Last month composer SCOTT PENDER attended a two-week summer music intensive known as the John Duffy Composers Institute, part of the Virginia Arts Festival.
But it may as well be called Opera Camp.
According to Pender, the sessions are for composers of opera and musical theatre to bring alive their works and get feedback from the collaborating artists and senior composers. The musical staff consisted of founder John Duffy (formerly Mr. Meet the Composer), music director Alan Johnson, stage director Rhoda Levine, and vocal coach Patrick Mason. Also on hand were visiting composers Libby Larsen, Fred Ho, and Ricky Ian Gordon, and librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell.
Pender brought along his latest composition, the one-scene stage piece “Clever Elsie,” It’s based on his own translation and adaptation of a German tale originally collected by the brothers Grimm.
“I chose this story for two reasons: first, I couldn’t find any evidence that it had previously been set to music; and second, the repetitive structure of the story appealed to me,” says Pender.
Here’s a partial synopsis and a couple excerpts from the libretto”
Clever Elsie lives at home with her mother and father and two servants. As so often happens, especially in fiction, the story really takes off when a stranger shows up in town.
My name is Hans, and I’ve come a long, long way to ask for your daughter’s hand, but only if she’s really as clever as they say, clever as they say.
Mother & Father: Oh, she’s no fool: she’s so sharp, she can even see the breeze blowing down the street.
Ensemble: Oh, she’s no fool: she’s so sharp, she can even hear a housefly sneeze.
The central portion of the scene consists of a repeated litany expressing fear over what might happen. Clever Elsie sings alone the first time, other voices add on with each repeat so that a solo becomes a duet becomes a trio becomes a quartet becomes a quintet.
If I get Hans, and we get a kid, and it gets big, and comes down here to draw some beer, maybe this pickaxe might fall on his head and strike him dead, dead.
Now back at home in the Washington DC area, Pender admits to a post-camp let down. It’s a feeling probably familiar to all who escape for summer intensives, whether boy scouts or composers.
“Most of my colleagues agreed with me that we all suffered from what I called ‘Duffy withdrawal,’” he says. “It left me feeling kind of lost for a week or two. Eventually, as is almost always the case, picking up the pencil and score paper made it better.”