I’ve had the pleasure of working at MakeMusic for several years and in that time I’ve spoken to many different Finale users who’ve said that Finale is necessary for their careers. In my conversation with the celebrated librettist, songwriter, and composer Gene Scheer, he told me that using Finale created relationships that were indirectly responsible for significantly advancing his career.
Gene is one of the most accomplished librettists writing today. He has collaborated with composers Tobias Picker, Jake Heggie, and Jennifer Higdon to write some of the most successful and beloved operas of the last several decades. He has also composed beautiful vocal works of his own to be performed by Denyce Graves, Nathan Gunn, Joyce Castle, and more.
Gene also shares his experience and knowledge in writing libretti with the next generation of composer/librettists at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s New Opera Workshop. He and collaborator Jake Heggie have workshopped their own operas of It’s A Wonderful Life and If I Were You. Now Gene and Jake serve as mentors to the composition students who are lucky enough to have their first operatic scene produced there. In the midst of the CU NOW program and a premiere in San Francisco, Gene was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about being a librettist, workshopping a new opera, mentoring new composer/librettists, and using Finale!
Tell me a little about your musical history. You are both a composer and a librettist, how did you come to those two creative pursuits?
Well, I started as a classical musician. I was a clarinetist and my primary instrument was voice. I studied voice at the Eastman School of Music where I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. My goal while there and after was to become an opera singer, to go out to the world – and I’m only half kidding – sing as loud as I possibly could. However, when I got out into the world I wasn’t getting hired for that. I wound up working in Europe doing long runs of musical theater shows, principally at Theater an der Wien. Back then, in the 1980s, it was mostly used as a venue for various musicals in German.
Because I was in these long runs of shows I started writing to keep my soul alive. I was writing both tunes and honestly more lyrics than anything. I would write dummy tunes as scaffolding for the lyrics I was writing and then give the lyrics to other composers. I did that for about ten years. When I got back to the United States a number of singers wanted to sing those dummy tunes. So I was never really trained as a composer, I was trained as a classical musician, but not formally as a composer.
So how did you come to Finale and using music technology to aid in your composition?
I started using the computer early and I began with SCORE, Leland Smith’s program. Then when I got back to the states, around 1990, I switched over to Finale. It was a really great tool for me. It allowed me to not just notate, but to think musically and to prepare scores for collaboration. This was the time that I was really beginning to share my work and pass it along to be more fully arranged by other composers. Meanwhile, I still needed to make a living. Today, music students learn to use music notation programs, but in 1991 that was a more unique skill. So, what I did was I started transposing songs for singers.
Finale really is, in large measure, responsible for my career. I had been transposing songs and then I put up a notice at The Metropolitan Opera and Denyce Graves got in touch. Denyce is a mezzo soprano and needed a number of songs transposed. After the third or fourth time I transposed some songs for her, using Finale, I gave her a cassette of songs that I had written. Six months later she called me from Italy and said that the songs were wonderful and that she wanted to sing them!
From there people like Nathan Gunn and Renée Fleming picked them up, but with Denyce it was directly related to my transposing songs for her. Finale was the conduit for connecting me to these famous singers, which changed the trajectory of my career and my life! You really never know how things are going to unfold.
How does Finale fit into your career as a librettist?
I was introduced to Tobias Picker and I worked with him as the librettist for several projects, including An American Tragedy at The Met. That was really my first professional operatic connection. Tobias is a very skilled user of Finale, so Finale became the vehicle for our collaboration. We would send Finale files back and forth. I would make comments and suggestions from a dramaturgical perspective about how the music was unfolding. It is up to the composer to decide how the music goes, obviously, but I would pass along my feedback from the librettist’s perspective.
Jennifer Higdon is also a Finale user. So when we were working on Cold Mountain, we had a similar process of sending the files back and forth. Finale has been a really incredible tool for collaboration. I also have to say Jennifer’s scores are beautifully put together, she is like the Yoda of Finale! I still use Finale, but not as much these days, only because I work most with Jake Heggie, who composes everything by hand. However, I am working on a musical of my own and I am writing that in Finale and working with an arranger in Finale.
I do have to say that I am not a wizard of Finale, but I know how to do what I need. I can use it to explain my ideas and put it in a form that allows for collaboration. Finale can be used as a professional engraving tool, but you don’t have to be Jennifer Higdon for it to be useful. It is such a powerful tool and Finale can be a conduit for your musical ideas out into the world, I know it has been for me.
Tell me a little bit about the process that you have gone through with the CU New Opera Workshop.
Oh, it is invaluable. It is incredible, Jake [Heggie] and I have gone through the process at CU twice and it is amazing how helpful the long-form workshop experience is. Two and a half weeks of workshop is a luxury that we weren’t used to. I remember when we got there we asked ourselves, what are we going to do with all this time? But we heard the run through and realized we had so much rewriting that we wanted to do!
One of the things that I love about opera is that it is an incredibly collaborative artform. You are not sitting in your garret writing a novel. Opera only comes to life when other people’s talents and imaginations are engaged. In the workshop process you learn all sorts of things that you were not expecting.
In most other programs, a workshop is a sing through. What is unique about the CU NOW program in Boulder is that you are really taking time to work scenes. Being able to slowly and methodically work through the piece. Being able to try out different things and discussing it with performers and directors and conductors. This program is special and the singers are just getting better and better!
You now serve as the librettist mentor to the student composers. What is that like?
I come and meet with the students in the fall. We talk about what is required of a good libretto. New librettists so often try to write a sung play with too much text. You are not writing something to be read, you are writing something to be sung. When opera is done right, nothing else has that emotional impact. It can show the truth of our human experience. The music has to be central. The language should allow the music to create the emotional impact and the story.
After we meet the students in the fall and talk through the general idea of their piece we check in with them via Skype throughout the year. We send scores back and forth with suggestions, but there really isn’t anything like being in the room with a person. I hope that we have more opportunities to meet with the students in-person going forward!
My perspective as a mentor for these students is very process oriented. I want to help build a toolbox of skills and resources for the students to use in the future. You learn as much from the things that don’t go well, as the things that do. So, while it is great to have the student works performed at the end of the workshop, I hope they learn more from the process of doing.
What advice do you have for young composers and librettists?
I want people to remember that music is not just for those who are brilliant at it. I recently have taken up the guitar as a new way to feed my soul. I don’t expect to ever be that good at it – but so what! It is a great and satisfying challenge and a way to feel connected artistically. The physical act of making music allows us to feel human. Do not let perfect be the enemy of the good. So get your stuff out there, write and collaborate with partners and have fun with it!
Leaving the conversation with Gene I felt invigorated to just make music. What a great reminder that we are all searching for ways to connect and to feed our musician’s soul! Thank you so much for your time and wisdom, Gene. I hope we can all follow your advice.
Photo credit (from a CU Now rehearsal at the music theater at the CU College of Music): Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado