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Arts & Culture

Composer Tobias Picker tapped to write a lead role for new SA opera company

Photo: Gregory Downer, License: N/A

Gregory Downer

Composer Tobias Picker

When the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters announced their newly elected members on March 12, it was a good day for Schott Music, the venerable international music publishing company headquartered in Mainz, Germany, since 1770. Named along with artist Kara Walker, author Jonathan Franzen, and nine other arts notables was Tobias Picker, a renowned opera and symphony composer and a Schott client. If plans for the new Opera Theater San Antonio (OTSA) work out, that day will be remembered in Texas, too. Picker, who the Wall Street Journal has called "our finest composer for the lyric stage," has agreed to become artistic director of the new company.

In the wake of the failure of the debt-burdened San Antonio Opera, which closed its doors in February, hopes are high but guarded for the success of OTSA, as it has yet to form a chorus or stage a production. The aspiring company is helmed by Tobin Theatre Arts Fund President Mel Weingart, and has a prestigious advisory board that includes Santa Fe Opera past-president Nancy Zeckendorf and opera patrons Emily Coates and Edgar Foster Daniels (who has been a director at five operas, including New York's Metropolitan Opera). If the new company becomes a performing reality, Picker will become the only composer to direct an opera in America.

Born in New York City in 1954, Picker composed his first piece at the age of eight and went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music, the Juilliard School, and Princeton University, where he studied under modern music icons Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. His music, which ranges from string quartets to symphonic works, has been commissioned and performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Helsinki Philharmonic. His first opera, Emmeline, was premiered by the Santa Fe Opera in 1996. His fourth opera, An American Tragedy, was commissioned by and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Picker is currently completing his fifth opera, Dolores Claiborne, based on the Stephen King novel, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, it will premiere in 2013.

With such a prodigious talent in charge, rumors have spread that the new opera company will be solely devoted to contemporary work. "Not true," says OTSA President Mel Weingart. "The first production is going to be a Puccini opera. Which one, I don't want to say, but not La Boheme. It won't be Madame Butterfly, either." If all goes well, the first opera will be staged at the Tobin Center for Performing Arts early in 2015.

"There are people who are afraid of the new, especially if it's music," Picker told the Current last week. "Obviously as a composer, and known especially for my operas now, I am interested in the art form as a living art, and not strictly as a museum. But I don't want to encourage people to assume that there is going to be lot's of scary new modern music and nothing else." Picker insists that the programming will be "balanced," featuring both new works and the classics. "I love Puccini, I love all the masters — they will all be represented, but there will be exciting new pieces, too," he said. "Why shouldn't there be, when every other major city in the world has them, and sells out their opera houses with them."

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