I remember hearing about AOP for the first time from my good friend, the talented composer Dan Sonenberg. He had just finished AOP’s inaugural session of the Composers & the Voice program. He told me that he had written six different songs, each of which was workshopped by a different singer, and, as a culmination of the program, he composed a short opera scene that was rehearsed and performed. I must admit that I was immediately envious. At that time I had written very little vocal music, but loved doing so whenever I did. However, I always felt that writing for the voice was a special challenge and in a way it was a mystery that required real experience to do well. I had to apply to AOP’s Composers & the Voice program, and I was thrilled to be accepted.
I remember working week after week, churning out new songs to be performed in the closed sessions of Composers & the Voice, during which I’d get feedback from the singers as well as from the accompanist, and from the other composers, and also, of course, from Steve Osgood, AOP’s artistic director at the time, and the creator of Composers & the Voice.
One song, “Twinkie,” was set to the ingredients of the iconic snack food of the same name. I would never have guessed at the time, that this would become my most performed piece. It was even recently performed on the nationally syndicated program The Wendy Williams Show, sung by one of my favorite collaborators, Hai-Ting Chinn. During the program, Wendy Williams said, “Very unique . . . You’re not going to hear opera like this anywhere else… Fabulous!”
The ingredients to a delicious aria…
Strangely, it was also because of this song, “Twinkie,” that Charles Jarden decided I might be the right composer to approach with the prospect of working on a new opera called Darkling with a libretto by poet Anna Rabinowitz. Her poetry is complex, and intentionally thorny at times, but always very beautiful. Apparently, Charles had decided that if I could make the complicated ingredients of a Twinkie work as a song, then I would have no problem working with the complexity of Anna’s poetry.
Darkling was a difficult and serious piece, and I was not sure I could successfully find music to match these words and ideas. When I first met Anna, I was certain I would have many questions about her poetry as I began the compositional process, and I told her I expected that I would need to consult with her frequently. Amazingly, I never needed to do so. As soon as my work began, something remarkable happened . . . my initial feelings of doubt and apprehension were swept away. I discovered that underneath the poem’s complex layers was a deep emotionality into which I was able to tap, and in this way the poetry came into vivid focus for me. Ultimately, my goal was to use music to instantly make those underlying emotions clear and direct, so that audiences would be able to connect to and appreciate the heartrending story and ideas I found in Darkling’s poetry.
“There’s Been a Slippage” from Darkling
I’m so grateful to AOP for commissioning me to write the music for Darkling. I am very proud of this piece, and I’ve been excited to witness its successes. It was included in the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series, and premiered to great acclaim at the East 13th Street Theater. It was presented at the German Consulate as part of the Friends of Freie Universität’s Jewish Documentary Film, Theater, and Speaker Series. A touring version of Darkling previewed at New York City Opera’s VOX “On the Edge” Showcase and was then presented in Germany and Poland in 2007 and in Philadelphia in 2009. Most exciting for me is that Darkling was released by Albany Records in November 2011 in a stunning recording produced by Judith Sherman.
In a way, I also have AOP to thank for my second opera, Fade, with a libretto by David Cote. Fade was commissioned by the exciting British opera company, Second Movement, but before its premiere in London, AOP set up a libretto reading. David and I were convinced that the libretto was already finished. However, after we heard the libretto read by actors (overseen by director Ned Canty) and got feedback from a small handpicked audience, we discovered that we had more work to do.
Fade premiered in London in October 2008 on a triple bill with Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge. In addition to its London premiere, Fade has also had productions in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York City.
I am working with librettist David Cote once again. We are developing The Scarlet Ibis, an evening-length chamber opera that will be designed to appeal to younger audiences as well as sophisticated operagoers. The Scarlet Ibis is a lyrical tale of family, survival, and tolerance, based on a 1960 short story by James Hurst.
We are calling The Scarlet Ibis a “family opera,” but although it will appeal to young viewers, we will not talk down to our audience. The Scarlet Ibis will be a hybrid opera, and we plan to work puppetry into its staging. The opera is being developed and produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, but once again American Opera Projects had come on board to assist in the creation of my newest piece.
I am thrilled to have AOP with me as I continue my operatic journey. From Composers and the Voice, to Darkling, to Fade and now The Scarlet Ibis, AOP has been right there all along. I am so grateful for their championing new American opera, and I hope to continue my relationship with them for a long time to come.
The latest group of Composers & the Voice fellows will premiere new work on Sep. 7 & 9, 2012 at Six Scenes in Brooklyn, NY.
Scenes from The Scarlet Ibis will be presented to the public at HERE’s CultureMart 2013 in Jan.-Feb. 2013.