John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #6


FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting, you know, looking at the topics that you’ve chosen for your operas. I certainly haven’t seen all of them at this point, but I’m making a valiant attempt at it…

JOHN EATON: [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Of the ones that I have seen, I’ve noticed that the topics are by and large inspired by Classical sources. There are the Greek myths, and then Let’s Get This Show on the Road, which is based by the Book of Genesis in the Bible. And then there are works that are based on later texts that have become part of a canon, like Don Quixote. Peer Gynt is part of the canon to a lesser extent; I don’t think as many people are as familiar with the story. Nor is Myshkin which is based on Dostoyevsky. But there’s also a Shakespeare opera, based on The Tempest, and you said in your essay, the Kenyon Review essay, that it was really important not to have a new plot, an unfamiliar plot, because it’s very difficult to perceive the dramatic part of what opera is if the plot is unfamiliar, because of hearing texts sung instead of hearing it spoken is already a sort of a comprehensibility problem. I’m going off on a tangent here, but I really enjoyed Golk, which was the only opera of yours that I’d seen that was based on a contemporary theme.

JOHN EATON: Well, I definitely felt, and still do feel, that the subjects that you use have to be things that are familiar to an audience. I’ll get to Golk in a minute, but as far as my using Greek drama and my using a Biblical story and my using Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, I’ve tried to take things that the audience would identify with and would understand, because that gives so much more potential to an opera composer to manipulate dramatic intent, thematic elements, to make your particular point. I wrote an opera based on Jonestown, the Reverend Jim Jones, which was something that, at least at the time, was a story that everyone was familiar with. I mean, you know, we had been exposed to it constantly. I don’t know, now we’ve gotten so far away from it, I don’t know how effectively that opera would fulfill the criteria that I’m setting up here.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting. Before we jump in to talk about Golk, I remember a press conference that John Adams held with Peter Sellars when they were doing Nixon in China. And they were essentially saying that the story of Richard Nixon‘s visit with Mao Tse Tung is essentially a heroic myth of today; everybody knows who these protagonists are the same way everyone in Ancient Greece would have known who Hercules was… The so-called ‘CNN operas’ evolved out of that, you know, all these operas based on famous figures, everyone from Malcolm X and Harvey Milk to Marilyn Monroe

JOHN EATON: You know, it’s a curious thing, I had started an opera called Nixon, which I discussed with Peter Sellars in 1985, I think it was.

FRANK J. OTERI: That was 2 years before! [laughs]

JOHN EATON: I started it, but I sort of gave up on it just because I thought that, frankly, it would be bizarre to have Nixon singing.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

JOHN EATON: It shows how wrong I was, I mean, I think that Nixon in China is a fine work. It does what I think opera should do. I think it’s a very important piece. But with Golk, television is something, and television game shows and…

FRANK J. OTERI: Candid Camera

JOHN EATON: Yeah, Candid Camera. This is a scenario that people are familiar with, and therefore I think you can use it. I think a lot of composers get into trouble just making up a plot and expecting an audience to follow that. People that go to an opera will spend the first time they see it trying to figure out what’s going on. And then later, if they have the patience to see it again, they can later begin to, you know, add other features.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said that you definitely sense the different audience reaction to Myshkin from the people who read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and people who haven’t.

JOHN EATON: Yep.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, I’ve read Crime and Punishment, but I haven’t read The Idiot yet, so I’m one of the people who hasn’t read The Idiot, and certainly as we’re reaching this era, everybody decries the lack of standards, the falling away of knowledge, you know, there are tons of people in America today who know nothing about Shakespeare, who know nothing about ancient Greek dramatists. There are probably people who really don’t know Biblical stories, although that’s ingrained more, I think, because people who are religious will be reading that no matter what, or will at least know something about it. It’s permeated our society. But Shakespeare is kind of falling off, and the classics are falling off, and really the thing that everybody gets the references to now are, you know, television sitcoms. I don’t get those references, but most people do. I almost never watch television but the other night I got drawn into this program called Who Wants To Be a Millionaire; my wife had it on…

JOHN EATON: [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: We’re watching this thing, and there was a question about what the Mona Lisa was painted on: wood or canvas or shellac… That was one of the questions; it was a good one I thought so I kept watching… But then after that question, one that was worth even more money, listed four TV characters, and the question was "Which one of these sitcom characters is not a single father?" I didn’t even know who any of those characters were! But the whole audience did. These are the references that people are getting. And you might say, like you said with Jonestown, well, maybe, you know, 50 years from now, no one’s going to know what that means. The classics won’t be gone. And, you know, hopefully 20 years from now, everybody will forget these sitcoms. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

JOHN EATON: Well, nevertheless, I think the classics are still part of our cultural heritage. And they’re still something that are more generally known, those stories are more generally known, than something you might make up out of yard cloth, you know. And so I think they are still usable. Certainly most people who have seen The Cry of Clytaemnestra, have responded to it knowing at least the rudiments of the story, not to the extent that Aeschylus‘s audience would have known the story, certainly. Or maybe not to the extent that the audience in the United States would have known it 50 years ago. Still, I think that these stories are so deeply ingrained in our psyche. They’re almost ingrained in the fabric of human experience, the way we live, the way we react to each other, the way we think. There’s something archetypal about them, which I certainly want to use.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting. To get back to Golk again, you know, this was based on a novel that was written in 1960. I mean, it’s 40 years old at this point, and you said it was inspired by Candid Camera, which was a very popular show on television, it certainly isn’t on television anymore. But I looked at this thing, I looked at it before I did any research about it, like learning more about the novel. I knew Candid Camera as a little child. But Candid Camera wasn’t what popped into my head. What popped into my head was Bill Clinton.

JOHN EATON: [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m watching this thing, and there’s a scene of the President of the United States being caught with his pants down, and I thought, I really relate to this, because this is what’s going on in the world today. And I thought that Golk must have been a brand new novel that was inspired by what’s going on today, and then I looked it up and, lo and behold, it was from 1960.

JOHN EATON: Well, let me remind you that there were lots of people caught with their pants down before Bill Clinton, and I mean, it seems a common feature. That whole world of television is a kind of mythical world, and that’s what I was evoking, or trying to evoke in Golk. The way that Richard Stern, the author, and myself condensed the novel, was taking precisely the elements that have an almost mythical world, aura, rather, to them. I think the composer and production staff of an opera have a real responsibility to use visual elements of all kinds to make clear to the American audience, at any rate, exactly what is going on. That is, I mean, if this were the best of all possible worlds, yes, I mean, let’s have opera without supertitles because they are somewhat distracting. But in this world we live in, supertitles are a wonderful blessing, and I’m sorry that I’ve never, until very recently, had any of my operas done with them. I always wanted them to be used, because, after all, if they’re done tastefully, so that people can take in the words that are being sung as well as what’s happening on the stage, it really does a lot to communicate to both sides of the brain. And I’ve had wonderful directors, for example, Gerald Friedman who did The Cry of Clytemnaestra in San Francisco, knew how to make that story vital by what was happening visually. This wonderful director who worked with the NewYork New Music Ensemble… Mike Philips, who did the same thing with Don Quixote… He showed slides which brought people into contact with some of the more arcane stories of Don Quixote, which, of course, is a huge book. This kind of thing, you know, has to be done as much as possible and can make up for deficiencies in classical education, and so on.

FRANK J. OTERI: I find this so interesting as a younger audience member who came to concert music as somewhat of an outsider. You know, I grew up in a family that didn’t really care much about classical music, and they didn’t really expose me to it for the most part. I had one relative who did, you know, but mostly what I heard was pop music on the radio, not even good pop music — bad pop music. You know, lite FM, whatever was playing, that was what I heard. So I came to all this as an outsider. I started going to operas, I went to the operas in the park, and I really enjoyed them. And then supertitles came in, and I really got the sense of it. But it amazed me that people for years would go to these operas, these productions of things from another culture from a different time period, from a different continent, in a different language, and sit there and watch this thing and not understand a word of it. And I have a friend who’s a big opera fan who said, "Well, it’s a good thing, because the librettos are so wretched."

JOHN EATON: [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: So, you know, he was an opera fan, and, you know, he’d go hear La Boheme, you know, again and again and again, and I really didn’t get it. I still don’t get it! And, you know, the Met resisted having the titles for years, and now they have this wonderful system…

JOHN EATON: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: But I can’t understand how you could possibly get young people, or people who are outside the loop of the tradition, interested in this stuff without having it be comprehensible. It makes no sense to me at all.