Peering through the workshop windows

CU New Opera Works offers rare glimpse into creative process

Photo courtesy of CU Now

Artists work in solitude.

This is why a view into the artist’s workshop may be as fascinating as the artwork itself. We hope to learn what happens there, how the solitary artist manages to bring forth a work of great beauty, imagination and creativity.

Next week, the University of Colorado gives a glimpse into this creative process with workshop productions of scenes from two operas in progress, Pride and Prejudice by Kirke Mechem and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Herschel Garfein (performances Wednesday through Saturday; details at

The performances are part of CU New Opera Works (CU NOW), a program started last year by CU Opera Director Leigh Holman and voice professor Patrick Mason. They will be staged, presented in costumes taken from the CU Opera’s stock, and performed before projected scenery in one of the university’s newest high-tech facilities, the ATLAS Black Box Theatre. Performed by students in the CU opera program, the scenes will be accompanied by piano.

Early performances of a work still not finished are obviously beneficial to composers. They serve much the same purpose as out-of-town tryouts for Broadway shows: a chance to evaluate the opera’s effectiveness and make any necessary changes before it is considered finished.

“We know that this is providing something very special for composers,” Holman says. “They say, ‘This doesn’t work,’ ‘I don’t like the way I wrote this,’ ‘I want to make some changes,’ and that’s what we do.”

Last year, Holman recalls, one composer said, “‘You know, I just don’t like the way it’s coming out,’ and he asked for my advice about the way he could move things faster, and we worked with his librettist in making changes, gave those to the students, they learned the changes overnight, we came back and fixed things.”

This can be very valuable for the composer, but Holman is quick to explain that is not the main reason she started CU NOW.

“From a composer’s standpoint, I’m sure it’s about getting his work up,” she explains. “But from our standpoint it’s really more about the singers. As a trainer of young artists, it was more important [to me] to give the singers an opportunity to sing new music and work with composers who were writing music for them and for their voice.

“We’re not here to teach composers, we’re here to teach the singers how to work with composers.”

The student singers in this year’s program underline this goal. In fact, Lukas Graf, who sings Rosenkrantz, and Nicole Vogel, who sings Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, say nearly the same thing.

“It’s beneficial to understand what the composer is going through,” Graf says. “I wish we could go back to Mozart and Puccini and pick their brains.”

And Vogel says, “The best thing is getting to work with the composer and get into their process. It’s so nice to pick their brains, and ask questions like, ‘Why did you pick the mezzo-soprano for this role?’” James Baumgardner, who, as both Hamlet and the assistant director of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, is in the interesting position of staging his own death, gets to work directly with the composer.

“I’ve been talking to Garfein on the phone and getting ideas of what he wants,” he explains. “I can look at the music and think, ‘Is this what the composer is going for?’ and find out, yes, that’s right, or maybe it’s not exactly what he had in mind.”

As much as the students are learning, many in the audience will remain fascinated by what the composer is going through.

“I’m seeing something a little bit different from anyone else in the audience,” Garfein says. “What I’m looking for is how some of the new material I’ve written can work over the long-term flow of the opera. For example, I’m doing a couple of key scenes that begin Act II, so in my own head I’m thinking ahead to everything that’s to come, and I’m looking for how the scenes will set up the rest of the act. They have to be entertaining and work in their own right, but I’m also comparing what I’m seeing with a lot of other things that I know to be written.”

What Garfein seems to be saying is this: “The door to the workshop is open; come and see how I work. But at the same time, the door to the workshop is closed; the real work is going on in my head.”

And so the creative process is open, and as mysterious as ever.