Fully-staged opera in the Princeton area this summer ranges from a work more than 200 years old to one that includes music written during this year’s Memorial Day weekend. The venerable work is Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” which premiered in 1790; the new material is a 90-second addition to composer Michael Ching’s 1996 “Buoso’s Ghost.”
Not yet 50, Ching is the younger of the two living creators of opera whose work is presented in Princeton this summer. The other living composer is Gian Carlo Menotti, who is 94. We talked to Ching because there are some novel aspects about his entry in the summer’s opera entertainment and because reaching him in Memphis, Tennessee, was easier than tracking down Menotti, who lives in Scotland.
New Jersey Opera Theater presents both “Cosi” and “Ghost,” along with Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in an all-comedy three-production season at McCarter’s Berlind Theater from Friday, July 7, to Sunday, July 23. The one-act “Ghost” appears on a double bill with Puccini’s one-act “Gianni Schicchi,” to which it is a sequel. “Gianni Schicchi” was originally a component of Puccini’s trio of one-act operas known as “Il Trittico.” Ching separated “Schicchi” from the other two pieces in order to combine it with “Ghost.” NJOT singers will preview the four operas at Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, June 21.
Supplementing its 15 full-length opera evenings this summer, NJOT offers additional musical theater programs. “Mozart and Friends” takes place Saturday, July 15, at 2, and “Puccini, Verdi and Friends takes place on Saturday, Saturday, July 22, in the Berlind Theater. “Musical Theater Under the Stars” takes place at Pettoranello Gardens, Friday, June 30, and Saturday, July 1 at 8:30 p.m.
Tragedy — operawise — comes to the area with Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” offered by the Princeton Festival in three weekend performances, Saturdays, June 24 and July 1, and Sunday, July 9 at the Lawrenceville School. Artistic director Richard Tang-Yuk will present a preview of the opera with principal singers performing selections on Thursday, June 15, at Princeton Public Library.
On Saturday, July 1, the Festival also presents Gian Carlo Menotti’s chamber opera, “The Old Maid and The Thief,” a comedy, and the first opera written specifically for radio. The performance on WWFM is open to a live studio audience. In addition to opera the festival also includes orchestral, chamber music, and jazz programs (see music story on page 30).
And if you want to hear more budding opera stars: On Wednesdays, July 12 and 26; Fridays, July 14, 21, and 28; and Saturday, July 29, the rising stars of the coOPERAtive program at Westminster, an opera training program for singers 19 and older, present a free recital in Bristol Chapel.
In advance of the NJOT performances, composer Ching comes to New Jersey Tuesday and Wednesday, June 20 and 21, to help prepare “Buoso’s Ghost” for its eighth performance. Michael Scarola directs the piece; James Caraher conducts. Scarola and Caraher collaborated for the Indianapolis performance of the work in 1999. “I don’t expect to have to do much,” says Ching in a telephone interview from his Tennessee office, where he is artistic director of Opera Memphis. Followers of the recently defunct New Jersey Opera Festival have seen Ching conduct “Madama Butterfly” (1999), “Carmen” (2000), and “Turandot” (2001) for that company. He will not be on hand for the Berlind Theater performances of “Ghost.” They conflict with his commitment to conduct “The King and I” in Honolulu.
In “Gianni Schicchi,” the opera to which “Buoso’s Ghost” is a sequel, Buoso Donati has died, discreetly poisoned by his family. The family is dismayed to find that he has left his wealth to a monastery, rather than to them. They engage the scoundrel Gianni Schicchi to impersonate the late Buoso and write a new will. Schicchi tricks the family by rewriting the will so that he, and not the family, is the beneficiary.
Ching’s “Buoso’s Ghost” takes up the story seconds after Buoso’s death, grafting a sequel onto the 1918 work. Indeed, the final bars of “Schicchi” comprise the opening music of “Ghost.” Composer Ching calls the combination of one-act operas, which requires only a single stage set, “elegant in its producibility.” He points out that Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” the set of three operas of which “Schicchi” is one, is a strong piece that is difficult to produce, except for the biggest opera companies, because it requires three different stage sets. “I treat the two one-acters as one opera in two acts,” director Scarola told U.S. 1 (February 22, 2006).
In “Buoso’s Ghost” the enraged relatives, who had poisoned Buoso, attempt to avenge themselves. They accuse Schicci of the poisoning. However, he has forged a suicide note, which he leaves on Buoso’s body. As the relatives plan to murder Schicchi, he blows out the candles, summons the ghost of Buoso, and scares the family from the house.
“Practically the only negative criticism I got about the opera was from people who felt it should be a little longer,” Ching says. He considered expanding the piece only modestly. “I didn’t want the expansion to seem extraneous. I wanted it to be taut, with people wishing for more, not looking at their watches.
“There was something I thought I could add to help the audience figure out what happened. Fairly early in ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ the family poisons Buoso, but it’s not played up. I devised a way to make the poisoning obvious in ‘Buoso’s Ghost.’” The addition will be done for the first time in the Princeton performance.
Also new is the east coast premiere of “Buoso’s Ghost” with a full orchestra. An earlier New York performance used only piano as instrumental support.
Ching’s writing of the opera was a by-product of a breakfast conversation in Chicago when Memphis Opera, Florida Grand Opera, and Chautauqua Opera were conducting joint auditions. “We were shooting the breeze about the idea of sequels. We wondered what happened to Alfredo and Giorgio after ‘La Traviata’ ends: Does Alfredo forgive Giorgio for persuading Violetta to abandon him? What happens to Madame Butterfly’s child? I was the only composer in the crowd, so I took on the project of a sequel to ‘Gianni Schicchi,’” says Ching.
The libretto for “Ghost” was Ching’s own work. “I’m a student of Carlisle Floyd,” he says by way of explanation. Floyd, composer of “Susannah,” told U.S. 1 (April 26, 2006), “I would be much too cranky with someone else as a librettist.” Ching is less testy than Floyd about working with a librettist and has had another person provide his lyrics. However, having conducted and produced “Gianni Schicchi” and knowing “Ghost” links up to that work, Ching thought he was particularly well-qualified for the job.
Born in Honolulu in 1958, Ching started composing as a child and says that he became serious about composing by the time he reached high school. Before attending high school, he had already studied composition formally at the Interlochen Music School in northern Michigan, and had had private composition instruction.
Ching’s father, an accomplished amateur pianist, was a college professor in theater and speech. “He played everything from Chopin to Dave Brubeck transcriptions,” Ching says. “He wanted to go into music but his family discouraged him.” There was music in the family, however. Ching’s great uncle was one of the first Asians to play violin in what became the Honolulu Symphony. Ching’s mother, a homemaker, was from the Chicago area.
Ching started piano at about six. He studied flute, violin, and oboe, mostly to learn to write music. Duke University’s undergraduate scholarship in composition attracted him after high school. At Duke he studied with Scottish composer Iain Hamilton and Robert Ward, composer of “The Crucible.” Graduating in 1980, his senior project was a one-act opera retelling a vampire story set in New Orleans.
Immediately after graduating he worked at the Houston Opera Studio with Carlisle Floyd. He has been involved with opera ever since as a composer and administrator. After posts at Florida Grand Opera, Virginia Opera, and Chautauqua, he joined Memphis Opera as artistic director in 1992.
Ching’s wife is a professor of English at the University of Memphis. The couple has a seven-year-old daughter.
As both an administrator and a composer Ching understands how the two areas impinge on each other. He shared his insights with New Music Box, the online music presence in a December, 2003, article. Today he stands behind what he wrote at the time. “Being a composer and running Opera Memphis is fraught with contradictory impulses. On the one hand, one feels instinctively the desire to explore and support new projects; on the other, survival seems to dictate a steady diet of standard repertoire.”
He is skeptical of excellent productions as an engine of creativity for opera. “It’s strange to say, but I think the emphasis on high quality productions has hurt the creation of new work. Back in the 19th century, production quality wasn’t as important, and I think that helped more new work reach the stage. Over in Nashville, hundreds of songs get written in order for a couple to become hits. A similar kind of churn and creative investment would be much healthier for opera.
“Probably the best thing about running an opera company as a composer is that I know hundreds of members of the audience and when I write, I can write with a clear idea of who they are. It’s similar to writing for a particular performer or ensemble — it has an impact on the way you write.”
So far, Ching has written six operas. His most recent work, “Corps of Discovery,” commissioned by the University of Missouri for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, is a full-length opera. The other five are one-act works. “It’s a practical thing,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to do a big, long full-length opera that takes three or four years of your life.” Even with the work he did over Memorial Day weekend, “Buoso’s Ghost” cost him nowhere near that much time.
Pettoranello Gardens, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.njot.org.
Musical Theater Under the Stars. Concert features staged scenes and solos from Broadway shows. Free. Friday, June 30, and Saturday, July 1.
Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.njot.org.
Cosi fan tutte. Mozart’s opera in honor of his 250th birthday. Lecture at 6:30 p.m. $42 and $49. Friday and Sunday, July 7 and 9; Thursday, July 13; Saturday, July 22.
L’Elisir d’Amore. Donizetti’s opera. Lecture at 6:30 p.m. $42 and $49. Saturday, July 8, and Friday, July 14; Sunday, July 16; Thursday, July 20.
Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost. Double bill featuring Puccini’s one act Gianni Schicchi, and Michael Ching’s “Buoso’s Ghost.” Pre-performance lecture on Saturday, July 15, at 6:30 p.m. $42 and $49. Saturday, July 15; Friday, July 21; Sunday, July 23.
Mozart and Friends. Concert. $12 and $16. Saturday, July 15.
Puccini, Verdi, and Friends. Concert. $12 and $16. Saturday, July 22.
Kirby Arts Center, Route 206, Lawrenceville, 800-595-4849, www.princetonfestival.org.
Madama Butterfly. Puccini’s opera with soprano JiYeun ChoLee and tenor Michael Hayes. Richard Tang Yuk directs. $28 to $88. Opening night gala, Saturday, June 24, 6 p.m. “Cio-Cio San’s Japan,” a pre-performance lecture presented by David Howell, Saturday, July 1, at 4 p.m. Saturdays, June 24 and July 1; and Sunday, July 9.
An Afternoon of Jazz. With Joe Locke and the Milt Jackson Tribute Band. $40. Sunday, June 25.
The Old Maid and the Thief. Menotti chamber opera semi-staged featuring the Young Stars Showcase. $20. Saturday, July 1.
Concordia Chamber Players. Program of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Schubert with Blair McMillen. $30. Sunday, July 2.
An Evening of Mozart. Daniel Beckwith presents a program featuring the overture to “Cosi fan tutte.” Natalie Zhu on piano. $40. Saturday, July 8.