Looking back over the entire rehearsal process for Seattle Opera’s premiere production of Daron Hagen’s Amelia, some of the most interesting moments stemmed not from massive staging sessions or orchestra rehearsals but from quiet table-work sessions. Especially as rehearsals begin (and the cast is still in the process of developing into a family), it’s very important to explore the motivations and choices of each character before the additional stimuli of music and physical motion across huge sets get thrown into the mix.
In these explorations, it’s important not to restrict oneself to the book but to think about what happened to the characters before the events at hand, and after them as well. This of course is a process of character analysis nearly universal to the dramatic arts, and the back-stories that are generated for each character frequently inform how they behave in the small slice of time our particular story has carved out for them. This is useful because plays, opera, and the like tend to take place in a matter of hours, not years; we can’t spend every day with these characters to figure out what drives them, so that which drives them must be amply apparent in the scads of nearly “insignificant” details of body language, pacing, and vocal emphasis. In Daron’s opera, there’s a small role for Amelia’s aunt Helen, played pitch-perfect by Jane Eaglen as a more free-wheeling, quasi-hippy version of Amelia’s more tight-strung military mother. What made Aunt Helen turn out so differently than her brother Dodge, Amelia’s father and former Navy pilot? The audience will never know, but there’s an elaborate, touching, and slightly humorous back-story constructed during several conversations that definitely affects how Ms. Eaglen sings the role.
How might the idea of back-story function in a piece of abstract music? Composers might have verbal notes and sketches somewhat analogous to back-stories for their pieces—in fact, there’s a string quartet of mine I wrote about last week in which I wrote and set lyrics for every instrument, only to remove the lyrical scaffolding once the music had taken shape. But I wonder if the idea could be taken even further, and more in the sense that dramatic characters can be said to have back-stories as I described above. This need not take the form of some heinous silliness such as questioning what motivated theme A to most rudely modulate to the mediant during passage X, etc., but it’s fascinating to at least consider a piece of “abstract music” as a kind of stage on which our carefully constructed dramatis personae play out a small, amplified sliver of their full character.