Reimer completes work to publish Robert Owens opera

Robert Owens and Assistant Professor of Voice Jamie Reimer.
Robert Owens and Assistant Professor of Voice Jamie Reimer.

Assistant Professor of Voice Jamie Reimer has completed work to publish the North American version of Composer Robert Owens’ opera, “Culture! Culture!” The piano and vocal score was published by Classical Vocal Reprints in December.

The work is a culmination of Reimer’s nearly eight-year collaboration with Owens to study his music and bring it to a wider audience.

“Some years ago, Dr. Jamie Reimer invited me to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for a short residency to teach my songs to her students, for long interviews with her about my composing and my musical experiences, for lessons on my works with her and for a concert with the voice students at the end of my stay,” Owens said. “This was the beginning of a real musical friendship. I have trusted her to study my music because of her interest in performing and teaching it. What more could a composer wish for? This is why I am writing!”

Owens was born in the U.S. in 1925 and grew up in California. His mother, Alpharetta Helm-Owens, was a pianist, and Owens began playing the piano himself at age four, composing at age eight and performing publicly at age 10. After serving in the military, he continued his musical studies in Paris at L’Ecole Normale de Musique under renowned pianist Alfred Cortot.

After teaching in the U.S. for two years, he returned to Europe in 1959 to live and work in Germany, where he is a composer, pianist and stage actor.

“He’s not just limited to vocal music,” Reimer said. “That’s my emphasis area, but he’s written chamber music and piano music. He’s still writing and performing, and he’s 88. I think that’s extraordinary.”

His opera, “Kultur! Kultur!” was performed in the Ulm Opera House in German in 1970, but had never been published anywhere.

“I am, of course, delighted to translate the opera from German into English because I originally wrote the opera to the German libretto of my treasured friend Dr. Vera Prill-Schwantes back in 1961 in Hamburg, Germany,” Owens said. “Unfortunately my dearest Vera passed away 20 years ago, but this is another reason I thank Dr. Reimer. She is the one to get things rolling for the English version.”

Reimer discovered the composer during her doctoral research at UNL in 2006. Reimer was selected to be part of the National Association of Teachers of Singing’s intern program, which selects 12 promising young teachers in the U.S. and Canada to participate in a two-week, intensive training.

“Part of that training is the distribution of newly published works,” Reimer said. “Into my lap fell a collection of songs by Robert Owens. At the time I was planning a 20th century recital. He is a living American composer. I liked his music. I hadn’t heard any of it before, and I thought this should go in the recital.”

As part of the recital preparation process, Reimer began researching the composer.

“I couldn’t find a drop about Robert Owens except for two paragraphs on a web page,” she said.

She contacted the website’s owner and obtained Owens’ e-mail address to ask him if she could research his music and write about it.

“He initially said no,” Reimer said. “He didn’t want his music dissected, which I respect.”

So she performed the concert and sent him a recording of it, along with a letter explaining her intentions.

“I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to dissect your music. I believe in your music, and I want other people to know about it. Will you please let me talk to you?’”

And after hearing the recording and reading the letter, Owens agreed to participate.

He visited UNL in 2007 and did masterclasses, lessons and interviews.

“It culminated in a concert of his songs at the end of his trip, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Reimer said.

She has since written articles on his music that have been published in prominent journals and has given invited lectures on his music at the National Opera Association and the African American Art Song Alliance. She has also performed his music, including four songs he wrote for her that premiered on her faculty recital concert last September.

Reimer was introduced to his opera “Culture! Culture!” in 2009, when Owens asked her to sing the soprano aria at a conference at which he was being honored. The opera’s plot centers on the intersection of the artist and the business of making music.

“The focal figure is a tenor, Paul, who is on the brink of a spectacular career, and he’s discovering that his time is being spent less on the making of music, and more on the business of music,” Reimer said. “And it’s the process by which he does or does not work through that in the pursuit of his career.”

The subplot involves Tobias, a composer, who has written what he thinks is his life’s masterpiece, an oratorio. He desperately wants Paul to sing it.

“And by means of lots of plot devices, they end up together intoxicated in a bar talking about this,” Reimer said. “Paul not knowing that Tobias is a composer, and Tobias knowing Paul is a famous and gifted tenor. There’s a love interest for Tobias, and a very overbearing producer and manager that try to manipulate the situation for their benefit. It’s universal to anyone who is trying to make great art, and it’s a little scathing of those that assist in the making of great art.”

Owens describes it as a modern opera.

“It demands good opera singers who can act,” he said. “Each role is important. Each singer must have a certain ‘fire’ for his interpretation of his personal role—large or small.”

Though excerpts have been performed here and there, a full performance of the opera hasn’t been done since 1970. Owens has produced a reduced version of the opera that is more chamber-sized.

“That’s the edition we published in the U.S. and an English translation that he and I put together last summer,” Reimer said. “His thought is, ‘I’m an American. I want this opera to be performed in the U.S.’ That’s the goal.”

Reimer received a Layman Grant from UNL in 2012 to cover the cost of the engraving, which Lecturer Nels Daily (DMA 2012) completed.

“Engraving is an art in and of itself,” Reimer said. “It’s taking the manuscript score that’s been hand written by the composer and inputting it into a computer program like Sibelius or LilyPond and making the score readable in the form that you would see on any published copy. Without that engraving, it’s impossible for a publisher to produce something that’s easily readable to a conductor, singer, pianist or anyone that has to make music come to life. It’s very time intensive and skilled work, and it costs a lot of money, which is why Robert’s opera hadn’t been published to date, so getting that grant really started the ball rolling.”

Daily, an experienced engraver, spent one year completing the 200-page vocal score.

“The edition that I prepared is a condensed form of the entire opera, called a vocal score,” Daily said. “In this score, the vocal parts are featured, and all of the orchestral parts are represented by a piano accompaniment. For this project I fashioned a professional digital edition from the composer’s original, handwritten manuscript. Much of this was done with collaboration from the composer himself over e-mail.”

Reimer met with Owens in Germany last summer to work out the preparation of the edition and was able to take two copies of the music Daily had engraved up to that point.

“I pride myself on creating particularly beautiful musical scores, so I am glad that I was the engraver for this project and was able to provide the best-looking edition,” Daily said.

Reimer said she knows Owens is excited about the opera being published.

“I think he’s very glad to see it done before the end of his life,” Reimer said. “I can’t imagine there being anything more disheartening for a composer than having your magnum opus just sitting on the shelf.”

Reimer and Owens are seeking additional funding to get the orchestral parts of the opera published, and Reimer is hoping it can be performed somewhere in the U.S.

“I think a performance is next,” she said. “What that looks like—whether it’s a workshop performance or a fully staged performance—I don’t know. I would love, more than anything, to have Robert see this opera performed in the U.S. For him, that would be the apex of the project, and I hope I can get that done for him.”

Reimer said the project has been a special opportunity for her to work directly with the composer.

“It was extraordinary to be sitting in his apartment in Germany and to have him play for me exactly what this opera should sound like,” Reimer said. “There’s no question about what he wants from every single note on the page. We don’t have that from Mozart. We have written materials, but those are always left to interpretation. The fact that I can pick up the phone or send an e-mail and say, ‘Okay, what did you mean by….’ is really what drives me to get as much information as I can about this music. I’m passionate about getting it right.”

Reimer thinks Owens is pleased with her work to bring attention to his music.

“He has called me the foremost expert on his music, for which I am grateful,” she said. “I think he understands that, for me, it’s about sharing his music.”

This year has been a culmination of their work together.

“From a personal point of view, it’s been tremendously satisfying to see this research that I’ve been married to since 2007 culminate this year in two really significant things,” Reimer said. “One, the songs that Robert composed for me being published earlier in 2013 and then being able to perform them. And two is this opera finally being done, because even through all the frustration and all the navigating of gnarly things, it’s been a labor of love.”

She is glad, through the publishing of his opera, that she has been able to give something back to him.

“It’s something that I wanted to do for me and for him because he’s given me so much in the seven years that I’ve known him,” she said. “Being able to know that he believes in what I do is very humbling. And knowing that he trusts me with the thing he loves most in the world is very humbling. I guess I look at myself as an ambassador for his music.”