C&V Mentor Meeting: Dinner with John Corigliano

December 9, 2011

RACHEL PETERS, guest blogger

Composers & the Voice (Composer Fellow) 2011-12

Greetings and welcome to my maiden voyage into the blogosphere. Hold on to your hats, and pardon any errant paraphrases that will be in quotes for the sake of ease but are probably not verbatim.

This past Friday night, Steve Osgood, Bob Lee, and I had dinner with my Composers and the Voice mentor, the world-renowned composer John Corigliano. We shared a delicious meal at Nice Matin on 79th Street. We faced a couple of challenges right off the bat. First, it was a rather noisy atmosphere, and I was embarrassed to have to repeat much of what I’d said/asked.  It also turned out to be a charged moment for Corigliano (henceforth known here as Mr. C.): he was awaiting a phone call from his longtime partner and current collaborator, Mark Adamo, who was in his first workshop rehearsal for a brand new piece of his own in San Francisco. The singers were new, and the subject matter was potentially incendiary. (“The worst thing you can do in this country is say that Jesus was not the son of G-d,” stated Mr. C.) So we understood when he frequently checked his new iPhone, equipped with robot voice Siri. He asked her, “Do you love me?” Siri replied, “I’m not allowed to.”

I’ve only become familiar with Mr. C.’s music over the last couple of years, first with Altered States (R.I.P. Ken Russell), then his opera The Ghosts of Versailles, then selections from his vast body of symphonic and vocal works. It’s fair to say that everything I’ve heard so far has blown my mind in one way or another, Ghosts and Circus Maximus in particular. The “Aria of the Worm” from Ghosts of Versailles is like nothing I’ve ever seen on a stage; its physicality has redefined my notion of what an opera singer is capable of executing in performance. The grand theatricality of both the score and the production are heartening to me; the piece reminds me of what is possible with enough imagination despite the current obstacles that new operas face in being born.

Graham Clark sings “The Worm Aria” in “The Ghosts of Versailles” (Metropolitan Opera, Jan. 10, 1992), about 7 minutes in. Aria continues here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_rP7Q7yc90

During early threads of conversation, Mr. C. advised me of two of the most important things a composer needs: a good knowledge (and supply) of wine, and authority over the production process in a recording studio. Then we discussed our respective musical backgrounds. He is actually not conservatory-trained (though he did study composition), and he does not play an instrument—after just two lessons his clarinet was stolen from his high school locker, and he did not replace it. “I played the phonograph,” he joked, referring to his vast collection of LPs, the most cherished and influential of which was Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. But I’m sure it didn’t hurt that his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years and his mother taught piano. Though I have years of piano and voice lessons as well as two music degrees under my belt, this black sheep of an amazingly unmusical family remains envious of Mr. C., while, of course, encouraged by his rise to prominence.

I asked him if he ever gets stuck while writing. This was on my mind as I had just struggled more than usual with a C&V assignment. He said that for him, writing is a constant process of “getting stuck, then unstuck, then stuck again”; his way to get unstuck is to articulate–out loud and as clearly as possible–what isn’t working, until an alternate path becomes clear. It follows, then, that he is currently refusing any new commissions in order to focus on his new opera-in-progress with Mark Adamo as librettist. May all of us C&V writers be so successful that we are able to turn down commissions!

We spoke of the need for even abstract (in this case, not grounded by linear text) music to communicate theatrical ideas. Circus Maximus is a perfect example of this. His words resonated with me relative to my first C&V song(s) (see Zach’s description in an earlier blog post). Mr. C. also pointed out that, compared to many other composers working at the fore today, his music is rather simple and straightforward in its construction. This is something that trips me up a lot while I’m writing—I often think that if an idea is too easily put across in a bare-bones way, I must be wrong. After dinner when I went home to finish my current song, I was determined to just let the music breathe as necessary. See, Steve, the mentorship is already working!

Soon Mr. C. received the much-anticipated phone call from Adamo, and it was time to end what I’m sure was only the first of several valuable sessions. I handed him a CD of some work samples, and I look forward to his helpful feedback.


P.S. Don’t miss a new production of Ghosts of Versailles conducted by our own Maestro Steve at Manhattan School of Music this spring!

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