Daron Hagen: The Human Element
For Daron Hagen, working on an opera is so immersive that his life can be fairly neatly divided into chapters corresponding to each of the operas he has written. Nowadays, even though he is principally concerned with being a father, opera continues to inspire him, in part because he sees parallels between writing opera and parenting.
November 17, 2014—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Although his catalog includes symphonies, more than a dozen concertos (including one for the Japanese koto), works for solo keyboard, wind band, and string orchestra, plus over 30 chamber music compositions (among them four formidable piano trios and a particularly noteworthy brass quintet), Daron Hagen finds his greatest fulfillment as a composer when he is working on an opera. He loves telling stories and opera’s inherently collaborative nature, but at its core he loves the human element of singers, the fact that their musical instruments are contained within them.
“If you have a cold you can’t sing,” Hagen explained when we spoke to him at his home in Rhinebeck, New York. “Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.”
Even though he had been composing many different types of pieces from the very beginning of his career (innate abilities as an orchestrator fetched him arranging gigs since he was in high school), the human voice has always inspired him the most. His older brother introducing him to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is what made him want to be a composer. (“For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.”) And one of his earliest heroes was Leonard Bernstein who, though a triple-threat pianist-composer-conductor who also worked in a wide variety of genres, was most widely known for his musical theater works. In fact, sending a letter to Bernstein containing a recording of Hagen’s first orchestral score is what actually opened the first doors for him. Bernstein actually responded, recommending that Hagen study at Juilliard with David Diamond (which he did following studies with Ned Rorem at Curtis). Eventually Hagen had an opportunity to work directly with Bernstein during the final stages of composing his first opera, Shining Brow, which is based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.
But before he had begun work on that opera, Hagen had already composed a ton of art songs. (To date there are over 200.) He’s quick to point out, however, that “opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera.” Yet it’s difficult not to interpret Hagen’s art songs as stepping stones toward his writing operas, especially since a song cycle he wrote based on poetry of Paul Muldoon led directly to his collaborating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet on that first opera as well as three others: Bandanna, which is about corrupt border patrol officers; Vera of Las Vegas, in which an IRA hit man on the lam becomes involved with a cross-dressing lap dancer; and The Antient Concert, in which James Joyce and the celebrated Irish tenor John McCormack face off in a singing competition. Since then, he has created three additional full-length operas: Amelia, which has a highly complex narrative centering around the real life story of the daughter of a Vietnam POW; Little Nemo in Slumberland, based on Winsor McCay’s classic children’s comic strip; and A Woman in Morocco, another extremely complicated saga about culture clash, adultery, murder, and human trafficking.
For Hagen, the process of creating an opera is such an immersive experience that his life can be fairly neatly divided into chapters that correspond to the operas he has completed thus far.
I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece, but there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. … You spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned.
As far as humility goes, Hagen claims he is no longer interested in advancing his career as a composer and is only willing to take on projects he deeply believes in. Now a husband (his wife is singer/composer Gilda Lyons) and the father of two young sons, for him family has become central. And yet opera still inspires him, in part because he sees parallels between writing opera and parenting.
Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me; it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. … When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough.
Frank J. Oteri: When we talked to Joan Tower for NewMusicBox nine years ago, she said that she believed there were two different kinds of composers: vocal music composers and instrumental music composers. She said that she was an instrumental music composer and could never imagine writing an opera even though at the time she had just completed her very first choral piece and it’s very nice. You’ve written both vocal and instrumental pieces that I’ve been very moved by, but then recently I read in one of the columns you wrote for The Huffington Post that opera was your favorite wheelhouse to play around in. So do you think there’s something to this dichotomy? Do you operate with a different mindset when you write for voice as opposed to when you don’t?
Daron Aric Hagen: No, it’s all the same for me. People write what they’re paid to, if they’re professional composers. I think over the years you develop a track record for one thing and you become known for it. And more people ask you to write for it. So then, perforce, you’re known as an opera composer because those are the things that got recorded or performed most frequently. But I knew from the beginning. The first piece that I had published by E.C. Schirmer was an organ piece, back in the early 1980s, but I remember Robert Schuneman, the man who owned the publishing house, said, “What do you want to be known as?” I didn’t really think it through, but I think I was right—I asked him to publish two song cycles, and that set the tone. I’ve written a lot of instrumental music, but the problems of a singer singing are so human in their intensity that I gravitate toward that. I used to live with a violinist, and I love instrumental players, but if you have a cold, you can still play the violin. If you have a cold, you can’t sing. Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.
FJO: So what does wheelhouse mean for you?
DAH: I believe in gesamtkunstwerk—the total artistic statement—so I just love writing operas. I love being in the theater. I love the process of figuring out dramaturgy. I love the technical problems involved. I also love the human element, but mainly I think you have to wake up in the morning and just ask, “What can make me do all of that work?” And as I get older, it’s harder and harder for me simply to begin a piece that I’m not interested in. I’m the most interested in opera.
FJO: You said that a professional composer can write whatever he or she’s been asked to write, and you started out with an organ piece, and then introduced the vocal pieces. But even when you’re not writing a piece with a text, most of your pieces have a narrative attached to them somehow. Your third piano trio is about your brother. The double concerto you wrote for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson is based on characters in the commedia dell’arte. Even your two early wind band pieces have elaborate back stories to them that kind of drove your process in writing them. So it seems that whatever kind of piece you ultimately write, you always want to tell a story.
DAH: I’m a narrative sort of guy. I am always very happy to have process movements within a larger piece. What I mean by process movements, at least what I think I mean by them—something that is involved simply with working out some cellular ideas. If you talk to somebody like Michael Torke, he would say that narratives aren’t necessarily true anyway. You can say anything about anything. Ned Rorem has that famous quip, “If it was called La Strada instead of La Mer, would we still hear the ocean?” So, since music is abstract, I think that the application of a narrative is my business. Whatever makes the notes come out is good.
FJO: So you don’t care if other people know the story.
DAH: Not really.
FJO: But when you write an opera, they get to know the story.
DAH: Then it’s all about the story and knowing what the story’s really about.
FJO: But you also regularly engage in abstract musical processes, even in the operas. I’m thinking about how in Shining Brow the materials that different characters sing have a specific intervallic relationship to each other. Two pairs of characters are a tritone apart and the four keys of the four characters spell out a full diminished seventh. Most people in an audience listening to this music as they watch the action unfold are probably not going hear that.
DAH: But they’ll intuit it. That’s the wonderful thing. When an audience intuits modulation, that’s one of the reasons I love tonal music so much. If Joe lives in the key of B-flat and he seduces Mary, and she lives in the key of E-major, won’t she move into his key? Or does he move into her key to get her to move into his key, or do they remain bi-tonal, and therefore somehow illicit. An audience doesn’t have to understand what’s going on to intuit that we’re moving. That’s why Strauss is so wonderful.
FJO: There’s a story about how you got turned on to wanting to be a composer after your brother gave you a score and a recording of one of the Benjamin Britten operas.
DAH: Billy Budd. It had everything—naval battles, good and evil, men singing and sounding virile, and profound tenderness. It also had great literature; it had Melville. For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.
FJO: But your exposure to it couldn’t have been a complete tabula rasa. You grew up in a household where you were undoubtedly exposed to a lot of music. It wasn’t like suddenly there was this opera and you had never heard opera before.
DAH: I heard all those things, but my brother Kevin was involved in drama and in opera. He went to college to be an opera singer, and he made me mix tapes of Blitzstein, Copland, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. The first four or five years that I listened to music, he fed me everything other than what I heard on Wisconsin commercial classical radio—which is now a contradiction in terms, I suppose. It was him teaching me things by turning me on. And I miss him very much because he still has a lot to teach me.
FJO: What’s amazing about the impact that hearing this music had on you is that it led you to start writing music on your own, just kind of doing your own thing based on stuff that you heard. Then you wrote an orchestra piece, conducted the premiere of it, recorded it, and somehow Leonard Bernstein wound up hearing that recording.
DAH: I had fallen in love with music. I was manic. I was already orchestrating—pirate orchestrations of musicals for different high schools—and I had already gotten some gigs from the Milwaukee Symphony to arrange Bacharach tunes for the pops and stuff like that. But I was not going to my classes anymore. I was a sophomore in high school. I was not interested in anything else. My mom wasn’t worried about it; she knew as long as I had a passion I was going to be okay. But she didn’t know what to do with me. So I wrote a piece for the youth orchestra in Milwaukee and conducted it. And she said, “Where would we send this? Where are you going to college?” And I said, “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know if I’ve got what it takes to be a composer. I just love to do this.” I had just read a book that talked about how Helen Coates had been Bernstein’s first piano teacher and became his personal assistant and protector. So I said, “Why don’t we send a score and a cassette to Helen Coates and ask her to give it to Mr. Bernstein?” The way that you do when you don’t know anything about anything, and you’re from Wisconsin. I don’t know what I thought I was doing. But my mother must have written a heck of a letter because he got it, and he wrote us back. He said your son should go and study with David Diamond at Juilliard, and ultimately I did.
So I was very lucky. I didn’t get into Juilliard right away. First I got into Curtis and studied with Ned Rorem. I remember stepping into the lobby in September of I guess 1982 and I started shaking because it was like being in Triple-A ball and walking into a major league ballpark. I suddenly realized that if I could hit the ball out of the park here, I might actually get to do this for the rest of my life. I thought maybe I could be an arranger or an orchestrator for real composers. There was a big disconnect, and I think there is for a lot of young people. Leonard Bernstein was this little four-inch tall person on TV out there doing that stuff. Maybe not for you, growing up in New York City, but for me, that was a different universe. And it wasn’t until I got to Philadelphia that I felt as though I was even there.
FJO: I could be wrong, but it seems like Ned Rorem had a more profound influence on you ultimately than David Diamond did. Well, David Diamond is a hard person to think of as being a mentor to anybody.
DAH: I’ve known Ned a long, long time, and he’s a good friend. And I’m very, very grateful for everything that I learned by listening to him on the telephone talking business during the three years that I studied with him and during the five years after that when I was his copyist. I don’t know if I was particularly influenced by Ned. Frankly, the music that I wrote after I studied with Ned is pretty much exactly the same as the music I wrote before; it’s just more polished and more professional. Studying with David was more of an education in how to survive a difficult and abusive intellect and aesthetic. He was brilliant, and he made me write fugues and get my craft. He believed that craft would set you free, and that if you were unable to acquire sufficient craft, you shouldn’t get to play. I remember when I left Ned’s studio, he said, “Why go to Juilliard? You’re ready; just start.” That was 35 years ago, but I still think about my teachers all the time. I owe Ned Rorem a debt that I’ll never be able to repay properly because I was in Wisconsin and he took me as a student at Curtis and changed my life. If he had done absolutely nothing else, I would always owe him for that.
FJO: But certainly your sensitivity to singers and to text is indebted to him.
DAH: I was doing that before I met Ned. I’ve got probably 20 or 30 songs that I wrote before entering Ned’s studio that are published, and they’re sort of indistinguishable from the ones that I wrote after I worked with him. He had some rules like don’t repeat words, and don’t do this and that and the other thing. While I was studying with him, I didn’t do those things because I don’t want to fight with him. But I was setting Joyce and Proust and Yeats, and a lot of other people, and I’d already written a couple of musicals before I got to Curtis. I’d written a lot of art songs already. I had also accompanied a lot of songs, even in early high school. And I myself had been a singer, so I knew the issues. My mom was a writer, so I loved poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry, the way you do when you’re 15-years old. So, I was already there, and meeting Ned was sort of like meeting exactly the right guy at the right time for my proclivities.
FJO: So it was validation.
DAH: I think so. Absolutely. No one was more surprised than me. It was really great studying with Ned, coming from Philadelphia to New York on the train and seeing this famous man who knew Cocteau and who wrote those diaries where he said all those smart and naughty things about everyone, to have to stand up to that and prevail, to run toward the knife of a strong personality and survive, and keep my own independence and identity intact. That was, I think, the best training that a young composer like me could have had.
FJO: Better training than writing fugues?
DAH: Yes. David had so many issues with me that were not musical. I’m not sure how much I got from David except a lot of technique and the ability to work in large-scale forms.
FJO: In terms of the music you were writing at that point, the earliest works of yours that you include on your website only go back to 1981. You mentioned early songs of yours that were published later on. But you were obviously writing a lot of other stuff, too, during those years, and the thing that actually got you paid attention to in the first place—by no less a person than Leonard Bernstein—was that orchestra piece. He obviously liked the piece, but you apparently no longer do.
DAH: Well, it sounded a lot like the dance episodes from On the Town. So it’s easy to think that he probably would have said, “There’s a young composer worth his salt!” But it was derivative—not intentionally, but because I loved those.
FJO: I was listening to a bunch of your early songs; that was the earliest stuff I could find and I always like to begin listening as close to the beginning as I can. It didn’t give me a clear picture of the early you though because most of them exist as part of song cycles that you assembled many years later, which somehow re-contextualize them and give them a different narrative arc.
DAH: I believe that if you finish a piece of music, it’s out there. I have a lot of songs written when I was in my late teens and early 20s that are performed far more frequently than things I’ve written recently. That’s just how the chips fall. I did grow up in public as a composer. I’ve got a lot of pieces out there that I wouldn’t write today. I just felt that if I was going to be a composer, I should give them to people and have them played.
I don’t say, “Gosh, I’d never do that again.” I accept that that’s who I was when I wrote it, but that’s very hard to market when you deal with publishers. If your style shifts—and I am quite eclectic within my narrow range of expressive motion—they say, “Well, I don’t know who this fella is. He must have been influenced by other people.” But that’s just because if they’re learning my music, or you said you spent some time with my music, you might hear something from 1981 that sounds a lot like Barber, and then something from 2012 that sounds like—oh, I don’t know, how about Die tote Stadt—something by Korngold, and you’ll wonder, “Who the heck is this guy?” Well, it’s music. Nobody’s going to get hurt, if you’ve got a healthy mind. What I’m interested in is moving people. I want to have the conversation. I want the music to come out. I want it to happen. I want to have something happen in the listener’s heart and in their head.
I’m not interested in styles or any of that stuff. Music is music. It’s not brain surgery. It’s an art. The only thing as I get older that I still get sort of exercised about is: leave people alone about the kind of music that they write. Just admire them for having the courage to put it out there and to take the reaction of the world, which is often brutal and uncaring. Nobody really wants to hear what we have to say. Why are we doing it if we’re not narcissistic, crazy people? Well, I do it because I crave the interaction with the audience. Who cares if it sounds a little bit like Korngold for a little while? That’s the way that character who’s singing it or those words, or that emotion, or that moment needed to be expressed. That’s why I loved Lukas Foss. Because Lukas was music. Lukas wasn’t interested in narrowly packaging himself as “this.” He was interested in taking music and having an interaction.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you repeat back the characterization that Ned Rorem once said about you. He said that you are music.
DAH: That’s all I ever wanted to be. And now, I’m 53 years old, and I have two very young sons, three and six years old, so I am a father. I am music in a reflexive way—like breathing. We don’t have a choice about whether or not we’re going to breathe, the alternative is unacceptable. I don’t have a choice about whether I am a composer or not. It’s just what I am. Writing music is like breathing. What I choose to be as a father—the human interaction that I have with my children—is more difficult, more challenging, and more fulfilling than writing music. However, I’m a composer and I can’t not breathe. You know what I mean?
DAH: I wish that I had made it as an artistic decision, but the only changes happened because I didn’t get the rights to an Anne Sexton song. So they couldn’t release it, and I stuck in its place Walt Whitman, who’s always safe, because he’s public domain. I’m sorry to be boring about that. But I do get your more interesting question, and the answer is yes, you can create a psychological narrative. You can make the poems talk to each other, though they are by vastly different poets living at different times, and that absolutely, positively really turned me on. And it always has. Song is so much more sophisticated than most people think it is. The way you set something, if you really have all the technique to do whatever you want, means everything. Those kinds of decisions are the subtle, incredibly powerful tools of a good art song composer. I’ve seen a lot of people who think art songs are sort of like complicated Stephen Sondheim songs, or are long, elevated, story songs. Those aren’t art songs. One of the reasons Ned is such a terrific song composer is because Ned gets the psychology. He goes in there and he sets the essence of it as he sees it. Even when Ned is dead wrong, he has something trenchant to say. Ned doesn’t need another person saying nice things about him. But I get that and I love that.
FJO: But it seems in your compositional trajectory that creating the narrative arcs in these song cycles led directly to you writing your first opera. I don’t know the back story, so I’m kind of fishing for it here. But I do know that after several of these early song cycles featuring different poets that you stitched together, you did an entire song cycle of poems by Paul Muldoon. He then became a very significant collaborator of yours for many years.
DAH: Well, I met Paul at the MacDowell Colony, and he was obviously destined to be a superstar literary figure. Even when he was young the way we were then—this was back in the early 1980s—I remember being so impressed that he had a collection of poems out from Faber; he was in his 20s or something like that. I read through them, and I heard music immediately. So I set two or three of them, and we did a joint presentation at MacDowell. But I didn’t think about him anymore and went on with my life. Then I ran into him the next summer at MacDowell, and I got a phone call asking me to write an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, and without even thinking—again, it’s a reflexive thing—I just leaned out of the phone booth and said, “Paul, do you want to write an opera?” And he didn’t think; he just said yes.
I still think Shining Brow is the best thing that we did together. It was our first opera. I’m profoundly grateful to this day that he dedicated the libretto to me. We wrote three other operas after that. One called Bandanna, another one was called Vera of Las Vegas, and the final one called The Antient Concert. It was a terrific collaboration. Paul is probably the smartest human being I’ve ever met besides Bernstein. The most extravagantly gifted writer in the English language that I’ve known. Working with him was inspiring at every single moment.
FJO: Before we talk further about Paul, I just realized that we haven’t yet talked about you actually finally meeting Bernstein.
DAH: I avoided him. While I was at Curtis, I met him once. Then David Diamond kept telling me during my lessons that he was telling Bernstein all about me. But then I found out when I finally went to the Dakota to meet him—through Craig Urquhart, who was his amanuensis at the time—and to have what was essentially my first lesson with him, he said David hadn’t told him anything about me. So I had tabula rasa. He remembered me, with that great generosity of spirit he had. I was able to bring in a lot of the second act of Shining Brow to play and sing for him and to work with him on it. He was a big hero of mine as a kid. In my 20s and early 30s, anybody who inspired me and intimidated me, I wanted to meet and work with if I could, to overcome my intimidation and learn what I could and then move on. He was sort of my Mount Everest of intimidation. Quite rightly so; he was an extraordinary man.
FJO: Sadly he died before the production of Shining Brow, but I know that you dedicated the score to him.
DAH: I did. The complexity of that kind of man is what I think appeals to me about opera. Opera can be that complex. Opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera. You can write an opera and have a 20% understanding of what constitutes opera. But the more I learn about opera, the more I understand that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on there when you’re dealing with somebody who’s a real opera composer. That to me is the thing that keeps me coming back to the table for opera. A character in an opera can be singing about how much he loves the soprano, but he can in fact be in love with the tenor and be in denial. He can be lying to himself, and the orchestra can be telling the truth. And the soprano can be singing a duet with the tenor about how they both hate him. That’s life. That’s true to life. I love that.
FJO: The episodes in Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life which inspired Shining Brow are certainly filled with these kinds of complex relationships and intrigues.
DAH: But you have to make it sound simple. If people underestimate you in the theater, it’s because you have put them so at ease with your language that they’ve been made vulnerable, not to manipulation, but to the message and to the story. That’s the sweet spot for somebody who has truly subsumed their own creative ego and personal ego to the story and to the communion of making great dramatic music theater.
FJO: So how does this play out in the music you wrote for Shining Brow?
DAH: Well, Shining Brow is about lying versus the truth. What is the truth? It’s also about borrowing versus stealing. It’s about what price you’re willing to pay for your own personal actuation. That’s why we chose that point in Wright’s life. That’s on a superficial narrative level. How do you find musical equivalents to that? If I take a theme of Richard Strauss and I make variations on that theme to underpin a cocktail party where Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife is standing here and he is seducing another woman in the room, what is my music saying about that relationship? If I make it like a huge mechanical clock, where all of the other people at the party are basically cogs in his great machine, what am I saying about society in 1913? For me to have the audacity to take Richard Strauss, not in a post-modern fashion, but to have an onstage piano trio playing variations on the love theme from Rosenkavalier, which he took his mistress to see and met Strauss at, all of those dialectics are at play for an intelligent auditor. If you can do all of that, and make it sound like—oh well, he’s just this kid being eclectic—then again, it’s the sweet spot.
That’s the secret of a show like Shining Brow. A bunch of drunken newspaper reporters sing a barbershop quartet and the music sounds vulgar and crude; what makes you think as a listener that I didn’t mean every fine gradation of that crudeness, not just to be a characterization of those men, but to take you to a place where you as an audience member felt my hand and judged me as an author? Then I become Frank Lloyd Wright, and you’re judging me. It’s not games. Those aren’t games. That’s the journey. That’s the communion. That’s going to church and seeing the priest lift the host up and thinking about what must be going through the priest’s mind while he’s doing it. That is a comprehensive, theatrical experience, and providing the music for that creates the context.
FJO: It sounds to me that your ideal listener is somebody who really is paying attention.
DAH: Absolutely. But as a Norwegian Lutheran, I was brought up to not point to myself. If your head was up four or five inches above anybody else’s in the room, it got batted down. Any sort of intellectual pretention was treated with derision. The upshot of that is that my music is crafted so that you don’t have to know anything and you’ll have a nice time in the theater. My ideal audience member knows everything, of course. But I want everyone to have an aesthetic experience. So you have to have a sliding scale. That’s why my hero is Richard Strauss. You can go hear a Strauss opera and not get anything and still have a lovely aesthetic experience. But the more you know, the better it gets.
FJO: In terms of what people know, Frank Lloyd Wright is an American icon, but most people don’t know his personal story. He doesn’t come off so well in your opera; he’s kind of a bad guy.
DAH: Well, so many iconic people are bad people. It’s one of the things we learn as we grow older, right? Bad people make great art, etc. But I don’t necessarily think he comes across as such a bad guy. I think he comes across as a profoundly narcissistic, talented, self-centered fellow, who really gets it on the chin when his house is burned down and his mistress and her children are killed. I think we chose the one point in his life where he had the maximum opportunity for rebirth. At the end of the opera, he really became the Frank Lloyd Wright that we remember and revere, though he had done great things up to that point. To me, it’s the “Springtime for Hitler” syndrome. Everyone is humanized when they sing. So you have a great deal of responsibility when you set somebody to music because you make them worthy of others’ compassion.
FJO: That’s certainly true for the characters in your next opera, Bandanna. Hearing them sing elicits empathy and sympathy for them even though they are really corrupt border patrol people who are basically determining who gets to come in to this country, who gets to have a better life, who doesn’t. They play awful Iago-esque manipulative games with each other. There are no uniformly good characters in Bandanna.
DAH: Mona’s alright. She’s a good person.
FJO: I’m not so sure. Her husband wrongly thinks she’s been unfaithful to him, but there was a reason he believes that; she most likely had cheated on him previously.
DAH: Her possibly having been unfaithful, yes. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I had just gone through a terrible ten-year marriage when I wrote Bandanna, and I specifically wanted to talk about evil and the different kinds of evil. I asked Paul to—well, we co-wrote the treatment. Anyway, there’s Jake who does bad things with the best intentions. And then there’s a super bad guy, Kane, who just does bad things because he can. Evil has been bifurcated and turned into two bad guys—two different kinds of evil. The characters were not ever meant really to be believable. We were to see as an audience these people over there doing this thing, going through a ritual of self-abnegation and basically a huge Day of the Dead mass where, like chess pieces, they were moved to their demise.
The music for that show was all about moving up and down a sliding scale from music theater to opera and from atonality, polytonality, strict tonality, serialism, and octatonics. All of these things were going up and down. It was a huge intellectual edifice constructed on anger, betrayal, and evil. It was sort of like dumping cement on the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. When you experience that opera—which is an angry, dark opera, and I get that—you come out hopefully with some sort of catharsis, having gone to a very sad neighborhood. But what that catharsis is, I don’t know. It’s a strange, hard piece that way. The music also uses the most accessible music I’ve ever written for a show, because it also was about falling between two places. It was about living on the border. There’s lots of stuff about the middle zone in the show, but it was also about the difference between opera and American music theater, which is the great conversation of our generation, the previous generation of American composers who write so-called traditional music theater works for the American theater.
I’m not talking about the avant-garde or something strictly commercial like Jersey Boys. I’m talking about the area that something like Candide functions in. Bandanna owes its most trenchant debt to a show like Candide which is about the difference between musicals and opera, and falls in the middle. So anybody who loves great operas is going to dislike Bandanna because it’s got such musical comedy stuff in it. And anybody who loves musical comedy is going to find it hopelessly pretentious half the time. What it does succeed in doing is forcefully posing the argument about pushing these two heads together the way that the characters are pushed together. It’s also a baritone-fest. It’s a testosterone fest. All the men are singing at the top of their ranges all the time.
FJO: It’s also a wind band fest.
DAH: It is!
FJO: It was even commissioned by CBDNA [the College Band Directors National Association]; it’s actually really unusual for them to have commissioned an opera.
DAH: It was the brainchild of a man named Michael Haithcock, who is at University of Michigan now, and Frederick Fennell—the great Freddy Fennell, who was a genius. I presented the score of the opera to him with great pride at some conference and I said, “Do you have any advice?” And he said, “This show is going to be a great failure because there are three kinds of band conductors. There are the high school guys who are going to hate it, because they don’t understand it. There are the maestros who are going to love it, but they don’t know much about opera. And then there are the fellows who are the great commissioners, who commission a lot of new music, and God bless them, but they’re not going to know what to do with it because they can’t get into the pit.”
I accepted the commission knowing that there were four or five commissioners who came in at the level that entitled them to stage the show. But none of them did. They said that it was because it was too high or too hard for college singers. I knew more about writing for voices than they did. I’ve worked with a lot of college singers. It’s certainly doable. There were also a lot of problems with the commissioners not being comfortable with the subject matter, with the fact that I used an onstage mariachi band that had three violins in it, and at the 10:30 spot in the book, when the Willow Aria happened, I used violins. They felt that was a betrayal of the spirit of the commission, which I thought was unfair because the metaphor was that winds breathe. Mona was already dead and strings don’t have to breathe to sound. It was a great theatrical coup to have sustained strings during that aria. But a lot of people were very angry with me.
FJO: But it did get staged and eventually got recorded as well, in Las Vegas.
DAH: UT Austin was where it was premiered.
FJO: In both of these places, immigration is a sensitive and divisive topic. Actually to this day it’s a hot-button issue all over the country. So, in terms of the subject matter, you hit a nerve.
DAH: Well, I don’t know. I think we’ll leave it at this. The running time of the opera is about 126 minutes. Opening night ran I think about 215 to 220 minutes. There were players missing from the orchestra. There were a lot of issues. It was not the ideal premiere one would have wanted. But Tom Leslie at UNLV [University of Nevada Las Vegas] loved the score, so he rehearsed the band at UNLV and I came and I conducted the cast album a year later in Vegas. And the show came in with the timings and with the speeds that I wanted. But still there was a fundamental disconnect. Band guys don’t really understand that when you say 126 to the quarter in a vocal score for an opera, some singers are going to do it at 120. Some are going to do it at 132. When you get into the pit, it’s going to slow down because the musicians are six feet below the stage. Or you have to slow it down because the stage director needs more time to get the guy across the stage. These are all issues that are alien to band directors. So this was a real crisis of confidence. Once I conducted the cast recording, I said that’s it. I’m happy that the document is now as I insisted that it be. And I walked away from it. There was a ten-year prohibition from re-orchestrating it for orchestra, then that expired. I was going to re-orchestrate it, but then I got into other things. Someday I’ll re-orchestrate it and maybe cut 10, 15 minutes out of the show. Maybe there are some cringe-worthy moments where the language is just too unbelievable for the characters to say, which I might ask Paul to revisit if we go back into the show. But nobody questioned the efficacy of the orchestrations, which were really cutting-edge, commercial wind band orchestrations. Everyone was happy with that.
FJO: There are very few other operas and musicals that are orchestrated just for winds. There’s Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Ralph Burns’s original Broadway orchestrations for Richard Rodgers’s No Strings also actually had no strings, and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. I can’t think of any others, but it’s actually a great idea. It’s disappointing to hear about the lack of connection between band directors and singers since any university with an opera department probably also has a wind band, since every school has a wind band, and they would probably rehearse way more than any orchestra ever would. It ought to have been a match made in heaven.
DAH: Well, one would think so. I suspect, though I made be attitudinizing and it’s not my place to say, most of the opera departments didn’t want to have the band director in the pit because they felt that the band directors didn’t know how to work with voices. Or they were told that it was too hard. You know, it is hard. Opera is huge. I don’t know, maybe Bandanna just wasn’t good enough.
FJO: Well, your next collaboration with Paul was certainly more practical, but it too presses a lot of buttons.
FJO: Getting back to what you said earlier about making characters worthy of others’ compassion when you set them to music, there’s been this whole brouhaha about the recent production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Some people claimed that it empathizes with terrorists for precisely this reason, because we get to hear them sing their side of the story. As all those debates were raging, I kept thinking that there are plenty of other operas in which extremely unsavory characters sing, even terrorists, including two of the central characters in Vera.
DAH: They are both IRA irregulars, aren’t they? Well, Vera of Las Vegas is a very personal show. The eponymous character is an African American cross dresser, a female impersonator. It’s about personal reinvention and the price that one pays for not coming to terms with one’s past. It is a very subversive piece. It’s about using pop conventions to disarm the listener so that they are forced to think about something that they don’t want to think about. The New York premiere of the show was done in a cabaret setting. I think my favorite memory from opening night was seeing Ned Rorem at one of the cocktail tables right at the edge of the pit and at the edge of the cat walk, with Gary Graffman, the pianist who was then director of the Curtis Institute, his wife Noami Graffman, and Leonard Garment, the father of the clarinet player in the orchestra—Paul Garment. Leonard was Richard Nixon’s personal attorney and was on the board of Yaddo and the Jazz Museum of Harlem. They all were sitting at one table. My wife had to step in at the last moment to become one of the chorus girls. The girls are all dressed in these latex short skirts with fishnets and so forth. They’re counting five against six, and they’re singing this really complicated text, and they’re supposed to be strippers at the same time. In a nutshell, that’s what Vera of Las Vegas was about: counting five against six in four-inch stiletto heels and fishnet stockings in front of Richard Nixon’s attorney, the director of the Curtis Institute, and Ned Rorem. That pretty much summed up the show for me.
My bad marriage had ended, and it was time for me to reinvent my life. And in fact, that show was about how everything had to stop. I stopped teaching after that show. I had reinvented myself. For me, it wasn’t about sexuality. It was about reinvention. Since then, Brian Asawa, the great Japanese-American countertenor, has sung it. An Irish, middle-age countertenor, Jonathan Peter Kenny, has also done the role. So Vera has become not associated so much just with the African-American experience but with all sorts of reinventive experiences. The show is done frequently. I get a lot of fan letters, very personal letters from primarily young men who are coming out, or coming to terms with evil or abuse. I’m proud of it.
FJO: There’s a quintessential line in the libretto that haunts me: “It’s struck me that men and women are basically the same.” It’s practically anthemic.
DAH: Yes, and it’s sung while the terrorist has his hand on the penis of Vera; there’s a Crying Game moment. Obviously, it’s a trope that we’re playing. Of course it’s obvious, and it is anthemic; it is what the show is about, among other things. It makes people very nervous because it is absolutely sincere in its post-modernism. Everyone always associates post-modernism with irony, right? But it’s absolutely sincere. What do you do with that? That makes people have panic attacks.
FJO: It is somewhat unsettling to see these two very macho, straight terrorist guys, and then have one of them realize that he can be open to a very different identity. It totally defies expectations.
DAH: Well, he desperately wants not to be who he is. He wants to be reinvented himself. Vera of Las Vegas was part of a trilogy we never finished. It follows a BBC play that Paul wrote, called Six Honest Serving Men, where it is set up that they probably killed another guy. And in fact, at the end of Vera, Taco confesses to this murder. It was supposed to be followed by this opera called Grand Concourse, which was to take all of the women from Vera and make them stewardesses on one of the planes heading toward the World Trade Center. Doll was going to be in first class because she became an air marshal. Vera was going to be in a nightclub in Brooklyn, Taco was going to be her manager, and Dumdum was going to be in a cab driving somewhere near the World Trade Center. The hymn “Go Down to the River to Pray” would cycle through that every five minutes as the plane got closer and closer to the towers. We never wrote that show, obviously. I couldn’t get anyone to commission it.
FJO: I find it interesting that the first two operas you wrote with Paul were both very American in terms of their subject matter, whereas with Vera in Las Vegas he was really able to address Irish themes.
DAH: I’m not sure that I really understand what Paul is talking about when it comes to the Irish experience. When it was toured in Ireland I was careful to allow myself to be schooled on what Paul was talking about. And I still don’t really understand what he was saying.
FJO: But you were still able to write a score for it.
DAH: Well, because I was talking about some different things. You know, there was plenty of room in Vera, and there’s plenty of room in setting Paul Muldoon to music to have an entire other dialectic going on. If Paul was dealing with a narrative that was about ideas, I could center on the emotions, and the psychological verifiability of the behavior of these people. I could emotionally warm them up whereas they could in fact be rather emotionally inaccessible as poetic characters.
FJO: This is probably true for The Antient Concert as well, which is also a work with Irish roots—John McCormack and James Joyce.
DAH: It was about the evening of the Feis Ceoil, the all-Ireland singing competition when James Joyce actually would have beaten John McCormack, had he not failed the sight-singing part of the competition because he didn’t read music. I was invited by Paul quite generously to teach at the Atelier when he was at Princeton. We staged it there with student singers, and it’s been done a number of times since.
It was a one-hour opera where I took six Irish folk songs that they conceivably could have sung that night. When John and Jim went up, we’d hear what was going on in their heads. When Jim would go up, he’d see Nora Barnacle and he’d see his dead mother. For me, it was an opera about the struggle for Joyce to come to terms with his selfishness at the time of his mother’s death. It was also very Straussian, you know—what’s more important, the words or the music?
I told Paul that I would set it word for word exactly as he wrote it, because I had changed all three of the previous librettos substantially when I set them to music. I’d rewritten big portions, but always clearing these changes with him and always insisting that he publish his original version with Faber. I insisted that he do that out of respect for him. Usually librettists by contract are required to publish only what appears in the vocal score. But I love Paul, and I respect him. He’s such a great poet, so I wanted it to be the way he wanted when it was in print. But with Antient Concert I decided I’m going straight. That was my score for him. I dedicated it to him. At the end of it, Joyce breaks down and he says, “mea culpa” as his mother is dying and I thought, “Well, Paul and I have done what we can do now.” The words are very complicated. We did it at The Century Club in New York and that was a wonderful dream audience because they’re all really well-read people. But my favorite productions are in Irish bars, because you find people who are really well read, but they’re all drinking, and there’s a sort of an alcoholic truth that emerges if you’re a little stoned when you see that particular show. I like that it captures part of what I wanted to do with it. And I thought, “Well, an audience is going to have to come to terms with the highly allusive, complicated lyrics of Paul Muldoon.” Of course, Paul went on to make a rock band and write lyrics that do nods to Cole Porter, another great lyricist. But at that time, he was more interested in writing poetry that could be set as an opera libretto. And I’ve moved onto other librettists since then.
FJO: The next opera you worked on after those collaborations with Paul is very unusual in that your initial idea for the opera is completely different from the way the opera turned out. Amelia wound up having a completely different story than the one you started out with.
DAH: Well, Amelia, just like Vera, was about coming to terms with your past in order to say yes to the future. The original treatment that I sold Seattle Opera told that story through disparate scenas and situations, whether it be Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, or the Wright Brothers in flight, or a young woman whose father was shot down in Vietnam. She was one of the characters; she was based on Gardner McFall, the woman who ultimately wrote the libretto. That story was there interwoven with other stories. Icarus and Daedelus were already on stage in that version, and of course, Amelia Earhart was a character in that [original] treatment. That treatment was like a big blue cloud of ideas, sort of like the Adams bomb opera [Doctor Atomic].
I was forcefully led to understand that for this particular project, a through story was going to be required in order for it to move forward, and could I suggest one. They signed on to my blue cloud, but when it was time to make a narrative, I called Gardner McFall, and I said, “Would you mind if I took your real-life story and made that the through story and had the cloud occur around your through story?” Because she’s an artist and courageous, she allowed me to do that. So I wrote another treatment which then coalesced the blue cloud into things that come out of her head: dead people show up, Icarus and Daedelus are in her bedroom while she’s with her husband, her dead father is in the living room having coffee while she, as a little girl, is singing to the stars, and he comes out from 1968 to talk to her. So all these multiple realities and multiple timelines centered around the through story. The story credit goes to Stephen Wadsworth, who worked with Gardner and me to take her life story and make sure that an audience could follow that narrative. There’s a creative distance there which is a manifestation of what dramaturges do.
This is something that I had never done before. My operas had always originated purely with me and my librettist, co-writing a treatment. For me to welcome other people to the table was me accepting that this is the way the opera world is much of the time. And I welcomed Stephen to the table to have another voice. It forced me to convince him and an audience that that would work. That is saying yes to collaboration. And for me, it ended the second act of my life, because I ended that opera with the sounds I heard when my son was born. When it ended, I had told the audience my truth. I was willing to do anything to take that blue cloud of truth and distill it and head for that final moment. It was my truth, and I told it. As an artist to be able to have that moment in your life, one time in your life, when you know you nailed it, that was worth everything.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that Amelia ended the second act of your life, because this work also marked a turning point in how you handle your music as well as the rest of your life. You not only became a father, you moved away from New York City to here in Rhinebeck and you also became self-published. Of course, none of these things happened overnight, but the composition of Amelia occurred in the midst of all of those things. It seems to me that all those changes also had an impact on what interested you as subject matter for opera. You’d written operas about Frank Lloyd Wright’s less-than-savory persona, corrupt border patrol people, IRA terrorists and gender ambiguity, and the inner turmoil of one of the great writers of the 20th century. Amelia was a heavy story that dealt with the Vietnam War.
DAH: When you talk about it this way, I sound like a pretty troubled guy.
FJO: But your next opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland, was an adorable children’s piece.
DAH: Well, because of the baby who was born at the end of Amelia, that opera is dedicated to my son, Atticus. The next opera I wanted to write was something for him, and it was in fact dedicated to my second son, who came along just before I finished that opera. I said yes to that opera because—you’re quite right—because of my wife and because of her giving me an opportunity to become my best. My value system over the last ten years has gradually gone back to the value system that I had when I was 15- and 16-years old, inculcated by my parents. I think because of the way that Amelia was received—it was a success and everything, and that’s great—but the way that I received it within myself, and what I receive from my chosen industry, my colleagues, and from how I felt after I had said my truth, I realized that I was no longer writing music because I had an ambition to write music. I want enough money so that I don’t live in fear. I want to be able to support my children, be a bread winner. But I want to be able to write music about things that I care about, so the self-publishing, all of that is a piece. I’m not quite sure how to express it. I’m not the composer I was the night that Amelia opened. Everything changed for me. I realized that you can hit it out of the park; you can have bases loaded, a homerun, everybody in the stands, and it still doesn’t matter. Whatever it was that I thought that I wanted to achieve by doing that was clearly not enough for me and it was clearly not the right thing.
Nemo was certainly not fraught; it’s a perfectly lovely piece. The next opera was called A Woman in Morocco. That’s the one I’m doing now, and that’s about human trafficking in North Africa in the late ‘50s. It is about that issue because when I was 15-years old, I saw my mother being badly treated and I couldn’t do anything about it. Now I can protect myself and I can have a conversation about that.
I suppose in order to get myself up to be able to work as hard as you have to work to write an opera, and to develop it, and to change it, and kill it when it’s not working, you have to care deeply about it. It’s not that I’m settling old scores, it’s that if I’m going to do this, I want it to be a force for social good. I want to make things better. I want to speak truth to power, because that is what still gets me to write those notes out. So, if it’s more polemical, if it’s more like Blitzstein, that’s fine. I’m good with that, because it’s the only way that I seem to be able to fight back against the oligarchy. I have very little control over the universe, but I can do something and hopefully support my children at the same time. I mean, I’m always 30 days away from absolute disaster. I suppose we all are now. But as an artist, if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to put everything on the line. So now I put everything on the line, but it’s not like Amelia. It’s not that I’ve pulled my horns in, it’s that I understand that it doesn’t have to be so much about you. It can be about you doing this thing in order to do what you think needs to happen. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m still working it out. Opera helps me to do that.
I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to achieve. I’d like to be at the Met; that would be great. I’d like to have multiple performances at big houses all the time. I’m directing at regional houses like Kentucky Opera and there’s a commercial show that I wrote for Skyline in Milwaukee. The reason I’m directing is it allows me to get in and really feast off of the interaction between actors and message. I don’t have to sit in the room as a composer and watch somebody else be my executant or translator. So I can still get excited about that.
FJO: To go back to the very beginning of this conversation, when we were talking about being a vocal versus an instrumental composer. At this point, we’ve spent so much time talking about the operas. But you’ve written a lot of other music. I don’t know if those other pieces seem so deeply entrenched in your life story. It seems like each opera was a chapter in your life that you were working through, and then you get to the next one, and the following one is the next chapter. Do you view all of your music that way, or are these pieces so big that they then take up such huge chunks of your time that they become your life?
DAH: I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece. But when you spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned. So then you’re talking about another year of revisions because nobody has written the great American opera the first time out. I know how to write; I know how to craft a symphony. I know how to make a piece that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that will fulfill the commission, get a standing ovation, and I walk away. But there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. In opera, if a woman is singing about how her husband is beating her, I don’t know how not to give it 150% at that moment. So yeah, I guess if you’re talking about stakes, there’s no greater stake than having an opera house sitting on your shoulders, talking to 2,800 people who paid a lot of money to be there, and trying to have communion with them—getting everybody together and having a catharsis together. To me, that is gripping. That’s grown up stuff. That’s truth, that’s justice, and hopefully good tunes. All in one transaction.
I’ve got the vocal scores over there for all the Verdi operas. You read through them chronologically, and it isn’t until he’s written probably nine or ten of them that he starts to really get it, as far as I can see. It’s the same notes. It’s the same bag of tricks that he’d been using for 30 years, and yet why is he getting it then? In Rigoletto, when they’re pulling the bag with the body in it across the stage at the penultimate moment in the show, why does he have a solo clarinet? Every time I see Rigoletto, all the hair stands up on my arms. That’s the genius of a real opera composer.
FJO: Except that one of the big criticisms of that piece is that although there’s a body in the bag, she comes out of the bag to sing a final duet before she actually dies since convention required that the prima donna gets to sing at the end of the opera. It’s a gorgeous duet, but from a narrative point of view, it requires a real suspension of belief.
DAH: But that’s opera. Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me, it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. Because I’m not angry, and I’m not crazy; I relish reality, and I relish being part of something larger than myself. I savor the give-and-take with a living audience that writing opera gives me. When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough. That’s the heartbreaker, and that’s the incentive.