After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’s Dog Days will be given its premiere as a full length opera. It is being presented at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on September 29th through October 7th. Despite all the myriad details to which he’s had to attend in the rehearsals leading up to the performances, David was kind enough to consent to an interview about the bringing this long term project to fruition and some of his other current activities.
Sequenza21: When did you first become aware of the short story on which Dog Days is based? Why did you think it would be a good subject for your first full length opera?
I first encountered the story Dog Days in the film adaptation by Ellie Lee. (The original story is by Judy Budnitz.) I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and had gotten into the habit if composing each morning with the TV on in the distant background. It would usually start with the previous night’s Daily Show; then, I’d switch to IFC. On one particular day, IFC was showing a shorts program. I happened to look up at a certain moment, and catch a glimpse of Spencer Beglarian (late brother of Eve) playing Prince, the man in a dog suit. I immediately thought: “what the hell” and couldn’t look away, almost obsessively watching the entire film. I filed this piece away, thinking of it as a work I really liked, by an artist I respected, and then sort of moved on with my day. I wrote a song some time later, called “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” about the landscape of Dog Days–and even got to meet Ellie in 2003–but never really thought of making it an opera.
Then in 2008, Dawn Upshaw contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something dramatic–a scena, or opera excerpt–for the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov Workshop at Carnegie Hall. I of course said yes–because that’s what you say to Dawn Upshaw!–and began looking for a libretto. I had written the libretto for Soldier Songs myself, but those were all monologues. This piece was to have characters who needed to have actual dialogue, which I didn’t feel I could handle that as a writer. So I approached Royce Vavrek, who I’d met maybe six months earlier after an American Lyric Theater performance, and we started talking about ideas.
After looking through a number of options, we kept coming back to Dog Days as a piece that just made sense. It was dark, but with these wonderful moments of light. It got into very serious issues–the animal/human divide, issues of choice and consequence, questions of how we treat the least fortunate among us–but without being heavy handed about it. It felt like the perfect story to use for our first adaptation, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding text to write with. (Plus, it had the right number of characters to match the singers we’d been assigned!) We approached Judy Budnitz for permission, she granted it, and we got started. (Judy, by the way, is a really terrific author and unique storyteller. If people don’t know her work, I hope they will check it out.)
What’s been changed or added since presenting scenes of Dog Days at Carnegie Hall?
We added a whole lot! The Zankel presentation was only about 20 minutes, and when we did it at Vox (2010) we had about 30 minutes, having written the aria ”Mirror Mirror” for one of American Opera Projects’ Opera Grows in Brooklyn programs in the summer of 2009. But the piece now lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so it has more than doubled since those early presentations. Also, a number of the voice types changed. I mentioned that we were assigned the singers for the Carnegie Workshop. We loved all of them, but, as we worked on the libretto, came to feel that some of the voice types weren’t right for whom the characters were becoming. For example, Howard–the father–started off as a tenor, but is now a baritone. So in addition to the new music, we also had a lot of rewrites to the old music. Even after the workshop in April, we continued to rewrite, and have continued to tweak throughout the rehearsal process. We added a character who was not present in the original version (though is present in the story): the Captain, a military officer played by Cherry Duke who brings the two sons back from mischief, and tries to make a devil’s deal with Howard. This aria was written maybe eight months ago.
The last big thing was that we finally have a dog man, played by the amazing John Kelly. In the Carnegie Hall performance, Prince was just not there–since it is not a sung role–so all the singers were singing to an invisible man. That’s changed in the stage version. Works much better now!
Did you want to use Newspeak from the beginning, or is the Montclair production a “chamber version” that might subsequently get orchestrated?
From the start, I had always planned for Newspeak to be the band. On one hand, Newspeak has been a really important part of my artistic path, growth and process over the years. On another, it felt important to make a work in which I could control the means of production, so to speak. That I wanted to be able to find a way to make the full opera happen myself if I needed to, DIY-style. If I had written it for orchestra, this would have been nearly impossible. In reality, it would have been impossible for me to mount this version of the piece on my own. It’s just too big, too expensive, with too many moving parts. I just can’t even keep track of them all. But at the time I thought at least if I had the ensemble taken care of, I could mount the show somehow. But really it’s all much bigger now than I’d ever dreamed: Bigger cast, longer duration, etc. It became a much bigger piece as we worked on it, as our 90-minute estimate became a 130-minute reality.
But all that said, this was also the right sound for the piece. Even when we did it in VOX, I kept it more or less as is.
Writing for an amplified band is really interesting, sometimes a little tricky, but for me at least, extremely rewarding. It was very much a learn-by-doing process for me, with Newspeak. This piece is maybe the sixth I’ve written for Newspeak over the years, and like with non-amplified orchestration, you learn something new each time. I made very different choices in Dog Days than I did in Electric Proletariat, the first piece I wrote for the group back in 2004. But I’ve also had the advantage of studying all of the pieces that have been written for us, and to think about how they work or didn’t work in the context of amplification. So in a way, I partially wrote, partially assembled my own how-to manual over the years.
I think the biggest mistake people make when writing for amplified ensemble is in assuming that the amplification will fix problematic orchestration. The hard truth is that is only makes bad orchestration louder! You still need to consider the same basic principles; it still needs to work in those traditional ways. However, what you can gain in amplification is a broader palette of sound. Specifically for Newspeak, having effect pedals and a synthesizer adds a whole new element to things. Unlike in most Newspeak material, Dog Days doesn’t use any effects on the strings, but the sonic palette of the guitar is hugely important. Taylor Levine is one of our great noise-makers, and I’ve tried to work on a lot of his specialties into the score. Without amplification, these sounds couldn’t really exist together with the other, acoustic sounds. But these new sounds still need to be subjected to the same orchestrational process as in a purely acoustic setting. So it’s a little bit of a back and forth, but gradually you figure it out.
One big advantage with an amplified opera, though, is in the vocal writing. I know there are strong opinions about this, but for me, I find it really allows a broader range of vocal sound to be heard. I don’t have a problem anymore with the whole bel canto thing–though I once did–but I do think that that particular sound is only part of a total package that contemporary singers bring to the table. Having mics allows for all of these sounds–from whisper to a scream–to come through. Rinde Eckert once said that, for better or worse, you cannot conceive of the 20th century without considering the microphone. I think this is true, and equally so for the 21st century.
How did Montclair become the venue in which you chose to mount this production?
Alan Pierson was the conductor for the Upshaw/Golijov workshop in 2009. He liked what he heard of the piece, and brought it to Jed Wheeler’s attention. Jed Wheeler is this amazing visionary who has created a luxurious haven for adventurous work at Peak Performances. I was actually at the opening of the theater in 2005, where they kicked off this new initiative with a Ridge Theater production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus! That should tell you something, right? So Alan liked the piece, brought it to Jed. Jed liked the piece, and asked for a meeting. We met, talked about options, plans, hopes, dreams for it. He suggested that he knew the perfect director for the project, Robert Woodruff, at which point I had to do everything in my power not to jump across the desk and kiss him. I had months earlier read an article in Time Out on Robert’s then-upcoming production of Edward Bond’s Chair and thought, “my god, I need to work with this man.” So I was very excited by this prospect, and feel really grateful for the opportunity. Working with Robert has been a terrific experience.
From that point on, all systems were go; and we progressively brought on the members of the full team: Beth Morrison, Jim Findlay, Vita Tzykun, Matt Frey, Garth MacAleavy, Lindsey Turtletaub, and many others. It’s a truly amazing team. I feel really lucky. In particular, Beth Morrison has been really vital to the whole process. More than anyone, Beth has really encouraged me to pursue this sort of operatic hybrid work, and offered tremendous faith and support over the years. She’s been a huge part of almost every single music theater piece I’ve done since 2007–I think Dog Days is our 7th project together, and the largest to date, with many more on the horizon. I don’t think I’d be doing this sort of work without her.
And what has been most amazing is that all of our rehearsals have been in Montclair, on the set. That’s just unheard of. I’m told that so far we’ve logged 233 hours of rehearsal, on the stage where the show will take place. This just never happens in theater and opera, and it’s one of many very generous things Peak Performances has brought to the table. It’s been a real pleasure.
In addition to the new opera, you also recently took on a new academic position. Congratulations! Have you gotten to work with the students at Shenandoah yet? What are your expectations, hopes, and goals for the composition and new music programs at SU?
It’s true! This August I took up a position as the Head of Composition and New Music Coordinator at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia. I’ve remained based in New York and am splitting my time between here and there, which has meant a lot of traveling back and forth and a somewhat hectic schedule, to say the least! (I am also still running MATA, while our incoming ED learns the ropes.) But my colleagues are great; I love the students and have been having a great time teaching. I think Shenandoah is a really special place, and it is a very exciting time to be there. Michael Stepniak, the dean of the conservatory, is another visionary who has done some remarkable things there already, with more on the horizon. On my end, there are some things in the works that I’m very excited about, both on a curricular-level and in terms of guest artists, concert presenting, etc. I can’t say too much more just yet, but it is my hope to create a composition program for the 21st century–focusing on equal parts craft, practical know-how, entrepreneurship, etc.–and in making Shenandoah a real hub for new music.
Alexander Kasser Theater
World Premiere – A Peak Production
Beth Morrison Projects
Composed by David T. Little
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
Based on the short story Dog Days by Judy Budnitz
Directed by Robert Woodruff
Music Direction by Alan Pierson
Set and Video Design by Jim Findlay
Lighting Design by Matt Frey
Costume Design by Vita Tzykun
Featuring: John Kelly, James Bobick (baritone), Marnie Breckenridge (soprano), Cherry Duke (mezzo-soprano), Michael Marcotte (tenor), Peter Tantsits (tenor), and Lauren Worsham (soprano), with chamber ensemble Newspeak and special guests.