Video Published: 24 Aug 2022

An Oral History with Michael Ching

On July 27th, 2022, composer Michael Ching sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life. 

This interview was originally recorded on July 27th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Michael Ching, composer

Michael Ching is a composer, conductor, and songwriter. His operas include the popular SPEED DATING TONIGHT! (over a hundred productions since 2013) and BUOSO’S GHOST, his sequel to Puccini’s GIANNI SCHICCHI. The double bill has been done recently at Michigan Opera Theatre, OperaDelaware and, next season, will play at Florida Grand Opera where he was on the music staff from 1981-85. Michael was Artistic Director of Opera Memphis from 1992-2010. Michael began his opera journey at Houston Opera Studio where he studied with Carlisle Floyd and Duke University where he studied with Robert Ward. Michael is composer-in-residence at Savannah Voice Festival and opera consultant at E C Schirmer Music Publishers. Michael is beginning work on an opera about the life of Pauline Viardot which will incorporate her compositions, music she sang, and original music.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.

Transcript

Marc A. Scorca: Michael Ching, thank you so much for being with us today, and joining our oral history project; really grateful to have your time and to see you.

Michael Ching: I'm honored to be here, and I'm delighted to see you again.

Marc A. Scorca: Michael, it'll come as no surprise that I ask you, who brought you to your first opera?

Michael Ching: I brought myself to my first opera. I was a student at Interlochen, and I went to see Trouble in Tahiti, and I liked it. I had been previously exposed to musicals, and participated in them, but realized that this was a very enticing, interesting, challenging art form.

Marc A. Scorca: What was your first grand opera experience?

Michael Ching: The first large opera I ever saw was Carmen at The Metropolitan Opera, and to this day, it's probably one of my favorites.

Marc A. Scorca: And clearly, you're off and running that your first two experiences were positive, and you thought, "Oh, this opera thing is a pretty good thing."

Michael Ching: They were, but it wasn't until high school and early college.

Marc A. Scorca: But if you were at Interlochen, and already kind of curious about musicals and took yourself to your first opera, how did music come to be a part of your life, by the time you were in high school?

Michael Ching: Well, I was your typical little Asian piano player, playing Mozart and Beethoven and things like that. And I wrote a little bit of music when I was young, but then didn't take it up again until high school. And I had a big crossroads in college, where I was trying to decide whether to go to graduate school, or what I should do, and realized that I really just loved the collaborative process of theater, and so when this opportunity came up to join the Houston Opera Studio, I jumped at that instead, and I've never looked back. I've just had a wonderful time working in opera since I was 21.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. It's just incredible that it spoke to you that early, and the way opened for you.

Michael Ching: Well, the classical music at the time in the late '70's was very knotty and arcane and difficult, and it still has that stream, but it was very dominated by that. And opera has that sort of blood sport quality, where you cheer and you boo and you say 'bravo'. And that just really attracted it to me. It told me that the audience was very engaged. And I just love that to this day about opera.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. You know, and it's funny, I haven't talked about that with anyone else, but there is a level of interactivity in opera, where the audience does participate; the audience does interrupt from time to time. The audience stalls or accelerates the performance. I'll never forget, I was at a performance where the audience applauded sufficiently where Juan Diego Flórez repeated an aria. And the idea that the audience had control over the repeat of an aria was somehow different from any other arts experience. It really is a participatory art form.

Michael Ching: I was at an Opera Memphis performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, and in the mad scene, when she came out (and) it looked like she was about to do herself in, someone in the audience shouted, "Don't do it, Lucia; don't do it." I mean, it's just so engaging.

Marc A. Scorca: I love that. Yeah. It's so true. And frankly, I wish there were more of it. But when I read your bio - and you are so multi-talented, (and I say that just as fact, not to flatter) you are also a conductor, and I'm wondering whether the composition part of your creative talent was always the dominant one. Did you want to be a conductor, or was that sort of incidental?

Michael Ching: Composing was always, and to this day, more important to me. I sometimes describe my work as an opera administrator and conductor, to have been a 35 year apprenticeship, and I started conducting at Opera Memphis mostly, because I realized that, "Well, I could do a pretty good job of this, and we could save a little money, and spend it on something else." I mean, it was the general director brain that was causing that. And, as a matter of fact, I'm doing a Barber and a Bohème this year at a couple of places, and I am pretty much promising myself that that will be the last time I will do each of these operas, so that I can just keep focusing more and more time on composing.

Marc A. Scorca: Fair enough. Now, you mentioned to me the National Opera Institute, and I don't think a lot of people now remember, or know what the National Opera Institute was or how its apprentice program worked. Tell us a little bit about it, and what it did for you.

Michael Ching: Well, it was organization that helped fund apprenticeships for young artists. There was a fellow named John Ludwig, who ran it for many years, and I know Beverly Sills was involved in it. And when I got the opportunity - in other words, when Robert Ward, frankly, called Carlisle Floyd and said, "Hey, I've got this kid that really would make a great match for the Houston Opera Studio.” And I sightread some Carmen for John DeMain at an apartment in New York City, and he said, "Fine, come on aboard." Then, the National Opera Institute was the organization that helped fund that apprenticeship. And so there I was in Houston; got the chance to work with Carlisle Floyd for a year.

Marc A. Scorca: You've mentioned two names that are just landmark names, landmark composers in American opera. How did you come to know Robert Ward?

Michael Ching: Well, I went to Duke University and Robert Ward had a great association with Duke. He was the chancellor at the North Carolina School for the Arts, and then he had retired from that, and then was still teaching some composition, but then he gradually moved over to Duke, and I got to work with him for probably, I would say, two and a half years. And he was a very kind gentleman and very much of a mentor-style teacher. And I just adored him. My year with Carlisle was much more difficult. We patched it up in the last 20 years, but that year with Carlisle was very, very challenging. He wouldn't basically let me write a note of music, and we really concentrated on libretto writing and creating good outlines. He would see me at a lesson and say, "Well, Michael, this is riddled with clichés. Don't you think you can do better than that?" And so it was very challenging, very hard on my ego, but great training because, I will say that my work may not be brilliant, but it always works, and I owe that to Carlisle.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. We'll talk about that in a minute. When you mention Robert Ward and Carlisle Floyd in the same sentence - two of the most gracious people in our business. Robert, just one of the great gentlemen - you use that word - but every letter of it means it for Robert. What did you learn from him compositionally? What did you appreciate about him as a composer?

Michael Ching: Well, Bob was very practical. He would write for almost any combination when asked, and he made me understand the practical aspect of composing. I think of an opera commission as being a little bit like an architect. You want to please the client with a building that both pleases you, yourself and the client, and a commission is much like working with a client, and I felt like I learned a lot of that from Bob. There was a composition lesson or two that I questioned, like he kept insisting that Tosca had sonata form buried in it, and I'm not too sure to this day I agree with that, but it was still a wonderful, warm process.

Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting you talk about the architect analogy, so that you, as a composer, are always thinking about the client, the commissioner, and I assume the audience of the client, as opposed to being alone on a mountaintop just writing what you want to write. What is your approach to that? How do you define the line between what the client wants or will like, and what it is that you want to create?

Michael Ching: Well, I prefer to be given an assignment. For example, I have a backdrop of Savannah, Georgia behind me, and originally with the commission in Savannah, they said, "We want you to write a ghost story, because this is a ghost story town; Savannah is filled with ghost stories. And oh, by the way, here's a book of ghost stories and pick the one that you want." And so that was very, very helpful in trying to figure out how to work this through. And then also just practical considerations: being a general director, you need to figure out how you can work within the parameters that are available. In other words, you have this much rehearsal time; you have this much orchestra time; you have these resources, and you must work within the resources so that the resources look good. You can write really complicated orchestra music, and then by act three, the orchestra is sightreading, or you can make them look good and sound glorious, based on the amount of time that they have available, but then you can't write quite so hard or so difficult. So it's all very practical.

Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting how you take that approach to make everyone sound good, given the resources, including time that's available. In your bio, you are also described as a songwriter. And I find that an interesting dimension, 'cause I know you write wonderful songs, and yet how does your work as a songwriter influence your opera composition?

Michael Ching: I've written songs of various styles off and on for years, and it's made me a confident lyricist, and that helps so much when you are working on a project. I always describe the relationship in one's mind as a creator, as a game of ping pong between the music and the words. And sometimes when you're stuck on the words, you work on the music and vice versa, or you work on the storyline. And so, I feel like having the skill of being able to work with words is just so helpful and so vital and increasingly necessary for me. In other words, I have a harder and harder time working with a librettist. I do it still sometimes, but ultimately, honestly prefer to work just with myself.

Marc A. Scorca: Why is that?

Michael Ching: The good thing about having an outside person is you have somebody else who can tell you, "You are just crazy; you're wrong; you need to fix something." The bad thing is then you have to do a lot of convincing with that person, if you believe in something and you have to make it work.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. Because you have worked with a librettist; you have a number of works with Hugh Moffatt as librettist, and you write your own libretti. What constitutes a good libretto for Michael Ching?

Michael Ching: Well, for me, it's not where you get, it's how you get there. Opera can be two and a half hours long, or 90 minutes long, or 30 minutes long or whatever, and the journey itself is much more important than the destination. Sure we care that Violetta dies, or that Tosca jumps off of the parapet. We do care about that, but those are not the moments we live for, when we go to see those operas. And so it's much more important that how we get there, rather than the destination itself. I guess you would say I'm very conservative about the fact that I prefer to write numbers opera. In other words, the style that was established between, let's say, Mozart and then middle Verdi. It's not that I don't occasionally write through-composed things, but I consider that to be a tool rather than a default.

Marc A. Scorca: Is that a decision influenced by your work as a songwriter, where you think in units that are independent units, in a way?

Michael Ching: Yes, I agree with you. That's a good observation that those independent units; our whole field is built on independent units. The opera aria is the basic nugget of what we do. We go see auditions, and we see opera aria after opera aria, after opera aria. And to me, we should all just be trying to write terrific opera arias. And that's what the audience is there to see, is to see those opera arias. And so, I always think it's just a very dangerous thing when composers write recitative after recitative after scene after scene. It's a challenging way to approach opera for an audience.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. And it certainly gets in the way of their participation, if they don't have an opportunity to express themselves after a unit of beautiful music.

Michael Ching: Yeah. That's also true.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm fascinated by the creative variety of the works that you have composed Michael, and I wanna ask you a bit about your creative process in a second, but, for instance, your sequel operas, which I just find fascinating, and frankly I talk about a lot, as a concept that really amuses me and captures me. Tell us about these sequel operas.

Michael Ching: Well, I am in the field. I am one of us, and I learned from what I consider to be the best - the Marriage of Figaros, the Carmens, the Butterflies, and for example, with Buoso's Ghost, which was written in the middle '90's, we were sitting around at joint auditions in New York. It was Miami Opera - Willie Anthony Waters; Linda Jackson, who used to run Chautauqua Opera, myself, a few other people, we were sitting around just shooting the breeze about what happens to Madam Butterfly's kid, or what happens to the Germont family. Do they actually speak after Violetta dies, or do they kiss and make up? Those kinds of questions. And so, the sequel to Gianni Schicchi called Buoso's Ghost developed as a result of a breakfast conversation about speculating on opera characters, and we don't have that same kind of tradition that was built in - I don't know the serialization of novels like Dickens or any kind of TV show that goes through episodes - and I think it's a shame. I think we should have more episode kinds of operas that are a little less heroic than The Ring, 'cause obviously you can't see The Ring very often, but, little mini-more episode type things I think are a genre that could be pursued more and yes, I've worked on a little sequel to La Cenerentola, as well that will finally get done next year here in Savannah.

Marc A. Scorca:...called Royal Feast. Is that the right name?

Michael Ching: Yes. It was developed with an advisory panel of middle schoolers, and when they saw the Rossini Cenerentola they were like, "Well, where are the mice? Where are the talking animals? Where is the magic?" And so, there it goes, the sequel has some of that kind of magic in it that the Rossini doesn't have. The Rossini is much more gritty and realistic.

Marc A. Scorca: Now I'm gonna ask you a challenging question here, because I don't want you to give away a prize idea, but I want you to pitch your next commission. Do you have your favorite sequel idea you wish you would be commissioned?

Michael Ching: Oh gosh, I don't know. I think it would probably be one of those projects, like what happens to Madam Butterfly's child, when he grows up in America. Obviously, what is his life like? And I think there was even a Butterfly that the NBC did a long time ago that was kind of based on that story. It had the premise that Butterfly's child was narrating the story,

Marc A. Scorca: How interesting. You've written an a cappella opera, which is, in a way, completely logical because we are a vocal art form, but so captivating to listen to, (as I've heard parts of it). What was the motivation there?

Michael Ching: Well, there was an a cappella group in Memphis that wanted me as their outside coach, 'cause when you're, say, a 10 piece a cappella group, you can't really always listen to yourself when you're singing, and so I was their outside ears, and I just fell in love with it. And I'm a little bit too old to have been a part of the tradition of beatboxing and bass, and all that stuff, and it just fascinated me, 'cause they had all of that, and I fell in love with it. And the idea of doing an a cappella opera was born. I must say, it was so difficult that it's only been done that one or two times, and just recently, really not too far away from you, Towson University commissioned a small orchestration and the purpose of the orchestration is to keep everybody on pitch.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, how interesting.

Michael Ching: Not to outshine the a cappella nature of the piece, but it's to keep everybody on pitch, and I must say it worked marvelously and I'm quite optimistic that it will have a second life.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, what a wonderful story that is. I love that. And Speed Dating (Tonight), which, as I haven't heard any of it, but I read about it, and the kind of abundant flexibility that Speed Dating has embedded as an idea. Tell us about that.

Michael Ching: Well, you probably know who Dean Anthony is, an opera singer who also now runs the Janiec Opera at Brevard. In 2013 he asked me, "Hey Michael, what about an opera about speed dating?" So there it was; it was his idea to do that. And initially the piece was written for about 25 young artists in their program. And now, I keep writing at it, and now it actually has over 90 options. And, as you know yourself, times have changed since 2013, and so there's certain types of things that simply weren't in there, like a transgender non-binary ballad, or a duet for two people of the same gender. There are all sorts of things that are gradually being put in there. It's been my most successful project, even though the professional companies have only done it maybe six or 10 times, it's actually been done over a hundred times since 2013. So there's very little that (can't be done)...most colleges can't say they can't do it. It's absolutely doable, at any level. And so it usually gets 10 to 12 productions a year, and even got a bunch of them during COVID.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. It's just terrific. And yet I know you also turn your attention to serious topics: King of the Clouds, Out of the Rain, that are dealing with really serious social topics.

Michael Ching: Those were educational pieces, and I believe in serious operas, but I do think that opera has ceded much of its territory to musical comedy, and that we need more comic operas. And I think I'm much more suited to laughing than crying temperamentally, so I prefer to write things that at least have some lightness in them.

Marc A. Scorca: We hear all the time in our various meetings a longing for comic opera - the opportunity to laugh in the opera house, even if it's not a slapstick comic opera, but some opportunity to be lighter and more joyful in the opera house. And yet we also know how hard comedies are to write, because timing plays such an important role in it. And how broad, how narrow, how subtle is the comedy, and how much do you get to rehearse it. So as much as the lighter opera may appeal to your spirit, is it more difficult to write than the tragic opera?

Michael Ching: It just has different challenges. In a comic opera, the lyrics just need to come through 90 to 95%. In a tragic opera, it's possible to get away with 40, 50, 60% comprehension in the audience, but jokes are so quick that you really need almost 100% comprehension. And that means writing fundamentally a different style of music than, say, large orchestral forces or things like that. So, it just has different challenges. I guess that's what I'd say: different challenges, not insurmountable though.

Marc A. Scorca: And what I hear about your creative process is that ideas spring to you in conversation with potential commissioners as they have an idea - "Can you do something about this?" Or, with friends - that you're talking to friends and just having conversation the way we do...but ideas jump out of those conversations that you then take to the opera stage.

Michael Ching: I think that's true. I've got someone who's interested in working with me - a university - on a large opera, and it's been a long process of trying to figure out what to do, and some things that I proposed that they didn't like, and vice versa. Finally, she suggested, "Why don't you look into writing something about Pauline Viardot?" And after a bunch of research, and realizing that she was just an amazing performer and composer, I realized that, "Hey, this is something I think that we could work with." And in the process, I probably could help bring back to the public eye, a bunch of her music. And so, it won't be quite a sequel, but it's a kind of sequel in a way, in that I will be collaborating with her body of work. And I guess that's another thing worth bringing up is that, one of the things about writing sequels is that you can't be afraid to use Rossini's music or Puccini's music and incorporate that into what you do, and so, I do feel that style is situational. In other words, your style depends on the subject matter of the type of show you're writing. And I'm not at all afraid to delve into borrowing the styles of other existing musics in order to work with them.

Marc A. Scorca: Your fluidity in all of this, I find really, really fascinating and impressive, and you're absolutely right, Pauline Viardot is just an amazing story. As a pianist...everything that she did is really quite remarkable. I'm so glad that you're bringing that back up for us to look at. Your career is, I would say, a little atypical in terms of the kinds of works you've done. You've written a lot, and a lot of composers struggle for their second or third opera, and you've written more than a dozen. Michael, are there role models that you've had through your career?

Michael Ching: Role models. Well, I think that the role models I have, people like Robert Ward who worked very practically, who would take various kinds of opportunities, and so I think Bob was one of my major, major role models to this day. So I think he was the main one.

Marc A. Scorca:...and a great one to have. You have served as the chair of The Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera, and certainly didn't know Douglas Moore. I didn't know Douglas Moore. And yet he is one of those important figures in American opera, predating the real flowering of American opera, as a contemporary expressive form. What about Douglas Moore and his legacy interests you in working with the fund?

Michael Ching: Well, I absolutely adore The Ballad of Baby Doe, and it is certainly one of the foundation pieces of our American opera canon; one of the first 10, certainly. And one of the things I love about that is that he worked with a librettist, John Latouche, who was a songwriter. I mean, he wrote lyrics for Duke Ellington, for heaven's sake, so that, I think, is very inflected in that opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe. You see, there's various branches of our opera tree and the branch that I like to think I'm on is the one that includes works like Porgy and Bess and The Ballad of Baby Doe that sit on the fence; that certainly have major operatic elements, but also have elements of popular song. So, it's a more slender branch of the tree; it's not like a big live oak; it's a smaller tree. I mean, there's certainly Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein - other composers that work in that way, but it's a minority of composers.

Marc A. Scorca: And certainly there are those works and up at the program at Columbia (as Douglas Moore was up at Columbia) - Jack Beeson and others. It was a real center of creative activity, again at the early stages of this American opera repertoire.

Michael Ching: Yes. And one of the other things that people don't always realize is that the great American musical theater composer, John Kander studied with Douglas Moore, and so at one point in time, these trees kind of go like this, (clasps hands). They intertwine.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, I think there needs to be an opera about those years at Columbia University, and where they were all working together. It would be very interesting.

Michael Ching: I could suggest that to John Kander, since he's still alive and maybe he could do that.

Marc A. Scorca: It would be interesting. I want to focus on your years as a general director of an opera company, and I can think of conductors, who've been general directors of opera companies, but there aren't many composers who took on the mantle of being a general director. What led you to do that, and what did you learn from that?

Michael Ching: I have learned so much from running an opera company, mostly good - few bad things - but mostly good. It taught me so much about writing practically. Buoso's Ghost also came out of the fact that when you do Gianni Schicchi with one of the other operas in the Trittico, you need a completely different cast and you need a completely different set. So already your expenses, instead of just staying like this (indicates steady), they go up, up, up. And so part of the practical thing was at Opera Memphis - we could afford to do about three and a half operas, and so by writing a sequel that takes place on the same set, it allowed us to, in a sense, create a full evening out of something that is not normally a full evening. And certainly the performance history of that piece has validated that impulse, and they're just practical considerations, like you can see how well Verdi and Bizet wrote for choruses; how in early Verdi, some of the chorus entrances are just awkward and he doesn't give them enough time. So, things like that. How to budget; how to maximize your stars; how to work with the community; how to write things that the community care about, because, I don't know, you've probably had this conversation with other general directors...when you're producing, there is an edge; every community has an edge. It's right at the point where their taste is completely engaged, and if you step over that edge, they become alarmed, or offended, or whatever. And that edge varies from city to city. And the edge in Memphis was very different than the edge in New York City or LA or Cincinnati or something like that. And so the idea was that you would go in terms of interest right over that edge, and yes, you could peer over the edge, but you always had to make sure your feet were firmly on the ground, and you didn't jump over the edge, if you wanted to keep your job. And there were certainly people who didn't care, and went over that edge. I recall reading a long time ago, somebody in a small opera company in the south decided to do Pelléas and Mélisande, and well, that was gonna be their last opera. And it kind of was. So, it's teaching you basic survival skills. You know - Memphis. We haven't really talked about this, but, at one point in time, I was the Asian-American-composer-general-director running a Southern opera company, and that hit a lot of buttons for various things like NEA panels, or various kinds of things, and so, it was a very educational thing to be part of all of that. You know, in the old days, the NEA used to do onsite evaluations. Do you remember those? I learned so much from being able to go to those, and there was one guy who thought I was stealing their soul when I was typing on my laptop, and he wouldn't let me use my laptop computer. There was another fellow who, of course, is not too far away from where you are in your office, who I was so impressed that he had a wet bar in his office - you know who that was. And so just all sorts of different kinds of adventures that allowed me to have, and to learn how to write practically and also to really value the audience. It's one of the things, Marc that I worry about in our day and age is that we have this audience of lovely people who are just crazy about us. They give us irrational amounts of money for three or four nights of pleasure. It's just wonderfully irrational, and we don't wanna lose those people, and we want to challenge them in just the right way. And so, when we're in this era where I think we're all wondering, what is the direction of our art form, we have to bear our audience in mind and cherish them and bring them along; hold their hands gently; give them a little shove when necessary, but certainly not abandon them. I don't think our field would be well served if we were to abandon that audience.

Marc A. Scorca: Very well said, Michael. It's interesting to hear you reference the NEA onsite visits. And I think time passes and we forget about that, but when the NEA paid for people to go to see other productions in order to write up a kind of review for the file at the NEA, so when they were reviewing proposals, they could look at some of these site visit reports, and what an incredible learning experience, community building experience those were. Something that I really miss.

Michael Ching: Yeah. They were a huge education for me, and they were deliberately done that way. I mean, they'd send some young person out, who they hoped was competent, and you'd really get this opportunity to see the show; spend the night in the hotel in the big city; interview the boss and all of the people on down. It was a lovely opportunity. One of those that I really wish they still do.

Marc A. Scorca: So Michael, let's pretend that the National Opera Institute Apprentice Program still existed. And if a young composer contacted you and said, "Would you take me on as an apprentice for a year?" Would you do it?

Michael Ching: Yeah, I definitely would. My dad was a professor. My wife is a retired professor, and so I enjoy getting out and doing educational things, but I don't have to do them every day, and so it doesn't run my well dry. Now, as you can hear, my background is very different than most composers and most of the compositional attitudes that are taking place in our field right now in, say, bigger metropolitan areas. The way I describe it to people is that I want to be loved, not respected in my work. I want people to just go, "That was a marvelous evening." And so for me to go to a weird little place, like I went to Joplin, Missouri this year, (they did one of my operas) and to have these people who had never gone to an opera before come up to me and say, "That was so much better than I thought it was gonna be. I actually laughed and cried." And that to me is so much more special. And I cherish that. It's hard to move the jaded and we all get a little jaded, after a while, so it's so refreshing to feel like you're out there in the regions doing something that turns out to really further the art form.

Marc A. Scorca: So, if you had that apprentice, you said that Carlisle, in the year that you spent with him, never had you compose anything...what would you have your apprentice do, or not do, in that year of an apprenticeship?

Michael Ching: Write a beautiful song. Write a song that makes people laugh. Write a song that is moving, and really concentrate on that three minute, two and a half minute form. And if you can write a beautiful song. Speed Dating, frankly, is nothing but a string of songs. It's songs or duets or trios or whatever, but they're fundamentally song forms, and it works. And, as I said, how you get there is far more important than where you get. What I do think is, in some ways lacking is really emphasis on the aria, and the position of the aria, like, the Habanera comes in at just the right time; the Libiamo comes in at just the right time, early enough in the opera to grab the audience and go, "Oh, I can watch more of this; I'm looking forward to seeing how this goes." I really do think we've deemphasized our basic building block unit: the aria, and not just write a wordy thing - write something that's got literally a tune in it. The word 'tune' just seems to be a word that people aren't using so much. A squared off tune really is helpful once in a while. You don't have to do it all the time; you may decide to use more extended, difficult compositional techniques, and I use them from time to time as well, but write an aria; write a tune. That to me is what I wish our field spent a little more time emphasizing, 'cause that's what the basic audience wants. That's what the general audience would like to hear more of in opera.

Marc A. Scorca: Michael, I know that you have an image of Savannah behind you, and you're off to Savannah. What are you gonna be doing there?

Michael Ching: Well, in 2015 and 2017, I wrote two one act operas based on Savannah's stories. The first one is a tragic ghost story that is set in the 1730's, and it is about an Irish indentured servant named Alice Riley, who was supposed to go to Philadelphia, and they got blown off course, and she ended up in Savannah and unfortunately she had a terrible master and she and another Irish indentured servant murdered the master and they were imprisoned and eventually both hanged. And what happened was Alice turned out to have been pregnant, and they let her have the baby, and then a few weeks later, they hanged her. Ghost stories are a little bit about the guilty conscience of a community, and I think Savannah has always felt very bad about that. And so this very famous ghost is Alice Riley. And so that opera was the first one. Sherrill Milnes, who I hope you will interview in this series...

Marc A. Scorca:...which we've done...

Michael Ching: Good. Sherrill is playing a part in this opera. He doesn't sing anymore, but he plays a kind of tour guide, so he can carry a clipboard and read his part. He's kind of the narrator. He sets the stage for this story. Then the second opera, which was really completely my idea is that the building behind me is the historic Davenport House and Museum, and it's a building from the early 19th century. And in the 1940's and '50's, there was the urban renewal movement. Well, Savannah thought that they were gonna just pave it all. And if you go to Savannah, what you will find is one of the things they did at that period of time is that Savannah is famous for these historic squares. And what they did is they rounded the corners of the squares off so that you could drive your car around. And so you can see that to this day, and they destroyed some of these squares. And then what happened was, is that, a lady named Anna Hunter and some other fine Savannah ladies stopped it; they stopped it all from happening. And they really invigorated the movement to preserve historic Savannah. And so, this is a story about her. We've turned Anna into a kind of ghost, and she comes back to tell a young tour guide at this place, about the story of historic preservation. So, the love story in this opera is love of place. There is no love of another human being, per se. It is about love of place, which is an unusual way to handle love in an opera. And it's a very, very light comedy. It's got patter songs and there's a song about the revolving fund, which is the way they save the buildings. They lend private individual money to buy an old home. They fix it up, and they pay the money back, and that money gets lent further, further and further. It's like a version of the micro loan; obviously bigger than that. So, these are two Savannah stories that were always meant to be done together. The production was delayed of course by the COVID 19 pandemic. And now we are finally doing it together.

Marc A. Scorca: Fabulous, fabulous. Well, it's such a pleasure to catch up with you, just to hear this great brain of yours and the way you think about opera and the world around you, it's really a pleasure, uh, to capture you today. Thank you so much for taking the time.