International Music Theatre Now

by Jessica Lewis

in Global Citizenship,Interviews

Post image for International Music Theatre Now

(“Unsichtbare Land” by composer Helmut Oehring. Produced byTheater Basel. Photo copyright Sebastian Hoppe.)

It’s always nice to have an e-mail conversation with an inspiring female theatre leader thousands of miles away in Germany to gain insight on an excellent, incredible, fantastic opportunity for music theatre artists.  The International Music Theatre Committee (MTC), one of 12 committees that make up the International Theatre Institute (ITI), in cooperation with the German Centre of ITI,  is accepting submissions for the second edition of their WORLDWIDE competition for the creators of new opera and music theatre.

ITI committees serve as outlets for international collaboration among the global network of ITI Centers (and TCG serves as the U.S. Center of ITI, if you didn’t know by looking at our International section of the TCG website). The prize for the MTC competition is invitation to Music Theater NOW in Jönköping, Sweden as part of the Swedish Biennal for Performing Arts from May 22nd through May 26th 2013.  There are a lot of names and acronyms to keep track of in this interview with Laura Berman who directs Music Theatre NOW and is on the MTC board, but if you’re interested in music theatre, what it is and applying to Music Theatre NOW, keep reading.

What will happen at the Music Theatre NOW meeting and what is hoped will be the results of it for the artists and their works?

The purpose of the meeting is to heighten awareness and encourage exchange of all kinds. The meeting is a three-day marathon of music theatre. One after another the teams give short presentations of their work with video and sound excerpts. This will be followed by a Q and A. We allow for some substantial break time so that presenters and artists have time to chat informally. We invite publishers and music theatre companies to display their work in a separate room – so there will be an exhibit/chat lounge as well as a presentation space, so the artists will be able to meet many people and also set up one-on-one meetings with presenters, programmers, publishers and other artists.

We’ll also include other activities, parties, etc. to make sure that all the participants get to know each other better. In the evenings participants will have the opportunity to see live performances. We also decided to add a closing workshop just for the winning teams to have a good wrap-up session.

In addition, I have been traveling a lot and met with presenters who not only help us get exciting entries, [but will also] come to the meeting to see what we have uncovered. Because we include all kinds of opera and music theatre under the sun, the marathon ends up being a kind of snapshot of what is going on around the world. Last time we had several works made for large opera houses, some huge projects and some very small low budget ones – one project had taken place in a gallery in Seoul, another was created by students in Frankfurt. Essentially the jury ends up curating a program of 18 works, which reflect new developments and tendencies in artistic work from around the globe.

"The Tears of Barren Hill" by Danny Yung

How does the International Music Theatre Committee define Music Theatre?

As broadly as possible! We think it would be wonderful if some artists, who would never call their work opera or music theatre discover that it IS… and enter! And of course those creating “music performances”, a genre that so far I have only encountered in the US [should] take part. [E]verything from Philip Glass or say David Lang’s work to an experimental musical or Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times. CocoRosie just made a new music theatre [piece], for example. And of course we expect those who KNOW they are writing music theatre or opera to enter as well.

I think I should point out that the abundance of new music theatre here in Europe and around the world today is the result of an evolutionary process, which began with the “small scale music theatre” movement of the second half of the twentieth century. Somewhere along the way the artists stopped thinking about their work in relation to what was being done in opera houses and for many – especially in Europe – music theatre is now an independent genre, which is often aesthetically defined by each artist who is making it.  And this idea has been exported to… well as far as the other side of the globe. And more and more experimental theatre artists or music makers are suddenly thinking “I’d like to make a musical. I’d like to a make an opera.” Why, I don’t know. But what they are making is fascinating.

The [Musical Theatre Committee (MTC)] board decided on this wording:  an interdisciplinary performing art form “in which music plays a dominant role.” And for this edition of the competition…we are open to works like Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge which is a kind of music theatre installation and we also chose to include musicals in the mix this time as well.

"Unsichtbare Land" by composer Helmut Oehring. Produced byTheater Basel. Photo copyright Sebastian Hoppe.

Tell us about the evolution of the Committee’s triennial Music Theatre Workshop into what is today Music Theatre NOW, a Worldwide Competition for new Opera and Music Theatre.

The MTC, as we call it, was founded in the 60s by the famous opera director Walter Felsenstein – and included among others Hal Prince!  The workshop became the group’s central focus. It was a kind of show-and-tell session. Each of the members was asked to invite an artist from their country to give a presentation – the composer, and/or librettist or director of a new work. At that time many of the committee members were the directors of large opera houses and there was a lot of government money available in some of their respective countries, which enabled them to fly in some pretty famous artists to give these presentations. If you look at who turned up, its like a Who’s Who of Western European contemporary opera makers of the late 20th century – with a couple of North and South American and Asian artists (including Robert Wilson at one point!) thrown in for good measure. However the committee went into decline in the 90s as the members who had invested the most energy retired or passed away.

At that time another dramaturg and I were asked by the German centre to help out as curators…We [curated] a program in which some friends and colleagues from other countries gave short presentations. At the end we invited them to give us some feedback. One thing that irked all of us was that there had never been specific criteria for the selection of the works – and on the other hand for many years the committee had given a prize. So that’s where the idea of a competition came in. We also talked about the length of the presentations – and of course how to make the workshop into a more sociable event that would encourage some good discussion among the participants and hopefully lead to more intensive bonding. It was also very important to Manfred Beilharz, then president of ITI, that the event be less Eurocentric.

Then I convinced my colleague Roland Quitt to join ITI and help me work on reviving the music theatre committee. He and I developed the concept for the competition together and basically the two of us organized the first one with the help of the team at the German centre and one fabulous intern. So we started working on this almost 10 years ago.

"The Tears of Barren Hill" by Danny Yung

Since the first competition in 2008, have any new collaborations sprung from artists that have met at Music Theatre NOW?

Yes quite a few. To be really honest, in 2008 we were really winging it. I mean, no one was paid to organize the competition and not only did it happen – everyone who was there had a tremendous time! We were very grateful not to have any organizational disasters and we were lucky enough to have that one absolutely fabulous intern. So at that time, there weren’t huge numbers of presenters there – but despite that: yes quite a number of things happened. Danny Yung’s Tears of Barren Hill, a production from Hong Kong, was invited to open the Rotterdam Opera Days. Jiri Adamek a director from Prague, was invited to take part in a festival at the Neuköllner Opera in Berlin – and I think a number of other opportunities evolved from that. Karmina Silec, who is from Maribor, is currently working on a project together with Heiner Goebbels for the Ruhrtriennale. Nara Shin was asked to do a new work by the Seoul Performing Arts Festival. Those are a few examples. If you take a look at who is on our jury this time, you will notice that there are several presenters who are able to invite work to their countries. We also have several presenters and programmers on the board of our committee. And Nick Yu, of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, is not only helping us put out a newsletter in Chinese – he’s gotten the festival at his centre to offer a prize to a smaller scale work.

What’s the application process like?  Any words of advice to applicants?

The application process is really simple. Presenters, publishers, or the creators themselves can do the application and you can send us more than one entry. Since we are looking for works that are exemplary in terms of new developments in opera and music theatre, it’s sometimes wise to suggest why this is so in the brief description on the application. Some composers have asked us what to do about a synopsis with a piece that has no linear narrative. Of course most of the works don’t! My answer: be creative – and remember this material just helps the jury to understand what they are seeing and hearing. If you have problems uploading materials or questions just write to us: mtnow@iti-germany.de

And even if you aren’t selected, think about attending the meeting – it will be a very special experience.

For more information about MTC and Music Theatre NOW, visit http://mtnow.iti-germany.de/.  Questions about the US Center of ITI may be sent to Kevin Bitterman, associate director of Artistic and International Programs at iti@tcg.org.


Laura Berman’s main interest lies in the interaction between music and other artistic disciplines. As a curator she has presented works by Alain Platel, Laurie Anderson, Fréderic Flamand, Anne Bogart and Meredith Monk. Laura Berman has work for the Vienna Festival, the Bavarian State Opera, the Schwetzingen Festival, the Berlin Festival, the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, the San Francisco Opera, Düsseldorf’s Schauspielhaus and the Zurich Ballet collaborating with Achim Freyer, Heinz Spoerli, Philip Glass, and Thomas Langhoff. She is on the music theatre committee board of International Theatre Institute and currently directs the worldwide competition Music Theatre NOW. She is artistic director of “Art of Our Times” at the Bregenz Festival, where she commissioned Benedict Mason, Morton Subotnick, Bernhard Gander, Bernhard Lang, Francois Sarhan, et al. She is preparing a new work with Ben Frost.


Jessica Lewis is an Artistic & International Programs Associate at TCG and a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA in Dramatic Writing.