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SEMMELWEIS, a music-theater work I created with my writer collaborator Matthew Doherty, premiered in a fully-staged production in Budapest in 2018. The work centers upon the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian physician being talked about a lot these days as the pioneer of hand washing and antiseptic procedures in preventing the spread of deadly infection. Until May 31, 2020, the complete work is streaming for free online.
Until twelve years ago, I had never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis. One day, I read a passing mention of him in a book about innovators, with a very brief summary of his significance: Working on the front lines of a devastating epidemic, and watching midwives’ practices closely, he came to believe that the deadly disease was being spread to healthy mothers on the unclean hands of their doctors. Having tried as hard as might to tell the world, he was ignored, even scorned, and died alone in an asylum, ironically of the very condition he’d found the simple solution for. Though medical personnel learn the basics of his legacy in their training, Ignaz Semmelweis remained an obscure figure to most, until around March 2020.
Today, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can scarcely imagine how, back in the midst of a horrendous and baffling 19th-century pandemic of childbed fever, which killed as many as one in three new mothers, something so simple—clean hands—could be have been so foreign as to not even merit consideration as a potential solution. It was not even worth trying, as far as the medical establishment of the 1840s seemed to be concerned. Remember that these were dedicated and brilliant people who seemed ready to try anything in their desperate hunt for the cure, people who had worked their utmost all their lives to be able to save lives. But the hypothesis of this one Hungarian doctor working then at Vienna’s top hospital, that there was something deadly on the doctors’ own hands, was too far-fetched for them?! How could this be?
What struck me about the story is its demonstration of our incredible human capacity for denial. Doctors were being introduced to a truth that could simply not be tolerated: that their patients, new mothers and their babies, had all along been dying because of something transmitted via their own “healer’s” hands, that the harder they had worked to try to solve the problem—cycling between performing autopsies in the morgue and examining mothers in the obstetrics ward—the more death they were causing. The longer it took doctors to accept the truth, the more deaths they caused.
One can surely empathize with the intensity of their mind’s desire to have this not be true. For many physicians, when they ultimately could no longer deny this sickening truth, the psychological impact was devastating; suicides occurred. Sheer self-preservation in the short term was a powerful force in holding open this gaping blind spot, until it could finally be denied no longer. But this took decades, the changing of a generation, and mountains of more evidence, including the landmark germ theory of disease finally put forth in the 1880s. Emotion held sway over logic for decades, even with the world’s top medical minds, with countless deaths resulting.
Our human history is filled with such examples of stubborn blind spots. In our own time we have seen issues like the climate crisis, racial and socioeconomic injustices, and LGBT rights take decades and generational turnover to uncover our eyes. As hard as it is to even accept the unpleasant reality that the environment we will leave our children is badly deteriorated and getting worse, that their lives will be less abundant, safe, healthy, and peaceful than ours have been, harder still is it to face up to the likelihood of our own collective and individual culpability, to recognize how indulgent we’ve been, how much we will have to relinquish of our treasured status quo, in order to stand even a chance of reversing it.
Facing such massive anxiety-inducing possibilities, the mind desperately looks for any glimmer of hope that this may not be true. And one self-soothing response is to act as though it weren’t true, continuing our status-quo behaviors, even leaning into them, for the short-term psychological self-preservation that a fantasy-reality might provide. Sadly, of course, this worsens the problem, just as it did for the doctors of Semmelweis’s time. The attitude of the time was that a good doctor’s smock should be so filthy it can stand on its own when removed, as a sign of how much he (doctors were all male at that time) worked. Soiled and foul-smelling hands were a point of pride, a mark of toughness and selfless dedication. These norms were very hard to break, just as we continue to be terrible as a society at recycling, avoiding disposables, and energy conservation; just as even the most progressive among us unwittingly harbor unfair biases.
The Semmelweis story also speaks to our response to others’ denial. We can choose empathy, for we are all equally capable of living in denial. Semmelweis, in his desperation, could not muster much empathy, and instead denounced non-believers harshly. He was shunned as a raving lunatic. Denial had something to sustain itself, an imperfect prophet of the truth, and a foreigner no less. Thankfully dismissible! Could diplomacy and patience have changed minds sooner and saved lives?
Today, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can scarcely imagine how clean hands could not even merit consideration as a potential solution.
Raymond Lustig, composer
We are surely all living in denial, right this very moment, of some new dreadful blind spot that will appall future generations.
Raymond Lustig, composer
Art explores the intangible realms of emotion, and in shining light there, perhaps helps us recognize them and their effects on our thoughts and actions.
Raymond Lustig, composer
We are surely all living in denial, right this very moment, of some new dreadful blind spot that will appall future generations. We are the next generation’s clueless, biased dinosaurs. By its very nature, a blind spot is something that goes unnoticed. But someone will notice it, at some point. How will we treat them? Who will be the first to believe them? Who won’t accept it, and why not? How will we deal with them? And if that someone is our own self, is there any hope for us, or will we go down in history as villainous, the problem rather than the solution?
As artists, we consciously and unconsciously process the often intangible or hard-to-articulate emotional lines of the things we experience and learn about, and it’s this that’s so important about art, because human beings and our society are complicated. Emotions matter in all human affairs, usually a lot more than we’d like to think, and can be the hardest part of all for us to understand. Fear, hubris, misunderstandings, mistrust, inertia, guilt, chauvinism, political loyalties, memory, and fear are all working on us all the time, threatening to get the better of our relationships and efforts. Art explores the intangible realms of emotion, and in shining light there, perhaps helps us recognize them and their effects on our thoughts and actions.
One thing this pandemic is making so clear to us is how deeply our fates are intertwined. Our front-line health workers, the sick, our economy, and society, are all facing huge uncertainty every day. The answer may be out there in someone’s head, and it may not be the person we imagine. Will we listen to them?
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
This is Part 4 of a four-part series. We strongly encourage you to read Parts 1, 2, and 3 before continuing.
We’re almost done. Having laid out some trans theory and heard from trans practitioners, we’re about to lay out a framework for responsible trans casting in singing theater.
We intend this to be a minimal framework, in two senses. First, we have kept the number of guidelines to a minimum, balancing thoroughness with flexibility to produce something that is clear and concrete while also being adaptable to a wide variety of on-the-ground circumstances. Second, however, we want to emphasize that this is not a maximum standard to aspire to, but a minimal bar that must be reached. Following this guide cannot guarantee you will make good trans representation, but it will hopefully help you avoid making bad trans representation.
We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible.
We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible. Swastikas mean something different on contemporary US white-supremacist rally flags than they did in 12th-century Buddhist iconography. We know how things stand where and when we are; we do not know how things are in every single other place, nor can we anticipate how things will change in the future. We offer this guide to those who share our cultural context; writers working outside it will need to adapt it to the specifics of their own surroundings.
Please don’t refer to this as the Feltkamp-Solomon Test or any similar moniker. We may be the two people putting these words in this order, but this guide has grown from innumerable conversations, formal and informal, with other trans people over the course of years of our lives. This document is inseparable from the community it emerges from.
That said, we are under no illusions as to the unity of trans communities. We anticipate that other trans people will disagree with us—indeed, the writers do not even agree with each other on all things trans related. We welcome this disagreement and look forward to engaging with it. We offer this guide as part of an ongoing conversation, an attempt to publicly draw together numerous threads into a document for others to remark upon, critique, and add nuance to.
In particular, we know that not all trans people will agree that cis people have any business writing trans characters at all. While we are sympathetic to this position, and while cis writers’ track record is far from exemplary here, we feel we must disagree. Trans actors need jobs. Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia. The stories you see shape the worlds you can imagine, and we do not wish to encourage cis people to keep imagining worlds in which we do not exist. To forbid cis writers from writing trans characters is, in some ways, to forbid cis writers from imagining trans people as real, complex human beings, which, we feel, casts trans people as an unknowable Other. We find this profoundly dehumanizing.
Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia.
This obviously raises the much larger issue of which writers are “allowed” to tell which stories. Discussions of this question frequently lack even a rudimentary understanding of structural power imbalances between marginalized and non-marginalized groups. This lack inevitably dooms them to confusion. To put it bluntly, asking who is “allowed” to write which stories without analyzing the power imbalances at play is rather like doing a harmonic analysis by looking only at the bass drum part—you’re simply missing critical information.
Analyzing the underlying power imbalances reveals facile accusations of having unfair double standards—if cis actors can’t play trans characters, why can trans actors play cis characters?—for the vacuities that they are. These purported equivalencies fall flat because cis people and trans people are not equivalently situated in society: cis people have far more structural power. Trans actors cannot have stable careers if they aren’t cast by cis directors. Trans writers cannot reliably get their work produced without cis producers. Trans artists of all stripes depend on the support of cis-led institutions. The most prominent stories about trans lives, stories that have real consequences for how safely we are able to live those lives, are overwhelmingly created and controlled by cis people. In all cases, the reverse is not true. Until this changes—until we root out transphobia at every level, dismantle these pervasive inequities, and create a society truly founded on Justice—it is absurd to propose there is any double standard to questioning cis writers’ ability to write trans characters without also questioning trans writers’ ability to write cis characters. Build utopia, then we’ll talk.
This brings us to the scare quotes we have been putting around “allowed.” That phrasing crops up often, but it is fundamentally misleading. There is no all-powerful trans cabal whose permission you must secure before undertaking a new work. No one can stop you from writing whatever you want. Indeed, judging by Tootsie’s Tony nominations and American Opera Projects’ continued pride in Three Way, you may even be richly rewarded for it. The success of these shows (and many others like them) should put to rest any fears from cis people that they will not be “allowed” to write about trans people.
If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you.
A better framing of this question is to ask not who is allowed to write what, but who is able to do so without hurting members of a marginalized group. If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you. Nor can we help you if you refuse to believe trans people when we tell you what hurts us. But if you do care, and if you are willing to listen, we hope that the guide below will help you tell trans stories responsibly.
This framework has two tiers. The first tier is a bar to clear—any production that cannot meet it may be presumed transphobic with no further analysis. The second tier is a series of questions, each of which is a common red flag. The more you answer yes to, the more likely your show will hurt trans people. If you answer no to all of them, you are likely fine. If you answer yes to all of them, you should almost certainly not proceed as planned.
There is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory.
As will be discussed at more length below, it is possible to handle most of these things well, and we certainly don’t mean to imply that any show that does any of these things must, necessarily, be transphobic. But there is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory. Handling these things well is difficult, and cis people, not having lived these experiences, are starting at a considerable disadvantage. Attempt them at your peril.
Tier 1: The Bar To Clear
Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor, and, where applicable, that actor’s assumed gender at birth must match the character’s assumed gender at birth.
Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor
The reasons why it is unacceptable to cast a cis actor in a trans role have beencoveredextensivelyelsewhere, so we will not reiterate that reasoning here. If you still feel that you do not understand why this is important, we ask that you simply believe us when we tell you what we need.
The second clause, however, requires explication. In recent years, there have been several instances where a trans man, for example, has been hired to play the role of a trans woman. We are surprised that cis people need to hear that men and women are, in fact, different, but here we are: Men and women are different, and one cannot simply be subbed in for the other. As Brin has articulated elsewhere, doing so not only confuses cis people about what basic terms like trans man mean (thus undoing countless painstaking educational efforts by trans activists) but also encourages audiences to misgender the actor, the character, or both.
Human beings are complex creatures, however, and we wish to respect that complexity. Insisting that an actor’s gender exactly match their character’s would trample this complexity, potentially forcing, for example, a transmasculine actor to hide his nonbinary identity lest he be precluded from playing a trans man in a new show. Such rigidity would also give rise to interminable, unanswerable disputes about whether, say, a transfeminine agender person is the same gender as a transfeminine neutrois person, disputes that would only grow more intractable when it comes to contemporary actors playing historical figures. While grouping trans people by gender assumed at birth may, understandably, be uncomfortable for some, we believe that this approach strikes a reasonable balance between respecting the differences among different kinds of trans people and allowing for the multifaceted fluidity of specific individuals.
That said, there are many situations where a character’s assumed gender at birth may be nonexistent or irrelevant. Your show may involve a Biblical angel, the Personification of the Abstract Concept of Forgetfulness, or a singing loaf of bread—all cases where gender assumed at birth does not apply. Or your show may involve a character that must be nonbinary, but whose gender assumed at birth does not matter to the drama at hand. Your show may well read differently depending on whether you cast an AFAB or an AMAB actor in such cases, just as your show may read differently if you cast a bombastic actor to play your villain or a calculating one. Every individual actor will bring a unique energy to the roles they play; that energy will naturally be shaped, in greater and lesser ways, by many different aspects of their being. We cannot anticipate every possible production of every possible show; we trust creative teams to know what they need in their actors for the dramas they are creating to make sense.
Tier 2: The Ten Questions
These ten questions represent the most frequent and pernicious possibilities of bad trans writing.
Tier 1 had more to do with casting than writing. In Tier 2, we’ll reverse that. These questions are not presented in any particular order, and nor do they exhaust the possibilities of bad trans writing. We included ten questions because ten is a round number, and we included these ten because they represent the most frequent and pernicious tropes that the actors and writers interviewed for this series complained about. Here they are:
Is it a coming-out story?
Coming-out stories are important, but they’re also massively over-done, and their prevalence makes it seem like transness is something unfamiliar that must always be explained. These stories usually imply that coming out and transitioning are tidy, finite processes, and they also limit our ability to imagine trans people living rich, long lives after telling everyone we’re trans. There’s so much more to us than these initial announcements.
Is the trans character deadnamed, misgendered, or otherwise subject to transphobic violence? Are they sexually assaulted?
Obviously, conflict is the heart of drama, and conflict more or less requires characters having bad things happen to them. But there’s a difference between an ordinary plot-related bad thing—a natural disaster, a surprise betrayal, untrammeled arrogance—and a bad thing brought about because of a character’s transness. Basically, we want you to imagine transness not as a source of suffering, and trans people not as tragic figures who inevitably wind up getting raped.
Are the trans character’s emotions explained or excused by hormones?
Hormones may alter our emotional landscapes, but testosterone doesn’t make someone an aggressive monster, nor does estrogen make someone a weepy mess. Trans people on and off hormones experience a full range of emotions and can control our reactions to them; trans characters shouldn’t be let off the hook because hormones are making them “emotional,” and nor should their emotions be dismissed as “just a side effect of hormones.”
For transfeminine characters: Does the trans character commit sexual assault?
It is a core plank of many transmisogynistic attacks that trans women are inherently sexually predatory. While some real-life trans women do commit sexual assault, just as some real-life cis women do, it is extraordinarily difficult to depict this in fiction without strengthening the idea that all trans women are inherently predatory threats.
Do we know more about the trans character’s genitals than the cis characters’ genitals?
Cis people tend to fixate on our genitals, stripping away every other aspect of our personhood to obsess over what’s between our legs. If you’re writing a sex farce, it may be appropriate to mention a trans character’s genitals, but if we don’t know whether the cis men in your show are circumcised, or if the cis women shave their pubic hair, we shouldn’t know anything about the trans character’s junk.
Is the realness of a trans character’s gender made contingent on medical interventions?
It’s obviously abhorrent to say that a cis woman isn’t a “real” woman because her body is the wrong shape and she hasn’t gone to a doctor to change it. Similarly, trans people aren’t less “real” if we never step into a hospital or swallow a pill.
Does the trans character exist primarily to teach the cis characters a lesson?
The archetypal example here is probably Angel from RENT: A larger-than-life figure whose unshakable authenticity inspires the other characters to be truer to themselves and embrace living in the moment. This frames trans people as primarily existing for the benefit of cis people, and denies us the possibility of having goals we pursue for our own sakes. A very concrete red flag is if the trans character is called “brave” merely for existing.
Is “being trans” the character’s only defining feature?
Trans people are just as individual as everyone else, with interests, projects, and goals that have nothing to do with being trans. Flattening out that individuality to write a role whose defining traits begin and end with being trans not only paints trans people as an interchangeable monolith, it’s also just bad writing. Your characters should be characters—rounded creations with depth and nuance, not a collection of half-baked stereotypes thrown together in a rush.
Does the trans character die?
Stories where trans characters die re-enforce the idea that trans existence is tragic, doomed to come to an untimely end. Imagine us living, and living well, instead.
Is there only one trans character in the show?
If writing one trans character is hard, writing two is easier. When there’s only one trans person on stage, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be seen as representing All Trans People Ever. Having multiple trans people on stage diffuses this tendency and helps root the characters’ traits in the individuals themselves rather than in their demographic. In fact, you could do a lot worse than filling your entire cast with trans people—we do like to hang out together, after all!
Again, these questions do not exhaust the catalogue of transphobic tropes. Some runners-up that didn’t make the final list:
Is the trans character’s violation of Western gender norms tied to moral deviancy?
Is your only trans character an antagonist?
Does the trans character transition for deceptive purposes?
If the trans character is nonbinary, is their assumed gender at birth the topic of speculation from the other characters? Are they treated as a 50/50 mix of masculinity and femininity?
Is transness conflated with drag?
Still, the above reflect issues that were repeatedly raised by those interviewed for this series, as well as issues that the authors have encountered frequently and perniciously in our own lives. If you can say no to all of them, you’re off to a solid start.
The Secret Third Tier: Sensitivity Readers
By this point, gentle reader, you have probably realized that this guide is not a cut-and-dried checklist that can be mechanically applied to greenlight your work. Indeed, we do not intend it to be. As has been emphasized throughout this series, responsible trans representation must always be grounded in trans communities. We, the authors, can speak to our own communities, but we cannot speak to all trans communities, potentially including the specific trans community (or communities) your work engages with. You will need to engage with members of those communities directly.
Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants.
Fortunately, there’s a framework for this. Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants (also called sensitivity readers). The specific details will vary from situation to situation, but the underlying relationship is the same: You hire them to read your script, and they tell you where you’ve gone wrong in telling the story you’re trying to tell. Ideally, this should be an ongoing relationship that lasts for most of the writing and development process, though they need not be consulted for every single line edit. Some actors may be willing to serve this role in addition to acting in your show, but this is emphatically not part and parcel of an actor’s job; any actor who steps into this role in your production should be compensated and credited appropriately.
It bears repeating that you should be looking to hire someone who is part of the community you are hoping to represent. If you are telling a story about a black trans woman, don’t hire a white sensitivity reader. If you’re writing a transmasculine character, don’t hire a transfeminine person. As has been emphasized again and again in this series, trans people are anything but monolithic; we cannot simply be swapped out for one another like interchangeable assembly-line parts. If you cannot find anyone who’s part of the community you’re hoping to represent, you may not be the person to tell this story. To put it bluntly: If you aren’t connected in any way to the community you’re hoping to write about, you will almost certainly not be able to write about it responsibly. Gently but firmly, we suggest you set your sights on something else. “Kill your darlings” applies to entire projects, too.
We wish it went without saying, but experience shows this needs to be said too: Once you hire this person, you need to actually listen to what they tell you. The point is not to add a team member as a pro-forma publicity stunt and then proceed with your original plan. The point is to change your show—potentially all of your show—in response to their feedback. If you blanch at this, if there are parts of your show that you cannot bear the thought of parting with no matter how insistently and adamantly you are told they are harmful, that is a sign you are not ready to do this work. Please don’t write about us. The show you produce will almost certainly do more harm than good, and more harm from cis people is the last thing that trans people need.
A Brief Aside on Character Flaws
If the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.
Whenever members of a marginalized group ask for more sensitivity in how they are portrayed in media, they are invariably charged with censoriously advocating for flat, flawless characters who are bastions of goodness and who never have anything bad happen to them ever. To take that from this piece would be a gross misreading of our position. By all means, write messy, flawed trans characters who get thrown into conflict with themselves, other people, and the world. But if the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, and the only conflicts you can imagine us facing stem directly from our transness, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.
A Longer Aside on Trans Creators
It may happen, gentle reader, that you see a trans creator making art that has several red flags in it per the list of questions above. Indeed, you may even see a trans creator make art that does not even clear the initial hurdle we propose. You may then feel an urge to critique this work for its transphobia.
For starters, as stated explicitly above, answering yes to any of the questions on our list does not automatically make a work transphobic, it just makes it far more likely that the resulting work will be transphobic. Having lived as its targets, trans creators have an insider’s knowledge of how transphobia works, and thus have an automatic bonus in navigating these issues deftly on stage.
That said, in and of itself, being trans is no guarantee of getting it right. Sometimes trans people, wittingly or not, make deeply transphobic art. Even more likely, we may create art that some trans people find reprehensible and other trans people find responsible. We’re not a monolith, any more than any other demographic is.
Being trans is no guarantee of getting it right.
In cases where there’s no community consensus—and, frankly, even in cases where there is a strong community consensus—against a trans-led project, we urge you to stay on the sidelines. By all means, share trans-written critiques if you find them compelling, and, if you are in a position to, offer trans people a platform to discuss such works, but think twice (or, really, three or four times) before diving into the fray yourself.
Trans people are constantly critiquing other trans people, and also constantly discussing how public to make these critiques, knowing that there are cis people out there who will gleefully leap on any chance to say negative things about trans people, not as a means of pursuing justice, but simply so they can give their transphobia a veneer of social acceptability. There is just too much hurt here for critiques from outsiders to be effective. Your energies will be better spent on building a world where we are not a community perpetually at siege.
Towards Transphilia: What Are Cis Roles, Anyway?
So far, this series has more or less tacitly ceded the premise that almost all singing theater roles in existence are cis roles, even where we have argued that trans people should be cast in them.
Strictly speaking, this is not true. Certainly, the vast majority of singing theater roles are either men or women, but it’s quite rare that these roles are specifically cis men or women. The text of Don Giovanni may be quite clear that Don Ottavio is a man, but it tells us precisely nothing about his genital anatomy. We may feel quite confident that West Side Story’s Anita is a woman even as we know nothing about what assumptions people made about her gender when she was born. The vast majority of theatrical roles cannot accurately be described as cis because they do not contain the information necessary to apply such a label. The perspective shift called for by trans liberation goes beyond opening “cis” roles to trans performers, it requires dismantling the notion that these roles were ever cis to begin with.
Some may object that, even if these roles aren’t explicitly marked as cis by the text of the show, the creators certainly thought of them as cis, because it would be “unrealistic” for trans people to occupy, say, the status of a minor noble in 1600s Seville, or a core member of a group of Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s.
This is silly.
First, we reiterate that historical conceptions of gender were often quite different from those in the present. If you actually do the painstaking work of exploring the historical record instead of making assumptions about it, you will find many instances in which someone who lived a life that resonates with contemporary trans experiences was accepted and embraced by members of their community. Such figures include those with prominent, high-status positions in society—their stories are not confined to the societal margins, though they do exist there as well. If you exclude people who could now be considered trans, your show isn’t historically accurate, even if the original creators didn’t explicitly envision this possibility. Trans people can be dignified nobles, scrappy underdogs, dashing rogues, romantic leads. None of these things are implausible; they are our past and present realities.
Singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song.
And anyway, singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song. They do not perform elaborate choreography to leitmotif-laden dance breaks. They do not hold for applause after particularly bravura turns. The unreality of singing theater is among its chief joys.
Clearing away these stale preconceptions opens the door to imagining a world transformed. There is no inevitability to trans- and cisness. Both are predicated on the act of assuming an infant’s gender based on their genital configuration. Stop making that assumption, respect the nested infinitudes of human variety by treating individuals as individuals, as they are instead of as you think they should be, and these categories will melt into air. To be sure, there will still be people who desire to change their names, their pronouns, their bodies, but there will not be trans or cis people per se. There will just be people, choosing of their own accord how they wish to move through the world.
There will still, probably, be men and women, too, but those two genders will no longer be seen as two complementary halves of a system with no other parts, nor even as two ends that anchor a spectrum, but as two pinpricks in a vast, radiant nebula, popular ones, perhaps, but no more central than any other mote, nor any less fractaline in their variable complexity. We do not know exactly what this world will look like, but on a clear day, you can almost see its outlines dawning on the far horizon.
This calls for both individual and societal change, and our society, in its present form, is deeply invested in binaries of all kinds, gender chief among them. There will be active, sustained resistance to making these changes, resistance that will not be swiftly overcome. This is the work of lifetimes. Imagining the destination is only the start.
Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization.
And yet it is a necessary start. We invite you to join us in this collective endeavor, in imagining this world into existence. Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization. Write characters in your shows, rounded and messy and deeply human. Make room for the unruly wild array that genders and bodies come in, without forcing this exquisite natural chaos into artificial, sterile boxes. Cast trans people in everything, and don’t remark on it, because it shouldn’t be remarkable. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
We look forward to seeing what you make.
There is always more to say. We expect that trenchant critiques of this series will emerge, and regret that we cannot link them here. In the meantime, here are some avenues to explore:
Although not directly modeled on it, this article draws inspiration from James Mendez Hodes’s “May I Play a Character from Another Race?” While acknowledging the many dissimilarities both between gender and race and between theater and role-playing games, we feel the approach Hodes takes to navigating power inequities between marginalized and non-marginalized groups is lucid, compelling, and well worth reading.
1. As a middle ground, some suggest that cis writers should write stories that include trans characters but that are not about the experience of being trans. This solid guiding principle underlies much of what follows, but the boundary line between these categories is vague, and we believe greater specificity is required.
2. We see no point in pretending this isn’t an unwinnable double bind: Some trans people will be upset with you if you do include trans characters in your work, and some will be upset with you if you don’t. Sometimes, these will even be the same people.
4. In a recent e-mail newsletter, American Opera Projects described Three Way as one of their “favorite operas.”
5. And indeed, it’s a fairly common trans experience to be friends with a nonbinary person whose gender assumed at birth you do not know.
6. There isn’t an exact counterpart here for transmasculine characters. This asymmetry stems from a variety of factors that are too thorny to go into here. Those wishing to explore this in more depth are encouraged to read Julia Serano’s discussion of effemimania in Whipping Girl and Jay Hulme’s breakdown of how transphobes target trans men.
7. Angel’s precise gender is a matter of some dispute. We feel comfortable reading her as a transfeminine person written by a rather clueless cis heterosexual who died before he could revise a messy draft, but we recognize that others may disagree.
8. Brin, for example, is teaching themself 1920s shorthand and enjoys baking bread, while Aiden loves reading historical fiction and doing Zelda cosplay. Both of us also write opera.
9. And note, we do mean hire, with money. In a theatrical context, you should also strongly consider giving them credit in scripts, scores, and programs. If you run an organization that develops new works, we urge you to budget a sensitivity reader for new works as needed.
10. Depending on the circumstances, it may be worth it to give the sensitivity reader contractual veto power lest their advice be utterly disregarded.
11. These remarks apply exclusively to instances where a cis person, as a cis person, critiques a trans person, as a trans person, for transphobia. It is of course permissible for, say, a black cis person to critique a white trans person for racism.
12. See, for an easy example, all the cis women fighting against abortion access.
13. Or, better: The vast majority of characters are referred to with either he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns (or the equivalent in the language of the work) — many characters are never directly described as “a man” or “a woman” by themselves or any other character.
14. The most obvious case in which we might have this kind of information are women who get (or fear getting) pregnant. Yet even this may not be conclusive, depending on the setting of the production—uterus transplants are not unheard of, after all.
15. Indeed, we should be as cautious about calling historical figures cis as we are about calling them trans. This contemporary language has been developed in a contemporary context; applying it outside that context is almost invariably reductive and misleading.
17. Unsurprisingly, the reception histories of these figures are complex. They are often written about in sensationalized, exploitative ways, and their own words and actions are often erased in favor of equating their “real” gender with their genitals.
18. If, instead of historical accuracy per se, you’re going to insist on being accurate to the creators’ intentions, no matter how historically inaccurate those intentions were, you’re in for several worlds of trouble. In many cases, those intentions cannot be determined with certainty, but even when they can, we cannot necessarily adhere to them. After all, the creators of Don Giovanni intended it to be performed by 18th-century European singers in an 18th-century European theater for an 18th-century European audience, none of which you’re going to be able to find today. If you’re flexible enough to allow a soprano born and raised in Boise in the 21st century to play Zerlina, you’re going to need a convoluted argument indeed to argue that that same soprano should suddenly be disbarred from the role just because some people mistakenly thought she was a boy for a while.
19. We wish to reiterate here that these concepts were developed in a specifically Western cultural context, and everything we are saying here is limited to that context, too. The relationship between Western projects of trans liberation and projects like decolonization that seek the broader undoing of Western hegemony are complex, to say the least.
“I wish to enjoy music without the infusion of political opinion.”
This is an actual recent quote from someone in the classical music community. I’ve heard variations of this kind of statement throughout my own career: Why don’t you just write music? Why does it have to be so… political?
There has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment.
These invectives against “political” music seem to stand out more due to our current contentious climate, which may create the impression that there has been an uptick in the number of modern pieces with a political orientation. But the truth is that there has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment. This is particularly true in opera, the field in which I have done the majority of my own work. Opera has historically been a populist art form (please read Lawrence Edelson’s essay on the topic for more detail), and as such, composers and librettists have tried to create stories that reflect the concerns of their day. As opera companies began to focus more on a small selection of “canonical” works rather than contemporary compositions, the works in the canon became detached from their historical contexts. As a result, we have lost sight of how revolutionary these works actually were for their time.
Operas like La bohème showed the lives of ordinary people rather than kings or gods. Rigoletto and Don Giovanni showed the depravity of the upper class. Audiences for these operas would have understood them in relation to their current moment. Now that these operas are performed outside of this context, there is a tendency to make them more precious than they were originally intended to be. We focus on performing the pieces the way they have always been performed without asking what the core messages of the works are and how those messages might resonate with a modern-day audience. And this is where a lot of the cultural baggage attached to opera comes from.
I did not grow up listening to opera, and I used to hold many of the same preconceptions about the form that many people do: it’s elitist, it’s boring, it’s outdated, and so on. I’m also all too aware of many of the problems with race and gender that the greatest hits of the canon still have.
Music allows us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are.
Despite these problems, the reason I came to love opera (and what I believe brings many people to the form if they are able to experience it) is the immense power of sung drama. Music has the ability to touch us deeply, and music used in the service of storytelling can transport us into different places and times, even allowing us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are. I believe that this is where the potential power of the art form lies. I also believe that embracing this power is what will allow the form to remain vibrant and relevant well into the future.
It is for this reason that I (and many of my contemporaries) often choose stories that can be described as “political.” Part of the reason that so many modern operas are perceived as “political” stories stems from the fact that they are taking perspectives that have long been absent from the mainstream and placing them on stage, just as Puccini was doing when he, Illica, and Giacosa wrote La bohème. For modern composers and librettists, there is now a widespread recognition that the historical default perspective (white and male) is not representative of the modern world (and was never really representative of the whole of human experience). Because of this, the conversations that we’ve been having around diversity and inclusion are key to keeping opera relevant. Understanding the importance of story in forming our sense of self and culture is an essential part of the equation. Storytelling is the bedrock this foundation. We can see the importance of story even from a young age.
Katherine Nelson’s work on early childhood memory shows the centrality of narrative to our developing sense of identity. Nelson has shown that learning the art of narration is the foundation for all of our autobiographical memories. The stories we learn to tell ourselves about ourselves form these core memories, and thus become the basis of our sense of identity and our place in the world.
We see a similar effect of story on our shared sense of culture. The stories we tell each other as a society give us a sense of cultural identity. They teach us about social norms and about who we are as a people: what our value systems are and how we fit into the world.
Therefore, we, as creators, must understand that part of what we’re doing is creating the stories that help to shape our culture. Because of this, all stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center. If you’re thinking, “I have never chosen a perspective,” that is because you are assuming that your perspective is the default.
All stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center.
The current age of American opera is more geared than ever toward letting everyone see themselves onstage. In the last year alone, we have been privileged to have operas including Fire Up in My Bones (Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons) and The Central Park Five (Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley), both of which featured work by Black composers, librettists, and singers. Modern operas have also tackled contemporary issues like human trafficking (Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone), mental illness (Philip Venables, based on Sarah Kane’s 4:48Psychosis), and sexual assault (Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s p r i s m).
I have tried to address similar issues in my own work. I’ve approached this by putting people onstage who aren’t normally seen there (including Pakistani Muslim women in Thumbprint [libretto by Susan Yankowitz] and Appalachian snake handlers in Taking Up Serpents [libretto by Jerre Dye]). My new work, Looking at You, takes this a step further by reaching outside of the opera world to create a piece with urgent contemporary relevance, exploring the impact of modern technology on our right to privacy. Looking at You is a collaboration with privacy researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and tech engineers at Bandcamp.com.
This piece is absolutely the most complicated thing I’ve ever made. There are several reasons for this. From the beginning I knew that the audience would be an integral part of the show, so there were many unresolved questions about how the technology that makes the audience experience happen could work and how to integrate it with the music. A lot of the decisions about the libretto and the way the score works were influenced by what the tech would actually be able to do. For example, I decided early on that I wanted the chorus for the show to be made up of singing tablet computers. Of course, the technology to allow tablets to sync together in real-time did not exist, so part of the developmental process was trying out different ways of making that work. I figured out how to make the singing computer voices, but it took finding collaborators outside of the opera world (Joe Holt and Daniel Dickison of Bandcamp.com) to actually build the software that syncs the whole choir (both with each other and with the backing tracks).
This collaboration with academics and engineers from the tech world has been essential for creating a piece that gets at the heart of the issues we’re facing. We are in a pivotal moment, where new technologies are being created that will leave lasting social, economic, and political impacts. Tech companies are increasingly turning to machine learning based on mass user data to build better artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, machine learning utilizes what is known as “the hidden layer”—even the coders themselves often don’t know why their algorithms behave the way they do. An algorithm’s behavior is completely based on the patterns it perceives in the data set it uses to learn. Therefore, any structural racism or gender inequality that exists in the data will be coded into the algorithm’s decision-making and outputs. This has led to many problematic situations already, including the “decision” of Facebook’s algorithm to create an advertising category for “Jew-haters.” More troubling, as algorithms are increasingly deployed to make consequential decisions including insurance rates, length of criminal sentences, and even whether or not to fire someone, there is no way to know how they made the decision and therefore no recourse.
Our continued right to privacy is at risk.
Despite the immediacy of the issue, and despite increased awareness of online privacy concerns in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the more recent scandals at Facebook, many people are either not aware of the extent to which their personal information is widely available and how it is used, or are not concerned because “they have nothing to hide” (to borrow a line from the show). This may come from the tendency to see technology as something mysterious and inscrutable.
Our continued right to privacy is at risk. By presenting the issues in a non-pedantic and entertaining way, we hope to open our audience up to the issues and then to provide them with the tools to better protect themselves and their personal data. Further, we are doing this by collaborating with a creative team that includes women and people of color, and by creating a story with women and people of color at its center.
Truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it.
It is my belief that this is what truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it, and telling a story that is relevant to the issues that concern them. These stories matter. The people we tell the stories about and the people we see on stage matter. And that, in essence, is why they are and should continue to be so… “political.”
Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You will be presented from September 6-21, 2019 at Here in New York City in a co-production with Opera on Tap and Experiments in Opera.
The last decade has seen an explosion of new American opera. In 2010, productions of American operas written after 2000 represented 5% of total productions by Opera America Professional Company Members; by 2018, this number more than tripled to 18%, and is on track to rise.
We are entering a time of opportunity to develop an American operatic canon and leave a musical legacy for future generations. But how do we discover and train the next generation of composers and librettists? How can we shape a legacy that represents the many voices within contemporary American society? Given the exceptionally high level of training necessary for operatic composition, how do we ensure that limitation of opportunity does not hinder a diverse pool of creators? While we are moving in the right direction, I believe that professional American opera companies and leaders within the field can take a more active role in cultivating the next generation of opera librettists and, more specifically, opera composers. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to this Golden Age for American opera.
Gaining the Skillset
Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings.
Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings. In addition to being masters of shaping sound, opera composers must be exceptionally skilled at writing for the voice, impeccable at setting text, and in full command of large-scale form. Just as importantly, they must be people of the theater—actors and stage directors—able to shape dramatic timing, impetus, subtext, and flow seamlessly through music. Furthermore, opera composers must understand the operatic creative process—the enormous collaborative mechanism essential for the work to reach the stage successfully. For the rare composer who manages to come by all the necessary knowledge and skill, understanding the business side of opera poses another hurdle—writing a great work is not enough to ensure it is performed. In the end, many qualified composers are disillusioned, and others not ready for the challenge find no opportunities to develop the necessary tools.
There is no traditional path for opera composers and no clear training ground. University programs must focus on the general skills composers will need before they even begin to think about writing opera. Many of the skills that are essential cannot be taught in a traditional classroom, and must be gained through observation and experience. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the most prolific and skilled composers on the scene today have had unconventional paths that allowed them to obtain the necessary tools. Many of them came to opera only after years in other artistic areas. Jake Heggie’s background in theater—as pianist, coach, and even administrator—contributed to the varied skillset necessary to become America’s preeminent opera composer. Mark Adamo and Ricky Ian Gordon also have backgrounds that combine theater and composition. That multifaceted background is also a defining characteristic of the now long-established Philip Glass, who had worked in film, dance and experimental theater. Up-and-comer Dan Shore likewise came to opera as a playwright, composer, pianist and coach.
In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.
These composers all had exceptional opportunities to gain the skills necessary for writing opera, but they represent a very narrow sliver of American culture and society. It is essential for any composer who wants to write opera to have an extensive background as a dramatist, wordsmith, orchestrator, and musician. But currently, this expectation is also impractical, unreasonable and highly exclusionary. In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.
The state of training for opera composers
Over the last decade, a small number of composer training and development programs in the American Northeast have emerged to fill this training gap. American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), the most comprehensive of these undertakings, provides a three-year certificate course to composers, librettists, and dramaturges. The participants meet weekly in New York City to study vocal writing, text setting, the collaborative process, dramaturgy, and various other ins and outs of writing opera. ALT has additionally produced some wonderful work through their development programs for new works—I recently had the privilege of being involved in the exceptionally detailed, multi-year development process for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, a phenomenal opera written by composer Justine Chen and librettist David Simpatico.
Additionally, American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice works with New York City-based composers and librettists in workshops on writing for various voice types, dramatic training, and mentorship from top creators in the field. Opera Philadelphia has also maintained a well-resourced training program. Concurrently, Opera America has taken an active role in developing new work, including the organization of the New Works Forum, dedicated grants for women composers and, as of this season, grants for composers of color.
A number of the most successful composers who have emerged from these opportunities have not had a traditional profile and have brought new experiences and musical languages into our field. One standout example is Kamala Sankaram, who has an unconventional background as a psychologist, soprano, accordionist, sitar player, and even voiceover actor (to hear some of her crossover work, check out her band Bombay Rickey). Kamala received training from the CLDP at ALT and support from producing organizations like Beth Morrison Projects—a company that has championed contemporary chamber opera for the last decade and a half. Likewise, Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little are two composers who took full advantage of Opera Philadelphia’s training program to build enormous skill and embark on major careers. Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves immediately made an impact, and David T. Little’s rock-inspired Soldier Songs is being performed by mid-sized opera companies throughout the country.
It has become clear that the combination of comprehensive, multi-faceted training, together with championing by smaller new music initiatives, can give a composer the initial skill-building needed to move on to a major operatic career. American Lyric Theater, and to a lesser extent, American Opera Projects, had recently become the principal programs providing longer-term, comprehensive training for opera composers and librettists. But the collaborative nature of the work requires that participants be available for regular face-to-face meetings. This is a highly limiting factor, not just culturally and geographically, but also financially, as New York City continues to be prohibitively expensive for most artists. As of 2017, ALT does provide partial cost-offsetting stipends to aid participants who want to commute or relocate, but this does not resolve the many other job, family, or personal limitations that may prevent someone from moving. Furthermore, centering training in just one American city by nature limits cultural and musical representation within the field, gearing operatic writing toward New York City’s musical and societal views and tastes, which (for better or worse) are hardly representative of most of this country.
Becoming a composer already poses massive barriers to entry for individuals of limited means or from non-traditional musical backgrounds. Geographic limitations and lack of training opportunities makes these barriers insurmountable and simultaneously limit the scope of the stories and voices heard by American audiences.
From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs’s opera Rev. 23 at Boston’s John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)
The field’s responsibility
Professional opera companies across America can and should do more. In order to ensure a future for opera, we must promote stories told by a variety of individuals, who represent the many regions and cultures of the United States, and bring a breadth of musical backgrounds to our field. Opera’s strength throughout the form’s history has been in its ability to unite the arts in an effort to tell powerful, moving stories. Those of us in the position of running opera organizations can take ownership of ensuring the art form’s continued impact by nurturing the next generation of opera composers.
Opera’s strength has been in its ability to unite the arts to tell powerful, moving stories.
At the time when most of the operatic classics were written, composers were working within fully government-funded European opera theaters that produced many new works each season. These organizations could take the risk to invest in new compositional talent, allowing creators to experiment, to have ample rehearsal time (which, in turn, allowed rewrites and further experimentation), to develop relationships with the same performers over an extended period of time, and to have the permission to create several flops while honing the skills to compose a masterpiece.
Today’s structure, especially in the United States, is much more rigid. Most companies produce a total of only 3-5 operas a season (including standard repertoire), so the competition is fierce and the programming limitations extreme. There is rarely a sufficient workshopping or development process for new work. It is also nearly impossible for larger American opera companies to commit to a new work, unless it’s by a proven composer and on marketable subject matter. Furthermore, unsuccessful performances of new work lead to general audience disillusionment and skepticism of pieces outside the standard repertoire, making future commissions even more risky. Most companies cannot afford to take a risk on a brand new composer.
But we can do much better—we can develop the composers of the future by providing them with the tools necessary for success.
Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers.
Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers. Emerging opera composers largely do not have access to regular rehearsals, administrative support, and the behind-the-scenes structural and decision-making processes of a producing organization. Minnesota Opera, founded partially by composers, stands apart by engaging in a rigorous and systematic development process for the new operas regularly seen on its stage. However, Minnesota’s focus is on single works, and the pieces produced are usually by already established composers, not those who are just embarking on a career. Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and Forth Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase provide very short-term mentorship opportunities on specific short works. While very important for the field, these short-term initiatives do not provide the comprehensive training essential for emerging opera composers. As I began my tenure as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, I realized that a vacuum exists, and with it, an opportunity to make a difference in helping to ensure a future for our art form.
At Chicago Opera Theater (COT), we are attempting to do our part through the newly formed Vanguard Initiative, a two-year, fully comprehensive residency program that provides composers with the myriad tools necessary for a successful career in the field. The program is geared towards skilled composers who want to venture into the world of opera, but have not yet had sufficient opportunities to do so. One composer is chosen annually, provided a stipend, and invited to embark on a two-season comprehensive study of opera. The training includes a survey of the canonic repertoire, detailed examination of operatic fachs, attendance at a large number of operatic productions at various institutions, access to the administrative side of an opera company, and ample networking opportunities. Most importantly, the Vanguard composers learn the full scope of the interpretative process by attending full staging rehearsal processes for different productions and observing contrasting interpretative styles. The composers also work with our young artists and an experienced librettist, dramaturge and director as they develop a new, full-length opera.
Opera companies have a responsibility to take part in ensuring the future of our art form. While most organizations are unable to create something as extensive as the Vanguard Initiative, or program a season of world premieres, we can all do our part. Providing some opportunities to standout local composers and/or librettists is a low or no-cost opportunity to engage with the next generation of creators. Simple initiatives like granting access to staging rehearsals, mentorship, and networking opportunities with guest artists, as well as free tickets to performances can be a start. Pairing young artist programs with local composers could be a mutually beneficial training opportunity. Smaller, more nimble organizations and new music ensembles can make producing brand new work by first-time opera composers a priority. Larger producers can seek out partnerships that allow them to identify composers and offer full development support for new work. Perhaps more extensive collaborations with university graduate composition departments, like Pittsburgh Opera and Carnegie Mellon University’s Co-opera, can be explored. At COT, we are also hoping to plant the seeds of opera composition for a younger generation: our Opera for All educational programming works with Chicago Public School children, who collaborate with a composer and professional creative team in writing and producing their very own opera.
Larger opera organizations can further help promote new work by partnering with smaller, less risk-averse startup companies. MassOpera in Boston recently modeled a successful partnership, working with Washington National Opera to workshop Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s Taking Up Serpents, which went on to be premiered at WNO last season. This year, MassOpera will also workshop Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater. The synergy makes sense—MassOpera uses their access to flexible emerging artists with new music experience to give composers and larger producing organizations the development process necessary for success. Beth Morrison Projects has had similar successful workshopping collaborations with university departments across the nation.
It is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer.
There is no single means of promoting new work, or of fostering a new generation of diverse compositional talent. But ultimately, it is essential that opera companies, no matter their size, ask themselves how they can support a new generation of creators. We are in the midst of a Golden Age for opera in America, and we have an opportunity to empower those who will define the American operatic canon. As leaders of operatic institutions, it is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer. The resources are at our fingertips, but we must make developing new work and supporting emerging creators once again a priority for our field, shaping the operatic canon through the plurality of today’s compositional voices.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Having the opportunity to spend an hour talking with Jeanine Tesori is very hard to do these days. Having just finished working with Tazewell Thompson on Blue, an extremely timely opera about the aftermath of an African-American teenager being killed by the police which premieres next summer at Glimmerglass, she’s been on-call all week for Steven Spielberg’s new screen adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and, on the Saturday we did manage to catch up with her in her composing studio at New York City Center, she was about to fly to London where a new production of her 2004 musical Caroline, or Change is about to open that’s running in the West End through February 9. Following its run earlier this year in Los Angeles, a New York production is in the works for her latest musical Soft Power, a collaboration with David Henry Hwang that takes place 100 years in the future after China has become the dominant world power as a result of the 2016 American presidential election. Plus, she’s way behind starting work on her Metropolitan Opera commission.
“Everybody’s in the middle of a zillion things,” Tesori concedes as she recounts the extraordinary roller coaster ride that took her from being a disengaged piano student on Long Island to enrolling as a pre-med student at Columbia. But working for the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, a summer camp run by Cuban-born director Jack Romano, gave her the theater bug. And helping the late Buryl Red on over 100 recordings for music textbooks gave her grounding in practically every musical genre which subsequently informed the incidental music she created for the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Twelfth Night, several Hollywood film and animation scores, a series of operas, and the five musicals of hers that have been produced on Broadway thus far.
“Like everything else, it was the culmination of many, many years—having started playing the piano at three and knowing really early on that the piano was not for me,” she explains. “It turned out that the piano was a means to an end. But in those days, especially for a young girl, what was I going to do with the piano except play it? … My job felt like it was something else that I couldn’t figure out.”
It turns out, though, that all her detours inform her music and the projects she opts to work on. According to her, doing pre-med course work grounded her in design concepts that directly relate to creating a well-made musical. “You’re making a building, and you have to make sure that it’s sturdy. That’s what musicals are; they’re sturdy designs.”
But, it’s actually more than that. Her father, who was a physician who frequently opened the family home to patients who he felt were too sick to go to the hospital, gave her a sense of empathy that led her to be attracted to storylines about characters in need of healing in some way, whether it’s the protagonist of her first musical Violet, who hopes to have her face restored after a terrible injury; the deep psychological wounds of most of the principal characters in Caroline, or Change; or Alison in the 2015 Tony Award-winning Fun Home, who is trying to come to terms with the suicide of her closeted gay father. Even Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek in Shrek The Musical are outliers who are transformed over the course of the performance.
“The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center,” she explains.
But whatever it is she’s working on, she needs a storyline to get her started.
“It invades my brain!” she exclaims. “The beautiful thing about a narrative is you can find moments that are so surprising. … I did some choral work when I was just starting, and I will still do some things to learn, especially with orchestration, which I’m so slow at. I can hear it, but because I don’t do it all the time, particularly in an opera [situation], it’s very hard to go from what I hear to the page. It’s just painstaking. But I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image. I chased it for a little while, and then I thought, ‘You can’t do everything.’ That would be faking in some ways. It’s just not who I am. I think someone like Nico Muhly does it so beautifully and Missy Mazzoli and certainly Jennifer Higdon. But for me, that fell away pretty quickly.”
Jeanine Tesori in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New York City Center
November 17, 2018—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Frank J. Oteri: I know you’re in the middle of a zillion different projects, so thank you for taking the time to meet with us.
Jeanine Tesori: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Everybody’s in the middle of a zillion things. Even my mother, who’s 87. When I call her, she’s like, “I have so much to do.” The speed of life is pretty astonishing.
FJO: Well, as long as you mention speed, I’m hoping we can get through the last 20 years of your musical career, as well as your life before that, in about an hour!
JT: To the mat!
FJO: To attempt to do this, I’ve tried to find through lines to connect everything. At first, I tried to put things in two places: things you’ve done that have been really cutting edge and then other projects that are very much a part of the commercial marketplace. However, though a show like Shrek The Musical might seem like a very commercial vehicle, there are also things about it that are very experimental. Plus, there’s a clear message in it that subverts mainstream paradigms. Then, despite how innovative shows like Fun Home or Violet are, they both contain songs that could very well be Top 40 material. The closer I started examining all of your work, I found that almost all of it in some way pushes the envelope, but at the same time it also attempts to bring everybody along with it.
JT: That’s a very astute and succinct way of saying it. I think of it differently now. I think that’s true.
FJO: You mentioned a music teacher that you had early on who introduced you to both Shostakovich and Carole King at around the same time. I thought that the juxtaposition of those two people was amazing and the more I reflected on that, I imagined that you’ve somehow found a way to kind of embrace the aesthetics of both of them in your own work.
JT: Well, I was learning in the ‘70s and that was such a great era for singer-songwriters; I still listen to them all the time. And I’ve learned from the people who’ve mentored me. I didn’t have many, but the through-line for me was to value music and to be curious about it. There was not an idea of “this music is better than that music.” There are just people who play and people who make music. You’re going back and forth with thinking artists who are questioning something. That’s the real fun of it. Not what they made. We might make this giant thing that just lands with a thud. And you have to pay the bills—no one ever discusses that. But when you chase the money, you don’t really end up having something that pays the bills. When you chase the art, that’s when you really find something that has legs. You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing, especially in theater. I’ve seen that happen a lot. But to really be a steady, serious artist who can make serious fun, or always be after something, that to me has been the great joy.
FJO: It’s a bit of a surprise that you wound up writing for the theater having had Shostakovich and Carole King as formative role models. Way later there was a jukebox musical made from Carole King’s songs, but that was decades after you were introduced to her music. And Shostakovich did in fact write a musical at some point in the ‘50s and also wrote two operas that are pretty incredible, as well as a bunch of film scores. But neither of them are thought of by most people as theater composers. So I’m curious about who your role models for musical theater were, and how musical theater came to be what you decided to focus on as a composer.
“I think Bach is super groovy.”
JT: I came to theater very, very late, because I came to music very, very early. When I look back and talk or teach (which is a way to learn), I think about the influence of Kabalevsky, Stravinsky, and Bartók, their joy in the national and their pride, and, for me, the beat. I think Bach is super groovy. I don’t think that we think of his pieces all the time as being groovy. But they are. And when you hear them beautifully played with a sense of deep time, you realize the beauty of that.
[Loud sounds of talking in the hallway.]
FJO: Are the sounds outside getting picked up on our microphone?
MS: It’s ambience.
JT: You know, the thing about City Center I love is that we all know each other. We share this space. This was a supply room. I completely re-did it. The bones and the ghosts here—Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, Bernstein, and The Show of Shows. There was the most amazing plaque outside. When they did the major renovation, I think it was 15 or 20 years ago, they removed it. There was a walled off room here and everything was intact. The pads were there; they just had sealed it. It was the writer’s room. It was for Sid Caesar’s The Show of Shows. So I love this building. I know all the doormen. I can go backstage and up to the ninth floor. One of the things that artists have such a hard time with is finding a home, especially theater artists, but I think of us as the broken toys from the Land of Discarded Objects. Joe Papp did it. George Wolfe did it. Oscar Eustis is doing it. That for me is really City Center. You get grounded, then you have the freedom of the ultimate plié; you can go higher, deeper when you feel like you’re on solid ground. When I’m feeling nomadic, and that I don’t have a basis, I can’t write. I certainly can’t re-write if I don’t have that. It’s sort of like tonality in a way for me. You have a sort of center. But it does come with noise.
Jeanine Tesori’s composition studio at New York City Center
What I was saying before was there is a beautiful way to not be so myopic about music. Everyone that I have really loved has had a very wide scope. Look at Bernstein and what he was after or Kurt Weill, who’s a beautiful, beautiful artist and influenced Shostakovich. Someone like Carole King, who crossed over from being this songwriter in the Brill Building to going out on her own—you can feel that on Tapestry in every song; you can feel the narrative of the life story inside the album. That’s what I love about those artists. Even if they’re not telling a story, they’re telling their story. And that’s why [Carole King’s songs] make a musical that has real legs.
FJO: You’re inspired by these artists who’ve done so many different things, and in your career you’ve done Broadway musicals, you’ve written operas, you’ve written film scores and incidental music for theater, as well as music for cartoon movies that are wonderful. Are there also hidden away somewhere some choral pieces or a string quartet? Is there anything you’ve composed that doesn’t have a narrative to get the impetus going forward?
“I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image.”
JT: Well, I did some choral work when I was just starting, and I will still do some things to learn, especially with orchestration, which I’m so slow at. I can hear it, but because I don’t do it all the time, particularly in an opera [situation], it’s very hard to go from what I hear to the page. It’s just painstaking. But I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image. I chased it for a little while, and then I thought, “You can’t do everything.” That would be faking in some ways. It’s just not who I am. I think someone like Nico Muhly does it so beautifully and Missy Mazzoli and certainly Jennifer Higdon. But for me, that fell away pretty quickly.
FJO: But when you have a story, when there’s something that gets you going, then you can be inspired.
JT: It invades my brain! The beautiful thing about a narrative is you can find moments that are so surprising. When you work in opera and film and theater, even animation—the thing about animation is it makes you really think in an animatic way. They put things up on the board that go by in the blink of an eye, so you remember the labor. Animators are some of my favorite human beings. They’re just incredible people. I was at Disney when the Pen and Ink Building was still up and running, and I worked with those animators. It was before there was so much CG work, so they would do flip books. The attention to detail in the way an eyebrow went up is a great lesson in patience. It reminds me of when I saw the Nancarrow player piano pieces—how many hours he worked for just three seconds of music. It’s so glorious. And you can feel it. You can feel the investment and the labor as those crazy passages go by on the player piano. And I think that’s like what animators do.
It’s why I write in pencil. And people scoff at it. It’s so old school. Well, fuck it, it’s who I am! I will never change. Certainly the world is digital enough. It’s not like I’m in the Stone Age. When you have to write something down really carefully in pencil, even if it’s on a digital template, it makes you go slowly. It makes you go slower than thought, and that for me is really important.
FJO: I’d like to learn more about the chain of events that got you interested in writing theater music. Was it seeing a show for the first time or seeing several shows and wanting to write one yourself or thinking that there were stories that weren’t being told in what you saw that you wanted to tell?
JT: Often the penny drop moment for me feels like it was just that moment, but like everything else, it was the culmination of many, many years of having started playing the piano at three and knowing really early on that the piano was not for me, even though I played it all the time. I practiced, but I was a bad practicer. I got away with it. I sight read through all my lessons and fooled everybody.
For me, sitting with a piano for five or six hours was not about making sound. It turned out that the piano was a means to an end. But in those days, especially for a young girl, what was I going to do with the piano except play it? I was on Long Island. But I didn’t know, nor did my parents, even though my grandfather had been a composer who died really young, that you could do anything with the piano except play it. It didn’t stand for an orchestra. It was about the instrument. It was a well-tempered instrument that wasn’t there for anything else. You have this talent, so play the piano. And so I did, until I didn’t. After I stopped with this teacher that I loved, I went on with other teachers who were serious and I had a miserable time. They didn’t enjoy me, and I didn’t enjoy them because I was after something else that I couldn’t name, and it wasn’t on the piano. I played well, but I was never going to be great. Ever. So I let that go. It wasn’t whiplash, but I hated them. And they hated me right back, because their job was to make me a great pianist and my job felt like it was something else that I couldn’t figure out.
FJO: Now this is so interesting. I don’t know about your grandfather. Tell me more about him.
JT: He’s right there [points to photo on the wall]. His name was Dominic Venta. He was from Sinello in Sicily. He studied viola and piano. He came to this country in 1926, I think. Maybe a little bit earlier. He went right from Ellis Island to Wisconsin. Not a lot of people know that there was a Midwestern route; you got off Ellis Island, then you’d go to Wisconsin. I have his baton and his music stand—which is quite beautiful—and some of his arrangements. He eventually ended up going back to Italy to get a bride and came back to Wilkes-Barre and died there pumping gas. Got pneumonia.
FJO: So you never met him.
JT: No, he died when my mom was five. So she barely knew him.
FJO: But it was a story in the family, so somehow you had a connection to someone who was a composer in a different way than most people do.
JT: It would bubble up every now and then, but it didn’t come up for me until much later when I realized that pull. I was like, “Oh, there’s a pull.” You just feel it. I was a pre-med [student], which I got a lot out of because any kind of narrative for me is about design. You’re making a building, and you have to make sure that it’s sturdy. That’s what musicals are; they’re sturdy designs. You just don’t know where the doors and the windows are, but you better have them. When I left that, I happened to get a summer job at a theater camp. I studied and learned from and worked for Jack Romano, a hilarious, gigantic gay Cuban director whom I just adored. He was adored by so many of us. And that was it. I remember going to this little barn theater and thinking, “It’s here.” I didn’t understand why. I already had these skills—the combination of storytelling and music. I had to get better at them, but they came very naturally to me.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the impact your pre-med studies had on you. I did know that you pursued that for a while, but I didn’t draw a connection between it and what you do now. I didn’t know that your grandfather was a composer, but I knew that your father was a doctor, so I had just assumed that you were following in your father’s footsteps. But now that I know about your grandfather, I imagine it wasn’t the weirdest thing for your family that this is what you wound up doing.
“So some patients would stay in our rooms… That’s what you do. It was a value system that we learned.”
JT: My father was very, very strict. But he loved the pursuit of excellence. We butted heads, but he was relentless about finishing what you’ve started—being after something and seeing it through. That kind of discipline I definitely saw and got from him. He was very old school. His office was in our home. So some patients would stay in our rooms, if he felt that they were too sick to go to the hospital. He always said, “The hospital would kill them; I have to watch over them.” It was not a big deal. We would go downstairs and sleep on the couch. That’s what you do. It was a value system that we learned.
So when I left that pre-med mindset and went to music, my father was like, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I thought, “I have no idea.” “Well, you should definitely take some music education classes.” And I said, “Absolutely not.” And he looked at me. I remember I was 19. And I said, “If I get music education under my belt, I’m afraid that I’ll use it. I want no net.” And I think there was something about the way I said it that just shut him up. It was so bizarre. He was a very intrepid, scary person. But I think it was just something that occurred to me. Why would I be a music teacher? Now I value teaching very much, but then it seemed to me that I didn’t know anything. What would I have to teach? So that would be complete crap for me.
FJO: Interestingly though, from what you’re telling me and what I’m piecing together from it, the experience with the patients in your home, and the empathy and morality that led to that, has a definite connection with the shows you’ve chosen to work on. All of them are about outsiders who are trying to find their way in, who are bruised by the system in various ways. Whether it’s Millie wanting to come to New York and find a life here and the troubles she has doing so, or Shrek who is an ogre who is teased by just about everyone else he meets, or the much more complex relationships of Caroline with the young son in the family she works for as well as her own daughter in Caroline, or Change, or Violet trying to heal her facial scars in Violet, or Fun Home, where the father is secretly gay and his daughter is trying to process this as she’s discovering she is a lesbian. Every one of these shows features a protagonist who goes through a transformation, and there’s a kind of caregiving that you have given these characters and hopefully also to the people in the audience who experience this work.
JT: It’s inherent in the pursuit in musicals that it’s transformative. The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center. Caroline had a tough go in 2004. That was before Obama. It’s opening in the West End in a couple of weeks. When you see it now, when the daughter of a maid in 1963 topples a confederate statue, it plays very differently.
“The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist.”
The musical I’m writing now is also about someone who you just don’t usually hear from, especially at the center of a musical. But no matter what, musicals are really hard to write. They’re very hard to get right because there are so many variables. When anyone poo-poos them, try writing one. They’re really hard. But the idea that someone holds center stage who you didn’t think about at the center of life—or even paid attention to—has always interested me.
FJO: Now what’s interesting about that is you’re not the writer of the drama or even the lyrics; you’re the composer. So people come to you with these ideas. For your recent show with David Henry Hwang, you’ve written some of the lyrics but, as far as I know, that’s the first time you’ve done that. So other people have these ideas, and you’re attracted to them, and then there’s this collaboration that happens. Each of the five shows of yours that have been on Broadway so far have been a collaboration with a different librettist and David Henry Hwang is a sixth collaborator. So you have not had an extensive ongoing collaborative relationship with anybody thus far, except to some extent with Tony Kushner since you worked on a few other projects with him besides Caroline.
JT: For sure. We’ve done three things together. And I’m working with him now on something. But David Lindsay-Abaire [who wrote the book and lyrics for Shrek The Musical] and I are also writing something right now. I love playwrights. I am very interested and curious about dramaturgy. One of the reasons why we have a partnership is the playwright and I will come in and we break the story together. I write dummy lyrics, then they change them, maybe a line lives on but I would never take credit for that. It’s about going back and forth. I’m just not one of the composers for whom someone sends lyrics and I set them. It’s never how I’ve worked.
FJO: So sometimes the music exists first with the dummy lyric, and then a new lyric comes.
“I’m just not one of the composers for whom someone sends lyrics and I set them. It’s never how I’ve worked.”
JT: It’s more that we will sit and break the outline together. And then we’ll talk about song spotting. I really enjoy the way that songs can come at you in a way that you didn’t expect, what Bernstein calls the violation of the expectation. Doing that with the AABA form is challenging because there’s an expectation, the perfect rhyme. How are you going to rhyme? How is this song going to arrive? Why is this song here? It’s based on artifice. How can we make it feel inevitable? What’s the rhythm within the act, within the scene, between the acts? That’s the part of it I really love.
FJO: In terms of structures, certainly the songs you wrote for Thoroughly Modern Millie are based on tropes of ‘20s music.
FJO: And they’re very convincing. Shrek also has clearly delineated musical units that seem modeled after pop songs. But a show like Fun Home does something totally different, even though it too clearly has stand-apart songs like “Changing My Major” and “Ring of Keys.” But despite that, most of the time, the songs just suddenly emerge seamlessly out of the drama. Sometimes they’re just fragments. They’re definitely not AABA. And they’re so integral to the drama, the way that music is in opera, but it is also clearly not an opera. So now it makes sense that you were involved in breaking the story from the very beginning.
JT: I’m not interested in being not; that’s the reason that I do it. The marriage [of words and music] has to be seamless for me. That’s what I want. As Toni Morrison said—I think it was her—write the thing you want to see. I’ve always loved musicals where you forget they’re singing, yet you completely know they’re singing. There’s an abstraction in music, then there’s the concrete in language. There’s the other when you put them together and when you keep the metaphor constantly forward, guiding everything. It gets to a point where the show itself tells you what it should have. That’s the real fun part. The not so fun part of a show is starting, because I don’t know what it is. We’re all beginners. Eventually it becomes its own thing. It’s like, “Oh, you know what it needs there? It needs this.” And then you give it that. That’s when it gets really enjoyable; before that it’s complete drudgery for me.
FJO: So with each of these projects, did people come to you? How were each of them initiated?
“I’ve always loved musicals where you forget they’re singing, yet you completely know they’re singing.”
JT: They’re all different. For Soft Power, David definitely came to me because he had asked me to come teach at Columbia, and out of that conversation he said, “I’m doing this really strange show that’s about looking at The King and I from an Eastern point of view.” I thought that was a really great idea and then we just started working on it. There’s another thing I’m working on with David which hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t use the title. But it’s wonderful to go back into a play and because it’s a young play, there’s a porousness. It’s like a pumice stone for music. Things that are running on Broadway have legs, and they’ll go on, but you sit there and you think music has nothing to do with this story. Nothing. It doesn’t deepen it. It doesn’t make it go forward. For me, it’s simply like putting more mayo on the sandwich. Who doesn’t want more mayo? But it’s just not the kind of thing that I gravitate towards.
FJO: Shows like Violet or Caroline are both not typical story lines for musicals and both have so much music in them. I know that with Violet, you read the short story that it was based on and then immediately wanted to turn it into a musical and spent a year locked away writing it.
FJO: But how did Caroline happen?
JT: Tony Kushner came to me. We were working on another project. He had already sent [the idea for Caroline] to me before; it was beautifully concise and single spaced, but I didn’t know him and I didn’t want to do it because I felt there wasn’t any room. I didn’t get it. I got the story, but I thought it was a play. Then we started working on something else. When we got to know each other, he said, “You know, what I sent you was not finite. That was just the beginning of something.”
I said there was no ritornello, no sense of repetition. There’s nothing for the ear to settle on. I enjoy recitative a lot. I mean, I love Janacek; the way that he sets language to me is the ultimate. But I didn’t get it. So then he said, “Let’s revisit it.” And we did. That’s when I realized how Tony works: he never stops working! The fun of that was going in and saying this is just an A dangling like one earring on an ear lobe. There’s nothing else. So we have to start with some kind of idea of what we’re doing with the form. I don’t want to bust form to just bust form. I want to understand. So we just started going inside the piece, and writing here, and writing there, and then just strung the pearls all together. I’m very proud of what we came up with. It was not that the idea and the characters were absolutely on the page, but the way that we got there was that we got there together.
FJO: And with Fun Home?
JT: Lisa Kron brought that to me. I read the graphic novel and I thought, again, this is a great idea. But it’s going to be hell because the way that it is organized is as a labyrinth. When something’s non-linear, what’s the causality of it? If it’s not going to be in time, what makes something go forward? How does memory work? Where is it going to trigger and why would it not trigger? Why is “Ring of Keys” [song number] eight and not number four? Why is this here? Why is that there? It was really excruciating because you don’t have a guiding, organizing principal. You have to wait for it. So we were writing and writing into the mess, and then out of that, working with a director, we realized that it goes like this and that’s the car ride.
The past and the future that they’re going to together is the car ride where she gets pulled into the narrative. But we didn’t plan that. I always knew I wanted her pulled into the narrative that she popped back in. That she starts outside of it, and she draws the truth to such an extent with such precision, and she does it at 43, because her craft has caught up to her ambition. And she gets pulled into it so she’s there with him. So it’s that idea of how you re-live what you think happened, and when you really go back, you find out what truly went on, when they say more tears are shed over answered prayers. While that’s true, she also is not tethered any more to the weight of that. She lets herself go at the end; the idea of flying away is the first thing, because I noticed it right away. The first image in that graphic novel is her father lifting her up as an airplane. Lisa and I would go back and forth about what it means to be held up by your parent, which is the greatest metaphor, and then to be released which is also betrayal. In a way, you have to betray your parents. I betrayed mine by saying, “I’m not doing that; I’m doing this.”
FJO: Strangely as I hear you talk about it, I hear a connection with Violet because Violet also operates on multiple layers of time, dealing with the past and the present and the layers in between them.
“I keep writing the father-daughter story.”
JT: For sure. And I keep writing the father-daughter story. That’s just what it is. I just keep writing it in different ways.
FJO: Well that leads to another thing I’m curious about. You grew up in Long Island and you’re basically a New York City person. Shrek is an anomaly, because it takes place in a fantasy world. All these other shows, though, are all American shows, but they’re not really New York shows except for Thoroughly Modern Millie which takes place in New York City, even though it’s about a protagonist who comes here from somewhere else and then there’s all this intrigue with Chinese kidnappers. But two of the shows, Violet and Caroline, are set in the Deep South and Fun Home takes place in rural Pennsylvania. These are not your experiences at all. So how do these stories become your stories? How do you find the empathy to create music for these characters? The material you created for Violet and Caroline includes a lot of country music, blues, and gospel. I imagine that you didn’t grow up listening to that stuff, yet it’s completely convincing.
JT: Well, I did go to Nashville. A lot of people don’t know, because I don’t really talk about it. And my mentor, whom I met when I was 24, was from Arkansas, but also studied with Elliott Carter at Yale.
FJO: Buryl Red?
JT: Mhmm. He had an apartment in Nashville and produced so much work there with all those session guys, but also with the symphony and folk people. I did thousands of hours in the studio. I was in the booth behind the board producing when I was 25. And for at least 15 years, I would regularly go down there, so I had that in my ear and, I think, just growing up as a rhythm player, along with being a classical player, I got it right away. And I love gospel music. I think that just happened from listening. I also did so much world music. We did a hundred CDs of different kinds of music.
FJO: A hundred CDs. What was this?
JT: Back in the day, Silver Burdett and McMillan would produce material for education; we did all live sessions. So if we did gospel, we did it with a gospel choir. And if we did anything symphonic, we recorded with the Nashville Symphony. And if we did Broadway stuff, we did it all live. We also did a lot of MIDI work, because at that point, the mid-’80s into the ‘90s, it was all MIDI and emulators and Kurzweils and all those keyboards. Then, like everything else, it came back around to being more acoustic. I rarely use any keyboards. It started with Millie. No keyboards in the pit. Real instruments playing real stuff, unless its pads or organ or celeste. I just made that decision a long time ago.
FJO: But you don’t usually orchestrate your shows. Right?
“A lot of theater composers are pianists, and it’s too much. Everything is arppegiated—tika-tika-tika-tika.”
JT: No, but I write piano parts that are looking forward to the orchestration. They don’t always sound great in the room, as you know on a well-tempered instrument, you play bong and it goes away, so you have to say to the pianist, “Okay, trem [demonstrates tremolo] because that’s going to be a cello, so just keep playing it. It’s fine.” A lot of theater composers are pianists, and it’s too much. Everything is arppegiated—tika-tika-tika-tika. I can still hear Buryl saying, “What’s going to play that?” It drove him crazy, because you have to think about the orchestra, even if it’s rhythm. If that’s guitar, what key is that going to be in? Are they going to capo? What’s eventually going to play all this stuff? Or it’s just going to all be piano.
FJO: So in terms of all the world music stuff you recorded, these were created for music classes?
JT: Music schools. Music textbooks. Everything was authentic. When we did Chinese music, we would hire pipa players. I hired people right out of the subway sometimes to just come and do a session.
FJO: And I guess where that’s played out really overtly in your own work is in the incidental music for the Lincoln Center Theater production Twelfth Night, which you wrote prior to having a musical on Broadway.
JT: For sure.
FJO: Once again, this score is filled with dualities. On the one hand, you’ve set some of Shakespeare’s words in a way that comes close to sounding like pop music, albeit indie pop music, but then you also included a daxophone in the ensemble. How on earth did you discover the daxophone?
JT: When I was doing Twelfth Night and trying to find my way in, I was really interested in people who were making their own instruments. Nick Hytner said, “I want you to think of this as a movie; it’s going to be an hour of music.” I had three weeks to do it. I had a new baby. My daughter was ten-months old. And I thought, “Well, how are we going to do this?” And he didn’t want it miked. There’s ambient miking at Lincoln Center. So I thought: Okay, everything’s not miked. Great. So how do we make it modern? What is the musical equivalent of Illyria?
Then I met Mark Stewart, the greatest musician, and I went to his studio. I don’t even remember how I met Mark—oh, I know, I was finding a lot of people who play at least eight instruments because everybody in that played about eight instruments, between percussion and temple bowls. They would all travel. They were all doing pit stuff. So I went to his studio and he had 150 instruments, some that he had just made, whirlygigs and so on. We spent the whole day there, just discovering all these things, and then he said, “I have one of three daxophones.” And then he played it for me, and I thought, “Okay, well that’s going to be the North Star, because it’s wood, but it’s electric. That’s Illyria to me. That’s the center.” Then everything else came out of that, like the temple bowls when you have eight people playing them. First of all, it calmed down the musicians, because you can’t make sound unless you’re calm. And it sounds like a synth. But when you watch it, it’s not a synth. So they entered playing the temple bowls. It ate up a lot of time, because there was 20 minutes of music before it even started. So that’s what hit your ear. Also the harmonium, which I love. Slowly these ideas started coming in. They also had to be light on their feet. Everybody traveled. I hired the musician who’d done The Garden of Earthly Delights for Martha Clarke, which was a definitive piece for me. Richard Peaslee. I loved his work!
FJO: So you’ve now written several operas, none of which I’ve heard yet, though I’d love to. But for me, a show like Caroline, or Change is an opera. And Violet is also an opera. For you, is there a difference between a musical and an opera?
JT: There are some obvious differences beyond writing for the classical voice, which is really different, and what’s required for the operatic aesthetic. When they have to sing over a 50 to 100-piece orchestra, what they need is really different. And the orchestra, of course, is different. We never have 48-piece orchestras in theater. So you don’t get to think about that. Soft Power has 24 pieces, and that was the producers, thank God. I just said, “I won’t do it unless it’s this.” Because that is the sound. It was fine to say no; I wasn’t whining about it. I was just saying that it won’t be what I think it should be. So if I can’t have that, that’s fine; then I don’t want to do it, because I can’t do it. But I got it! It wasn’t just about hiring more musicians, which of course is what I think, but that is a requirement if you want to evoke the Golden Age of musical theater. It was at least 30 pieces. So that’s what it is. You have to have a string section, or you don’t get the sound.
“In opera, I can really write dissonance as I hear it.”
Also, in opera, I can really write dissonance as I hear it. That’s really freeing. I can tackle the tessitura very differently. That’s very freeing and scary because there are no excuses in that way. I just finished Blue, the one that’s going to be at Glimmerglass and then the WNO—the premiere is in July—and it’s about police criminality. Francesca Zambello said, “I want you to do another commission; I want it to be something political that you care about.” So it’s ten people and all are opera singers of color. And it’s original. Tazewell Thompson has become a really, really dear friend of mine. It was his first libretto. His experiences as a black gay man in America really broke my heart. I’ve gone all around the United States with something called Breaking Glass about looking at the European tradition of opera and the racial divide with a scholar, Naomi André who teaches at University of Michigan, and it just cracked the world open. I was the only person not of color on the panels. It was great to have to just shut up and listen and learn; it’s really changed me.
But I can’t say I have many [operas] left in me. They’re really hard. It feels like they are five musicals in one opera. They’re hard. You’re in control of everything. And every moment is musical. I’m going to do one more, and then I think that’s it.
FJO: But just about every moment of Violet is musical, too.
JT: But you have a partner in the spoken text. Even in Caroline, where it’s all told through song, I’m not in charge. In opera, the orchestra is so much a part of the storytelling, in the moments of omniscience. It’s not true in musicals; in the Golden Age musical more so, but there is not the sense of breathing where the theme takes over. It’s not powered by music in the way I find opera really is.
FJO: One thing that you said that I’d love to probe deeper is that you feel free to write as dissonantly as you want when you’re writing opera.
FJO: Of all the shows you’ve done that have been on Broadway thus far—there have now been five—only one of them actually originated on Broadway, which was Shrek, which was based on a major Disney motion picture and had Disney’s fortunes behind it. But the others all began off-Broadway or in workshops, because they’re all pretty experimental in some ways.
FJO: Some people claim that Broadway is risk-averse. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. But I think that Violet, Caroline, and Fun Home are all incredibly risky dramatically. And they’ve all been on Broadway. The first thing I thought when I saw Fun Home was that it’s blowing my mind that this is on Broadway and that it even won Tony Awards, even though it’s dealing with suicide and with LGBTQ issues, all this stuff that we’re starting to talk about a lot more as a society now, but not yet on Broadway.
FJO: But since you brought up being able to write dissonant music for opera and you’ve already taken lots of risks with the subjects of your shows that have been on Broadway, it begs the question of whether it would be possible to write really dissonant music for something on Broadway. How would you get away with it?
JT: It’s a great question. There’s cognitive dissonance, which is what I think Fun Home was, which you’re saying, “How is this on Broadway?” Then you look at Angels in America; how is this on Broadway? Well, it’s on Broadway because it’s magnificent. The pressure I felt for Fun Home is that it had to be great. There was no getting away with it not being great with that idea and that book. And you’re dealing with a family, putting them onstage when they’re most vulnerable, and having a really a butch woman at the center when there are not many protagonists like that.
A poster for the initial off-Broadway production of Fun Home at the Public Theater.
It’s like what my friends of color will say, “As the only black person in the room, I always feel I represent my whole race because there’s not a lot of us. We’re black voices in white spaces.” So there’s going to be an LGBTQ voice in the hetero space. And because it’s non-fiction—well, we made up stuff by collapsing truth. Allison [Bechtel] at one point said, “Gosh, that didn’t happen, but it could have happened.” And I thought, “Okay, we’re good. We’re on fertile ground there.”
“The expectation when I go into the Palace Theater is I’m not expecting to hear that challenge of atonality.”
So the dissonance can be from pushing that way. As for the kind of dissonance for your ear, the expectation when I go into the Palace Theater is I’m not expecting to hear that challenge of atonality or pulling from the tonal center. I think it’s asking a lot. Would I love that? Yes. I would love, for instance, for this opera that we’re doing to be on Broadway. Kurt Weill wrote beautiful controlled dissonance. But the expectation when you go to see a Broadway show is that’s not what it’s going to be. Could it be? Maybe.
FJO: Another example of the cognitive dissonance of Fun Home is that now there are so many different versions online of people singing one of the songs from it, “Changing My Major.” You’ve essentially created a modern Broadway standard, but it’s about coming out as a lesbian and it’s very explicit.
FJO: But again it’s not a musical dissonance, although you worked some wonderful modulations into it. You create a musical metaphor for changing majors by actually suddenly changing keys.
Jeanine Tesori singing and accompanying herself on the piano in a performance of her song “Changing My Major” from the Broadway musical Fun Home for Studio 360.
FJO: It’s actually quite sophisticated harmonically. As far as pushing the envelope goes musically, Mary Rodgers and Frank Loesser both wrote songs in 5/4 for Broadway, but I can’t think of anything that’s actually completely atonal, even though Bernstein worked a 12-tone row into West Side Story.
JT: Well, you know, Stephen Sondheim is a master of tension. I can hear what he learned from Milton Babbitt. Yet I don’t think he’s ever aspired to write opera from what I understand. I think Michael John LaChiusa has done it and Kurt Weill. If Nico Muhly were to write a musical, that would be beautiful; I would want to see it. But I do wonder, when we talk about ear training, that thing about the overtone series, is that if it’s very far from those intervals that you have up front, it’s a question of willingness. In terms of going away from the major and minor triad, how far can we push people? It’s a really good question. I don’t know.
FJO: But why do you feel you can push them in that direction in an opera house where most of the people in the audience are used to hearing Puccini?
JT: Yes, but then if you look inside the repertoire and the idea of classical music in the early 20th century and where it came from in terms of the tradition, it just hasn’t happened in musical theater, not that I can really think of, past Stephen Sondheim, off the top of my head, even looking at what’s running on Broadway today. To do a major 7th, it better be part of a major 7th chord. I can’t think of it, except for Bernstein honestly.
FJO: You said you might have one more opera in you.
JT: One more. I have one more.
FJO: And that would be the Metropolitan Opera commission.
JT: That’s it. And then there’s no more.
FJO: Have you given that any thought yet?
JT: Oh, I’m starting in March. I have to start, because I’m late. I had a cerebral hemorrhage last July, a year and change ago—really spontaneous, out of the blue, playing an A-flat chord, teaching new music. I’ll never feel the same about A-flat. It turned out that I was fine, but I didn’t know that for quite a while and I got really behind on everything. Because I had to not only take time off, but I had to really slow down until I just got my energy back from being in the hospital, from being in the ICU. So I had to let go of certain projects and then I just got really behind. I finished Blue, and I’m starting Grounded in March.
“One female voice in a sea of men. How I feel all the time in music!”
It’s based on a play by George Brant. It’s a play I really love. Paul Cremo, whom I’ve known for quite a while, said, “Come down. I’m going to see this play called Grounded at Arena Stage.” It’s a beautiful little theater in D.C. I saw it and I immediately thought it would be a great opera—one female voice in a sea of men. How I feel all the time in music! So then I asked Peter Gelb if I could have the Met stage, if there was a time when the union would be okay with us bringing the actress who plays the pilot—or one of them, it’s been done everywhere—to just do 15 minutes of the play so I could hear it in the space. And she did and it was astonishing in the proscenium of that giant, giant space—one woman talking about the endless sky. So I just thought, this would be great. And now I have to do it, unfortunately.
FJO: Or fortunately for all of us.
JT: I hope.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you a bit more about Soft Power. At this point I’ve only seen trailers for it, but the whole idea really blew my mind. At some point, I remember someone telling me that after the 2016 election you were so worked up that you weren’t going to work on music for a while and instead become more politically active and help to mobilize people. But with this project, you’ve found a way to do it through art, through this collaboration with David Henry Hwang.
JT: Completely. 1000%. It’s also interesting, because that’s what I was working on when I went to the hospital. Again, there was a room filled with people of color, and then me and a couple other people. Writing for the Asian American community, I was really amazed at my ignorance, hearing one actress say that to play herself in musical theater—not color blind casting, but to play an Asian American—was to bow or spread her legs. There are now some really wonderful pieces, Allegiance being one of them, and there are going to be more to come. But she felt as an actor, what was available to her was to be a whore or someone without power. That really hit me. Well, it didn’t hit me because it didn’t have to hit me. That’s when I thought I really want to understand the idea of feeling like the perpetual foreigner. Then that hate crime happened when David was stabbed in the neck right after the election.
After the election, I’d been running around, doing all of this volunteering and all of this teaching up at Columbia Law School. And I took a course there. I was working with those students, and I think I just got so damaged and run down that I got sick. And I thought, “I’m going to let all of that stuff go. There are other people that do it better. I’m going to focus on writing things that I think will have hopefully some impact—addressing something and putting it into the repertoire.” I don’t know that, but for me the hope is always that it goes into the repertoire and can be done again. I thought that that’s got to be my job. That’s what I’m going to take really seriously.
“Democracy” from Soft Power by Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang.
FJO: Is Soft Power eventually coming to Broadway?
JT: I don’t know if it would ever come to Broadway, but we’re working on bringing it to New York.
FJO: Why wouldn’t it ever come to Broadway?
“The fact that Fun Home made money, and recouped was a big, big deal.”
JT: You know, ever since Caroline lost the Tony Award for best score, and it lost to something by people I love, I thought, “I’m going to never take Broadway as the end game ever.” Of course, I want to be there because it gets attention on a national and international stage, unlike off-Broadway. But I know too much about what it takes to not only get there, but what it takes to stay there. It’s really hard when 63% of your audience are tourists. The fact that Fun Home made money and recouped was a big, big deal. We needed that Tony Award for Best Musical, because for some people that was their way in. That was their entry point: I just want to buy a ticket to the thing that won. So we got a different kind of audience after that, and that was really interesting. It’s such a push-pull, with the idea of how you sell your work, and how you keep those doors open. The idea is to have something not only open, but to run. Those are two really different things. Challenge them, but it has to be compelling.
In June, my evening-length opera Three Way will have its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after having received its world premiere with Nashville Opera. The piece consists of three one-act comic operas for eight singers and twelve instrumentalists, with a brilliant libretto by David Cote. The stories involve a woman and her android lover; a BDSM session between a dominatrix and her client; and a swingers party, complete with masks, robes, and frisky behavior.
Several questions that are usually on everyone’s minds when they hear this short description are: “Is this a ‘sex opera’?” “Does the title really mean a threesome, like a ménage a trois?” And, naturally, “What did you do for research?”
I’ll get to these questions in a moment, but first, a little background.
Our goal was to create a relatable opera on contemporary subjects that doesn’t rely on shock effect, blatant nudity, or victimization; there are plenty of composers, librettists, and indie opera presenters doing that already. We wanted to use sexuality as the “in”: a topic that might intrigue a wider audience, maybe even get someone to attend their first opera. Getting people in the door is key. Opera companies spend a lot of time and money on productions, so you’d better be absolutely sure that they aren’t wasting money on you.
Opera companies spend a lot of time and money on productions, so you’d better be absolutely sure that they aren’t wasting money on you.
As an aside, when deciding whether to adapt a pre-existing text or to create something entirely new, there were many factors to consider. Opera companies are obviously eager to fill the house every night and want to commission works that will have longevity. On one hand, creating entirely new stories that cannot be easily referenced by concertgoers is incredibly risky. On the other hand, using a pre-existing text (a novel, for example) as the basis for a libretto can be very expensive. We chose to take a chance and create a new libretto. After all: if the music is brand new, it’s always nice to have an original libretto as well.
Each act engages in a subtle dialogue with a classic work from the repertoire. We set out to write an opera firmly within the operatic tradition—foregrounding narrative, character, and conflict, and containing 12 distinct arias! My personal goal was to create an opera that is rich and complex; full of leitmotifs, chromatic yet melodic, and with engaging recitative and witty lyrics, which David provided. From the beginning, we wanted to craft an opera that is as engaging to the ear as it is to the mind and heart.
We took a chance by creating something that could be viewed as too risqué, but there are many classics that are similarly provocative—including several warhorse operas. From Mozart (Don Giovanni) to Bizet (Carmen) and Strauss (Salome), there’s no shortage of sexual obsession or excess in the classic repertoire. The main difference is that ours is in English and contemporary, so it’s more visceral than work in Italian or German from one or two hundred years ago. Shocking subjects and language can often hide behind the veil of a foreign tongue and historic settings. Furthermore, we don’t actually use nudity or (much) obscene language. It’s a PG opera in R-rated clothing.
Before discussing the research that went on behind the scenes, it makes sense to give a brief outline of each act. The acts are designed to function as both a full-evening set and individually.
Act I, The Companion, is about Maya (soprano) and her live-in lover Joe (tenor), a biomorphic android. Joe caters to Maya’s every need, but she wants more spontaneity, more realism. After tech worker Dax (baritone) from Dream Companions performs an upgrade, Maya regrets the new, aggressively masculine Joe. This opera is faintly inspired by Act I of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, the “Olympia” episode. Only here, a woman has fallen for a “wind-up” man.
Safe Word (Act II) is about the relationship between a dominatrix (mezzo) nicknamed Mistress Salome and her prickly businessman client (bass). Here, the music contains musical references to, yes, the Strauss opera Salome. As you may guess, in this sexy but dark opera, things take a violent turn. Our dominatrix is in the tradition of opera “femmes fatales.”
The final act, Masquerade, takes place at a swinger party where three couples and their hosts explore the boundaries of sexual expression. But this party is different: all the guests must put on masks and robes and not say their names. The confusion and excitement that results prompts shyness in some and boldness in others. The influence here is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the classic about love, disguises, fickleness, faithfulness, and losing yourself to find yourself. (It’s also in the operatic tradition of masked balls, explored by composers as diverse as Verdi, Nielsen, and Johann Strauss II.)
So, back to the earlier questions: Yes, this is definitely an opera with adult themes, but it’s more complex than that. The title references a sexual activity, obviously, but also playfully alludes to the three different acts that highlight diverse yet related experiences. For example, in The Companion, Maya asks Dax if he’d like to have a threesome with her and Joe, the android, and he declines, saying that he prefers “organic, like your type, organic.” Masquerade features a conversation about a threesome between three characters, Larry, Jessie, and Tyler, and even a dream-like orgy scene (no nudity, we promise!), so there’s that. In Safe Word, the gender dynamics become extremely fraught between the dominatrix and her cis-male heterosexual Client, who dresses up like a little girl to be disciplined. Each piece tries to complicate and interrogate the social “scripts” that inflect modern sexual behavior and gender norms. A gender nonconforming couple in Three Way whimsically muses: “Hetero. Gay. There’s always a third way. Or a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh way!”
By now, you’re probably wondering: Do we actually know what we’re doing? Have either David or I ever experienced anything like what we’re writing about? Have we slept with sexbots, been whipped by a mistress in a BDSM dungeon, or attended a swinger party? Are either of us members of the trans community? What right do we have to dramatize such potentially sensitive subject matter—with humor and melody, no less?
Like any good creative team, we did our research. The Companion was the easiest in that respect. We are both around the same age, so we both grew up absorbing the same sci-fi books and movies, and are both deeply involved with technology in our daily lives, so this part wasn’t as difficult. We have both absorbed plenty of books and movies that reference these subjects, whether 2001: A Space Odyssey, books by Isaac Asimov, or movies like Terminator and Blade Runner. David being David, and ingenious, included plenty of clever references in the first act—virtual Easter eggs for nerdy, sci-fi types like ourselves.
For Safe Word, David interviewed Melisa Febos, a former dominatrix and author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Of course, the Internet is extremely useful for figuring out the correct terminology and for viewing real dungeons. Interestingly, right before the premiere with Nashville Opera, we were granted a tour of a BDSM community dungeon in Nashville, and we gave a talk to its members about our opera. It was a fascinating experience. The club was immaculately clean and orderly, and the energy of the space was friendly and inviting. They even had a meeting room specifically used for lectures and sex-positive discussions. In the end, at least 40 people from that scene attended our opera, and they really enjoyed it. In fact, the owner of the dungeon emailed us later and stated that we did a great job of representing their world correctly. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Finally, for Masquerade, in the name of “research,” my wife Victoria and I went to an actual swinger masquerade party. There were more than four couples at the party, but for the sake of the structure of the opera, as well as practicality (more singers, more money), we stuck to four couples in Masquerade. The folks we met at the party were incredibly nice, and, as in the opera, from all walks of life. No one was forced to do anything they didn’t want to do, and it was, in many ways, similar to the opera. Some people were down to earth, some more formal, some were experienced swingers, others were “newbies,” and so on.
David and I talked constantly about whether the situations we presented were realistic or not. If something didn’t ring true to the characters or the rules of our world, we tried to address it. Not that we treated the opera like a documentary or an academic treatise, but we wanted people who have had these experiences leaving the theater feeling like these stories might actually be somewhat plausible.
Having said all this, I don’t necessarily think we needed to experience every situation we wrote about firsthand, or be the characters, in a method-acting sense. I think there’s too much of that these days: the notion that you shouldn’t write about the BDSM scene unless you’ve actually been a domme or a sub; or that you can’t write about being a soldier if you haven’t been on the front lines; or that if you’re a straight, white, cisgendered male of European descent, you can’t write a story about lesbians, a postgender couple (like our Kyle and Tyler in Masquerade), or Mexican immigrants crossing the border. Artists who are good at their work will bring the characters and situations to life without needing to be the characters. If the work succeeds, audiences will empathize and identify—while maintaining critical distance. As the Roman playwright Terence put it, “I am human, and nothing which is human is alien to me.” Of course, as we show in The Companion, it’s hard to tell what being human is anymore.
Artists who are good at their work will bring the characters and situations to life without needing to be the characters.
In the end, what really matters is people leaving the theater after a great evening, having enjoyed the work. There are plenty of laughs, but also moments of melancholy, weirdness, even terror—you know: opera. If they really like it, maybe they’ll tell their friends and attend more opera themselves—new ones or classic titles. Maybe all of that research will pay off; we’ll find out this June at BAM.
Praised for his wonderful sense of color, as well as for embracing beauty and lyricism in his vocal music, Robert Paterson was recently named The Composer of The Year by the Classical Recording Foundation with a performance and celebration at Carnegie’s Weill Hall. His music has been on the Grammy ballot yearly and was named “Best Music of 2012” on National Public Radio. His works have been performed and professionally recorded by over one-hundred orchestras, chamber groups and choirs, and he’s been fortunate to win many awards for his work, in virtually every classical genre. He lives in New York City with his wife Victoria, a professional violinist, and their son Dylan, and is the artistic director of both the American Modern Ensemble and the forthcoming Mostly Modern Festival.
On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In this final installment, I reflect on the experience and plan my next steps.
I’m sitting at a bar two days after my Frontiers performance. It’s a bar where the Frontiers composers spent many hours socializing and talking technique, plans, and projects. Now, I’m alone; most of my colleagues have left Fort Worth and I am waiting for the shuttle that will take me to the plane to begin my journey home.
As ESPN plays on the screen above me, I’m flipping through the small stack of business cards that I collected in the previous days. I’m also making a list of the names of people with whom I’ve been speaking, but who didn’t have a card handy—Frontiers panelists, general directors, librettists. In a motion that has been well practiced during the last week, I reach for the interior jacket pocket that holds my business cards. I’m pleased to find only one remaining.
This is why I came. I came to meet people, to make connections, and to begin relationships with creative partners who are looking to build projects from the ground up. In my hands are the spoils of my experience at Frontiers.
I’m heartbroken that it’s over, but by many accounts, my performance was a gigantic success. My singers—soprano Rachel Blaustein, tenor Brian Wallin, and baritone Alex DeSocio—were prepared, professional, flexible, and totally killed the performance both musically and dramatically. My music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly, and pianist Matthew Stevens—dug into my score and found more than I had realized I had put into it.
The audience’s response to my music was overwhelmingly positive, I think. I actually don’t really remember the audience’s response as it got wrapped up with my choreography. (Don’t fall down the steps. Hug conductor. Shake pianist’s hand, then male singer’s. Kiss the soprano’s hand. Don’t knock over the stands or the microphones. Arms open wide to the audience and bow. Are my shoes tied? Yes they are! Drag it on as long as possible before the company bow…and we’re done!)
I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options.
The next morning involved a discussion with six members of the Frontiers panel, a group of decision makers from across the country who had also selected the pieces that were presented in the showcase. I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options, being told that the absence of “preciousness” in my work and presentation (defined as a reluctance to let go and let collaborators in) was evident. I felt the warmth of comments regarding my lyricism, the balance of my vocal and piano writing, and the creativity of weaving Poe’s poetry (what one panelist called “found material”) into the libretto and the multiplying effect it had on character development. A review in the local paper said about my opera (which takes place in an mental institution), “…needless to say, you wouldn’t want to be in this asylum – as either patient or caregiver.” I’ll take that as a positive.
Everyone involved in the 2017 Frontiers Showcase at Ft. Worth Opera.
The unseen impact
The day before my show, I went to a big-box grocery for a few items and gifts for my cast. And older woman waved me over to her to her checkout counter and we started talking, as strangers often do in this part of the country.
“Would you like to sign up for a rewards card?” No thanks, I live abroad.
“What brings you to Texas?” I’m here with the opera.
“What are you singing?” I’m a Frontiers composer.
This stops her in her tracks. “Isn’t that fabulous! What else have you done? I’m a choral singer, do you have any choral music?” I have quite a bit (handing over my card) if you wouldn’t mind giving this to your choir director.
She flips my card over in her hands and looks at me with wide eyes. “We HAVE done your music! It’s WONDERFUL!”
She looks a little star struck, and wants to shake my hand. I mumble a bit, but give in to the serendipity of the situation, accept her praise, and thank her profusely for her kind words. Leaving the store, I start laughing. This has NEVER happened to me in over a decade of writing and I’m a little unsure what to make of it. The basic reality sets in that when I send things out, either through my publisher, through my online and social media interactions, or through rare opportunities afforded by exposure like I experienced at Frontiers, I welcome the ripples of interactions they produce, and am grateful that something I have done has reached a complete stranger.
I was struck by this again the day after my showcase, when I went to Dallas to attend the New Works Forum at the Opera America Conference. Walking into the room, I immediately started recognizing faces I had only seen online – general directors, Pulitzer winners, singers, directors, librettists—a who’s who of leaders in the field. Everyone had their first names in large print on their ID badges, and I could see eyes darting towards my own as I walked around the room, trying to radiate maturity and positivity—or at least, not panic. Most moved on after glancing at my name badge, but a few stopped and came forward, saying that they had been at my show the previous night, or that they had seen my first essay on NewMusicBox two days before.
Hin und zurück (There and back again)
From the perspective of my relatively secure, European composer bubble, the amount of exposure I received between the announcement of, and participation in, Frontiers bordered on empowering and overwhelming, with a dash of terror for good measure. The response I received from audiences, colleagues, and the staff of Fort Worth Opera affirmed my Brand—“I am becoming a better opera composer”—for the foreseeable future. But no matter how well things turned out (or at least appeared to), it’s important for me not to believe my own “hype.” What I’m really left with, in the end, is an opportunity.
Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn.
In a previous incarnation of these essays, I mused that my goal would be coming home from Frontiers with more work than I could possibly handle. While this was a bit naïve, I do find myself with many avenues of communication on which I need to follow up, opera and non-opera projects that will keep me busy through the summer and fall. Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn. Projects develop over years, not months. The reality is that I put down roots during those two weeks in Texas, and every single one of them has the potential to develop into a new project. I just have to tend that garden. One win does not make a career, and a particular win does not necessarily mean I will be veering in the direction that win suggests. My immediate task is to kindle the relationships that I struck up, maximize the amount of time that I can spend on developing new projects, and be patient.
On May 3rd, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase—a major step into the American new opera scene for an emerging composer. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I consider how I prepared to present myself as an emerging opera composer, and how I fared putting those skills to work.
“I am becoming a better opera composer” is my brand, to borrow a word from the marketing world. When I was in non-profit administration, we would talk about this quite a bit. We were trying to distill our “soul”—what drove us, as an organization, to do what we did—and then make that into something recognizable to the public that we could, in turn, utilize at fundraising time. While not my favorite term, The Brand provides a compass, an overarching explanation as to why I make my decisions regarding my work and how I advance plans that will hopefully lead to collaboration. Just saying it—identifying The Brand—doesn’t necessarily translate into anybody buying what I am selling, but it does remind me of my true north.
Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor.
Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor. My understanding of the inner workings of the writing and production of opera, and the collaboration required to make it all happen is the bridge that connects The Brand (which is theoretical and internal), and the reputation I want to develop in the real world: the impression I make on those around me as work proceeds.
It’s a bit of a tall order to get that across with a few website tweaks and a new set of headshots, but embodying The Brand is my responsibility, as is communicating it to potential collaborators. I could easily represent myself as a safe choice, saying, in effect, “I’m not going to be a problem for you. I’m not one of those crazy egocentric composers who is going to make ridiculous demands and make you sorry you wanted to work with me.” I can assuage these preconceptions with a picture that pretty much sums me up: “I’m normal! I’m a nice guy! I’m wearing tweed, for God’s sake!” But safe is not safe when so few opportunities exist. What The Brand demands of me—and the reputation I wish to establish—is to present myself as an engaging collaborative professional with a clear artistic vision and a solid understanding of the art form, while also demonstrating the leadership skills necessary to bring it to life.
Love in an Elevator
Frontiers was my first foray into the American opera machine. I met other composers, singers, conductors, and general directors both at Fort Worth, and later at the Opera America convention, which ran concurrently in Dallas. Everybody talked, networked, and traded experiences and plans. I knew this was coming, so I quickly had to prepare for succinct conversations about myself, every aspect of my portfolio, and every opera in my portfolio.
In my admin days, the “brand” discussion was always followed by the obsessive for the perfect elevator speech—a pitch given in less than 30 seconds to someone with undivided attention. Mostly used when approaching new donors, the goal was getting a check or a pledge of future support. I actually followed quite a few marks into literal elevators, so the name wasn’t too misleading.
The same thinking applies when prepping myself to pitch completed, current, and dreamed-about opera projects. With these pitches, I throw things against the wall in hopes that either they will stick or result in a “positive rejection” (a pass on the project at hand, but an expressed interest in a potential future collaboration).
Who am I, anyway?
I have a diverse background. My writing and performing experience spans rock, pop, jazz, funk-fusion, liturgical music, pit bands, musical theater shows, opera, lonely coffee house singer-songwriter stints where the only thing I was serenading was the coffee, and a smattering of orchestra gigs. On top of that, my work history includes teaching, working with special needs communities, administration, executive leadership, grant writing and fundraising, and restaurant work. I even sold women’s clothes for a while. I don’t exactly embody the traditional compositional pedigree. To practice talking about my musical self, I had to be able to talk to everyone about my musical self—not just other musicians, and certainly not just general directors, conductors, and dramaturges.
The pitch is about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds.
I developed one pitch for non-professionals, completely devoid of jargon. It was liberating! Crafting an easily understandable, yet engaging personal pitch became much less threatening. It focuses on the “what” of what I do, and less so, the “why” or “what I’m trying to accomplish.” I extended that technique into my opera pitches. I initially thought that I simply needed to describe what happens in the course of a show and could leave out leitmotivs, dramaturgical nuance, or what the piece “means.” I started big, by reverse-engineering a “treatment”—a scene-by-scene narrative format, complete with descriptions of arias, plot devices, and even some general staging recommendations. One size smaller is the synopsis, which is more general, focusing on what happens act to act. The show could then be distilled into the pitch, about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds, answering the question, “Why should I be interested in this opera?” The hardest-hitting part of the pitch is the hook—the first sentence that should set up what piqued my interest, and why I wanted to write the damn opera in the first place.
The best laid plans…
In the months ahead of Frontiers, I wrote and rewrote my opera pitches, and practiced with colleagues and friends. The feedback quickly coalesced into a common critique: I had written myself out of my pitches. I was pitching interesting shows that in no way could be traced back to me as the creator. I had followed my own advice so meticulously that my pitches were “correct,” but completely impersonal. Also, I had somehow convinced myself that the show would be seen as more important than the work I had done to write the show. Two nail-biting weeks before I flew to Texas, I started from scratch, rewriting my pitches with myself, my skills as a composer, and what drew me to the subject as the hook. In doing so, I was now selling my craft and myself; in practice, I became The Brand, and The Brand became me.
The long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration.
In doing so, I averted a potentially fatal flaw in my presentation. This was made aware to me in my first meetings with conductors, singers and general directors. As I learned in my initial telephone outreach with American opera companies, the long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration. Leading with who I am, what I’m working on, and how (and why) I’m approaching my work is far more engaging, open and fulfilling.
Next week: Rehearsal and performance, or, “All the things I didn’t know I knew about my opera.”
By the time you read this, I will be nearing the culmination of Fort Worth Opera’s “Frontiers” showcase—a major step into the American new opera scene for an emerging composer. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and participating in, this opportunity. As a point of entry, I’ll detail how I got myself into this mess to begin with.
I live with opera, literally. I regularly perform as an opera chorus member and supernumerary, I’m married to a coloratura soprano whose career has led us to a European address, and opera takes up the vast majority of my current workload. I was led to embrace the art form by my father, who unwittingly instilled in me what would become the two pillars of my musical aesthetic—jazz and opera. He was a “dance band” bass player in his New Jersey youth who later became the middle-aged man sitting in his recliner and sobbing along with La Bohème during the Met radio broadcast. He took me to my first opera—Carmen, presented by the now-defunct company in Baltimore—where an old man directly behind me mercilessly booed the Toreador, planting the seed of my fascination with music for the stage and the effect it could have on those listening.
After college, I laid out a ten-year plan to develop the skills I thought I needed to write opera.
After college, I laid out a ten-year plan to develop the skills I thought I needed to write opera. Beginning with the voice, I wrote and sang choral music and art song, learning how singers thought and operated (no small feat). Next, I worked my way from solo instrumental pieces to chamber music to full orchestra, settings songs for voice and chamber instrumentation and simulating Puccini arias and duets along the way.
About six years into this project came an opportunity. Axe 2 Ice Productions was an alternative theater troupe in Boston whose mainstay was Bent Wit Cabaret, a monthly mashup of burlesque, spoken word, performance art, musical numbers, and other oddities. The music director, a colleague of mine, asked if I would write a seven-minute opera for a “mystery” themed show. Of course I said, “Yes! What could possibly go wrong?” and quickly settled on Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” with its maniacal asylum proprietor, a melodramatic sense of foreboding, a slew of fantastic side characters, and an unpredictable—yet inevitable—climax that could only have come out of the mind of Poe.
Time being very short, I surgically cut away at Poe’s original text, coalescing the action into a single scene with a brief introduction and afterword. The original version came to 15 minutes with piano accompaniment. I trimmed it down to around 8 minutes for Bent Wit and scored it for their house band. A year later, Boston Opera Collaborative presented the original 15-minute version on a program that was aptly titled “Opera Goes to Hell.” Three years later, I expanded the work in order to realize a more complete adaptation of Poe’s story, resulting in a three-act, 90-minute piano/vocal score.
Good for me…now what?
I soon learned that cold-shopping an out-of-the-box stage work is a thorny, if not downright impossible, proposition. In the autumn of 2015, I reached out to roughly 200 small- to medium-sized American opera companies. In a 100-word email, I introduced myself and asked for a five-to-ten-minute phone conversation about trends in the commissioning and production of new opera (a subject that obviously interested me but was benign enough for an initial discussion). I received about 40 responses and eventually spoke with representatives of around 20 companies. My lone question was: “What conditions would need to be in place for your company to consider commissioning a new work, or producing a recently composed work?”
Cold-shopping an out-of-the-box stage work is a thorny, if not downright impossible, proposition.
Along with the wealth of information I received on a wide range of topics—including the desire to produce new works in line with the needs and wants of the constituency, the lack of new female roles, the challenges of the heavy subject matter of many new works, and the industry-wide discussions surrounding successfully raising funds for commissions—it was said in almost every conversation that relationships are paramount to developing new works. None of the companies I spoke with would consider premiering a completed opera from a composer with whom they had no relationship, and most would opt for the chance to build a project from the ground up.
Sidebar: In my experience over the last four years working in German opera houses, it appears that many of the same rules apply for a composer trying to break in, particularly the development of a relationship with administrators to foster a work that resonates with the particular audience of the commissioning house. Beyond that, the opera culture—not to mention the new opera scene—is rather different from that of the USA in a number of ways. Germany is, for better or worse, a bit of an opera bubble. Its undeniable opera tradition can weigh heavily on itself (sometimes to the point of ignoring the obvious contributions of other cultures), but it’s generally not afraid to take risks in presenting new works or new concept-driven adaptations of the repertoire. This is simply part of their opera culture, and they have developed an audience for it. On the other hand, the interest in new works in Germany still favors very dense, difficult, and abstract composition (in some ways, the train never left Darmstadt), and newly commissioned works from non-Germans have been extremely rare. One thing in my favor, however, is that Germans love competition winners, and mentioning my being selected for the Frontiers showcase at Fort Worth Opera has given me a few second chances already.
The need to be heard and venues in which to be heard are precious few.
One of my calls in 2015 was to Darren K. Woods (the then-General Director of Fort Worth Opera) who encouraged me to apply to Frontiers, which is one of the few new opera development programs with an unrestricted public submission process. This in and of itself is at the heart of the struggle I have felt as an emerging opera composer: the need to be heard and venues in which to be heard (outside of a sheltering institution) are precious few but, in the course of my phone calls, I learned that being aggressive in attacking these opportunities doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere. Realistically, however, in no way are these opportunities a silver bullet. They are, at best, a chance to meet with decision makers in the field and to present my best work: that which, for me, demonstrates my understanding of the repertoire, of the voice, of dramaturgy, and of a sincere compositional aesthetic.
Seven years after the first phrases were written, I am enjoying the opportunity to work with singers and the music staff at Fort Worth to bring twenty minutes of my Poe opera to life. I am days away from the showcase and the opportunity to present my work and interact with decision makers from all over the country.
Next week: How did I prepare to present myself to the opera world? Or, “Does this tweed make me look like an opera composer?”
Frank Pesci’s compositions have been performed across North America and Europe. He has written nearly 100 works for the concert stage, including forty choral works, eleven song cycles, nearly twenty chamber and concert scores, and five operas. He lives in Cologne, Germany.
When I set out to program the final concert of our 2016-17 Festival of American Music, little did I know it would have so many incarnations! I’m partly to blame for what we internally call the “ever-changing program.” Originally the featured piece on the second half of the program was going to be a new work inspired by Muhammad Ali that I was writing, but it turned into an opera. So instead of a 15-minute work it became a 70-minute rap opera, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. This shouldn’t have surprised me because taking on a subject like Muhammad Ali is not like turning a novel into an opera where the story is contained in the pages. Ali’s life was so much bigger than any one story about him. I thought I knew enough about Ali’s background that the composition would flow easily. But early on, I realized that I needed to learn more. Ali was so much more than a boxer, so much more than even just himself; he is a symbol and has a story that leads to broader implications and subjects.
I realized there would be no notes, not even themes, nothing—no music would get written until I learned about this subject. I hit the books in a way I haven’t done since college and basically turned on my old research brain. The first book I read was King of the World by David Remnick. That was the gateway book, because it is great writing and Remnick puts boxing into context so that it’s not just describing fights but also who the fighters were. It’s not just Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston; it’s the whole history of Sonny Liston, because you can’t understand the fight between Ali and Liston, or Liston and Floyd Patterson, unless you know who those people were and how they were portrayed in the media.
Then I realized that I needed to learn about the context of the time period including black history and culture as well as the Vietnam War. I read works by Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and anybody I could find that would help me put things into the larger context of black history and culture that related to Ali. Finally I decided I’d never know enough, but now I knew what I need to know, and I needed to start writing this script. That was definitely challenging because I’m not a script writer, I don’t write librettos, I don’t do that; I write lyrics for my songs. So for the first time I was writing a libretto for a dramatic work that I knew was going to be an opera-like piece; a rap opera (and sung opera, too). Ultimately to do this now 70-minute opera right, we need to do it in its own performance with a full production. So that meant changing the program.
Now the final concert is a celebration of American musical possibilities—presenting composers from the past, showcasing the Louisville Orchestra’s involvement in the creation of new music, and supporting contemporary composers of today. So in addition to selections from The Greatest; Muhammad Ali, we have pieces from Samuel Barber, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Herbie Hancock, and Lou Harrison. And our guest artist is an amazing singer who focuses on American music and contemporary music, Susan Narucki. She is singing selections from Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is an absolutely brilliant composer. I’ve been dying to do some of Sarah’s music and this is the first time I’ll actually have a chance to present it. She’s definitely a composer to watch!
Shifting gears, Herbie Hancock is an example of an American master musician/composer and likely one you will rarely find on an orchestra concert because he writes jazz charts. We did a trial run at recent education concerts where the orchestra played the chart for Cantaloupe Island. We didn’t arrange or orchestrate it; we just gave them the chart that Herbie would have played (a bunch of chords and a melody). We came up with a version of it as a smaller group, so that’s what we’re going to present for this concert. (This is not something you want to try out first in a full orchestral context if you haven’t had time to work it out.) Not only did that earlier audience love it, but it gave our musicians a chance to shine and improvise; last time we did it, we had two horn players get up and improvise a duo. This is not something I believe you’re going to see in any other orchestra. In the second half of the program, we’ll play three movements of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Symphonic Strings followed by selections from The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.
Our Festival of American Music is a serious commitment to the music and the composers of our time, the legacy of the Louisville Orchestra, and the broader legacy of American music. We are celebrating and featuring composers alive today, and we’re broadening the definition of American music that can be played by an orchestra. I hope that our audiences who are passionate about music, of any kind, are going to find something in the festival that resonates with them. As I built these programs, I learned and heard things that I never even dreamed were possible in music and that’s inspiring for me. I can’t wait to share that with everyone!