Kentucky Opera Premieres New Work on Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin’s wit and wisdom is well-documented, but his stormy relationship with his illegitimate son William is often overlooked in founding fathers history.  The tension between the famous patriot and his son, who stayed loyal to England during the Revolutionary War, proved fertile dramatic ground for librettist Terry Teachout and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec, who tackled the story for their third opera collaboration, “The King’s Man.”

The Kentucky Opera stages the world premiere of “The King's Man” Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (2 p.m.) in the University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall.

Teachout and Moravec developed “The King’s Man” through Kentucky Opera’s composer workshop, with the help of a $12,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That development time was crucial in the life of the work, Moravec says, because “the piece doesn’t exist until the singers make it happen.” 

“You can create something in your mind and put it on paper that you might think is brilliant and works like gangbusters, but you don’t really know what you’ve got until you put it on its feet,” he says.

It's a business Kentucky Opera general director David Roth thinks every opera company should be in — the business of developing new works. Intimate development time like the composer workshop contribute as much as big-budget commissions, he says.

“Our industry is severely lacking in the ability to workshop new productions,” Roth says. “Too often over the last decade we have a new premiere and it sits on the shelf because a big company will commission a work and there are problems with that work but no other companies will pick it up and workshop it.”

“We need to have a process in this country like Broadway has had for the last century, building repertory out of town before it goes into the big house,” he adds. “Giving pieces time to develop, to breathe, to come to life. Work out the kinks, then put a multi-million dollar production on stage.”

The company will stage “The King’s Man” alongside another one-act by the duo. “Danse Russe,” which made its world premiere with Philadelphia’s City Center Opera in 2011, is a backstage comedy about the controversial premiere of Igor Stravinksy’s “The Rite of Spring.” Moravec calls it his first musical.

“Dialog going into a dance number, and then back into dialog and so on,” says Moravec. “In a certain sense it’s a weird sort of hybrid form of, basically, a musical for opera singers.”

That fits well with Teachout’s philosophy that opera is, first and foremost, an entertaining show.

“Opera is theater. Sure, we call it opera because we use opera singers. But these are shows that we’ve done. One is like a musical, the other is maybe like a little movie,” says Teachout. “The more theatrical the opera creator can be today, the more that opera is going to come right across the footlights and land in your lap and excite you.”

Tune in to Byline Friday at 1 p.m. to hear WFPL’s Erin Keane speak with Moravec and Teachout about “The King’s Man” and their collaborative process.

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