How does an opera come about? Who initiates the opera project? What makes the subject compelling enough that the collaborators are willing to spend the time it takes to bring the project to fruition? How does the title of the new opera play into the birth of an opera?
MEET THE OPERATIC PARENTS
This writer will say upfront that she has written about these subjects before, especially in relation to her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On with composer William Banfield and director-dramaturg Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theatre. Moreover I have a new book on this subject The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and at the end of the day, not enough can be said about the difficulty of birthing a new opera and bringing it to the stage. I suspect that after this article is published, I will want to address it again in the future.
To answer the questions initially stated, the following composers and poets were contacted:
Linda Lee Harper and Richard Maltz on Believers
Stefan Weisman on Darkling
Scott Wheeler on Democracy: An American Comedy
Lori Laitman and David Mason on The Scarlet Letter
Janet Peachey on Wheel Ordeal
What I hoped to do in my selection of opera creators was to show a range of projects in various stages of opera development from beginning to completion. Two of these opera—Democracy: An American Comedy and Darkling—have successfully enjoyed their world premieres in 2005 and 2006 respectively. The Washington National Opera in their young artist program premiered Democracy, a full-length work in two acts with intermission. American Opera Projects commissioned and premiered Darkling, a work that is 75 minutes in duration. The Scarlet Letter is scheduled for its premiere Nov. 7, 2008. Believers, and Wheel Ordeal are looking for development commissions.
NAMING THAT BABY
The name of an opera is always its first strategic line of publicity. One reasonable expectation is that the title tells the audience something about its subject. Many operas are based on existing literary works and use the same title as the work from which it is drawn. This is the case for Darkling and The Scarlet Letter. If the literary work is well known as in the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a story about adultery, than an opera by the same title gets an additional boost of recognition and the audience already knows something about the subject. Darkling by Anna Rabinowitz is a long poem on the subject of loss and particularly as it relates to the Holocaust. Probably if one asked Anna Rabinowitz about her title (something this writer did not have the occasion to do), she might say the word “darkling” by itself is mysterious and evocative and therefore would draw audience.
The title Democracy: An American Comedy presents an interesting publicity situation. The opera is based on Democracy and Esther, two novels by Henry Adams. “The title Democracy was initially a drawback,” Scott Wheeler said, “not with people who know the wonderful Henry Adams novel, but with the many who do not know it. In fact, a couple of respected opera people urged me to change the title. I ignored their advice because they weren’t offering to help me with the production. However, when Plácido Domingo, whose Washington Opera Company was producing the work, suggested that we add the subtitle An American Comedy, Romulus Linney and I were happy to oblige.” Additionally, the word democracy radiates contrary and emotional connotations, not to mention that Michael Frayn wrote a play titled by that one-word and at the time of Wheeler’s premiere of his opera, Frayn’s play was being produced on Broadway. So while Wheeler’s title is evocative and informational about possible subject matter, it confused potential audience who got it mixed up with Frayn’s play while never associating the opera with the source work of John Adams.
Believers and Wheel Ordeal are original titles. According to collaborating poet Linda Lee Harper, Believers deals with “the Boston Red Sox ‘curse’ purportedly caused by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees.” Composer Dick Maltz said about his choice of title, “After immersing myself in baseball history, especially that of the Red Sox, I was in awe of the continuing loyalty of all parties in this story: the Red Sox fans, management and players over the years. Despite setbacks, tragedies, poor decision-making and decades of unlucky breaks, their belief in the Red Sox success ultimately never failed. They all were vindicated in 2004 and again in 2007. Thus, ‘Believers,’ seems not only an appropriate, but inevitable title.“ While its true that baseball teams have its followers and spawn fanatical faith, this opera, based on title alone, will have to overcome the probability that audience will guess that the subject might be about religion. Maybe an opera company director, similar to Scott Wheeler’s experience with Plácido Domingo, will ask Maltz and Harper to add a subtitle to the name of their opera.
Janet Peachey explained that Wheel Ordeal “is a play on wheeler dealer” and relates to the used car salesman of this opera and the negotiation between the couple who are trying to buy a car. To this writer’s ear, the title is poetically catchy and although one cannot tell immediately what the subject is, one suspects the work is comic.
WHO SPARKED THIS CHILD?
People who do not write operas always ask what comes first, the words or the music? What I asked was who initiated the opera project? In this set of operas, the composer was the initiator except for Darkling, which began with director Michael Comlish. In an interview with Jessica Myers Schecter, Anna Rabinowitz said in answer to the question, how did it come about that your book-length poem was transformed into an experimental opera?
“It was serendipity. American Opera Projects (AOP) was doing a production of Marina (music by Deborah Drattell), an opera about the life of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whose libretto was written by Annie Finch. Tupelo Press, also publisher of Darkling, had just published one of Annie’s books and decided to have a book party for her in conjunction with the opening night festivities for Marina. At that party, Michael Comlish, who was Associate Producer of American Opera Projects, struck up a conversation with Ronni Leopold, a Tupelo Press Board member. She gave him a copy of Darkling and Michael just really fell in love with it. He felt that it was his opportunity to do something different in opera theater.”
Composer Stefan Weisman said that Comlish adapted a libretto based word-for-word on Anna Rabinowitz’s book (Rabinowitz is credited as the librettist), started dramatizing the work, and then invited him (Weisman) into the project. Weisman said initially he was scared. “If I tried to match the abstract nature of the poem, the music would not have worked.” Another daunting aspect of this poem is that the poem’s structure is an acrostic based on Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” However, Weisman said he loves to write music for voice and “it’s hard to write opera and you can’t do it by yourself.” One other interesting complication is that AOP commissioned composer Lee Hoiby to set Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush.” Weisman took Hoiby’s composition, split it up, and mapped it across the libretto of Darkling as a way of echoing the acrostic form Rabinowitz used in her poem.
Lori Laitman and David Mason’s story of how The Scarlet Letter came about involves a couple of previous opportunities spawning this one.
“In May of 2006, I was representing the United States at Songs Across The Americas, an international art song festival. The festival was held at The University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. The voice faculty performed on several concerts of my music, and one faculty member in particular, baritone Robert Holden, was so enthusiastic about my music that he asked if I would consider composing an opera for the university. He spoke to the Dean about the idea and the Dean was equally enthusiastic. The next fall, Rob applied for several grants and received the funding so the project could proceed.
“In 2004, I had been commissioned by the West Chester University Poetry Conference to set a poem by David Mason. We met in 2005 and became good friends. When it came time to find a librettist, I asked Dave if he might be interested, and fortunately, he was. It's been a great collaboration.
“Originally I thought the opera would be for the 2009-10 season; so I was surprised when Rob called me and said it would have to be done a year earlier, and further informed me that the grant proposal for the librettist grant was due in about a week! I wanted to write an opera on a familiar story and in fact, had several in mind, but this new time crunch made it necessary to use something in the public domain. I went to Barnes and Noble and looked at several classic books— I bought them all, brought them home, and sent Rob and Dave an email with a list, asking if any in particular appealed to them. We all agreed that The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne would be perfect.”
Janet Peachey said the idea for Wheel Ordeal came about in this way:
“As a student in Vienna, I frequently attended performances (standing room, on my student budget) at the Vienna State Opera. Often after a performance I would start imagining real-life situations as operas, and I would dream up opera plots. Later, back in the States, I found the process of buying a car to be challenging, emotionally wrenching, and melodramatic, and I thought it would make a great opera. While working on a DMA in composition at Catholic University, I needed to write a scene from an opera as part of the graduation requirements. I had been thinking about writing an opera about buying a car for some time, and had some concrete plot ideas. I needed to get going on the project, and rather than take time to find a librettist, I decided to write the libretto myself.
“I learned the hard way that it is extremely difficult to write a libretto. After submitting the first act as part of the DMA requirements, I wrote the second act, taking years to complete it. The most difficult part of the project was writing the libretto. At one point I stopped working on the music for about two years because I had hit a major roadblock in the plot, and there was a missing link between the beginning and end of the second act. I finally figured it out and kept going.”
Scott Wheeler’s story, like his title, contains various complications.
“Democracy: An American Comedy was my idea. I was initially interested in the work of Romulus Linney rather than his source author Henry Adams. I found Linney’s play Democracy in the library and approached him about getting permission to adapt it as a libretto. I found the political and religious themes compelling and modern, but my main interest in the play was the way the characters came to life through what they said – this seemed a great characteristic in a libretto. I also loved the structure of two parallel love stories, reminiscent of Cosi Fan Tutte and many American musicals.”
Regarding Believers, Richard Maltz picked a topic that he researched and found compelling. Then he asked Linda Lee Harper, a poet whom he had already worked with to join the project. Although she didn’t love baseball, she had family members who were passionate fans, particularly a favorite aunt who attended ball games well into her eighties. Harper feels her work on is a tribute to her great-aunt Helen.
RAISING THE CHILD
Generating enough passion to carry an opera project through to the end is what it takes for opera creators to see their babies stand and walk. Probably the most unusual answer to my question What made your subject matter so interesting to you that you would be willing to commit so much time to it? came from Janet Peachey.
“I am not particularly interested in cars. I don’t care about the cachet of driving a particular model, and I think we in America drive, pollute, and deplete the world’s energy resources far too much. Most of the time I commute by bicycle, and recently went for four and a half years without owning a car. While this opera is a spoof on car selling and buying in particular, it deals with consumerism in general. The subject was interesting to me for several reasons:
“(1) I have often been fascinated and amused by sales tactics and attitudes of salesmen, whether selling cars or anything else. One of the best lines in the opera is a direct quote from a salesman who was trying to sell me replacement windows for my house. I enjoyed creating the characters of Gouge and Buck, caricatures of salesmen I have actually dealt with.
“(2) I am often an indecisive shopper, and the character Louise is loosely based on me. It was therapeutic to write a libretto in which Louise is able to resolve her indecision. Plus, she gets a great deal in the process.
“(3) I also enjoyed working on my character Stacy who embodies the materialistic shopper -- I know so many people like that -- but in the end her shopping savvy saves the day.
“(4) The most interesting aspect of the plot for me was its potential for ensembles, where several characters simultaneously express different points of view. It was quite challenging and fun to write the ensembles at the end of each act. I particularly enjoyed working on the ensemble at the end of the second act, but it took me a long time to get the timing right in the libretto so that the three strands of plot would resolve at the same time, allowing for simultaneous musical resolution.“
The decision to embark on an operatic project is as big a commitment as deciding to birth and raise a living child. While it is true that a project might come about unexpectedly and quick as The Scarlet Letter did for Lori Laitman, most of the time, opera projects take years of development, lots of money, and, more importantly, lots of lucky breaks.
Poet Linda Lee Harper received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She has taught in the English departments of Pittsburgh, and USC-Aiken. Her published works include two full-length collections, Kiss Kiss (Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition Winner, 2008) and Toward Desire (The Word Works Washington Prize, 1996) and five chapbooks, including Blue Flute (Adastra Press, 1999). Visit her Website at www.lindaleeharper.com/.
Lori Laitman is one of America's most prolific and widely performed composers of art song. She has worked with many of today's important poets: among them Mary Oliver, Thomas Lux, Paul Muldoon, Dana Gioia, Margaret Atwood, and David Mason—in addition to setting such classic poets as Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. Since 1991 she has composed almost exclusively for the voice and Albany Records has released 3 solo CDs of her songs. In June 2004, The Cleveland Opera premiered Laitman's opera, Come to Me in Dreams. Among the composers with particular influence on Laitman's work are Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Britten, Puccini, and Verdi. Visit her Website at www.artsongs.com/.
Richard Maltz holds degrees from the Universities of South Carolina and North Texas. He studied composition with Martin Mailman, Dick Goodwin, Ben Johnston and Robert Ward. His compositions are performed nationally, and his Great Prospects Overture will be premiered in London in 2009. Maltz is Associate Professor of Music at the University of South Carolina Aiken where he teaches theory/ composition and percussion. Maltz's operatic influences range from Beethoven and Mozart to Puccini and beyond. Visit his Website at http://richardmaltz.com/.
Poet David Mason’s books of poems include The Buried Houses (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), The Country I Remember (winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award), and Arrivals. His verse novel, Ludlow, has just been published. Author of a collection of essays, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, Mason has also co-edited several textbooks and anthologies, including Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, Twentieth Century American Poetry, and Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. A former Fulbright Fellow to Greece, he lives in the mountains outside Colorado Springs with his wife, Anne Lennox.
Janet Peachey has received composition grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, and others. Her orchestral, vocal, and chamber music has been performed and broadcast in the U.S. and abroad. She was a two-year Fulbright grantee in Vienna, Austria, receiving Diplomas in composition and conducting from the Hochschule fuer Musik there, and holds a DMA in composition from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. She teaches theory, composition, and music technology at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC, and theory at Catholic University. Influential opera composers include: Mozart, Puccini, and Britten.
Stefan Weisman is a composer living in New York City. His works include chamber, orchestral and choral pieces, as well as opera, and music for theater, video and dance. He was recently commissioned by Second Movement for a one-act opera to be premiered in London in 2008. His opera Darkling was commissioned by American Opera Projects. Among his other commissions are works for Bang on a Can's People’s Commissioning Program, Sequitur, the Empire City Men's Choir, and the Battell Chapel Choir. Influences on his work include composers David Lang and Dmitri Shostakovich. Visit his Website at www.stefanweisman.com/.
Scott Wheeler holds a PhD from Brandeis University. Further studies include the Tanglewood Music Center with Olivier Messiaen, the Dartington School with Peter Maxwell Davies and privately with Virgil Thomson. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston, where he co-directs the BFA program in musical theatre. Wheeler’s most recent commission is for an opera for the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. Scott Wheeler’s opera Democracy: An American Comedy, on a libretto of Romulus Linney, was commissioned by the Washington National Opera and premiered by them in January 2005. His first opera, The Construction of Boston, will be released on the Naxos American Classics series. In January 2007, Kent Nagano and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin commissioned a new chamber symphony called City of Shadows. 2008 commissions include the Marilyn Horne Foundation, ASCAP Foundation, Concert Artists Guild, Boston Cecilia, and the Rivers School at Weston. Current influences on his work include: Britten, Sondheim, Kurt Weill, and Stefan Wolpe.
Photos of the Darkling production used
with permission from Stefan Weisman