“Relationships in an opera are just like abstract music…an idea must go somewhere”

AOP SPOTLIGHT: AUGUST 2013 PART I

Composer Tobias Picker

The composer of the upcoming opera “Dolores Claiborne” discusses his musical upbringing and his current work with C&V composer Mikael Karlsson.

Tobias Picker

Tobias Picker, composer of Dolores Claiborne

This fall another composer will occupy the Tobias Picker Chair. How does it feel to be a ‘Chair’?

Tobias: I’ve been a chair for so long. Don’t you think they could graduate me to a loveseat, a chaiselong or a small sofa? As a chair, people reside with me for a year and from this experience they blossom and go out into the world and automatically know how to make not only chairs but tables and all kinds of furniture. There were some chair-sitters in the past that I never met. You were the last chair-sitter. What was it like?

In the past year, you advised me on what to do and what not to do in terms of writing opera arias. You became my opera composing mentor. When you were a budding opera composer, did you have mentors yourself and if so, what did they teach you?

Tobias: Yes I had mentors – lots of different people. All practitioners that I encountered, I learned from. I learned from my old friend Joe Machlis, the author of “The Enjoyment of Music” who taught for forty years at your college – Queens College. Before I wrote my first opera Emmeline I asked him if he would write the libretto for it. He was then in his late eighties. He said that he had written a libretto on Joan of Arc for composer Norman Dello Joio and that, after that experience, only had two conditions under which he would write a libretto again:

“One- I must see a copy of the death certificate of the composer. Two- I must be shown the grave.”

So… he wouldn’t write my libretto. So then I asked him “How do I write an opera?” He replied “Just make it sing!”

What did you make of that instruction?

Tobias: I made a lot out of it. I made Emmeline out of it.

Haha, fair enough. Did you have any other mentors?

Tobias: Yes. Before I wrote Emmeline, I asked Norman Ryan’s [head of promotion at Schott Music – Tobias’ publisher] predecessor, the late Ronald Freed, the same question: “How the hell do you write an opera?”.  I had at that point written symphonies, concertos, chamber music, some songs and a melodrama, but certainly not an opera. Although I had always planned that I would, I didn’t feel ready. Apparently, though, I was ready because I had gotten a commission to write one. He said; “You’ve been composing for twenty years… use everything you’ve got! It’s all yours, just use everything at your disposal.”

That gave me a very good idea because I then learned the art of retrofitting. For the most famous aria from Emmeline – the “Letter Aria” – I decided to take my orchestra piece Old And Lost Rivers and retrofit it to the words that Sandy McClatchy gave me for the “Letter Aria”. That worked out very well.

I used the entire last movement of my violin sonata Invisible Lilacs for the “Mill Scene”- scene 2 of Emmeline. I simply added the words after the fact. I learned how to recycle. I had written quite a lot of music as a mature composer already, and most of it wasn’t being performed anywhere except once or maybe twice at the most. It was just sitting collecting inches of dust on the shelf so why not breathe new life into it? The music was there before the words.

I learned about the “art of cutting” from my first director- Francesca Zambello- who had experience working with Philip Glass and many others. At first, of course, I felt as though I was being castrated whenever she would suggest a cut. When I understood how a cut could tighten an opera and make it better, even when we cut something that I thought was brilliant or that my librettist thought was crucial to the story, we cut it if it made the story move forward. I became an excellent cutter.

One writes too much usually so one has to know what, when and where to cut. Some composers who don’t understand ‘the stage’ or ‘the theater’ will, if they write an opera, forbid any cutting because they consider every single note a pearl that they have received from God and therefore could never be cut or changed. Those composers should never write opera, but often do anyway. They have caused many audiences to suffer greatly.

One of the first pieces of feedback you gave me when I showed you the first draft of the aria “Internal” from my opera-in-progress Decoration was that I had set the words too awkwardly. It was impossible to understand the words. I had been too busy trying to be a clever composer and had put my love of complexity before the story. You unlocked the process for me, and the aria started to work after that.

Tobias: Yes, I still want all the words to be understood. Words are very important to me. Joe Machlis also said that “Nobody will understand all the words, so you want to make sure that for every sentence you set, they get at least one word. That’s the most you can expect.” When the Santa Fe Opera gave the World Premiere of Emmeline back in 1996 and it was broadcast on television by PBS Great Performances, there were no supertitles. There was good word setting and there was diction. Why were there words there if you were not supposed to know what they were? So much work goes into the staging and the acting that you want the audience to trust your text setting so that they don’t have to look at the supertitles all the time.

I wanted to set the very last word of Dolores Claiborne on a high C for Dolora Zajick as she is a freak of nature mezzo who has very low notes while also being able to sing a pianissimo high C. I wanted to end the opera using that pianissimo high C. The word was a word that should never be set on a quiet high C – the word was “could” and the sentence “I did the best I could”. What I did was to have her sing it three times in a very understandable register in a very straightforward way before I had her deliver it on that high C, and that way I knew the word got across.

I know that the drama needs to be in the music, but if the words didn’t need to also come across, they wouldn’t be singing any words. They’d be singing phonemes… so…

That makes a lot of sense…

Tobias: I don’t stop learning how to write operas. I’m learning all the time. Each day and each opera is a learning experience. You can never know everything about the most complex of art forms.

You often compare being an opera composer to being a tailor. Can you expand on that, please?

Tobias: Yes, well, every voice is different. There aren’t just “sopranos”; there are several different kinds of sopranos, as there are with every other voice type, and within each of those types, each singer is like a snowflake: no two are alike. Sometimes I make adjustments for one singer who has certain abilities that another doesn’t, or one that doesn’t have the ability to sing something that the first one could.

Dolora Zajick gave me SUCH a lecture about F# a tritone above middle C that I did not use that note once in the entire opera for the part of Dolores Claiborne. When I was rehearsing the workshop, Cathy Cook, who covered for Dolora, asked me when we came to a certain spot: “This D above middle C, and the D#… is there anything you could do to help me here? I’m dwelling on it a lot and that D# is very hard for me because that’s where my lower passagio is.” I explained that F# above middle C was where Dolora’s lower passagio was and asked if she had noticed that there was not a single F# for her in the whole opera. She said “Yes I did notice. D# is to me what F# is to Dolora.”

Do you have any pet peeves about operatic writing in general?

Tobias: [long pause…] I hate recitative! I hate it.

And why?

Tobias: I think it’s so unnatural to sing things that should simply be spoken, but at the same time I don’t like speaking in operas. I never have speaking in operas unless the singer cheats and speaks where they were supposed to be singing, which they sometimes fall into because they’re struggling with a very difficult passage and do it in the heat of the moment. I’m not against it in other composers’ operas. I just don’t want any talking in mine because that, for me, belongs in a play.

I think that recitative is one of the things that has given opera a bad name in popular culture. It sounds so stupid- people singing on one note, then dropping a fourth, then going up a fifth, then coming back down. It’s silly. Puccini’s solution was to write ariosos. Everything was through-composed so getting information about the plot was part of the musical fabric.

Tobias discusses his new opera “Dolores Claiborne”, his emerging opera company The Opera San Antonio, and his favorite opera in Part 2 of our spotlight. Stay tuned!  

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