Carlisle Floyd: Opera America: January 15, 2016: Orchestration

Carlisle Floyd's third interview of his five-part Masters at Work series with Opera America took place on January 15, 2016. I had the privilege of being in attendance and meeting the great man himself.

As I mentioned before, this series gives us an intimate glimpse into the life, work, and artistic process of America's "dean" of opera. He has taken us on a personal journey as he prepares for the upcoming premier of his latest opera, Prince of Players, which will premier at the Houston Grand Opera on March 5, 2016.  This new work is a chamber opera in two acts, based on the true story of Edward Kynaston's struggle to continue his profession as an actor portraying female characters during the London Restoration era after King Charles II allowed women to appear on the stage while also forbidding men to perform as women.

Here is a brief summary of what Carlisle Floyd had to say on January 15, 2016 about orchestration:

  • Orchestration is the "clothing of notes."
  • Orchestration gives color to the notes.
  • He composes the piano score first and then orchestrates it.
  • He scores from the vocal score to ensure that he is sure of what he has to say before he orchestrates anything.
  • Opera rehearsals always use the piano reduction before the orchestra comes in, making the piano reduction very important.
  • The reduction will have "la tinta," the feelings, moods, of the piece. The orchestration just brings la tinta to life, because the real measure of the work is experienced through the orchestration, not the piano reduction.
  • After all these years of composing, he's not sure he has an orchestral "signature," though it's possible it exists without his being aware.
  • As a composer, your job is to find sonic solutions to particular situations.
  • Interesting tidbit: Did you know the English horn is connected with sorrow or disturbance? He loves using it, but can't do it too often because then it would lose its poignancy.
  • Even though Prince of Players is set in the 17th Century, the opera's music is not 17th Century music, though there are flavors of this period in the score.
  • He finds that composing at night is a "good time, " as long as you don't go too late!
  • The trick to achieving balance between voices and the orchestra is to generally, stay out of the singer's register. However, if her vocal line is in the middle, and you give her a lot of treble form the orchestra, she'll be drowned out. Also, think about thickness of the orchestral texture when composing for voice. Keep the voice out of the way of the musical texture. Put the voice on top of the register of the orchestra.
  • The way he learned the most about composing was from making his first opera, Susannah: "The more trial and error, the more rules that come."
  • A character's signature is both melodic and instrumental.
  • Remember that the melody can be spread over several instruments and thematic material can be expanded with different instruments.
  • Wind and strings are very common when writing for voice.
  • Writing for voice and smaller ensemble is actually much harder than writing for voice and full orchestra.
  • When choosing which instruments to use, always first go back to "la tinta."
  • The drive from the orchestra comes from the libretto. You have to have an interesting idea and have the compositional skill to show that idea in various faces. You also always have to know where you are in terms of moving forward. Also, you must ask, "Where are you going?"

I got to ask Mr. Floyd a question: As a pianist, how did he learn to orchestrate?  His answer was simple: "I have an ear." We all laughed, but in all earnestness, he said he took a class on orchestration when he was at conservatory. So hey, if that's all it takes, there's really no excuse for people who want to compose to go out and flex that creative muscle! Where there is a will and talent, there is a way.

If you want to see the entire interview, simply click on the Source link below.

Thanks Opera America, for being so great! And thank you Carlisle Floyd, for not only being a great composer and sharing your work with us, but for also being a kind person who takes the time to sincerely talk to the people who appreciate you.