Opera Today: Mark Adamo and Tobias Picker

Mark Adamo: “The Resources are Staggering

Filmed on January 9, 2006—11 a.m.

Frank J. Oteri: Joan Tower told me that she basically thought there were two different kinds of composers: those who write primarily opera and other vocal music, and those who primarily write instrumental music like herself. She cited Verdi and Wagner as vocal composers vs. Beethoven as the quintessential instrumental composer. You’ve made quite a career almost exclusively through these two operas. Do you think of yourself as one or the other? Do you think such categories makes sense?

Mark Adamo: Well, for the examples of Verdi and Wagner as opposed to Beethoven, you could counterpose Mozart, Britten, Shostakovich. I think there probably are people who feel more comfortable in one idiom or another, but the only reason I haven’t written more instrumental music is because operas tend to take a long time, you know? A short opera is two hours and a big string quartet is forty minutes. I’ve actually got a harp concerto for the National Symphony. But I do feel that as a librettist as well as a composer that when I’m in the opera house, that uses all of my brain. And it is true that Verdi wasn’t particularly interested in the chamber or symphonic forms. Wagner certainly wasn’t. But Britten was. There’s a huge amount of chamber work and a huge amount of symphonic work. The string quartets are beautiful and not done much. So, no, I wouldn’t agree with that particularly.

FJO: But you?

MA: Well, that’s certainly where I’ve spent most of my life. I think of myself as principally a theatrical imagination, [though] I think that the theatrical imagination needs to be at work in symphonic contexts as well. Sonata allegro form, if you’re going to put it in 19th-century terms, is a theatrical form. There’s a great overlap between the Aristotelian theory of protagonist, antagonist, conflict, denouement, and principal theme, second theme, exposition, development. So the development of opposites in relation to each other to make points and to sculpt an experience I think is common to both endeavors. When you’re in the theatre obviously you’re dealing with acting and the role of language in that dynamic, so it can be more specific. You combine it with music, and it gets much richer. But with the harp concerto, it’s theatre music, except that the protagonist is a harp. A concerto particularly is a theatrical form. But even in a symphony, if you think theatrically, your thematic materials play the role that characters would in an operatic setting.

FJO: So, that said, could you always write the same kinds of music in a piece of instrumental music that you could write in opera? Are there things that you can do in one and not the other?

MA: Oh, no, I don’t think so. Certainly John Corigliano’s opera is a case in point. There was a set of techniques and timbres that he developed for the flute concerto, for the Pied Piper Fantasy, and they found their way in a slightly different context into The Ghosts of Versailles. I think the principal difference is that in concert music there are fewer stimuli and fewer limitations, by which I mean that once you commit to a theatrical subject, there are going to be certain sounds or techniques or manners that are going to fit well or less well given your topic.

There’s a kind of hyper-rhythmic and strutting and exhibitionistic quality to Lysistrata, for example, that there was really no place for in Little Women, and that wasn’t because you couldn’t put it in opera, it was because you couldn’t put it in that opera. If you’re doing an opera that was naturalistic and really did honor the 19th-century manner in which there should be the illusion of dialogue even though the rest of it was actually formed strophically, the illusion should have been of naturalistic conversation. Well, then there are certain things that you can’t do. But it’s really a question of the kind of material rather than opera vs. concert, I would argue.

FJO: Now, that leads to an interesting question in terms of the kinds of subject matter you’ve been drawn to for opera. The two operas that are out there now, Little Women and Lysistrata, are both based on texts that are generally accepted classics, stories that are familiar to many people and that have been around long before any of us. And people come to these stories with certain expectations.

MA: Lysistrata has actually been done relatively little in music theatre. The vernacular music theatre had at it a couple of times, and there was also a ballet by Boris Blacher. It was actually done on Broadway by Yip Harburg adapting Offenbach in something called The Happiest Girl in the World. Cyril Ritchard, who had just made, of all things, his Met debut in Fledermaus, was in it. I would actually argue that there was more expectation around Little Women, because Little Women is still much more a part of our cultural dialogue. Lysistrata is really only trotted out as a handy megaphone of protest through which to object to whatever war we happen to be waging at the time, or as the carrot of sex through which to lure high school or college students to the study of the Greek theatre. But I think that the premise is more provocative than the play. Lysistrata has been conspicuous in its failure to attract leading actors or actresses because it’s really not a character pieceóit’s a pamphlet in the form of a vaudeville. So, one of the reasons I liked this is because it seemed such a fantastically unlikely idea for the opera house. New operas tend not to try to take on the range of utterance that is in the original piece and that I tried to do here—to say something that is really quite strutting and bawdy and joltingly hilarious, and yet also has something to say about rather disconsolate subjects: sexual dissonance, war, all of that. It occurred to me that if you could somehow essentially write a piece in which real human beings had something at stake, to essentially put a comedy of character within the comedy of situation and have the character comedy hatch, if you will, from the shell of this somewhat artificial premise, you could do something really unusual and rich.

FJO: The sexual energy of Lysistrata is such a stark contrast to Little Women, which was after all written by the daughter of Bronson Alcott.

MA: Oh, well sure. Every piece that you do is going to be a response to the piece that you just did. I had just done something that was very domestic and very sweet and naturalistic and concerned with adolescent psychology, and it was a number of well-spoken and well-meaning people in 19th-century interiors. So obviously you’re going to want the opposite. And that’s really kind of what I was attracted to more, the energy of the kind of piece I wanted to do rather than the original play. At first I looked at the original play and said this is impossible. It poses the opposite problem of Little Women. Little Women had a rich matrix of character conflict, but there wasn’t anything intrinsically dramatic about it. Even now in the adaptation that I have, there’s the illusion of a plot, but there’s really not quite a plot. It suggested a solution that I’m now very proud of, because now the evolution of the characters within these seemingly disparate events and the audible track of that in the score becomes the process of the piece. But Lysistrata was exactly the opposite; there’s this delicious premise but there’s nobody in it. The very political certainty of Aristophanes’s lead character makes her deeply uninteresting as a premise for dramatic exploration because she comes on, she has an idea, everyone agrees that it’s a good idea with some drunken caricatures of women putting up some weak resistance up front. It works; we go home. And in between we get a great deal of data about the failed Sicilian expedition and God knows what. And so it really plays much more to me as something like Tim Robbins’s Embedded, a very passionately committed political sketch, the principal point of which was to make a political point to an audience rather than to explore a character. For me, it all begins in character. And so I thought I love all of the ancillary things that this play would make possible for me, but there’s no heart. Or the image I use is that if Little Women was ten charming people in a stalled jalopy, here’s a speeding Porsche with no one in it, which seemed actually completely daunting up front.

I put the play aside and I looked at any number of other things, but then I came back to it and thought, well, if I don’t adapt it, essentially, if I take the premise and the title and the three scenes, and filet out everything else, and write a play based on the one that I think we remember, which isn’t the one that he wrote, then maybe I can do the opera that I want to write. So it’s really less an adaptation than Little Women was. Little Women was radically cut, and I changed certain characters and all of that, but I would argue that the heart of the book as I understand it is rendered intact. But, Lysistrata in many ways is a revision and a critique of the Aristophanes more than an adaptation.

FJO: So, what’s the inspirational trigger when you read something that makes you to want to turn it into an opera?

MA: I have to step back from the topic up front, and maybe this is a way of answering the question, “Do you write for yourself or do you write for the audience?” I have to feel as if I were in the audience when I’m approaching a topic. You write for yourself as the audience. If you’re looking at this piece and you think that there’s an operatic address that’s in it, what is it that’s going to say something to you in a big sense, in a cultural sense, not necessarily in just a private temperamental sense, although you can’t write without that either. To me it’s when you find something that can say something really rich about the way we as listening people need from opera now. If I can find a combination between that and then something that I know I can write, it’s because I’ve lived it. It’s how actors work. Sondheim says this. All good writing is autobiographical to the extent that you find the part of yourself that fits the character and you write it from the inside. So that’s how it begins. The click that you’re talking about is when I find some kind of fragrance or some intuition of how the piece is going to move, how it is actable, because generally if I find the way that it can be acted, then I know the way that it can be sung or I know the way that it can sound. And then that’s the moment that the verbal part and the musical part of my brain click. It doesn’t mean that all of the questions are solved, but that’s the thing that makes me think I know where this can go.

In Little Women, it was finding the “Things Change” scene. That was really the fulcrum of the piece, and then it expanded out. Well, this will be a symphonic argumentóthe “Perfect as We Are” music meets the “Things Change” music and the “Things Change” music is going to mutate from character to character. I also knew what the scene looked like, so it all radiated out from there. And then, [in Lysistrata], when I found Lysia’s final aria in Act Two and got the sense that that could be a revision of her tantrum in Act One, maybe the process of the show could be a hall of mirrors. At the end of the piece, when the god and goddess come down and claim each of you will tell the truth and neither will agree, I thought, that’s a musical process that you could hear if I do it correctly. Now I need to solve all these other problems, like what am I going to do with the war and all of that. But that was the moment that I thought, okay, here’s a process that you can hear. If I do it correctly you will not be able to tell if the words generate the music or the formal design generates the language, which is what I strive for. You want the illusion that you couldn’t tell which came first.

FJO: So what are things that you think would make terrible operas vs. things that would make great operas?

MA: Oh, gosh. Terrible operas I can’t really speak to. For me, in terms of what makes a good opera, I think the most useful thing about which to speak on this topic is the word to adapt, because I would argue that if you’re dealing with a play, or a novel, or a film, or what happened to you that summer when you were 14, you’re still adapting something. The fact that you may not have published your memoir, you’re still taking experience and trying to make it into a shape. And the difference between a novel and a play is one thing, but the difference between a play and a libretto is almost equally dramatic. And so there is a way in which you really know you’re adapting well when you feel that you’re making it up from whole cloth, when it doesn’t feel like it’s an adaptation. The thing that I do think is a little nerve-wracking is when you take on something that is an acknowledged masterpiece in its own genre, but your love for it might make you so respectful that you don’t feel as free to work with it in the way that you have to work to make it your own.

There’s a novel that I keep playing with the idea of adapting, Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I feel like all the reasons that I love it are the reasons that would not survive in an adaptation. I just love the way that language sounds on the page, and that’s the first thing that’s going to go. As soon as you put an orchestra and a voice under that language, it completely changes. The experience is completely different from how you read it on the page. So unless you find a structure in which that language can now work to make a dramatic point that may or may not have anything to do with the way it originally functioned in the source, then itís not going to help. It’s going to be problematic.

FJO: You talked about two parts of your brain being active when you’re theatrical because you write your own libretto, which is somewhat unique among composers of contemporary opera.

MA: Well, there’s Carlisle Floyd, and there’s Sondheim, sort of.

FJO: And you say the idea is to make it so seamless a listener can’t figure out which came first, so which does come first?

MA: The acting. Really knowing how you would play the scene physically in space. The way that I outline it up front, generally it’s sort of a four-part process. Well, twice it has been a four-part process! With both pieces I first wrote program notes to the opera before it existed. What is this piece about? What do we need from this piece now? What does Little Women have to tell us, or Lysistrata have to tell us that wouldn’t just repeat what everybody else has told us? That’s very kind of heady and critical, and it’s just prose; it’s just for me to clarify my thinking about the piece as a cultural quantity. It’s very impersonal, and that’s before anything. But once I figure out what that is, generally by the end of that process I have the click. I have the “Things Change” scene, Lysia’s arias, some fulcrum that gives me a sense of how it’s going to track from there.

Then I do what I call the silent movie outline when I sit down and say, all right, Act One, Scene One: If the opera were written and I were deaf and I did not speak the language but it were being staged in front of me, what would be happening? And just arbitrarily, I just made this up with Little Women, but it’s been a really useful instrument to me. I confine myself to one action per sentence, and the sentence cannot be any longer than the width of the page. So, for example, in the prologue of Little Women, the outline was, “Jo enters, flings herself on the couch. She takes up her journal. She flings it away. Laurie enters from the attic, goes to touch her, draws back.” Now, not all of those actions actually ended up in the opera, but the point was it gave me ways of getting to just the basic who enters and when and why and what they are doing. It really gave me the emotional track of the scene. And by the time I got through that, there were certain actions that reoccurred, and I put them in bold because I thought that’s going to be the scaffold of my motivic structure. So there was a “change” music, there was a “stubbornness” music, there was a “courtship” music before there was F major or a word.

When that is done and refined and rewritten and whatnot, now I do the blind outline. I’m in the theatre and I’m blind and I do not speak the language, but I’m hearing the score and I know what the actions are. What is just the music telling me? What voices am I hearing? What are the textures of these voicesóare they low, are they high, are they fioratura, are they sustained, is there harmony, is there just sonority, does this theme develop or does it just kind of reappear, is it more of a timbre than a line? You know, all of that. I still don’t have a pitch, I still don’t have a word, but now I’ve got an actable syntax and an aural equivalent to that, and sometimes when I got a thematic gesture or move or something that could make the libretto adapt, well then, the libretto adapted before the libretto was written: the acting outline changed to accommodate this because I can do both, but if I just change this thing here, then essentially I have a symphonic process and an acting process that are doing the same thing at the same time.

Then I write the libretto, but the libretto is now the first draft of the score because there are already musical needs that you have set up that go into the language. That’s how that has worked with both of those pieces.

FJO: So, since you’re the same person, since you’re the word guy and the music guy, do you ever fight with yourself internally if some words that you like don’t work with your music or if music you’re really attached to doesn’t work with the words? What gets the upper hand? Do you find yourself writing music to fit words or do you find yourself changing words to fit music?

MA: Oh, I generally change the libretto. Usually.

FJO: So, the music comes first?

MA: Well, I’m really not trying to be elfin and mystical about it, but I can’t really tell you. I just don’t know because it’s just so interwoven. I had this conversation with Carlisle Floyd. I think it must have been when the Little Women revival was cooking at Houston, which was about the time that Cold Sassy Tree was going up. And I had called him one day from the country, and he had just said, “I just finished the libretto.” And I said, “Well great, it must be fun now.” And he said, “Well, no, now I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do musically.” For him, it’s quite sequential and they’re separate. He thinks as a playwright, and then he thinks as a composer. I donít do that. I guess partly because when I write language, so much in my head is the rhythm of the language or the relative vocal registration. I hear a sentence and I’m already hearing intervals or I’m already hearing a dynamic, so I really don’t know if the dynamic got there a split second ahead, and that’s why I have this low schwa with a soft consonant at the end of it to accommodate the pianissimo. It’s all very intermixed.

FJO: Now, you entertain your music side exclusively in works like the harp concerto, and I know for a while you were writing music criticism, which is words, but you were writing about music, so it was still sort of music. Do you ever entertain your word side without having music connected to it? Have you written plays? Have you written short stories? Poetry?

MA: I used to write fiction a long time ago when I was a kid. I started writing theatre early in my education because I thought I was really going to be following the Sondheim mode. I started as a musician quite late. I loved it and longed for it, but you know if you don’t have your first piano before you’re sixteen, you just think that’s really not realistic. But I was one of those kids who taught himself to play excessive Beethoven over and over again. By the time I got into college, I had been writing language forever, but I was enough of a musician that I thought if I train enough musically, maybe I could follow in the Sondheim path.

When I actually started my composition degree, it was really with the very limited goal of being overqualified to work on Broadway so that I would not be asking Sondheim’s Broadway orchestrator Jonathan Tunick to write low F-sharps in the violinóif I were lucky enough to work with Jonathan Tunick! The more that I did it, it turned out that you did not have to complete your first folio of piano sonatas by the time you were ten to actually be able to compose. I loved every class I had and was doing counterpoint exercises more than were assigned because it felt like a form of aural algebra. Just the working out of that was really kind of delicious. And I had a great music history teacher and a great conducting teacher and all of that. So by the time I got out of college I was thinking well, gosh, who knows. I mean, I hear that Bernstein orchestrated at least half of West Side Story. I was still thinking theatrically, but I thought maybe I could do more and more of this.

Then I started getting commissions in Washington, which surprised me. I did my big senior recital, and there were people from the National Symphony there, and they asked me to write a chamber work. I was still so intimidated that I just thought, well, I’m not a composer per se. I’m a songwriter with compositional skills. Yet, after the orchestra piece it occurred to me that I am a composer. So regardless of how much or how little I feel comfortable in the concert world as it is currently constitutedóand this is a completely different discussion about all the taste wars in the past 50 yearsóit occurred to me that I did have something to contribute here and that was, I guess, the last moment that I was writing just language.

Also, having been a music critic and then having my composing career start in Washington, I got to a point where I thought I will either work with this group or I will review this group. I was really quite chaste about thatóI was not Virgil. If I worked with the group, I didn’t review them. I kept that really very, very clean, and so there’s a way in which it was kind of a relief to not be writing anymore because I didn’t feel that I was occupying two rather uncomfortable places in the dialogue. But it would be lovely to do just language again, except that again, to circle back to Joan’s point, I think it’s hard to divide that out once you have this amphetamine high of putting them together. I don’t feel limited as a playwright by the fact that it is done musically and vice versa. There would be more opportunity as a writer in a certain way to try to import the richness of music just into the language. [Tennessee] Williams did a lot of that in those great monologues in Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s one of the reasons why people think of those dramas as operatic, not necessarily because the structures call for music but because there’s such music in the language.

FJO: It sounds to me like you could probably write a great novel.

MA: Huh. Well, thank you. Well that would actually be something. What an interesting thought actually, because then the language is all of it. The language is the structure. Hmm. Don’t get me started. That’s actually a very interesting analogy. Of course a novel, by definition, doesnít have to be structured logistically the same way that a piece of theatre does, but it’s obviously its own structure.

FJO: There have been a few people who did both: Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess. Even Nicholson Baker studied musical composition. The music-language split can be very interesting.

MA: It’s not necessarily music-theatre.

FJO: But to trope back to the musical theatre. Given your admiration for Sondheim, it’s somewhat surprising that you didn’t pursue musical theatre and instead went head-on into grand opera.

MA: Well, it was an accident. What happened was that as the degree neared its conclusion I was beginning to sense that the musical ceiling on Broadway at that point was pretty low. The stuff that I grew up loving I now realized was really not exactly theatre music but a sort of theatre-opera fusion which has always had a certain place on Broadwayóan exulted but rather narrow one. You really can’t look at Porgy and Bess, Candide, Sweeney Todd, and West Side Story as the bread and butter of a form which will give The Producers the Tony Award for best score of the year. It’s respected but not as definitive, particularly as I thought it was going to be growing upóevery Sondheim score was the event.

Really what happened was I graduated and that’s when Summer Opera in Washington approached me with the idea of doing Little Women as an opera for that company. The book itself was not my idea. I thought really, well, gosh. I was really resistant to the idea because I thought it was the least dramatic book since The Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds. I read the book, but I didn’t know what the spine of it would be. I thought, let me see if I can find this. And forgive me for saying this, but I thought if it’s an egregious failure the worst that will happen is that I will have learned a great deal from it, and it will go in the same trash heap as everybody else’s first opera. Then I found the way to do Little Women. I brought it back to the original company, and they didn’t want it because it seemed too radical and too weird of an adaptation. They wanted something that was essentially the movie with songs. That’s just really as far as the thinking, from the producing side of it, had gone. Ironically, this piece had been presented to me as a problem to solve, and now was my piece. I really did feel like I knew what this opera was. So we disagreed and I withdrew. That’s when I called Carlisle Floyd to say, look, please tell me I did the right thing. I have just withdrawn from this commission because I can’t do it. Maybe that’s the dumbest thing I ever have done, but I can’t work like this. And it was he who suggested that I send it all to Houston. I was actually really intimidated because it would have been the second piece I’d ever written for orchestra. I felt too lightly qualified to be approaching that company. But Carlisle believed in what I had up until that point, and then it became the Houston Grand Opera Studio production.

That was the first time that it occurred to me that I could do everything I want as a music-theatre thinker with the staggering resources of opera singers and an opera company and all of that. I would argue at this point that the difference between contemporary musical theatre and contemporary opera is there is no ceiling whatsoever on what you can do theatrically in the opera house and an incredible richness of musical resource is a given. Again, an opera company is never going to reject your libretto because it’s too theatrical. On the other hand, theatrical thinking is a given in musical theatre, but the musical ceiling is really low. And a lot of this has to do with professional limitations that I didn’t realize. Steve Sondheim told me that it is not legal in the professional theatre for the principals in a new musical to receive the music before the first day of rehearsal. You cannot give them a score to prepare before you start rehearsing.

FJO: Wow!

MA: Wow! Exactly. Imagine being Len Cariou in 1979 and you’re going to open in Sweeney Todd, and you are not permitted to look at the score until five weeks before you open in New York! It explains why a lot of times the musical limitations are quite severe in the theatre. Also, half of the people who do musical theatre do not read. You know, they’re actorsósome can read, most cannot. Well obviously that’s going to explain a great deal about what happens in the music. Steve really got [good things] out of that. You can, if you’re extremely lucky. The idea of Sweeney happening under those circumstances is a miracle, if nothing else, of production. They got a piece of that musical heft on stage somehow navigating those union things.

But compare that to my sitting down with Emily Pulley and Chad Shelton of Lysistrata over this table with the vocal score complete and a piano-vocal reading of what that draft then was, going into minute details a year before it goes up. And then they show up with it learned. It’s already in refinement. Okay, well, in this particular case we were extremely lucky with this cast. Houston is the gold standard. But it was learned. It was interpreted. From that point of view, why am I going to go on Broadway? Honestly, if you’re really serious about doing something musically and theatrically specific you should stay in the opera house. On Broadway you get more famous, but that’s not really ever driven me particularly. If you want to be famous there are easier ways than being a Broadway composeróyou could be a soap opera actor. If you’re not in it for the bells and whistles and you can make peace with the headaches on our side of the aisle, where you will sometimes have an orchestra tell you what an orchestra is. I was going to do a rather eccentric ensemble initially for Lysistrata. I floated it by David Gockley of Houston and Paul Kellogg, who were then co-producers, and they said it was going to be extremely expensive. It’s only 20 players, sax quartet and what not, but they’re all extra instruments because you have to pay all the people who aren’t playing. It’s all very well and good for me to say I’m going to use, you know, viola, celli, basses, and saxes and all of that, but essentially it turned into a Lulu orchestra, you know, because you’re paying all the phantom players. So that’s a headache. On the other hand, there are creative solutions to that as well. But in general, again, apart from never being a guest on Oprah, I feel like I can do anything that I would have done as a playwright in the opera house with the advantage of being in opera.

FJO: And at this point, what recent Broadway composer is famous? We’re past the days of Sondheim.

MA: True enough. That very thing is the thing that makes me think I would actually love to do something for the theatre. This is going to sound very grandiose now, but you know the way Bernstein felt that West Side Story was his contribution to the theatre, and then he was going to go back and conduct and do whatever. I’m obviously not putting myself on that level. But to the extent that I do feel that with the right subject, you could do a piece for the theatre, using the specific things that theatre singers do and have—the kind of book and score texture—because one of the things that you can do in the theatre that is a little easier is to do very contemporary vernacular subjects. There is something about the acoustic timbre of the concert voice that makes, to my ear, conversation extremely difficult. I’m not making fun of this piece, but I think there’s a line in Death of Klinghoffer in which the Captain says, “I took two Halcion® which did not work.” And it’s such a prosaic, contemporary line, and I’m so aware of the disparity between this extremely cultivated cantilena of James Maddalena’s part and this very slangy language which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in the theatre, because voices just don’t sound that way. There’s more transparency between the way that people actually speak and the way they are able to sing there. It would make certain things easier, although arguably you can solve that in the opera house, but you have to be really careful about it.

FJO: But, unfortunately, opera houses are mostly not about the kind of things that you do and more about reviving work like La bohème, La Traviata, or Carmen.

MA: Although I will tell you, the very crisis that is in concert music in general and in opera houses as well is actually beginning to change that quite significantly. There have been two companies that have done Little Women, and it outsold La bohème. And at Skylight it was the third highest grossing opera in the history of the company.

I would argue that there isn’t necessarily a crisis for contemporary opera composition, but there is a crisis for contemporary opera houses. There is no [longer] support for the idea that you need to have an ear for the opera house and the concert hall if you are going to be a cultured person. There has always been certain ambivalence in America. On one hand, are we paying obeisance to this form as a prestigious import from the old country, or is it something that belongs to us? The formalities of it and the meanings of it are not indigenous. When Princess Elizabeth was to be crowned Queen Elizabeth II, the crown commissioned Benjamin Britten to compose an opera called Gloriana. When William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated a second time, he reunites Fleetwood Mac. That speaks to our myth. “I’m the chief executive of the most powerful nation on earth, but I still wear blue jeans and listen to Stevie Nicks.” It’s not like it was when Jackie Kennedy was having Callas at the White House.

As support breaks down, it is actually working to the advantage of new thinking because the old thinking isn’t working. But that does raise big questions, like amplification. Amplification historically is another technology that composers have always been on the vanguard of incorporating into their new works. Amplification is to the 21st century what the horn was to the 18th-century orchestra. It started as a coarse instrument, but now it’s the voice of Dennis Brain. I can understand singers’ artistic and professional interest in maintaining opera as an acoustic form because it’s based on their training. But, forgive me, opera does not exist principally as a showcase for vocal technique. If it’s going to make a vivid contribution to the life of our time, it has to be something more than coat hangers on which you hang a performance. You can amplify artistically or amplify really stupidly, just as you can play the saxophone really badly or really well. If you have an artist who can make that a kind of instrumentality to add to the experience without subtracting what has gone before, then sure. But that dialogue is raging even as we speak. City Opera has been vilified as beyond the pale because we were trying to do opera in a ballet theatre that was designed to muffle sound from the stage and throw the orchestra into the room. You can imagine the problems. We’re not even “amplified.” We’re just trying to pick up the dead spots.

FJO: It’s great to know that Little Women outsold La bohËme, but I would argue that there is still an anachronism in the general public’s perception of opera. Of course, everyone thinks it’s an imported art form. It is. Except for Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, everything else at the Met this season is an import from Europe and is all mostly either from the 18th or 19th centuries. You talked about being able to do more vernacular things in a Broadway theatre. Maybe, since the context for opera is about older things, the trick to doing a successful new work there is basing it on something that’s older. Little Women is a 19th-century novel. While the music may not always sound 19th century, to be as realistic and effective as it is it had to be created with an acute awareness of 19th-century music. You’re walking back into the past.

MA: The trick was trying to give it 19th-century manner while filling it with contemporary matters.

FJO: And Lysistrata is from Ancient Greece.

MA: But the difference in that piece is that we don’t have a compelling memory of how the Greeks spoke, thought, moved, or sounded.

FJO: I just got another catalogue from Harmonia Mundi which lists a CD that is yet another attempt at reconstructing ancient Greek music. Every few years someone tries to do it. Lysistrata is clearly not that at all.

MA: It was one of the great reliefs in approaching that piece. I don’t have any 19th-century master that I have to de-claim. One of the very conscious decisions I made in this piece is that there is no accented 7/8, and there is nothing that attempts to be ethnically or historically Greek at all. If you look at the librettoóand I stole this description from Bert Shevelove’s adaptation of The Frogs when he did that piece in ’74 with Sondheim for Yaleó”the time is now, the place is ancient Greece.” It’s a very slangy libretto, and it’s a very hyper-rhythmic contemporary score. I don’t think there is any sense of period at all if I did it correctly.

It was a useful challenge, and that’s how I did that piece. What do we need now? That’s one way of saying why is this a contemporary piece, which I think every writer needs to do. If you’re just going to do Dostoyevsky because you love it as a 19th-century novel, I think that’s inadequate. It has to feel like you would have written it today for compellingly contemporary reasons. And the fact that it happens to be in the period is neither here nor there. It raised the vernacular question and it also raised the taste question. How do you be bawdy without being lewd? How do you have it be vernacular and have it not ill-fit the earnestness and the gleaming hypercultivated quality of the concert voice?

FJO: Clearly here this is a work that is anti-war, and it’s a work that’s about sexual politics and it’s about women taking control over sexual politics. Here we are living in an administration that has specific attitudes about sexual politics, and we’re in the middle of a war. So how much of this stuff influenced you?

MA: The libretto was done in 2000. The libretto was done actually, eerily, a year to the week before 9/11. The only reason I know that is because it was due the Tuesday after Labor Day, and I was late. The thing that was interesting for me was that right before I sent it off, I said, “I love what I’ve done with this psychologically; I believe in the whole big shape of this. I guess the big question is if anyone is going to care because we only really do this play when we’re at war and we’re not at war.” It was originally going to go up in March of ’02, and then it was late because I went to a whole bunch of Little Women productions, and I didn’t realize how much it would throw my writing off. So then it was ’03, but in between premiere date one and premiere date two 9/11 happened and everybody crashed. David [Gockley] called me and said, “I don’t know when I can do the premiere of this piece because I’m trying not to fire people.” They were still recovering from Hurricane Allison, which had devastated the physical plant in Houston. The costumes for the Little Women production had some water damage. So he said, “Look, I will try to do a workshop with this in ’04 maybe. I don’t really know.” So it was out there for a while. City Opera was going to give the premiere. Then Opera Pacific was going to give the premiere and then have it polished by the time it came to New York. Then we gave a workshop of Act One, and it went extremely well. And David, as I kind of hoped and guessed he would, reasserted his jurisdiction of the premiere. David lives and dies by a new work, it really makes him tick.

But I’m glad that it did not go up in ’02 because it would have been too soon. This is a pretty balanced, dispassionate look at people on all sides of the spectrum, and I just think that it would have been impossible to hear that soon after 9/11. I’m delighted it’s happening now, because whatever else the piece is, it is not propaganda. It is a piece in which women are taking political and emotional control in their personal and public lives, but one of the big changes is that I [also] tried to make a male case for it. Not because I’m trying to defend anybody in our current cast of characters on Capitol Hill but because, as a dramatist, that seemed to be a more interesting play to write. I made the war a completely secondhand phenomenon, by which I mean you were not given as an audience any firsthand information about who’s right. All you get are competing versions. Cleonice tells her story about this deserted island of which there are no natives. The conflict in my piece now is that there’s this deserted island. The Athenians make a claim, and the Spartans make a claim. This was 70 years ago, and no one shows up, from curtain to curtain, and says I was there and this is actually what happened. The whole point would be, if you do not have access to firsthand data and you have to make decisions based on secondhand data, how do you then behave? Because the villain I could really get behind was not pro-war people or pro-peace people, it was received thinking.

I think it has the potential to spark some interesting conversations, and I would love to feel that it shed some light on our current dialogue. That’s why you do what you do, don’t you think? You want to add something to the cultural conversation of your time.

FJO: It’s interesting that part of the delay in the premiere of Lysistrata were all these performances of Little Women. It’s amazing that a new work is getting done so frequently.

MA: I know. Who knew? I’m very lucky.

FJO: The thing that every composer wants with any work, whether it’s a string quartet, a symphony, or an opera, is that second performance, that third performance, that elusive post-premiere life. For opera, that’s the hardest thing of all because it’s such a big thing. We were talking about this with Tobias Picker recently. He’s reducing the orchestration of all of his works so that they can continue to have a life.

MA: The one thing for good or ill that I have noticed is that the smaller and more enterprising companies frequently have smaller theatres and thus a smaller orchestra pit. Who knew? I really had no idea that that was case. Little Women was done for a small orchestra for the Houston Grand Opera Studio simply because of the budget. It was originally going to be 12 people, and for the premiere I said, “Oh, can I please have 15 people because there’s just these two scenes where I simply cannot do it with, I don’t know, two firsts.” And so we did it with 15 at the premiere, and then we got it to 18 at the revival, and I was actually surprised—this was just my own education as a musician—how orchestral it sounded. You can get a pretty big sound out of 26 players. Who knew? Or 18 in this case. And then as I went on I learned that a lot of these smaller companies that want to do the new work need to do something on a smaller scale, so there’s that.

I think, not to be disingenuous about it in the least, the title helped a lot. From whom did I hear this? The Florida Grand Opera, I think, just did a production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, which is not considered one of the masterpieces of the repertory, but apparently it did better than one of the more standard “better” pieces, and they said it was because people knew the title. So one of the things at least at this kind of transitional point in our operatic life, I think that as opera companies are trying to wean people off yet another Carmen as the spell of Carmen on Mars, or Carmen in Bayonne, New Jersey, becomes its own sort of cliché, and there isn’t the sense of just a repertory piece in and of itself being interesting enoughóI think that what these companies are trying to do is build a new audience for the idea of opera at all, and in a strange way they’re using new opera now. Whereas before it was you’ll only come for the bread-and-butter pieces, and maybe you’ll do this new piece, I think what people are beginning to think is that the interest in the old pieces is waning, but if you like this new piece on, I don’t know, The Grapes of Wrath or whatnot, then maybe you’ll like Wozzeck. I think that’s actually what’s beginning to happen in a certain way.

FJO: It’s interesting that you mention Wozzeck as the standard repertoire.

MA: But you know what I’m saying. The bad part of that, or the possibly cramping part of that, is that now, essentially, the writers could feel like, what, so I have to limit my entire pool of potential topics to what I can read in TV Guide? Is that where we’re going? On the other hand, I’m not the only revival anymore. I mean, Little Women is kind of its own phenomenon at the moment, but Jake Heggie’s piece is being revived, and Nixon in China just got a big revival at the Opera of St. Louis, and I know A View from the Bridge got done a couple of times.

I think the idea that new opera is going to be only a case of the prestigious world premiere or is this delicate scary thing that needs to be handled with tongs, I think both of those prejudices are dying away very slowly. We lost 100 years of thinking about this to the extent that once we started to stabilize the repertory thinking, particularly in this country around the ’20s, then between that and certain strains in the contemporary music thinking that essentially said you could either advance public taste or you could engage audience attention, but you could not do both at the same time, which is really dumb but really prestigious for a long time, and so we lost a couple of generations of potential opera composers because that cord had been broken. But, if you’re only going to talk about American opera, you’re going to be talking about a 20th-century phenomenon exclusively. So we came into the party right as it was breaking up. There are any number of ways if you are depressively inclined to just sit back with a bottle of vodka and say, my god, it’s a lost cause. But I’m not depressively inclined, and I happen to think that there are any number of equally compelling reasons to say that it could be a golden age. But it does mean that even our conventional thinking isn’t going to serve us anymore, “our” meaning composers. That we’ve all got to look around and see what the potentials are and that means not throwing out any baby with any bath water. Not to throw out any particular musical element, you know, being tonal or non-tonal or acoustic or pop-derived or modernist or name it, not to look at any of it and say, well I’m not going to do this or engage the challenge of it because I don’t like its politics. We’ve all got to come up with a new politics that does not owe to the politics of the past because they have imploded. And the good news is that even as opera companies are feeling, my god, we’re running deficits. I mean, the Met had a Saturday night performance of Bryn Terfel in Falstaff, and it was papering. Now, as a contemporary composer I felt like well of course you’ve been investing in standard repertory and big stars for ever and ever. But these are our people, tooówe love the Met. The Met is the great showplace for what we’re doing musically and theatrically. The resources are staggering. So, yes, you want the Met to thrive. And the fact that the old ways are not working and the fact that they’re not working are going to be in the short term really painful. That’s going to be good in the short term, as long as we’re going to learn from it. It’s a brilliant time. I am terminally optimistic in general.

I love that everything that’s happened to Little Women happened to my piece, and I would love it with Lysistrata and all of those things, but what we need is a bunch of us. We need a swell of composers and librettists and companies, and we have the singers. The singers can do anything these days. We are on the brink of a golden age in terms of American opera composition, but we are already there in terms of the American singer. They’re titanic. So it’s all in place if people just think big and think hard and take the opportunities.

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