The Catholic University of America

The Master of Music in Composition, Stage Music Emphasis

  Stage Music Practicum Drama unit performance session
  From a production of Gregg Martin's thesis opera Life in Death (2008), in CUA's Callan Theatre. 

A program focused on theatrical music

Founded in 2005, this 2-year program unique in its scope, provides training and development for students in writing for a variety of genres, including opera, musical theatre, dance, and incidental music for drama. Through private lessons, group workshops, coursework and performance of a culminating thesis project, students develop the special skills required for writing in theatrical or collaborative contexts, and apply them through practical work. This program was developed both in response to a perceived lack of formal training for composers who are interested in writing in non-concert genres, and to the availability of a large community of musical theater, opera, dance, film, and other artists working both at Catholic University and in the Washington, DC.

The MM in Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program opened in fall 2005: students in the program since then have collaborated with student playwrights and directors in the CUA Department of Drama to compose incidental music and sound design for theatrical productions, have worked with choreographers and dancers, and have been involved in musical preparation for musical theater and operatic productions at the School of Music, as well. Graduates of the program have gone on to professional positions as university faculty positions and in professional theater.  Here are sites of some representative alumni: 

Roc Lee (Helen Hayes Award Nominated Composer/Sound Designer, Washington, DC)

Kyle Gullings (Assistant Professor of Music, University of Texas-Tyler)

Joseph Kaz (Composer in Residence, Maryland Lyric Opera)

Johanny Navarro (Composer, San Juan, Puerto Rico)

Since the program's opening, Stage Music composers have heard their music performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Capital Fringe Festival, Opera North (Philadelphia), the Virginia Arts Festival, the ATLAS Performing Arts Center, and many other theaters and performing venues in the DC metro area and beyond. 

Performance and reading opportunities

Students in the MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program enjoy ample opportunities to have their theatrical works workshopped, read, and performed by School of Music and CUA students, faculty, and affiliated artists. Students' stage works have been read or performed at the Kennedy Center's annual Page to Stage Festival, the Source Theatre (part of the Capital Fringe Festival), ATLAS Center for the Performing Arts, Joy of Motion Dance Center, the Arts Club of Washington, as well as at CUA's Hartke and Callan Theatres and Ward Recital Hall.

In June 2014, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves appeared as a special guest in a performance of 2009 alumnus Steven M. Allen's opera "The Poet," based on the life of American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  PBS shot footage of the opera in fall 2015 as part of an upcoming documentary about Dunbar.  Allen's work has continued to receive performances, including an October 2017 performance of "The Poet" by Chicago's South Shore Opera.  Stage Music graduates regularly have works produced at the annual Capital Fringe Festival, and most students' thesis projects-in-progress or their completed thesis pieces have been performed at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage Festival, held every Labor Day weekend, which remains an important venue for CUA composers.  2016 graduate Joseph Kaz' thesis opera-in-progress Alice Flagg was first presented at the Page to Stage Festival in September 2015 after which the completed work received a production in South Carolina and at CUA.  He is currently Composer in Residence for Maryland Lyric Opera, at work on a new opera for premiere by the company in the 2018-19 season.

The School of Music's thriving Opera and Musical Theater divisions are able to support the creation and performance of student composers' works, and are interested in pursuing collaborative projects with composers in the program. The CUA Department of Drama enjoys a close relationship with the School of Music, and student composers have been composing incidental music/sound design for Drama Department productions on a regular basis, as well as collaborating independently with MFA Directing and Acting students on original projects both on and off campus.

Beginning in spring 2007, MM Stage Music and other composition students paired up with colleagues in music and drama to present the first 24-hour new musical festival, in which teams conceived, wrote, and presented new musicals, created and performed in a 24-hour time span. The 24-hour musicals have become an annual tradition, with a number of these collaborations later developing into longer pieces. Additionally, student composers have been actively engaged in composing new music for CUA Department of Drama productions: November 2006 witnessed the premiere of MM Stage Music composer Gregg Martin's music for Aristophanes' Lysistrata (directed by MFA Directing student Matt Ripa), and Martin's electronic score for Tempest4, an MFA Directing project (buy MFA Directing student Carrie Klewin), based on Shakespeare's Tempest, premiered in April 2007. Kyle Gullings' score and sound design for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was featured on the Hartke Theater mainstage in April 2007, another CUA Department of Drama production. Scores by John Maggi and Kyle Gullings were also featured in productions at CUA's Callan Theater of Richard III and Doctor Faustus, respectively, in spring 2008, and a new theatrical work on the epic of Gilgamesh, directed by CUA MFA Directing student Ryan Whinnem, premiered as part of the Capital Fringe Festival in July 2008.

Special collaborative projects

Students in the MM Stage Music program are also able to participate in special collaborative events sponsored by the School of Music. One such project, presented at the spring 2009 CUA President's Festival of the Arts, combined music, dance, and silent film: Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance, and Film Create a Ruckus. For the 2008 President's Festival, Stage Music students partnered with CUA Drama students to present new miniature operas and plays of Thornton Wilder: Playing, Singing, Talking Wilder.

Watch selected thesis productions

2009    John Diomede, Esther (opera)
2009    Michael Oberhauser, Magnum Opus (opera)
2008    Gregg Martin, Life in Death (opera)
2007    Kyle Gullings, The Eden Diaries (opera)


Students in the MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program create a culminating thesis work of at least 30 minutes, which is to be performed in its theatrical context (i.e., staged).  Composers not only write the music for their thesis projects, they gain an invaluable wealth of practical experience by overseeing the production of their project.  They often are the lyricists and librettists, producers, fund-raisers, music directors, rehearsal pianists, publicists, and media representatives.  They receive support and advice from faculty and staff, but the projects are the students' own responsibilities.  In general, the production of the thesis is the most valuable single experience available to students in the MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program.  And, it is a truly unique experience: no other graduate program offers composers this golden opportunity to have their work performed in a theatrical context.  A list of thesis projects completed since 2007 demonstrates the variety of work already produced by our student composers.  The MM Stage Music program has graduated 12 composers in the 10 years since its first graduate in 2007. 

Rehearsing student composer Kyle Gullings' thesis opera, The Eden Diaries (2007), at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage as part of its annual Page to Stage Festival.  

Stage Music Practicum and Topics in Stage Music

Stage Music Practicum (MUS 617, 3 cr.) is designed specifically for students in the MM Stage Music program. Students in this course collaborate with colleagues in each of the program's four core genres (opera, musical theater, dance, and drama) to create and present new work. Each course unit concludes with a special presentation session at which the collaborators present their work for the course instructor and a small panel of affiliated professional faculty and artists, who give commentary, feedback, and suggestions. Typically, these performance sessions are recorded for the benefit of the participants.

Here are two examples of performance sessions from past versions of Stage Music Practicum (streaming video):

Fall 2008 Music Theater Unit performance session
Fall 2006 Drama Unit performance session

Topics in Stage Music (MUS 555, 3 cr. in 1-cr. sections) is an innovative course model which consists of three 5-week "mini-courses" which focus on specialized topics which are too large for a single lecture but too small for an entire semester.  Each section is 1 credit, and students may register for 1, 2, or 3 credits.  Topics offered in past years have included Text-Setting for Composers, Scoring for Pit Band (most recently offered spring 2015), Opera Production for Composers, and Composing for Dance (most recently offered fall 2015). 

Other coursework opportunities allow for student works to be workshopped and read. In spring 2007, for example, student composers had theatrical works workshopped by students in the Musical Theater Workshop course, taught by Mr. Tom Pedersen and Ms. Jane Pesci-Townsend (Musical Theater faculty).  In spring 2008, CUA's Opera Workshop, directed by Dr. Elaine Walter, presented scenes from MM Stage Music student John Diomede's thesis opera, Esther and Michael Oberhauser's opera, Magnum Opus. 

Optional externship program

Available for second-year students, this externships program allows student composers the chance to work with an external professional artistic company or with an individual professional artist, sometimes composing music for a production. This externship program (the first externship session took place at Joy of Motion Dancer Center during summer session 2007) provides valuable experience to students as well as secure important introductions to the vibrant Washington, DC arts scene. Because the forging of connections and networks is so crucial to sustaining a professional artistic career, the contacts which this externship provide may prove vitally important to establishing a composer's career.
First and foremost, however, the MM Stage Music program is a professional music composition program with a theatrical/collaborative focus. Unlike the MFA degree (not offered by the School of Music), the MM in Composition, Stage Music Emphasis is a professional music degree which combines academic and performance-based coursework, allowing the student to pursue either a career involving collaborative music or to progress to doctoral study in music. As a result, a high priority is placed upon the continuing development of traditional compositional skills and knowledge of music theory and history through coursework and private composition study. It is our belief that composers must develop their technique and knowledge as deeply as possible to be best prepared for any artistic endeavor. This program combines a depth of training and academic rigor with extensive practical experience. To enlarge the scope of the program, MM in Stage Music Composition students also pursue coursework in one subsidiary area of interest: theater, dance, film, or media studies.  

Master of Music in Composition, Stage Music Emphasis Curriculum

note: the MM Composition Stage Music program falls under the direction of its founder, Dr. Andrew Simpson. All prospective applicants should be in direct contact with Dr. Simpson via email ( 

Total: 34 credit hours

Comprehensive Examinations

Required for all MM students entering as of fall 2010 is the successful completion of comprehensive examinations (COMP 598-01 w/classes; COMP 599-02 w/o classes) in the areas of theory and analysis, and repertoire and compositional practice post-1900.  The student may schedule the comprehensive examinations following the adviser's written approval.

Thesis production (MUS 940, 0 cr.)

A public performance/production featuring the student's original music, in context, in one or more of the following genres:
a.) opera (workshop);
b.) musical theatre (workshop);
c.) incidental music for a dramatic production;
d.) music for dance (ballet, modern, jazz, folk);
e.) performance art.
A minimum of thirty (30) minutes of fully-composed music is required (improvised music is not included in this total).  More than one work may be necessary in order for this minimum time to be achieved.
The graduation thesis project is subject to the approval of the Composition committee, based upon the submission of the complete musical score (or, in the case of non-notated, electronic music, the complete edited recorded version of the music) at least 30 calendar days prior to the performance date.  The Composition committee must approve the graduation thesis project in order for the student to fulfill this requirement.
As far as possible, the School of Music will assist the student in assembling the requisite personnel and facilities for the graduation thesis project performance.  However, it is ultimately the student's responsibility to assemble and present the performance.