The Role of the Dramaturg in the Creation of New Opera Works

role of the dramaturg


The successful development of new work for the opera stage is a complex and often elusive process. Ask anyone who has contributed to the making of a new opera, and they will tell you there is no single formula that works every time. Composers, librettists, directors, designers, and producers who collaborate on new work must always reinvent the process to suit the unique musical and dramatic needs of the piece they are creating. Increasingly, composers and producers have called on the knowledge and experience of a dramaturg—a knowledgeable theatre practioner—to help give direction to the creative process. Whether one of the central members of the creative team (for example the director) or a freelance consultant, the dramaturg can be anyone who helps guide development by serving as an advocate for the piece and catalyst for collaboration, as well as editor and sounding board for the authors.

Some opera companies North America regularly employ dramaturgs to work on new productions of established operas in the repertory. The dramaturg provides research on the historical and cultural context of the opera, helps in the translation or interpretation of words and music, and works with the director to find ways to transform a classic score into an original stage production. The development of new work is different since the creators are engaged in an ongoing conversation about how to shape a work in progress. But in both cases, the ultimate role of the dramaturg remains the same: to focus on the big picture, to think about the overall structure of the work and to make suggestions that will improve how the piece comes to life on stage.

“The dramaturg can ask the questions that no one else has asked because they are immersed in the process in a very particular way,” said Brian Quirt, former president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), a service organization with over 500 members from a variety of theatrical and literary backgrounds. “Dramaturgs are different [from the other collaborators] in that their responsibility isn’t to a single aspect of the creation. Whether dealing with text on the page, a musical played at the piano or in action on the stage in front of you, the dramaturg is there to respond to the ideas that are being expressed and to help find the next step in the process.” Quirt works actively as a dramaturg in theater, dance, and opera and he values the creative energy generated by collaboration across the disciplines. “It’s great that we can begin a conversation between people who do this work in the opera world and the theater world,” said Quirt. “The work is similar—we’re both telling stories—but the tools that we use can be somewhat different…It’s the kind of crossover that can be particularly rich and productive.”

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