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INTERVIEW: Composer Ketty Nez on Writing Opera – Music, Words, and All

Last December, the Metropolitan Opera staged Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, its first production of an opera written by a female composer since 1903. William Robin of the New York Times took the occasion to interview 10 female composers about their experience writing opera and working as composers; the headline read, “Women Are Making Opera. And It’s Not Easy.”

This remark is far from new. When the Metropolitan Opera first announced that it would program Saariaho’s opera (still its second-ever production of an opera by a female composer), Classic FM provocatively asked, “Why is no one performing operas by female composers?” Last month, Missy Mazzoli of Opera Philadelphia countered with her piece “Female Composers Shaking Up the Opera World“, highlighting women with work commissioned by major opera companies.

The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with composer Ketty Nez about her own work writing opera and training a new generation of opera composers.

Dr. Ketty Nez is an Assistant Professor of Music, Composition, and Theory at Boston University. She holds a PhD in Composition from the University of California at Berkeley, a master’s degree in composition from Eastman School of Music, a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from the Curtis Institute of Music, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bryn Mawr College.

Composer Ketty Nez. Photo by Vernon Doucette, courtesy of Boston University Photo Services.

I saw your folk opera The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia back in 2012, and I believe the last time we spoke you were working on Lina and the Wolf. How many operas have you written – and how many have you started or explored writing?

Lina is my third opera (so far), in each case I’ve written my own libretto as well.

What’s your current compositional project? Is it for a specific commission or performer(s)?

Lina and the Wolf is the opera I’m finishing off; it’s not commissioned, but done out of my own curiosity for the life story of Lina Prokofieva, first wife of the composer Sergei Prokofiev. She was jailed in the Gulag, released with the help of Shostakovich after Prokofiev died, and moved to the West.

The story is based on the book by Simon Morrison. I’ve also met the Prokofiev family as well, who told me about her.

Ben Krywosz of Nautilus Music-Theater has said that one of the biggest challenges in creating opera in the United States is twofold: a lack of training for librettists on how to write an opera, and a lack of training for composers for the same. How did your formal and informal studies prepare you (or not) for the task of writing opera?

I just started writing opera entirely on my own, based on my interests in certain narratives, how they’re told, and how music can underline the story. For example, my second opera The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia was based on my interest in the folk musics and stories of the Balkans – my family heritage.

There’s little training [for students] at the moment, though I’ve developed a class at Boston University to teach composers how to work with librettos and drama in general. This includes trying out writing libretti as well – usually, students discover hidden talents.

Tell me more about the class that you developed – is it a lecture class? A seminar? 

The opera-writing class is a regular weekly seminar in which students examine different types of libretto treatments in various 20th and 21st century works. They then develop their own libretto in conjunction with a final project that is performed at the end of the semester with singers and instrumentalists.

What do you look for in a story or text that you consider setting as an opera?

I look for a story that I could put myself into, with characters that speak to me as people I might know (or feel I have similar experiences with), challenged by situations and life events that can happen to  any of us.

My choosing a psychology major in undergrad reflects my interest in human experiences, I guess.

Time is a perennial challenge for any artist, but composers especially. Your particular career path includes a university professorship, performing as a pianist, and (when we met) directing a new music ensemble. How and when do you set aside time to compose? What recharges that creative well?

I spend summers immersed in composing (and do little else). During the school year, I try to perform as much as possible, including collaborating on projects including my own music.

I always really enjoy meeting and working with other musicians, sharing the experience of an exhilarating physical and visceral involvement of creating sounds.

One of the concerns raised at the 2015 National Opera Association conference was the low number of female composers writing opera. Are there any specific challenges or obstacles that women experience working and writing in this field?

Having not been involved with the National Opera Association yet, I can strongly agree!

No distinct reasons come to mind regarding being a female opera composer, apart from being a female composer in general, however.

What are some of the challenges of working as a female composer?

Female composer?  First of all, targeting oneself as a female composer, for various grants and opportunities, which I would rather not do, as I want to be evaluated blindly as an artist.


Basil Considine