For alumni Nick Benavides ’14 and Matt Boehler ’17, it was only a matter of time until they found themselves under commission by a major opera company. Both composers, who studied composition with David Conte at SFCM, are singers with a special affinity for the composition and performance of vocal music. Their talent has not gone unnoticed: the two have been selected for Washington National Opera’s (WNO) American Opera Initiative (AOI), an exclusive, annual program that offers three composers and three librettists (teamed as pairs) the opportunity to compose, workshop, and bring to fruition a twenty-minute, one-act opera to be performed by WNO Orchestra musicians and singers from the organization’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
With two of the three composer slots going to SFCM alumni, the selection of Benavides and Boehler as participants in the program is a reflection of the extraordinary musicianship that comes through—and is developed in—SFCM’s composition department, especially, where vocal writing is concerned.
“Both Matt and Nick are fine examples of how our recent composition graduates excel in vocal music, partly due to the pedagogical emphasis that SFCM places on composing for the voice and composing what we call ‘character driven music,’” says David Conte.
Throughout the duration of the program, composer-librettist teams are mentored by opera world heavyweights including composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, conductor Steven Osgood, AOI Program Director Robert Ainsley, and WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. With the help of these mentors, the teams have been able to make quick progress on their pieces—a workshop is scheduled in September and the final products will be performed in January at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve worked most closely with Jake and he is incredibly generous,” says Boehler. “Every stage of the process he’s had some really great insights about looking at your score from a theatrical point of view and asking some really great questions about your intentions. It’s been wonderful.”
“This has been one of the most fruitful and supportive mentorship teams I’ve ever had,” adds Benavides. “Every time Jake has looked at my music he has responded fast. He never tries to impose his own aesthetic—he’s always trying to bring out what I want to do.”
What’s more, these works-in-progress are the first operas that Benavides and Boehler have tackled, and entering the genre by way of Washington National Opera has put their projects into high gear.
“Twenty minutes—you think, ‘That’s a lot of time,’” notes Boehler. “But to write an opera in twenty minutes is actually very challenging. It takes longer to sing something than it does to say something, so the idea that you choose for a twenty-minute opera has to be immediate, direct, and compact.”
But, while fitting an act—let alone an opera—into twenty minutes may be new and perhaps tricky ground to navigate, these alumni were primed to write operas well before they applied to the program.
“A lot of the songwriting the David [Conte] really pushed me to do when I was at the Conservatory is completely the reason I think I got this in the first place,” says Benavides. “David just kept pushing me to do a song cycle and to do this work that really laid the foundation to make writing this dramatic work a lot easier.”
The stories of each opera are starkly different, which is sure to make for a dynamic performance. Boehler’s opera with librettist Laura Barati is titled 75 Miles. It is essentially a scene, set in rural Pennsylvania, that features an unwed, teenage girl from a strict, religious family who finds out she is pregnant. Benavides and Marella Martin Koch, his AOI partner, are composing Pepito, a comedy about a dog in an adoption shelter that connects with a couple of potential owners.
“I’m very much looking forward to this workshop,” says Boehler. “It’s a luxury that isn’t afforded to everyone in the classical music world and it’s a great opportunity.”
While this program and similar ones are often very selective, emerging composer programs and young artist residencies at major and regional opera companies and orchestras have shined in the national spotlight, and composers such as Benavides and Boehler have been given substantial access to world-renowned artists. It’s a mantle to be taken up among organizations that ensures talented composers and performers newly engaged with music in a professional setting outside of school will continue to create art at the highest level.
It’s a safe bet we haven’t heard the last of these two enterprising alumni.
Pepito and 75 Miles will be given their world premieres at the Kennedy Center on January 12, 2019.