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