April 27, 2017

Composing Opera – Some Thoughts

I have gotten several inquiries from younger composers about writing in the opera/music theater medium, and would like to express a few thoughts. These reflect my opinions, which are certainly not universal among composers. But here goes…

First, and most importantly, if a young (or not-so-young) composer would like to embark upon an opera, he/she must know a good deal about the voice. As students, we are taught orchestration, but very little about the different voice catagories. This is unfortunate for those who aspire to write vocal works, as there is as much to learn about the voice as there is about an orchestral instrument. The way NOT to compose for the voice is to look up the range of, say, a lyric soprano, and write for it as if it were an orchestral instrument. Important considerations are tessitura, the use of open and closed vowels in different registers of the range, sensitivity to text setting, etc. I think some time with an excellent vocal teacher to get advice and ideas on vocal writing is a good first step; also, studying the vocal writing of Schubert, Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Argento, Barber, and others could teach one a lot about text setting and what a good vocal line is.

Next, realize that an opera or music theater piece is most difficult to get produced in our pop culture-oriented society, so if you want to spend the amount of time it takes to do this, I would recommend starting with a one-act opera, or at least writing one completed scene if you are doing a larger work. First, you must find an idea that grabs you, that you feel passionately about using as the basis for a dramatic work. Find the BEST librettist you can (I would not recommend writing your won libretto unless your name is Richard Wagner), as good writers can do a much better job. A librettist must be completely flexible, willing to do rewrites and make changes; he/she, in my opinion, should know opera, and have some working knowledge of serious music and theater. I have been blessed in the fact that my two most recent librettists – Sheldon Harnick and William Luce – are not only fine writers (Mr. Harnick a great lyricist and bookwriter, and Mr. Luce an excellent playwright) but play musical instruments and have a knowledge of opera and theater. They understand why flexibility in collaboration is of the utmost importance in producing a successful work.

A composer and librettist should understand that writing a libretto is different from writing a play. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

*Plays go DEEP; operas go FORWARD
*Operas have less detail and broader strokes than plays- give the music a chance to flesh out the emotional content
*Keep exposition between the big moments MINIMAL
*Get to the KEY EMOTIONS of a scene as quickly as possible
*Avoid too much meandering dialogue (which often results in meandering music!)
*As the work progresses, be guided in the libretto by the direction the music is taking
*Include a substantial amount of verse and poetic writing (this is a personal preference).
I compiled this list in conversation with Sheldon Harnick, and am grateful to him for his assistance and wisdom in clarifying these ideas.

Many modern operas suffer from unsatisfying vocal lines. A continuous arioso style where the vocal lines seem set in a quasi-parlando fashion (without much melodic interest) I find leads to an unsatisfactory result. The music must be compelling and engaging, not just a vehicle for pushing the drama forward. Why bother going to hear a boring musical version of a great story or play if it doesn’t give the work an added dimension of musicality, emotional engagement, etc?

Lastly, let me say emphasize how difficult it is in our time to get a new opera performed. Be aware of this if you want to embark upon this journey, as it is a very difficult thing for a composer to spend a few years on a work and then find no performance venue. This is why I suggest involving a director or producer in the process from the start.

Good luck!

Henry Mollicone

About Henry Mollicone


  1. Finally a composer’s blog. I’ve been looking and looking to gain some insight into composing. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to more posts and priceless information.

    What do you know about writing for Film or TV?


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