Composer and conductor Michael Ching will lead a double bill of operatic comedies on April 13th and 15th to close BCO’s 9th season, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi paired with Maestro Ching’s own sequel to Puccini’s masterwork, Buoso’s Ghost.
Maestro Ching joined Executive Director, Julia Cooke for a fascinating interview about his extensive career in every job in the opera business, his ideas about composing and contemporary opera in general, and his connection to Baltimore. Read on to find out about the very interesting, very fun Maestro Michael Ching.
A selection of quotes are below. To read our full interview, CLICK HERE.
On studying composition with Carlisle Floyd:
I got the opportunity to study opera composition with Carlisle Floyd, and the thing about Carlisle Floyd that your audience may know is that he writes his own librettos. And that was of interest to me, since for (my) college (opera) project I’d written my own libretto. That was really invaluable training for me to work with him. It was very difficult, challenging, soul-busting actually. He was very exacting and challenging, and I think that was good training.
“We have this impatient way of looking at talent nowadays that is something that is supposed to be full blown by the time you’re 22 or 23, and I look at it much more like a craftsperson’s development. You do a really long apprenticeship--you are the assistant, then the associate and you really learn how things work before you’re allowed to ‘make the tofu’ or I don’t know, put your name on a piece of furniture. And so, even though I was composing from the start, it was almost like a 25 year apprenticeship to learn the opera field from the inside out, to learn how things work….”
On his own compositional style:
“If we can keep it simple, tell stories that are accessible, that make people laugh and cry, and maybe even think a little at the end, that’s really what we ought to be doing. I want my audience to be entertained first.”
On contemporary opera:
“My feeling about contemporary opera is that most contemporary opera is too sophisticated for its own good, and that opera ought to cut itself down a peg in terms of its seriousness. I think composers should write things that are accessible and melodic and make people laugh and cry, and they can certainly do it through whatever subject matter they want to.”
On his compositional process: Words first, or music?
“That’s a chicken or the egg question, and there’s no pure answer... Sometimes, there can be a groove or a feel that will start you off. Quite often, there is a single lyric that will get you going, it would be a ‘hook’ in pop music, so sometimes it’s the words and sometimes it’s the music and actually, then sometimes it’s the dramatic situation. And so, it’s like looking at a Rubik’s cube, and if you’re stuck, you see if you can turn it over and get any answers from the opposite side. And you play ping pong from the music to the words, the words to the music, the words to the situation... If you get really stuck, you ask a friend…”
“I went to school … at Duke, and I had a very flexible program of study there ... And one of the things I wanted to do was to go to Peabody for a semester to study with a piano teacher there. This was in the late 1970s when Baltimore was a pretty gritty place, and I made it grittier by taking the bus, taking Continental Trailways up from North Carolina, getting off in downtown Baltimore, and walking to Peabody Conservatory. So I spent one semester of my life in Baltimore back when Divine was still around, you know, that era of Baltimore. It was very gritty, but it was enjoyable. I haven’t seen it since before the Inner Harbor was established!”
On his opera, Buoso’s Ghost:
“‘Buoso works through a lot of stylistic borrowing and quotation - you’ve got to have your musical thesaurus there to get the “in jokes” because there are quotations that are not just from Gianni Schicchi -- there are quotations from Madama Butterfly, there is a quotation from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and those are just there to keep me amused and for the sophisticates to go “I know that!” You don’t need to know those things but they are there. But there are other things that everyone will certainly get. There are allusions to gospel singing and Stephen Sondheim, and things like that and the audience will get those, either on a conscious or subconscious level. But it’s really all in the service of the characterization and story telling of this devious family, and how this smart newcomer to Florence, Gianni Schicchi, outwits them in the end. And he gets it all!”
On the evolution of Buoso’s Ghost: have you made any changes to it over its 22 years?
“Well, we just added a spectacular high note for the soprano, Sara Duchovnay, this morning because she’s got one! It’s one of the advantages to having the composer around, you can make little changes at the edges. In hindsight, my work gets simpler and simpler and easier and easier each year that goes by so there are complications that I wish I hadn’t written. I look at it and wonder “how come I didn’t throw a pitch there - where’s she supposed to pull that pitch from?” Things like that that I wish I had done a little bit more gracefully, or accommodating to the cast. You don’t want to write music that’s so hard that people can’t just completely own it. And I don’t think that’s the issue in this piece, the cast will completely own it, but the quicker they can get to that, the better.”
If you don’t have your tickets yet for Gianni Schicchi and Buoso's Ghost (4/13 at 7:30pm and 4/15 at 3pm), we do still have some available. Click HERE to find out more about the rest of the cast, and click HERE to buy tickets which start at just $27.50.