OPERA AND DANCE: A PAS DE DEUX

November 5, 2013

opera america - wolf-in-skinsThe Magazine of Opera America, Fall 2013 _ Wolf-in-Skins

In its profile of the current fusion of opera and dance, the Fall 2013 issue of OPERA America Magazine singled out AOP’s Wolf-in-Skins as a prime example of the form.

Composer Gregory Spears, who is collaborating with librettist Christopher Williams on the opera Wolf-in-Skins, says that when it comes to propelling narrative opera and dance each have their own particular strengths. “Opera excels at portraying a character’s inner monologue and builds tension through anticipation and reflection,” he says, whereas dance is “action expressed through movement.”

Williams, a trained dancer, is also the works’ director and choreographer. “As a director, I have a tool belt from which I can pull out whatever tools are necessary to tell the story,” he says. “I don’t see boundaries between the art forms and each has an ideal way to convey the narrative at that moment.” In Wolf-in-Skins the Singers also dance.

Williams felt that the epic nature of Wolf-in-Skins required equal contributions from opera, dance and the visual arts, and takes his cues from Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, where collaborations were forged among Stravinsky, Debussy, Picasso, Matisse, Balanchine and Massine. Portions of Wolf-in-Skins were performed earlier this year with Philadelphia Dance projects and co-presented by American Opera Projects, which has also helped developed the work.

The complete article, written by Patricia Kiernan Johnson, is available online  to OPERA America members and  downloadable at the iTunes Store. Wolf-in-Skins is currently in development at AOP.


“I knew that I was the kind of composer who would write music in almost all genres, and that the end goal was to write operas.”

August 22, 2013

AOP SPOTLIGHT: AUGUST 2013 PART 2

Composer Tobias Picker

Our spotlight on composer Tobias Picker continues. He and composer Mikael Karlsson examines the characters of his latest opera “Dolores Claiborne”, his new opera company The Opera San Antonio, and what spurred him to write opera.

I’d like to move on to talking about your new opera in more detail. It’s your fifth and is based on Stephen King’s novel Dolores Claiborne. It has three women at the crux of its story. There are a lot of strong, often sacrificing, women in your operas. What draws you to that type of character?

Tobias: My mother.

Hah… Would you explain further, please?

Tobias: I have a strong and very powerful mother so I know more about strong and powerful women than I do about other kinds of women, having been brought up by one.

That makes a lot of sense. In this story, Selena, a star reporter from New York, returns to an island where her mother, Dolores Claiborne, has been accused of murdering Vera Donovan, an elderly upper-society woman for whom Dolores worked as a domestic. There are three interesting relationships- one between Dolores and Vera, another between Dolores and Selena, and a third between Selena and Vera. The most important one is between Dolores and Vera. What drew you to their relationship?

Tobias: There is a relationship between mother and daughter too and that’s why it’s Dolores Claiborne’s story. She’s at the center of the triangle. Actually, in the opera version, Selena is not a reporter from New York; she’s a lawyer from Boston.

The relationship between Vera and Dolores is fertile ground because it starts in one place – the relationship of ‘top-down’. Vera, as the rich and powerful employer, is on top and Dolores, as the working-class employee, is down. It goes somewhere over the course of the opera until they become equal. Really, in a sense, after Vera dies, Dolores is on top and Vera is down, literally under the ground. There’s a complete shift, and when Vera leaves her thirty-five million dollar fortune to Dolores, Dolores gives it all away to a school for homeless children. In that sense, Dolores ends up having achieved the upper hand. Vera has nothing; she’s dead and gone, and all that she left on earth was left to Dolores. To me that was very compelling. There’s such a clear direction [to the story].

Relationships in an opera are just like abstract music… an idea must go somewhere. Music needs to go somewhere. Music takes the listener on a journey.

The same is true about the theater, including operas. The relationships have to go somewhere. Selena and Dolores’ relationship also goes somewhere. It’s more complex in its direction, but it’s fascinating and very touching. The relationship between Dolores and her husband Joe goes somewhere too – from bad to worse.

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Dolores Claiborne

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Dolores Claiborne

Do you think that there is a moral lesson to the story?

Tobias: I think that Dolores Claiborne is the first opera I’ve written that is not a morality play. It’s not like Thérèse Raquin, which is based on the sixth and seventh commandments. So, no… I don’t think that [Dolores Claiborne] has a moral. I actually don’t think that Emmeline has a moral at its core.  To me, Thérèse Raquin and An American Tragedy have similar moral lessons. Fantastic Mr. Fox certainly teaches us something about human values. Emmeline and Dolores Claiborne are much more complex stories than the other three.

Dolores’ husband Joe is not very fleshed out in the novel nor is he in the film. I find that this shallow depiction of him makes it very easy to hate him and almost see him as “evil” in the primal sense of the word. Do you think there are any forgiving sides to his character? It’s difficult to feel empathy with his character due to his terrible actions and demeanor, but it’s almost too easy to hate him blindly since we know so little about him. What do you make of his character?

Tobias: He’s a bad man. He’s a bad seed… A bad apple. David Gockley, who commissioned Dolores Claiborne for San Francisco Opera – I believe it’s the 42nd or 43rd commission of his career as a General Director between Houston and San Francisco (and to whom I dedicated Dolores Claiborne for his service to the arts)– asked the same question over and over. He asked whether we really want him to be this 2-dimensional. Do we really want him to be this monster?

We added a small section in which he explains how misunderstood he feels and what a horrible life he thinks he has. Basically, a man who beats his wife, steals his child’s college fund money that his wife has worked her fingers to the bone earning; who sexually molests his daughter on a regular basis, poses a challenge to portray as a human being. To call him an animal is an insult to animals.

That said, the song he sings whenever he has sex with his thirteen-year-old daughter is a very infectious little tune that evolves throughout the opera and which people will undoubtedly go home humming. They’ll have heard it that many times. It’s very catchy. He has the catchiest tune in the whole opera.

That reminds me of the tune that the Erlkönig sings in Schuberts setting of the Goethe poem in order to lure young children into death or bondage.

Tobias: Yes, there’s a great tradition of this device in classical music.

Switching gears slightly, what attracted you to writing opera? Have you always wanted to write opera?

Tobias: I was exposed to it as a very young child by my grandfather who was a German Jew. He felt that there was only one real composer, namely Richard Wagner. According to him, music began and ended with Wagner and he tried to instill this in me from the time I could walk and talk. It probably did plant a seed at least: that opera was something important. He said this to his kids (my little cousins) as well. One day, one of those little cousins said to me, “Wagner is the best composer who ever lived”. This was when I was just about to start my musical training and I said to him that I don’t think that’s true. My cousin replied, “Yes, it’s true. Daddy says so, so it’s really true.” I said, “I’m going to ask my mother.”, which I did, and she said, “Certainly not! What about Beethoven? What about Brahms? Don’t believe that!”

That was helpful. I then encountered [Gian Carlo] Menotti. He was a living, breathing opera composer who had Amahi And The Night Visitors on network television every Christmas. Everybody watched that. It was very popular, so I was exposed to contemporary opera at a very early age. They also taught opera in my school and anyone who made it to the fourth grade had to spend months studying one. When I was in fourth grade, we had to form teams of two and make a maquette and give a presentation. Then there was a contest to pick the best maquette and the one I made with my friend for Girl Of The Golden West (or La Fanciulla Del West) was chosen as the winner. Our entire class was taken to the old Met to see a performance of La Fanciulla Del West.

Those were formative experiences but moreover, I realized that I was born to be a composer. I was born with it, like a congenital disease or some neurological defect, which I was also born with. I have suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome since the age of five. Perhaps being born a composer is a kind of defect because you can’t really live without feeding this need. If you don’t do it, you go out of your mind.

I knew that I was the kind of composer who would write music in almost all genres, and that the end goal was to write operas. I felt that I would know when I was ready. I was forty when I began composing my first opera, Emmeline. I had at that point already written three symphonies, four piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello, oboe, tone poems, string quartets and songs. Plunging myself into the field of opera, I found a whole new world that I had not been prepared for by the chamber music and the symphonies, and I liked it very much. It’s a world that is very, very attractive.

That’s one of the reasons that there is such a pull among composers to write operas. It’s so exciting. I still love writing chamber music and symphonies, but operas are so much more fun.

For an orchestral premiere, you fly in for a Wednesday rehearsal and there’s a premiere on Thursday night and that’s the end of it. The musicians may not even have realized what they were playing because they just played what was put in front of them on the stand. They simply do not have the time to explore everything about every piece that they play in a fifty-two week season. A symphony orchestra musician has different repertoire to learn every week and some teach on the side. It’s just too much for them to be able to do that kind of research.

With opera you arrive on the first day of rehearsal and all the singers are prepared. The first time I had this experience, I was just astonished. There were all the singers sitting in a row, a pianist and a conductor, and they sang through the whole opera off-book (from memory in other words). They had already internalized as much as possible of the music- the notes, the words, the rhythms. That is their starting point. Singers in an opera are like the soloist in a concerto. They come to the first rehearsal with their part memorized.

Composer Tobias Picker

Composer Tobias Picker

I suppose they’re comparable to a soloist in a concerto in that they will have lived with  the piece for a much longer time than the members of the orchestra. With an opera, the orchestra lives with the piece for so long between the first reading and the time they get to perform the premiere. They have a lot of time to learn about the piece by then. If they want, they can ignore what’s going on upstairs and not be interested, but usually they’re quite interested and are very curious about what’s going on outside the pit. Everybody in the opera house knows what’s going on. The ushers know! The guards even know. Everybody in the opera house knows your name, and the name of the opera, and the vast majority of the people working in the opera house are familiar with the source material or they get familiar. An opera is in rehearsal for four to five weeks so they have enough time to explore it. Of course, everybody then has an opinion about it. It’s a completely different experience than any other musical situation.

You’re starting a new opera company in San Antonio. Why would you do something that time-consuming when you’re as busy as you are? You’re writing so many pieces right now. What compels you to do that?

Tobias: I feel that I have something to contribute to opera aside from my own operas. There is no other opera company in America where the Artistic Director is an accomplished composer of opera so I bring a unique point of view to repertoire choices among other things.  San Antonio is the seventh (or maybe at this point, the sixth) largest city in America and has had no opera company until The Opera San Antonio was born. We will be the opera company in residence in San Antonio’s brand new (opening in 2014) state-of-the-art Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

There’s a need there.  I have a fondness for and a history with Texas having served as Composer In Residence with the Houston Symphony for 5 years. I put down strong roots in Houston and I wrote a big opera for Dallas. Part of me is Texan. Houston was the first big city in Texas to get a new opera house and performing arts center. San Antonio is the last big city in Texas to get an opera house, and it’s going to be the most state-of-the-art house as it is the most recent. They used to have an opera festival in San Antonio that began in 1945, right after the war with a German conductor Max Reiter who was friends with Richard Strauss. The festival was the first of its kind in Texas and it continued until 1985 when it went under. Previous efforts to create a new viable company have since failed.

I have a sense of history and I believe in continuity and the continuing of history. There was a hole in that continuation in San Antonio. To me, it’s important that Kirsten Flagstad gave the US premiere of Strauss’ Four Last Songs in San Antonio! There is a connection in San Antonio with the great tradition of Western European and American culture. It’s an opportunity to create works that I don’t have to write; to commission works and to give works that are deserving of being seen productions for which there’s a great need. Instead of having to reinvent an opera company that already exists, which many opera companies are having to do now, we have an opportunity to invent an opera company as it comes into existence; an opera company for today.

I have one final question. Which is your favorite opera other than your own?

Tobias: Dialogues Of The Carmelites [by Francis Poulenc].

Why is that your favorite?

Tobias: It’s the most perfect opera that exists. The Met’s John Dexter production is the best production of any opera I have ever seen.

a conversation with Mikael Karlsson, 2013

Dolores Claiborne (composed by Tobias Picker, with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on the novel by Stephen King, conducted by George Manahan) premieres at the San Francisco Opera on September 18 and runs until October 4. Tickets are currently on sale on the San Franciscio Opera webpage. Tobias’ webpage is tobiaspicker.com. For more information on The Opera San Antonio, go to http://www.theoperasa.org/.


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

August 15, 2013

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!  


“Without people like her, we women wouldn’t be doing what we are these days”

June 5, 2013

AOP SPOTLIGHT: JUNE 2013

Composer Sheila Silver

The composer of the Edna St. Vincent Millay songbook “Beauty Intolerable” discusses her musical connection to the legendary iconoclastic poet.

Sheila Silver, composer of Beauty Intolerable

Sheila Silver, composer of Beauty Intolerable

After all this time living in such close proximity to The Mount, what was it that brought you to pick up Millay’s work?

Sheila: It really had nothing to do with being around here. In the early 1980s, I was a young composer living in New York City. During that time, I was one of the panelists for the Millay Colony. Besides the Millay house and grounds there is another whole structure, modern and new. It’s a place where residents can have peace and quiet; an artist’s retreat. Anyway, I reviewed applications for 2 or 3 years. During all that time, the administrators kept saying, “When you’re ready, come up and stay.” But, I never did. It just never quite worked out. Little did I know that 20 years later I’d be buying a house in the area.

Anyway, I am a Professor of Music at SUNY Stony Brook. One semester a few years ago, I was working with a student who had decided to set one of Millay’s poems to music. But she was struggling. She was really too young to handle the power and sophistication of the poem which was one of Millay’s most famous, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” and it got me interested in Edna.

I picked up the two best known biographies – Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: the Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Daniel Mark Epstein, and by the times I’d finished reading I wanted to write an opera.

During this time, I ran into a friend and colleague, Gwen Gould. She happened to be with Peter Bergman, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. After being introduced, I mentioned that I’d been thinking of writing an opera about her. Peter invited me to visit him at Steepletop and thus began a series of visits and long conversations about Millay’s life and work.

Then, last February or March (2013) one of my colleagues, Elaine Bonazzi, a famous mezzo soprano, was planning on retiring. I decided to write a few songs in her honor and chose three of Edna’s most happy, light and playful poems to set to music. After the concert, several singers asked me for the music – including Deanne Meek and Risa Renae Harman, two of the three sopranos I ultimately wrote for in the Songbook.

It seems like there is a lot to say about Millay’s life – from her bisexuality to her Pulitzer to her wide-spread popularity due to her tours and broadcasts.  That’s a pretty incredible “back story”. 

Sheila: If I were to write an opera, I would address the back story. For this Songbook, I picked poems primarily about love – found love, lost love, historical love. She even wrote about Tristan and Isolde and Penelope and Odysseus. The Penelope piece is incredible! How can I pass that stuff up for opera singers?

I feel like when I work with her, I’m channeling her. The selections weren’t really premeditated. I read and read and read and then would open the book and see where my eye fell. If I didn’t like what I saw, I’d open the book again.

What worked against your original choice of doing an opera and instead, made the choice of a songbook the right one?

Sheila: I didn’t have an angle on how to present her life in an opera. I thought it was going to be hard to make her look really good. So I started by setting her poems to music to warm up and I was so delighted with the results that I thought I’d just bring her words to the public. I just didn’t need any more.

I’m not sure I’ll ever write an opera about her, but I was so satisfied by the poetry being set to music, I didn’t want to stop. If I had had another 6 months, I probably could have written another ten songs.

After Beauty Intolerable is up and running I’m leaving for India with my family. I’ll be studying Hindustani music under the tutelage of Deepak Raja and master vocalist Narayan Bodas in order to “color” my Western compositional voice. I’m going to write an opera based on Khaled Hosseini’s powerful novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. I’ll be in a completely different place, both physically and creatively.

When I’m done, if Edna is still lingering on the outskirts of my mind, then I’ll re-address the possibility of doing a complete opera.

Why three sopranos instead of one?

Sheila: There was just something about writing for several different kinds of voices. Each singer’s personality is different and I composed different sets for those different qualities –just like there being different kinds of love.  I only have them singing together at the opening and again at the closing.  Edna’s poem, First Fig begins, “My candle burns at both ends…”  I wrote two different rounds for them.  The different music epitomized Edna for me.  She lived hard, but was playful – not always serious.

Millay in Paris

Millay in Paris

I know you toured Steepletop in order to get more of a sense of Millay.  Can you tell me about any of the details that affected your writing?  How did her sense of place influence your songs?

Shelia: I have had several powerful conversations with Peter Bergman where he delved into her life story. He gave me an intimate tour of the house and showed me photos that aren’t on display. I’ve seen her clothes, her private library adjacent to her bedroom and the darkness of her studio with a tiny table and a clock. She wrote there every day for four hours.

I don’t think I could have done this if I didn’t live 10 minutes from there. We’d get together and talk for three hours at a time. Peter’s stories and knowledge helped me go beyond…. He’s a very personable guy and our conversations allowed me to talk through her influences and her life. He was very engaging.

It seems as though much of your composing is influenced by far-off cultures. Yet, here is one that is so American; so “New England”. How does this work relate to your other pieces?

Sheila: Yes, I have composed a lot based in other cultures: Indian, Tibetan and classical Greek and Latin stories. But, I’ve written plenty of American or English based music, too. I have a song cycle called Transcending based on texts of Yates and Thoreau. And, even the more distant cultural works have American strands.

These songs are perhaps my most “American”. They are influenced by Jazz and the fact that I grew up on Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez. There’s also even some French cabaret music influence.

I don’t write in a lot of different styles. I don’t like to. But I have listened to a lot of different music and that assimilation makes my mind a giant prism. An idea goes in and when it comes out the other end, it sounds like “Sheila”. No matter the influences, this is my voice. And the older I get, the more my goal is to get simpler, more honest and more straightforward. There is purity in Edna’s poetry that is very appealing.

Honestly, I think Edna is out of vogue at the moment because she is a rhyming poet. It’s time to bring her back. She was one of the original feminists, too. Without people like her, we women wouldn’t be doing what we are these days. She was a visionary.

I can’t remember.  Was Millay a musician herself?  Does she reference any of her favorite works or musicians?  Did her tastes influence you in the way you composed?

Sheila: Edna was an actress and a mezzo-soprano. She performed and wrote her own songs. She was involved in theater groups in Greenwich Village along with her sister and her Mother. She even wrote a libretto for the Metropolitan Opera. . But, I wouldn’t say her tastes in music influenced me.

This project was developed with the support of American Opera Projects, The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, ClaverackLanding and Symphony Space.  Did you receive feedback from any of these groups?

Sheila: Thankfully, American Opera Projects extended themselves to this song cycle. It falls under “New American Works for Voice.” And Holly Peppe, the literary executor from The Millay Society has been working with me, supplying me with information, for the past year and a half. Gwen Gould was also responsible for keeping the project alive. She’d keep asking me “What’s happening with your songs?” Finally, I had a trip to India planned and she suggested that her organization, ClaverackLanding, present the world premiere before I leave. So, she became the first venue. That’s so fitting because she introduced me to Peter to begin with. Last, but not least, Symphony Space came on board with help from AOP who has been there throughout this journey. I thought the songbook was appropriate for Symphony Space. They are a progressive venue in New York City and, they will present the work immediately following the world premiere. In Hudson.

a conversation with Betsy Miller 05/22/2013

dotcom@telenet.net


Beauty Intolerable will be performed on June 8 at First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, NY and on June 13 at Symphony Space with the composer in attendance. Event info: www.operaprojects.org/events

MORE INFO:
http://www.operaprojects.org/BeautyIntolerable2013
www.sheilasilver.com


“We would only write when drunk so we couldn’t control it”

March 9, 2013

AOP SPOTLIGHT: MARCH 2013

Composer Mikael Karlsson

Mikael Karlsson

Mikael Karlsson. Photo by Isabelle Selby.

AOP: Tell us about your new opera, Decoration.

Mikael: Well, I co-wrote the story with David Flodén. He’s a good friend of mine, and neither of us are librettists, but we just like to hang out. We got drunk, had a lot of fun and just started talking. He said “Why don’t we write an opera?” So we did, and we decided that we would only write when drunk so we couldn’t control it. We didn’t want to know what we were going to write, because then, why write it? The process has to be fun, and this way, it was.

And so the story has changed a lot, and it was always about whether to lie or not. The title refers to the way that we pretend that there’s meaning, the way that we pretend that love conquers all, or that it has meaning or that it matters. And the truth is that the conflict is between devotion or belief on the one hand, which helps us live, and science and the cold facts, that this little shit hole that we’re in is going to burn up in a couple of million years, so no matter how we live our lives, it’s not gonna matter. But we can’t live knowing that, so we decorate our lives by lying a little.

I tell myself that my friendships to other people really matter, and it feels like they do, I know they don’t. On a personal level they do, but to the universe they don’t, so the story is about that.

Rebecca Ringle as "She" in a promotional photo for Decoration. Photo by Krister Atle.

Rebecca Ringle as “She” in a promotional photo for Decoration. Photo by Krister Atle.

So our main character, her name is SHE – it’s very impractical – we wanted her to have a neutral name because she’s not about the beauty of the name, for instance. She’s a woman, and an astrophysicist. She treats her scientific belief and conviction as if it were a religion. So she’s maniacal about it, she truly believes that science is all that matters. She refuses to cope with any other belief, so she becomes very lonely. She’s diagnosed with an MS-like disease that slowly starts to destroy her body, and she’s losing control over it. And to a scientist, that should be great news, because you’re only a brain, you know? You can be a martyr for science by giving your body, saying that “this doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t, ideas are all that matters.” So at first, she’s being brave, and she thinks, “I can live like this, I can prove that ideas are what I am.” And I like that idea; it’s very brave of her.

In the second Act, as she’s slowly deteriorating, she changes her mind, and she wishes that she would have listened to some of the lies – to some of the love. But it might be too late, and it turns out that she’s losing her mind also. So she talks to the universe as if it’s a god, and it goes on from there. The central question is, should you be honest when nothing matters? And if nothing matters, why should honesty matter? If nothing matters, truth doesn’t matter. Then what are you going to do?

It’s a very strange story, and I like that it has logical loops and holes in it. We have an aria about dimensions also, so the idea of wormholes comes into the story, where something makes sense to a limit, and then you slip into another logic where it no longer makes sense over here. I hope that there are mistakes in it, because then the listener will have to figure something out. That’s what I love about David Lynch, noise music, anything that’s really gritty, distorted or fucked up – that you have to make sense of it, it’s not presenting itself to you. Then it’s interesting – then it’s trusting its audience that they’re not kids. That they’re grownups who can deal with problems. So we’re giving them a problem, and I hope we’re giving them an interesting enough one that they’re willing to solve it for us.

AOP: You’ve eclectically composed for video games, dance and opera. Do you feel your composer’s “voice” changes based on the medium? How has working in one medium influenced the way you compose for the others?

Mikael: I’m not sure I’m aware of what my voice is. I think it’s inevitable, and if you have one, it’s going to carry over into the different mediums no matter what you do; you have no choice. I never sat down and decided that this is going to be my voice. My voice is what I love and am able to do, those two things combined. And what I’m trying to achieve in terms in terms of furthering where I go. What I love in sound carries over the different genres.

My mom, who’s not a classical listener says that she can hear me; that I wrote it, no matter what it is. Whether it’s a gnarly, atonal clustery song-cycle, or if it’s a sweeping orchestral score for a movie, she hears that it’s my music; that’s good to me. My voice is there, it’s my brain, so it’s going to have something of me in it.

And it turns out that what I love fits into many different categories. If I were to only work with percussion, which is a very popular thing right now, it might limit me, or it might steer me in directions, but my love is melody and noise. To find beauty in something that’s ugly, or to distort something that’s beautiful, until it is almost no longer beautiful.

AOP: If Decoration could be a double-bill with any existing opera, what would you like to see it paired with?

Mikael: A comedy, I think. Decoration will have some comedic elements in it, it needs to. But it’s not a laugh-out-loud, happy romp. It deals with some really difficult stuff. But to have that with another dark piece, that would be unbearable. This is a pretty dark opera, so it needs to be paired with something joyous. I would love to have it paired with something that also celebrates life, but that does it in another way. Ours does it by saying “ok, so we take your bible away from you, we take your burning bush away from you, we take your weddings and your friendships and your love away from you, and we take your fairytale legends away from you, but look! Up there, in the sky, in the universe, in space. How can you not think that’s a better deal? That’s fantastic. Crashing galaxies, black holes, dark matter. If you can pair that with something that’s funny on the surface, then that’s the whole universe to me.

Decoration will be performed on March 17 at The Manhattan School of Music and on March 23 at South Oxford Space in Brooklyn with the composer in attendance. Event info: www.operaprojects.org/events

MORE INFO:
www.operaprojects.org/decoration
www.decorationtheopera.com
www.mikaelk.com


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