Five Questions To Potential Collaborators (With Translations)
Updated: Mar 20
In a few places on this site, I say that I'd love to hear from potential collaborators.
Translation: I really like writing and directing, and if you ask me I'll definitely be interested.
However, after a few approaches over the years, and a growing interest in 'fair' application processes, I've come to realise that perhaps a little more information about how to woo me to your project might be of interest, especially for those seeking me as a librettist.
Translation: some people do this well; some people don't, and it's probably not their fault. So I'm trying to make up for it.
There's no one right way to send a first-contact email, but to my mind, these five questions are a useful guideline for approaching any potential collaborator. The trickiest one's at the end.
Translation: it'd be handy if I don't have to ask, but doesn't matter if I do. Just saves time later.
1. If you're coming to me with a pre-defined idea of what you'd like to collaborate on, what draws you towards this particular [idea/book/film/history etc.] for operatic adaptation? What are you hoping to bring out in this adaptation?
Translation: what's exciting you about this concept? If, for example, you come to me saying you want to do something about Julius Caesar, it's really helpful to know whether you're wanting sword-and-sandals action, a political thriller, or an introspective monodrama about betrayal and the obligations of power. If it's a pre-existing work you want me to direct, getting a sense of what you're expecting can be helpful - or if I have an open field to play with.
As for the second question, opera's a weird form, and not everything works well as an opera. Telling me why you think something should be an opera helps me understand both how you're interpreting a work (do you see Caesar as an individual hero, or a symptom of a wider social disease?) and what interests you about opera (do you like neo-Verdi, avant-garde light shows, or something else entirely?)
2. What sort of scale were you thinking of, from one-singer monodrama to five acts with chorus and elephants?
Translation: what's in your head? Partly because it's another way to get a sense of what you're enthused by, partly because it's useful information about the project, and partly because this is the key factor in how much work you're asking me to do (whether as librettist or director).
3. What are you hoping I'll bring to the project/why are you asking me?
Translation: SEDUCE ME! [Edit: I cannot believe I have to say this, but I mean this metaphorically, as in 'make me want to work with you' and not literally, as in 'make sexual/romantic advances to me'. That option is a very fast way to the 'no' pile.] As ever, at least feigning an interest in what I do really makes me feel valued, y'know?
More precisely, it's really nice to know whether someone's approaching me because they have seen some of my work and loved it, stumbled across my website and thought I seemed nice, or just emailed the first librettist/director they found on Google.
The first is great, because it means that they probably know the sort of work I do, think we'd work well together, and think it's the kind of idea I'm generally excited by. I might not agree, but things will definitely be off to a good start.
The second is perfectly good, because we can always work out whether I'm a good fit.
The third is sometimes fine, and sometimes really not. Please don't ask me to write out your fantasies of murdering your ex.
4. How far into development is the project at the moment, from 'early stages of an idea' to 'has been commissioned by a third party for performance in 2024'?
Translation: Another practical question. Partly because it gives me a sense of how much creative freedom I'll get, and partly because it gives me a sense of how likely it is that the work I put into the project will ever reach the stage.
To be clear: having self-produced almost all of my work, I have no problem with projects that are just a gleam in somebody's eye if I think that they'll reach performance. But if this is your first time putting together a piece for performance, and you want a three act epic with full chorus and orchestra, I might gently advise something a little easier to bring to life.
5. Is any fee being offered, and if so, what is it?
Translation: I've spent years getting better at writing words for opera and theatre, and directing people in both contexts. My default assumption is that I will be offered money in exchange for services. Writing well, and directing well, means taking time, and I cannot afford to work for free every time I am asked to do so.
It would also be a betrayal of my belief that this field should be open to people without access to independent wealth - the only way to change that is by insisting that work is paid.
At the time of writing, I can think of three sometimes-exceptions to this rule:
You are someone I know and want to work with, or am happy to do a favour for. That might be by reputation, but is usually just that I feel a good connection with someone. If you are hoping for this approach, it might be best to start by suggesting we meet for a chat to see how things go.
It's a really cool concept. I've got a wishlist over here, which gives a sense of the range of things I think are 'really cool', from Mozart to pulp sci-fi. This is where Question 3, and the principle of SEDUCE ME!, come in handy. Adapting a classic 18th-century novel into opera? Unlikely to make the cut unless you've got a very interesting take on it. You've got the rights to a Terry Pratchett novel, and you've heard that I love everything he ever wrote? I'm listening.
You are offering something else I need/want. Ideally money, food, and board. But the chance to present work to important commissioners, present a piece at a larger scale than I've previously had the chance to do, or achieve similar career goals is something I will listen to.
So, that's a quick guide to what I'm looking for in a potential collaborator's first email. If it's not there, that's fine! But if it is there, it saves me the awkwardness of asking if there'll be any money.
Oh, and a final tip?
It's fine to be honest about where you're at in your career. I'm nothing that special. I much prefer the emails that are very frank about someone's work and interests to the ones where someone imitates a frightened cat, puffing themselves up to seem bigger than they are.