“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!  


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