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The Role of the Dramaturg in the Creation of New Work
Andrew Eggert
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2008

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The successful development of Tnew work for the opera stage is a complex and often elusive process. Ask anyone who has contributed to the making of a new opera, and they will tell you there is no single formula that works every time. Composers, librettists, directors, designers and producers who collaborate on new work must always reinvent the process to suit the unique musical and dramatic needs of the piece they are creating.

Increasingly, composers and producers have called on the knowledge and experience of a dramaturg — a knowledgeable theater practitioner — to help give direction to the creative process. Whether one of the central members of the creative team (for example the director) or a freelance consultant, the dramaturg can be anyone who helps guide development by serving as advocate for the piece and catalyst for collaboration, as well as editor and sounding board for the authors.

Some opera companies in North America regularly employ dramaturgs to work on new productions of established operas in the repertory. The dramaturg provides research on the historical and cultural context of the opera, helps in the translation or interpretation of words and music, and works with the director to find ways to transform a classic score into an original stage production. The development of new work is different, since the creators are engaged in an ongoing conversation about how to shape a work in progress. But in both cases the ultimate role of the dramaturg remains the same: to focus on the big picture, to think about the overall structure of the work and to make suggestions that will improve how the piece comes to life on stage.

“The dramaturg can ask the questions that no one else has asked because they are immersed in the process in a very particular way,” said Brian Quirt, president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), a service organization with over 500 members from a variety of theatrical and literary backgrounds. “Dramaturgs are different [from the other collaborators] in that their responsibility isn’t to a single aspect of the creation. Whether dealing with text on the page, a musical played at the piano or in action on the stage in front of you, the dramaturg is there to respond to the ideas that are being expressed and to help find the next step in the process.”

Quirt works actively as a dramaturg in theater, dance and opera, and he values the creative energy generated by collaboration across the disciplines. “It’s great that we can begin a conversation between people who do this work in the opera world and the theater world,” said Quirt. “The work is similar — we’re both telling stories — but the tools that we use can be somewhat different… It’s the kind of crossover that can be particularly rich and productive.”

Composer Jake Heggie has built close collaborative relationships with artists who have extensive experience in the theater world, including stage directors and playwrights. For Heggie, it is important to have the entire creative team on board from the beginning of the process of writing a new opera, since each collaborator brings a different perspective on how to unlock the theatricality of the story. “As the composer, working from my perspective, you spend so much time alone, and it’s dangerous if you get too close to the show in the wrong way,” said Heggie. “You fall in love with one version of it, or you fall in love with one character, and you want to make sure that everyone gets their due. The dramaturg or director gives me perspective in the same way that the conductor gives me perspective on the score.”

In the case of the opera Dead Man Walking, the director Joe Mantello took on the role of dramaturg during development by asking questions that Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally had not considered, which led to further revisions to the structure of the first act. These changes addressed both large and small aspects of the storytelling, including what Heggie calls the “emotional thread” of the characters — how the background of their individual lives is told and connected to the dramatic action onstage. Other more detailed changes suggested by Mantello were geared toward the goal of clarity for the audience on many levels: making sure the individual words of the libretto would be understood, and that the original set and costume designs would support the dramatic and musical arc of the story.

Heggie likes to use workshops to assess the dramaturgical effectiveness of his operas and to open up a dialogue that includes his creative collaborators and the singers who will interpret the opera’s characters. His latest opera, Three Decembers, premiered as Last Acts at Houston Grand Opera in February 2008, directed by Leonard Foglia. The opera, with a libretto by Gene Scheer adapted from a play by McNally, was given a full workshop in December 2007 by San Francisco Opera in preparation for the world premiere production. (The opera was commissioned by HGO in association with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances.) For Heggie, the workshop was an important final opportunity to confirm that, in his words, “the journey of the piece was clear and balanced among the three characters.”

Workshops can also be important during earlier stages in the genesis of a new work. James Leverett, who teaches dramaturgy and dramatic literature at the Yale School of Drama and the Columbia School of the Arts, has participated in a series of five development workshops with the composer Philip Glass and the director JoAnne Akalaitis, who are creating a new music-theater piece, The Bacchae, adapted from the ancient Greek play by Euripides. The work was cocommissioned by Stanford University and the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and is a hybrid of spoken theater and opera. The creators have used the workshops to look at one particular aspect of the storytelling: the role of the chorus and the many functions it serves in the stage production.

Leverett sees the workshop as an important time to refine the piece and increase its chances of reaching its intended audience. “One of the things that a dramaturg does is to serve as a kind of first audience as the work is coming into being, and that includes the work as it is being written,” said Leverett. “We often have to work in such curtailed circumstances — in terms of time and financial resources — that if you have this process by which a director and composer can have an ongoing sounding board, you are actually increasing the work’s likelihood of success on the stage.”

In the series of workshops for The Bacchae, Leverett has played an active dramaturgical role from the very beginning. He has supported the creators in the process of setting the text of the large chorus scenes to music, and his feedback has led to cuts and word changes in the translation. Because these text changes have been made on the spot, Glass has been able to respond by recomposing the music in small ways that accommodate the text and “make it sharper and sharper,” as Leverett said.

Important dramaturgical contributions can be made before composition even begins. The Canadian stage director and dramaturg Kelly Robinson has developed a specific type of workshop that he uses in the early stages of opera development to help composers and librettists reach consensus on the direction and meaning of the story they want to tell. Robinson will lead a workshop of actors who speak the text of the libretto. “With a group of actors, you can immediately change the interpretations, so the composer has a chance to act
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About the Author: Andrew Eggert is a freelance stage director and dramaturg based in New York City.
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