January 21, 1997


Justin Weiss: Profile of a Composed Composer

An exciting event coming up at Middlebury College during its 1997 winter term is a student-led production of an opera, "Gimpel the Fool." The libretto itself was written by the 1996 winter term class jointly led by Assistant Professor of Music Su Lian Tan and Professor of English Robert Pack.

Over the 1996 fall term, the task of putting the libretto to music fell on Su Lian Tan's music composition class. This work required much collaboration between the 11 students involved. In charge of facilitating this collaboration is Justin Weiss '97 of Kennebunk, Maine. Not only is Mr. Weiss composing and administrating the score, he is also performing as one of the leads, Yechiel.

"The art of composing and the art of performing are two entirely different things," the composer/singer admitted. "Composing in collaboration with other students is different too. However, listening to and looking at other people's work over time has created a natural convergence. It's almost magical."

The opera is definitely a product in progress. The first week of class the composers worked on the libretto, cutting, changing the order, and assigning arias. "Things will change again when the performers impact it," said Mr. Weiss.

Assistant Professor of Theatre Mark Evancho's set design class is actually designing the set. They created intricate to-scale models and have met several times with the composers. "Working with them has been an important step," said Mr. Weiss. "For instance, they have centered one set around a fountain. We hadn't really noticed that there was a fountain in the libretto and having one on the set made a difference in how we felt about the music."

Many of the composers are using a computer program called Finale that can record, do the transposition and modify a full score to accommodate instrumentation. Not all the composers have used this program and so one of Mr. Weiss' jobs is to put all their music on Finale. He worked through much of Christmas break, integrating the score.

In January, the performers, which will include a cast of four leads and a chorus and instrumentation by a string octet, flute, piccolo, bassoon, percussion, keyboard, clarinet and trombone, have three weeks to get ready for performances from January 29 through January 31.

What does Mr. Weiss, a double music/political science major who studied in France in his junior year, face in preparing to sing in an opera? "Ten adjunct music faculty will work on the leads to make sure we're taking care of ourselves," he says. "It's very important for opera singers. We must always wear a scarf; always drink water; not talk too much; speak the right way; not eat food that's too hot or too cold; be in bed by 9, up by 7; not smoke, not drink, and take no medication."

Does Mr. Weiss feel ready for this unique production? "The show will go on," he says. "And we couldn't do it without Su Lian Tan," he adds. "It's amazing to have such an advanced composer available to us. She nourishes us, she's artistically supportive. But she wants it to be our show."