Tobias Picker: “Operas Must Sing”
Filmed on December 23, 2005—3:00 p.m.
Frank J Oteri: When Joan Tower explained to me why she doesn’t write vocal music, she said that she thought that vocal music composers and instrumental music composers were different kinds of composers. Of course, she acknowledged that there are a few who successfully are able to do both, but she thought that they were the exception.
Tobias Picker: I can think of an enormous number of composers who do both and did both throughout history, starting with Bach or Monteverdi. I think the exceptions are Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner. A composer is a composer and should be able to write any kind of music.
FJO: Admittedly, though, the media are somewhat different in terms of the audience, the expectations, the narrative content when you’re dealing with verbal language on top of music. There are two layers of comprehension going on.
TP: Well, opera is theatre. It’s music and drama. So there is another element that is not as apparent as when you write a string quartet, although even a string quartet is a kind of theatre. There are composers, starting with Beethoven, who created dramas out of their string quartets, particularly the late quartets of Beethoven. Elliott Carter—all of his orchestra music is about different characters. He’s always spoken about characters within his abstract music interacting. When I write an opera, I have a libretto.
FJO: Before you ever wrote an opera, your instrumental music was already showing theatrical leanings—or vocal leanings, at least. The Second Symphony has a soprano singing a poem by Goethe in the final movement. So there’s often a vocal implication even in your instrumental music.
TP: There’s a theatrical, and thereby vocal, implication in a lot of the pieces I wrote long before my first opera.
FJO: So if you were to meet somebody randomly on an airplane, let’s say, and they were to ask you to describe your music, what would you put forward first? Would you say you’re an opera composer? What would be the main thing you’d put forward?
TP: First I’d ask them what they meant by music, so I would know what level to begin at. What’s their frame of reference? If they ask me how to describe what kind of music I write, I would say classical concert music and recently, mostly operas. That’s the truth. But I’ve written far more concert music than operas. Or I might just say I write operas, and they’d look at me like, huh? Or that’s nice [rolls eyes].
FJO: Immediately the word opera conjures up concert music or classical music—we never have a good name for this stuff.
TP: Not for the average American. Many people who have asked me that question—and to whom I’ve given the answer that I write operas at the moment—will say how much they love Phantom: “That’s really cool because I love Phantom of the Opera; it was a really great opera!”
FJO: Well, at least there’s a relationship between musical theatre pieces and opera to some extent, and we should return to this later on. But I’m still wondering if there is music that you’d write in symphony or a quartet that you would not write in an opera? Is there stuff that you would do differently because of the medium of opera?
TP: No, I don’t think so at this point. I think at a certain time there were. If I were writing a solo piano piece it would be much more complex and abstract than if I were, say, writing a symphony, which would be somewhat more direct and approachable. There would have been clearer divisions between the genres. You can detect these divisions in classical music. When Beethoven writes the “Hammerklavier,” it’s a very different kind of music than the Ninth Symphony. When you have a fewer number of participants you do have the potential for a great amount of individual complexity. That said, I don’t think today that what’s going in my operas would be that different than if it were going in a symphony or a piano quintet, except that nobody would be singing.
FJO: Unless you added a voice like you did in your Second Symphony! But, in the trajectory of your output, the operas definitely come after your absorption and reinvention of a more tonal musical language. I know that you sometimes use rows in the operas, but they are definitely not atonal pieces. I would dare say that your operas are an extension of your re-embracing tonality. The music you were writing before that is probably less operatic in nature. I know there are atonal operas, but they’re not common. Perhaps opera, in terms of its mode of presentation, demands something that is more direct—more immediate.
TP: Well, there are necessities in opera that I respond to with the music that I write. Those come out of the characters that I’m giving life to through the music. They have to be able to clearly express their emotions, and if they’re multilayered emotions there has to be a clarity and a directness. The audience is very important in an opera. The audience is part of the operatic experience. I’m against putting up a wall between the stage and the audience. I like the idea that it’s flowing back and forth. If I were to write a strictly serial opera, it would shut out the audience very quickly.
FJO: Part of that flowing back and forth is arias. Star singers with great voices showing off their voices, singing tunes that hopefully are memorable, that an audience will conjure up and there will be these unique moments within the larger work. And certainly there were several of those that I heard in American Tragedy.
TP: Tonality is very useful for that kind of expression. It is not obsolete. The avoidance of tonality is also compositionally, dramatically, and theatrically interesting, but an entire evening of avoiding tonality to me, to my ears and my sensibility, would be torture. I’ve sat through those kind of evenings. It’s a mistake. Why not use tonality? There are some 12-tone rows in American Tragedy. There are 12-tone moments. There are 12-note chords. Who made this rule that you can’t use tonality or that you can’t flow back and forth between tonality and non-tonality? Who started that? It’s a fascist idea.
FJO: We can talk about that for the rest of the afternoon. But let’s get back to these people that you’re introducing your music to who love Phantom. One of the widely bandied-about phrases is that the Broadway musical is America’s vernacular opera. For a long time, very few American composers were actually writing operas. And even fewer were being performed. It seemed like the mode for music drama expression was the Broadway theatre. Of course, now, Broadway is very different. However, these days every composer I talk to seems to be working on an opera! So there’s been a sea change, but is there some kind of relationship between American opera and the Broadway musical theatre in your mind, or are they completely different mediums?
TP: I think they are related. American Broadway musical theatre is an American invention. And I think there is a relationship. It used to be that you could write an opera that could be done on Broadway or in an opera house—Porgy and Bess or Threepenny Opera. So there’s a flowing back and forth between the two that should be happening. But Phantom is not an American piece anyway; it’s by an English composer! It’s not part of the American canon that begins before even Jerome Kern. Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers, even, well, Sondheim and Bernstein—there was a tremendous, tremendous contribution to 20th-century music through that genre. I think that the musical is part of my own musical heritage, just as a Chopin etude is. It’s the music I grew up with: learning, playing, and singing. That it would influence my theatrical stage music makes perfect sense. But some of the things that I’ve seen on Broadway don’t really remind me much of what I do with opera. Some of the things I’ve seen I think strive to be operatic, and they’ll imitate certain operatic conventions but are not as interesting.
FJO: There was a moment as I was watching American Tragedy—it was during the second act—where I suddenly had a bizarre memory of a moment from Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along. The music and the scenes were completely different, but there was an analogous dramatic effect. It was the wonderful duet on two different platforms between Clyde’s two women. They were singing to each other, but they were in different places. It reminded me of a duet in Merrily between a man singing to a woman he’s about to marry and a woman watching from afar wishing that the woman had been her. It’s a great moment of theatre. This doubleness of the moment, if you will, is not something that happens very much in the operatic tradition as handed down to us from the Europeans.
TP: We have a lot of music to be very proud of, and Sondheim is part of that tradition. I’ve never seen Merrily We Roll Along or heard it that I’m aware of. I wasn’t aware that we were doing a parallel thing, but I’m not surprised that by osmosis it has come to be part of what I view as the operatic necessity, and my librettist does as well. The idea of that grew out of wanting those two characters to be singing—to create a need for them to sing together, to hear them at the same time. And so the moment was created. The dramatic moment was taken out of the through line of the narrative to make that possible.
FJO: And that made it much more effective than it would have been if both of them had sung separately instead. Having them sing together crystallizes the disparity between them.
TP: And Clyde doesn’t sing a word.
FJO: No. And that’s what reminded me of Sondheim. The woman the man was marrying also never sang a word. In both cases this is something that you really need to see on stage.
TP: I think that will work on a recording without seeing it, too, because you’ll be able to hear clearly the different things that they’re telling him, and you’ll be able to focus more on what they’re actually saying. The contrast between the two worlds is so stark at that moment that I think it will be something to hold on to even if you’re just listening and not seeing the fantastic staging of it.
FJO: You mentioned your librettist several times. Gene Scheer worked with you on Thérèse Raquin, as well, and he’s a songwriter in his own right. So he’s written music. Here’s one area where writing operatic music is very different from writing a symphony or a string quartet. You’ve got a collaborator. Even if you write your own libretto, it’s not a one-person project no matter what. There’s a set designer, there’s a stage director—all people who have a lot of input—so it is a collaborative process. What’s that process like? What’s the working process like between you and Gene?
TP: Well, it’s a wonderfully open and fluid relationship. It’s an equal collaboration. I mean, it’s a collaboration of true colleagues and fellow artists. But I view him as working for me. The way I’ve always done it is that. I’m commissioned to write an opera by an opera house. I must then commission a librettist, so Gene is contracted and works for me. And he really does work for me. What he does is everything in his power to bring the best music out of me that he can possibly bring. That is the librettist’s job. And he’s exceptionally good at doing that with me. Perhaps he would be as exceptional with somebody else. But also just, you know, making sure that I’m all right. He takes care of me and makes sure I don’t get discouraged. We talk about the music. We talk so much. If all the correspondences were saved—not all of it is, some of it is—it would just be enormous because it’s daily.
FJO: In person? Phone? Emails?
TP: Well, sometimes on the phone, but mostly online in instant messaging, and as I’m writing, emailing back and forth music and words, and in person when necessary. There was a certain stage while writing the opera when it was important that we met on a regular basis in person.
FJO: So it’s a far cry from W.S. Gilbert handing Arthur Sullivan a completed libretto to set to music.
TP: Oh, yeah.
FJO: Gene is the third librettist you’ve worked with. Is this relationship significantly different from the others you’ve had?
TP: We’ve done two operas, and the others I’ve only done one each with. Gene is a very good musician also, and a composer of songs, and a performer, and he writes beautiful words. I don’t know of any other librettist who can do all that.
FJO: So not just anyone who, say, is a playwright or a poet could necessarily be a librettist.
TP: No. They have to have a flair for the theatre and a feeling for how to get the music out of the composer—how best to do that. When I was writing Emmeline, I would avoid Sandy McClatchy rather than interact with him. He wrote what was in the end a beautiful libretto, but I needed a lot of changes from the first version, and I asked for them and I got them. And if he didn’t change them, then I did.
FJO: So some of the words in there are yours?
TP: Yeah, sure. Some of the words in American Tragedy are mine, too—and in Thérèse Raquin. But with Gene I’ll write some new words for something and I’ll say, “What do you think?” He’ll either say, “Those are perfect,” or, “I can do something better. Give me ’til tomorrow, I’ll give you something better.” Or, “That’s great.” I check with him.
FJO: This is a very different process than setting an art song based on a pre-existing poem.
TP: Yeah, it is. It’s very organic, and I let Gene into the process. More than I have let the previous librettists into the process, because he’s a musician.
FJO: Now when you say “into the process,” is there that kind of synergy that there would have been with a Rodgers and Hammerstein? You’ll say, “Oh, this line isn’t working musically.” Could he turn around and say to you, “Oh, this line of music you set doesn’t really serve my text? You need to change this music here?”
TP: He wouldn’t say that.
FJO: Well maybe not along those lines, but you know where I’m going. Would you allow—allow is probably the wrong word—would you work with a collaborator to the point where there is a comfort level or a collaborative level whereby that input could go the other way?
TP: Well, I do to some extent with Gene, but as the composer of the opera I’m also the editor. He’s the executive editor. I’m the editor-in-chief. I’m always editing the libretto. And the process of setting it is also the process of editing it and taking out as many words as possible. I’ve always gotten more words than I needed from Gene—also from Sandy McClatchy—many more words than I needed and than I actually set. I’m trying to think of an instance where he would say this music isn’t working for these words. I think he would be more inclined to think that the words weren’t working for the music.
FJO: All four of these operas are based on pre-existing stories either a true story like Emmeline or from a great work of literature. You’re dealing with a pre-existing thing, and you’re the one who has the idea, and then you bring the librettist on. It all begins with your literary interests, with your absorption of words. What presses that opera button for you when you read something? In the booklet notes for Thérèse Raquin you talked about how your sister had a copy of the book, and it fell off the shelf. Then you read it and said, “Oh, I have to make this into an opera.” That story was very dramatic, almost an opera in and of itself!
TP: You said Emmeline was based on a true story. American Tragedy is also based on a true story and is actually closer to the real-life story than Emmeline is. Both are a kind of mythology. In Emmeline, the actual real-life story was a kind of reenactment of an American version of Oedipus through Jocasta’s eyes. The actual history of the real Emmeline Mosher was very different from the one Judy Rossner depicted in her book—and very different than the one I depicted in the opera because I preferred what she did in the book. And it’s further away from the real-life story than Dreiser’s treatment of the Chester Gillette and Grace Brown case is. There were some things that I preferred in the Dreiser treatment and some things that I preferred in the real story. And so I went back to the original source, his primary source. We had access to everything he had access to in court records, documents, and history. And we used that. Zola was inspired to write Thérèse Raquin by a little item he had seen in the newspaper about a murder, which he then elaborated on. He was sparked by something that really happened.
I’m not counting Fantastic Mr. Fox because it’s a complete fantasy, but all of the others are true stories. A true story is what gets me, something that really happened with real people—that there were real people who lived these lives and that these things really happened, and happen, and will continue to happen. That is the primary button that is pushed when I look at a story. It’s not to say that I can’t respond to pure fiction, but I think most fiction is based on fact anyway.
FJO: There’s also a real macabre element to all of these stories, but we needn’t necessarily go there. They all take place in the past in an era when tonality was the way music was experienced and during a period when opera was much more a part of mainstream culture than it is today. And during the period when the operas that still form the major part of the operatic repertoire of most companies around the world were written. That’s when all these stories took place for the most part. Does that period from the mid-19th century to the very early 20th century hold a special lure for you? Does there need to be a chronological distance for something to become a myth to an audience?
TP: I’ve needed that distance to retell these myths. I needed that distance in time. I pushed back An American Tragedy. It was set in the book in 1922 and so were both subsequent Paramount films, made in 1931 and ’51 respectively. But I chose to go back to the time of the actual case that Dreiser based the 1922 book on, 1906. It’s exactly 100 years ago. There are many reasons that as Americans we have very little association with the first ten years of the 20th century, whereas with the ’20s we have billions of associations and instantly think of the jazz age or the Depression. I wanted to get away from those kinds of associations and create my own world. It struck me that in a hundred years we’re about exactly where we were then. A hundred years have passed and pretty much nothing has changed.
FJO: When I walked out after the dress rehearsal performance, which was quite emotionally shattering, I immediately thought of that recent horrible case, involving Scott Peterson, the man who killed his pregnant wife, Laci. It’s the same story basically. There it is all over again.
TP: It’s very close. When I chose An American Tragedy—it was a point before that case—I wondered if this crime was passé. In Dreiser’s day, he chose this story because as a news reporter in the 1880s and ’90s he noticed that it was reoccurring all the time, and he felt it contained a kernel of something quintessentially American. He had many clippings that he went through before choosing the Grace Brown-Chester Gillette case, which was a landmark case but there were other similar cases. And I wondered at one time if I ought to talk to a crime expert to see whether this crime is passé or not. You know, was that just peculiar to the 20th century? Then Laci Peterson disappeared, and it was on Larry King every night. I guess enough of the country was fascinated by it. It culled their attention for months and months and months, day in and day out. I realized it’s not a passé story at all. It’s still going on.
FJO: So is having some sort of contemporary resonance important to you in choosing these topics?
TP: Yes, contemporary resonance and universality so the audience can identify with the people on stage, that they are real live people. They’re us.
FJO: So when you’re reading, do you think: “Oh, this will make a good opera,” or “That won’t make a good opera”?
TP: What’s not a good opera? It would only be for me though. Someone else might see it another way. Oh, I can think of lots of stuff that shouldn’t have been made into operas but, I don’t want to.
FJO: We don’t need to talk about operas that have been actually made.
TP: I think a story like My Dinner with Andre is a really bad idea for an opera. It’s an obvious example. I’m not even sure if it’s a good idea for a movie. It’s very hard to get through. An opera should not be a conversation. It shouldn’t be a philosophical discussion or argument. For me, that’s not what opera is.
Opera is about emotion, interaction of the characters, and story. I wouldn’t say that all of the operas that I will write will be set in the distant past. I don’t have to have it be a hundred years ago. I’m gradually moving up towards the present. Emmeline was 1840 in the first act, the second act was 1860, and Thérèse is 1871 or something, and An American Tragedy ends in 1908. The next one might be set in 1969 or something.
FJO: Wow, that would be interesting. Will that change the music that you would write for it?
TP: I guess. I don’t know, maybe it will.
FJO: I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the Met syndrome. I’ve talked to so many people about this. The stakes seem so high perhaps because the opportunities are so few. So many people wanted you to write their idea of what kind of new opera should be done at the Met rather than writing your own opera. This was very different from the critical reception of Emmeline, which was almost universally lauded.
TP: Except by the Santa Fean newspaper, which said it was a piece of crap, but that was the only one. Yeah, it is huge exposure, but I’ve been sniped at when I’ve had premieres in smaller cities than New York and lesser opera houses than the Met. You don’t have to be done at the Met to have critics gunning for you. I don’t think that’s what it is. I mean, they’re never going to all agree about one thing, because people have different tastes and agendas and whatever, so it wouldn’t matter who it was or where it was. Emmeline was more or less unanimously praised, but Santa Fe had actually had a much worse history of world premieres than the Met. They hadn’t done one except for Lieberson the year after me and Lang before me, so there were these three together, but before that, I’m not sure there ever was a world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 40 years. But I think it’s a great lie that the Met doesn’t do much new opera. Yes, there was a 25 year period from Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra to John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. That’s true, but once Volpe took over they commissioned several operas in pairs. There was Corigliano and Druckman. Druckman didn’t write his opera, and so eventually his contract was withdrawn. But there would have been another opera the next year or before with The Ghosts of Versailles; it was planned that way. That was ’91. Then there was Philip Glass’s The Voyage and Harbison’s Great Gatsby. Then they did the New York premiere of Bolcom’s View from the Bridge, which wasn’t a world premiere, but it counts. And then me and Tan Dun. So it’s six world premieres in 15 years!
FJO: I guess some people want something new every year.
TP: I know, but that’s a lot better record than a lot of American opera houses, some of which have never done a world premiere. Seattle is doing its first commission. So the Met averages a premiere every three years—that’s not bad. Of course it could be every year if there were people willing to pay for them, but the board of the Metropolitan Opera, the people who pay for everything at the Metropolitan Opera, 99.99 of them don’t want to spend their money on new pieces. They want to spend their money on new productions or paying famous singers; they don’t want to commission pieces. The money has to come from somewhere and considering there’s very little of it around for new work, they haven’t done as badly as certain people would like the public to think. It’s a lie. I know a lot of famous companies that don’t have that terrible stigma attached to them that the Met does that have done much worse for American opera.
FJO: But you make a point about that 99.99 percent on the board that doesn’t want to do new music. Why is that? What’s that about, in your opinion?
TP: I don’t know why. Maybe because a lot of them heard new operas that were so off-putting and excruciatingly boring that they thought why should they spend their money on that sort of thing. And that’s just one theory, and that could be completely wrong. Maybe some people heard a new opera that they just hated, and they thought, oh, well, that’s what new opera is and has to be. But it’s true that there are very few who will put their money in it, and it has to come from someplace. And that was possibly part of the problem that the Met had in just getting these things funded. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to get people interested in it, but it must have something to do with their prior experience of it or their lack of experience with it.
FJO: It’s great to have a commission and to have a premiere happen, but how do you keep these pieces alive after their initial runs? You spend years making these works; you want them to have an ongoing life. What can we do to engender getting these works done again and having a continued life in other cities and returning to the venues they were at originally?
TP: To be practical, more companies will look at doing an opera if it has a smaller orchestra because that’s the big expense for the company. The musicians union is very strong, and it’s very expensive. So if you cut down the size of the orchestra, that’s something you can do to get operas done more. Little Women is scored for 18 instruments.
FJO: Of course, bringing up the musicians union, if you reduce the orchestra to a certain point, certain halls require a specific number of musicians no matter what. If you’re doing something at the Met, you can’t do it with 18 musicians. Those musicians have to be paid.
TP: Right, so the ones you write for 18 musicians aren’t done at the Met. There are plenty of other places they can be done. Plenty. There are so many opera houses in this country that were built in the 19th century. Every town has an opera house. A lot of them are dilapidated now and have been allowed to kind of collapse, but in the last 30 years or so there have been a lot of renovations of these 1860s Civil War vintage opera houses and they’re beautiful. There’s one in Hudson, New York. They haven’t done an opera there yet, but they will. It will get there. There are lots of beautiful little opera houses in America that really could use that size. They could probably hold a large orchestra, too, but I don’t think the union would be interfering.
FJO: I’ve been inside that Hudson opera house. It is a remarkable place. It would be great to present Emmeline there, taking the story back to its home.
TP: Yeah, well it’s further up north than Hudson.
There’s one other thing I wanted to say about the Met. They always revive their commissions two years after they’re first done, so every one of those commissions I talked about was brought back two years later. So I defend the Met because some of this criticism is really unfair and over the top. It’s not been that bad. Sure, they could do more, and I think if they can they will, but what can we do? I think one thing is the music publishers have to work very hard to make sure that everybody who programs these things is exposed to them and sees them. And I think general managers have to go out there and see new operas, whether they’re in New York at the Met or St. Louis or wherever. They should always be going and looking. And we’ve had general managers from all over the country and Europe, quite a few, but then some obvious ones that you’d think would come don’t come. What can you do? I don’t know. Wait for them to die and then hope that someone else will come along who has some intellectual curiosity or musical curiosity or operatic curiosity. I mean, how could you run an opera house in America and not go and see an opera that the Met commissioned if you run any kind of opera house bigger than three seats? But I think one thing is too, well, maybe the operas themselves have to be better. Maybe the operas that we write have to have meaning for the audience and take into account a public. There has to be something in it that people want to go and see. These operas also have to be things that people want to sing, that gives them pleasure, musical satisfaction and visceral pleasure to sing and also to play in the orchestra. Operas are about singing and about the beauty of the human voice, and people who want to hear that and are connoisseurs of that, and so operas must sing. You can’t write operas that are an evening of recitative without any arias.
FJO: Unless you do the My Dinner with Andre opera.
TP: Well, yeah, you could do that, but I think certain operatic conventions are conventions because they work. And they’re not broken, so they don’t need to be fixed.