a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

The Art of Making Opera

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Two years of rehearsals and performances with artists, musicians, stage crew and technicians, audiences, designers, directors. By focusing on one particular opera company, the trials and triumphs of all of opera — and of all kinds of artists — are revealed.

One day in the spring of 1995, I was dreaming up projects. What if…? If I could create the perfect artistic project to blend my interests, skills and experience, what would it be? I wrote up my idea and put it in the mail.

The San Diego Opera company granted me the access I needed, and a few months later, I started to make a photographic record. Being in rehearsals and meetings, I was looking for the detail and complex work involved in the creative process of this most-collaborative of art forms.

Putting the physical book together was a journey in itself. I’d intended it to be lots of photographs with captions identifying the people. But I found that approach rather dry, so I started expanding the captions and ended up with mini-stories.

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the photographs:

TURANDOT – Beau Palmer, Joseph Hu, Stephen Powell

THE CONQUISTADOR – Jerry Hadley as Don Luis de Carvajal

THE CONQUISTADOR – Kerry O’Brien as the ghost of Leonora

TOSCA – curtain call for Edoardo Müller, Nellie Miricioiu, César Hernández

THE PASSION OF JONATHAN WADE – Sheryl Woods as Celia Townsend




Read an excerpt from the introduction:

Any creation, whether it’s a painting, a poem, a photograph or a song, exists at a particular moment. Its meaning and impact change from one moment to the next, depending on who is looking at it, hearing it, or experiencing it. This is part of what art is about. The artist creates the work, the audience responds to it – there are no wrong moves here. Artists may be driven to create for any number of reasons: a desire to communicate, a need to earn money, a deep-seated conviction… they may not even know what the reasons are. None of this is important (though it might be interesting) to the person looking at the work.

All this theoretical discussion is fine… but what does it have to do with this book? There’s nothing here about the techniques of singing or making music; there’s even less about the techniques of photography. It’s not intended to be solely a history or a celebration of San Diego Opera – it is about opera; it is about art and the artist. Talent may dictate that one becomes an artist instead of a plumber or an accountant, but in all other respects, artists work at their jobs the same as anyone else. Anne Truitt notes in her Daybook that we’re different from the plumber – not special – because we spin our work out of ourselves, discover its laws, and then present ourselves turned inside out to the public gaze. What’s important are the reactions of both the artist who presents this work and the audience which experiences it.

I wondered, am I going to be able to do this?

The process is what it’s about; the resulting photographs or performance mark where we were at a particular time. It’s hard to visualize, but these pages attempt to give a look – a very subjective look – at the entire process. From opera to this Company to individual artists, it’s all the same story.

Throughout the process of shooting, I worked from a general outline of how to tell these stories with vague ideas of how to capture on film this not-very-visual process. Whether it was an emphasis on a particular singer or any other aspect of the opera, I started with specific plans. Some days I knew when I was seeing well; that next day’s contact sheets would not be a surprise. But most days weren’t that clear. Not at all. My intellect battled with my emotions. I’d tell myself that I should be looking for this specific idea, or I ought to be pursuing that particular aspect… when what was happening in front of me was really something quite different. On those days, the results of the shooting were disappointing and discouraging; I wondered, am I going to be able to do this? am I going about it the right way?

Clearly, I was not going about it the right way. Maybe I was thinking too much… this isn’t paint-by-numbers. When I stopped to watch and listen, when I stopped trying to control the project, I was able to see – really see – what was taking place in front of me. What the artists were actually doing in rehearsal or in the shop or in the pit was a more interesting story than any I was trying to impose from the outside. I was interested, intrigued, and inspired by what I saw and I found a way to let that story be told. My job seemed to be to show up, keep film in the camera, and figure it out at a later time… and with this kind of freedom, it all started to come alive for me. It was as if The Opera Project had a voice of its own.