Alumni Corner - An Interview With Rachel Peters
GMTWP Alum Rachel Peters (Cycle 14) has found a highly successful career as a composer, lyricist, and librettist by charting her own unique course in the theatre and music industry. She has written for both musical theatre and opera as well and has created musical underscoring for a variety of projects. She was one of six recipients of Opera America's Opera Grants for Female Composers, which provides a total of $100,000 for the commissioning fees for six new operas. Her opera, ROOTABAGA COUNTRY, which is an adaptation of selections for Carl Sandburg's 1922 ROOTABAGA STORIES, a collection of whimsical American fairy tales, was commissioned by the Sarasota Youth Opera program and offers young people agest 8-18 the opportunity to experience opera through partcipation in after-school choruses, a professionally prodcued Youth Opera production on the mainstage and more. We chatted with Rachel to get a more in-depth look at her career path.
You’ve followed a slightly different writing career path than most of the alums of the program (and not without much success). Can you talk about your path as a writer and how you found yourself on it?
RP: I had been both writing musicals and performing classical music since elementary school, so what I’m doing now is really just the synthesis of everything I’ve learned so far. At my undergraduate university, the music and theatre departments did not overlap, so I was forced to compartmentalize my interests, and that continued beyond graduation. I was singing opera, choreographing modern dance, writing piano etudes and song cycles, and playing in musical theatre pits, all with different groups of people. I concluded that the center of that Venn diagram was Meredith Monk, but that job was already taken. Several years later, I came to NYU still convinced that I could write Broadway musicals, and though musical theatre remains the foundation of everything I do, it quickly became clear that I wanted to write things which perhaps did not jive with what commercial producers believed audiences wanted at the time (content, form, or style); cultural forces at large were also signaling to me that I needed to find an alternative container for the things I wanted to say. Once I was thrust back into the real world, I could either continue to shoehorn myself into situations where I did not feel like I belonged, or I could accept that I needed a less straightforward trajectory and work extra hard to figure out what that was going to be. Sometimes it was incidental music for Off-Off Broadway plays. Sometimes it was standalone songs to work out whatever was gnawing away at me or making me laugh. I tried to stay open to a lot of things, and as a result my resume is sort of all over the place.
There were also real-life practical concerns. I was (and still am!) saddled with massive debt, and I kept accidentally getting promoted at my day job and had to take the money—and the increasing responsibility that came with it--to pay it off. There were sometimes months at a stretch when I was working up to 75 hours a week and had to stop writing out of sheer necessity. That was heartbreaking, but it also forced me to clarify which projects were most important to me and what I most needed to express to the world as an artist. And I should point out that those projects are not limited to opera. That’s where I live more often these days, but honestly, I’m still following my nose. I’m happy to keep working on musicals, scores for plays, cabaret songs, art songs, music for dance, etc. If humans (or other creatures) are singing it and it’s on a stage, I’ll do my darnedest to make it work.
What led you to begin writing opera specifically? What is it about the form that makes you passionate about writing opera?
I grew up singing in opera children’s choruses, so I think there is some primal comfort in the genre for me; it was my happy place as a kid. But it never occurred to me that I could write it until I tried a little bit at NYU. I wrote a scene here and there, and then a libretto for what turned out to be an ill-fated thesis opera. I confirmed in school that I write clunky dialogue unless I imagine that someone is singing it. But then… that’s an opera libretto, not a play or a book scene. I fell on my face a lot, but I knew I was on to something. After school, Royce Vavrek (Cycle 16) convinced me to try writing a short opera with him, and that became part of a triptych that we’re still developing and shopping around ten years later! As for why I like it, well...we talk a lot about suspension of disbelief, people spontaneously bursting into song and all…there is no plot too ridiculous to be realized as an opera, and frankly, it’s probably already been done! And because it’s an older art form, it’s had time to evolve in a variety of directions; there are so many pieces that are wildly different from each other in every way, yet they could all still be classified as opera. So nothing ever feels off limits. People may laugh at my proposal, but they’ll still read it!
Aside from being sung through, how does writing for opera differ from writing for musical theatre? What, in your mind, is opera able to do that musical theatre is not?
I actually think that at the root, they do the same things; the difference lies only in the execution and in audiences’ expectations. My Facebook bio says “I write operas that sound like musicals and musicals that sound like operas. This bothers people.” And it does. One opera of mine had a reading, and the feedback panel kept insisting that the main character, who suffers greatly throughout the piece, must experience redemption in the end. If it didn’t sound so much like a musical (as they kept pointing out), I don’t think they would have been so adamant about it. Everyone dies without redemption in opera, right? But if I’d billed it as a musical, no one would believe it.
I also accept that I simply write better for classically trained voices, and I personally find that to be a more exciting palette to play with these days. Whenever I hear a “screlter” in a musical, I feel like someone is yelling at me but I don’t know why, and I get confused and shut down. (Get off my lawn!) But musical theatre audiences today seem to have the opposite reaction, which is a clear indicator of where my services are not best utilized right now. And I accept that I can’t write any modicum of rock or pop music anywhere stylistically beyond about 1983, and while I could push myself to try to do that better, there are plenty of others who really thrive in that world and already have the right blend of zeitgeist-y style and theatrical imagination for those shows.
You recently finished an opera for younger audiences. What were the challenges of writing an opera for that specific audience?
Well, I was extremely lucky to have such wonderful source material, Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which were written for children. He did so much of the heavy lifting with the world he created. His writing was so brilliant that the jokes are still funny almost a hundred years later. All I had to do was slide in and make it sing. I think the biggest challenge was the long-distance nature of the commission. There was no workshop period to speak of, and I had no say in casting, so decisions (including musical ones) were being made based on things I was not in the room to witness. This is a very well-established youth opera program with a very specific philosophy and methodology; plugging me into such a tried-and-true process was a challenge, without a doubt.
As a woman in a very male-driven industry, what are the challenges (if any) that you’ve faced, and how have you taken on these challenges and how has being a woman influenced your writing?
This is a gigantic can of worms and I can’t possibly get all the way to the bottom of it here. My first meeting with a big Broadway producer ended with “You seem like a nice girl, but you shouldn’t be writing.” But as the composer Soosan Lolavar wrote, “sexism in music…is not always about big, offensive things that are done to you. Often it's about internalized feelings of otherness that are both invisible and completely exhausting.” A guest speaker in school told us that if we wanted our musicals to sell, we should make the protagonist young and male. This bore out when a musical I pitched years later was rejected primarily because “people won’t want to watch a main character who is a girl”. (News to me, who watched the film of Annie 52 times as a child.) “People”, of course, are men and boys. More often than not, when I see a musical (or most other modes of entertainment), I find I’m actively being told that the world presented onstage is meant for someone else. These reductive, infantilized, fantasy versions of women come up over and over again. Indeed, during a read of the above-mentioned opera, a director told each of the female principals about their characters: “You’re the bitch, you’re the slut, you’re the crazy one.” He completely missed the point! A couple years ago, I went to this industry party for a Broadway show, and all the other women teetered around in their identical cripplingly high heels and bandage dresses and push-up bras. And I said to myself, “We are failing these women. We need to give them room to be more than this, onstage and off.” And I made it my mission to do that.
First step: I noticed that my experience has led me to reflexively flinch and expect condescension, and I’m pleasantly shocked when it doesn’t happen. I assumed I couldn’t do certain things before I’d even tried because I’d been conditioned to believe that they were off-limits to me. Now if someone wants to hire me to do something I’m afraid I don’t know how to do, I do what a confident guy would do: take the job and then figure out how to do it! So far it’s working! Second step: know that the canon has actively excluded women and has never cared about me, so there is no reason that I have to concern myself with emulating canonic works or being included in the canon. I used to have a real bee in my bonnet about being taken seriously, and now that I know I never will be, I feel a lot freer to write what I want. And when people say to my face that they can’t take me seriously, I show them why that’s a good thing. Third step: write roles for women who are being erased from history and/or community. Not every female character needs to be a documented historical figure, but let’s really spend some time diving into women’s lived experience. Fourth step: make a greater concerted effort to expand my network of female colleagues and collaborators. Somehow I fell in with a bunch of feminist musicologists on Twitter; I’m not a musicologist, but I’m learning a lot, and somehow I feel buoyed up just by being invited into the conversation. And of course, make more art with more women more often!
What would you tell current students looking to investigate the art and craft of writing for opera?
First and foremost, your operatic education is never over. Take any free or cheap ticket offer you get to see any opera, even if you think it’s going to be really boring. Opera is theatre, and studying a score is great but you need to see it happening in real time. If you can’t, regularly look up operas you haven’t seen on YouTube. As for formal training, apply for the ALT and AOP composer/librettist training programs, and the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio, and any of the many other new opportunities cropping up. Second, I’ll say what the GMTWP orientation packet says about housing: “Don’t fixate on Manhattan.” There are tons of exciting and highly reputable initiatives and companies of all sizes supporting new work all over the country and internationally, so explore them. There is no single path to a career writing opera, no matter what you may hear. When I was despairing about this, my mentor Libby Larsen said something simple that completely changed my life. “Rachel, in the desert, there is a gate. Everyone lines up behind the gate. Just go around the gate!”
What’s on the horizon for you?
This month, scenes from Companionship will be performed at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers festival. Then I go to a residency at Brush Creek Arts in Wyoming to work on the libretto for Friday After Friday; the project was awarded an OPERA America Discovery Grant, so the composer, Leanna Kirchoff, and I are gearing up for a workshop presentation of the complete piece next year. I’m proud to say that in August, Rootabaga Country is having a second production, this time by the Vivace Youth Chorus in San Jose. In the fall, Boston Opera Collaborative will premiere my new short opera, Steve, in their Opera Bites program. And a couple more things I can’t talk about yet!
To learn more about Rachel and her work, visit www.racheljpeters.com