Opera vs. Musical Theatre
FRANK J. OTERI: Although you said that what you do is not classical music, you use words to describe your compositions which clearly place you in that tradition, words like opera, concerto, sonata. You wrote for string quartet… These terms are all very malleable. What does the word opera mean to you?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, opera means that you’re telling a story with music. I know that my operas don’t sound like Puccini, but the idea is to tell a rather complicated story over an hour and half with a lot of characters where the telling of the story is based on the musical forms to the same degree that it happens in Puccini, but in a different manner. The problem is that you don’t have any words. I wish I had a different word so I didn’t have to use the word opera because that causes a lot of confusion and it causes people to ask me silly questions. I mean not you, but people ask me silly questions like: “What right do you have to call your work opera?” And I say it’s because I don’t have another word. There is no other word that everybody understands for the notion of telling a long story based on musical forms.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well what do you think of the term musical theater?
ROBERT ASHLEY: Musical theater is all within Broadway. I mean it meant Broadway in the 1950s and I think it still means Broadway. And that’s really nice if you like it, but I don’t happen to do it.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you think it’s a more specific term than opera?
ROBERT ASHLEY: No, I just think it’s a label. It’s a label that people put on music in the 1930s and ’40s. If you say musical theater to people, they automatically think of Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber or something like that. You can’t say I do musical theater and then put on something like Dust because it seems like you made a mistake.
A scene from Robert Ashley’s Dust
Photo by Yukihiro Yoshihara
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting because a lot of American operas, like the works of Menotti and Beeson or even John Adams, are not really that far away from some of the things that Stephen Sondheim has done, you know like Sweeney Todd, or even things that Frank Loesser or even Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing back in the 1950s.
ROBERT ASHLEY: I can’t answer the question because I’m not the expert on musical theater. I listened to musical theater until South Pacific and then I more or less stopped. I can’t say anything about Stephen Sondheim, because I’ve never seen a Stephen Sondheim production. So I don’t know what musical theater is today.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s funny hearing how things that come from such different worlds sometimes connect. I was listening to eL/Aficionado the other morning and I heard a section that actually reminded me of Sondheim. And I thought this is amazing because I’m sure that Robert Ashley doesn’t listen to Sondheim and that Sondheim doesn’t listen to Robert Ashley. When musics that are seemingly worlds apart somehow meet each other, it really shows that there’s a lot of common ground.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, eL/Aficionado was written for Tom Buckner who is devoted to jazz. And so I wrote a series of jazz-type chord progressions with the notion that they would be played at any speed. In other words, the chord didn’t have to change every four beats. The chord could last three minutes or something like that. But the chord progression was always the same. And I think it’s a nice chord progression! I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard a coincidence between that and Stephen Sondheim because he must also write chord progressions. There’s no way out of that unless you’re writing serial music or unless you’re working in some other system like such as just intonation like Harry Partch or Terry Riley. Unless you’re working in one of those systems, if you’re simply writing chord changes in equal temperament, inevitably there’s going to be a coincidence between eL/Aficionado and Stephen Sondheim depending on how fast that particular section of eL/Aficionado is going. In other words if we’re playing it so that the chords are changing every four beats it’s gonna sound more like Stephen Sondheim than if the chords are changing every thirty seconds.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s true that there are only so many things you can do with 12-tone equal temperament. But I think there’s actually a larger convergence here. One of the things that I’m hearing is a sense of setting vernacular American English. Paying attention to the words, which is what I think is lacking in a lot of operatic music that fashions itself after European models. There are lines that sing well in Italian that just don’t work in English. I think the Broadway people understand that and have created a vernacular American opera and there certainly are American composers that have created operas that have played into that, but what you’ve done that I think is extraordinarily, is that your operas are really about language.
ROBERT ASHLEY: Well, without wanting to insult any of my friends, I’ve always been unhappy with American English set to a European musical form. Because American English, American English doesn’t sing that way. American English has always been most successful as words. It’s always been most successful in popular music and it’s been that way in probably in musical theater since like George M. Cohan. I just decided that I was going to write operas where we speak English. And therefore, I had to figure out a new way to make English fit with the music. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have learned a lot from listening to pop music. I learned more about writing opera from listening to Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys that I did from listening to Puccini or Wagner because in Italian, of course, every word rhymes with every other word and because of the vowels that means that there’s this huge tradition of hundreds of years of Italian opera for vowel embellishment that is very beautiful. It just doesn’t happen to work in English because we don’t have the vowels.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting because with European languages you can have these fluid lines, these melismatic lines with long tone utterances. But English is so clipped. All the words get chopped up. And it demands shorter note values; it demands a clipped style. And it’s not just American English. I think the reason the British didn’t produce a world class composer of opera in the 18th and 19th centuries is that English in general doesn’t work in this style and that’s why, contra-positively, the British are the only ones besides the Americans who seem to have international pop music that’s successful. The clipped style of pop doesn’t work in Italian…
ROBERT ASHLEY: You’re exactly right. You can’t set English words to Puccini; you can’t set English words to Wagner. You can only set English words to some kind of music that accommodates the words, or else the words lose all their meaning. And the most exciting part is that it keeps changing constantly. It keeps changing constantly in the world of popular music and for me personally it keeps changing, not because I want to imitate popular music, but because the language of the street keeps changing in spite of me or what my intention might be. We’re not in a world of Cole Porter or of Yip Harburg anymore. We’re now in the world of Snoop Dog and Little Bow-Wow. I mean we’re in a new world!