Jacobs student: Composing chamber opera akin to using Twitter

Conveying the passion, depth and storyline of a chamber opera — which is shorter than a full-length opera and uses fewer musicians — is sort of like expressing your thoughts on Twitter.

At least that’s how Jacobs School of Music third-year doctoral student Ezra Donner looks at it.

“It’s more accessible, cost-wise, and it’s easier to produce,” he said. “But I also like to think musical expression can be distilled with smaller forces and a shorter time span. I think it was Verdi who said something like, ‘Wagner has some lovely moments and some dreadful quarter hours,’ so I like the idea of concentrating the message. Opera in 140 characters, if you will.”

Ezra Donner

Ezra Donner

Donner spent much of the past year writing “Ile,” a 45-minute chamber opera with six singers and a 14-piece orchestra. It was performed in Norfolk, Va., as part of the John Duffy Composers Institute, and is also expected to be performed at Thompson Street Opera in Louisville, Ky., in the spring.

The opera tells the story of an obsessed sea captain who refuses to shorten a futile sea voyage spent seeking whale oil, despite the pleading of his long-suffering wife and crew. It’s based on “Ile,” a one-act play by Eugene O’Neill.

The summer production was the first time Donner saw his work fully performed.

“We workshopped it a bit, but this is the first full-length production of the whole thing, and it’s a little terrifying,” he said. “I know from experience that, whatever flaws the piece may have, the performers can do a lot to cover it. And that’s what it’s all about for me. I need to hear my music performed. That’s such a crucial part of the equation.”

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Donner received his master’s in composition from the Jacobs School in 2011 before beginning his doctoral studies.

“I’ve had a great opportunity to hone my craft as a composer at the Jacobs School,” he said. “You really learn the art of communicating all your ideas as precisely as possible on the page and really understand the music.”

He called the opportunity to study with world-class faculty members “amazing,” and also expressed gratitude for the chance to work with members of the Cleveland Orchestra when they came for a residency earlier this year.

What’s in his future, beyond his dissertation? Donner said he’ll always compose, but he also sees himself performing and teaching. He’s also recently begun hosting lecture recitals, where he introduces attendees to different kinds of music through performance, spoken word and audience participation.

“I’ve been describing it as a ‘teaching artist,’ and that’s really exciting to me,” he said. “Definitely something I’ll continue doing.”

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