And what, you ask, is a “New Music Theater Ensemble?” And for that matter, what’s “new music theater?”
This week, I’m in the throes of final preparations for the first-ever performance of the New Music Theater Ensemble, an ambitious undertaking of the University of the Arts’ School of Music. An intrepid band of ten vocalists and five instrumentalists will perform on Wednesday, December 3 at 7 pm in the Caplan Recital Hall, located on the 17th floor of 211 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia.
To tackle the second question first: “New music theater” is the term used to refer to a broad and diverse array of works that combine music and theater in ways unlike traditional opera, operetta and musicals. It is “the wide and evolving territory that lies between opera and the musical,” according to Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s The New Music Theater (2008). These authors describe new musical theater as “theater that is music-driven (i.e., decisively linked to musical timing and organization) where, at the very least, music, language, vocalization and physical movement exist, interact, or stand side by side in some kind of equality but performed by different performers and in a different social ambiance than works normally categorized as operas (performed by opera singers in opera houses) or musicals (performed by theater singers in “legitimate” theaters).”
Interestingly, Philadelphia was a center of innovation for new music theater in starting in the mid-1980’s, primarily due to the pioneering efforts of the American Music Theater Festival (which later changed its name to the Prince Music Theater). For over twenty years, AMTF and the Prince helped to make Philadelphia into a major center for innovative, ambitious musical theater productions. Often working in partnership with other major regional festivals and institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera, the Spoleto Festival and the Walker Arts Center, AMTF brought major artists and new works to Philadelphia. Works by prominent creative artists like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Lee Breuer, Meredith Monk and William Bolcom were featured by AMTF, while earlier works by historic artists like Duke Ellington, Harry Partch, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen received thoughtful reconstructions. Most significantly, the Festival produced work written, composed and staged by early-career artists who have gone on to make important contributions to the field, including Julie Taymor, Elliot Goldenthal, Diane Paulus, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Tina Landau, Anthony Davis, Paul Dresher, Rinde Eckert and Ted Sperling.
I envisioned the New Music Theater Ensemble as an ensemble where singers, instrumentalists, composers and writers could work together to create performances of new music theater. The repertoire we’ve programmed includes original works by students as well as recent work by professionals, adapted and arranged for performance by the ensemble. It had been part of my original vision to give ensemble participants the opportunity to function variously as singers, instrumentalists and creators, regardless of their prior training and expertise, but, at least in this initial outing, those ambitious goals have been trumped by considerations of rehearsal time and student interest and expertise.
This has been an excellent opportunity for students whose previous theatrical performance experience was limited to gain some valuable practical on-the-job training. The work we’re presenting is challenging and detailed, requiring strong musicianship as well as confident and meticulous execution, and the ensemble members are doing their best to rise to the challenge. I’m eager to share the fruits of our labors, and to see how this initiative can continue to evolve in the months ahead.