Expert Advice: Dramaturges Have a Lower Profile in North America Than in Europe, but Their Role Is Just as Vital
Eatock, Colin, Opera Canada
This succinct definition, from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, is fine, as far as it goes--but it makes no mention of the role of dramaturgy in opera. A little more research reveals that operatic dramaturges emerged in Germany in the 18th century, where they were often called upon to revise librettos and to serve as what we would today call stage directors. After World War I, the dramaturge evolved into a kind of in-house expert in music, literature, drama, language and history. Today, in Europe, there are many dramaturges specializing in opera: it's not uncommon for European companies to have one or more of these people on staff, fulfilling a wide variety of functions.
On this side of the Atlantic, however, full-time operatic dramaturges are rare creatures--so rare, in fact, that there's currently only one to be found on the continent. Cori Ellison works for the New York City Opera, and from her office at Lincoln Center, she says that, for her, it's an "absolute dream job." She's been at the NYCO for a decade, and describes her role as essentially consultative. "Basically, you're an advisor. You present your opinions to the director, conductor and designer. They can take your advice and run with it--or not."
The specific nature of her advice varies considerably according to the nature of the opera at hand. She explains: "In operas that come with text problems--such as the works of Handel, where there are different versions--it's my job to become well informed on the options and be able to make recommendations. And for something like La boheme, where there's no text problem, I'm a resource for new artists: a new Rodolfo or Mimi can come to me if they want to know more about the libretto, and I can find answers for them." Ellison also writes surtitles (or "supertitles," as they're called in the U.S.), edits various publications and organizes a lecture series at NYCO.
Her services are especially sought after when a new opera is being developed for the stage. "Some composers and librettists," she continues, "are extremely collaborative souls, who want your feedback and input. Sometimes they want to learn more about the practical aspects of how things work on stage. 'Are the proportions of the piece right, or should there be some nipping and tucking?' 'Are the musical and dramatic points coming through clearly?' 'Is the orchestration covering the singers?' I'm asked about very practical, nuts-and-bolts things, but also the more intangible aspects. 'How do you feel about this scene?' 'Is it moving you?'"
In short, Ellison is a "department of one," looking after a variety of production-related tasks that in many opera companies are spread across several jobs. This calls for many skills, so it's not surprising that she came to her current job at City Opera from a multi-faceted background.
"At about the age of seven," she recalls, "I became a fanatical little opera nerd. I grew up in and around New York, so I spent most of my youth haunting the Met and City Opera. I went to two shows every Saturday, and listened to a lot of recordings. At college, I did a BFA in theatre arts, with a minor in voice. Like every other young singer, I was doing odd jobs to support myself, such as translating and writing program notes. And I was more drawn to a broader involvement in opera."
A decade ago, when NYCO was looking to fill its newly created dramaturgical position, opera director Francesca Zambello recommended Ellison. That, in a nutshell, is how she became the only full-time operatic dramaturge in North America.
It's necessary, however, to say "full-time," because there are dramaturges working in North America who make their services available to opera companies on an ad-hoc basis. One of these is John Hess, who lives in Toronto. Together with his wife, Dairine Ni Mheadhra, he runs Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, a small company that presents new works. …