Behind the Scenes Interviews

Q & A: American Opera Initiative Director Robert Ainsley On Growing the Opera World & Challenges For Aspiring Composers / Librettists

Growing opera has become one of the essential missions of major opera companies. Fostering new talent, whether it be singers or composers, is now an active part of most opera companies’ structures.

That is no different for the Washington National Opera and its American Opera Initiative. The program was initiated in 2012 with the goal to “stimulate, enrich, and ensure the future of contemporary American opera by providing talented emerging composers and librettists with mentorship and opportunities to write for the stage.”

Among the many leaders within the organization is Robert Ainsley, who is the Director of AOI. Ainsley has gone from being a professional musician to assistant conductor to Head of Music of Minnesota Opera and the Head of Music Staff and Chorus Master at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Ainsley recently spoke with OperaWire about this year’s talent pool for the AOI’s roster of artists, which include composer Nathan Fletcher and Librettist Megan Cohen who created “Bridge for Three;” composer Gity Razaz and librettist Sara Cooper and their work “Fault Lines;” and finally, composer John Glover and Librettist Erin Bregman who co-created “Precita Park.” The works are set for a performance on Jan. 20, 2018.

OperaWire: What is unique about this year’s crop of artists in the program?

Rob Ainsley: We have such a wide spread of talent in many ways – of experience, of styles, and of the technical challenges they have each addressed. For some, this is their very first opera, and seeing their creative voices emerge is a huge thrill; some have focused on developing quite specific aspects of their craft, working with our mentors to try new techniques and genres; our one-hour team, Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, are quite simply some of the most exciting voices in opera today, and have written a score that represents the very best in new American work.

OW: Tell me a bit about the different works and what makes each one special.

RA: I love that they’re all so different and unique in style and musical language and that we have such a broad cross-section of the types of music being written at the moment – the lush lyric sound world of “A Bridge for Three;” the pained, troubled, poignantly beautiful world of “Fault Lines;” the spiky, post-minimalist fizz of “Precita Park.”

The longer commission, “Proving Up,” is a masterpiece, with every component of the texture contributing to a rich, layered sound-world both modern and timeless, full of real musical drama, depth, and color. The underlying message of each is important also – the sanctity of life, the abuses of the patriarchy, the importance of stillness and quiet in our busy worlds, the changing promise of the American Dream. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling snapshot of new American opera – where else can you see four new operas in two days?

OW: When selecting the winners, what qualities do you look for in them and in their work?

RA: Like any application process, we’re looking for and balancing a host of different factors, and that indefinable special something which sets someone apart from the crowd. For the composers: the ability to write lyrically, practically, and expressively for the voice; a musical response to text and poetry; a sense of drama and theater in their work; evocative handling of the orchestra as a partner in the drama; a directness in their expression. For the librettists, an understanding of dramatic arc and structure; an ability to create real, living characters; an economy of means; the ability to write emotion, rather than description of emotion. For both, a passion for story-telling and a recognizable unique individual voice.

OW: There is a lot of talk these days about social change being reflected in works of art. One topic that has cropped up is the representation of women in all art forms, even opera. How important are those social shifts to your program and the stories you encourage participants to tell?

RA: These are deeply important, central issues to us, and although correcting the imbalances and the wrongs of history takes time, and we don’t always succeed on every count, we try to do a little better with every step.

This year, we’re very proud of the fact that over half our creative teams are women, and in this watershed moment for all the arts, with the “Me Too” movement rocking many artistic fields (including our own), Gity Razaz and Sara Cooper have chosen to tell a timely story about the abuses of the patriarchy and sexual misconduct in a domestic setting, as well as addressing race issues.

OW: Tell me about how the program works with the young artists in sculpting and crafting their works. How are you directly involved with each young artist?

RA: The entire AOI Festival is cast using the fabulous singers of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and one or two wonderful local artists when we need more voices. The creative teams, therefore, have the luxury of working with the actual casts of the eventual performances at every stage – through libretto readings, to piano, and orchestral workshops, and during the festival itself. The roles can be written with specific voices in mind, and the singers are a vital part of the feedback process during the workshops, letting the teams know what is working vocally and dramatically, when they feel the text is difficult to get across, where they need more time for breath or feel that a phrase needs a different direction.

The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is also under my direction, so I oversee their selection, training, and assignments, and try to ensure their experience with us is constructive to their talent and careers. With new music being an essential and vibrant part of the current artistic landscape, the work they do throughout the year with the AOI is an integral part of that experience and development.

OW: What is the greatest challenge that young composers and librettists face in today’s opera world and what advice do you have for them in seeking success?

RA: With the blossoming of small, indie companies focused on producing new, innovative work, the struggle is often less about getting an opera to be seen, but is more often about securing a second production of that opera, or a repeat engagement to write another piece. The key to that hinges more on the age-old values of great story-telling, real characters and relationships, vocal writing that plays to the unique beauty of the human voice, good music, and stories that matter to us. There are lots of gimmicks which can lead to short-lived success, but careers still tend to be based in solid theatrical values, many of which are contrary to some of the “overnight celebrity” and “instant fame” culture of our modern Snapchat/Netflix/cell phone society, but which require practice, experience, and patience to acquire.

OW: How did you grow to love opera? What was your first major experience with the art form?

RA: I began my career as a church musician, but had always worked with voices, singing as a boy and directing choirs as I grew up. Always more a pianist than an organist, I worked increasingly as an accompanist, and as I progressed, was fortunate to work with more and more professional, trained singers, who started introducing me to the operatic repertoire. Once I came to America, a very special “fairy godmother,” now one of my closest friends, often needed a companion for her Met subscription nights. It only took a night or two before I was hooked. In the second year of my Masters in piano performance at Mannes, I asked if I could be involved in the opera department, and was assigned to play “La Bohème” – Joseph Colaneri taught me every detail of that score with such love and passion, and I haven’t looked back since.

OW: You made the transition from Head of Music in Minnesota to directing this program. How was the transition for you? What are some of the major challenges that you have encountered in leading the Domingo-Cafritz program?

RA: I was brand new to administration when I began, and I stepped into the shoes of an incredibly capable man, who had spent four years building both the DCYAP and AOI into real forces to be reckoned with by virtue of sheer hard work, excellent interpersonal skills, and a virtuosic ability both musical and administrative. Picking up where Michael Heaston left off, with everything at full steam ahead, was a bigger job than I even imagined it would be. It took a full year before I felt I was even fully aware of what I was forgetting – only now do I feel I’m beginning to really get to grips with what is possible. I still miss some of the hands-on practical music-making which was the whole focus of my positions at both Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Minnesota – my work with those choruses, and the detailed study I would do on each new opera – but I’m finding more opportunities to play and coach this year, and hope to continue doing so. Every day I’m grateful for the ways the position challenges me and keeps me learning and growing, both as an administrator and as a person. The bigger and broader issues of diversity, equality, career-building, fairness, work-life balance…it is amazing how much more these become emotional and personal once you step into leadership, and how grateful I am to have leaders like Francesca and Tim as models to look up to.

OW: What are some changes you might be considering for the program as it grows and evolves?

RA: The AOI will continue to evolve in the coming years, and we’re all excited about Tim O’Leary’s arrival to see how the company as a whole mold itself around his leadership. He has been a major figurehead in the development of new American work in his tenure at OTSL, as has our Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, and I know that as a team they will be looking for ways to continue that work. I am particularly proud of the uniqueness of the AOI 20 program, and think it is really crucial in exploring what makes opera tick and why. You’ll have to wait and see how things evolve in the coming seasons!

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