Against Two-Tap Opera

This essay is reprinted from the Huffington Post, which published it in two parts on 14 May 2015 and 8 May 2015 . You can read it there by clicking here and here.

(l. to r.) Joe Flaxman (Harry), Joe Shadday (Ahmed), Danielle Connelly (Lizzy), and Mimi Melisa Bonetti (Clare) in the Kentucky Opera premiere production of A Woman in Morocco.

(l. to r.) Joe Flaxman (Harry), Joe Shadday (Ahmed), Danielle Connelly (Lizzy), and Mimi Melisa Bonetti (Clare) in the Kentucky Opera premiere production of A Woman in Morocco.

The dazzling young opera singer portraying Lizzy, the eponymous writer in my opera A Woman in Morocco, which I am in Louisville at the Actors’ Theatre directing for Kentucky Opera, sat down at the portable Remington, fed paper between the rollers, looked up, and asked, “Now what?” I offered motivation. “No,” she laughed. “Not why. How. How do I work it? I’ve never use a manual typewriter before.” 

The opera’s conductor laughed when I told him. “I recall teaching one of my protégés how to use a rotary phone; he kept looking for buttons to push.” “Boy or girl?” I quipped. “Ah, it was not a ‘princess’ phone, if that’s what you mean,” he replied. Now, on our iPhones, smaller than the communicators Shatner and Nimoy once brandished, we can assign Siri not just a gender, but an accent. The telephone in my hotel room blinks, but I don’t bother with it, since who would even think to call the hotel’s switchboard to reach me?

After six hours working in the darkened Jory Theatre with the three gifted young 20-something women lighting, stage managing, and sound designing the opera, we took a break. Asked one, “Do I pronounce your name Hay-gen or Haw-gen?” I laughed, and answered the latter. “I’m sorry,” she was quick to respond. “Not at all,” I said. “Here’s a quiz: how do you pronounce the name of the guy who wrote ‘West Side Story’?” “Easy,” said another, “steen.” “Nope,” I said, “stein.” “No way,” said the third, incredulous. “Way,” I replied. “I remember how much it used to aggravate him that people messed it up.” Silence. Quietly, almost reverently, my stage manager said, as though I might perhaps be a reanimated denizen of Jurassic Park, “You knew him?”

In the opera, in order to flesh out the doomed, touching fantasy self-image based on Bette Davis constructed by one of the men in their final love scene together, I had the character quote lines from the final scene in Now, Voyager where Davis and Paul Heinreid say goodbye over cigarettes. I saw it in a grand old movie palace as a teenager and wept not just for the characters in the story but for the actors’ understanding of camp, modulated to the the very highest degree. Directing the scene, I asked the men if they’d ever seen it. No. “Dial it up on YouTube as soon as you can,” I enthused, you’ll love it; it will make this scene totally pop.” I hope that they did. 

“How much history we pre-internet types must seem to carry around in our brains to the Millennials,” observed my conductor. “Now, that which fizzes in social media and art on the surface is enough for them most of the time. If they need to know more, they can Google it.” I volunteered how Maurice Abravanel (whom spellcheck helpfully just corrected to “sabra engel,” by the way) used to stroll around the grounds of Tanglewood, a sort of peripatetic Groves Encyclopedia whom young musicians (including myself) with a passion for oral history plied with questions, which he understood it was his role to answer with dignity and wisdom. 

The other night, I stood in the middle of the empty stage of the darkened theater alone, a cup of coffee in one hand, the vocal score of my opera in the other, and reflected again upon not just how much accelerated the loss of our memories has become as a species, but how much more important the acting out of sophisticated, grown up, adult stories that reflect the multiple layers of meaning, intention, motivation, and memory has become, now that the Internet offers a pat answer for everything within two taps of an index finger. 

Like education, opera is one of the “magic bullets.” How quickly we are no more. Indeed, we are no more more quickly than ever before. The stories we tell, live, replete with mistakes, and wreathed in the inherent risk of live performance, vividly engage peoples’ mature hearts and help to grow the poetic memories of folks starving, if only instinctively, for more than “two tap” answers. 

America now leads the world in the development of opera. Our country needs opera companies more than ever to not simply spend their time massaging easily marketable retreads. We must encourage the composition of grown up, original stories told with sophisticated music that speak, as the saying goes, to our current condition. Otherwise, the Two-tappers win, and we should all hand our clarinets to someone who will play them.

That High G

The other night in Louisville, in rehearsal at Kentucky Opera, staging A Woman in Morocco, [the opera opened May 15th at the Victor Jory Theater in Louisville] just before the running of the Kentucky Derby, I realized just how much opera singers and thoroughbred racehorses have in common.

Perched on my director’s stool with the score of my opera before me like an eagle on the ramparts of Tara, a few feet to the right and behind my conductor, I observed as a fistful of young opera singers (accompanied in what is called a “piano dress” rehearsal by a valiant woman attempting to recreate the sound and activity of a full orchestra on an out of tune spinet that belonged in a saloon scene out of an episode of “Gunsmoke”) enacted a scene in which the soprano (lover of the tenor), drugged with kief, is delivered by same tenor into the waiting arms of the villain (the baritone, of course, lover of the tenor).  

The conductor’s baton swished from side to side, up and down, impatiently, like a lion’s tail, pushing the drama forward through complex, churning music counted out in rapidly-shifting meters. The singers, their peripheral vision noting from whence the conductor’s next cue was coming, their ears tracking the ebb and flow of the music, listening to their colleagues’ voices for their entrances, for clues toward line readings (remember, they’re also expected, during ensembles, to make chamber music together), also executing the “blocking” instructions I’d given them that stipulated where they should stand, and what they should do, hurled themselves into the moment. They did this while singing incredibly loudly, requiring the physical stamina of athletes and the calculated madness of stunt pilots. And, yes, they were also acting.

The stage manager, directly to my right, her finger poised over the return key of her laptop, counted down to the pre-recorded electro-acoustic music I had created months before that would begin exactly at the moment the tenor’s knife touched the baritone’s throat, mixing with the voices and orchestra to yield a filmic sound-web of electronic effects, acoustic instruments, and voices.

The other villain of the piece (another baritone) paced back and forth off to the left prior to bursting “onstage” at the appointed moment, working up his energy like a batter just off the baseline preparing to engage the pitcher.

The stage manger’s finger fell, the tenor pressed the knife to the first villain’s throat. The woozy soprano slumped to the bed. The second baritone hit the stage like a prizefighter entering the ring. The conductor’s baton slashed downwards like a machete on a coconut. The piano jangled. Unable to control myself, I whooped for sheer joy.

At that instant, the first baritone, a big, handsome guy aware of his looks who had so far done a perfectly good job during rehearsals, behaved professionally, and received direction civilly, began singing the rush of words that would culminate in a suitably high note to end the scene. As a composer who’d been to this circus a fair number of times before, I’d chosen a note of sufficient altitude to showcase the singer and to close the scene with a bit of the musical “special sauce” that opera lovers attend the opera to enjoy. My eyes narrowed as I prepared to enjoy the moments at I had created.

At that moment, everything shifted, and the hair on my arms stood up. Instead of the sensible note I’d chosen for him, he reached for a high G. And, instead of “cutting off,” or stopping, after the duration I had judiciously crafted for his character, he turned to me, looked me right in the eye, and, with a matador’s gesture of flicking his cape before a bull, he just held the high note. And held it. And held it. Like a horse running for pure joy, he opened up and just Blew us all away. 

Perhaps I was put in mind of it because I was in Louisville on the day before Derby Day, when the women draw from boxes on the top shelves of their closets, or from under their beds, the glorious hats that they don for Churchill Downs. In any event, I suddenly thought of those mornings when, as a young composer at Yaddo thirty years ago, in Saratoga Springs, on property adjacent to the famous Saratoga Race Course there, I’d pack coffee in a thermos, and bagels in a basket, and meet a composer friend named Louise Talma before dawn and walk to the (then) waist high fence that separated Yaddo from the track itself, droop our arms over, and watch as as, the sun rising, the steam rising from their backs, the Great Animals’ trainers led them around the track.

No spectators. No jockeys. No owners. Just the track, the lively morning air, and a palpable sense of wild, free, physical, and pre-spiritual happiness.

I thought then of the morning Louise and I watched as a horse, a Famous Horse with everything to lose, for sheer joy, the cold morning air causing his breath to come out as steam, the sun a sliver of gold behind him, no trainer, saddle, bit, or jockey in sight, sped toward us on the track, as silent and as weightless as an eagle soaring off the ramparts of Tara. He swept by us in near silence, and continued off into the mist. 

I was 22 years old. The world was just opening up before me. That High G.