This is the fourth in our series of composer spotlights previewing the Inaugural Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Opera, April 15 and 16, 2016. Meet Tori Ovel, composer of the one act opera Now Boarding, which depicts a scene familiar to most. Interview by Julie Fiore.
1. You describe Now Boarding as a “slice of time.” Did a particular personal flight or travel experience inspire this piece?
Now Boarding has a slightly harried upbringing, something I’m sure many creative people have dealt with. Its inspiration struck me at 3 am one morning, and I have a decently vivid memory of me speaking at my tablet, using speech to text typing to record this groggy idea. Between my junior and senior years at the University of Northern Iowa, I attended three composition festivals. It meant that 21 year old me, having rarely traveled without family, even more rarely on planes (maybe… three or five plane adventures prior?), was about to have some serious one on one time in some big ole airports. In one adventure, I took a mega bus (for only FIVE DOLLARS!) from Iowa City to Chicago, departing at 3am. At 5am, I was wandering the streets of the windy city to find the subway/train/whatever they call it there, to get to the airport. Eight bucks isn’t bad to get from Iowa City to ORD in Chicago. On the route home, I misjudged the NYC public transportation and got to JFK fifteen minutes before my flight was scheduled to board—WOO what a rush!
I spent a bit of time in airports. No particular flight inspired me, but when I decided I wanted to write a little opera, I figured it couldn’t have a dramatic arc—I was looking to write something that reflected everyone’s experience, or at least something that seemed like it could have actually happened. I did a bit of theater in high school, and when I thought about a 10 minute dramatic plot, I was brought back to the ridiculously bizarre high school improv scenes. Most people like to people watch, or at least have experienced people watching, so I figured it was a good place to start. This 3am idea came to me in the spring of 2015, but when I took the idea to a visiting opera composer at my undergrad, he told me it would never work. He said operas work best when the characters are moved to action—not like in Now Boarding where most of the characters are singing without instigation from a specific event. I was crushed, tabled the project, and went on with other composition.
In the fall of 2015, I brought the idea to my master’s composition professor, Dr. Michael Schelle. He loved the idea. He basically said to hell with the other guy, reminded me that many people have old fashioned opinions, but that isn’t the only kind of people in the world. Thus, Now Boarding began to live again.
2. In Now Boarding, we meet three distinct passengers. When you were writing for each specifically, where did their musical ideas/characterizations come from? If you had to pick, which was the most fun to write?
You know, writing for these characterizations just sort of happened. I knew what kind of personalities I wanted to portray, and what kinds of emotions I wanted, and I just kind of went with it. With Sad’s character (they are nameless because when you people watch, people don’t generally wear name tags— how would you know their names?) I knew I wanted people to relate in a very visceral way. I wanted people to be reminded of their own personal losses and be able to completely empathize with his character, so I wrote this beautiful melody that showed off my Butler singer’s (Jeremiah Sanders) amazingly rich range. He knocks my socks off when he sings it—goose bumps every time. I refer to the Business character as the sleazy business man. You know the guy—always on the phone, treats his waitresses like scum, thinks he’s entitled to the world. I thought a straight eighth’s jazz feel would be coolly unpleasant for him. He’s trying to manipulate people, so he seems genuine, but there is something off about him. He sucks. With Worried, I wanted a frantic, hypochondriac kind of terrorized young adult. I didn’t mean for her part to be so atonal… but I think it works well for her part. She’s dramatic. She will highly likely survive this plane trip—CHILL OUT WOMAN! She’s all over the place in every way.
Although I am partial to Sad’s heart wrenching piece, I have to say that Worried is the one that gets stuck in my head the most. I love the drama in the wide intervals and rhythmic variation.
3. As a saxophonist with a jazz background, how do you feel it influences your writing for the voice? Do you hear that palette shine through in Now Boarding more than your other pieces?
Jazz music has definitely influenced my writing by giving me immediate and express freedom to the extended tertian harmonies used in the genre. It meant that I spend little time with simple major and minor chords, and jumped directly toward dissonances—remember kinds, “you’re only half step away from a resolution!” (All Jazz faculty at UNI). I also wrote a lot of singer-songwriter stuff in high school (and a little now and then), so I’m pretty familiar with the basics of the voice. My best friend in the world, kick-butt Soprano MaKayla McDonald, was the unfortunate subject of my first vocal compositions, so I learned a lot about writing for voice by picking her brain and hearing her rant or rave about studio classes.
Palette-wise I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure out my sound-world. Now Boarding is some of the most unique writing I’ve done—definitely the most well planned shifting of character feel. Being able to write with a specific character in mind was unique because it meant I didn’t necessarily have to find what I was writing aesthetically pleasing. If it fit the role, it worked! I love everything on the page at this point, but having that freedom was amazing for the writing process. Opera is this whole new ballpark that I’m very excited to look into further!
4. We love that you are also a proponent of collaboration and re-imagining classical music performance, through your recent project NuMuzArt. Where do you believe the future of opera is headed?
You know, so many people have this strange idea about what classical music is. My dearest aunt said to me, over Thanksgiving break, something to the effect of, “but like… no one really likes classical music.” Giving the figures are at about 3% of the general population really enjoying the genre, I was inclined to agree. “I get why you would say that,” I said, “but people love film scores, and those are like 80% (number I made up) classical music. We present it poorly. It’s a stuffy experience.” We need to bring people back to this awesome music. We need to quit hammering the dead guys’ music (I love the dead guys, but let’s get some more livers around!). We need to quit forcing people to sit still in deceptively uncomfortable seats with poorly angled flooring so that feet can never sit still. We need to quit walking out on stage and beginning the performance without talking about our passions behind the music before each piece. We need to play into where the general population is going while expanding the creative aspects. So people like to sit on their phones? Give them an interactive (SILENT) application to go along with the music. Do something! I value the seriousness of the concert hall. I’m not necessarily happy that most of the current population can’t sit still for a whole production of Mahler’s anything. But, the seriousness of classical music is not going to bring us the other 97%, and, seeing as how I cannot go teach the entire audience, myself included even, to sit still and pay attention to 40+ minutes of music at once, I might as well meet them half way! Short operas… in ENGLISH?! This is great! I recently heard about tv-style opera. That’s amazing. All of the flash of TV show production capabilities with dynamite music! Netflix Opera Originals—let’s make it happen! Let’s find some common ground between disrupting the performance and falling asleep. Let’s keep our Art, but let other people see it as such.
Tori Ovel is currently pursuing a Masters at Butler University. Find out more about Tori by visiting her website!