Tag: Metropolitan Opera

Kevin Puts: Keeping Secrets

Banner for Episode 20 of SoundLives showing Kevin Puts during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera

Composer Kevin Puts takes pride in keeping secrets, both by being understated in his interactions with people and by never initially giving away all the goods in his music, preferring, as he explained to me last month when we chatted for a about an hour over Zoom, “to keep something in reserve so that there’s a payoff for the attentive listener.” Nevertheless, during the course of our conversation he revealed some fascinating secrets about many of his compositions including his latest opera The Hours (which received its world premiere on November 22 at the Metropolitan Opera), his first opera Silent Night (for which he received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music), his Symphony No. 3 (which was inspired by Björk), and Contact (his triple concerto for Time for Three which just won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition).

Puts’s opera The Hours received an extraordinary lavish production that most composers can only dream of. It featured a huge cast headlined by three top operatic stars–Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara–plus a gargantuan chorus which frequently takes center stage. When the production was announced it seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was in the works for five years. It grew directly out of Puts’s previous collaboration with Fleming, Letters From Georgia, a five moment song cycle based on letters that the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After Fleming announced she was no longer focusing on standard operatic repertoire and wanted to devote her energies to singing new roles, Puts casually asked her if she’d be amenable to singing in an opera if he wrote one for her. Within weeks she suggested an opera based on The Hours, a complex narrative that interweaves stories of women in three different time periods which had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as well as a successful Hollywood film. Puts, who had read the book and saw the movie and loved them both, said that he instantly “could imagine the kinds of things that you could do on the operatic stage that are not possible in a book or in a film.” Soon thereafter she mentioned the idea to Peter Gelb who was immediately excited about a work that could star three major box office draws. Curiously, these three women don’t actually sing together until the very end of the opera. Even though the entire opera is building toward that moment, Puts admitted that he didn’t compose that material until very late in the game. As he explained, “What I used to do is I would compose where I’m going before I got there, and actually that’s something I don’t do anymore. … Getting there was something I had to earn as a composer.”

Gelb was amenable to Fleming’s suggestion of commissioning Kevin Puts after listening to a recording of Puts’s first opera Silent Night, a work which also juxtaposing three different story lines involving groups of soldiers from Scotland, France, and Germany who come to a brief truce in 1914 during First World War. Based on the screenplay for the multilingual film Joyeux Noël which in turn was based on real life events, it was an ideal opportunity for Puts to demonstrate his skills in setting words in multiple languages and, since one of the German soldiers is an operatic tenor, it also gave Puts an opportunity to show off his ability to compose music that evokes the lush sound world of late Romantic operas.

The other two operas that Puts has composed thus far are based on The Manchurian Candidate, a fascinating political thriller written in 1959 that has been adapted twice for the screen and seems extremely relevant to our current zeitgeist, and Elizabeth Cree based on a Victorian-themed whodunit by Peter Ackroyd, which also allowed Puts to create music that enhances the impact of surprise through introducing new sonic elements. While Puts’s compositional approach is well suited to the operatic stage, it is also how he constructs his extremely effective concertos and symphonies which for him can also be narrative despite being abstract instrumental works. In fact, his first two symphonies were both cast in a single movement so that they would have the same impact as a motion picture which is a continuous experience from start to finish.

“As has been noted many times, there’s a cinematic quality to my music,” Puts acknowledged. “In fact, I love film, and not just film music, but I love film itself. I think with those single-movement pieces, I thought, ‘I want to make an unbroken narrative arc like a film.’ Why should we have to stop?”

But Puts changed his approach with his Third Symphony, a three movement work that was inspired by hearing Björk’s 2001 album Vespertine although it does not use any of her music and is completely original. He got the idea for the piece while he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an art historian also in residence there was watching a music video of Björk on television.

“I’m not up-to-date on a lot of things that are going on, like pop music,” he admitted. “But this is gorgeous! So beautiful timbrally, gorgeous string textures and choral textures. And I really liked the shapes of her voice, the melodic quality of her singing in relation to the oddness and the transparency and the fragility of her singing, and sometimes power as well in relation to this sonic world around her. So I want to do something with it. I want to react to this in my own way. I was interested in making this kind of swirling sound world circling around the melodic ideas of the piece and to have the melodic ideas just in some sense be an imitation of her vocal style, and that’s really all it is. I wasn’t really interested in using melodies. … More just reacting to the sound world of that album.”

Puts just received the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Contact, a triple concerto he wrote for Time for Three, a string trio that blurs the lines between classical music, Americana, and pop. “Most of the writing of the concerto for Time for Three was done before we went into isolation,” he recalled. “Then we just continued to work on it. We edited, we revised, we tried things out, we added and subtracted and I reorchestrated quite a bit.”

But despite being composed for a group whose usual fare is rooted in the here and now, Puts took the group on a very different musical journey even though it could not been conceived in any other time but in our own.

As he explained, “You probably know this quote from Rachmaninoff. He said, ‘I tried to embrace the music of my time and I feel like a ghost walking among the living.’ I just feel like I sort of do what I do. The sort of things I do as a musician and a composer are so deeply ingrained. They’re such a huge part of who I am. They’re the things that really excite me, and often, the very, very simple things, as you can hear in the music … It’s just truly what I find most exciting about the music I love, these simple, beautiful moments that probably end up being almost nothing on the page, but what they do to me emotionally is fantastic.”

Not worrying about whether your music fits in with the current moment and being true to who you are is also the advice he gives other composers, both as a composition teacher at the Peabody Institute and as the director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

“I just feel like what’s going on right now in this moment, of course you should be open to whatever’s going on, the zeitgeist, but I would just look at all of music that you’ve heard, that meant something to you from the very beginning, and feel like it’s okay to incorporate all of that and to sort of build a voice from all of it and have that be the part of you that remains inviolate to all these pressures that exist right now in the world, all the transparency that exists through social media, that feels like there’s no private space now. I would make your music your private space and the place you can do the things you believe fervently in and that you’re most emotionally connected to. That’s certainly been my approach to things over the how many years I’ve been doing this.”

Readers Respond to Death of Klinghoffer Simulcast Cancellation

The Death of Klinghoffer
It came as no surprise that the cancellation of the scheduled simulcast of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, slated for production at the Metropolitan Opera this fall, has inspired some very active comment section action (both on this site and on the New York Times post about the issue), in addition to volleys lobbed via social media. Much of what we’re seeing here sits firmly on the side of disappointment that the Met would withdraw the opportunity to experience the work outside of Lincoln Center, and respondents question the validity of the charge that it could be used as a tool to encourage anti-Semitism. As a commenter posting as Jim notes on our initial news story, “There’s nothing anti-semitic about the piece, which flatly condemns violence. The only people who would come away with anti-semitic views would have to have come in with them.”

While most of the conversation since the news broke has centered around concern or outright annoyance that a piece of art could be challenged and removed in this manner, others spoke out in support of the position of the Anti-Defamation League and the Klinghoffer sisters, with Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun tweeting:

Of the many comments, however, Nancy Lederman, posting to the New York Times’ piece, pointed out that “I can’t comment on the underlying debate about the opera I’ve never seen or heard. But controversy breeds sales. I think I’ll buy a ticket so I can see for myself.”

And so on that note, we encourage those on all sides of this debate to listen to the piece! There is a recording, a DVD, a perusal score available (free with log-in) or buy the reduction and play through it at the piano. There’s even a Spotify stream of the recording available, so take your pick and a couple hours. Then let’s chat.

Making It Matter

I spent a good part of last week in Cleveland where I was invited by The Cleveland Orchestra to give a series of talks for their fall festival, Fate and Freedom, which paired music by Beethoven and Shostakovich. While this was clearly not contemporary American repertoire, I was still thrilled to participate in these concerts since they afforded audiences an opportunity to deal with deeply relevant music teeming with political implications—e.g. rejecting Napoleon’s imperial aspirations, working around Joseph Stalin’s foibles. It might appear somewhat disingenuous to profess that completely abstract instrumental symphonies composed between 70 and 200 years ago—three of which by each composer were performed by the orchestra—could offer any discernible message to 21st century listeners, let alone a message that challenges dictators and asserts individual freedom. But the fact is, both of these composers were heavily informed by larger social concerns. Even though the specifics of any possible message a listener can walk away with from hearing their music is admittedly tenuous at best, it sparked some exciting discussions. And the larger sociological implications of the music were further highlighted during the week with screenings of two films that used music by those composers as their soundtracks. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange famously borrows sections from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to chilling effect in a film that forces us to reconsider crime and how it is punished. The New Babylon, a 1929 Soviet silent film about the 1871 Paris Commune, was the first of 35 films to be scored by Shostakovich; his score helped to create an extremely effective piece of cinematic propaganda against the avarice of the bourgeoisie.

Of course, the music that can most clearly relate to the ongoing concerns in our society is the music that is being created right here right now. Which is why, despite how wonderful my time was in Cleveland during the latter half of last week, the most memorable of my concert-going experiences was attending the American premiere of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera.

Much has been made about the fact that Muhly (b. 1981) is the youngest composer ever to be commissioned by the Met, having been approached to compose an opera for them when he was only 25 years old. (That’s when we started paying attention to him as well.) I’ve already made quite a big deal of what a rarity a new opera by a composer of any age is at the Met. But Two Boys is much more than a new work by a very young composer. It is one of the only operas composed thus far that deals with the way people interact with each other online (although I imagine there will be many more similarly-themed works in the years to come). More importantly, it deals with some very complex moral issues—specifically fears about sexual orientation, the way the internet makes it so easy to lie about who we really are, cold blooded murder versus what could possibly be interpreted as assisted suicide—that are at the forefront of conversations taking place at dinner tables through the country. That the opera does so without clearly taking sides allows it to be open to multiple interpretations, which can only lead to even more nuanced conversations about these weighted topics. One of the most effective ways to get people thinking and talking about sensitive issues is through the prism of a work of art. Film has played this role for generations now. Music can and should have that role as well.

Two Boys

This is what online communication looks like on the stage of the Met. A scene from Nico Muhly’s Two Boys.
Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.

This all came back to me in Cleveland as I was packing my luggage on Saturday for my return back to New York City, and had C-SPAN on in the background. (This is about the only context in which I ever turn on a television.) Anyway, the program I was tuned into was a call-in show with Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Ed. The show was serving largely as ambient sound for me since I was tending to a myriad of tiny details—folding shirts, making sure I didn’t forget to unplug the charger for my cellphone, etc. But one caller forced her way into the foreground of my attention when during her complaining about the mega-college her grandson was attending exclaimed, “My grandson had to take a jazz class. He was even forced to go to jazz saloons. What does a 19-year-old care about jazz?” Lederman responded by stating that university educations have largely become a way in which we ensure that members of our society become better citizens and that we as a society need to be very clear about “what … we want higher education to do?” The fact that someone ringing up a call-in cable TV program about higher education could not comprehend the value of music while somewhat astounding, is not surprising. We who make and disseminate musical experiences need to constantly remind folks that what we do has relevance and that without it our world would be a more shallow and less livable place.