Thursday, January 21, 2010

John Estacio Gets It: Writing an Opera for the Audience

Music Dramaturge Les Dala and John Estacio (in foreground)looking over Lillian libretto

Full-length, “main stage” operas don’t grow on trees! There are many reasons, including the expense to produce and the risk of presenting new work to an audience accustomed to the “classics.” “R&D” money is practically non-existent for a not-for-profit arts organization, as is the ability – the luxury – to do extensive test-marketing!

But another – very important – reason is that there are not very many composers who “get” opera and who can also compose works that are musically and thematically appealing to traditional opera company audiences. We are very fortunate: we have John Estacio. When I heard John’s first opera, Filumena (with libretto by John Murrell), I knew I’d found the guy to write an opera for Vancouver Opera. I haven’t been disappointed. His music is emotional and expressive. What I’m hearing in our Lillian Alling workshops are tuneful arias, big chorus numbers, and lush orchestration.

After listening to a workshop performance of Lillian Alling in December, Vancouver Sun music writer David Gordon Duke wrote that “Estacio has made powerful, passionate music, and he’s not afraid of a good tune when one seems to be required.”
John has served as Composer in Residence for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic, and the Calgary Opera. These residencies yielded several orchestral and choral works including his operas Filumena and Frobisher. CBC Records released Frenergy, the Music of John Estacio, featuring several of the orchestral works Estacio composed during his residencies in Edmonton and Calgary. The CD was nominated for two JUNO awards, including a nomination for Outstanding Classical Composition. It also received the Western Canadian Music’s “Outstanding Classical Recording Award.” His string quartet, Test Run, which he composed for the Banff International String Quartet competition, was also nominated for a JUNO. In 2008 he received an AMPIA Award for his first film score for The Secret of the Nutcracker.

Filumena premiered in 2003 at Calgary Opera and was also produced at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa April 2005, at the 2005 Banff Summer Arts Festival, and at the Edmonton Opera November 2005. Filumena was filmed for television and received its national television premiere in 2006.

According to the CBC, “Composer John Estacio and librettist John Murrell scored by taking their cue from Puccini and Verdi with this old-school tragedy about Italian immigrant bootleggers in Prohibition-era Alberta.” The Calgary Herald said, “John Estacio's score is eclectic and neo-romantic. Employing melodic styles that emulate Italian popular tunes, Scottish hymns and soaring Puccini-inflected idioms, the music effortlessly underlines the complex social mix of the various characters, the emotional high points achieved through melody and romantic climax.”

John is keenly attentive and active during the workshop process, often going back to his hotel room to do re-writes of sections of music that didn’t quite work. Singers are often presented with new music the next morning that solves a particular staging or orchestra or transitional problem. And the process is repeated again the next day and the next. After going through five workshops John is now orchestrating the piece. Full piano vocal scores have made available to the singers, a conductor’s score will be printed, and individual orchestra parts will be distributed this summer.

One of Canada’s most successful composers, Estacio's orchestra works are frequently performed by such illustrious ensembles as The St. Louis Symphony, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, The Winnipeg Symphony, and others, including The Los Angeles Philharmonic which, along with tenor Ben Heppner, recently toured Europe with John’s arrangements of Seven Songs of Jean Sibelius.

Estacio studied music and composition at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of British Columbia. He attained national recognition after receiving an award in The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's Canadian Composers Competition in 1992. In addition to writing music during his residencies, he has written for the Vancouver Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, and the CBC Radio Orchestra. The Vancouver Bach Choir John recently performed his cantata The Houses Stand Not Far Apart commissioned by The Bach Choir, the Grand Philharmonic, Chorus Niagara, and the Richard Eaton Singers.

In November The National Arts Centre announced that Estacio was a recipient of the NAC Award for composers, along with Peter Paul Koprowski, and Ana Sokolovic, all three talented Canadian contemporary composers with enviably successful careers.

It is a very special thing for an opera company to commission and premiere a new, full-size opera! We are so fortunate to have Canada’s foremost creative team preparing our world premiere for this October. Stay tuned for more about this extraordinary project in the months ahead.

~ James W. Wright, General Director