Questions for Cecilia Livingston: Balancing the Score

A little over five years ago, I interviewed composer Cecilia Livingston in anticipation of her new opera commission The Masque of the Red Death, an occasion for some marvelous comments about composing & opera (see what I mean? ).

I’m not surprised to hear that she’s to be honoured by the Glyndebourne Festival, the sole non-British candidate. […but Cecilia set me straight, as she holds dual citizenship… okay!]

“Balancing the Score: Supporting Female Composers” is a new development program exclusively for female composers, as their press release tells us:

The program’s four inaugural composers, who take up their positions in January 2019, are Anna Appleby (England), Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade (Scotland), Cecilia Livingston (Canada), and Ailie Robertson (Scotland). Participants will spend two years immersed in life at Glyndebourne, attending rehearsals and meeting professional opera makers and performers. Glyndebourne is also collaborating with its resident orchestras, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as Philharmonia Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and Southbank Centre, to provide opportunities for Balancing the Score participants.

It’s a happy coincidence that Friday March 8th is International Women’s Day, and Saturday March 23rd is “The Next Wave Workshop” from Musique 3 Femmes, showcasing the work of women in the opera world –directors, librettists and composers—including Cecilia Livingston.


You can read more about the March 23rd event here, but first? the opportunity to ask Cecilia about her experience so far.

BB: Cecilia, congratulations!  How did you find out? What were you doing when you got the news?

It was such a Hollywood moment: I was in London, standing in the great courtyard of Somerset House – which is just south of the Strand, overlooking the Thames – on a deliciously warm, sunny day, waiting for a friend and fighting a bad Wi-Fi signal to check in for a flight on my phone. I was so amazed at the news that I let out this strange loud yelp, loud enough to draw the attention of the security guards! Security down there is pretty tight (this is London) so I had to explain to them that, actually, I just had some wonderful news.


Composer Cecilia Livingston

BB: And so how did the program begin?

It started with an official ‘induction day’, bringing us together at Glyndebourne: an in-depth tour, planning sessions for some of the projects we’ll be working on, and lots and lots of meetings. And important orientation things, like getting swipe cards and finding the company canteen (the food is excellent – amazing meatballs!). We got to sit in on that evening’s rehearsals in the auditorium to get a sense of the space and its acoustics.

(These were rehearsals for Howard Moody’s ‘Agreed’, Glyndebourne’s most recent commission and one of their legendary mainstage community operas.)

BB: Have you met the other three participants yet?

Yes! I had met two of the three other composers at our interview days in the fall, so under, er, slightly awkward circumstances. Happily, this is a lovely group: we’ve been messaging and Skyping since we found out we were selected, so meeting in person again on the start day of the scheme was like meeting old friends. There’s a really nice feeling of mutual support and collaboration already, rather than competitiveness. I think that’s special, and means we can do great work together through the program.

BB: Opera isn’t your only compositional activity.  If you can wrap your head around this question, roughly what percent are you an opera composer, and what percent, other sorts of music? (for instance Wagner & Verdi were almost totally opera composers, even though RW did write other things before, and a few later such as the Siegfried Idyll that’s based on operatic themes; and Verdi, similarly was mostly an opera composer; Beethoven & Debussy wrote one opera each, but mostly other music; Stravinsky, Ravel, Poulenc, wrote a few, but lots of other music too. AND feel free to observe that an opera composer in 2019 is not like one from 1919 or 1819…. Let alone 1619)

That is a really good question, one I think about a lot actually. I’ve felt for a while that pretty much everything I do is headed in the direction of opera, even when it’s not opera per se. I was chatting about this with Elizabeth McDonald a couple of weeks ago: she’s been singing my ‘Penelope’ on tour for the last year or so, with her trio Women on the Verge, and they were here in London in February. And she said something like “well, ‘Penelope’s’ not really art song at all, is it? It’s really a scene.” And I think she’s right about that. Even when I’m writing pieces without voice, I’m still thinking primarily about how structure and pacing, and motivic play and harmonic tension and rhythmic drive all create affect, atmosphere, drama, narrative – just as I would for an interlude or a transition section in opera. And I’ve felt that way for a long time, which has made moving into the opera world feel very natural. Plus I’ve done a lot of writing for voice, and I think that shows. Opera seems to be in my DNA, at some fundamental level.

BB: Is there anything you’d observe that’s different about opera composers, to distinguish them from composers who write other sorts of music? Or is there perhaps a difference in the sort of operas written by someone who doesn’t compose much of anything else?

Well I think there are some differences in skill set, or different skills that are required: understanding how to write for an operatically trained voice, and how to orchestrate to support it and enhance it. How to set text. How to serve story. I’ve been lucky to hear quite a lot of contemporary opera in the last few years (particularly the last couple of months here in the UK) and experience and thoughtfulness in those areas really show. I’ve heard a lot of opera where the composer was, I think, hired because they write great chamber or orchestral music, and the resulting operas often have incredible instrumental music and very inventive timbral languages, but then there’s a voice sort of stuck on top (or in the middle), and it quickly deflates the operatic qualities of the work: character, story, the magic of the singing voice. Opera demands so much, a whole package of skills. It’s a bit daunting.

But maybe the fundamental difference is attitude, or maybe I mean purpose – the reason the composer wants to be composing in the first place, which I think in opera has to be to tell stories. And then everything serves that.

BB: is composition understood to be part of the Balancing the Score experience?

Yes! That’s one of the most exciting parts of the program. And what is great is that, like the whole residency, this is really flexible so that I can choose projects that will help me grow and let me work with the amazing people at Glyndebourne that I can learn the most from.

BB: At this point in time, do you have any projects underway that you can talk about, operatic or otherwise?

I’ve got two on the go right now.

The first is ‘Singing Only Softly’, which is a chamber song-opera I’m creating with Loose Tea Music Theatre and Musique 3 Femmes. The libretto is by Monica Pearce and is inspired by the redacted sections of Anne Frank’s diary. Loose Tea’s Alaina Viau came to me with the idea for a dramatic song cycle around this subject, something that questioned the lines between art song and opera, and encouraged audiences to imagine the more complex Anne that her myth, or legend, tends to flatten. The project won the Prix 3 Femmes, and then a commissioning grant from the Ontario Arts Council, and next we’ll workshop the complete score in Toronto in March. There will be performances of excerpts at the Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on March 19 and at Tapestry on March 23, and then the piece will premiere in early May in Toronto. We did a brief performance of scenes-in-progress at the ‘Opera’s Changing Worlds’ conference in Montreal in September and the piece has grown and deepened so much since then: I can’t wait to hear the whole thing.

‘Terror & Erebus’ is my longer-term opera project, for Opera 5 and TorQ Percussion Quartet, which takes as a starting point the last days of the Franklin Expedition to the Arctic. This is a big one for me: first, the full-evening length, but also the challenge of creating opera with percussion as orchestra. I have been a TorQ fan since we were in school together: they have a very special understanding of the theatre of performance, and that’s something I want to highlight – they are a part of the opera, not off in the corner or stuck in a pit. And it’s the first opera project in which I’ve really been able to play with narrative: the libretto is by Duncan McFarlane, and he’s got three story timelines overlapping, which blur the chronology and help the opera move past what audiences might expect (some sort of ‘Pirates of the Northwest Passage? ‘Billy Budd On Ice’? Yikes!) into something that’s more like a dream or a ritual, that’s much more about the experience of Franklin and his crew and their suffering. It’s interesting to me that in the middle of this hugely absorbing, hugely challenging project, I’ve had so many amazing opportunities. Sometimes life gives with both hands. And we’ve been so lucky in the support around ‘Terror’: particularly the Canadian Music Centre’s Toronto Emerging Composer Award, which was such a vote of confidence in me at a moment when, to be frank, I needed that support and encouragement very much.

But clearly a comic opera is what I need to do next to balance this all out!

BB: You pointedly thanked Christos Hatzis in your interview saying
“ I’ve a huge respect for my teacher, Christos Hatzis. His enthusiasm and energy are astonishing – he lives a true musical life.Can you describe what you would be doing if you were living a true musical life?


Composer & composition professor Christos Hatzis

As I’ve graduated and moved into my professional life, I see ever more clearly now how important my teachers at U of T were to who I’ve become. That’s particularly true of Christos: his enthusiasm, his curiosity, his sincerity, his complete commitment to his work – those inspire me every day. And the way he thinks about musical structure… I hear him in my head a lot! Once when I was in my Master’s someone came up to me after hearing a piece of mine in a concert and said “are you Christos’s student?” And when I said yes I was, this person replied “Aha! I thought so. Every note in its right place.” Which is also almost a Radiohead quote, so I was doubly delighted.

I think being a composer requires this absolute commitment, because it is such a brutal artistic path. For me, that commitment and the focus it demands is helped by finding a state where everything one is doing feeds into the work. It’s really, really difficult to find ways to nurture that kind of focus, but also, you know, eat and pay rent. In many ways it’s actually easier when you are in school, which can offer a sort of artificial bubble of time and concentration – or it should. It’s terrifically hard to protect that in professional life, and I think we’re only just starting, as a society, to recognize how exponentially more difficult this is for female composers, for example, and for composers who face significant financial or other personal challenges. Too often those things are hidden, and for solid reasons, but it creates terrible loneliness and terrible struggle. The romance of the starving artist in the garret is such nonsense – it’s only ‘part of being an artist’ because of the way certain artists are treated. What a handy narrative to justify not supporting artists while continuing to benefit from the ways they make our society livable. It’s like the myth of genius: a great way to ignore the dedication of craft and labour that goes into the ‘great works’, trivializing the very creations in question. Sorry, I’m being sarcastic because these things make me genuinely cross.

By some amazing coincidences of good luck, and feeling emboldened by the support of people around me, I’ve found myself in a place where I’m able to really focus on music – both the music itself and the professional life that makes creating it possible. So I’m lucky to say I think I might have found my way to my own musical life.

BB: When you wrote about Masque of the Red Death you wrote the following, which sounds astonishingly prescient as a description of a certain politician:

The Prospero of the story is a sort of hubristic peacock, strutting around his quarantine. The immediate question for us was why someone would behave this way. If a ruler has the presence of mind to institute a quarantine – and this was a brand-new civil technology in the 14th century – and in particular, a very modern inverse quarantine that attempts to preserve the leadership while leaving the population to fend for themselves, would he really be this callow? The only plausible answer, I think, is that Prospero is attempting to distract his courtiers from the realities of the plague. His bizarre performance in Poe’s story is exactly that: a performance, designed to keep everyone’s mind on the party and off what is happening outside the walls.

….[so to now ask the question:]
Do you have any thoughts about the operatic potential of any politicians or public figures, any stories that perhaps need to be told?

Ah, the question of the CNN opera! Politicians and public figures are human beings, and opera is – essentially – one of the ways we tell stories about the human experience. The concern for me, as a composer, is what weight the audience’s pre-knowledge hangs on the work, and how that is or is not useful to the experience I would hope my opera might facilitate. Let me put it another way: ‘Nixon in China’ is, quite possibly, my favourite opera ever. It encapsulates what a wonderful form opera is for satire and the satirical, and for good old comedy too: but more broadly, that opera excels at undermining the two-dimensional. ‘Nixon’ does all these things – plays with recent history using the satirical and the elegiac, the elusive and allusive – in very broad, and very subtle, very sophisticated ways that go far beyond Nixon as a historical figure. The character becomes a means to the opera’s ends. But that opera is a freak to me: how often do creators of such skill come together?

BB: If you could have written any pop song, which one would it have been?

Radiohead’s ‘Decks Dark’. Let’s not look at the play count in iTunes…

BB: I just watched Wes Anderson’s  Isle of Dogs again last night, one of my favorite films of the year, alongside Ralph Wrecks the Internet.  The boundaries between art for adults & children is getting blurry these days.  I want to ask first, are you more of a cat person or a dog person? And more seriously, given the phenomenal number of animals we see these days in media (social especially), do you see any animals or stories for children in your operatic future?

I just love animals, period. Dogs are good for composers because they make us get up and, you know, move. I think cats like composers because we sit very still for long periods of time.

I know one cat who, I’m convinced, thinks I AM a cat for this reason.

I think both children and animals are rich sources of stories for opera, despite the old saying that neither should be on stage or you risk mayhem. Opera for children is actually a subject on which I have very strong feelings. My condescension-radar kicks into high gear. I have very little patience with opera that is purely didactic (be it for whatever audience), and I loathe opera that patronizes kids.

‘Peter Grimes’ is, at one level, an opera ‘about’ bullying. And yet it is so, so much richer than that. Why should opera for children be any less complex or nuanced in its storytelling?

So I’ve got pretty exacting standards there: opera for children and with children should have the same artistic integrity as any other opera.

And I think this might indeed be in my future: one of the wonderful components of my residency at Glyndebourne is getting to work with their education department. They have a remarkable record of commissioning very strong work for young people: Howard Moody’s ‘Agreed’, which I just heard earlier in March, is exactly the best kind. Well crafted, inventive, lots of children involved in the production, and while there is a message or point within the story, the opera is so much more than that.

It’s funny you mention film: I’m really interested in composing for film. I just keep getting asked to do concert music and opera. But it seems like a very similar set of attitudes to the ways music tells story, illuminates character, creates atmosphere. Plus, the same need for collaboration and team work.

BB: What’s your favourite opera (meaning fun / enjoyment) and what’s your operatic ideal (meaning, the one you most admire)?  When you’re composing might either of these in some respect embody your objective(s)?

For fun and enjoyment? The first scenes of ‘Nixon’, every time. Mozart. I have a huge soft spot for ‘Madama Butterfly’, though I’d hesitate to call it ‘fun’! Operas I admire… ‘Nixon’, all of Britten but particularly ‘Death in Venice’, ‘Written on Skin’ for sure, ‘Invisible Cities’. Those would be my top four. ‘Nixon’ for its incredible shadings of emotion, its moral imagination. ‘Death in Venice’ for the sheer beauty of the music, the impeccable text-setting. ‘Written on Skin’ for the best vocal writing, the best orchestration around the voice, and such clear-eyed understanding of dramatic economy. ‘Invisible Cities’ for its inventiveness, its intimacy, its imagination.

BB: Operas have often centred on a female’s suffering and dying.  Please speak for a minute about opera in context with the feminist project of Balancing the Score.   How you feel about opera’s past and its future?

Opera has a very challenging canon, for sure. I’ve eye-rolled my way through many a death aria (love those high notes with one’s dying breath!) just as I’ve eye-rolled my way through yet another rom-com heroine waking up in full hair and makeup. Because opera gets under my skin so much, I’ve had some truly uncomfortable experiences. (The ‘whip her to death’ scene in ‘Nixon’ – I can hardly bear to listen to it, though I know why it’s there.) There are more sophisticated, historicised answers to why these tropes have arisen and are perpetuated but as a creator, I must move forward. Not despite these issues, but in recognition of them. In defiance of them.

What I love about Balancing the Score is that it identified a problem, and proposed a practical, flexible opportunity as a solution, and distributes that solution beyond one individual: it’s a shrewd approach to talent investment. There are so many schemes where one early-career composer gets one shot: that’s a set up for failure and disappointment all-round. Glyndebourne’s is a much longer-term support system, one that is keenly aware of the importance of access to opera’s networks and what a huge challenge that can be for female creators.

BB: Opera is many things, but it’s an industry, artists & artisans & pedagogues, musicians & writers and composers, and many others besides.  Talk for a moment about the women in the business and why it’s important to get more women involved.

Kaija Saariaho put it pretty succinctly: half of humanity has something to say.

BB: Is opera dead, or dying? Can it be saved?

Oh, opera’s been dying since it got started. Mark Adamo addressed this nicely:

“I was lecturing at a music school in February, and during a Q&A with the opera students, one asked me, ‘Is opera thriving? Collapsing? Mutating?’ To which I answered, ‘Yes’.”

He’s right. Though I do see a fundamental problem when it comes to renewing the genre, to creating new work. The ways that the industry supports creator-development is totally incoherent, and examples of thoughtful talent investment like Glyndebourne’s residency are so rare.

If we support people and help them learn how to create compelling opera that audiences want to hear, then they’ll ask for it, and houses can stop insisting that to sell seats they can only program ‘La bohème’. But these are very long projects. And I think it’s important to recognize that there are people who want their art to be entertainment, who do not want to be moved, or shaken, or challenged in any way, ever. They are the most truculent audience members. But that can’t be all that there is, because that is only one audience group, and it means that one group never gets a chance to change. I love ‘Bohème’ – I just get nervous when we start restricting the range of experiences art can offer us, and blame the new work for why we are restrictive.

A lot of contemporary opera is terrible – sure. I just get cross when people complain about both ends at once, saying that opera is a bunch of old chestnuts with too many dead women, but also that new opera sucks. As I get older I’m getting bolder about asking them what, exactly, they are doing to support new creators as we learn our craft. Because it takes a lot of learning, and learning costs time and concentration, both of which cost money. So the funding for new creators, and our trial-and-error, has to be there. Lab-style, festival-style, small-theatre opera where we can learn our craft: then follow through and build those mainstage opportunities for us when you’ve seen the work is promising.

BB: In your interview you spoke admiringly of singers.  Some composers write difficult & virtuosic music, while others are more (musically) plain-spoken and direct in their style.  If you’ll forgive me for sounding simplistic, I wonder if you know your preference between these two poles?

Myself, I lean towards what I think you mean by ‘plain-spoken’ and ‘direct’. But there’s a time and a place for both polarities you’ve identified. As a listener, I’m annoyed when I can’t hear what is being sung and I can’t discern why that is the case – like, there’s no aesthetic or dramatic justification for that choice. And I’m concerned when I suspect that the composer is imposing unhealthy or unsustainable vocal practice on singers, particularly when those are early-career singers who may not feel they can speak out.

Singers are the best guide here: they know what they do best and what they want to experiment with. I remember a masterclass (actually, one for instrumentalists) and a young composer said “but I want it to sound laboured” and the clinician-composer just looked at the guy and said “they can act that. All you are doing here is asking them to hurt themselves.” I want singers to want to sing my music. If they don’t, they won’t, and it will sit in a drawer, and for me that defeats the whole purpose.

BB: The writer Slavoj Zizek in Opera’s Second Death spoke of the function of opera before the time of Freud, as psychotherapy (and opera’s death he would ascribe at least partly to therapists, now supplanting opera by performing the same function).  Would you rather write something that gets into someone’s head obsessively making them a bit crazy (I’m sure you can think of examples of composers who did that) or instead do you want to create something that is the cure?

I want to do both, because I think ‘both’ is what art can do. I think good opera creates these moments that haunt the imagination, that play out on the mind’s stage over and over again – an afterimage burned into the retina, etched on the eardrum. And I think those are the moments that also point to opera’s cathartic opportunities – and I use that word ‘cathartic’ deliberately. Which are deeply bound up in opera as a live performance medium… clearly, we are going to need do another interview!

BB: While you’re in Britain, Balancing the Score, do you miss anyone? Do you want to say hi to anyone here?

I miss everyone! It takes a village, this composing life. So let me say a huge thank you to all the people who have helped – you know who you are and I hope I have made clear how much I treasure your support and faith in me. You give me the courage to dream big!


And speaking of “it takes a village” I refer you to  The Next Wave Workshop from Musique 3 Femmes.  For further information please look at their press release. to know more about the upcoming presentation on March 23rd at Ernest Balmer Studio.

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