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5 Questions to the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA)

Upon recognizing that the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) Award for Best New Opera has been in existence for three years, it’s important to ask “why now?” After all, MCANA was founded in 1956. It has continued to be a small organization comprised of influential contributors devoted to covering classical music. Writers must demonstrate reasonable frequency as a staff critic or as a freelancer in a variety of media outlets to obtain membership. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle is quoted on their website remarking that MCANA is “an essential link to other music critics throughout the continent…It makes me feel that I’m not doing this in a vacuum.”

However, their award for Best New Opera is seemingly the only externally-facing award they bestow on an annual basis. In its short lifespan, it has gone to Breaking the Waves by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek in 2017, The Wake World by David Hertzberg in 2018, and p r i s m by composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins. Three MCANA members graciously agreed to peel back the curtain and give us a closer look at this award and the process behind it: Barbara Jepson; former MCANA President; Heidi Waleson, co-chair of the MCANA Best New Opera award committee; and John Fleming, current MCANA President.

What is the origin story behind the Best New Opera award, and what made it come about after 61 years of the organization’s operations?

Barbara Jepson: There had been talk off and on for years at our annual meetings–among members and at the committee level–about the possibility of the Music Critics Association giving some kind of award for excellence. But the catalyst was the launching in 2013 of Classical Voice North America, the web journal of reviews and features written by MCANA members. At some point during my tenure (2013-2017) as MCANA president, I realized that the number of new operas being premiered was increasing, and that CVNA was devoting a fair amount of space to covering them, based on recommendations from our regional editors and members.

In 2016, the board approved my suggestion for the creation of the MCANA Award for Best New Opera and the appointing of the current awards committee–all prominent critics who actively review new opera for their respective publications. It was the committee’s idea that the award should go to both composer and librettist.

Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins' p r i s m--Photo by Noah Stern Weber

Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’ p r i s m–Photo by Noah Stern Weber

Despite shrinking coverage of classical music in traditional print media, MCANA is working to support the field at-large by recognizing excellence in contemporary music. How do Breaking the Waves, The Wake World, and p r i s m uphold that vision?

Heidi Waleson: New opera is becoming a big part of the American music scene, with opera companies investing seriously in commissioning and producing new work. For several–like Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Opera Philadelphia, Cincinnati Opera, LA Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, to name only a few, such work has become an important part of their artistic and community DNA. At the same time, entities like Beth Morrison Projects/Prototype Festival, are springing up with the sole mission of nurturing, curating, and producing new work. Each of the three operas chosen for the MCANA Best New Opera Award was the best of their year, and each year, there has been plenty of competition. The operas are all different in musical style and subject matter, but they all speak to the enormous energy and creativity that is now exploding–and being harnessed–in the field.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's Breaking the Waves--Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves–Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

Recognizing that classical music and classical music criticism is still primarily a non-diverse professional group, in what ways does the organization or award committee seek to dismantle bias when adjudicating new works?

Heidi Waleson: The committee solicits nominations for the award from MCANA members. We are all actively reviewing new works, so the five of us have a good sense of the landscape, and can contribute our own suggestions. Once we’ve looked at the possibilities overall, we narrow down the number of contenders to between five and seven, and secure performance materials–scores, audio and video recordings–for each, so that the committee members who have not seen the works in performance can experience them. We then discuss our thoughts in a conference call, and vote.

For most of its history, opera has been dominated by white males. That is finally starting to change, and the landscape of new works now includes numerous pieces by women. Often, they are the best ones: Note that of the three awards we have given, Breaking the Waves has a female composer, and both the composer and librettist of p r i s m are women. We are seeing Asian creators as well: Huang Ruo’s An American Soldier was a top contender for this year’s award. Now, operas by African-Americans are starting to be produced as well. In this calendar year, I have seen, or will be seeing, four operas, produced by major companies, that have Black creators and deal with extremely uncomfortable aspects of the Black experience. I expect that they will all be contenders for next year’s award. The committee is looking for new and exciting voices, and what better place to find them than in previously unrepresented communities?

David Hertzberg's The Wake World

David Hertzberg’s The Wake World

It could be surprising to some to see that MCANA offers an award to a new operatic work and not necessarily a similar award to the coverage of new opera. In today’s current classical music criticism landscape, how important is it to your organization to uplift and recognize the work of your member critics and editors?

John Fleming: Very important. Classical Voice North America, the MCANA online news site, was established to provide a professionally edited outlet for members’ work, and we’re proud of the excellent journalism we feature there. In addition, the MCANA annual meeting–this year, held at Tanglewood–often has workshops and panels allowing members to exchange ideas on effective, compelling music journalism. We also regularly have educational institutes in which we underwrite participation by a small group of members to experience top-notch performances and write about them. Recent institutes have included the New World Symphony in a program of premieres in Miami and a trip to Japan in collaboration with Music From Japan to cover concerts of contemporary Japanese music in Tokyo and Fukushima. As for an award to recognize writing on new opera, that’s a good idea and something we’ve talked about, but for now, the best new opera award is the only prize we give out.

Anna Schubert in Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins' p r i s m--Photo by Larry Ho

Anna Schubert in Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’ p r i s m–Photo by Larry Ho

It is clear that MCANA understands that music criticism is undergoing a paradigm shift with the advent of Web 2.0. What about this shift excites your organization and gives you hope for your field?

John Fleming: From an organizational standpoint, it is a priority to upgrade both the CVNA platform and the MCANA website in such a manner that will, among other things, allow more interactivity than the rudimentary capacity that we now have. At CVNA, a current project is to develop a dynamic, ever-updating calendar data base that will as a matter of course be very useful in highlighting upcoming performances of new music. We think this “lookahead” aspect will be a terrific complement to CVNA’s mix of reviews, commentary, and issues pieces. Certainly, an interactive component could ultimately be a part of the design, providing a forum for sharing about what’s going on in contemporary music. Our social media committee works with members to improve their skills in the brave new world of cyberspace.