After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’sDog 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! Read the rest of this entry »
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In Fall 2012, composer/conductor Victoria Bond’s opera Mrs. Presidentpremieres at Anchorage Opera in Alaska. Its “out of town” tryout is on Monday July 9th … in New York at Symphony Space.
The opera’s subject is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. Woodhull’s campaign in 1872 predates women’s suffrage. It was mired in controversy and scandal which, as we all know, makes it ideal material for an opera!
I was particularly pleased to learn that dramatic soprano Valerie Bernhardt is playing Woodhull. Val and I both sang at the Chatauqua Institute back in 1992. Her voice was already a mighty and beautiful instrument then and has only grown more impressive in the ensuing years.
Soprano Valerie Bernhardt
Need more inducement? Okay. Those in town seeking relief from the heat wave, remember: Symphony Space has lovely central AC and quite a nice bar to boot!
There has been plenty of eulogizing and assessment of Maurice Sendak’s remarkable career, most of it focused (rightly so) on his wonderful books. While Sendak’s work in opera and ballet has been praised, I don’t feel that enough attention has been paid to the two operas he worked on with Oliver Knussen. The first, Where the Wild Things Are, is the best children’s opera of our time; the second, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, is one of the best late 20th-century operas of any type. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a fairy tale with great appeal to children, yet the surreal story of a selfish dog’s quest for happiness is laden with potent symbolism that speaks deeply to adults.
The efficiency of Sendak’s librettos to both works, and the ways he created new dialogue for Where the Wild Things Are, and distilled the text for Higglety Pigglety Pop!, reveal the handiwork of a shrewd man with a gift for the stage. Knussen’s music–impressionistic in Wild Things, parodic and post-modern in Higglety Pigglety Pop! is colorful and contemporary, yet highly accessible. I hope that more companies consider mounting a production of one or both operas.
I’ve posted my review of the 1990 LA Opera production of both works on my blog, and I hope it will give you a sense of the magic that Sendak and Knussen conjured for an audience full of children and adults. You can read the review here.
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Two American premieres of important new works by Louis Andriessen at the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert tomorrow evening (Feb. 28), 8 pm. Get there at 7 pm for the preconcert talk with Andriessen and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
This has got to be a first. Luis Andrei Cobo is offering his services to compose a grand opera to the highest Ebay bidder. For $150,000 you can buy a grand opera over 2 hours in length.
Cobo estimates that he’ll need 2 years of full-time work to complete the project, so $75K/year will enable him to maintain the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed as a software programmer.
Don’t have $150K? That’s OK, he’s open to other offers. For as little as $32,000 he will write a half-hour long chamber opera for 3 to 5 singers.
The winning bidder will get to suggest subject matter for the opera, be able to produce the work royalty-free, and upon the composer’s death, the highest bidder or the heir(s) of the bidder will inherit the work.
Sounds like a deal. Then again, obtaining an actual staging of the finished work….
Complete information on this ebay item can be found here. Good luck on your bid!
From Bora Yoon's "Weights and Balances." Photo: Julia Frodahl
Many of us waited with bated breath during the recent breakdown of talks between management and the orchestra at NYC Opera. Even though the season is proceeding, the company’s plan to keep themselves afloat (if not artistically viable) seems dubious at best. No music director, draconian cuts for the players and chorus, and no base of operations. Instead NYCO will present a truncated season at several venues. After hearing how shabbily the company has treated its employees – while George Steel continues to make in excess of $300,000 – why would they expect their audience to follow them around town? It portends difficult days to come for opera – and opera goers – in the city. Take nothing away from the Metropolitan (although its recent conductor troubles are noteworthy): but a city with New York’s operatic history would seem to have room for more than one major company.
Fortunately, as Zachary Woolfe points out in a recent excellent article in the NY Times, several smaller companies are attempting to fill the void left by City Opera’s vicissitudes. Opera Omnia, Gotham Chamber Opera, DiCapo Opera, and others are making it possible to hear a plethora of works from the repertoire that are unlikely to be programmed any time soon, either at the Met or languishing NYCO: baroque gems, less known Mozart, neglected bel canto, and the like. The remaining challenge, and it’s a daunting one, is to nurture operas by living composers.
To further the efforts of those working towards that end, three longtime champions of contemporary works – HERE’s Kim Whitener and Artistic Director Kristin Marting and Beth Morrison ofBeth Morrison Projects (BMP) – have recently announced a promising new venture. Prototype:Opera/Theatre/Now, a festival that they plan to be an annual event, debuts in January 2013.
Unlike NYCO, Prototype will have a single performance venue, HERE’s space in Soho, for which they will try to build an audience. And, also unlike City Opera, the festival, with steady hands at the rudder, will pursue a coherent artistic vision, presenting chamber operas in the contemporary classical/post-classical vein. Some of the names being mentioned as participants in the Prototypes‘s initial presentations should be familiar to those who’ve attended recent editions of VOX: David T. Little, Byron Au Yong, and Bora Yoon.
Dare we hope for an open call for proposals for new chamber operas? More information about Prototype as it’s available.
[Ed. Note: Please welcome composer (and long-time S21 supporter) Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, and sit back as he spins a tale for the ages (and yet all quite true!), of how he managed to conceive, write, and finally produce his very own opera in the (semi) wilds of Vermont.]
In the past week I’ve received emails from other composers, many of whom had doubted that my opera Erzsébet would ever be mounted. After two decades of promises, nearly two years of faltering fundraising, three directors, and a flood that pushed us out of our home, opening night seemed distant and dim. How did it happen for me? Could they finally get to mount their operas?
The opera’s genesis is long & convoluted. When I was a child in the 1950’s, my adoptive father Zoltan Bathory had mentioned an evil family ancestor. In 1983, I was given a copy of Dracula Was a Woman, Raymond McNally’s biography of Elizabeth Bathory. She was a vampiric, serial killing, blood-bathing countess with male and female lovers who died walled up in her torture chamber! The Tigress of Cséjthe! Hungary’s National Monster! What could be better for an operatic tale? In 1987 Erzsébet was scribbled onto my compositional to-do list.
Coincidentally, I’d heard that poet and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu was working on a biography of Erzsébet based on new research. I got in touch; Codrescu was interested in writing the libretto.
But soon my life was in turmoil, with my failed computer company and failed personal life and broken compositional dreams and a falling out with Codrescu, whose biography ended up as an attempt at a Tom Robbins-esque novel. Beyond that, Vermont was not a friendly place for new music in the 1980’s, even though my pseudo-csárdás piano sketch for the opera overture had been commissioned and performed. My new partner Stevie (now my wife), her daughter and I left for Europe in 1991. A rare opportunity brought us into then Czechoslovakia at Cachtice, home of Erzsébet’s most notorious castle.
On returning to Vermont, my boxes of Erzsébet research—books, articles, novels, stories, photosgraphs, videos, postcards, trinkets—became the impetus to create an online home for the opera project. That led to a connection with a Czech sculptor living in America, Pavel Kraus. We had similar artistic sensibility and soon worked together on Sex and Death: Offerings in Burlington, Vermont, and later at Prague’s Mánes Museum, newly restored after the dreary Communist years. Pavel would be the opera’s visual designer, and was the earliest team member who stayed with the project.
In 1999, Lisa Jablow, singer, conductor, and aficionado of new music, became interested in the Báthory story and wanted to sing the lead. She suggested a monodrama written specifically for her, and that became the manageable version of the opera—small enough to afford, intimate enough to create a powerful atmosphere. Read the rest of this entry »
Presented by Remarkable Theater Brigade
Weill Recital Hall, NYC
Fri, Nov 4, 2011
Seeing the Remarkable Theater Brigade’s production Opera Shorts, it is clear that on a small stage like the one at Weill Recital Hall, it is very much a theatrical production that cannot escape that trapping, but the pieces that resulted from the 9 composers (Two of the shorts were composed by musical director Christian McLeer) were mostly comical in nature, thus making it a cheerful night for patrons and a kick in the pants for the opera world. Read the rest of this entry »
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Once again, we find ourselves in the thick of things. The New York concert season is reaching a fever pitch of pre-holiday season intensity, in which presenters and ensembles try to get their programs heard before the inevitable onslaught of Messiahs, Nutcrackers, tree-lighting ceremonies, and caroling elbows its way to the forefront of New York’s calendar of musical events – ready or not. While we can’t be in two places at once (I still think Steve Smith has a magic ring that enables this power!), hopefully between the various new music enthusiasts in the Sequenza 21 community’s NYC cadre, we can support these “hot tickets.”
Tom Cipullo's The Husbands in Rehearsal
11/4 at 8 PM at Weill Recital Hall: Opera Shorts 2011
The third annual installment of the Remarkable Theater Brigade’s Opera Shorts program is this Friday. These mini-operas – ten minutes or less – are an emerging composer’s dream: a chance to hear a brief slice of their work on the stage. But Opera Shorts draws some heavy hitters to the mini-opera game as well. The 2011 installment features works by prominent songsters Jake Heggie, William Bolcom, and Tom Cipullo, as well as emerging creators Marie Incontrera, Mike McFerron, Davide Zannoni,Anne Dinsmore Phillips, Patrick Soluri, and Christian McLeer. Given the length of that list, it’s lucky that none of them have Wagnerian ambitions — this time out at least!
11/4 at 8 PM on the water: Bennett Brass at Bargemusic
Can’t decide whether you’d prefer an evening of early music or present day fare? Bennett Brass (trumpeters Andy Kozar and Ben Grow, hornist Alana Vegter, trombonist Will Lang, and tubist Matt Muszynski) has got you covered. Friday night at Bargemusic, they are presenting a program that works with both of the venue’s series: ‘Here and Now’ and “There and Then.’ The latter is represented by a Rameau suite and Elgar’sSerenade for Strings (but this time arranged for … you guessed it … brass!). Among the more recent music is Fanfare for All by the Dean of Dodecaphony: Milton Babbitt. His compositional antipode John Cage is also on the bill, as are some still-living figures: Ted Hearne, Nick Didkovsky, and Dan Grabois.
BoaC. Photo: Pascal Perich and Julien Jourdes
11/5 at 9 PM at Zankel Hall: Bang on a Can’s 25th NYC season opener!
BoaC celebrates 25 years of gigging in New York City with a show at a ‘modest’ venue – Zankel, the theater downstairs at Carnegie Hall! The centerpiece of the show is the New York premiere of Louis Andriessen’sLifewith film by Marijke Van Warmerdam (postponed from a previous season due to that unpronounceable volcano in Iceland). There’s also David Lang’ssunray, Michael Gordon’s for Madeline, Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, three pieces commissioned by Bang on a Can from David Longstrethof the Dirty Projectors (Instructional Video, Matt Damon, Breakfast at J&M), and Lukas Ligeti’s Glamour Girl. The concert serves as a live preview of the All-Stars’ first studio album in five years: a two-CD set titled Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (out January 2012 on Cantaloupe Music). Ticket info is here, but we’ll let you in on a nice perk for early attendees: the first 200 to arrive get a free drink at the Zankel Bar!
11/8 at 7:30 at Le Poisson Rouge: IN MEMORIAM HENRYK MIKOŁAJ GÓRECKI
Seems like yesterday, but it’s been a year since Gorecki’s passing. To commemorate the first anniversary of his death, the Polish Cultural Institute is hosting a concert at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday. The program includes Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka (1993), performed by Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, as well as JACK Quartet playing the 2nd SQ (“quasi una fantasia,” 1991).
[Ed. note: Please welcome one of our newest S21 shipmates, violinist/ composer Cornelius Dufallo. The New York Times‘ Steve Smith writes “As a violinist and a composer in the string quartet Ethel and the collective ensemble Ne(x)tworks, Cornelius Dufallo has made substantial contributions to New York’s burgeoning new-music scene.” I couldn’t agree more, and look forward to his contributions to come. So take it away, Neil!]
Life in ETHEL is frantic these days. In the midst of meetings, emails, conference calls, and intense rehearsals, I sometimes (sadly) lose touch with the sense of wonder that originally drew me to a life in contemporary music. Missy Mazzoli is one composer whose music always brings me back to a fundamental excitement about what I do. I have been working with Missy on her solo violin piece, Dissolve, O my Heart, which I will be performing at Bargemusic on October 5th (8PM) as part of my ongoing Journaling series.
Originally written for Jennifer Koh, the piece is essentially Missy’s emotional reaction to J. S. Bach’s D minor Chaconne (one of the great masterworks of the solo violin literature). She starts the piece with the same iconic d minor triad, in which, she explains, the listener immediately “acknowledges the inevitable failure of the assignment.” Missy is referring to the impossibility of achieving the structural perfection of Bach’s work, and how, from her perspective, the only way to create her own piece was to embrace it as a “failed Chaconne.” It’s a gorgeous failure, if you ask me. The version that I will be performing in October includes live electronics (three different kinds of digital delay), which Missy and I have been developing together.
Abigail Fischer in "Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt" (photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
One of Missy’s massive new projects is to create three operas, each one about “a fascinating female character from the 20th or 21st century.” Part one of this trilogy, Song From The Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, is sure to be spellbinding. The libretto, co-written by Royce Vavrek and Missy, is based on the journals of Isabelle Eberhardt, and depicts more than a dozen scenes from Eberhardt’s life. The opera begins at the moment of Eberhardt’s death, and continues as a series of flashbacks.
Eberhardt, who was a Swiss writer and explorer of the early 20th century, has been alternately idolized and shunned as a symbol of female liberation. Missy points to Eberhardt’s relentless search for personal freedom and independence, her complicated love life, and her gender ambiguity (as a cross-dressing female artist) as themes that continue to be relevant to women today. Another interesting through-line of the opera is how Eberhardt navigates the conflict between Eastern and Western cultures. Eberhardt moved to North Africa and converted to Islam when she was a young woman. “She fought in street battles in Algiers against the French,” Missy explains, “but she was also working for the French as a journalist, so she was caught between these two worlds.”
The opera, directed by Gia Forakis, has already been workshopped at Galapagos in Brooklyn, New York City Opera’s VOX, and Bard College, and will be premiered at The Kitchen on February 24, 25, and March 1-3. Performers include singer Abigail Fischer and NOW ensemble; with films by Stephen Taylor.
Missy has some other exciting projects coming up, including two new pieces – one for the Albany Symphony, and one for cellist Maya Beiser. Her all-star band Victoire (Olivia De Prato, violin; Eileen Mack, clarinet; Lorna Krier, keayboards; Elenore Oppenheim, bass; and Missy on keyboards), whose CD Cathedral City was one of NPR’s top ten classical albums of 2010, will be performing at the Bell House in Gowanus on October 17. Not to be missed!