When asked to compose Concordia’s 2023 opera, it was a dream come true for Dr. Doug Harbin, associate professor of music theory and composition. As a kid, he’d always wanted to write an opera.
“My parents recorded PBS operas on VHS tapes (dating me a little bit), and so as a kid I enjoyed watching some of those operas,” Harbin said. “They were often in a foreign language; they were three or four hours long and, for some reason, I got into it. When asked to do this, I didn’t have any hesitation.”
Harbin had recently written a musical piece for two friends who are in a relationship. For inspiration, he turned to Reddit.com, a social news site and forum, where he said, “you can find just about any random thing not at all useful to the world.”
Why Reddit? Harbin said at the start of the pandemic, when there was a great deal of fear and isolation, he found that he desperately needed an escape. Like countless others, he turned to social media finding himself “passing far too much time reading silly posts from strangers.”
“At the time, there was something comforting about this virtual, anonymous world,” Harbin said. “When I was asked to compose an opera for Concordia, I realized that opera has always served a similar purpose as social media: it allows people to escape their reality for a short time.”
When searching Reddit for relationship stuff, he said it was amazing some of the things that just happened to pop up. He found a post by someone who wrote three paragraphs about “the one that got away” and found that though it wasn’t meant to be poetry, it was beautiful text and it started him down the rabbit hole of the other things he could find online to turn into poetry. He refers to his piece for his friends as a Reddit relationship cycle covering being in love, breaking up, the sadness after a breakup, trying to find love again and the struggles and fun of dating, then back to a happy ending.
Bits of that relationship cycle were Harbin’s starting point for the opera. David Hamilton, professor of voice and director of the opera, and Stephen Sulich, collaborative pianist and musical director of the opera, asked Harbin to write a 40-minute comic opera. All they told him was to make it funny, and since he’d had been writing that relationship cycle piece, it just seemed to fit.
“The main thing for me after COVID was writing something light and fun that’s enjoyable,” he said. “This is meant to be the perfect get-out-of-the-COVID experience to really engage in the arts again. During the pandemic, it was hard to get motivated to compose when performance venues were closed and there were no deadlines or dates for upcoming performances. Writing that song for friends was my first way out of that.”
Harbin had composed vocal music before, but composing the lyrics was fairly new to him. Although he wrote some silly songs for friends in college, he’d never done it in an official capacity or professionally, and there wasn’t time to collaborate or search for a librettist (lyric writer for an opera).
“I had to turn to some other sources for the lyrics and in this case some of it was Reddit. As the opera progressed, I would get an idea and compose the words and music simultaneously,” he said. “That was all new for me as I haven’t ever been a lyricist plus a composer. My plan for ‘Red’s Diner’ was to create a variety of scenes to entertain an audience and allow them to escape their reality for a short time.”
Harbin also took inspiration from a recent opera Concordia performed, “Speed Dating Tonight!,” because it had a chamber orchestra and Hamilton suggested a diner for the opera’s setting. “That just clicked – it was something with short scenes where people could come and go and allow several roles to shine and share the spotlight.”
Auditions for the opera were held in April 2022, and those students have been rehearsing all fall semester in the opera class. Harbin listened to the auditioners with Hamilton and Sulich last spring trying to determine the range and quality of the voices. He essentially had ideas for certain characters he wanted for seven larger roles but left the casting up to Hamilton and Sulich, who just happened to choose those same students for those roles.
Composing for an opera is an involved process because it’s not just pieces of music – the pieces must work together to form a cohesive sum. Over the summer he wrote the piano vocal score that vocalists have been rehearsing, and this fall he’s been orchestrating it by taking what was a piano part and expanding that into nine instruments for the orchestra.
“Having a living composer on faculty and in Hvidsten Hall of Music is such a gift,” Sulich said. “He wrote for specific abilities for each singer and the orchestral ensemble – what a challenge for us all.”
“It’s been a joy to do,” Harbin exclaimed. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s been so much fun. It’s been just a really delightful opportunity to see all the talented students perform. I can’t be more grateful to them because they have put their heart into this. They’re just knocking it out of the park.”
Hamilton said it was a great experience for students to be able to sing roles specifically tailored to their voices. Also, with the composer in residence, changes could be made that respect the musical integrity of the piece while playing to the strengths of each of the performers. “It’s been really a joy to work with Doug on the creation and premiere of this work!”
“Opera gets this reputation of being old and stuffy and not relatable,” Harbin added. “I’m hoping to change that a bit. It’s for all ages and anyone could relate to it. I think it would be a nice introduction to opera for people who haven’t experienced it.”
The performance is at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, in the Centrum, Knutson Campus Center.
Pictured L-R: Stephen Sulich, Doug Harbin, Levi Kovic, Joseph Koroll, Will Jacobson, Parker Degerness, Svea Hagen, Carmen Geiger-Schutz, Gabe Lockheimer Toso, Matthew Mortenson, Teagan Coyer and David Hamilton