Creating the Dragon--Final Pieces

January 10, 2012

Posted by Emily Knitter


Dragon composer Michael Ching reveals his process and explains how a hate rock anthem fits into his new opera.

“I imagine that writing an opera is like painting a large mural,” says Michael Ching, composer for Slaying the Dragon which will premiere in Philadelphia in June.  “First you paint the main characters and have their locations precisely calculated. As you progress you have to fill in sky, clouds, trees and maybe a few more difficult things – a battle scene in the background, or some cherubim or satyrs. That’s where I am now – clouds and satyrs.”

In his process of composing, Ching deliberately spends a long time working on the synopsis, in perpetual collaboration with librettist Ellen Frankel. When he takes the time to immerse himself in the characters, the musical side of the story becomes a more fluid process.

“I start writing a scene by playing with a few favorite lines and usually write a few bars by hand in a music notebook,” says Ching.  “I go to the piano and test it out and flesh it out. At that point I go back to the computer, enter it, print it out, sing it and play it. And so it goes – print, write, play, print, write, play – until it’s done.”

The community that Ching and Frankel have developed inDragon is all about diverse musical backgrounds.  This includes a Japanese folk tune, a gospel choir set to Hebrew text, and even an Aryan rock anthem. In the second scene of the opera, Klansmen disrupt a peace rally by blasting hate rock through a boom box.

“This scene needs to sound authentic,” says Ching, who has been spending some time at home screaming into a microphone when no one is around.  “I’m pretty pleased with it and will be disappointed if the audience doesn’t think it sounds genuine and jarring. Hopefully people will come up to me afterwards and say ‘where did you find that awful song?!’”

Center City Opera Theater is holding its second of three workshops for Slaying the Dragon on Saturday, January 14 at the Prince Music Theater, followed immediately by “After Hour Arias” at C19 in Rittenhouse.  With the completion of Ching’s piano-vocal score this month, our young artists should have a fairly diverse and eclectic new repertoire at their disposal by the time they arrive at the bar Saturday night.

Slaying the Dragon is based on true events depicted in the book “Not by the Sword” by Kathryn Watterson.  It tells how a Grand Dragon of the KKK abandoned a life of hatred through a relationship with a rabbi and his wife.  It is a story about tolerance, redemption, forgiveness, and the possibility of authentic self-transformation.  World premiere by Center City Opera Theater on June 7, 2012 at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia.