“So, you like challenges, right?” This is how a phone call from Dawn Upshaw began, approximately 4 months ago. She was looking to commission a short—20-30 minute—opera for the Graduate Vocal Arts program at the Bard Conservatory. I’d worked with these amazing singers last year as part of the Osvaldo Golijov/ Dawn Upshaw Professional Training Workshop, co-presented by Bard and Carnegie Hall, so I knew they were great, and was excited to have the chance to work with them again. And of course, when Dawn Upshaw is asking, there is pretty much only one right answer: yes.
So there I was, with four months to write an opera that would premiere in six months. Do I like challenges? Apparently, I do! 2009 ended—and 2010 began—in a sleep-deprived frenzy.
First, of course, I needed a libretto. So I contacted my trusted collaborator Royce Vavrek to see a) if he wanted to write one, and b) if he had any ideas for what it could be about. After much discussion and many possibilities being tossed around, he sent me a Wikipedia entry on the strange sport of finch sitting.
Finch sitting (or “vinkensport” in Flemish) is a sport that developed in the late 1500s in Flanders. Basically, the competitors sit in front of a caged bird and mark on a tally stick how many times said bird tweets a specific song—called a “susk-e-wiet”—during the course of an hour. Then they do it again—round two—and so on. It’s like golf, but with birds, and more boring.
But here’s the thing: people who play it get completely obsessed; or at least it would seem so based on the numerous reports of cheating. These incidents—including someone injecting testosterone into their bird so they’d sing more frequently—were what first drew Royce and me to the subject; made us ask, what is it about the need to win that would push people to such an extent? Especially since—hello—it’s finch sitting! It’s not like we’re talking about the Olympics here.
This is ultimately what Vinkensport, of The Finch Opera, is about: why people think they need to win. Some of the characters in the opera just like to win—because winning feels good—while others do it to fill void that they feel in their life. Starting off with these questions/this theme afforded us an opportunity to explore issues of dramatic character in a way he hadn’t been able to in previous collaborations—i.e. the in-progress Dog Days. We get into their lives and experience their joys and sorrows, delusions and all-too-stark realities. Still, at its core, Vinkensport is a comedy. We hope you will laugh.
Vinkensport, of The Finch Opera will be premiered on February 26th at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College alongside a new version of my dear friend Missy Mazzoli’s haunting Song From the Uproar, and L’enfant et les sortilèges by some guy named Maurice Ravel. James Bagwell will conduct all three operas, and Dan Rigazzi will direct the fully-staged productions…(which, as far as I know, will all involve puppets!)