About "The Golden Gate ":
one of the "Best new operas of the 21st century"
Opera News, January 2011
(Heidi Walseon/Gregory Sandow)
". . . lithe melodic lines that flow and entwine in the manner of Monteverdi, peppered with musical references to Henry Mancini and the punk band Black Flag. Those cues enrich Mr. Cummings's clear, appealing score without overpowering or derailing it. Constantly shifting between firsthand declamation and third-person observation, they achieved a gabby intensity more often encountered in Stephen Soundheim's musicals than in the opera house."
The New York Times , January 2010
"In New York, opera lover and San Francisco Opera aficionado Perry-Lynn Moffitt went to a Brooklyn performance of six scenes from operas workshopped by American Opera Projects. At the end of the evening, the one chosen for further development was a setting of Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate," a novel in sonnet form. The composer, Conrad Cummings, grew up on Masonic in the Upper Haight. Moffitt, who used to live here, too, says it's a 'dramatic, moving, lyrical piece with lush vocal writing that deserves to be heard in San Francisco, above all other cities.'"
San Francisco Chronicle , September 2006
"These hilarious operatic fragments, inspired by the Bush-Dukakis debates in 1988, are an irresistible choice in a Presidential election year—especially one involving another Bush."
Chamber Music, June 2000
(Frank J. Oteri)
"Photo-Op," to words by James Siena, clearly was of a piece, an eminently stageable morality revue about the fatuousness of American politics, Presidential campaigns in particular. "Insertions" was more a traditional song cycle. It, too, had a political edge, but also opened out to more general themes of love and death. Mr. Cummings is his own man; what was perhaps most impressive about his music was his ability to change styles depending on the provider of the texts, yet to retain a compositional image. In the "Insertions" poems, Mr. Cummings showed a deft ability to expand and deepen his idiom.
The New York Times, May 27, 1990
"Conrad Cummings "Photo-Op," billed as "a new opera on contemporary political "discourse," was played last month and this at La MaMa by the Ridge Theatre company and the Cummings Ensemble. The piece lasts about fifty minutes, but the libretto, by James Siena, would fit onto a page. The 1988 Presidential campaign provided the inspiration. Two candidates, played by a soprano and a baritone, deliver their capsule statements, over and over again. Repetitions, phase shifts displacing the verbal stresses, harmonic switches, truncations, juxtapositions reveal hidden thoughts—or the lack of serious thought—behind such stuff as
By keeping things exactly the way that they are
well find truth in the smallest things
that are just as good as the big ones that keep
this country great.
While the blamelessly diatonic melodies recall Virgil Thomson, the structures enlist and adapt minimalist procedures for satirical ends. Instrumental interludes—a tough, driving toccata, a voluntary of hideous sweetness—divide the speeches. The production was decked with twenty-three busy extras (political consultants, anchorpersons, a Senate committee, eleven Secret Service men stationed through the theatre); a décor, by Laurie Olinder, that encompassed the house turning it into a convention hall; and a continuous film commentary, by Bill Morrison, on a large screen behind the stage. The execution was musically and theatrically expert."
The New Yorker, June 22, 1992
"Cummingss musical style is weird, but its logic ultimately convinces. Similar to those of Philip Glass and John Adams, its often more rhythmically varied than either, with quirky metric accents drawn from speech patterns. The music is hard-hitting in its clarity, and leaves ambiguity to the words, which are set with a varied repetitiveness reminiscent of Handel. I cant imagine a more succinct symbol for our alienation from politics than "Photo-Ops" disturbing final cadence, in which the politicians gazed serenely at the audience (us voters) and sang in stately unison: God. . . damn. . .you."
The Village Voice, June 30, 1992
"The Vietnam war, long a staple of novels and movies, finally made its way to the operatic stage in Conrad Cummingss "Tonkin," which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Grand Opera House here. The styles of traditional Vietnamese musical theater were echoed in the staging and some of the singing and orchestral music of this production, which portrays the collision of Eastern and Western cultures with an emotional impact heightened by its sympathy for both sides.
"Tonkin" takes a panoramic view of Vietnams troubled history from the end of World War II to the present, but sets it in a timeless context. The opera opens with a retelling of a Vietnamese myth of supernatural aid in the countrys resistance to foreign invaders, and it ends with the return of ghosts from both sides of the Vietnam war, finally reaching understanding and reconciliation."
The Washington Post, December 1, 1993
"If any contemporary political subject seems ripe for opera treatment, it is the Vietnam War and its painful legacy. Here, after all, are bold oppositions, cultural and political; irrationality to the point of insanity; tragedy on both sides and a powerful need for reconciliation. There is even the opportunity for an exotic dance or two. A few years ago, the enterprising Opera Delaware company commissioned the American composer Conrad Cummings and his co-librettist Thomas Bird to write the first such opera ("Miss Saigon" hardly counts): a work called "Tonkin," which recently had its world premiere in the historic Grand Opera House in Wilmington.
"In three acts running a little over two hours, the opera attempts to compress the immense quagmire of Vietnam from 1945, when the country was occupied by the Japanese, through the troubled years of nation-building after the defeat of the French in 1955, the arrival of American troops 10 years later, and the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City today. As with "I Lombardi," the action of "Tonkin" is divided into 11 fast-moving scenes. And just as Verdis score was utterly in keeping with the musical conventions of its time, so "Tonkins" music fits neatly into the current vogue for purely tonal, quasi-melodic minimalism. Mr. Cummings and Mr. Birds hearts are clearly in the right place: they want their opera to be as broadly accessible as possible."
The New York Observer, December 20, 1993
About "Positions 1956" and "Insertions":
"Conrad Cummings new song cycles "Positions 1956" and "Insertions" appeared last month at Performance Space 122, on First Avenue at Ninth Street. Each is for two singers—soprano and baritone—and four players. A third cycle, it seems is in prospect, to make up an evenings entertainment. "Positions 1956" has a text, by Michael Korie, fashioned from popular sex manuals of the nineteen-fifties. It is an amusing piece given substance by some tender and some keen, rueful moments. "Insertions" is a setting of poems by James Siena, Hanon Reznikov, Michael Blumenthal, and Vikram Seth. Its tone is serious—but ardently, not glumly, so. Cummings is an arresting practitioner of the New Simplicity: touches of Virgil Thomson, touches of John Adams, echoes of Handel, a breath or two, perhaps from the "Wunderhorn" Mahler. But the language has become personal. The music is sharply invented and trimly and surely composed. The imagery often proved potent."
The New Yorker, May 16, 1988
About "Eros and Psyche":
"The Oberlin Opera Theater contribution to Oberlin Colleges sesquicentennial celebration was, by coincidence or design, a most appropriate gesture: the world premiere of Conrad Cummings new opera "Eros and Psyche." The piece not only covers those 150 years in its writing style; it goes clear back to the days of Handel. Professor Cummings has studied with some of the biggest names in contemporary music—Druckman, Ussachevsky, Davidovsky among them—and yet he has chosen here to go back to traditional operatic roots and all but shun the twentieth century as a source of musical techniques. To say that "Eros and Psyche" is entertaining is an understatement. The Oracle, for example, whoops splendidly up and down her synthesizer-enhanced four-octave range, and three-headed Cerberus wolfs down his (their?) piece of cake three chomps at a time with delicious sound effects. These are touches of genuine humor and theatrical effect. The libretto, freely adapted from the writings of Apuleius, goes back as far as Aesop and roams comfortably through Rumpelstillskin and a half-dozen well-loved writers and tales, and is itself worth the price of admission. Visually the Oberlin production was little short of spectacular, with marvelous theatrical effects and costumes by the huge staff of students and faculty. The recently retired Oberlin Opera Theater music director Robert Baustian (of the Santa Fe Opera) was back as guest conductor, and his sure touch was evident in every bar and phrase of music."
Musical America, December 1983
"Hes a very interesting thinker," says [New Yorker critic Andrew] Porter, who was also to find the young composers musical ideas "exceptionally bold. The music is very tuneful, at times as limpid as Haydn—quite reminiscent of the eighteenth century, though it could not have been written by any eighteenth- century composer. I cant think of anybody else whos doing what hes doing right now. The nearest comparison, I suppose, would be with what Stravinsky was doing in The Rakes Progress—only thirty years on."
Northern Ohio Live, November 1983
"Cummings, who in the past has written avant-garde electronic music, has this time gone back to the 18th century and earlier for his inspiration, composing a work which is closer in format and musical style to that day than anything composed in this century, including ornamented da capo arias with instrumental obbligatos. As such, it is full of sparkling melodies and easy to listen to. In three acts of four scenes each, the opera lasts just over three hours including intermission, and moves at a sprightly pace with few dull moments. The libretto, in English and also by Cummings, is witty and adds to the enjoyment. The delineation of character in the music is a strong point of the opera. Psyche comes across as a girl of determined spunk, Zephyr (dressed in Robin Hood do-good-to-the-downtrodden style) as your friendly, helpful neighbor, while Venus is a strong-minded, jealous woman who is nevertheless human and likeable, Cummings has created a richly amusing character in Venus, both in music and words, a difficult feat to carry off. All the lesser characters are sharply differentiated, each with characteristic aria: Apollo and the three-headed dog, Cerberus, are particularly well drawn. "Eros and Psyche" is a delightful opera. It has charm, wit and plenty of content."
Opera Magazine (London), April 1984