Little Opera Meets New Play Development

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When we asked Little Opera families for suggestions last May on how we could make the program even better, one particularly insightful parent wrote:

“It might be interesting if the kids could do a workshop type thing, maybe in January, to hear questions from the audience and so they can add details for the final spring performance. Most of the comments from family and friends are that they don’t understand the story…but the kids have ready answers and might have incorporated them, given enough time.”

It was a spot-on observation, and a brilliant idea. As a playwright, I spend a fair amount of time immersed in the world of new play development, and set out to investigate what the new opera workshopping process looks like.

After hearing more than once that new opera workshops are rare, I was lucky enough to connect with Jim Schaeffer at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, who happens to specialize in new opera development.

His advice? Break it down:

      1. Run a workshop for the libretto, and set it up exactly like you would for a new play workshop. Do it as a staged reading with actors, not singers.
      2. Later, run a workshop of the full score. Get singers and a stage director involved, and have them do a staged sing-through of the entire opera’s score.

Why bother to workshop twice? Because, as Jim said, it’s important to know early on if a libretto can stand alone as a piece of dramatic writing. Music is what takes center stage in a finished opera, but if the original text isn’t very compelling, music can only add so much. For the purpose of Little Opera this year, we broke it down even further:

      1. A story workshop, based on the story outline the students created together
      2. A libretto workshop, based on the first draft of the full libretto
      3. A Music Workshop, based on the first draft of the opera’s melodies.

In mid October, we ran our first story workshops, and they went better than I ever could have imagined. Here’s what happened:

    1. Students (or teachers, depending on the age range of the class) presented their story outline to other students and teachers who had never heard the story before.
    2. Students engaged in a feedback session, based on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. For the kids, that meant listening to the audience’s pops (things that excited them) and questions (things that were confusing, or they wanted to know more about), without saying anything in response. The kids asked each other excellent questions. In fact, the caliber of questions was higher than many new play feedback sessions I’ve participated in with adults.
    3. Later, each group compiled the questions asked by their audience, and for each question they decided as a group:
      • – Do we want the audience to know the answer to this question?
      • – If yes, do we think the answer is already clear in our story?
      • – If it’s not yet clear, how can we make it clearer in our story outline?

In early December, we’ll run phase two of this year’s development process: The Libretto Reading. The feedback process will look very similar that of the story workshop, but this time the Libretti’s authors will also be in the audience. I can’t wait to see what our students discover about how their operas are taking shape by watching professional actors bring their words to life.

– By Erin Bregman
Little Opera Founder & Artistic Director