These CU Boulder student singers are getting paid to work on new operas with famous composers

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Courtesy CU Boulder/Stabio Productions
Tom Cipullo, second from right, directs students as they rehearse a new opera they are collaborating with him on at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Eklund Opera Program.

Contemporary American opera has made such great artistic strides in the past 15 to 20 years that many call our present time the Golden Age of American Opera. 

For instance, one of the leading opera companies in the world, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has made an enormous commitment to staging and supporting contemporary works while respecting the classics — all to ensure the future of opera remains bright.

But developing new work requires experimentation, collaboration, and time. New operas are getting just that at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The CU New Opera Workshop, or CU NOW for short, pairs a well-known opera composer working on a new piece with singers from CU’s Eklund Opera Program for three weeks. 

Leigh Holman is the director of the program and the artistic director of CU New Opera Workshop. She launched the workshop shortly after joining the faculty at CU Boulder in 2009. Holman says they also pay the singers for their work. The program doesn’t take submissions from composers but relies on word of mouth instead.

“It's for the composer to develop their work, but it's also for our students to work with these famous composers and to understand how to bring a work together just in a few days,” Holman said. 

This time, the program is workshopping a new opera by Tom Cipullo, whose critically-acclaimed opera, “Glory Denied,” is one of the most frequently performed 21st-century operas. After seeing an interview with a televangelist, he was inspired to write this new opera — both score, and libretto. 

Courtesy CU Boulder/Stabio Productions
Singer Eric Botto rehearses a new opera at the University of Colorado Boulder. The program pairs students with an established composer to create a new work.

“It's not only concerned with that, it's more concerned with why people listen to these evangelical ministers on TV and why they send them money, and what they get out of it,” Cipullo said. 

He said one thing he knows for certain is that music has the ability to deepen and enhance people's emotions. 

“This is a very unique and wonderful opportunity to have great young singers, enthusiastic young singers, come every day, six hours, and we rehearse this. We see what works, we see what doesn't. We find out how the momentum flows. We find out when I've been too crazy about the voice and asking for too much,” Cipullo said.   

Denver native Jenna Clark is a mezzo-soprano working on this new opera. She says she values the chance to understand what goes through the composer's mind firsthand. 

“I have had such a good time at CU now, and honestly, it's one of my favorite things and why I do opera in the arts, to be able to be a part of the creative process,” Clark said. “And I think for me, working with Tom Capullo on this opera has been so awesome because of that collaborative spirit and just the level of artistry that he has, and to be in that room creating with him is an invaluable experience.”

Tenor Eric Botto agrees, and he says this aligns with his passion for new works. 

“I've always wanted to be a part of something like this and the level of artistry that Tom has. But on top of that, just how giving of a spirit he has,” Botto said. “It's one thing to perform a recent work with a living composer and them to give you notes. It's another thing for someone as respectful and open as Tom to let us, while we have our own ideas or we may make a choice. And he's like, ‘Oh, actually I like that.’ I really like that there's such a collaboration environment in this project.”

Courtesy CU Boulder/Stabio Productions
Jenna Clark rehearses a new opera written by Tom Cipullo, whose critically-acclaimed opera, “Glory Denied,” is one of the most frequently performed 21st-century operas.

Cipullo said there are many workshops around the country, but there's nothing like CU NOW. 

“Just for its length and its commitment, and its duration. And that's why some of the finest opera composers, I'm not saying me, but Jake Heggie and Ricky Ian Gordon, and Mark Adamo and Lori Laitman, that's why they love to come here and work with this, with the young artists at CU NOW and work with Leigh,” Cipullo said.

While Cipullo says he loves the standard repertoire like Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, “we can't be a museum. We have to address the issues that are important to people today. That's what they were doing. And we have to do it in our own language, and that language has to be heard and understood on the stage. So these are important concerns for a composer nowadays.” 

A public presentation of excerpts with commentary from the composer and performers is June 16 and 18 in the CU Boulder Music Theatre