Pushy Opera Composers

Daron Aric Hagen
Submitted: Thu, March 7, 2019 - 3:14pm EST
Daron Hagen directing his opera "Orson Rehearsed" at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago. (Photo: Elliot Mandel)
Advice to an emerging composer asking for career tips.

“You know what I like about your opera?” a stage hand at McCaw Hall said to me when I was introduced to the crew during Amelia’s first authorial walkabout there in 2010. Shaking his hand, I was genuinely curious to know. “What?” I asked. “We don’t have to spray ‘Febreze’ on it,” he replied. (Febreze is a brand of household odor eliminators manufactured by Procter & Gamble.) Several other tech people nodded, chuckling. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Well, the opera house is an enormous mechanism,” he said. “We’re all here to make a good show great; a bad show less awful. When someone besides the composer has to step in and make their part of the whole stand out because the music is falling down, we call it ‘spraying Febreze on it’.”

Over an off-the-record lunch a week or so later with a major music critic in town to review Amelia’s premiere, we chatted about the perils and pleasures of composer-librettist-director collaboration. I pointed out that a born opera composer is one whose vision for the opera is so strong that she is the leader among equals. Arts administrators (not to mention opera company boards) understandably yearn for a forceful voice in the development of the works they’ve raised the funds to commission and stage, but that, historically, a man like Speight Jenkins, longtime Intendant of Seattle Opera, has sided with the composer and created a place for her to work without interference. (“Any wishes?” I recall asking him. “Only that it be no more than 120 minutes long,” he replied. “Nothing else?” “I commissioned you,” he replied, with finality.) I found Speight’s trust in me profoundly inspiring and humbling. “There’s a difference,” I remarked to the critic, “between being pushy and being not pushed around.”

During lunch at the Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia with Gian Carlo Menotti in 1982 I asked him, “Why don’t we talk about la parola scenica?” “Ah,” Gian Carlo smoothed the tablecloth with his long fingers as though creating a space, “you are referring to Verdi’s phrase—well, let me tell you….” He began with Verdi, pinpointing the key phrase of music in his favorite scenes; then he moved on to Richard Strauss. His description of collaboration was trenchant: “A stage director looks at a scene one way,” he began. “The composer looks at the scene in another way. The librettist sees it a third way. The composer must craft a scene so clear in intent that all three are compelled to agree.” He looked at me, hard: “You get this,” he said. “You’ll direct your own operas someday and learn this firsthand.”

“What do you think of ‘pushy’ opera composers?” I asked William Weaver one Wednesday evening in 1991 over dinner at his home on the Bard College campus. Kazuo Nakajima served the three of us big helpings of Pasta Puttanesca as Bill carefully steepled his fingers, sighed, took off his heavy-rimmed glasses, set them on the table, adjusted their placement next to his salad fork, and exploded in laughter. “I’ve never heard of a good one who wasn’t!”

“I had dinner the other night with a director who lamented having to ‘fill in musical transitions that didn’t reflect what is going on onstage with action’,” I said. Bill reached for his wine. “What did you tell him?” he asked. “Well, I asked him to give me an example,” and he mentioned the chord sequence from Britten’s Billy Budd.” “You mean the one during which Britten tracks the offstage conversation between Vere and Billy during which he tells Billy he’ll hang?” But it specifically says that there be no staging in the score,” Bill observed. “He told me Britten was wrong; he said that he felt that the audience would grow bored.”

Bill, in a gesture charmingly like Gian Carlo’s in 1981, smoothed the table cloth before him, smiled, and whispered, “Pushy composer!”

I smiled. He dug into his pasta. “I certainly hope you’re being ‘pushy’,” he said. “If an opera fails, it is the composer’s fault, not the librettist’s. Have you read the Verdi-Boito correspondence?” he asked. “Not yet,” I admitted. “I’m translating the English language edition right now,” he said. “Both men were composers who knew a thing or two about writing operas. Both agreed that the music was the most important element.” Beat. “Well, I am thinking of Strauss and Hofmannsthal,” I said, “and the clear motivation on Strauss’ part to ‘get the best that was in’ his librettist. Am I to assume that Strauss viewed his writing partner as a co-pilot and not as the pilot?” “Of course,” said Bill. “If an opera fails, it doesn’t do so because of the libretto.”

It was during those weeks that I first played and sang my way through the vocal score of my first major opera Shining Brow for my (then nascent) director Stephen Wadsworth. It seemed to me that he was the epitome of an insightful collaborator: he asked what I intended when he didn’t understand what I had done instead of assuming that he knew better. I did a lot of explaining during those sessions. Several times, my explanations didn’t work for him, and I made slight alterations to my document. Over the ensuing years, I’ve worked with six different directors on their revivals of Brow. Every one of them came up with different—and entirely viable—solutions to the same dramaturgical problems. When Speight reached out to commission me in 2004, his introductory email read, in part: “My first interest is in the music; the crucial factor in any opera is the music.”

I have never had any interest in being a one man band, and I truly understand the alchemical nature of collaboration, but I also know that I have completed my apprenticeship in the lyric theater by performing every one of its constituent jobs, from catwalk to orchestra pit, from donor’s luncheon and the board room to the Green Room: I’ve budgeted, designed and helped build physical productions and sets, projections, and supertitles; I’ve designed lighting and hung the instruments; I’ve served as a grip, and stage managed, and “called” cues; I’ve done make-up, designed costumes, and sound; I’ve sung leading and supporting roles, albeit as a young man; I’ve played piano in pit orchestras, conducted—and recorded the cast albums of—my own operas and others’, copied orchestra parts, orchestrated, and done extensive vocal coaching; I’ve directed straight plays and choreographed musicals; I’ve been “that composer” living through a soul-crushing flop, the one enjoying a career-making triumph, and the one who has learned the limitations of what can be achieved even when one has done everything “right” and it still doesn’t matter; I’ve written my own libretti, effectively managed through selective empowerment powerful, high-maintenance collaborators; I’ve played for opera improvisation workshops in the Village during the early 90s; I’ve “put my own shows over” by singing and playing their scores at the piano for commissioners, collaborators, and colleagues.

Many collaborators have taught me many things. Through it all, I’ve just wanted to learn how to write a good opera.

This is what I’ve pieced together, so far: one stages the opera that the people in the room can perform, not the one in your head; one performs the concerto the way everyone on stage can that day, not the one in your head. One’s truth is useful to others only inasmuch as one has rendered it transposable; even then, “truth” and “love” are not enough. All this is true whether one wrote the thing or not. Art will take care of itself. Critics and colleagues will carp. Life will go on. One’s “best” work will be met with skepticism and incomprehension. So, relax: concentrate on people and process. Be pushy.

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