Celebrated composer Michael Ching is Savannah VOICE Festival’s composer-in-residence, bringing originality and unique compositions to the festival’s operatic programming and beyond. At this year’s festival, running from now until August 25, he’ll be performing an original short called "The Birthday Clown" alongside the legendary opera "I Pagliacci."
Ching’s original short opera revolves around “a struggling musician and the life he laments,” according to a press release. It’s part of a powerful double feature that shows the diversity of this long-running and important festival.
Ahead of the performances, taking place from Aug. 21-25, we spoke to Ching about his musical history and what to expect from his new piece.
How did you start playing music?
Ching: Well, I started out as a little pianist and wrote some music when I was a kid and then stopped. When I was in high school, I went to a summer music camp in Michigan called The Interlochen and took a composition course. I wrote a bucket load of music that summer, and the composing teacher said to me and my parents, "Hey, you could do this!"
Ever since high school I’ve been writing steadily. The thing about me that’s a little different from your average composer is that I’m almost entirely now a composer/lyricist. In some ways, I’m more like a songwriter than a composer in terms of the way I work. I actually don’t like to work on music without words unless there’s a dramatic situation that has justified that.
How did it happen where you started working this way?
I fell in love with opera by working in it. I was lucky, right after my senior project in college—which was to write a one-act opera—I was fortunate to get into the Houston Opera Studio. I got to work at that company for a year, and that was really when I fell in love with it. You have to go to rehearsal and coach singers, and there’s something that I found very special about it. There’s a huge excitement that opera has, that honestly you can sometimes feel is missing from more abstract forms of music.
I ran the Memphis Opera for 18 years, and while I was there I became interested in songwriting. I’d go to Nashville, hang out with songwriters, and take their workshops. So I really gradually developed a strong confidence in my ability to be a musical storyteller instead of a composer. Musical storyteller is kind of the way I think about myself, whether it’s in a two-minute song or a full-length opera.
Were there any writers and composers that you were influenced by early on?
My favorite composer is probably George Gershwin—a person who straddled the worlds of popular and classical music, and was really able to do it all. He’s definitely a composer I had a great deal of admiration for most of my professional career. I also know “I Pagliacci,” and have conducted it, so I know that kind of work from the inside. From figuring out how it works in rehearsal, and not just listening to it on recordings or going to performances.
You learn something about what makes opera work by working on good operas. Does that make sense? You know more about cars if you work on cars than if you just drive them!
I’m glad you mentioned Gershwin—he really is one of those universal composers and songwriters who managed to appeal to a broad range of musical tastes.
Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons I think I’m a good fit for Savannah. Savannah is definitely a place that lives in both worlds.
That’s a great segue to my next question! How did you get involved in VOICE Festival?
I’m old enough that I’ve worked with Sherrill Milnes a couple of times when he was the great American baritone. I worked with him later in his career, and also worked with [executive director] Maria Zouves in the 90s. So I have a history with both of them. When the VOICE Festival decided a few years ago that they wanted to commission a new work, they asked me to do it. I’ve been working with the festival for about five or six years now.
So “The Birthday Clown” is a new work for this year’s festival?
Ching: It’s a brand new piece, and it’ll be the premiere in Savannah. It was really Maria’s idea. “I Pagliacci” isn’t that long, so she thought it would be fun for me to write something that went with it. Conceptually, she said, “Let’s write something that feels like a Pixar short.” It’s sweet and a little humorous. “Pagliacci” is pretty heavy—at least two people die in it [laughs]. So she was looking for something that’s a little bit lighter, and that’s really how it came about. It’s a little bit of levity for the audience before they get into the heaviness of “Pagliacci.”
How long of a process is it for you to write something that like?
Well, this piece isn’t very long. It’s a 15-minute opera, so it was easy to do over the course of this year. The good part about being a composer and librettist is that the process doesn’t involve having to negotiate with somebody—you’re basically having a conversation with yourself. Having outsiders look at what you do is important, but since I can do both things it makes the process very efficient.