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...

Farewell to Little Pete's

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

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)

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, 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. 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 Jacobsen 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.”

 

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 wildly popular, these parts, until as late as the early ‘90s, were still copied by hand.

Computer software “engraving programs” like Score, Finale and Sibelius have now rendered mine the last generation of American concert music and opera composers who shall have had the opportunity to serve our musical apprenticeships in the ancient, traditional, and I think honorable manner of extracting, by hand, using quills, India ink, and vellum, the individual parts from whence the musicians play. 

Every musician should do it once. It is possible to copy music mechanically, without really engaging intellectually — sort of like driving while having a conversation. Sometimes I did marathon jobs during which I would listen to every Mahler symphony in order, go back, and begin again. But, if one is really engaged during the process of copying another composer’s parts, one is actually “playing” the composer’s process the way a pianist “plays” a composer pianist’s piece — your brain and fingers are going through the same motions that the composer’s did when he wrote it. Several of my employers’ styles and methods grew so familiar to me during those years that I blush to admit that I could still probably compose something in their style that would be pretty hard to spot as ghostwriting.

The money was good, the work was always interesting; and there is absolutely no substitute for learning a piece by another composer from the inside out by extracting all the parts by hand.

We professional music copyists during the 80s were like monks — only we were teamsters, too. Seriously — we were. (I still have my old union card.) We were a band of brothers who would run into one another at Associated Music just south of Columbus Circle when we stuck our heads out to pick up supplies, meet with our clients, share “secret saves” and anecdotes from the trenches.

###

I recall a lesson (on the down-low, as I was a pupil of David Diamond’s, who would have been livid with me had he found out) in 1986 with Vincent Persichetti. His bird-like eyes shone as he spoke; his sentences came out in staccato, conspiratorial bursts. The score of my first symphony was spread out before him on the table that separated us. His cigarette smoldered, forgotten, between his fingers; the long, drooping ash hanging from the business end was on the verge of falling off.

“Golly, you’ve got a handsome hand, Daron,” Vincent said, paging through my score one last time. He got to the point: “Arnie tells me you won’t take his class.”

Arnold Arnstein, appreciated and respected by an entire generation of American composers, including Bernstein, Harris, Schuman, Barber, Piston, Persichetti, and Diamond, among others, was generally believed to be the finest living American music copyist. He really was. Years of the work had destroyed his eyes, which were reamed in red and watery, hugely enlarged by the thick glasses he wore.

Arnie taught a class in music copying at Juilliard that all of us composers were required to take. I had been working already for five years as a professional copyist, and had some pretty heavy clients, including Diamond (a sadistic employer), George Perle, Ned Rorem (an excellent, patient employer who — without telling me — customarily paid other copyists more than me), and others, and so I had figured, with casual ignorance, that I should be exempted from attendance.

“We’ve got to figure out some sort of way to work this out, Daron,” said Vincent. “Arnie’s a great copyist, y’know; he could teach you a lot.” He shot me a quick, inquiring look. “But, but,” he not so much stuttered as drew quick gulps of air, “y’know, if you weren’t so talented, I’d say, uh, sure, y’know, go ahead, take these copying jobs. But, I think you’ve gotta not do that. Um, do anything, uh, be a garbage man; just stop copying other people’s music for them.”

“But I need the money,” I replied.

The cigarette ash fell on my score, as I had feared it would. “Yeah, I know. Oops,” he said, brushing off the ash, “Sorry.” A quick, sweet smile, “Plus, you get half the money up front and all that; then you have to work it off,” he sighed, looked at the floor. “Well. Maybe I could ask Arnie to put you on his crew for this Menotti opera he’s copying right now. I hear it’s pretty wildly behind schedule and he needs extra guys. Then you could learn from him, y’see, get paid at the same time, and not have to take his class. How about that?”

I never took Arnie’s class, but I know that I should have. Despite Vincent’s advice, I went on to serve as a copyist, proofreader, or editor on hundreds of projects over the next fifteen years. Sometimes I hear a piece of music on the radio I’ve never “heard” before and realize that I copied the original set of parts for it during my salad days. It is even stranger to attend a rehearsal of one of my pieces and see yellowed, dog-eared, old rental library parts on the players’ stands next to mine for someone else’s piece that I don’t even remember having copied.

###

Copying the score of "Sappho Songs" at Bellagio in 2004. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Copying the score of "Sappho Songs" at Bellagio in 2004. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

I haven’t copied anyone else’s music for about fifteen years, now. I don’t regret having done it, though. I learned humility at the back of colleagues’ hands as a copyist, and I learned the hard way that printed music serves as an imperfect mirror through which the performer steps in order to enter the world of the piece itself. The performer turns around and faces outwards, from whence he came, and performs what he has discovered for those of us listening on the other side of the bars, the other side of the mirror. I am amazed that anything comprehensible, let alone moving, results.

Measures, bars of music, attempt to cage the bird of song in an effort to preserve it, just as mad King George attempted to rescue his sanity by placing himself in his doctor’s care. 

I found then and still find the transaction between composer, performer and audience that musical notation hopes to enable enormously puzzling. It is the reaching without end for the elusive note just barely heard in one’s imagination and just beyond the grasp of one’s conscious mind, what Schreker called Der Ferne Klang, Mahler Das Lied von der Erde, that is to me endlessly enthralling.

After all, music, an abstract art, doesn’t in itself mean anything; a composer can attempt to create through notation a psychological context in which the performer sings, but the resulting song in performance is as much the performer’s creation as the composer’s.

Music streams endlessly whether we are aware of it or not. It is a manifestation of the “world without end” described in Ephesians. In sadness, a composer comes to understand that as surely as the scorpion in the parable is compelled by his nature to sting the frog and drown them both while fording the stream, a composer must attempt to notate what he hears, and by so doing, clip his songs’ wings.

Even for Charlie Parker, the Bird himself, the chart was a cage; inspiration during performance was the key. The key.

Stands a Boxer

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 6 August 2015. Click here to read it there.

Daron Hagen and Laura Jackson discussing the "Sky Interludes from Amelia" at the Wintergreen Festival in August 2015. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron Hagen and Laura Jackson discussing the "Sky Interludes from Amelia" at the Wintergreen Festival in August 2015. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

As conductor Laura Jackson conducted the Wintergreen Music Festival Orchestra the other night in the “Three Sky Interludes” from Amelia, my 2010 opera for the Seattle Opera, there were several times when she cued the players with what shall have been for a boxer a lethal uppercut. Wiry, and as precise in her movements as a boxer, she was as accurate as a surgeon; the musicians under her baton responded with enthusiasm to her beat’s clear precision. Wielding the baton sometimes like a rapier before the massive sound that I had called for, and sometimes like a matador’s cape, she coordinated and shaped the combined efforts of an all-star orchestra comprised of professionals from orchestras all over the country. She did it on 36 hours’ notice, at fellow conductor and festival artistic director Erin Freeman’s invitation, filling in for a conductor unable to appear.

When the players then went into the ring with the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, I felt as though my heart would break. The terror of those opening bars, the music sounding so like fists crashing on a closed door, visceral in the extreme; my seven year old son, attentive, tucked under my arm, had never heard the piece before. His eyes shon as he whispered to me, “Papa, did you write that?” Beethoven wrote it, I told him. He’d been brought back to life by the men and women we had gotten to know and make music with during the past two weeks at the music festival. “Why?” asked my son. He wants to talk to us, I replied. He wants us to share his feelings, the things that were best about him. Listen, I told him, and, if you’re ready to hear what Beethoven has to say, you’ll hear him. 

I blame the whole “Artist as Hero” trope on the writers like Romaine Rolland who fashioned Beethoven into the Pugilist shaking his fist at Destiny many imagine him today as having been. Poor composer Anton Rubinstein, who had the bad luck to follow Beethoven by only half a generation, and who is said to have physically resembled him. Comparisons were inevitable. Every composer since has been saddled with comparison to the Great Fighter.

At this point in my life as an American composer of concert music and opera, I feel as though I’ve gone more rounds than I can or want to remember. An entirely new generation of sparring partners surrounds me — new arts administrators who were in grade school when I had my first bout with the Philadelphia Orchestra; punch-drunk mid-career composer and performer colleagues whose fists are still moving as they take blow after blow from a culture that seems no longer to value what they do; young composers to whom history is irrelevant and the idea of being a gladiator for one’s art narcissistic or naïve. 

Walk away, I tell myself, when another board knocks down or guts an opera company or orchestra because a new business model (usually something better suited to commercial art or manufacturing, and always about goosing the box office and paying artists less) is needed. And then I hear Beethoven lay it down with any number of his pieces and, shamed, I get back in the ring. Knocked down by the simple facts of life of the contemporary music world, I’ll read about a foundation that has decided to pour millions into reviving opera as an art form, and I’m not so much given hope as given a kick in the behind. I get up. I think about the people who buy tickets to concerts, or help support their local performing organizations. Acknowledging the hubris and futility of assuming even the stance, I begin another piece.

I’m too old now, I’ve got too much invested, have gone too many rounds, to walk away. Of course there is tenderness, and there is solace, and communion, in art; but the ones who make it are assumed too often, it seems to me, to be “playing,” to not be serious, to not understand business, to be overgrown children in need of handling. If only we’d gotten real jobs. 

It is regrettable that so many smart critics and composers elected at some point to adopt the defensive, (even passive) artistic stance that meandering note spinning is aesthetically superior to writing soulful melodic lines. Maybe the whole extended metaphor occurred to me just now because to my left at the concert sat the dozen young composers who had come to study with me this summer. I observed them as my piece unfolded; I watched them thrill to Beethoven’s stirring soul, summoned up for us by the conductor and orchestra. I thought about how I must seem to them (I don’t teach; I’m a full-time composer — a concept completely alien to them) when I talk about the struggle during the 80s between composer practitioners of Modernism, Minimalism, Romanticism, and Post-Modernism. “Do you fight about the future of music?” I asked them, realizing that they, by and large, actually don’t. 

The fight, in any event, should never have been about style. What were we doing back then, fighting with each other as the audience listened in, bewildered? And it should go without saying that the fight should never have been taken to the audience. The fight was and remains a struggle simply to survive, to make art while raising kids, paying mortgages, caring for elders.

This summer’s dozen young composers have not yet entered the ring. They’re free. To them, all art is equal. I spent my time with them trying to give them the skills they’ll need to stay that way. Keep swinging, I tell them. As it turns out, my pep talk is premature. They haven’t yet begun to take a beating. I’m afraid they’ll have to learn for themselves that making Art is not about fighting to live an Examined Life; it’s about fighting to survive. Making art is not a competition between artists, but our culture loves to celebrate winners, and where there are winners there are the others. Being told you’re a loser by your culture is a blow, whether it is true or not. Surviving as an artist shouldn’t be an exercise in taking it on the chin, but it is.

Stands a boxer.

Nicaragua: Barb of Sorrow

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 9 March 2015. Click here to read it there.

Basílica Menor de San Sebastián, Diriamba, Nicaragua, March 2005. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Basílica Menor de San Sebastián, Diriamba, Nicaragua, March 2005. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

It was March 2005, and I was clinging to a rope in the belfry of the Basílica Menor de San Sebastián, Diriamba, Nicaragua. I looked down to see the Christ hanging above the altar, hands and feet nailed with barbs of sorrow to the Holy Rood. Flying a dozen feet upwards, drowning in the sound of the singing, of the bells, of the blood pounding in my head, I looked down to see waves of people reaching up to touch the saints as they passed in the plaza. I looked up to see the huge clappers inside the bells, felt weightless, and then, hurtling downwards, saw the lines of bullet holes pocking the belfry’s inner walls.

Latin America is a bloody clot of Life and Death, Good and Evil, Wealth and Extreme Poverty, Man and God. For me, this inspires a heightened awareness of possibility, an intensification of experience that renders emotions more vivid, the appreciation of the fragility of life more sanguine.

Nicaragua — the birthplace of my wife’s mother — is a place for which I have profound affection, and to which I return as often as possible. Our winter 2006 visit coincided with the weeklong festival of San Sebastian. During the previous week, we had enjoyed a horse-drawn coach ride around the colonial city of Granada — a town that has been dressed for wealthy travelers — and boated on the fresh water of Lake Nicaragua — a lake so large that you could drop Puerto Rico into it. We trekked up the paths surrounding the active cone of the Masaya Volcano, made our way through the bustling markets of Masaya and Jinotepe, and spent our last morning in La Boquita on a ten mile walk on the beach to the shore’s point (which revealed another point beyond that) at dawn. All the while, we were treated to incredibly lavish and sumptuous meals prepared by our Tia Leyla as well as delicious foods in fine Nicaraguan restaurants. We were treated so wonderfully that our hearts were bursting.

Either it was a discarded bone needle of the sort used by fishermen to repair their nets, or it was a stingray’s barb, a rusty nail — whatever, the four inch long espina passed through my wife’s foot like a red hot knitting needle through butter when she stepped on it in the Pacific surf.

The patriarch of the family there, Tio Ricardo, is one of the foremost horse trainers in Latin America. The horse is central to society there not just as a beast of burden, but also as a mark of culture and prestige. One day we attended the Ipica — a huge equestrian festival — in Diriamba where $100 workhorses were ridden proudly next to $150,000 show horses. Because of his personal charisma, character, and his talent as a horseman, Ricardo seems to know and be respected by everyone — from the peasant driving his burrow down the street to the President of the country, Enrique Bolaños, to whom we were introduced at one of the house parties that Tio and Tia brought us to during the festival. We were honored that the president took time not only to meet us, but also to have an actual conversation with each of us.

She turned chalk white, one foot out of the water, the other in. “Don’t move, I said.” “I don’t know what it is,” she said. The pain moved across her face like a shadow. I bent down in the waves and felt for her foot as, reflexively, she lifted it.

The festival of San Sebastian celebrates the meeting of the patron saints of Diriamba (San Sebastian), Jinotepe (Santiago), and San Marcos (San Marco). Evidently, statues of San Sebastian and Santiago were en route from Spain when the boat carrying them capsized. Fishermen then found the statues floating in the ocean, dry and safe in sealed boxes, as close to each of their intended destinations as they could have been. The folklore surrounding them is that, with this history, they must be traveling companions, and very close friends. Each year San Sebastian invites both Santiago and San Marcos, as he is from another nearby town, to celebrate with him in Diriamba. 

Blood poured out of both the top and the bottom of my wife’s foot and into the water, on my hands, all over her suit. I checked the entry and exit wounds. Clean. I tore my shirt off and bound her foot. It stanched nothing. “I’ve got to get you to the house. Don’t look at the blood,” I said, trying to tie the shirt more tightly.

Faithful from each town carry the statues from Diriamba, Jinotepe, and San Marcos to Dolores, a town in the middle of all three Saints’ homes, where the three meet and then parade back to Diriamba. A huge Mass is celebrated in the basilica there and everyone processes, carrying the saints’ statues, accompanied by extravagant, beautiful dances and music. Children as young as four years old — dressed up in elaborate costumes — throw themselves into the moment. Faithful of all ages walk on their knees to fulfill promises to the saints. The incredible smells of fresh — and delicious — festival foods like picadillo, chicharrón, yuka, and nacatameles as well as of horses, people and the spent gunpowder of fireworks — all overwhelm.

“I’m okay,” she protested. “I can walk.” Putting weight on the foot, she nearly passed out. I looked back at the house, across a finger of water and far up the beach. There was no one for three hundred yards in any direction. “I’m going to ferry you, baby,” I said.

We attended Mass in the loft above the front door of the basilica with several priests, and five or six members of the family, leaning over the rail and looking down towards the altar. People were packed tightly in. A choir sang. Everyone sang. At the customary moments in the Mass, probably three thousand voices inside the basilica, another several thousand outside in the square, sang

“Sit down, brother,” said my wife’s brother Christopher, as I placed her in the chair on the porch of the little bungalow and he took over. The blood had by that time soaked everything we had on. ‘You look like you’re going to pass out,” he said, grabbing my arm. “You should sit down.” My tailbone connected with the ground as I nearly fainted from the sprint up the beach.

To say nothing of what you lose, lose, lose, are losing, man. You fool, you stupid fool ... You’ve even been insulated from the responsibility of genuine suffering ... Even the suffering you do endure is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious. It lacks the very basis you require of it for its tragic nature. You deceive yourself.
— Malcom Lowry, Under the Volcano

The cardinal finished, the procession began. The statues of the saints, covered in ribbons and silver Milagros were carried down the central aisle, preceded by dancers, huge waving flags, drummers, and flute players. The basilica shook and I felt what it is like when air itself trembles. Deafening fireworks exploded outside, thousands sang, and — a few feet away from us in the belfries — the bells began to peal.

Now that she was safe, my mind began to fly off like a kite whose string had broken. “Like stigmata...” I shuddered, trying to steady myself by looking out to sea. The fist around my heart seized. Blood still pulsed from the wound, but her color was returning. “Kierkegaard called it — what was it — a barb of sorrow?” I was going into shock. “If it is pulled out, I shall die,” I remembered.

Every hair on my goose-bumped arms stood on end in the heat as the procession passed out of the church through the doors below. I was guided to a rope and allowed to help toll the bells. My eyes met my wife’s, ecstatic, blazing, as she began to sing.

 

The Great Dream: an American Opera

This essay appeared originally in the Huffington Post on 18 July 2014. Read it there by clicking here.

“If you live long enough you can write four operas,” wrote composer and music commentator Virgil Thomson.

Philip Glass has penned at least 17; the fecund imagination of John Adams has so far brought forth two operas, a numbers musical, and an oratorio. Dominick Argento’s 14 operas are a model of elegance and emotional integrity; William Bolcom’s 10 are stylistically fearless and suave. In the near past, Gian Carlo Menotti created more than 25 “giovanni scuola” operas, two of which were awarded Pulitzer prizes.

Broadening the definition of lyric theater from opera (and operas which dip into “music theater” conventions — another article about that sometime) to “shows” that dip periodically into operatic conventions, the living American champion has to be Stephen Sondheim, with his 16 shows (including his work as a lyricist), each one shot through with streaks, and sometimes great veins, of genius. John Kander, deeply sophisticated in his musical and cultural reference points, has created over 20 shows, each of which has a musical personality that springs directly from the characters in them and their musical era.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the wildly successful creative juggernaut, has written 20 shows. It intrigues me that the young theater composers I run into never cite him as an influence. When I worked as a copyist on Broadway we used to quip that somewhere in the world, at every moment of every day, Cats were singing.

George M. Cohan, “the man who owned Broadway,” was an early pioneer in what became the “book musical,” and was wildly prolific in every genre. Richard Rogers built on Cohan’s legacy, and deepened it, with forty shows to his credit. Even my folks, when they attended a performance of the original production of “South Pacific” on Broadway during their Honeymoon, intuited that the through-composed (the ghost of Giuseppe Verdi’s “parola scenica!”) scene that blossoms into the seize the moment masterpiece, “Some Enchanted Evening” was a genre buster.

But it was, of course, George Gershwin, whose 18 shows all burst at the aesthetic seams, who fathered the Great Dream: the first truly American Opera. “Porgy and Bess” remains the benchmark, no matter how many European conventions one finds holding it together, no matter how much Ravel-esque noodling connects the set pieces, no matter how fraught our current culture’s relationship may be with the libretto, it remains the home run with bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth.

No wonder Virgil hated “Porgy and Bess” so much. It caught lightning in a bottle, and he knew it.

The sketch above will doubtless insult the intelligence of aficionados of both genres of lyric theater who know that it’s all much more complex and subtle than that. So many great composers left out. (Some of them friends — sorry.) I’ve left out Marc Blitzstein, master of agitprop, painfully sophisticated, tilting at windmills, someone whose career during the Depression every ambitious young opera composer here in the States should examine closely for examples, both positive and negative. 

I’ve left out the Disney mega-musicals that now dominate what was once the Great White Way and is now Main Street USA, crafted with the precision of spacecraft, ruthlessly manipulative, and sometimes ecstatically tuneful, of course. They’re incredibly innovative, technically amazing, and, at their heart ... corporate.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a copyist, a proofreader, an editor, an orchestrator, an arranger, and as a ghostwriter, for Disney, Menotti, Bernstein, Webber’s “Really Useful,” and others. During the early ‘80s, before versions for small pit forces were commonly available, I did “pirate arrangements” for various productions of legitimate musicals, only to find, when I worked on Broadway during the ‘90s, that the producers themselves had begun paying for the same thing for their revivals of big orchestra shows. I conducted shows, and played piano in dozens of shows, and operas during the ‘70s-‘90s.

I count myself among the group that includes Menotti and Adams. I have written (and seen through workshop, production, revision, and multiple revival) eight operas, a numbers musical, and am at work on my ninth and tenth.

I have followed inspiration where it (by way of the characters) demanded to go. This has resulted in a catalogue of operas that, listened to superficially, may seem wildly eclectic in musical style, in much the way that American operas in general seem to be all over the map. This misses the forest for the trees. The common ground between them all is a respect for the characters, and a fierce determination to enable them to sing the music that they demand to sing, not what might be determined to be “just pretty enough, and just ugly enough” to fill the time honorably, but not threateningly, between pre-theater drinks, and post theater supper.

My operatic rap sheet is pretty long. In “Vera of Las Vegas,” set in the leisure-suited ‘70s, the characters required a cheek-by-jowl mash-up of ‘70s pop culture conventions and styles with 19th century operatic tropes. In “Amelia,” they required music of greater poetic subtlety — post-Barber, infused with late 20th century American regret.

For “Shining Brow,” which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, I reached towards Barbershop Quartet, the blues, jaunty Protestant hymns, and the aching melodic leaps of Benjamin Britten. In “The Antient Concert,” James Joyce and John McCormack faced off in a singing competition: naturally they used Irish folk songs as their beginning point. Jim’s private music, however, was flinty, modernist, and clever, like the opera’s librettist; John’s music was warm, sentimental, and emotionally accessible.

In “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” a “magic opera” sung by young people, introducing them to opera, I rang changes on the domestic, yet sophisticated theatrical language of Bernstein and Sondheim. “Bandanna” was set on the Texas-Mexican border, and featured illegal immigrants, Vietnam veterans, and a nearly pagan Catholicism who required a mélange of mariachi, agitprop, music theater, and Puccini-esque lyricism to come to life.

In “A Woman in Morocco,” the characters commandeered the late Romantic melodramatic gestures of Korngold, and crossed them, unapologetically, with the over-ripe, unsettling sensuality of late Bessie Smith recordings. 

What a journey these characters have taken me on, and how grateful I am to them all for giving me the opportunity to sing with their voices! As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “I have learned by going where I have to go.” For, it is their stories that inspire my music. I believe that it is the collision of opera producer’s (in many cases) European attitude toward what constitutes the composer’s voice and the quintessentially American (certainly more provocative) commitment of many American opera composers to let the melting pot of people that make up our culture sing the sort of music they need to sing that makes the current contemporary opera scene so exciting.

We’re in an era of enormous “churn” right now, with funding and support flying into “second stage” initiatives, alternative venues, as well as main stage, non-commercial venues. For every Peter Gelb who sees the sea rushing out, there are dozens of innovative producers whose conception of what constitutes opera raises the tide. A lot of the new stuff is dross, of course; that’s inevitable, and healthy. Many of the composers handed the keys to the family car think that they’ve invented the wheels on which it rolls. Some survive by dint of professional associations and politics. No matter: it’s all good.

“A Quiet Place,” Leonard Bernstein’s opera, in which he combined “Trouble in Tahiti” with newly-composed material, aptly reflected the vast changes that swept through the American cultural and musical landscape between the ‘50s and the ‘80s. Slaughtered by the critics the first couple of times out, it flowed smoothly and didn’t seem particularly eclectic when the (sorely-missed) New York City Opera revived it during their final (2010) season. In a review of the opera that uses the word “sublime” at one point to describe Bernstein’s score, Anthony Tommasini wrote of it in the Times: “The lingering criticism of “A Quiet Place” is that the piece is an awkward hybrid both musically and dramatically. This reflects the general criticism of Bernstein as a composer: that his head was so full of all kinds of music he could not find his own voice.” Tony closes with the observation, “If only Bernstein could have been there to see the reaction to his opera.”

I was there. The audience wept, and the ovation was a lengthy one. Bernstein never lived to see the Great Dream come true. But it’s obvious now that Bernstein’s voice did not elude him. Like Whitman, he understood that America is comprised of many voices. Like Whitman, he, during his brief time on the planet, tried to encompass them all in his creative, aesthetic embrace. The fact that composers like Bolcom, Adams, and others (I include myself) juxtapose styles and idioms with equal and due respect for each is now taken for granted. 

We’re in for a wild ride the next few years. Some really great operas are going to be produced. The Great Dream is coming true.

 

The Milwaukee Symphony and Me

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 22 December 2013. Click here to read it there.

The Milwaukee Symphony's logo.

The Milwaukee Symphony's logo.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, according to its recent [December 2013] press release, is “in danger of running out of money and faces possible extinction if additional pledges cannot be secured to fund the MSO’s much more modest, prudent budget and business plan for the future.” In fact, nearing the end of 2013, the institution now has only weeks to raise nearly four million dollars if it is to stave off bankruptcy.

In November 1968, I was seven years old. The Youth Concert program our music class had been bussed downtown to attend included the Largo of Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. Nixon had just won the 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 the plush red velvet seat, I was mesmerized by Kenneth Schermerhorn — a protégé of Leonard Bernstein’s, and a strikingly handsome, athletic, charismatic figure on the podium — the newly appointed music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. 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 floating in midair. That was the moment, at the age of seven, that I knew that, no matter what, music would be at the center of my existence.

At that moment, the MSO inspired me to become a composer. Forty-five years later, I’m still at it.

My brother Kevin Hagen, who passed away recently after a 40-year career in orchestra management, won his first orchestra job as operations manager of the MSO back in the 70s. He met his wife Judith Koch, a violinist in the orchestra, across a management / labor negotiating table one afternoon. A few months later, they were married. Judy played in the Milwaukee Symphony for over forty years before retiring.

On 13 July 1979, the summer after graduating from Brookfield Central High School, I proudly accepted my first professional fee as an orchestrator — a Burt Bacharach tune for the MSO—courtesy of John-David Anello, the founding conductor of the Milwaukee Pops, and my first conducting teacher. I still have the pay stub.

The same summer Anello also gave me my first music-copying gig — extracting the solo piano part for the Yellow River Concerto for a “Music Under the Stars” program. Because of that job, when, as a composition student at Curtis, I won a job as a staff music copyist (back when it was still done by hand) at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

In January 1984, I wanted dearly to meet Lukas Foss, then Music Director of the MSO. I had asked my brother Kevin to arrange for me to drive Lukas from his hotel to rehearsal.

“The melting major to minor chord at the very end,” he enthused, hands massaging the air between his chest and the dashboard, “is original here. Some say that this is where Mahler got the idea for the same effect in his sixth.” We were riffing on Beethoven’s third, the great Eroica, the score of which sat on his lap.

“At the end of the second movement, I’m going to try something interesting: as the theme disintegrates — the part marked sotto voce — I’m going to remove players one by one from the tune.”

“Like Beethoven’s hearing leaving him. Cool. How do the players feel about the idea?”

“Oh, they are not too happy. They are a little upset about the scherzo, too.”

“How come?”

“I’m making a little Rossini-style accelerando through the theme so that it sounds like nervous laughter.”

“Beethoven’s nervous breakdown?”

“Night fears following the loss of his hearing....”

“Chattering teeth in a death skull...?”

“Worse. The effects of lead poisoning.”

“Wow,” I said, turning the wrong direction on to a one-way street. Horns honked, cars swerved.
“What’s that?” asked Lukas, abruptly conscious of his surroundings.

“We’re driving the wrong way down a one way street,” I answered, as mildly as I could.

“Oh,” he replied, completely disinterested. “Then, when the finale begins, the variations are a triumph of the...”

I pulled over. We were now five minutes late to the rehearsal and I was hopelessly lost, even though I had grown up in Milwaukee.

“... A triumph,” I attempted to complete his thought, “of the rational, conscious mind, expressed through the exercise of craft that composing variations requires, over the irrational fears of the subconscious?”

“That’s interesting you should say that,” he smiled. “I’ve always thought that fugue, so rational, was, in the end — take the Grosse Fuge — his avenue for exploring madness.”

We made it eventually to the rehearsal, and we remained good friends for the rest of Lukas’ life.
My first conducting teacher, Catherine Comet, served briefly as the MSO’s associate conductor, but I have the MSO to thank for the finest champion of my music I have ever known. Although we had met briefly as students together at Juilliard, I first worked with JoAnn Falletta when the MSO commissioned Lyric Variations, the second movement of my second symphony. She led the orchestra in its premiere in August 1988. She has been a steadfast advocate of my music ever since the MSO brought us together. Recently she recorded my opera Shining Brow with the Buffalo Philharmonic for Naxos; Michael Ludwig and JoAnn will record my violin concerto with that orchestra in a few months. I have the MSO to thank for one of the richest musical associations with which I’ve been blessed.

The MSO taught me an unforgettable lesson about how to treat conductors. One thing a conductor can rely on, to paraphrase Oscar Levant, is that the players will inevitably grow to despise him. I learned this for myself in Milwaukee on 15 April 1990. With the MSO, I alienated Czech conductor Zdenek Macal forever when, in response to his request for a few words, I mounted the podium and, in five minutes, rattled off all of my notes to the orchestra. The players shuffled their feet, applauding me, but really, they were just enjoying the discomfiture of their sovereign.

Still fresh from conservatory, my ability to thrive at the professional level as an orchestral composer was not yet a given. Therefore, for better and for worse, Common Ground (the piece the MSO was rehearsing) became something of a calling card for me because it was chosen as a finalist for the Kennedy Center’s Friedheim Prize in 1990. Commissioned by the Barlow Endowment, it was conceived as the finale of my Symphony No. 2. It combined themes from the previous movements (Fresh Ayre and Lyric Variations) in a sort of Post Cold War Mahlerian stew.

After I left for the east coast, MSO performances became the only place I ever saw my father. “You’re fat,” observed Father to me in front of his friends in the lobby of Uiehlein Hall after one premiere. My head, as the old Irish story goes, was sticking up higher than those around mine were; Father gave it a whack. “Please Dad,” I said, low. “This is my place of business.” “You call this business?” he scoffed. “Enjoy the concert,” was the only thing I could think of to say in return.

On 10 September 2003, Kenneth Schermerhorn and I lunched together before a concert on which he conducted my Much Ado overture with his Nashville Symphony. (He had long since moved on from Milwaukee.) Did he remember the fan letter from the dazzled child unable 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.

“How like coming home it feels to finally work together,” he mused.

“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.”

Alas, although we chatted on the phone now and then, I never saw Kenneth again. But together we had closed our circle, and that was enough.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that — sitting in Uiehlein Hall at the age of seven 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. These issues are central to a composer’s life. 

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.”

Really, my brother Kevin’s relationship with the orchestra was more intimate than mine. As one of his first tasks as a new operations manager, he was told to arrange for the sound of canon fire during the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, as is the tradition with the piece. Kevin rang up the National Guard and requested artillery. After a few beats, the astonished corporal on the other end of the line replied, “Um, yes, sir. Will that be with, or without, nuclear warheads?”

Near the end of Kevin’s tenure with the MSO, the orchestra was on tour somewhere in Europe and, the orchestra having tuned up, everyone, including the audience, was waiting for Lukas Foss to take the stage and ascend the podium. No Lukas. Kevin was used to packing extra socks, batons, and even pants for his forgetful friend. Backstage, there were three doors: one led to Lukas’ dressing room; one led out to an alley behind the theater; the third led below-stage. Looking for his socks, Lukas had chosen the wrong door. Kevin was unfazed. In short order, he found Lukas in the basement, happily looking up at the numbered traps of the stage above. “Isn’t this fascinating?” Lukas mused. “Yes,” Kevin calmly replied, handing Lukas his socks and guiding him upstairs. “You know it is time to conduct now, don’t you?” “I wasn’t worried, Kevin. I knew you would take care of me.”

Now.

Who will take care of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra?

Afterward

During winter 2014 Milwaukee's art lovers came together to save their orchestra in an extraordinary outpouring of generosity. The orchestra's musicians also pitched in with significant labor concessions. The orchestra was saved.

In the changing of the guard over the years, though, what the orchestra seems to have lost is a sense of instititional memory, that thing loosely defined as a collective set of traditions, shared experiences, and sense of community that transcends the individual.

Why do I write that? Any performing organization's activities shift to match the interests of its current music director, but, when a wealthy donor in 2014 offered to underwrite a commission for me to compose a major new work for the orchestra with which I had such intimate lifelong associations, the new young artistic administrator (despite having read the Huffington Post article above, which was used as a fundraising tool) turned the money down, explaining to me that "the orchestra has moved on to new interests when it comes to contemporary music."

While I took this with cordial annoyance and moved promptly on to another project, it did raise a flag for me. On its surface, I was being told that there was a new chef in the kitchen, and that he simply didn't dig my spice. But, on a deeper level, I found his response troubling. Collective memory requires the ongoing transmission of an organization's memories between members (and generations) of the group. There is, whether each new generation as it takes the reins of power finds it convenient or not, both an artistic and a human component to the long continuum that constitutes music history. When that chain is broken, reinventing the wheel becomes acceptable, and Edmund Burke's admonition that "people will not look look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors" comes into full force.

John-David Anello, Kenneth Schermerhorn, Lukas Foss, my brother, are all dead. Stephen Colburn and my sister in law have retired. Even the artistic administrator in question has moved on to another, larger orchestra. But I am still composing. One's hometown orchestra has traditionally supported its native composerds. I still remember the orchestra of my youth; but I admit with affectionate rue that it has forgotten me.

 

 

Onegin: the Perfect Libretto

This essay appeared originally in the Huffington Post on 30 July 2014. To read it there click here.

Lecturing on Onegin's libretto to Ghenady Meierson's Russian Opera Workshop at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in summer 2014.

Lecturing on Onegin's libretto to Ghenady Meierson's Russian Opera Workshop at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in summer 2014.

“Dear Maestro,” dazzled, seven-year-old-Daron wrote to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, then music director of the Milwaukee Symphony. I bit the end of my pencil, wracked my brain for the perfect word: “Your performance last week was simply superfluous!” Decades later, over lunch, I asked Kenneth if he remembered the boy who couldn’t find a word big enough to described how impressed he was. As he shook his head, laughing, I marveled at how indispensible Kenneth had made himself to the Nashville Symphony, what a noble example of service his career represented. We laughed until we wept. Afterwards, we wiped our eyes, and sighed. I called him “an indispensible man.”

We raised our glasses. “To Art,” I began. “To Life,” he replied. “To the collision of the two,” I said. “Ah,” he sighed, smiling, “now there is where the trouble begins.” And, to that, we drank.

And then, as one does, I fished for his opposite. I immediately thought of Eugene Onegin, perhaps the most famous “superfluous man.” The eponymous, Byronic hero of Alexander Pushkin’s magisterial novel — a man who had it all, squandered it, and lived to regret it. No arriviste he, Onegin was a man of substance, well-educated, with access to culture, power, and the easy cynical ennui of one who understands firsthand that power corrupts. Poor Onegin, and his generation of noble young 1840s Russian men — so like the young Ivy-educated Masters of the Universe with whom I rubbed elbows as a young composer in 1980s Manhattan!

1879. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb. AT&T and Bell Telephone divided up telecommunications, creating the framework for todays’ information-driven world. One hundred years after the “shot heard round the world” in Concord, “A Doll’s House” opened in Copenhagen, and Henrik Ibsen’s Nora perpetrated the door slam heard round the world. Her proto-feminism was also embodied in the character of Tatyana, as brought to life by Tchaikovsky in his great opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel. Another woman struggling to be herself in a male-dominated society, Tatyana, once her heart has been broken, evolves from her youth as a romantic, empathetic introvert into a coolly glittering, wise, ruthless, mistress of society.

Tchaikovsky subtitled his work “an opera in lyrical scenes.” This was to highlight the fact that, in fashioning the libretto from Pushkin’s 389 stanzas in iambic tetrameter with Konstantin Shilovsky, Pushkin’s dialectic was so ironclad that it made it possible for them to excise all the narrative linking material in order to focus on the dramaturgical “hot spots,” the nuclear reactors powering the drama. This distillation to the story’s essential human drama is (or should be) the aim of every poet-librettist, since brevity is only his visa at the opera world’s border, and getting directly to the point (without drawing attention to oneself) is his passport to greatness.

Pushing the idea of art mirroring life, the “Pushkin Sonnet,” or “Onegin Stanza” form is itself a tightly restrictive scheme that strikingly manifests the binding structures of society, of “social convention.” Form—in this case the characters—mirrors function—their symbolic and dramatic transits. Only sixty years later, in “Wozzeck,” the wretched disconnect between society and its denizens are made achingly manifest in the music often going in one direction as the drama moves in another.) Pushkin’s rhyme scheme, comprised of alternating “female” and “male” rhymes, is a suave poetic correlative to the characters’ gender dance.

Here’s one reading of the structure of Pushkin’s story, and of Tchaikovsky’s opera, a rough sketch of the interrelationships between characters and themes. It’s why I think the structure’s so—for lack of a better word—perfect.

A diagram used for the lecture to the Russian Opera Workshop on which this essay is based.

A diagram used for the lecture to the Russian Opera Workshop on which this essay is based.

At “true north” in the diagram is Tatyana, a deeply caring person who learns not to care. At the opposite, southern pole is Onegin, a selfish extrovert who learns to care. In the east is Olga, Tatyana’s biological sister, a party-girl, young, extroverted, fully alive in the moment. She is affianced to Lensky, Onegin’s metaphorical brother, at the western pole. Lensky is a smart, introverted poet, living a life of the mind. Between Lensky and Onegin, at the southwestern pole, is the subsidiary, Judas character of Zaretsky. Repeatedly, he betrays Onegin by depriving him of an opportunity to apologize to Lensky, thereby forestalling the duel in which Onegin kills him.

Now, draw a line from the southwest up to the northeast and call it the border between Art and Life, with Lensky and Tatyana on the Art side, Onegin and Olga on the Life side, and Zaretsky, the explosive catalyst, straddling the two.

Now, draw a line from the northwest down to the southeast and call it the demarcation between Female and Male, with Tatyana and Olga on one side, and Onegin and Lensky on the other.

Draw a line due south from Tatyana to Onegin; draw another west to east from Lensky to Olga. The east-west line between Olga and Lensky intersects the north-south line of Tatyana and Onegin. The slantwise lines delimiting Male and Female, and Art and Life, also intersect at the axis of the compass.

That axis, the core of the drama, the point where all the lines meet, is the existential cauldron for which there are countless names. To attach one, like Society, or another, like Sanity, is to miss the point.

I imagine that Tchaikovsky, when introduced to the idea, at first reacted negatively to its rather banal superficial story of a dandy’s rejection of a young country girl. My hunch, as a working opera composer, though, is that the famous sleepless night Tchaikovsky is said to have had prior to sketching out, again in a single night, the entire structure of the opera, was the sort that a working opera composer has when they realize that a perfect dramatic structure is in the offing.

I’d like to think that Tchaikovsky, a dramatist extraordinaire, recognized in Pushkin’s formal engineering a “perfect libretto.” He grasped that he had in his hands a structure, or a cauldron, or a nuclear reactor, so durable and perfect that Life and Art could be brought into collision. A vessel in which could take place the fusion of the two into a wise and useful new opera that confronted issues that he and his audience could only intuit. A living work of art that could help us to make sense of our lives, which so often seem to be a messy, seemingly futile fission of the two.

 

Don't Miss the Opera in the Pit

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 3 September 2014. You can read it there by clicking here.

Most orchestras actually play mainly beneath the stage. Here is a pit orchestra arrayed in front of the proscenium.

Most orchestras actually play mainly beneath the stage. Here is a pit orchestra arrayed in front of the proscenium.

I am occasionally asked, on panels, and in master classes, why it is important for an opera composer to write well for the orchestra, do their own orchestrations, and use it for more than mere accompaniment to what’s going on twelve feet above.

I reply that an understanding of the orchestra’s role in opera is a prerequisite for crafting the very finest, and the most sophisticated, operatic scores. I stipulate that it is in the subtle use of orchestral colors and textures that much of the composer’s capacity for the telling of truth to power is made possible. The way the composer uses the orchestra is one of the chief things that differentiates opera from music theater.

It is in the suave use of the orchestra that a composer can artfully conceal many of her most provocative and innovative musical and psychological ideas while appearing on the surface intending only to entertain and divert. This is not sly, but it is often misunderstood as being too eager to please by people who tend to find dissonant music more serious than consonant music. The willingness to throw the audience a bone simply acknowledges the fact that sleight of hand must sometimes be used to disarm before the fool can whisper the truth into the king’s ear.

The role most composers and audiences are comfortable having the orchestra play is that of the story’s omniscient narrator. Things become more interesting, though, and more like actual human experience, when the music is in “disagreement” with the action onstage; it may also be telling the truth in a situation where the character is lying to themselves, or others. Portraying characters in denial, underpinning crossed emotional transactions, and tracking the progress of seduction—these are “what’s going on in the violas.”

It is in the orchestra that the churning, subliminal, notated subconscious of the drama—intuited but largely unnoticed by the audience—occurs. Occasionally, the orchestra may tell another story entirely from the one unfolding on stage; certainly, one of the reasons operatic villains are so fun is that the audience potentially hears all the (beautiful?) voices in a psychotic’s head!

When the orchestra is dealt in as an active and equal dramatic player, one risks melodrama, since the action onstage is being experienced by the audience from the orchestra’s point of view (POV). When the music precedes the action, melodrama results (example: sting chord, followed by a character singing “you MUST pay the rent!”). When it is simultaneous, “Mickey Mousing” results (example: well, the music one hears anytime Wylie E. Coyote heads over a cliff, is crushed by an anvil, and so on). It is in every way a more substantial and rich emotional and aesthetic experience when the orchestra is employed in a rather more filmic fashion, the music’s POV shifting continuously, fluidly, in order to frame, comment upon, deepen, and enhance the drama. 

What’s the difference, then, between a film score and an opera score? Besides the obvious fact that an opera is sung, not all that much, except that the composer sits in the driver’s seat in opera. The opera house was built to bring to life the vision of the composer, not the director. The composer in opera is the chief dramaturge and chief visionary. In film, a music editor translates and transmits the director’s wishes to the composer, who then executes music that may in fact save the scene, elevate it, and even be the thing that makes it truly great. But, no matter how galvanizing a film score is, the vision remains the director’s.

John Williams’ Star Wars soundtracks are held together by an extraordinarily complex web of motives, themes, overlays, and thematic transformation made all the more impressive by the fact that, because of the nature of the movie industry, he has had to pen them so quickly. Would he even be interested, one wonders, in writing an opera? I hope that he does. As obviously capable of it as he is, is he even interested in taking the wheel?

I admire Howard Shore’s scores for the Tolkien movies. They, too, partake of the operatic conventions of leitmotifs and thematic transformation. Mr. Shore’s opera, The Fly, for the Los Angeles Opera, however, could have used a music editor. Too often, the music refused to take center stage. At this point, it seems to me though that the closest heir to Erich Korngold (who came to film music after international success as the youthful genius composer of Die tote Stadt) is Andre Previn, whose operatic scores (A Streetcar Named Desire—hampered only by a libretto that one assumes is so true to the Williams play because the estate insisted upon it—and Brief Encounter, more loosely based on the Coward play, and in every way lighter on its feet) are technical marvels, fluid, with a flawless sense of dramatic timing, and an effortless command of harmonic ebb and flow. It is unfair of me to wonder aloud why Mr. Previn doesn’t seem to my ear to allow himself the fervent, sophisticated tunes that he did in his film scores when he writes opera.

It is fashionable among some composers to generate in the orchestra a neutral sea of sonic gesso over which float patches of “parlando recitative” (a sort of elevated, sing-songy dialogue that constantly reaches toward, but never achieves, actual melodic interest) that do nothing to differentiate the characters. Another popular, and perhaps glib, strategy is to provide music that remains ironically detached from the onstage drama, music that winks at the audience as though to say, “not really,” or “we’re better than this story or these characters.”

The better an opera composer gets at fully exploiting the orchestra as an equal player in the gesamtkunstwerk, the more the audience trusts her. On the one hand—the hand that matters—the composer’s musical message flows all the more freely into the audience’s heart and mind; on the other, the composer has concealed her craft so well that non-professionals who need to “hear the cogs grind” in order to feel that they’ve been in the presence of “inspiration” suspect that they’ve been manipulated by “mere technique.”

Some folks distrust composers who handle the “seams” between big set pieces well; they want their “stand and deliver” performance moments followed by an orchestral button that invites / enables / triggers applause. I wonder whether this impulse arises from the same place that causes my six year old to look away and fidget when an adult is admonishing him—it’s just too much.

Some audience members have difficulty understanding that the music they are hearing at any given moment is sometimes the character’s music, not the author’s, and that the POV of the orchestra, and even the music, may not be omniscient at all. Because of this, critics who either don’t understand, or are unwilling to go along with that the idea of a shifting POV, have sometimes misunderstood the musical rhetoric of contemporary scores, pronouncing them at best “eclectic,” and wondering aloud whether the composer has “an original voice.”

The next time you attend the opera, as the lights dim and the orchestra strikes up, why not determine to devote that evening an extra measure of attention to the opera going on in the pit? Given half the chance they deserve, those people down there might just steal the show.

 

Proust's Popcorn: The Oriental Landmark Theater

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 6 December 2013. You can read it there by clicking here.

PROLOGUE 

The author visited the Oriental Landmark Theater in Milwaukee in spring 2013.

The author visited the Oriental Landmark Theater in Milwaukee in spring 2013.

Last week I was in Milwaukee to attend production meetings at the Skylight Music Theater for my latest show. It was my first visit to my hometown in nearly a decade. A late night stroll down memory lane took me past the Oriental Landmark Theater. For old times’ sake, I bought a tub of popcorn and entered the cavernous old house, not knowing (or caring) what was being shown. As my childhood friend Brian Anderson once astutely observed, “If the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.” As I settled into the seat, breathed the familiar musty odor of the place, the perfume of fresh popped corn, the vaguest whiff of sweat, the blank screen came to life not with a film, but with a Proustian melange of the following observations and memories.

THEME and VARIATIONS

I was sixteen. Father was plastered. I’d been sent by Mother to pick him up at a cocktail lounge on Wisconsin Avenue. In no condition to drive, he pounded on the driver’s side window. “Slide over,” he commanded. For the first time I had the nerve to refuse him the keys. I drove us home; it was not pleasant.

It was as though Father, who we had been losing as a family to drinking and depression by dribs and drabs over the course of my childhood, had finally made himself into the Man Who Lived Downstairs. Music alone couldn’t yet fill the emptiness I felt, and I was too sheltered a suburban Midwestern adolescent to adequately come to terms with the wild, impractical, somewhat lurid thoughts and desires my brain was generating.

My first pilgrimage to the Oriental Landmark Theater, a Grand Prewar Temple to the Tenth Muse—as the Italians refer to Cinema—in Milwaukee that evening, provided me with a refuge, a chance to see grown up movies, of which many our parents would never approve, a place to dream, to share Communion in the Dark, to play. Brian put it beautifully: “We didn’t just visit or even inhabit the Oriental. We infiltrated it, climbing the organ loft and spelunking the tunnels. Any movie would do.”

In writing about the Oriental do I not succumb to what Gore Vidal in Screening History described as “the American writer’s disease, the celebration if not of self, of the facts of one’s own sacred story?” The Oriental was the crucible in which I first began ginning up mine. Hormones and an unshakeable belief that in some specific way I had something unique to offer the world provided the cocktail of raw material.

Diane C. Doerfler in spring 1979. (Photo: Cilento)

Diane C. Doerfler in spring 1979. (Photo: Cilento)

An English teacher named Diane C. Doerfler provided the catalyst. Doerf, as we called her, was an inspirational teacher, a planter of seeds. I recall her now as I saw her then—gamine, a lovely combination of Katherine Hepburn and Jeanne Moreau, seemingly something of a Transcendentalist, personally elusive. She began the year by etching in a quick rat-a-tat-tat of chalk on the board LIFE = ART. Then, she paused, turned back to us grinning like a Siamese cat, scanned the room, purred, “Well, what do you make of that?”

Thanks to the movies I saw at the Oriental and the books that Doerf gave me, my world was enlarged at the expense of myself, enabling me to grow into and desire access to, the world at large. When I told Doerf I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever’s short stories I have to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later I would befriend the writer Susan Cheever at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift.

Later, when I taught music history, albeit in reverse chronological order, among other things, at Bard College, I emulated Doerf’s teaching style. My students maintained diaries. Exams were open-ended. The more connections they could make between seemingly unrelated concepts and themes, the higher they scored; this rewarded associative and assimilative thinking, because students who thrived on regurgitating facts and dates always scored far below the ones who thought creatively. Most students hated it.

The lobby of the Oriental Landmark Theater in spring 2015. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The lobby of the Oriental Landmark Theater in spring 2015. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Designed by Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer, the themes of the Oriental’s decor are in fact East Indian, with no traces of Chinese or Japanese artwork. It is said to be the only standard movie palace ever built to incorporate East Indian decor. Opened to the public on 27 July 1927 as the flagship of a chain of 47 movie theaters operated by John and Thomas Saxe, Irish brothers who began as sign painters at the turn of the century, the 1800-seat Oriental incorporated elements of East Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine design. It included three eight foot high chandeliers adorned with images of the Buddha, eight gleaming black porcelain lions flanking a massive tiled ceremonial staircase to the balcony, hand-painted frescoes of Turkish scenes, dozens of custom draperies, and literally hundreds of elephants—elephants everywhere, from the bathrooms to the 1920s smoking lounges to the remotest corners of the balcony.

Faltering, after fifty years of continuous operation as a traditional movie palace, it came into the hands of Robert and Melvyn Pritchett, Milwaukee brothers and electricians who acquired it in 1972. In 1976, they agreed to a proposal by the Landmark Theater (then Parallax) chain to take over programming.

There were six enormous Buddha statues—three on each side of the broad orchestra—adorned with glowing “rubies” in their foreheads, smoldering green eyes, and dim orange pools of light that warmed their ample tummies from below that remained on until the marquee was shut off, the work lights extinguished, and the lonesome ghost light turned on. The Pritchetts clearly loved the palace, and tolerated my adoration to the point where, on several occasions just before locking up for the night, they allowed me to perform the ritual.

The Oriental also boasted a shallow orchestra pit suitable for a vaudeville-circuit-sized ensemble of about 25 players, access tunnels, storage rooms, dressing rooms (with smeared autographs of once near-famous performers still on the walls), and a spacious stage with the original rigging still in place, and an organ’s pipe loft. During my day, the organ was in disrepair. Now restored, every Friday and Saturday before the 7 PM show, the plush sounds of the Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ—the largest of its kind in a theater in America and the third largest in the world—introduce the film before the instrument sinks into the pit.

For a while, the theater was also a live performance venue—I saw Laurie Anderson there. The Violent Femmes got their start by standing in one night as the opening act for the Pretenders. When I knew it best, the Oriental was still a calendar house, a place where adult things happened. It had danger implicit in its darkness, its smoky smell, in the avant-garde and erotic films on its monthly bill of fare. In 1978 a double feature set you back $2.50—well within the budget of a teenage refugee from the suburbs in possession of a probationary driver’s license and his mother’s car.

Communion in the Dark, the sitting around a campfire telling stories to explore the unknowable, remains one of the chief reasons I compose operas. Truffaut’s La nuit américaine explores the theme of whether making art is more important than life for the people who make it. First seen at the Oriental, this film led me to a comprehensive engagement with Truffaut’s films over the years, which climaxed in meeting him at the end of a retrospective of his work at the Regency Cinema, a second-run house on Broadway near Juilliard, in 1986. When I began Shining Brow, which explores this, I asked Paul Muldoon to make this one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s foremost concerns: “Can a man be a faithful husband and father,” asks Wright, “and still remain true to his art?”

Suspending the audience’s disbelief being the first step in making art, I made conscious note of the strategies filmmakers used to do it. During those years, I assembled the psychological and emotional skill set required for coping with life as a creative person. I couldn’t help watching films critically; I was keenly aware of the artifice, and loved it. The venue was a refuge, but the films were not an escape.

The Oriental was a calendar house in those years whose bill changed every other day. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The Oriental was a calendar house in those years whose bill changed every other day. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

That August 1978 evening the double bill was Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. Although it would be years before I understood that is only a single step from Steiner to Strauss, from the moment Max Steiner’s grand Warner Brothers Fanfare began, I was enthralled—more by the music than the images and narratives. Steiner’s godfather had been no less a musical force than Richard Strauss; his piano teacher was Johannes Brahms, and he took composition lessons from Gustav Mahler. These men took their work seriously: as the saying goes, “there was also a movie going on.”

The large and appreciative audience knew the film, hissed the villains, and cheered the great lines. It was the first time I ever felt surrounded by an audience so in tune with the rhythm of a script and set of actors that they literally sighed in unison. A few folks mouthed the dialogue along with the actors. Men wept openly during Rick’s breakdown scene; people stood up when partisans at Rick’s began singing La Marseillaise in an attempt to drown out the Nazis singing Die Wacht am Rhein; couples consoled one another when Rick and Ilse parted.

It transported me. During the intermission, I began prowling around the theater, which already felt like home. (The only other place that has affected me in exactly this way is the artist colony Yaddo—more about that later.) My parents were on their own Revolutionary Road in the suburbs, their lives together unspooling. Mine was rapidly expanding here, in the semi-darkness, among the threadbare velvet seats, the mildew-perfumed draperies, the dodgy wiring, illuminated only by “emeralds”, “rubies”, and a shaft of light slicing down from the projection booth to the broad, off-white screen with a blemish in the upper left hand quadrant.

The second feature began: Ernest Hemingway’s story, adapted by William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, with Humphrey Bogart and ... Lauren Bacall. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? Just put your lips together and ... blow.” The frisson I experienced was real. Seeing the film thirty-five years after it was made, I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined that I would one day meet Bacall—well, fall at her feet, anyway—on a stairway at the Dakota on my way to a lesson with Leonard Bernstein.

Twenty-six days later, I brought friends to see Toshirō Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s great Samurai Trilogy. There were only about thirty people scattered around the theater. The first of countless games of hide-and-seek was played out in the soaring balcony; the illusion that we were alone in the vast screening chamber became, during the third hour, a reality. No doors were locked and we got into everything: the dressing rooms, the tunnels, and the service closets. I watched Musashi’s duel from behind the screen, lying onstage on my back with a sand bag beneath my head, my fingers interlaced at the nape of my neck.

That October, I was given a tour of the projection booth during the screening of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and 8 ½. My epiphany came during the latter, when I realized, watching the screen through the same hole (the “fourth wall”) that the powerful projector was throwing the image through, that all of the settings in Fellini were intentionally artificial so that they would appear on film as hyper-real. Opera.

A group portrait of the Legend Yearbook staff -- denizens of the Oriental -- taken in spring 1979. (The author is fifth from the left.)

A group portrait of the Legend Yearbook staff -- denizens of the Oriental -- taken in spring 1979. (The author is fifth from the left.)

The next week West Side Story continued to counterpoint my evolving young thoughts. I’d seen the film on television, of course, and had spent fifth grade walking to and from Linfield Elementary School singing the tune of Maria, substituting Jean Wilson’s name. (I didn’t learn until Marni Nixon herself told me 25 years later over drinks in New York that it was not Natalie Wood’s but Marni’s that made me fall in love with Maria.) However, I had never seen the Jets swoop across a three-story tall movie screen. The boys leapt; so did my heart. The hair on my arms stood up. We were being invited not to buy into the idea of a bunch of tough street kids dancing but to witness their spirits flying through the air.

The Oriental provided my first introduction to serious camp. The double bill was Humoresque and Johnny Guitar. (Truffaut famously referred to it as a “phony Western.”) The film was to me like Weiβbier with a slab of lemon in it: all the roles, from Joan Crawford to Sterling Hayden, seemed clearly gender-swapped. Paired with an even higher-camp classic starring a beautiful young prizefighter of a James Garfield, a leonine Crawford, a rumpled Oscar Levant, and Isaac Stern’s hands, it made for a swampy, soupy, delightfully sentimental evening at the movies—one impossible to forget.

Lower camp was also on the bill. The Oriental is the world record holder for a current and continuing film engagement. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has played as a midnight film since January 1978. I was one of the original regulars. I dressed the part for a dozens of showings, danced the Time Warp, brought bags of rice, toast, squirt guns, newspapers, and so forth, knew my lines (“Dammnit, Janet!”) and delighted in the lovely community of genuinely joyful people that has made the Oriental the U.S. record holder for a continuing engagement of the film.

On 8 December 1978, during a double bill (East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause), I held hands with a date (Carol Hallanger) for the first time. Leonard Rosenman’s sophisticated modernist scores (he studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Roger Sessions) for these back-to-back knockouts floored me.

Uan Rasey’s incomparable trumpet playing on Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning Chinatown score (released in 1974, but already in rotation at the Oriental) drove forcefully home for me the fact that a single perfect theme ideally performed can carry the tone of an entire motion picture or (as I learned later) opera. 

Interior of the Oriental Landmark Theater. (Photo: Landmark)

Interior of the Oriental Landmark Theater. (Photo: Landmark)

Eleven days later, more film noir: I saw The Third Man for the first time and immediately determined someday to turn it into an opera. In fact, I pitched an updated adaptation of the Graham Greene screenplay in 2006 to Speight Jenkins, Intendant of Seattle Opera. Lime’s entrance, the bemused, amused anti-hero reveal of a very handsome young Orson Welles, about whom I was already something of an aficionado, is entirely operatic, hand of author. It is hard for me now not to have in mind beside it the much later anti-hero reveal of Welles in Touch of Evil, a movie that heavily influenced the tone and structure of my operas Bandanna and (especially)  A Woman in Morocco, which in execution is essentially an homage to my theatrical awakening at the Oriental.

In 1981, I took my Mother to the Oriental to look at a Hitchcock double feature. During intermission Bernard Herrmann’s music for the final few minutes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 was playing. Mother reached for my hand and, as we both stared at the blank screen, told me that she had been diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of inoperable lung cancer. First, there would be chemotherapy. There would be a rally. Then she would “get bored” of dying, get on with her life, and die. “I’ll come home to take care of you,” I said. “Christ, no,” she said. “I want you to get on with your life. Get out of here.” The music stopped. The lights dimmed. We held hands.

EPILOGUE

There’s a splendid, self-sufficient egoism in being young. Closed about with unearned affection from parents who will love you no matter how selfishly or casually you behave, you’re free to indulge independence and individualism.

Becoming an adult is realizing alone-ness, understanding how tenuous the integration of lives really is, and facing the unpleasant necessity of having to earn affection. You’re not born into other people’s lives, people who will love you immediately and irrevocably; pamper your whims and love you for them or despite them. This is a sober fact that’s shattering to comprehend, but it makes an individual sooner than the cocoon-like, womb-like protective existence of adolescence.

Love is lost so easily: you can’t strangle it by putting it on a golden chain, expecting it to understand it’s free to move only a few feet in either direction. Nor can you pick it up and fondle it only when your fancy so pleases. You treat it gently because it is volatile, owes you nothing except if you prove there’s been a continuous effort to earn it. Then you’ve crushed out ‘selves’ into one ‘self’ that’s the basis of all sympathy and human understanding. Love is selfish-but you must never be, for fear of losing it.

 

Yaddo: Transforming Sorrow into Joy

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 5 June 2012. You can read it there by clicking here.

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984.

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984.

Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, is more than America’s most prestigious artist retreat: it is a testament to one couple’s determination to transubstantiate loss into works of art. 

When I was born, still mourning a brother who survived but a few days, my parents gave me his name. His absence has been forever in my life a powerful presence. Yaddo’s story is also about the presence that absence makes. After the tragic deaths of their children, Katrina and Spencer Trask dedicated themselves to the creation of Yaddo for the same reason that my parents created me. They hoped to transform sorrow into joy.

There clings to Yaddo (rhymes with “shadow”) an appealing Victorian melancholy that serves as an unspoken reminder to even the fastest of trackers in any given pack of ambitious young artists passing through the place of serious art’s immense stakes. 

I first came to Yaddo in summer 1984. A few months earlier, my mother had died in my arms and I had left the Midwest house in grew up in, resolved never to return. I had just graduated from the Curtis Institute. It was the very, very end of a different era in Yaddo’s history, a time not long after the days when Elizabeth Ames invited people. Accordingly, Ned Rorem, with whom I had been studying, telephoned the President of Yaddo, Curtis Harnack (that wonderfully humane man), and his brilliant, wise wife, Hortense Calisher to arrange for my first visit. 

Ned instructed me to ask David Diamond (with whom I would begin studying at Juilliard the following September) what books I should read before entering his studio. David had commanded me to read Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Romaine Rolland’s Jean Christophe. I arrived at Yaddo with the need not to be Rastignac, but Orpheus; I desired nothing more than to sing my departed mother’s spirit out of the Underworld, bring her back to life.

Expecting nothing, knowing nothing, and having been told nothing by Ned except “You might not like it; these places are not for everyone,” I disembarked at the Saratoga Springs train station. I had with me the clothes on my back, Mann and Rolland in my backpack, four shirts, three pair of underwear, two pair of jeans, four pair of socks, mechanical pencils and erasers, thirty dollars, and lots and lots of King Brand manuscript paper.

James Mahon, a courtly, red-bearded Charon with a mild voice and probing, intense eyes who gravely addressed me as “sir” long before I had any claim to it, placed my backpack gently in the beat up old company station wagon.

James drove slowly through town, past Town Hall and the Post Office, and the Adirondack Trust bank. We passed the Parting Glass, where mingled during August the jockeys from the Saratoga Race Track and their tall, glossy girlfriends, the Yaddo artists, the City Ballet dancers, the Philadelphia Orchestra players, the townies, and the bettors.

James turned on to broad, tree-lined Union Avenue — one of the Hudson Valley’s grandest boulevards. Flanked by over a dozen Queen Anne-style mansions built during the late 1800s, it begins at Congress Park and culminates a mile and a half later at the Northway. In 1978, the entire area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Union Avenue Historical District. As the car rolled by the racetrack, with its bevy of Victorian structures, I felt as though we were going back in time. We passed the National Museum of Racing. I thought out loud: “Seabiscuit.” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, glancing at me curiously in the rearview mirror, “that was a brave little pony now, wasn’t it?”

“Whitney,” I said, “Jerome, Vanderbilt....” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, “those would be some other names associated with the race track, that’s for certain.” On our right, at the far end of Union Avenue, adjacent to the track, began a dense, shadowy forest. “This would be Yaddo, sir,” James said, turning on to the grounds.

Spencer Trask, founder of the well-known Wall Street firm, and his wife Katrina had the mansion built in 1892 by architect William Halsey Wood, who did little but execute the designs provided by his clients. 55 rooms, a medieval dining hall and tower, barns, outbuildings, four man-made ponds bearing the children’s names, a rock garden, and a large formal rose garden, all laid out to Spencer’s specifications. 

James slowed the car as we passed between the lakes. We veered left, and then right, then rose up the drive, and to our left the mansion blossomed into view atop the hill. I gasped. Embarrassed, I looked toward the rearview mirror and saw that James’ eyes were warm. “Yes sir,” he smiled, “that’s the Main House. We’ll be driving past West House, Pine Garde, and East House so that I can drop you at the Office.” We shook hands and he handed me my backpack after I got out. (Even Yaddo changes, if glacially: James is now retired.)

Tears spontaneously flowed as beloved, infinitely capable program director Rosemary Misurelli (who I had never before met) bundled me up in her Rabelaisian Earth Mother arms at the front door of the office. “I feel as though I have come home,” I burbled into Rosemary’s generous breasts. Weeping, she covered my face with kisses, and then took me in to meet Curt, who asked me why I was crying.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said. “I don’t understand why I’m crying.”

“Oh, I do,” he said, with a kind, open mid-western smile.

Upon arrival, a Special Assistant to the President escorts every artist to his or her studio and bedroom. That summer, painters Doug Martin and Nancy Brett served. I was given a tour of the grounds, and then shown into the mansion’s grand hall.

Hanging over a luxurious, gold velvet couch were two life-sized full portraits. Before being told who the woman was, I was as irresistibly drawn to Eastman Johnson’s painting as I had been to the Norman Rockwell portrait of Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist in the Common Room at Curtis three years earlier. We hadn’t met, but my heart instinctively moved out to her. I felt safe here.

“Yes, that’s her,” Nancy said, gently pulling me away and leading me up the sweeping stairs. “Katrina Trask?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, pointing up at the two-story tall Tiffany window atop the stairs. “That’s her, too.” We turned left at the foot of the window, passed a large brass spittoon, and reached the sliding door leading to Oratory (a place of prayer), the room next to what had been Spencer’s den that would serve as my bedroom.

Everyone who has lived and worked at Yaddo over the past century has heard stories about the ghosts. There’s the Puritanical one that keeps watch in the bedroom on the second floor of the mansion opposite the stairs that opens the windows when something naughty is happening in the room. There’s the Testy one that slams the closet door in Katrina’s bedroom when the current occupant spends a little too much time on the fainting couch.

Katrina’s was one of what Rick Moody calls the “momentous and astonishing and beautiful deaths” that have taken place at Yaddo. I had spent the last several weeks composing a requiem, what Richard McCann might call a “ghost letter” to Katrina. Richard wrote, in one of his poems, “Quiet! Don’t you know that the dead go on hearing for hours?” I believe that they go on hearing just as long as they care to.

This is the story of how I met Katrina.

Near the end of my first visit, novelist Doug Unger was sitting on the second floor landing, around eleven-thirty in the evening, reading The New Yorker. Across from him sat a third person, whose name escapes me. That reassuring, late-night quietude (the plashing of water in the little fountain next to the front door, the soughing and whispering of the pines, underpinned by the steady thrum of automobile wheels on the Northway) particular to this house surrounded us. I didn’t know at the time that Doug was up there. I was reading in the Great Hall, next to the fireplace with the phoenix on it.

I less “saw” her than “felt” her there. In the same way that one might glimpse a child streaking out of a suburban front yard and into the street, and with the same terrible wave of heart-in-the-mouth dread, perceived peripherally, intuited while focusing elsewhere, a woman descending the main staircase in what Cheever mischievously described as “poor Katrina’s shower curtain” came before my mind’s eye. It was unquestionably Katrina’s ghost. Her right hand was slightly raised, as it is in the portrait, and in it was a telegram, a poem, or a letter. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I saw as “some essence quorum of our souls’ intensities.” At the instant that I noticed the apparition, I heard a cry from the second floor. I leapt to the foot of the stairs to see what the matter was. Looking up, I saw ashen-faced Doug.

“What did you see?” I asked.

“A woman in a white dress, so help me God,” he said. From behind him in the darkness the third person — who couldn’t possibly have seen the staircase — said, softly, “It was Katrina.” We coughed, laughed, looked at our feet. I have seen an angel, I thought. I used to describe the feeling I took away from the moment as being exactly like the way I used to feel when I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway that meant Mother was home. Now a father, I recognize that the feeling was more like the way I feel when my children are sleeping in the next room, yet I am in every way but physically with them.

Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The next morning, everyone at breakfast had something to report. A limb had fallen on the front stoop of Pine Garde (there had been no wind); the front door of West House had been discovered swinging wildly (again, no wind); someone had heard whistling near the Tower, stepped out to see who it was, found only darkness (no one would touch that one). It had been a busy night.

I have since returned to Yaddo many, many times. My ghost story is no longer mine; other people have repeated the incident to me over dinner as having happened to them, or to someone they know. As Rick writes of his ghost story, “I support the addition of any lies, fibs, whoppers, and extraneous characters to my tale, by which I mean that the work done [at Yaddo] is done by the community as a whole.”

For two vagabond decades, Yaddo was my home, wherever I actually slept or received my mail. When I married happily at last, Yaddo became my parents’ house. Of course, it remained, and always will be, a place where I can go, as people do, and as Yaddo poet Theodore Roethke described it, to “learn by going where I have to go.”

The first and most important of the many meaningful friendships that I have made at Yaddo began that summer. Gardner McFall was writing The Pilot’s Daughter, a volume of poetry about the process of coming to terms with the disappearance of her father and the birth of her daughter. I could relate. Over the course of three summers at Yaddo twenty years later, we worked together on Amelia, an opera based on her personal story, carried along by music inspired by my inner journey, which began with the death of my mother and ends with the birth of my son.

Meeting the composer David Del Tredici during my first Yaddo visit in my 20s remains one of the most important events of my life as a composer. His marriage of flawless compositional craft, superb pianistic technique, extraordinarily clever mind, and hugely generous spirit, were (and remain, a quarter century later) a genuine inspiration to me. I joyfully joined him at table, observing how he treated other artists, how he handled younger composer colleagues, teased stories out of him, and joined him at the piano, where, when playing four hands with him, I tried, but never could really keep up because of how giddy with happiness watching his flying fingers always rendered me. David is the Mozart of his generation. His was and is perhaps the purest musical talent I’ve ever witnessed. I’m proud to call him friend, still.

In my 30s, I spent more of my social time at Yaddo with my contemporaries. I shed “rabbit-hood,” talked a lot, drank a lot, laughed a lot, and worked like a dog. In my 40s, I found myself again sitting mainly with older artists at dinner, because I had become one, and because it was more comforting after a hard day’s work to speak with people who have read and value the same books, witnessed the same careers fall and rise, shared the same departed friends. Now, when I am at Yaddo, I am there but in a way no longer there. Working there has the easy familiarity of a harness into which, with gratitude, I step. First a rabbit, then a dog, now I think of myself as a draft horse, determinedly pulling my compositional plough.

Yaddo is a place where a sane and humble person can see ghosts and believe in them, a place where one can be transformed by talent and the magic of being a guest there into heightened creature, and a place where one is made better than one is. One is borne aloft — no matter who one is, or who one thinks he is — by the conviction that Art matters. The sole qualification for coming remains that an artist shall have done, is doing, or gives promise to doing “good and earnest work.”

Yaddo is a safe haven for souls painfully familiar with the deafening solitude that is an intrinsic part of our corporeal existence. It is a Genuinely Good Place where artists create things of beauty and goodness that bridge the gap between souls. Artists who are invited to Yaddo aren’t “colonists.” They are guests of the Trasks, who wrote: 

“we desire to found here a permanent Home to which shall come from time to time ... authors, painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists both men and women, few in number but chosen for their creative gifts and besides and not less for the power and the will and the purpose to make these gifts useful to the world.”

Yaddo is a place where the fierce discipline of having to fill not only the empty page or canvas or computer screen (insert technology here) but also the wastebasket reigns. It is a link to the artistic continuum not only for the artist who has, as Paul Muldoon once described it to me, “solved the money problem,” but for newcomers and those who have been living hand-to-mouth because they were compelled to create something that, while artistically nourishing, was not trendy or commercially viable. Yaddo is a place of rebirth for the heartsick artist wondering whether it is worth going on. It is a safe haven from whence one can confront life’s most terrifying conundrums. Fashions change, political movements flourish and fail, one decade you’re hip and the next your passé.

Thirty years on, my hair has now got more salt than pepper in it. There are more rules at Yaddo now. There seem to be more rules everywhere. The composer walking down the dirt road deep in the woods near the adjacent racetrack is probably not singing an aria from his new opera; he is talking to his agent on his Bluetooth. The library sometimes feels more like an Internet café than a repository for the signed copies of new books. The unknown and unknowable abide, of course; they, like sorrow, move in the shadows, ready to be brought out into the light, shared, and transformed by hard work and inspiration into joy.

 

Opening Night

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 19 April 2012. Click here to read it there.

A sextet from Amelia's 2010 world premiere production by Seattle Opera. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

A sextet from Amelia's 2010 world premiere production by Seattle Opera. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Whether they were trained at the Curtis Institute or the School of Hard Knocks, on a Broadway Accompanists’ Bench, or by Peering into a Moviola, every composer thinks that they can write a great opera. Some have. Most haven’t.

At 50, after having composed eight operas (and hours of symphonic works, ballets, chamber music, and song cycles), I’ve Merrily and Not-So-Merrily rolled through my “Hills of Tomorrow” phase, my “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” phase, and passed through to the other side-to what happens after the curtain falls.

That’s when I realized that the more that I think I know about music, about theater, about the union of words and music, about what a dramatic beat is, the more arrogant I am. I’ve learned to mistrust actors’ tears (and my own). I’ve found humility as an author, standing at the back rail of theaters, looking out over an audience, and taking their pulse, riding on it, as they ride the pulse of the show itself. Or not.

The night that I finally knew that I had arrived (in my own mind, at least) as an American opera composer was May 8, 2010.

Commissioned by Seattle Opera, my seventh opera, Amelia, had taken from first sketches to the night of its premiere at the McCaw Opera House in Seattle-nearly six years to compose. The culmination of my life to that point as a composer, Amelia was about to be launched with a $3.6 million production by one of America’s largest companies.

Alone, it had been part of my job to walk nearly every foot of McCaw during rehearsals, in order to ascertain what the audience would hear and see from every angle. I had “infiltrated” the theater just as I had the vast old Oriental Landmark movie palace of my youth. The dream of being a world-class opera composer that I had formulated there 32 years earlier, lying on the Oriental’s stage on my back with a heap of musty safety curtain beneath my head, fingers interlaced at the nape of my neck, watching films from behind the screen, had become reality.

From where I stood in my tuxedo at the orchestra pit’s rail, looking up into the slowly filling 2,800 seat theater, it looked as though the house had sold out. The seats formed a wine dark sea of plush red velvet.

The susurrus of the audience’s pre-performance chatter washed over me. Happy, confident, I turned my back on the audience, looked into the pit, reached down, and shook the concertmistress’ hand. “Thank you, Emma,” I said. “My pleasure, really,” she smiled, returning to her seat. Classmates from conservatory days now members of the Seattle Symphony looked up and smiled; I waved and smiled in return, grateful.

I glanced down at the opera’s full score on the conductor’s podium. Amelia was my sixth opera, so I performed a private ritual by discretely tapping the wood of the pit rail six times for luck. The jitters came. Turning back to the house, I let out a very long breath.

My very sanity — the way I crafted it just behind my eyes — was on the line: the future, the present, the past, the living, the dead, the imaginary, all coexisted simultaneously in the opera, just as they did in my head. I was sharing not just my vision, but also my truth. The critics would soon slap me down in the morning, but, for now, it was my turn to sing.

I remembered the night before my first Juilliard audition in July 1979. I stood at the lip of the Uris Theater pit, desperate for someone to talk to, and poured out my anxiety about the audition to come and my excitement at standing right where I was during the intermission of Sweeney Todd to its surprised, amused keyboard player.

Reflexively, I turned back to the pit and made eye contact with David McDade, the opera company’s chief accompanist, seated behind the piano. He smiled up at me in return, mouthed, “In bocca al lupo” silently. I smiled in return and mouthed, “Crepi!” Chuckling, he gave a little wave and looked back to his music.

In a few seconds, the houselights would go “to half,” and Gerard Schwarz would walk briskly to the podium.

I looked back at the audience, and tried to recall the instant that I became aware that music was always flowing through my mind.

Was it the night Father commanded me at age five to sing Friedrich-Wilhelm Möller’s saccharine ditty “The Happy Wanderer” again and again for the only house guests I recall our family ever having entertained? After the first half dozen times, I realized that Father was drunk, and that nobody was listening; in fact, people were embarrassed for me as, crimson with shame, terrified of what would happen to me if I stopped, I sang on and on.

Maybe it was when I was nine, bundled up in winter gear on the school bus, my warm breath as I quietly sang steaming up the window. I sang then because it made me feel better. Does it still? At what point did the melodies I sang become my own? Were they always?

I headed for my seat. Catching my wife Gilda’s eye, I nodded, noting with pure joy how dazzling she looked in her opera gown. I took my seat next to her on the aisle-a composer’s privilege. My brother, my nephew, and Gilda’s generous and loving family surrounded us.

“Am I crazy?” I asked myself as the oboist gave the “A” and the aural primordial soup that a professional orchestra creates in response as they tune before the entrance of the conductor bubbled gently up from the pit. I thought of Monteverdi’s Orfeo: “... che tosto fugge, e spesso a gran salita il precipizio è presso.”

I adjusted my bow tie and cummerbund. Both were tight. I had come to Seattle to attend rehearsals, revise as necessary, to learn as I always did, by observing the process of discovery, and staging. Wife and son in New York, I had returned to a quasi-feral state during the past six weeks — the debilitating insomnia, the depression, the dizzying mood swings, had all roared back.

I felt lost, alone and agonizingly overexposed.

I felt the Koi jumping in my stomach. “Do I simply suffer from a peculiar form of Norwegian Lutheran Histrionic Personality Disorder?” I wondered, half-serious, the sweat beginning to pool under my collar. “Is it so important to me that this opera be a success that, even if it is not, I will make it one in my mind?” I had judged colleagues harshly over the years who I felt had “gone around the bend.” Perhaps I had finally reached that point myself.

I thought of my 20s, of how I was once jealous of others’ self-absorption because I was certain it held as I believed mine did-secrets of self-knowledge. I assumed that the self-absorbed held, so closely and tenderly, many brave secrets and thoughts that would heighten and illuminate my search for identity. The enormity of deception was due-like my current jitters-to my own arrogance.

As it happened, either these people had checked out, gone benignly insane, or had closed up for sanity — it was as simple as that. At the heart of the Sphinx, through the labyrinthine passages, was the rifled vault of a dead pharaoh — no more. My frustration and anger were comical. In sadness, I had grown up.

I thought of my infant son Atticus, asleep now in his crib back in the rented house on Queen Anne. We had decided that he was too small to witness the shooting of the Vietnamese girl at the end of the first act. Still, I felt him there with me, seated contentedly on my lap, his fingers curled like a frond around the thumb of my hand, golden hair wild and falling in ringlets on his tiny, strong shoulders. Forever in my mind it will be my boy to whom Amelia coos, “Hi, baby” at the end of the opera.

I twisted around and looked up into the balconies, checked my watch, and mastered myself. It was time to let go of my own concerns and to be the professional that I had worked so hard to become. My responsibility was to gauge the effect as an author that the opera was having in real time on the audience around me and to make mental notes of changes I needed to make in order to improve the piece.

People quieted.

“Worrying once again my ‘barb of sorrow,’” I thought ruefully as the house lights dimmed. I whispered the most fleeting of prayers, squeezed Gilda’s hand, and blinked hard as in silence the curtain glided upwards.

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 oepra here.