The Face, my new multidisciplinary chamber opera premiering in Los Angeles on August 25, 27, and 28, has been in the works for more than seven years and involves an international team of creative artists. Most operas these days—especially new ones—have lots going on, so to call an opera “multidisciplinary” isn’t exactly surprising. In The Face, though, “multidisciplinary” is intrinsic and fundamental in several crucial ways. The principal extra-musical elements—poetic text, choreography, and film—are not intended as laminations but rather built deeply into the structure from the ground up. The Face is an intimate, intense psychological drama with a tightly woven musical narrative.
The libretto is by the poet David St. John, a colleague of mine (and now a good friend) at the University of Southern California. The text comes from his novella in verse, a cycle of forty-five poems also titled The Face (Harper Collins, 2004); it is indeed highly poetic, just what I was looking for. The language is concise, emotionally charged, colorful, and downright beautiful. I had previously set two of David’s poems in a piece commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble (The Village: Two Poems of David St. John), and I had also been interested in his poetry for a number of years, so exploring the idea of a libretto from David St. John felt somehow inevitable. After the premiere performances of the Hilliard Ensemble piece in Europe, I approached him about collaborating on an opera. We had a meeting in late 2005 at which he proposed several possible ideas. His first choice by far was to use his recent novella, and he gave me a copy of the book to read. Both the poetic language and the dramatic possibilities immediately struck me, so I agreed. David created the libretto by following one of several narrative paths through the novella, a path which, in eleven scenes, focuses on the main character, a poet named Raphael, as he struggles with the recent loss of his lover and muse while juggling the demands of a Hollywood movie being made about his life and his increasing notoriety. A crucial element in the process of creating the libretto involved David asking me to identify passages in the cycle of poems which contained language that I, as the composer, was especially drawn to—and lines that David fashioned into a stunning libretto. David St. John has been an ideal librettist, a dream to work with.
Not surprisingly, quite a number of people in my world knew I was hard at work on an opera and that I was on the lookout for a stage director with a theatrical vision suited to this project. A young singer with whom I’d worked in Los Angeles, the French soprano Myriam Zekaria, was touring France in a revival of the opera Les Enfants Terribles (Philip Glass/Jean Cocteau), and she urged me to see the show in person. On a whim, I followed her suggestion and traveled to Paris and Lyon to experience the work of the theatrical production company—Heliotrope—who were working on this project. I was bowled over by the power of their artistic vision and promptly arranged a meeting with two members of the company: Paul Desveaux (director) and Yano Iatrides (director/choreographer). The meeting resulted in the birth of an artistic collaboration on The Face between two organizations separated by a large ocean—Heliotrope (based in Paris) and Firebird Ensemble (based in Boston). We subsequently decided that Paul Desveaux would create the dramatic and film concept for the work and that Yano Iatrides would direct and choreograph The Face. In addition, we added another two members of the Heliotrope team—Laurent Schneegans as lighting designer and Amaya Lainez as assistant director.
One of the things that engaged me most about the work of Heliotrope was their ability to fuse various elements onstage (lighting, dance, staging, poetry, and film). Many productions take a layering approach to multidisciplinary works, but I wanted to create an opera which integrated the elements in an organic way. Working with performers who do not come from a classical dance background fascinates Yano Iatrides. (She frequently choreographs works involving actors, street artists, singers, and comedians.) Her uncanny ability to instill in them an approach to movement, of “dancing the staging” in a way, is in part how she communicates her very unique dramatic vision on stage. This is far beyond blocking; our four singers embody the discipline of dance while singing new opera. Rehearsals each day start with an extended and rigorous session of movement training as the singers embark on a process of physical and emotional exploration of themselves and their characters. Stage direction and choreography follow naturally from this starting point as Yano begins working through various scenes from the opera. Breaks tend to feature what are evidently her three staples: coffee, cigarettes and air. Yano is intense, to be sure, but we all find her to be very lovable.
The process of obtaining visas for our international group of artists has been a huge hassle, to be sure, and several experienced opera people pointedly suggested sticking with a domestic team. We needed O-1 and O-2 visas requiring peer review from American professional unions, signed contracts, and extensive evidence of “extraordinary ability” in order for U.S. immigration to approve the applications, even for only temporary employment on our project. This required more than six months of work, and the seemingly inevitable procedural delays necessitated the considerable help of senatorial offices in Boston so we could get our team into the United States on time. (My advice: begin the process well in advance, use an immigration lawyer if possible, and keep pushing.) As it turned out, Yano Iatrides’s paperwork was completed in time for her scheduled flight from Paris, but Amaya Lainez was delayed six days. Our lighting designer is coming in on time later in the rehearsal period. The three weeks preceding our first day of rehearsal in Boston were quite harrowing as we, and especially our producer, Kate Vincent, were waiting for final visa approval and processing. In spite of all this, I don’t regret a minute of it, and that exploratory trip I made to France over spring break a few years ago to experience their work was well worth it.
Last but certainly not least in the “multidisciplinary” aspects of The Face is the film element. In this opera, Raphael’s lost beloved and muse Marina—a crucial character—is a silent role on film. Marina died in some terrible, unnamed catastrophe, and Raphael is unhinged. I knew from the beginning that Marina would be a “home movie” character and made space for her in the music, but neither David St. John nor I knew exactly how this film element would play out. Enter Anton Nadler, a young filmmaker who is active in New York and Los Angeles. Our story is set in Venice Beach and the movie-making world of Hollywood, so Anton seemed to me a perfect choice. The film of Marina can be imagined as a collection of home movies made some years ago by Raphael, and Marina plays to him and his camera in casual and intimate scenes. Anton Nadler shot the film in and around LA during a preview/residency of the opera at the University of Southern California on its Visions & Voices series last April. Jane Sheldon, the young Australian who is our soprano (Cybele) in The Face, also plays the silent role of Marina on film and adds to the poet Raphael’s (the British tenor, Daniel Norman) very considerable emotional confusion. The results are quite striking; the camera loves Jane, as they say. From early in the rehearsal period begun in Boston in late July, Marina was a presence on stage, a fifth character intrinsic to the staging.
A decidedly-not-insignificant aspect of this project is the fact that The Face has been produced outside of the world of traditional opera companies by Boston’s Firebird Ensemble and its founder and director Kate Vincent. I had worked with Kate and Firebird in recent years on several projects, including a recording, and Kate decided to take the opera on as a new adventure for her ensemble with Kate herself producing. The Face has an acoustic score without electronics and whiz-bang sound effects (though I admit we do have an electric guitar), so Firebird, with its superb musicians and chamber music ethos, was for me the ideal choice. Gil Rose, founder and artistic director of Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a respected champion of new music and new opera, came on board as music director.
In addition to creating this production of The Face, Kate Vincent and the Firebird Ensemble wanted to develop a significant educational component for the project. This has been achieved through the creation of an internship program for young people in the theater and music fields. We have given a group of students from theater schools, colleges, and universities from across the country the opportunity to assist and be mentored by the professional team. These students are now functioning in assistant roles for the stage director, producer, stage manager, repetiteur, film crew, and costume designer; three talented young singers serve as covers for the cast during the production.
One inevitable result of the Firebird Ensemble taking on The Face was that it has more than tripled Firebird’s operating budget for its tenth anniversary season. Los Angeles, where David St. John and I are based, seemed to be a logical choice for the premiere run. (We will do an additional concert performance in Boston, Firebird’s hometown, on August 31.) Working independently from an opera company is both challenging and freeing. A big company has a significant infrastructure and the financial resources to handle production, stage and musical direction, casting, and promotion, while a new music ensemble has to build this from the ground up. On the other hand, while a major opera company tends to focus on a full season of standard favorites with perhaps something from the 1940s onward and just maybe a premiere added in, a new music ensemble or small independent production company can dream and create independently. In addition, the scope of a project like this for a small organization such as the Firebird Ensemble has resulted in an enormous artistic investment on their part. On the production side, I as the composer have had direct input into the choice of the stage directing team, the cast, and the music director. I’ve been involved in decisions about staging, set, costume, publicity, marketing, lighting, personnel, travel, and myriad other details. While this process might not be for everyone, my deep involvement in every aspect of this opera and the experience of working with a passionate and exceptional collection of artists, singers, and instrumentalists from all over the world is an experience which I would not trade for anything. The Face has taken me seven years to create, and I want to follow its every step to opening night on August 25.
Donald Crockett is a composer, conductor, and chair of the composition department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music where he also directs the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble. His chamber opera, The Face will be performed at Los Angeles’s Aratani/Japan America Theater on August 25, 27, and 28, and at Boston Conservatory Theater on August 31, 2012.