Leigh Holman, director of the University of Colorado Eklund Opera Theater, has made Boulder a mecca for composers.
Every June for the past 10 years, prominent composers have brought operas in progress to the CU New Opera Workshop (CU NOW), where they can spend two to three weeks hearing their work sung by students, making changes and polishing the score.
This year, the opera to be workshopped will be a comedy, Hobson’s Choice by Tom Cipullo. There are other opera workshops around the country, but CU NOW is unique in offering such a long period of time for the composer to be in residence and work on their creation.
Cipullo first heard about CU NOW from former two-time visiting composer Jake Heggie, whose Wonderful Life was workshopped here two years ago and will be produced by the Eklund Opera Company in the fall. As soon as Holman contacted Cipullo about participating in CU NOW, he jumped at the chance.
“It’s such a great opportunity,” Cipullo says. “A lot of workshops you work with people, but you don’t work with them for 17 days. What did you put in the water that these young people suddenly don’t have lives?” he says laughing. “They’re on call six hours a day.”
“Tom is one of the foremost opera composers and songwriters in the country,” Holman says of Cipullo. She had heard students sing his music for recitals and auditions. “I thought, ‘Now that’s singers’ music,’” she says. So when Heggie suggested Cipullo for this year’s program, she got in touch right away.
In the world of contemporary opera, Hobson’s Choice stands out. First, it is a comedy, when most composers are tackling serious subjects. And second, it’s based on a little-known play that is more than 100 years old, when most composers are choosing familiar sources.
“All the [opera] companies want contemporary stories and so much of opera is dealing with social issues,” Cipullo says. “That’s great, but it’s fun to just have a good story. The play itself is so well done it still gets done. And it’s really more contemporary than I thought.”
The play by Harold Brighouse, first produced in 1916, concerns a shoemaker named Henry Hobson whose daughters run his business while he spends his time drinking. Written at the time of the women’s suffrage movement, much of the humor derives from his oldest unmarried daughter being a better businessman than her father. She marries the store’s talented and underpaid bootmaker, starts her own business, and then takes over Hobson’s shop.
“It’s different from any of [the operas] I’ve done,” Cipullo says. “People keep telling me, ’You should do a comedy,’ and it’s a lot of fun to do.”
Holman affirms the need for good comedies. “The producers are saying to the composers, ‘Please write comedies,’” she says. “Everything is so heavy. It’s really exciting that he took the bait and did that.”
For the students in the CU NOW workshop, it is valuable experience to work with a composer like Cipullo, and rewarding to be able to leave a personal mark on a work before it is finished. “We were joking the other day that I’m going to have to give them co-composing credit,” Cipullo says.
“We were doing a section that goes back and forth between two characters and [one of the singers] said, ‘No! It should jump an octave here!’ And she was exactly right.”
It’s the nature of comedy that a lot of the changes involve timing. Cipullo has taken out beats, added beats, and written new music to make it all work.
“As a result of their input, we have changed timing, we have changed actual pitches, we have changed register, we’ve gone back and added music because we need more time,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”
Holman hopes that people will come to the performances “to get a glimpse of and understand the process that goes on behind the scenes. It’s hard for people to get their heads around a workshop for opera. I hope they leave going, ‘That is so illuminating.’”
Cipullo hopes to communicate some of his love of opera. “Opera has this tremendous tradition of being not only great art, but a great source of entertainment,” he says. “When you hear these voices put to the service of a comic story, it can be really thrilling.”
ON THE BILL: ‘Hobson’s Choice,’ music and libretto by Tom Cipullo. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 14, Music Theatre, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 16, Music Theatre; Opera scenes by CU Boulder composition students, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15. Music Theatre performances are free and open to the public