Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words
While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos, but he loves telling stories and collaboration.
December 4, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. Dog Days and JFK (which both feature music by David T. Little), Angel’s Bone (with music by Du Yun), 27 (featuring music by Ricky Ian Gordon), and Song from the Uproar (music by Missy Mazzoli) are only a handful of the projects he has been involved with in the last five years. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos.
“I don’t know how I made this career,” he acknowledges to us during our talk with him in his Bushwick apartment. “I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics.”
Though words have become his primary focus, Vavrek also sang, played piano, and even composed music when he was growing up. Given such an immersive background in music, it’s surprising that his own musical ideas don’t sometimes get in the way when he is collaborating with a composer.
“My words do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely,” he explains. “I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. … My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. … My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.”
Though nowadays many people don’t think much about Francesco Maria Piave (the man who wrote the libretto for La traviata) or Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the team that created the words that Bizet set for Carmen), Vavrek is quick to point out that audiences for contemporary opera are aware that the composer is not the only person responsible for the final product in this truly collaborative idiom. According to him:
Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something. Not only is the librettist an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.
Royce Vavrek: I’m a very curious human being, and I’ve been extremely lucky. I just meet really inspiring people who have led to meeting other inspiring people. For instance, one of my first outings in the operatic world was a presentation at Carnegie Hall. David [T. Little] and I did a 20-minute chunk of Dog Days that was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Missy Mazzoli was at that presentation, and she gave me a flyer and said I should come see her Song from the Uproar. So at this big event in my life, I managed to find another collaborator. Little happenstances like that in this community led to a really healthy family. I continue to identify people that I just have to collaborate with, whom I have to be in dialogue with and marry my voice with theirs because I find their music so singular and exciting. One of the most amazing things about classical music right now is that every composer I’ve worked with has such a completely different language. So each collaborator and I have a particular tract—it’s almost as if each different collaboration is a completely different road that I’m traveling on. And that makes it so exciting.
FJO: But how do you balance them? It seems like you’re working on several of these at the same time, which I can see being very schizophrenic.
RV: I tend to have a major project and then smaller projects. I try not to do too many big, full-length operas concurrently, although I’m sure that there will be a time when that is impossible. But even though my projects are so disparate in form and content, I think that if you did look at my libretti, you would be able to find particular things that would suggest that they are a Royce Vavreck libretto. So while I do have my hand in a lot of different honey jars, they all contain elements of me. It’s interesting to see the different things that sort of link them together. There are these elements that do seem like they are of a time in my life and of a general wavelength.
FJO: So you mentioned working on Dog Days with David T. Little and then meeting Missy Mazzoli. It seems like her project had already started without you, and then you came into it. So I imagine some projects begin with nothing and then you and the composer with whom you are collaborating create a piece together, but for others someone brings you in to work on a project they’ve started, or maybe you also interest somebody in a project you want to work on.
RV: One of the more interesting and exciting things about opera is just how projects begin. For Song from the Uproar, Missy had composed a good portion of the piece and asked me to come and complete the libretto. So I not only had Isabelle’s language—Isabelle Eberhardt is the subject of the opera—but I also had Missy’s interpretation and her music. So there was a way for me to provide my voice, to marry my voice with all of these different elements. But that piece was very particular in that there was a good foundation to leap off of and to create a full-length work based on a seed of an idea.
FJO: So then your answer to the classic question—what comes first, the words or the music?—would be that it really depends.
RV: I would say that, 99 percent of the time, words come first. I’m sure that there will be situations coming up where music comes first, and music dictates lyrical content, but it does seem like for an opera, the words need to inspire the musical landscape—the dramatic landscape of the classical music.
FJO: Until I had read Heidi Waleson’s feature about you in Opera News this past April, I didn’t realize you had studied composition, as well as piano and voice.
RV: As a very young kid—not even in college, but yes.
FJO: So you wrote music?
FJO: Do you still write music? And if you don’t, what made you stop?
RV: My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.
FJO: So I’m curious how you came to realize that strength. You were initially studying piano, voice, and composition, not libretto writing. How did you first find words, or did words find you?
RV: I took piano lessons and composition lessons in high school and I was in a choir. I was also really involved in the theater. I had a drama teacher who basically gave me the small budget that was allotted her class, and I wrote something like 17 plays in high school. We took them on the one-act play festival circuit, so I had this sort of practical playwriting education. And I was in love with movies as a kid. That was my window into the outside world growing up on a farm in northern Canada. I was just so in love with international and American independent cinema, especially of the ‘90s. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal and did my undergraduate degree in filmmaking, but then picked up a creative writing second major. So writing has been such a huge part of my life. Even when I was three years old, I remember my mom would take dictation; she would write down stories that I told her.
Telling stories has always been this innate thing that I’ve been participating in. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. So it makes sense that music and storytelling, which were both such a huge part of my life, are now married. I did my master’s degree in musical theater writing. So I do sort of have libretto training. That was more book writing and lyric writing—a libretto is a slightly different animal, but it is very much related to musical theater writing.
Then right after my master’s degree, I did the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and that really set my career on this track. It provided me with the mentorship and the foundations of writing opera, and it also introduced me to my first collaborators. David T. Little actually came to my final concert and learned about my work through that program. Then it was just this snowball effect, really—meeting all these amazing, young composers who all want to tell stories. That’s sort of the lowest common denominator of all of us: we’re all interested in telling stories through music and words, and some of us through dance and through prose. So it just feels like we’re all coming together because we want to tell stories.
FJO: I’d like to unpack this dichotomy between musical theater and opera. Once upon a time opera and musical theater existed in very different spaces, the works were created by different sets of composers and lyricists-librettists, productions employed completely different singers using completely different vocal techniques, and things were performed for totally different audiences. But that’s not completely true anymore. The walls separating operas and musicals have come down quite a lot. So I found it somewhat peculiar to hear you say that you’re writing music for a musical, but you leave it to the masters to write music for operas. In your mind there must still be a difference.
RV: Well, there is and there isn’t. Musical theater often uses popular music to tell the stories, and I think that I am able to work within some of the popular musical languages. Whereas classical music just seems—I don’t want to say more serious, but there is something. But I think that our job is to blur those lines even further. I love musicals. I love, love, love, love that form. That was what I was raised on—cast recordings of 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies, and Shenandoah, one of my other favorite musicals. I’m desperate to contribute to that medium. But I do think that opera and musical theater are both doing many of the same things. They’re both telling stories through music predominantly.
That being said, I do think the label helps identify what and where the venues are. What would 27, the opera I wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, be like if we had theater singers doing that? Is this something that a theater singer would be capable of performing, or is it just meant for classically trained vocalists? That’s another big concern. Who do we intend to perform it, how and where, and why do these pieces exist and in what form? I think that what Beth Morrison does so beautifully is she says operas don’t need to be done at BAM or the Met. Operas can be done in all these cool venues. They can and should be done at the Met, and they should be done at BAM, but there are alternative homes that are even more exciting and more appropriate for certain pieces.
David [T. Little] also grew up with musical theater as a language that was really important to him. So you’ll see trinkets of more musical theater-y elements in Dog Days for instance, or in Vinkensport. Then there are moments in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone that also have sort of musical theater-y things. I think that we’re using the best things about musical theater and the best things about opera and creating a middle ground. I also think that we’re extremely excited about the drama, about the theater of opera, so we are really trying to create dynamic works that feel alive, trying to define what opera in the 21st century is and what it’s going to be. I think that that’s a great opportunity for this community of artists that I work in. We get to put a flag in the ground and say this is what we want opera and musical theater to be going forward.
FJO: One of the problems with opera performance today is that most of what is performed in the big opera houses is very old repertoire. A lot of these works are great theater as well as great music, but I think the big opera houses promote the musical aspects over the dramatic ones, to the point that you see posters for Verdi’s La Traviata and the name of the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, rarely gets mentioned. Same with La Bohème. Everyone thinks of Puccini, but who thinks about Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Lorenzo Da Ponte gets a little more credit for the operas he wrote with Mozart, but that’s probably because he is known for other reasons—like coming to America and founding the Italian department at Columbia. Whereas in musical theater history, Hammerstein is as famous as Rodgers, in terms of public awareness. So as someone who walked into the world of opera with a background in musical theater, do you feel like you’re an equal player and do you feel that audiences now have come to this position where they can see a work as being the creation of the composer as well as the librettist?
RV: I think that’s another example of how we are borrowing from musical theater where we understand that if the composer didn’t have a words person, they would be writing symphonies. Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something.
Dog Days, for instance, was created in a room with Robert Woodruff, David, and myself. It felt very organic that the three of us came together to identify how that piece was going to be structured. We went through beat-by-beat to make sure that everything was sound and that we all had had a say as to how the work was going to unfold. With Breaking the Waves, we had two dramaturges in the room for our initial workshops and now we have a director named James Darrah, who is really hands-on and is guiding us in the most beautiful way and pushing us to try to make this project as theatrical and separate from the film—using the narrative of the film, but creating our own version of the story. So I think that is an example of how not only the librettist is an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.
FJO: To get back to musical theater, you were listening to cast albums before you ever actually saw a show on stage I imagine.
RV: My parents were really great about exposing me to the arts. My father played the piano, and was in a band with his siblings when they were high school age. So I did have access. I remember seeing Anne of Green Gables – The Musical when I was about five years old. We would go to the community theater, so I saw things like Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias. And I was in Oliver when I was ten, I believe, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.
But I was 20 the first time I came to New York and that was definitely the first time that I had the ability to see something that was professional. Although I did see a touring Les Miz. The first opera I saw when I was 18 at Opera de Montreal was the Cav/Pag double bill and that was sort of just mind blowing. That was also my first operatic CD. So that, especially Pagliacci, has such a huge place in my heart. Then, as a singer, I was doing a lot of competitive musical theater classes and stuff like that at the local music festival and the provincial music festivals. So I was learning about pieces not only through the cast albums but also through singing excerpts.
FJO: I find it amusing to hear you say that if composers didn’t have somebody writing words, they’d be writing symphonies.
RV: I understand that a lot of composers do come up with narratives for their non-narrative pieces—their non-vocal pieces. I don’t want to imply that a symphony doesn’t have a story, because I totally understand that that is not the case.
FJO: Yeah, but where I wanted to go with that is that one of the things I find interesting about the collaborations you have had with various composers is that you not only write operas with them, but you also create song cycles and other kinds of pieces that are intended for performance in concert halls. When you enter the concert hall, you really are entering a zone that is the composer’s domain even more so than in an opera house. I don’t know if people are trained to pay attention to the words as an equal component in those contexts at all. So I’m curious about how some of those projects evolved and what you feel your role is in those projects.
RV: My role is very similar. A lot of concert work is very narrative, so it seems like it’s extremely similar to writing an opera, although I don’t get to have people in costumes running around pretending to be men in dog suits or Gertrude Stein. Am I Born was a Brooklyn Philharmonic commission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. That was something that was set up by Alan Pierson. He came to David T. Little and said he would love to commission something for what I believe was his first season with the Brooklyn Phil. He wanted it to be Brooklyn specific and, being a Brooklynite, that was a really exciting challenge. So we chose a painting that’s hanging in the Brooklyn Museum and decided we were going to try to bring that to life, to animate that through an oratorio. I structured it similarly to how I would an opera, trying to make it as varied as possible and to take the audience on a 30-minute journey. So while it is different, it really does feel like it is alive in the same way that an opera does.
FJO: Yes, but whereas folks in the new opera community can wrap their brains around the fact that Dog Days is by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, can folks in the concert world do that with Am I Born? I imagine that most concert programs featuring Am I Born will probably list it as a work by David T. Little and your name will only appear somewhere in the program notes. But maybe it’s not that way.
RV: It’s generally a company thing. For instance, looking at how the LA Phil lists things, often it’s just the composer’s last name with a colon and the name of the piece. But I think that times are changing. It seems like it’s less and less difficult to convince people that the librettist or the lyricist is important. For instance, on the cover of the 27 CD, my name is right next to Ricky’s. And with the Hubble Cantata, my cantata with Paola Prestini, my name is right up there with the name of astrophysicist Mario Livio and the film maker Carmen Kordas, and Paola’s name of course.
It is true that with a concert work, it’s less easy. I guess the concert world is a particular animal; it is harder to become recognized for concert work. But I think that a lot of composers, a lot of my collaborators, understand my contribution and they fight for me. A lot of it comes down to that. It comes down to a composer saying, “This is a collaboration, a team effort, and my collaborator deserves to be mentioned.” Often we’re not even mentioned. So I do think the biggest turn is my contemporaries, my collaborators, my colleagues saying, we understand your contribution and we think that it needs to be honored at least in having your name printed.
FJO: Since you have a musical background and you said that the words come first most of the time, I’m wondering if there have been times after someone else has set your words to music that what the composer did clashes with what you thought it should sound like.
RV: My words, when I write them, do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely. The musical idea will be more general, like I feel like this is a sad song or this a happy song or this is a song that accomplishes this narratively. I would never say that the music is wrong. I don’t even know what that means. If there is music that I just don’t connect with, that’s a bigger problem, but I haven’t ever come across that. I can’t even think of an example of a composer who’s let me down, or who has completely derailed my narrative ideas. I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. Or it always has been. I’ll let you know when that’s not the case.
FJO: That’s good. You’re lucky.
RV: It’s so hard to make a career, it really is. I don’t know how I made this career. I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics. But because it’s such a hard industry to navigate, especially financially, you’ve got to be very serious. You’ve got to be very, very thoughtful, and you’ve got to put the time in. These opportunities are gifts, truly.
We’re all working so hard and trying to use our voices to tell the best stories and make the best music possible; that’s the name of the game. I think that if you’re not contributing in that way, that’s where I might have difficulty. Like if it’s just sort of—I don’t want to say hobby, because I think making music as a hobby is a beautiful thing and I would encourage everyone to do that. But I do think that I work with people who are driven to really contribute to the form and to advance the form, and who do really cool things. We have that potential and, especially with these opportunities we have, it seems like we have this unlimited palette with which to create really dynamic stories.
FJO: So what about the reverse of the music being wrong; let’s flip the coin. Have you ever been in situations where you bring in a text and the composer turns around and says, “That’s not going to work; that’s not singable. I need something else there; this isn’t right.” What I’m after with this whole line of questioning is trying to get a sense of what the give and take is in the collaborative processes that you’re a part of.
RV: It’s not so much that particular words don’t sing, I don’t think. The English language is so eccentric and awesome and there are just so many juicy, amazing words. I’ve never had a composer come to me and say it doesn’t sing. I’ve had a composer say I’m having a hard time figuring it out dramatically or finding my way through it. I always think that there are one thousand ways that one can write a scene. So if that ever happens, I’m more than happy—oh my goodness, send me away and have me re-write. I will try to find another way that will get the best music from you. My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. So if my words aren’t doing that for you, I’m going to do my damnedest to find other words that do. I can give you an example. The final aria in JFK is one big emotional outpouring before the end of the show. I had written a version of that aria and it sort of sat in the libretto for a good nine months, a year maybe. Then David finally got to it. He had worked all the way up to it, but he just couldn’t find a way to make that particular text work dramatically in that moment. So we worked together, talking about what that moment needed to be, and I think I re-wrote that aria two or three times. It’s infinitely better, and it feels so much more true to the dramatic pulse of that moment. So yeah, I’m so open to re-writing and trying to figure out how to make it work for the composer. Not that I want to concede the medium to the composer, but the music needs to be really, really great. So if I can do anything that will help create really, really exciting, awesome music, then I’m more than happy to oblige.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you go away and write another text. There’s this cliché—which is totally not true—about Broadway collaborators and how they were portrayed by Hollywood and by promo photos back in the day. I particularly remember a photo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where Richard Rodgers is sitting at the piano and Oscar Hammerstein is writing words. But probably the reality is they worked separately and then they came together to work out things. For you, at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been that kind of Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show thing.
RV: Very rarely. Little edits can be done in the room. For instance, I was just in rehearsal for Angel’s Bone a couple days ago, and there was a section that we all decided needed to have some words replaced. That was something I sort of did on the fly. But I much prefer to go home and just have my time and allow for the words to manifest. I have not yet had the experience where I’ve sat in a room with a composer while they were plunking out melodies and saying, “Does this work?” That seems like more of a musical theater thing. With opera there are so many more moving parts, so it often seems like the composer and I want our time to go away to sort of messy things up—you know, so you can tear things apart and put them back together. But, just to be very good about honoring people’s time, it might not be the best usage of time to sort of sit and pray that something comes out between the two of you. It just seems much easier to go away and make your work.
FJO: So the process of making your work—where and when does all of this stuff take place?
RV: I like to sit on the couch and write, but I really like to get out of town. My Breaking the Waves libretto was written at home in Canada. I went home for three weeks and sat in my mother’s house and watched the Olympics. It was right around the time that the Olympics were going on. So that was my time to enjoy that and get a full draft of Breaking the Waves. JFK was written in this house. For 27 I went up to my dramaturge’s house, up in Hudson, and had a really good draft of that, but I had a week where I didn’t leave the confines of the house. I would just write new scenes, and he would sit there and take me through every line and make sure that all my “I”s were dotted and “T”s were crossed. More and more, I’m really loving the exodus from New York to get work done. That being said, a lot of work has to happen here. It seems like there’s just so much time that is spent away from home. You tend to want to really make the time count when you’re here. I’m here for January. Then I have to go to Germany for the new production of Dog Days. I’m in Fort Worth for JFK; I’m in Philly for Breaking the Waves. The big thing for me is that there are just so many events that happen in New York. I’m working with so many people. I love the work of all of my collaborators and contemporaries and colleagues. So it’s important for me to be a part of that. But that also means that a lot of writing time is gobbled up by events. It is really great to go away and have that time and to be sort of not within the machine that is the New York classical music community, because you want to participate so much. I’m understanding more fully why residencies are so important and why people find that going up to MacDowell, closing that door and having weeks of uninterrupted art creation time, is so beneficial.
FJO: But you can create a libretto while watching the Olympics?
RV: Well, I did not do it at the same time.
FJO: I know several composers who write music while watching television. I don’t get it.
RV: If I did do that, I wouldn’t be watching the TV—it would just be background noise, which I’m guessing would probably be the same thing for those composers. But I don’t have that type of brain that allows me to do two things at once. I cannot split my attention. I love audio books, but I couldn’t listen to an audio book and retain what’s coming in and be able to make coherent thoughts on the page.
FJO: Can you listen to a symphony while writing?
RV: It would all be sort of peripheral, background.
FJO: So silence is the best?
RV: It’s not necessarily the best, but for me listening means you’re actually taking that information in. If I were to listen to a symphony and write, it would just be sort of a blanket of sound behind my process and I wouldn’t really be retaining any of that musical information.
FJO: Or your phrases would wind up being the same phrases of that symphony.
FJO: Then you would have music in your head that went with your words that would not be the same as the music of your collaborator.
RV: I certainly do listen to music while I write, but there are moments when I’m just like aargh, this is overload! I have to turn it off, and I’ll have significant silent writing time. I think my ideal writing situation would be pretty much silence somewhere that’s cloistered to a great extent.
FJO: To follow up on what you just said about listening: you follow the work of your collaborators, and you mentioned the first opera CD you got was Cav/Pag, and I see there’s a Janis Joplin poster here in your apartment. I’m wondering, how much time do you devote to listening to music that is separate and apart from your collaborations, and how does that listening then become fuel for your own creativity?
RV: I listen to so much music. And I watch as many movies as possible, and I do watch a lot of TV. I love taking things in, so that is an extremely important part of my life. I do think that every story you encounter and every piece of work that you even begin to understand becomes part of you, and you carry that. They become lessons.
I was given the opportunity to write about a particular poet that had really informed my work in some way. The poet that I chose was a singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards. She has lyrics that I encountered when I was in grad school that completely blew my mind and in some ways have informed my work more than any librettist. My narrative sensibility I think comes from being reared on Lars Von Trier, Neil LaBute, and Wong Kar-wai. I’m able to not mimic them, by any stretch of the imagination, but to allow their ideas to be tools or methods with which to explore my own ideas. I just encountered Benjamin Clementine for the first time. He won the Mercury Prize last week. I’m sure that my work will in some way benefit from, or will be informed by, just this absolute consuming musical world that is swirling around my head right now based on my insistence to continue going through Benjamin’s work.
FJO: And reading?
RV: Oh, my gosh. I read so, so, so much. There are so many people that read more than me, but I feel healthier when I read. I really, really, really do. And I’ve been exploring audio books a lot. I love lying in bed and just listening to hours on end of audio books. It’s impossible for me to read these days and not wonder how I would adapt those works into an opera or music theater form. There’s always something about, well, how would I do that?
Even going to the cinema, there’s something about wanting to be in dialogue and how I would approach this particular narrative. Going back to reading, I read a lot based on books that people recommend because they may want to tackle them in some sort of opera or musical way. But I’m always looking for interesting languages and how people tell stories just for my general narrative health.
FJO: I’m also curious about your intake of visual art. You mentioned the painting at the Brooklyn Museum that inspired Am I Born, and while we were setting up the recording equipment you talked about this photograph behind you that is by the subject of your musical.
RV: Visual art has informed so many of my projects. Thinking about 27, my opera with Ricky Ian Gordon that was commissioned by Opera Theater of St. Louis and premiered in 2014, that piece was all about the art that hung in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In JFK, my opera with David T. Little that was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater, similarly there is an amazing story where there was this woman Ruth Carter Stevenson who knew that Jack and Jackie were only going to have a very limited window in Fort Worth. She decided that because they wouldn’t have time to go to the museums there, that she would bring the museums to them. So she went around and collected a really great sample of the works that were held in Fort Worth and put them all up in their hotel room. Right before the breakfast meeting, Jackie was about ten minutes late, and some people have this theory that she realized that the art on the walls was real—all the paintings and sculptures. The Picasso owl was real. And she was arrested for those ten minutes and that caused her lateness, which is kind of amazing, and this is embedded into the opera. The art becomes these portals into dreams.
So JFK, 27, Am I Born, and the music I’m writing with Ted Shen about Vivian Maier, who was a Chicago street photographer in the mid-20th century. She worked as a nanny and took a lot of pictures of children, but she would also just go to downtown Chicago and New York and take street photos. She certainly was not a famous woman by any stretch of the imagination and she died in obscurity. A young man named John Malouf bought a lot of her negatives in an auction and realized that they were extremely special. He put them online and was encouraged to take those photos offline because they were just so awesome. We are creating a piece that celebrates the mystery of this woman. We don’t really know why she took so many pictures and then didn’t develop them. She was sort of—I wouldn’t say an anti-artist, but she was compelled to take these photographs but then was not really compelled to complete the photographic process, which is really, really cool. Here’s a woman who was taking selfies. Most of her portraits that are so truly beloved are these auto-portraits.
FJO: The first work of yours that I saw on a stage was Dog Days, and while I found it totally compelling, I also thought that it was really creepy and really dark—extremely disturbing. You seem like a sunny person. What attracted you to something so grim?
RV: Dog Days was based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was a little sunnier than our treatment. It was set in the ‘80s, so the Cold War was still on. The foundation of that piece was very much Judy’s, but then it was sort of amplified and heightened and we made it a little bit more grim in concert with Robert Woodruff, the director. But we didn’t set out to write a grim piece. And there are moments of levity and lightness, too, that I think are really funny. It is a hard piece. It’s a heavy piece. I totally understand that. But I also think there’s great life, especially in the Lisa character. I’m writing Breaking the Waves with Missy Mazzoli, which is similarly a rather dark, heavy work. Because of my being reared on international cinema of the late-‘90s and early-2000s, those stories have always spoken to me. There’s always been this desire to tell serious stories about the human condition. Look at Angel’s Bone. That’s not fun and frothy. But also I love comedy, so thinking of David, Vinkensport or The Finch Opera is as frothy and fun as they come. But even that ends with a twist where the final aria is this outpouring of emotion from this one particular character who is releasing his finch and is basically thanking him for years of companionship. So it’s not that I’m not interested in comedy. I haven’t made a concerted decision to tell grim tales, although opera does have the potential to tell those stories in a really, really dynamic and full way. I think that that’s why our artistic impulses often lead us to darker stories. But I think that you’re going to see a lot of comedy, God willing, from me throughout my career.
FJO: Well, definitely not in JFK.
RV: Not JFK, although what David and I have been talking a lot about is our desire for audiences leaving JFK to be grateful and to maybe hug loved ones just a little bit tighter that evening, to understand that life is precious. It doesn’t end with his assassination; it ends with him leaving the hotel. We don’t see the tragedy, but his leaving the hotel is taking him to Dallas, so there is that sense of doom. And the soundscape that David has come up with is extremely varied and there’s something very ominous, especially after the intermission. It really feels like something very monumental is going to happen. The fates are aligning.
FJO: I didn’t realize that the audience never sees his assassination and only gets the hint through what the orchestra is playing when he leaves the hotel. It’s reminiscent to me of what I think is one of the most effective moments in Dog Days—the end where the mother is on the table and there’s a slowly building wall of noise that just blows out your ears by the end. It’s the most intense thing. You never really see what you know is happening, but you know it’s happened. All this stuff is going on, but curiously—and I want to bring this up to you as the librettist—it was all done without words.
RV: But if you look at the libretto for that moment, there is a very particular stage direction. So it’s done with words, but just not sung words. And she does sort of wail a little bit. And she snivels, and she pees. Right?
FJO: In terms of the collaborative process, how did a moment like that get decided upon and who decided it?
RV: The three of us. Judy’s story ends with the dog being shot and eaten. In the dramaturgical sessions that we had with Robert, I remember very clearly he said, “But what happens next?” That was the mind-shattering moment. There were these images that Robert brought up, I believe, about just seeing lions having eaten. I see lions, and I see an act of ablution, and then we went home. We went our separate ways. I came up with sort of the just the general idea, but we didn’t find the washing of the mother with urine until—that was Robert in rehearsal. In the libretto, it talks about how she performs, or she gathers snow and washes her mother’s body. But we decided that water was gone at that point. So what is she going to wash her mother’s body with? In this scenario where there’s nothing, that was very much a directorial find.
I remember reading the stage management report and being like, “Oh, my goodness. What is going on at rehearsal?” I tend to leave rehearsals to the singers and the director and the team for the first few days at least. I like everybody to get their bearings before the writers tromp in. So I was like, “I don’t really know what this is; this seems really wild.” But it is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking moments that I’ve had a hand in creating. I’m so proud of what the whole team came to create in that moment.
FJO: In terms of the hands-on/hands-off thing, you’re traveling around the world. You’ve got productions happening here in New York in January and then in Germany and Texas, all over the place. It’s going to get to the point where you probably can’t be at all of these things. Hopefully there’ll be productions of these works all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that you wait a little while before you come in. What about the process of letting go?
RV: Oh, I’m so excited for that. I’m finally at the stage of my career where we do have projects that are taking on a life of their own. Dog Days will come full circle. We’re bringing it back to New York as part of the Protoype Festival in January ‘16, alongside the world premiere of Angel’s Bone. But Dog Days after January will have its first new production [in Germany]. So David T. Little is going over and is going to have about a week with them during rehearsals. I’m going to come for opening night. There is something really beautiful in that we feel like we have created the version that we need to oversee. We’ve created one version that was very much hands-on; we were in the room. We worked with Robert to create the production that began at Montclair Peak Performances, then went to Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, and is coming to Prototype. What we’ve created is a roadmap that is intended to be interpreted in as many ways as possible. So I think that the most exciting thing at this juncture in the life of Dog Days is that it’s open now. We don’t need to be hands-on. We can let other people come up with ideas that will inform the work in ways that we didn’t even imagine.
FJO: And you’re happy with that?
RV: Yes, because in order to make a living and to make a career in the operatic world, your work needs to be done. And I am obsessed and addicted to creating new work. So I need to be able to allow my earlier work to be interpreted in such a way that I can go make new operas with David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli and Ricky Ian Gordon and Du Yun and Josh Schmitt and Matt Marks and all these fabulous people. Missy Mazzoli did say at one point that you’ve just got to hope to God that opening nights don’t happen on the same night. Especially when I’m working on so many different projects, invariably there are going to be things that overlap. But you do your work, and you attend whatever needs your love and attendance. And you hope that everything just sort of fits.