Rachel J. Peters is a Brooklyn-based composer and librettist of music and words for voices and the stage: operas, musicals, scores for plays, concert vocal works, and more.
How Telemann’s Der Schulmeister — and a landscaping company in Northeast Philadelphia — inspired Lesson Plan.
In 2009, I was in the audience of a production I honestly did not care about very much … until Stephanie Blythe appeared onstage shortly before intermission. I have been a devoted fan ever since. If you’d told me then, that in 2021, I’d eventually get to write for her, I would have laughed in your face in utter disbelief. Lesson Plan is wish fulfillment of the highest order.
The directive from On Site Opera’s Eric Einhorn was: adapt Telemann’s Der Schulmeister, a 17-minute cantata for baritone and children’s chorus, into a longer piece, providing a new English translation and adding a new character who is a foil to the music teacher. And it should be interactive, so that the audience logging in from home acts as the chorus. Also, a second source to factor in: a certain digital subscription series full of celebrity-expert-led (ahem) masterclasses.
So how did I arrive at Lesson Plan from there?
The singing translation brought the joyful challenge of preserving the original rhyme scheme and applying it to a contemporary setting. But before I could get that far, there was more to discover about what I needed to say. I subscribed to the aforementioned series, watching hours of musicians from all genres offering widely varying philosophies and approaches. Some were enlightening; more were frustrating. Besides the actual advice, the format amounted to a fairly passive version of interactivity. How to integrate that with the source material for an operatic experience? Moreover, what was the point of view? Many trained musicians had not-so-kind responses to one set of classes by someone whose delivery style was astonishingly consistent with Telemann’s Schulmeister character: bombastic, extremely self-assured, and not graciously so. And, since the Four Seasons Total Landscaping scheduling debacle had recently occurred, I imagined a similar administrative misunderstanding landing our snobby protagonist in a decidedly non-top-conservatory environment. After some homework, I settled on a fictional community college in real-life Middletown, Indiana. The tone would recall Waiting for Guffman. If I did my job properly, hilarity would ensue.
And then a few things happened.
Beyond my community of musical peers, there were effusively positive reviews of this composer’s offerings. Non-musicians found the content not just fulfilling but life-changing; they gained a deep appreciation of the craft of composition as supporting storytelling. In a time where laypeople shout about the (perceived!) worthlessness of art and artists, that’s categorically a win.
Soon afterward, Eric confirmed that Stephanie would sing the Schulmeister. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I’d viewed recordings of her masterclasses with opera singers and taken copious notes. In these lessons, Stephanie constantly doles out pearls of wisdom like they’re nothing at all, but this one stopped me in my tracks:
“We have to think about our voices as being part of the universe. It’s scientific, my friends. Nothing around us is in any kind of stasis. Air is moving around us, molecules are jamming into each other, there’s lots of energy moving around all the time. So when we start to sing, we just simply jump into the vibration and the movement that is already happening … When we pressurize our voices and then we let it go, it goes against nature. It’s not scientific. Let’s be soulful and scientific at the same time.”
After college, I was an operatic coloratura until I admitted that I wasn’t cut out for it. While I’m certain I ultimately chose the right path, I came to the commission carrying some baggage on this topic; its bellhop was punctual.
Telemann’s Schulmeister isn’t a multidimensional character: he’s consistently grumpy in C major in 4/4 time for 17 minutes. But then there’s this beautiful couplet in the finale:
Ein schönes Lied von rechten Meistern,
Kann Herze, Leib und Seel’ begeistern
(A beautiful song from the right teacher can inspire the heart, body, and soul.)
Why would any teacher or student of music embark on such a steep uphill climb without enduring faith in the truth of this statement? I recalled those enthusiastic responses to the online masterclasses, as well as everything I’d observed over decades as a practitioner of music.
Meeting Stephanie Blythe
Then I finally spoke with Stephanie over Zoom. She offered insightful perspective on her career as an artist and educator, and what we might find compelling related to this source material. Telemann’s Schulmeister was reborn as Alice Tommasso, a famous contralto who considers teaching beneath her until she bumps up against some uncomfortable truths (including a certain uninvited guest).
Soon afterward, my dear friend and collaborator of 25 years, pianist Adam Marks, died suddenly. I had always thought of Adam as mine. Witnessing his funeral and the outpouring of love from his many collaborators around the globe proved that, through his contributions as a musician and citizen of the world, he belonged to everyone. How could my hardened cynicism possibly serve this story? For Adam, to whom this new work is dedicated, I needed to find another way to proceed.
Research and exploring Middletown, Indiana
That came by exploring the history of Middletown, Indiana. Having spent childhood in Missouri (where I’d participated in a wide range of musical pursuits of varying quality) and most of adulthood in NYC, I’m not convinced that New York is the only place good music happens, OR that the Midwest is a sweet, quaint breadbasket of Americana without challenges, heartaches, and brutal tensions. A study of Middletown, begun in 1924 and re-upped several times in the decades following, didn’t tell the whole truth and was, in fact, designed not to. Luckily, Ball State University has a robust archive of oral histories on the subject. There’s also an incisive documentary about Middletown, which was deemed too scandalous to broadcast in the 1980s.
Truth and humor revealed themselves in equal measure in this research, comprising the story of Robinetta, a community college arts administrator and an amateur chorus director tasked with making Alice’s class run smoothly. I was further inspired by conversation with soprano Laquita Mitchell; her stylistic versatility is in full effect here. She and Stephanie have spoken at length about the significance of their experiences in productions of Aida. Their collective insight brought me to the most important stage of the process: really sitting with the standard operatic repertoire.
Opera in her blood
I’m not the only female composer with a complicated relationship to this canon. We’re taught early on that it is everything to which we should aspire, and to which our work is compared, yet we shouldn’t expect acceptance into it. I deeply dislike that. But the canon is in Alice’s bloodstream, in the bloodstreams of our singers, and in mine; I couldn’t pretend otherwise. A composing residency afforded me time to listen to “the warhorses” on loop. And to eat some crow, and write.
Even armed with a beautiful pre-recorded orchestra and On Site Opera’s team of technical wizards, Zoom performances brought substantial hurdles. After so much time confined to squares and rectangles, it has been surreal to gather in person as a team for the very first time this week! We are relieved and excited to finally present tonight’s retooled version of Lesson Plan to a live audience in this beautiful space. Hearty thanks to everyone at On Site Opera and Caramoor for making it happen. Now: sing out, Louise!
Caramoor is a cultural arts destination located on a unique 80-plus-acre estate with Italianate architecture and gardens in Northern Westchester County, NY. Its beautiful grounds include the historic Rosen House, a stunning mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Besides enriching the lives of its audiences through innovative and diverse musical performances of the highest quality, Caramoor mentors young professional musicians and provides music-centered educational programs for young children.
Click here to purchase tickets to see Lesson Plan live at Caramoor, Friday July 22nd, 2022 at 8:00 pm EST.