’t sell strongly, internal conversations with staff and board members take hold: “Well, our ‘community’ just isn’t ready,” “It’s too hard to listen to, too much work, and too expensive,” “Well, we tried,” and “We have to focus on what we know sells.”

I’ve spent the last decade creating the new works practice at an opera company that, when I started, hadn’t had a world premiere in more than 30 years; it’s now a leader in the field. Prior to that, I was at an orchestra commissioning new music. And prior to that? I was performing myself, in a lot of new works. I’m in a unique position coupled with unique experiences to discuss this part of our industry. And what I want to talk about is commissioning from the standpoint of arts organizations so that composers can be more informed and better advocate for themselves.

Most commissioning arts organizations don’t have a producer like myself working there. The typical staff structure doesn’t have someone dedicated to commissioning and developing new works because it costs money and requires an ambitious vision. We know that money is scarce, but arts organizations also have to have an understanding of why commissioning matters and assign value to it in order to challenge and change historical structures.

As things stand now, commissioning tends to feel more like a business transaction, because how on earth can you be prepared to commission and develop a new opera if you are structurally thinking of it the same as presenting The Barber of Seville? As a composer, you may end up working with someone that cares a great deal, but doesn’t have a lot of experience in the details of developing new music – or how to partner with you. So let’s walk through some steps of the commissioning process and look at what is happening inside art organizations.

How to get commissioned

The artistic and programming departments at arts organizations pay attention to who is creating and making music; we travel, we see a lot of concerts, we listen to recordings, and we have a lot of people putting artists on our radar. But we are also solicited by artists who write to us directly – and you should do this.

As always, do your research first about who to write to, what the company’s mission is, what they artistically or aesthetically seem to be about, and how you might fit into that. If you have a concert coming up, use it as an opportunity to invite them. Have a recording of a recent concert that featured your work? Pass it along. If you recently did a workshop and have an archival recording you’re proud of, send it to them. Work on developing a relationship with the organization, producer, music director, artistic director, etc. Like your career, this is a long game, and building thoughtful and authentic relationships has a lot to do with it. Let people get to know you and your work, and give them time to invest. Tell them what you’re interested in doing and creating.


Most organizations have commissioned at least a few works, so they should have someone on staff who is capable of contracting you. But always make sure you work with a lawyer and understand all parts of what you’re agreeing to or negotiating for. Research the company and how they rehearse, program, plan, and pay. Look at their 990 tax forms, free to access via Pro Publica, which will give you an idea of the organization’s size and what kind of budget they have to work with. Speak with other colleagues that have been commissioned by that organization or staff members who have worked there about their experiences. This advice is for anyone, managed or not, published or not. Don’t leave this knowledge and research up to your representation.

Commission Details

One area to focus on is the development and deliverable timeline of your work, which should be integrated into your commissioning agreement. Depending on the organization, they may not have experience in the full details of what to ask from you. Do yourself a favor and feel free to bring it up in the contract negotiations.

For instance, in opera, it matters that I know if the composer first writes in short score, then in piano/vocal, and then the full score. This tells me when they need the most writing time before workshops, in between them, and after a workshop before final parts are due. Share your writing process with the commissioning organization and what you would like them to consider. Your thorough involvement in this part of the process will also help you to meet your deadlines, which is very important.

Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere of Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph's "We Shall Not Be Moved" -- Photo by David Direntis

Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere of Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “We Shall Not Be Moved” — Photo by David Direntis

Workshop periods should also be in the development timeline. Make sure the timing of these work for you, and that you understand what is being supported, including how many days, hours per day, who will be in the room, if there is a reading that guests are invited to, and if there will be an archival recording.

Additional questions to consider include: Are you and the organization on the same page about scope and scale? What’s the agreed upon instrumentation or parameters? How many doubles? Singers? Chorus? Are they committed to working with you in casting? Are they a union organization, and if so, what are the details of their collective bargaining agreement? For instance, if you have a workshop of your opera with a full orchestra, are they able to provide the same players for the workshop and the production?

Editor’s note: for more information about how to negotiate a commissioning contract, see the Anatomy of a Commission Discussion Guide.


The more you communicate with the commissioning organization, the better. You want to get to know one another; they are there to support you, and ideally, you develop a trusting relationship with them. If you are working with an organization that is not as adept in commissioning, you can lead the communications. Bring them into your process, and work at discussing what you need and why. Most of my colleagues, whether duly experienced or not, want to support you as best they can. Invite them in and give them a chance.

It’s also important to take time building your creative team, which can include a composer, librettist, director, dramaturg, and producer. Your communication and relationships with your team will be essential. If the commissioning organization is suggesting a collaborator, meet with them over coffee or Zoom. Definitely consider them. But you also must know your artistic process and goals and who aligns with that – who really gets it. A great producer will also know the areas that need to be augmented, challenged, or pushed. The matchmaking isn’t just in the artistry – it’s also personality and respect. These are some of the most valuable details and decisions that make a new work successful because when you are on the same page with the creative team, producer, and commissioning organization, it’s freedom.

There is big change happening in the performing arts. And while it can feel frustrating, there is immense opportunity. I choose to look at it that way. Most of us want to come together and figure it out. It’s complicated, and we’re working with very old artistic forms and business models that have set a certain tone or expectation. However, we’re actively changing it and finding inroads. Be a part of it, and let it fuel you. Keep creating. And know the arts organizations are pushing from the inside, too!

Anatomy of a Commission is supported, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Augusta Gross and Leslie Samuels, Rob Mason, and the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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