Tag: American opera

Preparing for Performance: What I Didn’t Know I Knew

On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I recount the program’s rehearsal process and performance highlights.

On the plane, somewhere between Frankfurt, Germany and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I decided that I was going to crash the first rehearsal. It was explained to me that this was to be an initial, getting-to-know-you music rehearsal for only singers and music staff, but my excitement was such that I simply had to jump in to this experience as quickly as possible. Bleary-eyed, I asked my cab driver to drop me off in the 90-degree soup in front of the opera building at Texas Christian University. Unexpected as my presence was, dropped jaws and raised eyebrows quickly melted into warm greetings from the music and administrative staff who were collected to dig into my score.

In retrospect, perhaps jetlag and hubris played a role is this decision, but this initial greeting set the tone for the ten days that would follow. In that first rehearsal, any trepidation I had vanished in the face of the care and interest that the music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly and pianist Matthew Stevens—had for my music.

The next day was “First Day of School,” as it is known in the opera world, and the composers and librettists assembled at McDavid Studio in downtown Fort Worth, which was to be both our rehearsal and performance space. Directly adjacent to the formidable and gorgeously designed Bass Performance Hall, McDavid is a sleek, multidimensional space, part of which had been transformed into a black box for Fort Worth Opera’s use.

Nervous, excited, and jetlagged out of my gourd (I had woken up at 4:30 a.m.) I was struck by a familiar serenity upon entering the theater. With lush, velvet black curtains hanging floor to ceiling, and rows of simple single chairs, this was the type of space in which I had worked for a decade as a musical theater director and conductor. What it lacked in acoustics (those hangs ate all the sound) it excelled at in terms of both intimacy and possibility. As for my new colleagues, we instantly got on like a house on fire. They brought a wealth of experience and a devotion to the art form, and for a week, we geeked out over performances we had attended, technique, our teachers, our “real jobs,” other projects we were starting, and what notation programs we used.

The excavation of artistic knowledge

The terror and exhilaration of having nothing to do in rehearsal is both a welcome and dreaded experience.

The terror and exhilaration of having nothing to do in rehearsal is both a welcome and dreaded experience. Once the double bar is printed, there is, theoretically, a point in time when a piece is handed over. My role in the process having come to a pause, I’m then overshadowed so that well-trained conductors, pianists, and singers may immerse themselves in the piece. In rehearsal, my dictum is “less talk, more music,” which puts the pressure on me to make sure that my score is impeccable. During the Frontiers rehearsal process (in which I was afforded more than four hours of rehearsal time—an embarrassment of riches for 20 minutes of music), I was able to allow the cast and music staff to explore the score, organically extending their interpretation throughout the process, and encouraging me to add dramaturgical and compositional nuance, when appropriate.

I’ve always been amazed how the rehearsal process produces in me a higher awareness of what I have written. To think that I know every motivation behind every note and gesture is, for me, conceit. I need another’s inquiries to drag out the nuggets of meaning and all the things I didn’t know I knew about the piece. The particulars of melodic gesture, harmonic choice, or rhythmic figure are made in private, worked out in the vacuum of the studio. While they are important to me as a composer, overt knowledge of these details, in my experience, does not necessarily inform the application or performance of the score.

Until it does. Case in point: at the end of the soprano aria, there is a section marked “suddenly cheery,” in contrast to previous sections. It wasn’t working, and I soon realized that it was because this marking had not made it to the soprano’s part. Further, I was able to connect this hopeful moment to a later arietta, in which she sings to her estranged father of her hope that he see the light, metaphorically, which presents blindness as another example of perception, the work’s general theme. Light bulbs went on across the rehearsal space and the impact on everyone’s performance was immediate.

The rehearsal in McDavid Studio

The rehearsal for the reading of my opera The System of Soothing at the McDavid Studio.

The joy of live performance

Arriving at McDavid Studio on show day came on the heels of an outpouring of support from the Fort Worth Opera staff and my composer colleagues. (Side note: The administrative staff at Fort Worth Opera is a typical collection of dedicated administrators, all of whom—each wearing too many hats—collectively bust their cans to put up a good product and engage the community. Their encouragement and handling of our Frontiers composer clique contributed to a relaxed atmosphere that made the work process easy and productive.)

While composing is a lonely endeavor, collaboration is not.

In the months preceding Frontiers, I admit that I obsessed over the gravity of the opportunity. While the upside of this manifested itself in intense and detailed preparation, especially in how I talk about myself and my operas (detailed in the second essay of this series), the downside for me dragged into the success or failure of the showcase itself:  whether anyone would come; whether anyone in attendance would be a decision maker in the field; and whether those decision makers would take an interest in my work. These thoughts exist in the bubble of the solitary artistic practitioner. But while composing is a lonely endeavor, collaboration is not. As the work with my cast and music staff progressed, my concern about the work’s impression dissipated. I became enveloped in the process of rehearsal, in the drawing out of character, in the communication between conductor, pianist, and singer that squeezed every drop of music out of my arias.

Some of the show is blurry in my memory (this is normal for me – thank God it was recorded), but most of it is crystal clear. Amanda Robie, who ably administered Frontiers, opted for a live, pre-showcase discussion of each work, in which my preparation and practice paid off. One by one, my cast nailed each aria, and when the cloudy penultimate chord of the last aria resolved to a ringing open fifth, I rose to hug my conductor, thank my pianist and cast, raise my hands to the audience, and bow in honor of the work we had done together.

Next week – the now, and ever present, “What’s next?”

What Happens When Composers Make Opera

As part of the New York Opera Fest this past June, I led a collaborative conversation at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall featuring some of the most prolific and interesting composers, librettists, and singers working in New York’s new opera scene:

James Barry – composer
Lauren Buchter – composer
David Cote – librettist
Daniel Felsenfeld – composer
Elisabeth Halliday – singer and co-founder of Rhymes with Opera
Joan La Barbara – composer and singer
George Lam – composer and co-artistic director of Rhymes with Opera
Jessica Meyer – composer and violist
Pamela Stein Lynde – composer, singer, and founder of Stone Mason Projects
Stefan Weisman – composer
David Wolfson – composer, librettist, and music director

The idea behind the talk was to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities that composers face when they set off on their new opera project. Prior to the actual conversation, I sent a questionnaire to the participants to gauge some of the experiences they have had making new opera. I found that the initial responses in the conversation grouped together under four main ideas: collaboration, process, vision, and quality. Our conversation together was framed by these big ideas and also by the request to reference as much as possible everyone’s real experiences making work. We had a wide-ranging and light-hearted exchange buoyed by a wealth of different experiences, opinions, and attitudes.


Aaron Siegel: We’re going to jump right in and start talking about collaboration. David [Cote], you had some very interesting things to say about collaboration.  You said that the composer may not be the king that he or she was in centuries back, but they still make the project live and breathe. They have maximum impact but must have support and preparation. My question for you is: what does it mean for an opera to live and breathe?

David Cote: I think that most operas begin with a composer and a librettist, whether that’s the same person or two different people. Maybe with a producer or a commissioning person who has a particular idea or subject that they want them to write about. Who knows where it starts? Or it might just start with those two writers together.

I am working with Rob Paterson on an opera called Three Way. We’re working on the third act right now, which is set at a swinger party. It has a lot of recitative in the first ten minutes, and it has a lot of different sections to it, even though it’s only a fifty-minute opera. And then there was a whole recit section that I realized, after we worked on part of it, had to go because we had already had a bunch of recit—we already knew who these characters were, and the music needed to drive the car. So that was a case where, dramaturgically, I just cut whole pages out of the libretto because the music has to drive this now.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m going to just quibble with the metaphor a little bit. There’s certainly nothing you said I disagree with, but it’s performers and directors who actually make an opera live and breathe. All the writers do is put things on paper. I would say that it’s not alive until it’s on bodies.

AS: I heard some composer/performers squirming at that. Do you guys feel that way? Is that your responsibility to bring the piece to life?

Elisabeth Halliday: Yes. I appreciated the earlier point about the commissioner and the performer being one and the same. I think that often the commissioner lays the groundwork for what they’re looking for, but also can be the source of inspiration. Both the composer and the librettist, if they’re in a vacuum writing a piece for a soprano, they’re going to feel very differently than if they’re writing a piece for Pam Stein Lynde, knowing what she can do. So there’s a bit of a circular aspect to a lot of music that’s happening now: it’s commissioned, then the process, and then it’s ultimately realized by the person or the group that began the process.

Pamela Stein Lynde: Yeah, I’d agree with that as well. I think it’s really important not to let any one person in the process be at the helm all the time. In order to create something that’s an organic experience artistically for the audience, it has to be something that was created by all parties involved.

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall (June 2016)

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote

DF: When I’m writing the operas I’ve had the luxury to write, I like to put Pam Stein Lynde’s name in the score, rather than Soprano or Soprano Two. If a composer can kind of get in touch with the idea that this is going to be performed, and that it is ultimately nothing without the people who make it happen, I think that is a really beautifully symbiotic way of approaching it.

AS: James [Barry], I’m going to ask you to chime in here. In your comments to me, you said that you thought the impact of your leadership as a composer on the overall shape of the piece was one of inspiring your collaborators, performers, your creative/technical staff, to bring the highest caliber of artistry to the production and to create an opera that resonated with them. How do you know when a piece has resonated with your co-collaborators? What does that look like? How does that look for you?

James Barry: I think we’ve all written music that we don’t feel confident about. And it just doesn’t go very well. It doesn’t feel very good. And sometimes, you come up with an idea on a project that people really take to. With Smashed, the Carrie Nation Story, that’s what I felt like. Everybody really gave one hundred percent all the time. And I think that’s where the success came from. It was kind of raunchy and had a lot of bad language. And there was also a lot of improv built into the show, so it was different every night. And I think that’s why people—this cast at least—very much enjoyed rehearsals and performing on stage.

George Lam: I just worked on this opera about Dolly Parton even though I am not a huge fan of hers, and it has been ten years in the making. One of my singers, Robert Maril, is a big Dolly Parton fan, and I had worked with Robert for a long time. I said, “All right. So what would it be like if, as a composer…” and I’m sort of being an actor in that sense, I’m sort of slipping into a character of you, Robert, and pretending that this might be a project that would be interesting. I want to write about fans of Dolly Parton. And that was the germ of it. So, to start a conversation about making a piece with asking questions, or doing oral history, or figuring out how to talk with people that are going to be the audience for this piece. I think those are the things that make me resonate more with the process, and also hopefully with the artists.

Jessica Meyer: I feel like a lot of the sounds that I’m creating usually come from what inspires the performer. For instance, I wrote a piece for Amanda Gookin of the PUBLIQuartet. When I see her on stage, she’s at her sunniest and happiest when she’s improvising and slapping the heck out of a cello. I know that when I write for her, those things need to be in here. And so the song cycles I’ve been writing for singers, I’m really starting from a place of “what text really resonates with you?” Send me poetry that you love. And then we usually find something that we’re really both excited about, that both matches the kinds of things that I usually write, and then what the singers really want to sing. And so I guess that’s when that magic vibration happens, when you’re just excited, and you can’t ignore enthusiasm. And that’s the actual nucleus of a project. It’s a great place to go.

AS: Elisabeth, you said something that I thought was very interesting. You said that while you put a crude emphasis on composer/performer collaboration, you’ve also found it important that, once you get to the production, that the composer hand the reigns over to the director. What does it mean to hand over an opera? What does that look like? How do you do it? Do you have a meeting where you hand a box of stuff to someone?

EH: Well, of course, when you think of opera that isn’t new music, all these operas that have been performed for hundreds of years, the composers are not involved because they’re dead. And everyone’s comfortable with that concept. We reinterpret operas that have been around for a while. But I think once you bring in living composers, there’s this shift that happens where I think a lot of people have an assumption that since the composer is alive, they should have sort of ultimate say over their creation. But I think often there’s a blurring of roles between composer and librettist, and then director.  Where does one end, and the other begin?

I think for us [at Rhymes with Opera] it has been a question of figuring out what works best for us. Because of course, librettists have a right to their own interpretation. And of course, composers do as well. For us it’s definitely an ongoing process, but we’re interested in working with directors. And for us that seems to mean that at some point, the vision is handed over in a box, or a Dropbox…

DC: I’m in the middle of a process right now with Rob [Paterson] doing this opera for Nashville Opera, and we had a workshop recently. It was really interesting. I feel like this idea of process and collaboration has several phases. Right now, we’re in the process of trying out a new piano vocal [score] with our cast. And when they’re like, “Oh, can I change this note here? I can hit that higher,” we’re like, “Great, okay, write it in.” Or, “That phrase is a little awkward.” “Okay, let me rewrite it.” And so you’re collaborating. You’re inspiring them. They’re inspiring you. It’s a terrific, bubbling process. But to me, it’s all leading to a point—and this is a really terrible, terrible phrase we use, and it’s very uncreative and anti-process—where the score is singer-proof and director-proof, you know? Where basically we deliver you the box, and the idea works. It has bones. And it’s not just some sort of amorphous thing that you can set wherever you want. It is what it is.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara: For me, the initial impetus is what it is I’m dealing with. What’s the inspiration of the piece? How do the techniques that I have developed work into that? How much traditional singing do I want to use, as opposed to non-traditional singing? I’m also now struggling with trying to get outside the issue of just writing for myself, and trying to write for other singers. How much do I want them to be able to replicate some of my techniques? How much am I willing to move out of that situation and really write for a larger section of the vocal population? Not just the ones who can do some of the techniques that I do.

I’m in the process of writing a piece for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. When we went into one of the first rehearsals, I came in with drawings. And Francisco Núñez, who is incredibly generous, said, “Wow!” [Laughing]. But I said, “Just relax.  This is just part of my process. I will get to the point of turning my drawings into more traditional looking notation.” Which I have done. And so that’s been a really fascinating thing for him to come to grips with. And for me to come to grips with, as a composer, that I have to create something that other people can look at and make some sense of.

AS: I guess one question for you all, but specifically for you first, Jessica, is what’s the right time for a composer to influence the direction of the piece in this process that we’ve started to discover here? Obviously there are different varieties of this. But for you at least, what’s the right time?

JM: As a violist, I’ve been part of the whole chamber opera renaissance, the black box opera thing that’s happening. And I’ve noticed that there are these moments where the music has been workshopped, the opera is just a couple days away, and there are just some things that are still not working. And people are arguing about it. But the composer isn’t really involved in that moment anymore.

And so when I started thinking about the first opera I was going to write, as I’m reading a short story, I’m already thinking of the material I want on the stage. The dance is going to go like this. People are going to go in and out. I’m already thinking this way. When I started talking to other composers, “Well, what happens when you write opera?” some said, “First someone writes, you come up with the idea, and then someone writes the libretto, and then hands it to you.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” I feel like the composer should be part of the process all the time.

DF: Sometimes the composers are out of the process, because this is the third production of their piece and they don’t care anymore. And sometimes, there is the moment where they say, “We need to fix this. We need a new aria.” And it’s very much more like, “Go to the hotel room and write the big number.” And it is so different. This is what I love about opera: there is no opera. There’s no one thing that’s opera. There are a bunch of little strings and strands, and we are a healthy representation of just the way you kind of get around the big system.

But the point is that we are not just redefining opera. We’re up here trying to redefine the way people perform, make, sing, produce, compose, and write librettos for opera. Because it’s up for grabs. It’s the Wild West at this point.

EH: I would love to just briefly negate what I had said previously, by saying that I think something that is often lacking is the luxury of time. If we had the time, we would absolutely get your composers with your singers and your librettists, and then you bring in your director, and then the composer comes back, and then maybe the librettist comes back, and then the director comes back, and it could be this really beautiful, beautiful thing, where there is maybe no ultimate timeline and it’s just this wonderful collaboration and revision. The problem is that we have two weeks for production and day jobs. And I think that’s what’s driving this compartmentalization of roles, rather than a feeling that artistically there should be a separation between the different processes.

AS: Let’s talk a little bit about this notion of vision. It’s not meant to be one thing. Right? Someone doesn’t have a crystalline vision and then try to create it. But I think one of the things that happens when you’re working in a collaboration is there’s kind of a push and pull around what it is that you’re actually doing, right? What is it that you’re creating? What does it look like?

JLB: The difficulty is that I have to raise all the money. I have to write the grant applications. I have to find a venue. So I have to cover all bases, which is difficult. I would love to have an opera company come to me and say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a shot at doing your thing. How can we manage to support what you want to do, and your vision?” And they let me build a team, and say, “We’ll give you x amount of dollars to do it.” Boy, would I love that. That’s not the position that I’m usually in. So I’m generally in the driver’s seat, as it were. Not comfortably, but that’s what I’ve had to do.

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson

David Wolfson: When you have a final draft, the objective is to make it reflect not necessarily a single vision, but a range of visions, so that any given group of singers and directors who looks at it will come up with new ideas. But they’re not going to be like, “Oh! Well this is a farce,” when in fact it was meant to be something else. So then I think the idea of a vision, because it has to then go through performers and directors, is probably better thought of as a range of visions. A spectrum maybe.

AS: David [Wolfson], you write that, because you write your own libretti, that for you the shape of the music is hovering in the back of your mind from the very beginning. And this is something that I can relate to, because I really feel strongly that it’s a delight as a composer to write and imagine music at the same time, and not have those things be ordered. When you have the words and you have the music in your mind, and you’re in the process of transferring them into something that other people can see and work with, what else is in there? How are you processing all the things that are interacting in your head?

DW: The most difficult part of that is translating it to a stage picture. I very much live in words and live in music, and my first attempts in this direction were very static, physically—you know, talking heads. People sitting around talking to each other. I was lucky enough to have directors work with these things and discover that there was more that could be done  than I had originally thought about. That was a big lesson for me. I’m trying to incorporate this idea into the things I’m working on now.  There are people in space, and people do things. Panelists notwithstanding, they don’t just sit around and talk to each other.

DF: I don’t want to have a vision, because that means I’m going a little crazy—like an actual vision is like a visitation. But I think my job is to have a stage vision so I have at least done due diligence in thinking this is something that can be staged. And then to either tell the director, or never tell the director, depending on the director, but hopefully it’s someone I trust.

AS: I want follow up with Stefan [Weisman] on that same point, because one of the things that he said, which relates directly, is that he actually finishes the music before any real staging has been settled. So the director and designers have carte blanche to do their work. I wondered what you thought about that?

Stefan Weisman: I’m just a composer. So I write the music, and I am okay with letting other people do their job. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a vision or don’t have an opinion. I work a lot with Dave Cote and sometimes we make something and I wonder, how is that actually going to happen? And it’s nice to see it come to life. And if I don’t think it’s working, I can say so, but I’ve been humbled many times by people saying, “What’s your role and what’s my role?” And it’s an interesting process, that kind of collaboration.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam.

AS: We haven’t really talked about audience tonight at all. And I think that’s fine. But I want to just touch on it a little bit here, because something that Pam said made me think about that. You said that, more or less, composers are basically performers, educators, writers, producers, multimedia artists—that’s just the nature of the beast right now. And then you said that “because these artists are multitasking, they’re doing many things, wearing many hats, that it leads to a less segmented artistic process, and ultimately a better audience experience.” I’m really interested in what you mean by that.  How does a multitasking artist, someone who’s wearing multiple hats behind the scenes, impact on the experience of the people who are there to see the work?

Pamela Stein Lynde: One of the issues that I’ve had as an audience member is having the experience dictated to me. I want to create something where the experience is a little bit more open-ended and interpretive for the audience. I feel that when you have a process that’s more organic, and you have people working in a very even way, and people doing a lot of different jobs at once, you end up with a product that’s a little bit less segmented and more organic, and maybe more sincere, because of that. I would hope, at least.

EH: Well, I know that in Rhymes with Opera’s sordid past, we’ve had one or two experiences where we’ve controlled the music, and we’ve done a concert, park and bark type event.  But we decided to get some visual artists involved, because that’s what you do in contemporary music, when you’re not having any blocking. But we didn’t have the communication between the two groups, so we sort of showed up to do our music, and they showed up to do their visuals. The two had nothing to do with one another, and the vision was lost.

Daron Hagen: The Human Element

A conversation in Hagen’s home in Rhinebeck, New York
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.

*

Hagen's grand piano with a manuscript score illuminated by overhead lamps.

Daron Hagen’s piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

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.

Table with fruitbowl, water pitcher, glasses, and a tray with various additional fruits.

Hagen explained that when singers come over the rehearse he always makes sure to have food and beverages ready for them on his dining table. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

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.

Music notation for orchestra.

An excerpt from “Falling Flowers,” the second movement of Genji, a concerto for koto and orchestra by Daron Hagen. Copyright © 2010 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

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.

Historic photo of a teenaged Daron Hagen holding a baton as young musicians play instruments.

A teenaged Daron Hagen conducting a youth orchestra in 1979. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

Gilda Lyons, Ned Rorem and Daron Hagen with Rorem's arm leaning on Hagen.

Daron Hagen’s wife Gilda Lyons (left) wih Ned Rorem (center) and Daron Hagen in 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

David Diamond and Daron Hagen wearing jackets and ties and standing in front of a piano.

Daron Hagen with David Diamond (left) a week before Diamond’s death in 2005. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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?

FJO: But to take it back to this idea of narrative. Your early songs, in and of themselves, didn’t necessarily have a narrative; some of the poems you set are just aphoristic. But by putting them together and forming cycles, you created narrative arcs for these songs. You created larger structures out of them. So I’m curious about how you decided to make those building blocks, especially after noticing that the recording and the printed score were not the same. You obviously decided to make a definitive version of it after the recording came out.

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.

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon leaning against a stone fence in the countryside.

Daron Hagen with Paul Muldoon at his home in East Amherst in 1992. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

Leonard Bernstein holding a cigarette and studying a score as Daron Hagen looks on.

Leonard Bernstein (left) studying a score by Daron Hagen (right) in 1986. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen

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.

Man and woman outside a Frank Lloyd Wright-styled building.

Frank Lloyd Wright (sung by Kevin Kees) woos Mamah Cheney (Lara Lynn) at Fallingwater from the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s site-specific production of Shining Brow, summer 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen. University of Texas Opera Theater

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.
University of Texas Opera Theater

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.

DAH: Vera!

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.

The cast of Vera in Las Vegas

From the staged premiere of Vera of Las Vegas at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater in New York City, June 2003.

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.

Two men dressed in suits, one gesticulating with his hands.

From a 2005 staged workshop of The Antient Concert at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater featuring Sean Effinger-Dean as McCormack (left) and Matthew Bernier as James Joyce (right). Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

A staged scene from Amelia, in the center are two hospital beds, to the far left a man in uniform walks through a door and above it all is an old propeller airplane and its pilot.

From the 2010 premiere production of Amelia at Seattle’s McCaw Opera House. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

Costumed members of the cast of Little Nemo in Slumberland featuring woman holding a stick with a giant sunflower on top.

From the world premiere of Daron Hagen’s opera Little Nemo in Slumberland at the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota, Florida, in November 2012. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

Music notation for voices and piano

An excerpt from the vocal score of A Woman in Morocco. Music by Daron Hagen, libretto by Daron Hagen and Barbara Grecki. Copyright © 2013-2014 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

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.

A darkly lit stage with trhee women: one standing, one sitting at a desk, and another on the floor leaning against a chair.

From a staged production of A Woman in Morocco at the Butler Opera Center in Austin, Texas in November 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

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.

Photo of interior of room with grand piano, shelves, chair, and wooden floor.

Daron Hagen’s living room at his home in Rhinebeck with a shelf containing the vocal scores for all the Verdi operas in back of his piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

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.

Daron Hagen points at a detail of a photo in a frame on the wall as FJO looks on.

Daron Hagen (right) in his composition studio showing memorabilia from various productions of his operas to FJO. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Washington National Opera to Mount 3 New 20-Minute Operas

Heatshots of the six commissioned composers and librettists

The three composers (upper row from left to right) John Liberatore, Rene Orth, and Jake Runestad, and the three librettists (lower row from left to right) Niloufar Talebi, Jason Kim, and David Johnston. Photos courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

The Washington National Opera has announced details for the third season of their American Opera Initiative, a commissioning program that brings contemporary American stories to the stage while fostering the talents of rising American composers and librettists. Three teams of new opera composers and librettists—John Liberatore and Niloufar Talebi, Jake Runestad and David Johnston, and Rene Orth and Jason Kim—will premiere new 20-minute operas, each based on a contemporary American story, in a semi-staged concert performance on November 21, 2014 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
For more information, visit the WNO website.

Remembering Robert Ward (1917-2013)

Ward and Ching

Robert Ward with Michael Ching in 2000.

I have been lucky to have had a number of great teachers and colleagues, but Robert Ward stands out first amongst them. Even back in 1977 when I first met him, his hair was mostly a distinguished white. His fatherly manner was always warm, and even when he was vehemently arguing a point, he never seemed truly angry. Bob’s inner composer was a respected and valued member of society, and so he frequently could be seen in a good suit or sport coat and bow tie. He believed that artists weren’t always outsiders, but people who deserved a place at the table beside donors, industrialists, and scientists in order to provide a different perspective on society.
Bob Ward believed in providing his student composers with opportunities to hear their works performed under the best possible circumstances. When he realized that a couple of us at Duke had finished orchestra pieces, he arranged for the North Carolina Symphony to come over and read them. When I decided to write a one-act opera for a senior thesis, he arranged for it to be produced and sung by experienced professionals. Bob was very insistent that composers be able to play and sing every note of their operas in order to remain honest to their inner ear. He also felt that by trying to play and sing a show, composers would learn what the singers have to go through to learn the notes. Back then in 1980, for me, coaching and listening to MET roster singer Michael Best try to get through my vocal lines was a priceless lesson.

Bob was really great at encouraging you to write in whatever style you wanted to. This was particularly important back in the ’70s and ’80s when music composition was in the grip of what felt like life or death battles over atonality and twelve-tone technique. Despite those prevailing stylistic winds, Ward kept to his tonal and often tuneful style. I remember a composition teacher at a summer festival describing Ward’s music as “awful.” But it was not awful! It was simply an American sound that was prevalent in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the sound of Gershwin or Gould and Bernstein. Robert Ward believed that sound still communicated with audiences, and he was going to write in that manner with all the technique and integrity he could muster. He never really deviated from that path.

After our days as teacher/student, Bob and I got to work on a couple of other projects together, including the premiere of Minutes Till Midnight at what is now called the Florida Grand Opera. That opera has a great aria in it where the main character, a nuclear scientist, asks, “Oh cosmos, with your myriad stars, afloat in the mystery of space, will your mantle of peace descend on this tormented place?” That kind of lyric about world peace inspired Bob.

Bob was something of a socialist at heart and not a fan of organized religion. He was toying with the idea of an opera about the labor leader Eugene Debs in his later years. The church certainly was not portrayed in a favorable light in his opera Abelard and Heloise. His progressive politics were mixed with old fashioned ideas about marital roles. In a fairly recent conversation with me, he said archly that now that I was a freelancer, I was lucky that my wife had a steady job. Even in his crackly older voice, you could hear the sound of friendly chiding. But indeed, I think Bob was justifiably proud of the fact that he had earned a living through his art and had been a good provider for a wife and five children. How many of us could do the same?

Bob was generous with his stories. This was much to the chagrin of his smart and undersung spouse Mary, who sometimes had the “not-this-one-again” look of someone who had heard a story about “Lennie” [Bernstein] or “Arthur” [Miller] one too many times. I do remember a tale about a harrowing night when the Japanese broke through the American lines where he was directing a band in the Aleutians, and some witty chats over dinner with his Crucible librettist Bernard Stambler.

For most of us in opera, to get a single piece into the standard operatic repertoire would be considered a lasting and major accomplishment. There are plenty of examples of that—The Merry Widow, Pagliacci, La Giaconda—to name a few. Clearly The Crucible is going to remain a cornerstone of the American opera repertoire, alongside Susanna, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and a few others. In addition to some of the most iconic characters in American opera, The Crucible has a sense of forward motion and sweep, which causes it never to be bogged down in a swamp of recitative.

Bob was very proud of the opera and posters of the Korean and German premieres (Die Hexenjagd!) used to hang on the walls of his studio. I know so many singers who have vivid memories of singing Tituba, John Procter, Abigail or Elizabeth Proctor that we could probably have a Crucible sing-along. Maybe we’ll do that sometime. The hymn in the show, “Jesus my consolation,” has taught more opera singers to sing in 7/8 than any other piece. His other operas deserve a second hearing, including Abelard and Heloise and his treatment of Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever which is a smart little chamber opera for four women.

Ward’s instrumental music is always idiomatic and well-wrought. Check out his Appalachian Ditties and Dances or his Raleigh Divertimento for wind quintet. There is a really charming young audiences piece for narrator and orchestra called Jonathan and the Gingery Snare which I remember Bob narrating with great enthusiasm. Although he had stopped writing operas, Bob continued to write instrumental music well into his nineties.

Ward with Ching

A less formal Robert Ward with Michael Ching in 2005.

Arts in the state of North Carolina is better for Bob Ward having been there. His involvement with the School of the Arts and, to a lesser extent, Duke, will be long remembered. He regularly served on national and state boards, prize committees, and music panels. In order to keep opera alive in central North Carolina, he co-founded and chaired the board of an opera company there, now absorbed into the North Carolina Opera. In this internet era where every tweet, blog, and post is an implied act of subtle self-promotion, he did the in-the-trenches work unsung, as a quiet steady duty.

In our final chat together last month, when we were making plans for me to come see him this July, I asked Bob about his relationship with the composer Douglas Moore. He said that Moore was an unusually generous colleague. That is an apt description for Bob, too.

*

Composer and conductor Michael Ching is now the chair of the Douglas Moore Fund, which provides an annual grant to an aspiring opera/music theater creator. His opera Speed Dating Tonight premieres this summer at Brevard.

Paul Kellogg: Life Beyond Bohème, Carmen, and Traviata

[Ed. note: This conversation between Paul Kellogg, then Artistic Director of both Glimmerglass Opera (now the Glimmerglass Festival) and New York City Opera, and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on October 1, 1998. It was the third in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

***
RICHARD KESSLER: What it is like to lead two very different opera companies?

PAUL KELLOGG: I’m often asked this question, and I always have to correct the question itself because actually I’m leading the City Opera as general and artistic director, but serving Glimmerglass as artistic director only. I’m not handling the day to day business, which is fortunate. Frankly, I couldn’t possibly do both. But it’s a situation that’s unique, as far as I know — it offers opportunities for both companies that are in themselves fairly unique. For Glimmerglass, in rural, undeveloped, upstate New York, the cooperation between City Opera and Glimmerglass provides secure, reliable funding every year because we share production costs. For City Opera it provides the opportunity to bring well-developed productions to the State Theater stage. It’s very expensive and very difficult to rehearse at City Opera — we simply can’t get the stage enough. But Glimmerglass has a different situation where the stage is available. It’s a house that’s controlled by the company itself, and not shared with anyone else. So we have time to develop productions there, look at them on stage, decide what works and what doesn’t work, and make changes, and this results in a much tighter, better, more physical production. It also gives the director and cast an opportunity to get a work solidly in their minds and bodies by the time the work opens. All in all, it’s a very good cooperation between the two companies.

RK: How do you view the role of opera in contemporary society?

PK: It’s odd. Five years ago I might have said that the role of opera is decreasing in importance; that other things are coming along to capture the imagination of young people; that television has had a nearly fatal influence on the performing arts generally and on opera in particular; that the audience was aging. Now I see things quite differently. It has something to do with a real explosion of interest in opera among young people. I’m not entirely sure why this is happening, but it is clearly there — certainly at these two houses. It may have something to do with the fact that opera here is perceived as being presented in a contemporary, relevant way. It may also have to do with repertory choices. I have to say that at City Opera it is not contemporary music that draws young people most enthusiastically, but Bohème, Carmen, and Butterfly — the standard, traditional dating operas. The effect of getting people into an opera house for the first time is that very often — I won’t say inevitably, but certainly very often-they decide to come back. And overall, through all our repertory, there are more young people in this house now than I’ve seen over the years. So what does this say about the role of opera in contemporary society? I think that these people are seeing that opera presents ideas and feelings in a way that isn’t just intellectual, and that isn’t just abstract and that it has access to our deepest beings through both the intellect and the feelings, which delivers a kind of double force. Perhaps for that reason we’re seeing a more open and more receptive audience than a few years ago.

RK: In every one of these interviews we are asking a few questions that remain constant from interview to interview. For instance: what music are you listening to today? It’s interesting: Thomas Hampson started talking about Reba McEntire (although that never comment never made it into the final interview). Steve Reich mentioned Arvo Pärt. We’ve asked a variation of this question to every interviewee so far.

This next question has to do with the repertoire. For the most part the core stand of the opera repertoire has not expanded significantly since the early part of this century. For the orchestra, (for the symphonic form it’s a little bit later), what strikes you most about this? Do you think that in the years to come we will see more new works fully embraced by artists, organizations, and, most importantly, audiences?

PK: Of course opera lost its preeminence as an entertainment form in this century. There are other art forms: films, television (if it can be called an art form these days, although it has the potential to be)…

RK: It is on occasion…

PK: Theater, the musical comedy: all of these things compete, in a sense, for people’s time. I suppose something more or less moribund can’t be expected to grow. However, there has frequently been a lag between the creation of a work and wide public acceptance. One can’t really expect a new piece to jump into the core repertory immediately. I haven’t fathomed just why opera audiences in this century, particularly in this country, became so conservative unless it has to do with the growing aura of elitism surrounding opera, and its vast expense to produce which bred timidity in producers. This timidity seems to exist less where government funding is secure and generous, but the opera audience remains in large part tradition-bound even there.

Then too new music for a long time was associated with something dry and academic and tonal and foreign to the experience of most operagoers, and a wide suspiciousness developed. Happily a great deal of good contemporary composition is moving in the direction of accessibility, which will help. We hope to make the public aware of this direction and much of the fine work that’s already been written and neglected.

RK: The diversity among the writing is remarkable at this point.

PK: Absolutely.

RK: Although a gap still remains. The whole reason we at the Center have decided to create an Internet magazine for new music is because we feel that there’s a tremendous lack of communication sources specifically geared for new music. There are many people out there with negative perceptions of new music that were forged in the 1950s/60s; they still have a perception of new music and of opera — and I think that’s part of what you were talking about — a narrow perception of opera.

PK: Part of the problem is that new music grew into an intellectual ghetto and lost its popular audience. Like everybody else and every other activity in our society, people are nervous about intellectualizing; they’re uncomfortable in an atmosphere that seems heavily intellectualized. To break down that barrier is one of our many responsibilities now in producing opera.

RK: What are your plans here at City Opera for the next few years? I know that you have some very interesting plans afoot — with artists like Terence McNally and Michael Torke.

PK: Absolutely. Well, we have commissioned new works, and are talking to other composers about works in all sorts of compositional and dramatic styles. The new work that’s already underway involves three young-ish American composers, Michael Torke, Deborah Drattel, and Robert Beaser, each writing one-act operas to libretti by established American playwrights: Terence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein and A.R. Gurney, all centering around incidents in Central Park. I think that’s really a lovely project — we’re all having great fun with it. We’ll be producing a new work being written in another vein by Charles Wuorinen to a libretto by James Fenton based on the Salmon Rushdie novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories that will be coming along toward the end of the year 2000. I’m talking to other composers about work as well. Tobias Picker‘s Emmeline this season had a great success in this very large theater. One of the things that we face at the State Theater, which has 2700 seats and is expensive to operate in, is that it’s a major financial undertaking for us to put on a new work that has no built-in audience. We do it, however, because we believe it’s our obligation to, and because we like the work, and because we want the public to know what it is, and to get to learn to like it. How are they going to get to know what a new work is like unless they get the chance to hear it? Frankly it is a little impractical to be doing something that is considered experimental (I suppose) in a theater like this one. I’m hoping, in this little race we’re on, that we can convert large numbers of the public to this kind of music before we lose our shirts financially.

Another thing we’re very interested in doing at City Opera is establishing a kind of core repertory of American works. We’ve begun this, in fact. This season, 1998-99, will bring both Lizzie Borden by Jack Beeson and Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd which I and many of us here consider core American repertory. It’s something that we should be doing in this house. I’m also glad to see the Met is also bringing Susannah into its season next year. Only if major companies take this kind of stand will a core repertory be introduced to this country.

RK: I went to see the premiere of The Rake’s Progress at the Met. It’s a fifty-year-old piece, at least. And it seemed that if someone had said: “This is brand-new,” or “This has just been written yesterday,” or “This is the premiere performance,” I would’ve believed it. I find this to be both positive and negative. Positive in regards to Stravinsky and his great work, and to the production itself, negative perhaps considering the repertory issue again — it hearkens back to the second question about the repertory slowing down its expansion. It makes one wonder about the state of a musical form when a work composed 50 years ago seems as if it was practically brand-new. Has this ever occurred to you?

PK: Well, it’s interesting. I had something of the same experience with Paul Bunyan when we first did it at Glimmerglass in 1995. I had the sense that this is a new work, that it’s something fresh, and surprising, and I think a lot of the audience did. Now Britten, for whatever reason, even the Britten of 1940 written in a kind of operetta vein, is hard for some people today to understand and grasp. I do not understand that, but it’s there. There’s a prejudice against works by Britten. I’m passionate about Britten — I think he’s one of the great opera composers of all time and we’re hoping to do an Albert Herring in the State Theater in two years. We’ve already done Turn of The Screw and I want to do one day A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, although the Met now has done it (and very well too, I must say). We have an obligation to a composer of our time who is one of the great composers of all time. We have to fulfill that obligation by presenting his work. But the audience has got to come along with us sooner or later!

RK: Again, it’s a perception/actuality question — there’s a game there. At any rate it’s clear that you’re trying to create a certain image for City Opera. And I might ask you later to address that more specifically. But first: what do you think about new technologies? How do you think that they will alter the way music is created, performed, and (perhaps most importantly) accessed?

PK: Well, there are technologies not yet dreamt of that will undoubtedly make enormous changes in the field itself — in composition, in performance, in public perception. Certainly the most important thing that’s happened to opera in the last 100 years, perhaps, (or that takes us back to the turn of the century, which was our start-off date here) has been surtitles. Surtitles have increased the audience’s understanding and involvement in a work not only dramatically, but also in what the music is doing at a given moment, because opera is, after all, words and music — and if you don’t understand the words, what the music is doing is irrelevant and pointless. So why should anyone come to the opera who doesn’t know what’s happening? That may be a radical thing to say.

RK: No, I think it makes perfect sense.

PK: But surtitles have certainly increased audiences, I think they’re responsible for the younger audiences we’re seeing, and responsible for the enthusiasm that people have about opera today, and a new sense of its relevance.

RK: When you get home, and you think to yourself, “Oh, I don’t want to spend time thinking about Glimmerglass, City Opera, or this baritone or that piece”, what music do you listen to?

PK: Well, it’s always business in the sense that what I listen to (except very rarely, when I have time to listen for pleasure) in the car when I have long stretches of time on the road driving back and forth between Cooperstown and New York is opera that we may want to do in years to come — I’m always scouting the repertory. I’m doing that at something of a disadvantage, because it does help to have the libretto in front of you when you’re planning work.

I do listen for pleasure, it’s frankly another kind of music altogether. It tends to be lieder — Tom Hampson, actually, quite a lot — artsong forms which create a very different atmosphere. They provide a kind of relief from opera’s rather large demands. I listen to some contemporary song composers. I think there are several of them now who are writing beautiful songs. Robert Beaser is one, John Musto, Ricky Ian Gordon. Composers are increasingly writing for the voice, and doing it with great understanding, in ways that are expanding the form.

RK: What other works have you been looking at that you’re interested in? You talked about Carlisle Floyd, and there are others. What other works do you think have not had their due?

PK: Well, we’re reviving Virgil Thomson‘s The Mother of Us All, which is a perfectly charming, very moving American work of intelligence and distinction. It hasn’t had its due. There are many people now writing operas that don’t get performed and won’t ever get known, and your heart breaks for them, because companies (even a company that’s as well-disposed to contemporary music as we are at City Opera) just don’t have time in schedules that need to be balanced and can’t afford to produce new works, much less commission and produce new works. So a lot of very, very good writing is not being heard today. I do think that once a work gets produced, it does at least exist out there somehow. And the chance of its being done again is much greater. Composers feel (increasingly, I think) that having a work performed once is not of much use to them because they’ve spent all this time and have worked to do something that, by its very nature, will disappear once the curtain comes down. But the work does exist, nevertheless, and other companies will come back to it in time, I believe, if it’s worth something. There are many people — I’m one of them — who do look at work that has been produced and for which there is no subsequent performance planned. Emmeline was an example this year, and Paul Bunyan was another example of a work that had very little life before we did it at Glimmerglass in 1995. Now it’s been produced at Covent Garden, and it’s being considered by other companies, not because we did it at Glimmerglass, but just because its time seems to have come.

RK: You obviously have come up with an image of what City Opera is. You are obviously shaping that, and heading in a certain direction. How would you describe it? How would you invite someone to come to the City Opera? What would you say?

PK: A question like this I think is almost best answered by people’s experience with the company once they’ve gotten here. They see what’s happening, they get a sense of the company. (Let me start this answer again, because I was just talking about this at lunch with someone today when we were talking about what City Opera really is…)

RK: Perfect!

PK: An opera company establishes its image in people’s minds through its repertory, through its artists, and also interestingly, through its audience, apart from the kind of PR spin that a publicity department puts on its press releases that describe the company. But quite apart from that, a repertory speaks most loudly about what a company is doing. If a company like City Opera produces five or six 20th-century works in a season of sixteen operas, there is an interest being expressed in the music of our time. Now, opera has been around for 400 years, so a well-balanced repertory is going to include other periods as well as the contemporary. When a third of a company’s works are contemporary, then it says something about the interest that a company has. Other veins that we explore here are unusual repertory pieces that haven’t been done in New York particularly often, if at all. Iphigénie en Tauride was an example of that. Next season we’re doing Intermezzo by Strauss, a 20th century work that’s seldom performed. It’s certainly not new — it’s almost seventy-five years old and has not been given a fully staged performance in New York, interestingly enough. It’s a great, wonderfully involving theatrical evening.

We want to show people that there is life beyond Bohème, Carmen, and Traviata, however wonderful those three operas are (and they certainly are extraordinary pieces). But there is an operatic world to be explored beyond that, and we’re going to do that exploration, and do it in ways that first of all, are first-quality musically and involving dramatically and theatrically. Does that answer your question?

RK: Yes, absolutely. That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything you’ve missed?

PK: I’d like to get back to an earlier question: The second element that people look at when they decide what an opera company really is, is who the artists are. In our case, our artists are for the most part young and American, and this in and of itself makes a statement about a company’s image. We hire stage directors, conductors, and designers who work together as a team before a production opens, and we try as much as possible to build an ensemble out of the cast, and give lots and lots of rehearsal time, so that what one hears and sees on stage is cohesive, and that’s something we want City Opera to be known for: a company whose productions have a kind of polish and finish, a cohesive and immediately recognizable dramatic style.