In a company, in a class - a look at faculty member Kitty Brazelton's course Whose Opera? By Aruna D'Souza
Michiel Considine ’13 showed up for the first session of Kitty Brazelton’s course Whose Opera? in spring 2013 thinking he was just there to be a writer. Instead, he ended up having to stand up in front of the class and sing—as did everyone else, one by one.
Brazelton, who has taught the course four times now at Bennington, was asking the students in her class to write, compose, and perform an opera in a single academic term. And to do it among themselves—as an intense, large-scale collaboration driven by their own skills and artistic vision. The students would be pushed to work outside of their comfort zones given that the class was made up of literature, theater, and music students—and that most had not had experience with operas or musicals before.
“Kitty needed to figure out what we had to work with to make this show happen,” Considine explains. “You played clarinet in 6th grade? Great—anyone have a clarinet? Okay! You’re now playing the clarinet. You have duct tape? Great—we’ll need duct tape when we build the sets.”
Considine, whose singing and composing up to that point had revolved mainly around the “shouty indie rock band” he had been involved in, ended up being called upon as an actor, a singer, a composer, and a librettist by the time the show was staged.
“It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” says Matthew Kirby ’17, a playwriting student who took the course in spring 2015. “It was so hard to wrap your head around: we wrote an opera and we performed it. To write, instrumentalize, practice, perform, light, do costumes—basically putting up a production in that amount of time is close to impossible. But Kitty has a way of inspiring you to work harder than you ever thought was possible, and to support you in doing it.”
Brazelton is aware she’s asking her students to work beyond their capabilities; that’s purposeful. “There’s always a point in the term where they look at me and say: ‘If you think we can pull this off, you’re crazy!’ But you know what? They always pull it off.”
The unusual structure of the course was inspired by Brazelton’s experience in a composer-libretti studio run by Ben Krywosz in 1992: four singers, four composers, and four librettists were given a single day to write an opera.
“In a sense, I took this idea from the professional world and pulled it into the academic world. The course is structured very much like you end up working when you leave Bennington—working with the resources, talents, and capacities you have among your ensemble, doing every job at once.”
For a lot of the students who have taken the course, whether or not they intend to ever write another opera, that was a crucial lesson.
“You don’t always get the performers you want,” explains Singer Morra ’16, who came to Bennington to study playwriting and now focuses on voice and philosophy. “A lot of my life as a musician I’ve been waiting for the perfect musical partner, and you don’t always get that. I’m very precise about the music I write; it’s difficult.
Singers can’t always sing what you imagine when you’re writing it, but you have to be willing to let go of things and let them breathe. You have to know how to work with the instruments you have and with the sounds that you get.”
Considine agrees, and adds that the collaborative nature of the work allowed him to grow artistically. “There’s only so many ideas and rhythms that I can get into musically, and they can get really stale. It’s refreshing to bring in a friend who has a different background. Collaborating can create more complex and richer music—you can put those ideas in the pot in really successful ways.”
If that meant, as for one composer, creating a musical piece using only a piano, bass, and vibraphone—the instrumentalists on offer—that is what would happen.
Brazelton says that the hardest part of the course is getting the students to realize that they're not in a class so much as they're in a company
For many of the students who have taken the class, realizing that the process of putting together the show was as important as, or even more important than the final product was a revelation, says Considine.
And as Alex Díaz ’13 points out, that process is entirely dependent on the “structured chaos” that Brazelton creates. Díaz, who took part as a non-credit student in Whose Opera? in his senior year production—lured in by Brazelton, who needed additional singers—and then returned as an alum last spring as an assistant to Brazelton, found her work with the students inspiring.
“It was fascinating to watch Kitty work with students who had never produced on this scale before, and who all came in at different levels. She has an ability to home in on each student individually, and she straddles a line between being a nurturing but relatively hands-off presence and then giving students wake-up calls about the reality of putting on a production.”
Brazelton says that the hardest part of the course is getting the students to realize that they’re not in a class so much as they’re in a company—that she isn’t playing the traditional role of teacher and that they’re completely dependent on and responsible to each other.
As to how she sees her contribution in all of this, she laughs: “Well, most of my life I’ve been a bandleader. And the thing about being a bandleader is that you’re only ever bandleader by default, and you’d better remember that.”