Farewell to Little Pete's

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Closure #1: OCTOBER 2014

This is a piece about Closure and the closure of Little Pete's, a belovéd greasy spoon across the street from the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. A wrecking ball is set to fly through Little Pete’s. Progress commands that a 300-room hotel must take the place of the parking ramp at 219 South 17th Street in whose corner nestles one of Center City Philadelphia’s treasures. We’re not talking Bookbinder’s (which is now, ignominiously, an Applebee's), chock full of tourists and overpriced, or the smattering of trendy boutique restaurants that surround Rittenhouse Square like hipsters lounging on the margins of a poetry reading. We’re talking about a Genuine 24-Hour Greasy Spoon, Home to Collars Both White and Blue, an Insomniac’s Oasis in the Night, a Caffeine Addict’s Last Resort, a Trusted Purveyor of that mysterious mélange of grill top odds-and-ends, Scrapple. We’re talking about Little Pete’s, for Pete’s sake. I'm afraid that the news is grim.

I’ll forever associate Little Pete’s with my youth, not just as a composer coming into his own, but also as a person whose world was opening up in one Big Bang. My life as it was then, almost impossibly full, was discussed, vivisected, celebrated, dreaded, and mourned at Little Pete’s.

Autumn 1981. This Wisconsin Boy, a tender nineteen years old, had only just moved to Philadelphia. The Grace of Whomever had handed me a lottery ticket in the form of an invitation to study at the legendary, preposterously intimidating Curtis Institute of Music. I was a Brooks Brothers shirt and blue jeans sort of guy. I grooved to Stockhausen more than Rorem, Berio more than Barber, and Bernstein even more than the Beatles. 

Little Pete’s was the setting for countless post-lesson symposia. During my lessons, my mentor Ned Rorem casually dropped priceless aperçu and dry, acerbic criticisms while slashing through my compositions, his pencil waving this way and that like a rapier. Afterwards, a bit shell-shocked by the enormity of Ned’s self-assurance, my best friend, and fellow Rorem pupil Norman Stumpf, and I would head for Little Pete’s, where we would debrief. “Did he tell you that you succeeded in being boring?” I asked Norman, over Pete’s wretched, perennially burnt Joe, one afternoon. “Not this time,” Norman replied. “But he told me that William Flanagan wrote my song better in the late 50s.” “Who was he?” I asked. “That’s what I said,” replied Norman. I already knew what Ned’s answer had been: find out.

I didn’t yet have a telephone in my apartment. I’d use the payphone in Little Pete’s to call home for reports of my mother’s gradual submission to cancer back in Wisconsin, and then drink with a cellist friend until four or five in the morning, attempting to slake the thirst for silence in my head. I cannot recall how many dawns I greeted, my body still young enough to absorb the alcoholic gut punches dealt it during the previous hours, doing my counterpoint exercises at Pete’s lime green counter, “scrambled eggs and“ a few inches away, untouched, the dread of disappointing Ford Lallerstedt in class a few hours later by presenting mediocre work pulling me back from the edge.

I celebrated my first critical triumph as a composer at Little Pete’s; I also received my most gratuitous wing clipping by a music critic there. In 1983, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s august music critic, Daniel Webster gave my string orchestra work, Prayer for Peace, which William Smith had just premièred with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a glowing review in the paper. I’ll never forget my brother Kevin, who had come to town for the performance, spreading the newspaper on the table between us, skimming it before reading it to me, so that, if necessary, he could spare me the worst bits. Seventeen years later—a lifetime, really—my alma matercommissioned a piece to celebrate its 75th anniversary called Much Ado. Made careless by the standing ovation the piece had received the night before, I spread the Inquirer out on a table at Pete’s expecting at least a casual nod from the critic. Instead, my frothy showpiece was dealt a pasting. Composers do read reviews. Well, I used to—until that day, anyway.

I courted my girlfriend for months by walking her each day from Curtis to her train at Suburban Station. She rented a room out on the Main Line in the home of Bernard Jacobson and his wife. The day that she allowed me to carry her violin for her was the equivalent of moving from “vous” to “tu.” Afterwards, a little giddy, downcast, yet hopeful — the way you can be when you are in your early ‘20s and in love and have time and health and just enough money to get by, I bought the Daily News and the New York Times and worked my way through them at Pete’s until I felt the urge to compose percolate up within me like a welcome fever. Then, a man with a mission, I’d head for a practice room at Curtis and spread notes on music paper like jam on bread. God, that felt good. In time, the love affair sputtered. Music did not.

This morning, an old school chum posted the news on Facebook that Pete’s shall soon be no more. The comments following her post were lovely, and they’re still coming in. I shouldn’t be amazed by how much the place meant to all of us. 

No more sentimental reveries over crab cake sandwiches when I return to Philadelphia for the occasional master class, performance, or lecture. One less skein of memory holding me to one of the few places on the planet, and one of the few times, when I was able to summon both the elegia of James Agee and the earnest and callow drive of Thomas Wolfe. “Aw,” a Philadelphia-based friend told me on the phone just now when I called him to confirm the news, “just drive on, old friend. It was inevitable. It had to happen. And it all began the day that they let people throw up buildings taller than William Penn’s hat.”

At "Little Pete's" on 27 February 2017. The restaurant got a reprieve, and is now scheduled to close in May 2017. (Photo by Neil Erickson)

Closure #2: February 2017

Fully three years after I first contributed the article above to the Huffington Post, still accepting "cash only," the diner holds on. The final closing date has been officially announced and accepted by management, and a steady stream of customers has been coming in to say goodbye for months, said the owner when I stopped in this morning.

Enough time has passed that the Warwick Hotel across the street has passed back into private hands and out of the clutches of the chain that had demolished its once elegant lobby and replaced it with a hideous, Euro-trashy, neon-blue fishtank affair.

My wife and I had checked into the Warwick the day before, our two sons in tow. I'd returned to Philly to hear a performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia—Michael Ludwig had given a lovely account of the violin concerto I'd written for him a few years earlier. After Michael's vivid, glowing performance of my concerto with Dirk Brossé and the orchestra, I'd dined with my belovéd writing mentor (whom I'd first met as a student at Curtis in 1982) Emily Wallace and her husband Gregory and discussed my memoirs; I'd enjoyed a quick brunch with my good buddy, rising composer and Curtis faculty member David Ludwig, at Pete's the next morning.  I'd even taken a moment to stretch my legs out before me in a favorite chair in the Common Room at Curtis for a few moments before walking to Little Pete's, spreading the Inquirer out on the green formica countertop, and reading a respectful review of my concerto by the same critic who had panned me all those years back. 

A few nights before, I'd sung my "Elegy for Ray Charles" at World Cafe Live in University City, a few blocks away, putting over my good friend Stephen Dunn's lovely words breathily into a hot mic and accompanying myself publicly in this town for the first time since the last time I touched the keys as the lounge pianist in the Barclay Hotel lobby in fall 1982. Then, I was about to make my Curtis debut, conducting my music with the Curtis Orchestra next door, Mother dying of cancer, my life just beginning. The other night, my wife and young sons sat at a nearby table. First, she took the stage and rocked the joint with a spiritual, and then rocked it again by singing the trumpet part(!) of Charles Ives' Unanswered Question in an arrangement by local composer Andrew Lipke. When Gilda and I laid down my new arrangement together of John Henry, I knew that I'd finally licked my ghosts in this town. 

I was awakened this morning by the sound of my son's voice: he was singing the trumpet solo of the Ives as he relieved himself in the bathroom. I knew at once that it would be a good day. After checking out of the Warwick, we celebrated by visiting Little Pete's a final time. The four of us squeezed into the booth in which I first sat tha September 1981—the night I first hit the east coast— and ordered breakfast. The waitress who had presented me with a free piece of blueberry pie and said, "Welcome to Philly, honey," has long since passed away, and the boy I once was has become a man who can no longer eat most of what is on the menu. I couldn't resist introducing my eldest to the mysteries of Scrapple.

I love him anyway.

This essay originally appeared in its original form the Huffington Post on 31 October 2014. Click here to read it there.

Other, More Important, Things

I recalled, very early this morning, Father's last words to me, exactly fifteen years ago: "I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things.” 

I wasn’t surprised the day in 2001 that a New Berlin police officer called to tell me that “we found your dad several days ago. He had been … um … deceased for a couple of days and … there was no indication of next of kin. So, um … we had to track you down … over the Internet. Nice website, by the way.” Father’s decomposing body had lain for several days before being discovered by a cop face down in his own dried vomit on the floor of the den in our Big Cedar House. The immediate cause was “arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” but, when I called the coroner for an explanation, he explained, without emotion, “Well, he was clearly an untreated diabetic, and the liver was cirrhotic, so there’s that.”

He had been failing for some time. I imagine that, since he was only slowing down, Father didn't see the point in paying a doctor to tell him to change his life. Father’s emotions were volcanic. His thirst for expressions of love was impossible to slake. No gesture was enough, so his feelings were always hurt. During our conversation, immediately after Mother’s death, he tried to explain himself to me by quoting the toast from Citizen Kane: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own.”

My brothers had promised their mother to keep trying to communicate with him, but it was naïve of her to expect them to just let go of the damage that a father can do to his son. Shortly after her death, each had an encounter with him that forced them to decide whether to carry on, or to make a new start, with him by telling him that he was forgiven—not that he particularly desired forgiveness, or felt that he deserved it, or understood the suffering and shame he’d inflicted on them with his actions, judgments, and words. The “unveiled secrets of their father,” neither ever spoke to him again.

Partly because I rarely fought him, he never attacked me the way that he did them, so I remained—to a consciously calibrated degree—sensitive to the wounded love that motivated his anger. I never felt the need for an apology from him, or to offer him forgiveness. I accepted that he loved me, had done the best that he could, and that he was sick. To the end, being right remained more important to him than being happy. He taught me how to work; but is wife taught me how to love working.  In the end, I kept in touch with him because I promised her that I would, and because not doing so would have made me feel guilty, and I didn’t have what it took to accept that burden. We spoke on the phone. To avoid emotional manipulation, I’d hang up when he turned ugly. Conversations could be short.

It was with a weird sort of relief that my brother and I flew to Milwaukee to perform together the mundane tasks sons do for their dead fathersburying him, gathering up whatever was worth saving in the house and readying it for sale. In the garage sat the last in a long line of used cars and a lot of familiar, rusting gardening equipment. When we managed to get into the house, it was like a visit with Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Enormous, ropy, decade-old webs hung from the soaring ceiling of the front room, in which buckets sat everywhere on sheets of plastic to catch the rain which had been working its way through the roof for years and in which cheap, remaindered furniture added after Mother's death cluttered the once elegant space. The kitchen whose floor we had scrubbed in our pajamas in the small hours as boys hadn't been used for anything except boiling noodles for what seemed a very long time. The pantry was empty. He had obviously been bathing in the sink. Between the kitchen and the library was an enormous, half-filled garbage can, which looked as though it had been placed there for our use in cleaning up after his demise. The third floor was deserted, the master bedroom with the huge bed at the foot of which Mother died was half-made, the sheet half-pulled off. It looked (and felt) like a crime scene. Once she had banished him, sometime in my early teens, he had never again slept there; he slept on a couch in the den, where he had clearly been living for years….

Father had converted what had been my bedroom into a sort of creepy storage room for teddy bears of various shapes and sizes, which he at some point had taken to giving out to strangers and acquaintances alike. There were dozens of them. The den, where he collapsed and died, was like the lair of some wounded animal. Stinking slightly of sweat, it was filled with broken electronic equipment, an empty Cutty Sark bottle on its side, and a single box filled with insurance papers. On a table sat a box containing what little he had elected to save of his and our family's history—letters, newspaper clippings, birth certificates, and a handful of faded photographs. He returned all my letters to me, tucked carefully back into the envelopes in which they had been sent. Like my other brother a few years before, who emptied his Springfield hotel room before taking a taxi to the hospital one last time, Father was determined to leave no Rosebuds sitting around for others to pick over. Nevertheless, it took us several days to cart away the garbage and the alarming number of broken vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens he had somehow accumulated, to knock the place into the barest shape before handing it over to a realtor who would then sell it after our departure “as is.”

Except for the books that he and Mother had acquired together in college, Father had thrown out or given away all his books and papers. How sad those books that remained looked, propped at crazy angles, cigarette-smoke-stained, moldy, some lolling open over the lip of the shelf like tongues. I fished a copy of Leaves of Grass from the shelf and paged through it. Their marginalia, the handwriting so personal, so recognizable, was a testament to the seriousness with which they pursued their dialogue with favorite poets. It was possible to read their hearts and minds flowering for the first time. He wrote in the margin on one side of a page of Keats’ On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, “Man cannot possess perpetual happiness; only momentary glimpses in intimation of beauty.” On the other side of the page, she answered, “Note how he makes nouns of adjectives & vice versa.” Further down the page, he wrote, “Every poet is contributing to a great poem; each poet is holding ground in his way—,” to which she replied, with two brisk down-strokes of her pen beside Keats’ lines, “Of course, this is the function of a poet’s role.” Really, it’s a love duet they’re singing, with Keats’ observations about Homer as the subtext. Beautiful. Keats had always been Father’s solace, and John Milton; Mother loved Browning, and Baudelaire. A volume of Baudelaire, with Mother’s corrections to the French translation interlaced with the published text, had a bookplate that read, “This book is the property of Gwen Johnson.” They continued to sing together after marrying: Father picked up an anthology of British and American poetry during the 60s the bookplate of which read, “Ex Libris Gwen and Earl Hagen—darling I knew you had to have this—Earl.” A copy of Dylan Thomas’ collected poems was inscribed by me, aged 13 in blue ballpoint pen, “For Mama—a gift from your children, Christmas, 1974.” I took all the volumes that remained. They now rest safely between their siblings on the shelves in the Big Victorian House, where they will snuggle safely for the rest of my life, thereafter to be handed on to my sons for safekeeping, my parents’ marginalia and those added by me read by them as though they were eavesdropping on our ghostly songs.

Mother's recipe box I rescued from the top shelf in the kitchen pantry and gave to my brother, who handed it down to his son. Finally, I caught the kitten; my brother's wife adopted it. We dealt with the realtor, the funeral home, and the local newspaper. Writing the obituary, I couldn’t remember the names of his siblings, or any facts about his life…. We had the remains cremated. There was the melancholy triage of Executorship. I arranged a memorial, to which neither of us went. Sometime later, a well-meaning relative sent a videotape of the service on which numerous familiar-looking people I have never met shared sad, kindly reminiscences of a man I never knew. When I told Father that “all we ever wanted was for you to be happy with us,” his last words to me, in January 2001, a few weeks before he died, were, “I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things.” 

This essay appeared in its original form in the Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.

Moonstruck

In the dream I dreamed that I was the cavalier with the enormous nose.

“What hour? What country’s this? What day? What season?” I mused. It was in the early hours of 14 November, 2016. A warm winter in Upstate New York.

My five-year-old son’s heel dug into my ribs, pushing me toward the edge of the bed.

In the dream, my dead brother Kevin was De Guiche: “It’s not just a moon, sir. It’s a Supermoon!”

“I’m completely dazed!” I replied, opening my eyes a crack. Though the digital clock read “3:45,” moonlight so bright streamed through the window that I gasped. My wife muttered questioningly. “It’s okay,” I said, swinging my legs out of the bed. She turned over and went back to sleep. I glanced at my youngest son. An hour or two earlier, the moonlight had awakened him, and he had launched himself (preceded by the pounding of his small feet on the floor as he ran from his room to ours) into our bed, there to create the crossbar in the letter H between his parents. Tenderly, I folded the covers over his chest, fumbled for my glasses, found them, placed them on my nose, and reached for my phone. I ran my other hand through my hair and remembered my next line: “Like a bomb, I fell from the moon!”

I’d gone to bed knowing that there would be a lunar event; my subconscious had obliged by casting me in a summer stock staging of the moon madness scene of Rostand’s play. It had ended badly, of course. I was awake, now, and with consciousness’ return the dread I’d been feeling for days flowed back out of my subconscious like a stain. Quietly, I crept down the stairs, fished by memory with my feet for my slippers under the piano, turned on the coffee maker, and looked out the kitchen window at the largest moon to be seen since 1948. Nimbus clung around the bare branches of the trees. The streetlamp across the way flickered pinkly before dying. After a few minutes, the coffee maker sputtered and wheezed; I poured myself a cup and carried it out into the backyard. 

It was the birthdate of Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, a Jew from Brooklyn who—in adroitly tossing together during the 40s some cowboy songs, good Gallic Boulanger sauce and some spicy Stravinsky harmonies—invented an Americana salad so durable that it is as patriotic as a portrait of Lincoln and apple pie. By all firsthand accounts, whether they be those of his protégé David Del Tredici, his younger friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein, an even younger Ned Rorem, or even the acerbic recollections of David Diamond, he was a decent and humane man. I met him at Tanglewood in summer 1986, and sat with him in the shed as he listened to Lenny conduct his Symphony No. 3, turning his head slightly to me every few minutes, smiling sweetly, and asking me gently, quietly, “What is the year? What summer is this?” His tears.

The harder truth was that it was also the birthdate of the evil, alcoholic demagogue Joseph McCarthy, a man reared like myself in Wisconsin, of all places the birthplace also of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette Senior, born a Republican, founder of the Progressive Party, civil rights and anti-war activist, about whom I also learned in grade school. The current governor, Scott Walker, for whom I have no admiration, couldn’t manage to graduate from Marquette University; McCarthy, at least, graduated before serving (poorly) as a judge, falsifying war injuries to garner medals as a marine, and slithering, asp-like, into the cathedral of politics, from whose pulpit he preached fear and hate, managing nearly to ruin the lives of many of the artists whose work has inspired me most for the past forty years.

It was also the anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic last moment debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. Would I even have become a composer myself had I not thrilled to the sight of the Jets flying across the screen of the Oriental Landmark Theater as a teenager, Jerome Robbins’ moves electrifying Bernstein’s lightning-in-a-bottle score? Had he not written to my Mother when I was fifteen and decreed, Zeus-like, that I was indeed “the Real Thing, a composer,” would I have come to the coast at all I wonder?

The harder truth is that it was also the day that one Steven Bannon, an openly anti-Semitic man, was named chief counselor to an American President-elect of little subtlety, poorly-read, poorly-educated, with not a sliver of experience as a politician, lawyer, or as a military service man. A golden-spoon rich kid opportunist who told poor people that the fact they were badly educated was the fault of the educated people that they resented had found a neat scapegoat.

Shivering, I poured what was left of the now cold coffee on the grass and headed back in. Seated at the computer in the kitchen, I surfed quickly through the digital front pages of Le Monde, Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. The cyclic, orbital nature of these harsh dichotomies illustrate Santayana's dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but we're into fouler stuff now. Now our Facebook timelines deliver to our “smart” phones “truths” calculated by special algorithms to entertain us, to reinforce our Weltanschauungs. The "big lie" is now comprised of countless little self-exculpatory, self-justifications for why the “other” guy is “better off.”

I checked into Facebook. Dear friend Lara Downes saw that I was online and sent me the text of an article she was working on about the election. In it, she described that, on election night, her mother "kissed [her] goodbye, and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry for all of you.”

I rose from the computer, poured another cup of coffee, and stood in the door of the kitchen to watch the sun rise. To my amazement, a young deer strolled without fear right up to the door and looked in at me. "He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights," I recalled from Bible Study class. The deer is a sacred animal. It is a shaman, and often the bringer of tidings. It embodies the spirit of softness combined with strength, grace crossed with power. Why had he come on this, of all days?

I reached behind me for an apple. I expected the animal to bolt, but it remained, solid, self-assured and brave, a beautiful thing in itself. I opened the door and rolled the apple across the patio; it came to a stop between the deer’s hooves. It blinked, twice. It cocked its head over its shoulder as though listening for die ferne klang, dipped smoothly to scoop the apple up in its mouth, and walked slowly, with the stately grace of a queen, to the picket fence at the end of our yard. I looked away for a moment. When I looked back, it was gone.

“What hour? What country’s this? What day? What season?” I mused. History teaches us that this has all happened before and that it will happen again. The good and the evil share the same day. How can we possibly explain this to our children? Why must the moon be so very close to us in our time? I understand that it is our turn, but why must it drive us mad?

You can also read this essay at the Huffington Post by clicking here.

Thanksgiving Song

This is no gauzy, sentimental reminiscence of an old familiar haunt from my salad days penned for the holidays in an effort to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. No. This is a song of praise, relief, love, and lament for my brothers and sisters who’ll clink glasses across a table in a diner somewhere whose thoughts and memories may have to suffice tonight as their family.

Tonight I’ll be humbled, dazzled, and more grateful than I can say, to sit at the head of a table with my beloved wife and fifteen other adults, dear ones all, and eight of their (and our) children in a beautiful home in a safe Upstate New York village, together celebrating Thanksgiving.

I never expected to survive my forties, and nearly didn’t. My story’s not unique, and its details are not worthy of the staccato delivery of war reportage. Time has made more legato my memories of the many, many hours I spent in the Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, arguing politics, wooing dates, composing, devouring the New York Times, and nursing hangovers. Hell, I ate there before it was called the Metro, back when the Metro Theater still showed second-run films and before, during its death throes, it showed porn. After my divorce, I ate there daily for nearly two years.

The Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

The Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

Up until the spring morning in 1997 when my soon-to-be-ex-wife sandwiched herself heavily into the booth across from me and I saw her for the last time, the Metro Diner had been one of my favorite Upper West Side haunts. 

I spread the settlement agreement on the table in front of her like the plans to a house. “Let’s get on with it,” I said.

“No. I want to order something first,” she said, a cool Pan Am smile flickering across her lips. She glanced up to gauge its effect. I looked away. She gathered up the papers with elaborate care, piled them neatly to one side, picked up a menu, and deliberated. 

I stared at the ice in my plastic water glass. The waiter brought her a cup of coffee. She ordered, leaned back in her seat, and stretched. “How ‘ya been?” she drawled.

I looked out the window. A pale, slender woman in a red dress only partly concealed beneath a royal blue pea coat sped northwards up Broadway with her head down, shielding her eyes from the intense morning sun. She reminded me of my violist girlfriend from Marseilles, dashing once through a drizzle to meet me near the Campanile in Venice.

I looked back at her and thought about the violent North African with whom she said she had taken up in Venice. After I had paid to fly her home from Italy, he had continued to call her: “Vaffanculo strozzo!” I’d snarl into the telephone when he called.

I stopped loving her the day I learned of her first affair. One day I returned from teaching at Bard and picked up a letter waiting for her on the landing in front of our apartment that candidly discussed her infidelity.

“How have I been?” I repeated the question vaguely, scratching at my arm. I examined the half dozen scabs on each of my hands. As a child, I had compulsively picked scabs when under stress. My arms and legs were covered with wounds. Sighing, the dermatologist had informed me, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you. It appears to be psychosomatic: you are simply uncomfortable in your own skin.”

My eggs came. Sunny side up. They were runny, viscous, like snot. Next to the eggs was a pile of hash. I smothered it in catsup. A slice of blood orange serving as garnish was twisted like a set of filthy dentures. I fought back a wave of nausea. We both ate mechanically. What a mess. “I don’t know,” I said, looking at her squarely.

“So,” she smiled thinly, “are you still a drunk?” “I drink a lot,” I answered. “But I am not a drunk.” “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” she said. I looked at her. “Because I’ll tell the judge that you are.” “Ah,” I said, without inflection. I looked at the back of my hand. The largest scab there looked exactly like a fleck of the hash on my plate. I pulled it away from the skin and tucked it between the folds of my napkin. She got down to business: “I want you to know that I know that you got to be a better and better husband and I got to be a worse and worse wife.”

Surprised, I looked up at her. She smiled brightly, and crammed a slab of pancake in her mouth. I looked away again. Why had I made her end it? Why did I need to prove to myself that I had tried everything, everything possible to make it work? Why had it been more important to me to be right than it had been to be happy? She pushed her plate to the side, smacked her lips, and reached for the settlement papers. I—reflexively still paying for things—signaled for the check. 

“You know,” I said, “that you haven’t any moral or ethical right to a dime.”

There was a sudden clatter of dishes in the kitchen and a sharp hiss as something hit the hot griddle. She slowly picked up the pen, lit up a malevolent, self-satisfied smile, and said, “I am legally entitled to it. I can get it. And I want it.” As she signed the paper and I countersigned it, I felt nothing. 

Twenty years later, I will put my hands together at dinner, say a prayer, and offer this song of praise to the bright-faced young Juilliard student sliding into a booth at the Metro, his violin case in the seat across from him, his expressive hand signaling the waiter for a cup of coffee, far from home, Beethoven and the Russian girl back there on his mind. 

I’ll offer this song of relief to the out of work actor whose family back in Iowa sent him a check for the holidays that he’s just cashed at an exorbitant fee a few doors away because he hasn’t eaten in three days sitting at the bar, a dogged paperback copy of Ibsen’s plays in his lap, his lips silently mouthing lines from a scene he's learning for an audition tomorrow. 

I’ll offer this song of love for the elderly couple in the back booth holding hands I’ve known for forty years who don’t even need to make eye contact with the staff anymore: they’re simply taken care of, and rarely pay for their meal. 

I’ll offer this song of lament for the homeless people who stop at the front door and are wordlessly given a free cup of hot coffee to warm them as they continue their long walk up and down Broadway. 

I'll offer it because these people were for years my family, and because the song was always about the people, not the place, and it still is.

 

Read a wonderful piece by George Blechner in the New York Times about Manhattan's waning diner culture here.

Read an article about "Little Pete's," a diner in Philadelphia similarly beloved, by clicking here.

Taking Wing: Composing "Amelia"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 12 August 2016. To read it there, click here.

Librettist Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen in New York City, 2007. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Librettist Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen in New York City, 2007. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

This is the story of how Amelia, an opera commissioned by Seattle Opera about a first time mother-to-be named Amelia, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot-father in Vietnam, got written.

The opera tells the story of how she breaks free from anxiety to embrace healing and renewal for the sake of her husband and child. The original narrative unfolds over a 30-year period beginning in 1966. Amelia interweaves one woman’s emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, the mystery that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and elements of the Daedalus and Icarus myth to explore man’s fascination with flight and the dilemmas that arise when vehicles of flight are used for exploration, adventure, and war. With an intensely personal libretto by American poet Gardner McFall, whose father was a Navy pilot lost during Vietnam, the opera moves from loss to recuperation, paralysis to flight, as the protagonist, Amelia, ultimately embraces her life and the creative force of love and family.

Daron presents the completed partitura to Speight Jenkins. (Photo: Kelly Tweeddale)

Daron presents the completed partitura to Speight Jenkins. (Photo: Kelly Tweeddale)

As the old saying goes, “Life is short. Opera is long.” And grand operas are beautiful beasts that sometimes take a very long time to gestate. In another life and time, say, 1860-something, I might’ve met Speight Jenkins while squinting over a hand of poker in the saloon of a tumbleweed-infested ghost town—he, the editor of the local gazette and local magistrate; me an itinerant alcoholic Lutheran preacher making a forlorn show of shepherding a flock.

Instead, a hundred years later, Speight graduated UT, Columbia Law School, served in the U.S. Army, and later became a music critic and journalist, helming Opera News for seven years, and then writing about music for the New York Postfor another seven before a guest lectureship about Wagner’s Ring brought him to the attention of Seattle Opera’s board of trustees such that they offered him the post of general director of the company in 1983. As it happens, we met for real by Email.

“I’m writing to you,” Speight’s 5 November 2003 message began, “to find out if A) you are interested in writing an opera for Seattle, and B) what your ideas for such an opera might be. My first interest is in the music; the crucial factor in any opera is the music.”

We began an 18-month epistolary working relationship, during which I pitched him no fewer than two-dozen potential scenarios. He chose the last, a sprawling, innigpiece in which I explored my preoccupation with flight as metaphor for life, birth for letting go and linking with the past, and the fact that the dead are not lost to us. Characters included the Wright Brothers (two male sopranos), Icarus and Dædalus, Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Leonardo da Vinci, and a little boy (me) laying on the floor on his tummy watching the moon landing on television. Once sold on my idea, Speight green-lit the project, my attorney began billing, contracts were drawn up, and collaboration agreements sketched out.

The evening of 25 June 2004, pacing back and forth in the Pink Room (the room in which Katrina Trask spent her last years) in West House at Yaddo, the artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, I drained the battery in my cell phone talking for six hours with famed director Stephen Wadsworth about the treatment on which I’d sold Speight. His role, Stephen explained, was to “strengthen the through-story and transform my oratorio into a dramatic vehicle.” I proposed (before even asking her) that we use Gardner McFall’s life experiences to hold together the narrative and ask her to write it.

I’d met Gardner at Yaddo during summer 1984 and set one of her poems, “Sonnet After Oscar Wilde,” which closes the song cycle Love Songs. Most importantly, I loved her poetry. Secondly, Gardner’s flier father was lost at sea during the Vietnam conflict, triggering a lifelong poetic fascination with his unknown fate. Because I wasn’t interested in doing a “take down” of the military, but rather in exploring the human toll that military service extracts, Gardner’s self-contained dignity and complete identification not just with my heroine’s emotional state as an expectant mother (Gardner has a daughter) but also with her psychological makeup as a Navy junior guaranteed that the characters that she drew in the opera would personify the honorable rectitude that they do in real life.

The next day, Stephen sent me his first scenario draft of the first act, in which he had begun incorporating Gardner’s experiences (as I had related them), thereby anchoring the opera I had initially conceived in the events of Gardner’s personal narrative.

When I called her, later that day, explained what I had in mind, and invited her to write the libretto of Amelia, I took for granted that she would be willing to mine her past as I do mine, and to lay bare her most painful memories for the sake of telling our story. If I hadn’t intended to strip myself every bit as bare in the process, I would never have asked.

The following summer at Yaddo, a few weeks after David Diamond’s death, Gardner began tentatively committing to some words for the libretto of Amelia. Each afternoon we met—again, I was in the Pink Room, and Gardner was down the hall—and talked about Amelia and the sort of opera we wanted to make together.

“I wish,” I wrote to Speight on 8 July 2005, “I could express how excited Gardner and I both are by what we have come up with. When, at about two this morning, I slipped under her door (she has been lodged in the same house, down the hall) the tenth generation of revisions to the work we’ve done together here on Ameliabefore pouring myself a glass of wine and doing a little reading, I didn’t expect to hear from her before her departure. But this morning I discovered that Gardner had slipped a note under my door, which read, in part: ‘Daron—I feel the Amelia project is such a Blessing—truly—and about our work together in the coming months I can only say: CAVU: Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited!’”

“We did not begin in earnest until May 2006, again at Yaddo. By that time, we had contracts with Seattle Opera and a final, mutually agreeable scenario. … Each morning, I sat down at my computer in Yaddo’s High Studio to write, using the scenario as an outline but feeling free to invent key imagery to associate with the characters and to supply emotional motivation for their actions. When I completed a scene, I would share it with Daron, who processed the text by retyping it, sometimes making a deletion, or asking for an additional line or two. … By the time I left Yaddo in mid-June, I had finished the first two scenes of Act I.” - Gardner McFall, in the Afterward of Amelia, the Libretto

I began working out the opera’s musical ideas by setting a sheaf of Amelia Earhart’s public statements to music for treble chorus and string quartet. The Milwaukee Choral Artists and a string quartet made up of members of Present Music conducted by Sharon Hansen premiered the song cycle, called Flight Music, in November 2005 at the Cathedral of Saint John in Milwaukee. Most of the music of this cycle ultimately turned up somewhere in Amelia.

Over the course of the next year, Gardner, Stephen, and I met periodically at Gardner’s home on the Upper West Side to thrash through the libretto together. We were not cooks sharing a kitchen but, rather, dreamers sharing a vision, each asking tough questions of the others. For me, it was like a return to the summer months of 1992, when I played and sang through Shining Brow for Stephen at his apartment in the Village and I was compelled by a trustworthy collaborator to justify every dramatic beat.

The Acosta Nichols Tower Studio at Yaddo, where much of Amelia was composed. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The Acosta Nichols Tower Studio at Yaddo, where much of Amelia was composed. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

It wasn’t until May 2007, fully two years later, that I sat at last at the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio at Yaddo, and began, with trepidation, writing the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will bTe fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

During April and May 2010, Seattle Opera rented a cozy house for me atop Queen Anne Hill. New commissions came, including one for a new opera based on Winsor McCay’s seminal surrealist Little Nemo comic strip for Sarasota Opera, based on a libretto by J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy. On my own for the first time since marrying Gilda, desperate for an escape from the pressures of production, I drank every night. I was sober for rehearsals, but I felt desperately over-exposed as a person. When Kate Lindsey, as Amelia, “saw” Icarus, Dædalus, and her dead relatives in the room, she was playing my reality. When Nathan Gunn cradled the newborn at the end of the opera, he was playing me.

Daron looks on as Gerard Schwarz leads the wandelprobe of Amelia. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Daron looks on as Gerard Schwarz leads the wandelprobe of Amelia. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

After five weeks of staging rehearsals, production moved from the rehearsal hall to the opera house. My heart began to lift during the ritual introduction of the production team on the empty stage. The orchestra had rehearsed the score. The focus of production shifted to the realization of my larger compositional vision (including sets, lights, a mighty orchestra, and an audience) as the huge mechanism of the company came into play.

Technicians walked purposefully about, whispering. The lighting designer conferred with his assistant at the portable board set up in the orchestra. The enormous sets were assembled and struck, one after another, on the stage. I walked the darkened house for hours, memorized the sightlines, and gauged what would “speak” to what part of the audience.

Opening night of any opera is exhilarating as hell, but this was Amelia, in which I had invested so very much. The McCaw Hall curtain slid silently up to reveal the first scene. Gerard Schwarz brought his baton down, and the Seattle Symphony began the first bars, intentionally redolent of Vere’s music from Billy Budd—a blessing, homage, and a curse on this opera’s characters. In the front yard of a suburban tract house lay a young girl on her back holding her father’s cap, on which could be clearly seen a commander’s insignia. Her mother folded laundry in her room. Her father sat in the kitchen, cutting himself a slice of pie.

An S.O.S. rhythmic tattoo began. It was this particular household’s—and the opera’s—stuttering heartbeat. (I chose it because Father was a radioman and because its underlying message was that, as in my childhood, anxiety underpinned the bourgeois family scene.) I knew that the audience wouldn’t entirely understand until the moment that the mother received the news from the Chaplain that her husband was lost in action what they had been intuiting: what they had thought was the present was the past; the happiness unfolding between father and daughter was a memory. Dodge was not there—he was singing in the past. Amelia’s mother Amanda sang a duet with that past.

I wondered that hay fever had struck this audience as hard as it did. “Those sniffles are not because of allergies, darling: they’re weeping,” Gilda whispered.

The first scene ended and the orchestra segued into the first interlude. A set of variations on the lullaby that Amelia’s father had sung her as a child, the interlude traced her evolution as a person from the age of nine (the point at which she learned of her father’s disappearance) to age 31 (the point at which we meet her in her third trimester of pregnancy).

The curtain rose. Amelia’s dream life counterpointed her waking life. On one side of the stage sat Icarus and Dædalus constructing their wings; on the other side, Amelia and her husband slept. At the end of the scene, her dream shifts to a memory of her mother giving her the news of her father’s disappearance. Amelia leaves, and in her absence, her dreams and memories intermingle. Icarus and Dædalus, prepare to take to the air. “Who invented flying? And why?” asked Amelia’s memory of her mother.

The orchestra joined her on this pitch, because it was in this dark, subconscious place that the second interlude would move and unfold. Then, the curtain, accompanied by a smear of polytonal string chords, rose to reveal Tom Lynch’s set. The Vietnamese couple recounted Dodge’s (final?) moments, which were enacted around them. The loss. As the characters spun out the long moment of discovery with which the scene ends and the orchestra quietly explored the moment, the house was absolutely still. It felt as though the opera house was collapsing in on itself.

“Did you hear that silence?” Speight asked, aglow with satisfaction, during the intermission. “I mean, did you read it? It was incredible.” He sped off to confer with his peers—the general directors of other companies considering productions of their own. Shell-shocked, Gilda and I did a walkabout arm-in-arm through the lobby. Several tearful Vietnam veterans approached, expressed thanks to me for addressing their experiences in the opera. “I’m honored by your reaction,” I responded, hoarsely. The air was earnest. People had been touched.

The second act began. The curtain slid up to reveal a painted sunset nearly identical to the one I had just seen during intermission. Amelia arrived. The action moved through Amelia’s breakdown—the most straightforward story telling in the opera, intended to reassure those theatergoers who had felt set a bit adrift during the first act.

The orchestral interlude exploring her relationship with her father and flight ended. The death of the boy unspooled, the reunion of Amelia and her dead father took place, along with her subsequent reawakening. Cue the interlude tracking Amelia’s labor towards its climax. The orchestra dropped out, the baby emerged, and the final unaccompanied nonette pealed forth. The wave of emotion that swept through the house was like an unexpected spring shower.

I thought of sitting at my mother’s feet as a child, watching her sculpt. I thought of the six things that she had taught me that every worthwhile piece of art required: hard work, love, dedication, discipline, craft, and the revealed secret. I had committed my life to the pursuit of the secret. I had learned that the secret was my Truth. The frog behind Amelia’s back? The final tableau was an exact portrait of the inside of my mind and heart the moment that my son Atticus was born. I had been given the opportunity to share my truth, and to know that for one instant I had gotten “it” exactly right.

The final scene of Amelia as staged at Seattle Opera (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

The final scene of Amelia as staged at Seattle Opera (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Amelia held her baby. Paul held her. Helen wept for joy. Dodge and Amanda (having returned as a couple of middle-aged doctors) cuddled, and then kissed gently on the other side of the stage. The Flier squatted down center, gazed brightly into the night sky. Young Amelia (as a young resident) slept on a bench outside the delivery room. The Young Boy’s Father, holding the little cellophane bag containing the last of his dead son’s possessions, walked slowly toward the exit. Characters slowly exited; like mist rising from the sea, the set flew up and out. As each character parted, I felt as though another of my ghosts, one of my presences, departed. I felt lighter and lighter. By the time the Flier sang Mother’s final words, “I was never bored,” I felt suspended in midair like Icarus before the fall, weightless, a completely “chanceful” thing—.

Amelia (or was it my wife Gilda?) sang to her newborn, “Anything is possible.” That moment was for my elder son. I thought of his wonderful dignity—my son, who had allowed no assaults upon his integrity—had made no concessions of personality except those made through love to his parents. Those concessions remain the ones, solely, which in no way reduce or cheapen the giver. A child can concede through fear (through physical fear of punishment or emotional fear of rejection) and become at last a vicious rebel or a spiritless thing. That perhaps is truly dignity—inviolate integrity of personality that has made concessions only to beloved people, institutions, or principles.

I had not expected that, in summoning all of my spirits to form the finale of the opera as I had, I would also be waking them. I had come to understand that, in the future, they would no longer be available for me to sing for and about, to remember as and when I pleased. I had transformed my sorrow into joy, my Life into Art. I had also learned that telling one’s “truth” is not enough. Living it is what counts.

Amelia has received a number of revivals since its Seattle Opera premiere, notably by the University of Houston and the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. Learn more about the opera here.

Loving and Losing: Composing "Bandanna"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 14 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

Writing a prescription for Prozac in autumn 1997, my therapist at the time described my condition as “clinically depressed.” Years before, just after my mother’s death, I’d also been prescribed pills—even electro-shock therapy (which I had violently opposed) had been discussed. My family’s appetite for mood-altering substances, and my fear that medication would “blunt my compulsion to create” had kept me from filling the prescription.

I was all too aware that, as Julia Kristeva pointed out in Black Sun, “depression is the hidden face of Narcissus” and that Christian theology, in which I had been immersed since childhood, considered sadness a sin. Dante even consigned the melancholic to “the city of grief” in Inferno. “The loss of the mother,” wrote Kristeva, “is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to becoming autonomous. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine-qua-non condition of our individuation, provided that it takes place under optimal circumstances and can be eroticized.”

Came at this time a commission from the College Band Directors National Association (over a hundred colleges ultimately joined the consortium) for a full-length opera on a subject of my choosing (using a librettist of my choice) by way of a phone call from conductor Michael Haithcock.

I chose Othello as my subject matter in order to explore not just the feelings of betrayal and anger that I still felt towards my ex-wife (we had recently terminated a turbulent and nearly entirely disagreeable ten-year marriage) but also the guilt I still felt, and the incomplete mourning in which I felt caught like a fly in a web, as a result of having been called upon by my terminally-ill mother to euthanize her. In other words, I chose to fight my “battle with symbolic collapse” by creating an opera about it.

I decided to recast the Venetian tale of the Moor in a 1968 Texas-Mexico border town. The result was Bandanna, a two act grand opera. The commission required only that I could not use strings (except for basses) in the pit. I asked Paul Muldoon to write the libretto based, as usual, on a detailed co-written treatment in which I determined the exact length of every section of every scene, and mapped out the structural underpinnings of every scene, aria, and ensemble.

I composed the prologue and most of the first scene of the first act at the MacDowell Colony during January 1998 in Chapman Studio, the most remote of the many cabins dotting the property—fully a mile away from Colony Hall. I would have completed the entire first act there but for the fact that there were 26 inches of snow on the ground. For nearly four hours each day, I slogged through the snow in a decidedly non-meditative frame of mind—the walk to and from the payphone, where I was jacking in to check E-mail and to send Muldoon requests for changes, took over an hour each way.

I wrote the balance of the vocal score at home in New York City. Composer Eli Marshall, a former student and friend, stayed with me for much of the time. My work routine consisted of rising at 7 AM, composing until 5 PM, dining at a nearby burrito joint where I spoke Spanish with the waitress, and copying out the fair score in the evening while drinking a bottle of Antinori Chianti. The vocal score was completed in just over four months.

When I co-wrote with Paul the treatment for the last scene of Bandanna I was entirely aware of the agonizing sequence of matricidal, fratricidal, uxoricidal, and suicidal acts that would be ritualistically enacted. Accordingly, in her concluding Willow Aria, the music that Mona sings is written from the point of view that she already knows that she is dead; the strings that accompany her are, throughout the opera, associated with death, inasmuch as they, unlike the wind instruments featured everywhere else in the score, do not breathe.

The transition from Mona’s aria to her murder features three violins, and it tracks Morales as he crosses the stage with excruciating slowness, to her hotel room door. He is Charon, and he is in no hurry. Morales is Orpheus to Mona’s Eurydice. In fact, both Mona and Morales already intuit what must happen and are now just going through the motions: once Morales opens the door, his deputy Cassidy appears. Morales executes his friend. He then turns, as though in a dream, to Mona. He strangles his wife, who does not struggle, with the opera’s eponymous bandanna. Then, without really pausing, except to muse, “Holy Mother of God,” he kills himself by placing his service revolver in his mouth and blowing himself away.

One critic complained later that “the final scene—the climactic murder-suicide—is anguished to a grotesque degree.” If I could have made it even more grotesque, more like a slow-motion nightmare, I would have, so focused was I on capturing my inner state. While composing it, I felt such an intense sense of closure that, at one point, I actually felt as though my mother was standing behind me at the piano, her hand resting on my shoulder. When the chorus crashes in, they sing “Dona nobis pacem” (pun intended: my ex’s name was Donna) to anything but comforting music. The trombones, in fact, are marked, “blaring like the horns of an approaching semi.”

In those days, I used to send a copy of the vocal score of whichever opera I had just finished to Jack Beeson, who would go through it and make marginal comments very lightly in pencil like “You buried a plot point here. This is an intrinsically slow word: why did you set it fast? Courageous! This is the Nieces from Britten’s Grimes! Watch the passaggio!”

Jack, exclusively published by Boosey and Hawkes and ensconced with tenure at Columbia University, was a major behind-the-scenes power broker during the years that I was coming up. I respected his opera Lizzie Borden and particularly liked Hello, Out There, a trenchant one act. Jack’s knack for setting American English in a way that was understandable across the footlights I admired. His operas rarely blossomed into full-fledged song—something I found as a colleague regrettable. Jack, like the many other powerful old guard colleagues I knew then, never did anything for me, and it never occurred to me to ask him to.

During spring 1998, Jack and I played and sang (and argued) our way through Bandanna one afternoon at his spacious Columbia University faculty apartment while his wife Nora kept the tea coming. “You’re going to take a pasting from amateurs for the male ranges,” he predicted. “The men are slung high. I get it: they are all being macho. I know you want them to sound that way. Moreover, I see you are saving up the sound of the female voice for the final scene. However, you are pushing the limits of verismo writing. Maybe too much.”

A page from the Hagen-Muldoon treatment for "Bandanna" with Daron's hand-written notations.

When Jack asked me a few years later to join him as a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera I asked him why. His answer was cheerfully truculent: “Because you’re not one of my former students, threatening to kill yourself if I do not throw a Pulitzer your way. Also, you are sane, you happen to write good operas that get produced and your expertise is required.”

I orchestrated the first act of Bandanna by hand at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts during June 1998. The second act I orchestrated mainly at Yaddo the following month, completing it in New York that July. It is the last of my operas whose full score is still in manuscript form. I switched to engraving all of my own music shortly after the farrago that correcting vocal score proofs of the vocal score for Carl Fischer became—an incompetent engraver whose work was so slipshod and inaccurate that I was forced to work through five sets of proofs had been engaged.

Bandanna’s first staging, which served as the centerpiece of the College Band Directors National Association’s national convention that February was a calamity. Upon arrival I learned that the University of Texas graduate students serving as lighting and set designers were unequal to their tasks. The student singers struggled with the roles. A few days into production, the poor fellow singing Kane simply stopped showing up. I watched, like impotent Madam Racquin, as tempos shifted wildly from rehearsal to rehearsal, student singers made up music as they went along.

I contacted Paul Kreider, with whom I had recently performed, along with Carolann Page, selections from Shining Brow at the Guggenheim Museum at the invitation of House Beautiful magazine. Paul had initiated the Vera of Las Vegas opera commission, written his doctoral dissertation on my songs. He was a fearless performer, and a trusted friend. If he couldn’t save this situation, it couldn’t be saved. Paul flew in, and learned the role of Kane in three days. With relief and gratitude, I paid his fee myself.

The premiere production did not represent the work I created. Its first performance (half a dozen players were for some reason absent from the pit for much of the first act) was greeted with what seemed to me to be defensive, uninformed distaste by most of the conventioneers.

Since the band and opera worlds are mutually contemptuous, the constituencies most inclined to produce Bandanna cancel one another out. As Tim Page wrote, “neither fish nor fowl—as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care, [Bandanna is] a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation.” Catherine Parsonage expands upon this assessment: “[it] is wholly convincing as a modern opera, ranging stylistically from the music theatre of Gershwin, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to traditional mariachi music and contemporary opera of Benjamin Britten. Hagen, who served his apprenticeship on Broadway, acknowledges that holistically the piece falls between opera and music theater. Hagen’s style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work.”

From the start there were also other colleagues who really got it, like Ukrainian-American composer, pianist, and conductor Virko Baley, who had for years conducted the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and was professor of composition at UNLV. A dynamic, thrilling pianist, tough-minded thinker, and musical swashbuckler, Virko and I had had some great adventures together. I admired him: he knew life, and he wasn’t afraid in his music to offend. He had entirely grasped the fact that Bandanna’s score meant to push people’s limits. “These characters are at the end of their shit,” he told me. “They’re in extremis. That’ll make people who like their opera tame uncomfortable. The whole damned score is unsettling. You got what you wanted, baby.”

The partitura from "Bandanna's" Act I, scene 1 "fistfight" sequence.

A few months before the premiere, presenting the great conductor and promoter of the wind ensemble as a performing group Frederick Fennell with a copy of Bandanna, I asked him how he thought the piece would go over in the band world. Eyes twinkling, he told me that he felt that there were three kinds of band conductors: “First, you have what I call the Educators: they teach high school band and play simplified arrangements of pop songs and movie themes. Then there are the Spit and Polish Men: they play marches, and for them music history stalled around the time of Holst. Finally, there are the Maestros: they could have been orchestra conductors but chose to conduct bands because they love them. These men and women are hungry for new repertoire, and can have a better grasp of the symphonic repertoire than their colleagues can in the orchestra world. Almost none of them know anything about opera, my boy, so your opera is doomed.”

The music of Bandanna, to my mind, not only successfully evoked the morally bankrupt world in which it’s Touch of Evil-infused characters lived, but also gave voice to my own inner world at the time: I was an unhappy fellow at the end of his rope, in a dark place, and looking for a way out. Bandanna addressed and expressed what was then my “truth”—that Life was a shadowy, Conradian “horror” glimpsed during flashes of lurid Malcolm Lowry lightning over Cormack McCarthy landscapes. The music was aggressively at odds with the words that it carried much of the time, like a horse that will not be ridden. Even if I removed the band world from the equation by re-arranging it for orchestra in the pit, Bandanna will never find its niche, perhaps because people like categories and the music draws equally from jazz, musical, and operatic idioms.

Thanks to the efforts of Michael Hitchcock, Paul Kreider, Thomas Leslie, and (owner of my former exclusive publisher, E.C. Schirmer) Robert Schuneman, among others, I was able in 2006 to conduct a complete recording of Bandanna (available on the Albany label) that I felt invalidated the criticisms the score had received.

The reception accorded the staged premiere was counterbalanced by the recording’s accolades from major magazines like Opera News and industry experts like Henry Fogel, who understood what Muldoon and I were trying to achieve. “Bandanna,” Fogel wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “is a poignant, dramatic, and moving new opera, one that belongs in the repertoire not because it deals with the politically hot topic of illegal immigration, but because it is powerful music theater.”

Among my operas, Bandanna shall always have been for me that problem child—the one that was too much like me to get perspective on; the one I listen to even now, 20 years later, through rueful tears as it gallops off into its own, self-immolating sunset of love and loss.

Learn more about Bandanna here.

Beauty, Despite All: On the Generosity of Teachers

This essay appeared first in the Huffington Post on 11 August 2016. Click to read it there here.

Wallace Tomchek at the Chicago Hilton, summer 1997. (Photo: Earl Hagen)

Wallace Tomchek at the Chicago Hilton, summer 1997. (Photo: Earl Hagen)

THEME

I was drawn to the piano at the age of seven because my older brother Kevin, whom I idolized, was a gifted pianist. At the beginning of my first lesson, our piano teacher Adam Klescewski sat me down on the piano bench backwards and commanded me to sing an A, which I did. I possessed absolute pitch. I grasped immediately the concept of sharps and flats, and demanded to know what was between the notes. I now retain excellent relative pitch—where did the “perfection” go? I wonder. He taught me the names of the lines and spaces in the treble and bass clefs: “Every Good Boy Does Fine; FACE; Good Boys Do Fine Always; All Cows Eat Grass.”

I didn’t like practicing. (I still don’t.) I began paying my other brother Britt—who ratted me out anyway—a dollar to tell our mother that I had practiced. He’d tell her anyway. Then, he’d say, “No-no-no, this time I promise I won’t tell her you didn’t practice!” So, what began as a bribe turned quickly into extortion. Even early on, Britt had skills. After a few months, the little spinet with the feather-light action lost its appeal. During my final lesson, I noticed digits tattooed on my teacher’s forearm. The same afternoon, I discovered on a very high shelf, along with a lot of other books about the Holocaust, an oversized book of tenebrous, horrifying concentration camp photographs called Despotism. I returned to the book obsessively. That a man who had experience such horror could make such beautiful music, create such beauty, despite all, seemed unimaginable—just impossible to me.

VARIATIONS

Shortly after that, I quit the piano for trumpet. Well, I longed not so much to play the trumpet as to be Herb Alpert. I thought there was no cooler man. Anyway, I at least wanted to be the sort of boy that played the trumpet.

Between gigs, dashing, floridly over-qualified Harry Shoplas taught band at Linfield Elementary School. He played a shiny Selmer trumpet, which he often carried tucked under his arm as he walked the school’s halls, leaving behind him the smell of Aqua Velva and valve oil. The female teachers must have regarded him ravenously. Between classes, he smoked cigarettes in a basement lair that he shared with Norman Cummings, the second-coolest teacher at the school.

Harry sized me up and handed me a euphonium I think because I was overweight and looked like I could lug it back and forth to school. He quickly switched me to alto saxophone—Britt played the baritone saxophone in Harry’s dance band and I aspired to playing with him. I loved the smell of wet reeds, and the taste of the cane, but I could never get the thing to play softly. Our fifth grade band concert closed with a Bert Kämpfert tune called Spanish Eyes, which I recall vividly because it was the last thing I played on the saxophone.

One afternoon, Shoplas took our band to a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert that included the Largo of Antonin Dvořák's Ninth Symphony. Nixon had just won the ’68 election and my favorite toy was a plastic Apollo 7 model. But it wasn’t snowing; it was warm, and raining pitchforks. Small and awestruck in a plush red velvet seat in Uiehlein Concert Hall, I was mesmerized by the conductor, Kenneth Schermerhorn. He cut a strikingly handsome, athletic, charismatic figure, and when he raised his arms it was easy to imagine that he was celebrating the Eucharist. In fact, he radiated the authority of a minister, but his back was to us, and there was a sensuality to his movements when he initiated the glittering array of brass instruments, sumptuous strings, and bird-like woodwinds that stirred me. The concert hall was like a cathedral, the audience like a congregation, and the communion—despite the profane context—spiritual. As Stephen Colburn played the ravishing English horn solo in the Largo of the Dvořák, I felt a lump in my throat, a profound sense of longing, the feeling of being tugged out of myself and suspended in midair. That was the moment, at age seven, that I knew that, no matter what, I would be a composer.

On a September afternoon 35 years later, Kenneth and I lunched before a concert on which he conducted my Much Ado overture with his Nashville Symphony. Did he remember the fan letter from the dazzled child who couldn’t find a word grand enough to describe how moved he had been by the experience? He laughed and said no. I told him what I had written: “Dear Maestro, your performance last week was just superfluous!” He exploded in grainy, rueful laughter, and mused, “How like coming home it feels to finally work together.” “And how ironic, under the circumstances,” I replied, “that the Largo was adapted into a song by Harry Burleigh called Going Home.” “Indeed,” he agreed, smiling. We swapped stories for another hour, laughing until we cried. “I am neither a young nor a healthy man,” he sighed, wiping his eyes, “but I am glad that we are finally sitting together now at this table.”

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that—sitting in Uiehlein Hall trying to decide which of the many instruments on stage I would most like to play—I decided to become a composer first and a performer second. It was because Father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; Mother had by example taught me that Authority could inspire, and therefore last forever. Like Love, Authority must be earned. Every time a new piece of music is read for the first time the composer starts with all of the Power and no Authority. If the music inspires and moves the performers, then the composer’s Authority grows. If it does not, well, as Virgil Thomson once told me, “Don’t worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves.”

I received a lot of encouragement from my grade school teachers. When Jesus Christ Superstar dropped in the States, Kevin bought the LP’s. Mr. Germanson allowed me to play it for the class. When I followed that up by playing the “God Said” trope from Bernstein’s MASS, though, letters from angry parents prompted a telephone call from the principal, Mr. Buege (pronounced “biggy”) to Mother, whom family lore holds told him that it was 1968 and that he had better get hip.

At ten, when the other adolescent Lutheran boys were getting their first frisson from contact with the King James Bible, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principals of Orchestration called out to me at the Brookfield Square Mall Walden Books. I carried it around everywhere the way a gunslinger packs his pistols.

Music was my religion, but I had still to find a proper celebrant. Wallace Tomchek was the first person I met with the requisite charisma. Wally taught chorus and drama at Pilgrim Park Junior High School. A short Jewish homosexual who closely resembled Norman Mailer with curly auburn hair and a slight potbelly, the ferocity of Wally’s passion for—and absolute commitment to—musical excellence was terrifying and irresistible. I loved him for it. When I was 15, He taught me, and accompanied me in performing, the first art song I learned and sang—Norman Dello Joio’s 1948 There is a Lady Sweet and Kind. Wally introduced me to the world in which poetry and music inextricably intertwine.

One afternoon, he called me into his office and commanded me to recite my (then) favorite poem. I launched into James Weldon Johnson’s great narrative poem The Creation. After I had declaimed about ten lines, he cut me off. “Really?” he asked, incredulous. “That’s your favorite poem?” I shrugged. “Well. Okay,” he said. “Now set it to music.” Over the next few months, I made of it an ambitious piece of juvenilia—a 25-minute-long cantata for four soloists, mixed choir, five violins, piano, and large symphonic band.

I began setting poetry to music, grafting my tunes with the poetry I have most loved. My first settings were of poetry by Poe, Whitman, Rossetti, Frost, and Joyce from a Harcourt anthology of British and American poets edited by Louis Untermeyer that I turn to for poems to this day. I have since set over 250 poems short and long, written dozens of works for chorus and multiple voices, and set libretti by Edward Albee, Barbara Grecki, Rob Handel, J.D. McClatchy, Gardner McFall, Paul Muldoon, and myself.

The challenging, college-level choral repertoire Wally taught us was both sophisticated and eclectic—Gesualdo madrigals, slick “swing choir” arrangements of tunes like Johnny Mercer’s Dream in nine part close harmony, and a yearly fully staged musical with orchestra which he designed, directed, rehearsed, and conducted. He also encouraged me to direct: I recall with particular fondness directing, among other things, a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden for him.

I was fifteen when Wally took our class on a field trip to a screening of the movie version of the musical 1776. William Daniels’ portrayal of John Adams—part Orson Welles, part William Shatner—enthralled me. I adopted as my credo an actual Adams quotation: “There are only two creatures of value on the face of the earth: those with the commitment, and those who require the commitment of others.” I solemnly swore to myself that for the rest of my life whatever I lacked in musical talent I would make up for in hard work and commitment.

It being the bicentennial year, Wally mounted a patriotic pageant called Spirit of ’76, “a rock celebration for young Americans,” with music by gospel songwriter Paul Johnson. Our troupe toured around the southern half of Wisconsin, performing it in American Legion halls, high schools, and nursing homes—even the Milwaukee County Mental Health complex. I recall a performance there, gazing out over the audience of six hundred psychiatric patients, gripping my microphone in as close an approximation of Mick Jagger as I was able, and squealing “let freedom ring” in my white polyester pants and bicentennial logo tee shirt. Halfway through my number, careening up the center aisle, arms flapping like the wings of a pelican, a lone patient joined me—delirious, rapturous—in song. He was exquisite, florid, a soaring thing in his own universe. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. As I launched into the chorus, I glanced at Wally, whose arms flapped also like a pelican’s wings in front of the little pit orchestra. At that instant, two orderlies converged on the patient. Every eye onstage and in the audience followed him as he was frog-marched out of the auditorium, ecstatic.

Afterward, Wally drew me aside . “Did you see that?” he exulted, eyes glittering. “Did you?” “How could I miss it?” I answered. Wally continued, ignoring me, “Remember that moment! Look at what he achieved! Think about what you just witnessed, what you—what we all—just went through … together we made that moment! Sure, the stakes change, but the hands don’t! Now that’s live performance!” Whether seated in a Greenwich Village piano bar covering show tunes while coping with “handsy” patrons, putting my own operas over from the piano for wealthy commissioners, being admonished to keep better time by ballet teachers, playing at villas in France and Italy for diplomats and scholars, performing onstage at Curtis or countless other concert halls, accepting the condescension of famous singers with big egos while coaching them, accompanying Gilda in Nicaraguan folk songs on a frail German spinet for a tombola in Nicaragua, or guiding my sons’ small fingers through “Twinkle, Twinkle” at the family piano, Wally’s exhortation has never been far from my mind.

That year Wally raised the money to bring the Florentine Opera’s young artists out to Pilgrim Park Junior High School to perform Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium. It was the first opera I saw live. The performance, the entire student body, was riveting. To this day I remember the haunting refrain, and the music to which it is pinned: “Toby, Toby, are you there?”

The next year, I began putting together a music curriculum myself to run in tandem with my high school classes, enrolling in advanced music theory instruction at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. I was the youngest “adult student” division pupil of Judy Kramer, a no-nonsense, practical musician of great gifts and determination. She assigned Roman Numerals to chords in order to chart harmonic progressions. I bought Arnold Schoenberg ’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition at Schwartz’s second-hand bookshop on Wisconsin Avenue. “Why,” I asked her, “are the numerals Schoenberg assigned sometimes different from Vincent Persichetti’s, or Bruce Benward’s, even though the music is the same?” “Good question,” she replied. “It cuts to the problem with musical analysis.” I sprang the answer I’d formulated the night before: “So you’re saying that music theory is sort of a confidence game. If you can intimidate people into thinking your analysis is correct, then you are correct.” Judy looked out the window and thought a moment before answering. “No theoretical analysis can be empirically proven to be correct except by the terms of the system in which it is defined,” she said slowly. “And, even then, argument is possible.” “So,” I pronounced, gimlet-eyed, with all the grim cynicism I could muster at fifteen, “music theory is people talking about music instead of making it.”

I began composing during classes. (I still dream that I haven’t graduated high school for lack of attendance.) How peculiar I must have seemed, corralling friends after school and asking them to show me how their instruments worked, telling my best-intentioned math teacher (a fascinating man, really, who had taught in Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil) Max Hilmer, that “a composer doesn’t need to be able to do trigonometry” when he wondered how someone who could teach himself FORTRAN and COBOL over the weekend in order to ace a computer science exam could exhibit no interest in (or talent for) higher mathematics.

My good friend (Kay's successor) Phil Olsen sent me this scan of a 1979 arrangement of Carole King's 1971 song "You've Got a Friend" that I did for Kay and the chorus. I had just turned 16. I think I based it on a tremendous arrangement that Kay had a recording of -- was it the Air Force Men's Chorus? Anyway, there are a couple of things about having the music that make me smile now. One is my scrawled admonition at the bottom of the page (I was the pianist) "Watch Hartz!" (see, I WAS watching!) and another is my notation "Piano does anything to D-flat over E-flat" four bars before the end.

I’d become so immersed in composing that even the superb musical standard set by my high school chorus teacher Kay Hartzell seemed too low: I was an obnoxious sixteen-year-old, tending bar at night (I was underage, yes), composing during my classes, still fiercely attached to Wally, watching Kay for the slightest musical infraction. I pushed Kay hard to let me write for the chorus, and was furious when she seemed unmoved by the penciled scores that I tossed at her like a young Berlioz before the academy.

When Judy found out that I was having no success in interesting Kay in trying out my music, she wrote a letter to my high school guidance counselor. It read, in part, “I feel that Daron is receiving negative input, as far as his talents go, at school which is a shame. … It is to the advantage of most musicians to read through different styles of music, in addition to material being prepared for performance, and what could be better than the music of one of their peers?” A few months later, Kay relented, and graciously permitted me to conduct in concert the chorus in one of my early compositions.

The instruction I had been receiving from Judy, coupled with the obsessiveness with which I was composing—typically five or six hours a day—vaulted my composing skills way beyond my keyboard skills. To mend that, I began piano lessons with Duane Dishaw, a sweet-natured young man at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Father ferried me to them, forty minutes in each direction. During my lesson, Father waited for me in a tavern and drank. Duane, like my piano teachers, was impressed by how comfortable I was at the keyboard. What he didn’t know was that this was because, the previous winter, Mother had caused Father to agree that, if I were seated at the little spinet in the front room, I could not be disturbed. I began not just composing and practicing at the piano, but eating and doing my homework there.

Because of my love of voices, words, and drama I was drawn to opera. Then, as now, I sang my vocal music, accompanying myself at the piano. Then, I did it because I sensed that the singer and the song must be one. Now, I do it because I know that melody (and by extension all music, arising as it does from the act of singing) must be created acknowledging the physical effort required to produce it. How a singer feels physically when performing a phrase is a crucial manifestation of how he feels. I considered and failed to adapt Cheever’s short story O City of Broken Dreams as a one-act opera, then began sketching a dramatization of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. I abandoned that in favor of Through the Glass, into which I poured everything I was absorbing by listening obsessively to Kevin’s LP’s of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes, Giacamo Puccini’s Turandot, and Kurt Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny.

I was also composing for orchestra, but I’d never played in one. It was time to change that. Harry Sturm, assistant principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner, was hired by the City of Milwaukee to run something called the Park Promenade Youth Orchestra. I played piano in it that year. He must have liked the rake of my sails, for he took me under his bow, devised for me an introduction to the ways of the orchestra. First, I was to play piano in the ensemble for a concert. Second, I was to station myself in various parts of the ensemble and listen to how they interacted as he conducted rehearsals for another concert. Third, I was to take lessons in the rudiments of conducting from his assistant, Michael Kamenski. Fourth, I was to compose, rehearse, and conduct the premiere of a new composition. The result was Suite for a Lonely City—the piece that Mother sent to Leonard Bernstein that inspired a letter from him that changed my life. In his review of the concert, Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Journal critic then, wrote that I must have felt like Moses atop Mount Pisgah, looking down from the podium into an orchestral Promised Land as I led my fellow teenagers in the premiere. I really did.

A few months after graduating from high school, I proudly accepted my first professional fee as an orchestrator from John-David Anello, the founding conductor of the Milwaukee Pops and the Florentine Opera Company. Anello was one of Father’s clients. I recall vividly his conspicuously large, majestically chiseled head. He had deeply-set eye sockets, thrusting cheek bones, a noble nose, and a very high, broad forehead atop which flowed backwards a leonine mane of hair. His hands were enormous—bony, gnarled joints bulged like rings from his very long fingers. He was so ugly that he was beautiful. Father took me to his gracious home on Milwaukee’s lakefront one evening after one of our rare joint-appearances at a Mensa meeting. He was a true basso profundo, whose velvety voice rolled out like thunder. Really, he was quite grand. He led Father and me into his study and then turned and asked Father to wait in the next room, which I liked. “My boy, I conduct the Milwaukee Symphony in some outdoor concerts each summer for the county—something I call ‘Music Under the Stars’—and I need somebody to arrange a Burt Bacharach tune for one of them. Your dad says that you can do it.” His heavily-lidded eyes met mine: “Can you?” I was thrilled. I still have the municipal pay stub. The same summer Anello also gave me my first professional conducting lessons, and my firstmusic-copying gig—extracting the solo piano part for the Yellow River Concerto. Several decades later, his daughter contacted me, explained that she now conducted the orchestra at my old high school, and commissioned a piece!

CODA

In 1997, the Chicago Opera Theater revived my opera Shining Brow at the 1400 seat Merle Reskin Theater. The Reskin had risen, by way of the Blackstone, from the ashes of the Iroquois Theater, in which 571 lives were lost in a tragic fire in 1903. It was a perfect venue for director Ken Cazan’s revival.

As the opera’s composer, it was indisputably my Green Room, I thought, happy, secure, with my librettist Paul Muldoon at my side. I wore my first tuxedo, picked up from the tailor at Brooks Brothers only hours earlier, and purchased with some of the cash left over from my retirement annuity. I was about to excuse myself in order to attend an alumni event organized by Curtis across the street at the Hilton when my father and Tomchek entered.

My father had driven Wally, the charismatic chorus teacher who first introduced me to music as a religion when I was fifteen years old in 1976, and who I had not seen in two decades, from Milwaukee to Chicago to attend a performance.

“You look like a young Napoleon in that tuxedo,” observed Wally as he hugged me. His snowy white hair and beard, closely cropped, smelled of lavender soap. He wore a baggy blue sweater with coffee cups of various colors embroidered on it. I laughed, asked, “Did Napoleon wear tuxedos?” “It does look good,” admitted Father. “Where did you rent it?”

“Dad,” I said, placing my fingertips to my temples. Wally motioned for me to sit down. I declined, motioning for him to sit down in my place. “Your father Earl dragged me down here,” said Wally, half-serious. “He told me I couldn’t miss a revival of Shining Brow.”

“You know,” I told him, tearing up, “I think of you, Wally, every time the curtain goes up on one of my shows. I think of how you told me that my responsibility was to ‘make beauty, despite all.’ I’ve tried. I’m trying. Thank you for everything that you taught me.” He removed his round, wire-rimmed glasses in order to wipe tears from them. “Well,” he looked away, “you have no idea how proud your Father is of you. You have no idea.”

Wally died a few months later.

Adam, Wally, Kay, Harry Shoplas, Harry Sturm, Judy, Michael, Duane, Maestro Anello, all firmly and with great compassion, laid the foundations for my life as a musician. Looking back now at the age of fifty-four at what they gave me, it takes my breath away: every one of them taught me to create beauty, despite all. 

Being Frank: Composing "Shining Brow"

First published in the Huffington Post on 8 August 2916. Read it there by clicking here.

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon at the time they wrote Shining Brow. (Photo: Jean Hanff Korelitz)

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon at the time they wrote Shining Brow. (Photo: Jean Hanff Korelitz)

In 1989 I  began composing Shining Brow, an opera in two acts and a prologue about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It explored the intersection of Life and Art, self-actuation and selfishness. At the time,  I asked my librettist to make this conundrum one of Wright's foremost concerns. Consequently, our Man asks a question that the actual One may never have asked himself: “Can a man be a faithful husband and father and still remain true to his art?”

My librettist Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Times Literary Supplement described him as “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War.” From 1973 to 1986, he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the BBC. Since 1987, he has lived in the States.

I met Paul at the Saratoga Springs artist retreat Yaddo during summer 1988. He was brilliant, ambitious, quick to skewer pretension, and impatient with mediocrity. Already it was obvious that he had every intention of becoming a celebrity poet. His hair back then looked as though it were trying to escape. He did not speak English; he produced it. You could practically hear him listening to himself as he talked. Paul was and is a virtuoso performer of his own poetry. He could read a list of names, or ingredients, and, through line readings alone, move an audience in any direction he pleased. 

In summer 1989 I received a call on one of the MacDowell Colony pay phones from conductor and artistic director of the Madison Opera Roland Johnson asking whether I might consider composing an opera about Wright. Paul was reading the newspaper a few feet away. Without thinking, I leaned out of the booth and quipped, “Say, Paul, do you want to write an opera?” A beat later, he replied, “Sure.”

When Paul and I began Brow, we first read everything we could lay hands on about Wright. We reconvened a few months later to co-author at Paul's home in Amherst, Massachusetts a filmic treatment consisting of a dozen pages describing what would happen in each scene. 

I then determined how long each scene (and each section of each scene) would last, and the sort of musical form I would use to underpin the action of that scene. Giving the outline to Paul, I asked him to create a number of core images and literary motifs that I could then graft to musical ideas, along with some “parallel” poems for related characters, so that when I shared their music, the words would be easier to adapt. At one point I needed a straightforward hymn, and he responded by creating his beautiful Goethe gloss, Hymn to Nature.

Over the course of eight weeks that winter at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I composed the music for the first act. I wrote the most important sections first, beginning with the last three minutes; then the music that would be associated with the four or five most important dramatic spots (what I call the “emotional nuclear reactors”) in the act; after that, I wrote the connective sections, which could and should be the least musically interesting. Each character existed in a “home” key: Wright in B-flat major; Mamah in E major; Edwin and Sullivan in A minor; Catherine in C major. The lovers’ keys were associated, of course, by the tritone, the “forbidden” interval, and the harmonic fulcrum on which modulation depends.

The most affecting, emotionally expressive tool in an opera composer’s kit is the ability to modulate. Aside from being crucial to maintaining large formal structures, it unlocks “gateways” to new emotional states and signals emotional evolution. I did not really learn how to modulate fluidly until I composed Brow, each of whose characters needed to interact with one another harmonically. I have used the modulatory practices used by Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner in their operas ever since I realized just how eloquent they really are, no matter what the surface style of the piece.

When composing opera, my compositional process has changed little since the early 80s. I retype and reformat the libretto to reflect the underlying musical form in which it will be carried, storyboard it on the wall, and illuminate it with various colored pens and pencils—say, red for one character, blue for another, orange for another; musical / poetic themes and motives that I want to “track” also get colors. Standing before the entire opera tacked up on the wall and dreaming on its entirety is as close as I’m likely ever get to understanding how a painter must feel working on a mural. A real sense of the pallet of ideas at hand is literally rendered in the colors arrayed on the storyboard.

Once the entire opera is “on the wall” I decide what the most important dramatic moments (the “emotional nuclear reactors”) are in each scene; I specify what the climactic moment of the opera is, work downwards in triage fashion to the least important moment. I do not compose “from left to right.” I compose the music for the most important half dozen moments in the opera first. The music for the rest of the piece then spreads outwards from these key moments like concentric ripples.

Paul and I accepted an invitation from Richard (Dick) Carney, Wright protégé and then managing trustee of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, to stay at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a few days. After lunch with members of the Fellowship (during which Wright’s recorded lunchtime conversation from decades previous played on a boom box), Paul and I settled into the little house Wright built for his daughter. The sun set as we traded impressions and prepared for a formal dinner at which I sat beside architect and Wright protégé Wes Peters, with whom I had a long, intense conversation about Wright’s relationship with Olgivanna. “Was Mamah Cheney the love of his life?” I asked Wes. “She must have been,” he replied, “but I can only say that after her death, for the rest of his life, he never allowed her to be discussed in his presence.”

After dinner, Dick and I took a long walk in the desert and discussed the sort of opera I intended to compose. A fatherly bear of a man, he gestured to me to sit down on a boulder with him. Sighing, he said, “Well, Daron, I don’t think any of us here want you to compose a dishonest piece. Mr. Wright could be a bastard. Promise me you’ll try to convey his essential ‘greatness’ along with the rest.” I didn’t tell Dick that anybody who sings is rendered sympathetic. Instead, I shook his hand. “A promise, Dick.” He picked up some dirt and threw it. “Fine. Come and stay with us as long as you want to. Soak up the feel of the place. Make Mister Wright sing. I promise you that we’ll not stand in your way.”

Shortly before Christmas, I finished the vocal score of the first act. I needed a “green light” from the Madison Opera board before beginning the second. The next step was to present it to the commissioners in Madison.

“Just two hours ago,” President Bush began, “allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged.” It was 16 January. The United States had just invaded Iraq. In a huge rehearsal hall customarily used for symphony rehearsals, halfway through playing and singing the first act of Brow for the members of the Taliesin Fellowship and the board of Madison Opera, conductor Roland Johnson asked me to stop at 5:45 so that we could all gather around a portable radio to listen to our President address the nation. “Tonight, as our forces fight, they and their families are in our prayers.”

"Shall we continue this another time?” I asked Ann Stanke. She looked to Dick, who asked me, “Do you have a problem with moving ahead with this presentation?” It seemed absurd to me, under the circumstances, but I needed the money, and would not get paid unless, by pulling off this presentation, I fulfilled the terms of the commissioning contract. “No,” I lied, resuming my seat at the piano and picking up where I had left off.

Dick then pledged that the Fellowship would support my creation of the opera, and Roland “green lit” my moving on to the second act. It was my first taste, at twenty-nine, of what the life of a viable opera composer might be like, and I relished it.

I spent some time at Taliesin, in Spring Green. Edgar Tafel, the best known of Wright’s disciples, decided that he was going to see to it personally that I experienced what it was like “really to live in a Wright House—to duck when you pass through doorways, discover your feet hanging over the bottom of the bed at night, feel the rooms flowing from one to the next in the dark.” He conjured for me the poetry that Wright seems to have been able to spin for clients.  His impersonations of Wright’s speaking voice were—aside from being incredibly funny—crucial to shaping my vocal characterization—particularly Wright’s stilted line readings, and what David Diamond, in a letter to me, described as “…the pontification, the affected dress-ugh-y, like Stieglitz.”

My friend photographer Pedro Guerrero’s reminiscences of Wright’s gentler moments also helped me to firm up the conviction that part of his appeal must have been the ability to project immense vulnerability in private. Dick Carney's descriptions of the tenderness that Wright could display also informed my decision to create the gentle music that underpins Wright’s soliloquies. Dick was a humane and generous man. My treasured former pupil and copyist Christopher Hume had a degenerative spinal condition that required his settling in a town with excellent medical facilities. I suggested Madison. I asked Dick to look out for Chris. He took him under his wing. They remained close for the rest of their lives.

The following autumn, in a tiny efficiency apartment at the corner of Amsterdam and 74th Street just off Verdi Square on Manhattan's Upper West Side, over the course of a few months, I wrote in one long delicious stretch the second act. Darynn Zimmer, the soprano who years later recorded the role of Mona in Bandanna under my baton for Albany records, was kind enough to sing through the role of Mamah for me as I composed it.

Like baseball pitchers, most composers have rituals. Mine consisted then of making my world very small and simple when I was writing so that I could keep all of the various motives and ideas suspended in my mind. My scrupulously maintained routine began with morning coffee and a chocolate chip scone from the Korean Market just below my apartment at 303 Amsterdam while reading the New York Times seated on a particular bench in Strawberry Fields. While composing—for exactly four hours by the stopwatch—I drank two bottles of San Pellegrino. Then I would run around the Central Park reservoir (twice: 3.2 miles), and then drink a bottle of San Pellegrino afterwards while walking home. I’d devour two slices of Freddy and Pepper’s pizza (an excellent joint in the basement which is still in business) sitting in Verdi Square, and then spend the evening making a fair copy of the sketches I had made during the day.

I've written elsewhere about what it was like to consult with Leonard Bernstein while I composed parts of Brow. One example of how he “got” the musical rhetoric of the opera merits repetition, I think. During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the New York, New York rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia.” Bernstein chuckled appreciatively.  “Nice lift,” he said, “very Strauss. But you followed it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s [Ned Rorem] little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. In any event, I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, so you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s Maria. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. Sudden grin: “But he stole it from Aaron!”

The Madison Opera had asked me to suggest a stage director for Brow. I asked Bernstein to suggest one. He suggested Stephen Wadsworth, with whom he had just written an opera called A Quiet Place.

Daron Hagen and Stephen Wadsworth at the premiere of "Amelia" by Seattle Opera in 2010. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Daron Hagen and Stephen Wadsworth at the premiere of "Amelia" by Seattle Opera in 2010. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

“I’ve written an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright,” I told Stephen on the phone. “I’m looking for someone to bring it to life on the stage. Lenny says that you’re that person. Would you like to come over for coffee and talk about it?” I knew that would get his attention.

That April, we sat cross-legged on the floor of my tiny studio more or less under the piano and in front of the six linear feet of opera scores on the bookshelves and began sounding one another out by pulling scores at random from the shelf and discussing them.

It helped that we both had been compelled to figure out how to work with Bernstein—Stephen as collaborator, me as pupil. Stephen could survive (even enjoy) Bernstein's intellectual death marches; I thrived on his musical pop quizzes. We shared an appetite for conversations that functioned on multiple levels.

I know now that our first meeting was typical of Stephen’s special way with everyone—warm, clever, completely at ease, and intellectually competitive. His probing eyes habitually sought out mine; his compassionate face was extraordinarily expressive. His long fingers moved restlessly when he spoke. I found charming his ability to italicize what he was saying by giving you a hard, quick stare, and then releasing you. He was fun.

At first, it was the confidence and maturity of his opinions as we stuck our thumbs into scores and played “what’s the most important moment in this scene” that impressed me most. In time, as we grew to know one another better, I realized that what I had interpreted as competitiveness was instead an urgent desire to understand: if an idea intrigued him, he reflexively craved an explanation.

The talents that have served him so well in his illustrious career were already in full play as, over the course of six very long work sessions at the apartment in the Village he shared with baritone Kurt Ollmann, I played and sang through Brow’s score. I was defensive, and needed to be “sold” on every one of the dozen or so alterations to words and music (I had to my mind “finished” the score months previously) that he suggested. I’m not certain now why I fought him so hard—especially since I knew even then that his criticisms were always spot on. Possibly, it was because I wanted to see just how right he thought he was.

For the workshop, the cast and company of Brow gathered at the Bernstein family’s apartment at the Dakota to give for Madison Opera’s donors and staff a workshop performance (piano and two dozen singers) of the complete score. Ann Stanke, The company's founde and the driving force behind the commission, worked the room as Roland powwowed with the singers.

At my suggestion, the company had capitalized upon the New York press’ interest in visiting the apartment one more time to fill the room with eyes and ears (particularly the national press) that might not otherwise have had any interest in a commission, however laudable, of an unknown composer by a small Midwestern company.

The boundary between life and death blurred in a familiar—even comforting—fashion as I listened to the music I had provided for the character of Wright—consciously referring as it did to Bernstein’s music at key points—was performed in Bernstein’s home. It had been impossible, strolling around Taliesin with Dick (like me, an insomniac) in the wee hours, not to feel Wright’s presence. It had been impossible at Yaddo not to feel the Trask family’s. It had been impossible to walk through the Common Room at the Curtis Institute as a student without feeling the benevolent spirit of Mary Louise Curtis Bok. And it still felt, at the Dakota, as though Bernstein slouched still in the chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Everyone involved with the April 1993 opening night of Brow knew that it was going to be a success. 25 years and 7 operas later, I now am acutely aware of how rare that is. That night, at “the rail” of the house, behind the audience, where authors traditionally are allowed to pace, fret, enjoy, and suffer, performances of their work, with Stephen, as the tragic ending of Madison Opera’s première production unfolded.

Stephen said, “Look!” “Eh?” I said. “Look at them,” he said, sweeping a hand over the audience, who were experiencing the last few minutes of the opera. “They’re all weeping.”

“Yes, that’s where we want them,” I said. “No,” he said. “That’s where they want to be. You did it. I did it. Paul did it. The performers did it. Communion. We all did it. Together.”

The next morning a telegram from Ned arrived at my hotel, saying, “I always said that you would arrive at twenty.” The reviews were strong, and the consensus was that my career had begun.

"Can a man be a faithful husband and father and still be true to his Art?” In the years since I've come to my own conclusion about the Life vs Art paradigm. Art is to my Life as the MacGuffin is to a Hitchcock movie. While I have become music, my family is my Life. So much so, that I've experienced a parting of ways with most of my colleagues who’ve concluded otherwise. Perhaps Wright came to that conclusion sometime after the point at which our opera left him, pledging to rebuild Taliesin in Mamah Cheney’s memory. Perhaps not. In the long run, it shall probably only have mattered  to the people he loved and who loved him. 

Remembering Gian Carlo Menotti on His 105th Birthday

This essay is reprinted from the Huffington Post, which published it on 7 July 2016. You can read it there by clicking here.

The Curtis Institute of Music, where Gian Carlo Menotti met Samuel Barber, ultimately joined the faculty, and where Daron Hagen went to school.

The Curtis Institute of Music, where Gian Carlo Menotti met Samuel Barber, ultimately joined the faculty, and where Daron Hagen went to school.

Today would have been American composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s 105th birthday. His operas were awarded not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes—the first for The Consuland the second for The Saint of Bleecker Street—in the 50s, when the award meant very different things than it does today. An Italian by birth who, despite retaining his Italian citizenship, proudly referred to himself as an American composer, he wrote for NBC the infectious Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, along with two-dozen other operas.

The attitude most “serious” musicians have towards Menotti’s music is neatly summed up by an exchange I spotted on a colleague’s Facebook wall this morning: “You’ve never seen my eyes roll more than when I had to, under contract, conduct that miserable Amahl,” wrote one person. The next comment in the thread offered a very, very dry response: “Well, Amahl is, for better or worse, in the repertoire, and you were paid, weren’t you?”

The Medium was the first opera I saw live. Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera sent its young artists out in a touring production to junior high schools. It was evident to me even at the age of fifteen that the money had been drummed up to bring them by my fearsome chorus teacher and guru, Wally Tomchek. The performance, on the school stage before the entire student body, was riveting. To this day I remember the haunting refrain, and the music to which it is pinned: “Toby, Toby, are you there?” A composer who can manage that feat deserves complete respect.

In fall 1981, fresh from Wisconsin, I began the happiest six months of my youth. My elation, following acceptance to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music to study composition with Ned Rorem, was generated by the wild knowledge that my childhood dreams were in fact coming true, that the sky was the limit. I possessed the nascent understanding that, with unstinting hard work and commitment, anything was possible. It was incredible; an Icarus-like high that, being my father’s son, carried with it a specific sort of dread that the bottom was going to fall out, and that everything would turn to bad—which it did, twelve months later, when I cradled my mother’s head in my arms as she succumbed to cancer.

That winter, Curtis invited Gian Carlo Menotti to come for a few weeks. During his time in Philadelphia, he coached performances of his music, attended a concert of his orchestral works (including the hauntingly beautiful ballet score Sebastian), and gave my best friend Norman Stumpf, me, and Robert Convery composition lessons. Norman and I took Gian Carlo to lunch at the once magnificent, still dustily opulent Barclay Hotel, then home to Philadelphia Orchestra music director Eugene Ormandy and his wife. The almond-mauve, curtained dining room was appointed like an interior from Visconti’s film of Death in Venice crossed with the funeral parlor in Tony Richardson’s film of The Loved One. “So what would you like to know?” Gian Carlo Menotti asked, taking a seat and wiping his lips delicately with a napkin.

“Opera,” Norman said, “we’ve got to talk about opera.” “Right,” I agreed. “Why don’t we talk about la parola scenica?” I asked. “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.” 

Dessert demolished, coffee drunk, Gian Carlo called for fruit. Eyes twinkling, he said, “Boys, I know that you invited me to lunch. But this is my hotel, and I have already told them to charge it to my room.” He raised his hand peremptorily. “Don’t spend your money on an old man; spend it on something fun.”

After making us promise to remain in touch, he rose gracefully from his chair and glided out of the dining room. Deprived of his gravity and glamour, we felt like men in a lingerie shop, surrounded by elderly Ladies Who Lunch poking at their salads and stout executives tucking into their steaks. I slipped a pear into my jacket pocket on our way out. Walking down Locust Street, Norman and I were pleased to have unanticipated mad money in our pockets.

Literally skipping down the sidewalk, I began, “I feel…” and Norman continued, “…As though the world…” patting first his tummy and then his wallet. “…Is our Oistrakh,” I completed.

Five years later, in lieu of enrolling in Arnold Arnstein’s hand music copying course at Juilliard (on to which I had moved after graduating from Curtis), I agreed to join his team of union copyists in preparing the performance parts for Gian Carlo’s Goya —his final, giovane scuola-style opera and, in the event, a star vehicle for the great tenor Placido Domingo. It was a harried, hair-raising project: music sometimes arrived from Gian Carlo on the day that a scene was scheduled for rehearsal. In November I travelled to Washington to attend the world premiere.

Scarcely a soul argues that most of Menotti’s later musical work (his libretto for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is the equal of Onegin’s, in my opinion) was substandard, but New York Times music critic Donal Henahan’s astonishing cruelty in describing Goya as “a rather stupefying exercise in banality ... a parody of a Menotti opera” was, even then, so brutal that it shocked people. At the time, I found the review (slipping the word “rather” in like a shiv before the word “stupefying,” as though Menotti had failed even at being entirely stupefying) insolent. But I was still too young to understand how profoundly disrespectful Henahan was being, and how wounded to the core—after two-dozen operas and a lifetime of service to his art—Gian Carlo really was.

The pain in his voice on the telephone when I reached him at his hotel the morning it ran in the newspaper was heartbreaking. “He’s just a critic. You’re Gian Carlo Menotti,” I sputtered uselessly, unable to believe that somebody who had accomplished so much could be so hurt by someone whose opinion mattered so little in the end. I realized during the next three or four beats of silence on the line that I had overstepped. What did I know about life at his age, his level of achievement? What did I know about his art, his soul, really? Nothing. I was twenty-five and had accomplished little; he was seventy-five, had founded two music festivals, written two-dozen operas, and won two Pulitzer prizes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know that what I say doesn’t matter.” “Ah, caro, someday you’ll understand,” Gian Carlo sighed.

Thirty-five years later, I do.

 

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/rememb...

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 2 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

My mother, Gwen Hagen, in the 1940s.

My mother, Gwen Hagen, in the 1940s.

“Where,” asked the elegantly dressed matron of about 80 yesterday in Virginia, “do you get your ideas?” At my side, soprano Caroline Worra and pianist Tracy Cowden, the artists whose performance had just brought my brand new song cycle so vividly to life, smiled. Post-concert reception in full swing, together we enjoyed the pleasant canapé, cabernet, and camaraderie. I squeezed the stem of my wine glass a little more tightly and thought of a small terracotta sculpture of me that my mother created during the summer of my ninth year.

Forty years after it was created, atop the bookshelf of the Manhattan bedroom that my sons share, the sculpture sits. There’s a mischievous smile on the boy’s face. He has a secret — a merry one — and he looks as though there is nothing he’d like more than to share it.

I remembered Mother, smoking Pall Malls, and fashioning the gritty clay on the back porch of our rural Wisconsin home. I recalled seeing my form slowly take shape beneath her expressive hands. I remembered the shrill metallic burr of the dog-day cicadas mingling with the purling of Paganini Violin Concertos — to which we listened, Mother having been a violinist well into her teens — one after another, as she worked on the statue for the entirety of that idyllic summer.

When my buddies swung by and asked me to evacuate the back porch for the woods so that we could play Last of the Mohicans, or Star Trek, or Rat Patrol in the woods, Mother said, “Listen, go ahead if you like. But if you want it to look like you, you have to stick with it; don’t be surprised if it starts looking a lot like your brother Britt.”

At one point, while modeling the feet, she simply sliced them off with a bit of cutting wire and dumped them into the clay pail. I fished them out, saying, “They look fine to me.” “Yes, they’re okay,” she replied, “but they’re not your feet.” “But nobody will know that except us,” I protested. “But we’ll know,” she sighed. “Where’s the satisfaction in not getting it exactly right?”

She draped a wet cloth over the statue, and for the next few days executed sketch after sketch of first her own feet, and then mine: “I’ve got to freshen up my skills so that I can understand what a foot really looks like,” she explained. Resuming her sculpting, she was happier with the results: “Let’s roll up your pants a bit, like Tom Sawyer,” she said. “Now that I’ve captured your feet, I want people to see them.”

As far as I was concerned, we were done. There was more: “Inspiration is the secret,” she whispered. “Otherwise, this will just be a statue of a little smiling boy. What do you want your secret to be?” I was a serious child. “How can a statue have a secret?” I asked. She didn’t answer. “I could be hiding something behind my back,” I ventured. “Good,” she laughed. “Don’t peek; I’ll put something in your hands behind your back when we’re done working on the front.” 

In due course, the piece was finished and fired; when we picked it up at the kiln, I learned the boy’s secret: he was clasping an enormous toad. I also learned that all good works of art require six ingredients: hard work, love, dedication, discipline, craft, and a revealed secret. 

I smiled at the woman, relaxed my grip on the stem of my wine glass, and began to try to answer the question I had been asked. I began by asking myself where my mother had gotten her ideas. Where? Well, she shaped my image because she needed a subject, she loved me, and because I was available. And, to this day, that’s where I get my ideas, too.

The statue by Gwen Hagen described in this essay.

The statue by Gwen Hagen described in this essay.

On Marc Blitzstein

This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post under the title "Obsessed: Marc Blitzstein" on 14 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein’s music is not exactly an obsession of mine, but I do find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA — strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension — are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start.

Marc’s music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock — an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where — in order to evade union restrictions — they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.

To some, Marc’s signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop’s billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein’s example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.

# # #

One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a revue he was concocting. My introduction to Marc’s music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein’s Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein’s fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.

Odd it was, only a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem’s at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else’s — Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was “the real thing,” and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that’s another story) to study with another of Marc’s close friends, David Diamond.

# # #

John Houseman tells the story of opening night of The Cradle Will Rock.

John Houseman’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened — Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. “You captured lightning in a bottle, didn’t you?” I enthused. “Yes, my boy,” he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, “I’m acutely aware of that.” I laughed. He was disarmed. “You look like Blitzstein,” he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. “He ended badly.” I waited. Beat. “Yes, I know,” I said, “I’m a composer.” He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: “Dear God,” he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. “What does one do with a composer?” I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. “Not at all,” he said. “Good luck.” He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. “You’ll need it.”

# # #

Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky’s home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc’s style and a discussion about Blitzstein’s music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc’s car after he died. I told him I’d love to have a try, but couldn’t afford to do it for no fee.

A few days later, at Bernstein’s behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.

My instinct was that, as I did when offered by Ellis Freedman and Sylvia Goldstein a job as Aaron Copland’s final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others’. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.

Having my hands on Blitzstein’s sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.

That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc’s Piano Sonata, which hadn’t been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.

# # #

During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti,I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d amble over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.

“Okay, baby,” he’d begin. “Try this.” He would “put over” a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he’d stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the sketch, find something, and say, “Or you could have used this from before, like this.” He’d play a few bars.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” he’d think out loud. I’d improvise a different line reading. “No, no, you can’t do that!” he would laugh, “Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?” He’d noodle a few bars. “No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God.” (Laughter.)

During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the “New York, New York” rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia,” “Nice lift,” he said, “very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s Maria. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. “But he stole it from Aaron!” (Generous, warm laughter.)

It still felt, a few years later, at the family’s Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein’s death), as though he slouched in the low chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

# # #

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

“Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there,” said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.

Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone’s astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt’s collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.

That day, however, David’s observation was piercingly clear: “Marc cared,” he whispered urgently. “When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny’s Trouble in Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?” (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest.

It was the spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.

 

Confessions of a Teamster Monk

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 13 November 2014. Click here to read it there.

Daron Hagen copying the full score of his opera "Bandanna" in Milwaukee in winter, 1998. (Photo: Ryan Hagen)

Daron Hagen copying the full score of his opera "Bandanna" in Milwaukee in winter, 1998. (Photo: Ryan Hagen)

The Gospels were copied by hand. Every scroll in the Library of Alexandria was. The knowledge that survived the Dark Ages did so in manuscripts that were hand copied, mainly by monks. Came the revolution in the 1450s: moveable type (placed by hand) and the printing press. Gutenberg’s Bible changed everything. Shakespeare corrected galleys or proofs. The next revolution: the linotype machine, which made it possible to type words onto slugs of hot lead, a technology that originated in in the late 19th century and persisted until the 1970s. Came the computer....

Music was also copied by hand. In the late 15th century, “plate engraving” (carving the music, with a variety of metal styluses, into sheets of soft lead) became the preferred method for published scores, and it remained so until the early 1980s.

As late as the ‘80s, EC Schirmer sent my first published compositions to Korea, where non-English speakers engraved them on lead plates. Correcting proofs could be hilarious. A composer had to know all of the standard proofreading symbols back then if they were published by, or worked for, a music publisher. Sometimes, the red ink of corrections covered more of the page than the black ink of the music. “Rivers of blood,” we used to call proof sheets.

When an orchestra performs, each player reads a score that includes only his “part.” The only person on stage who sees what everyone is playing at the same time is the conductor; he reads what is called a “partitura” — Italian for score. From the beginning, the parts had to be “extracted” from the partitura by hand. This was an expensive, labor-intensive process that required a high level of expertise on the part of the copyist. Unless a piece was