Opera Saratoga Rocks Blitzstein's Cradle

Ginger Costa-Jackson is Moll in Opera Saratoga's production. Photo Credit: Gary David Gold.

Ginger Costa-Jackson is Moll in Opera Saratoga's production. Photo Credit: Gary David Gold.

Opera Saratoga opened a brilliant staging by Lawrence Edelson of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock on 9 July 2017 in Saratoga Springs. The production alone is reason enough to go. But the chance to be a part of the show’s inspiring, fascinating, distillation of American Music Theater History is something that anyone who loves either music theater or opera (or, like me both—and especially the intersection between the two) should witness. For the first time since 1960, the show made famous by being shut down temporarily by the Feds and performed from the house with the composer onstage at the piano is being performed with the composer’s own orchestrations. If the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.

At the age of seven, small and awestruck in a plush red velvet seat in Uiehlein Concert Hall in Milwaukee, I was mesmerized by the conductor, Kenneth Schermerhorn. He was strikingly handsome, and athletic. He was charismatic, 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 sensuality in his movements when he cued the glittering array of brass instruments, sumptuous strings, and bird-like woodwinds that stirred me. But he was more than a shepherd guiding a flock; he was the orchestra’s sovereign—he was the only one who literally knew the score, and the congregation read only their assigned lines. I didn’t possess then the language to put words to what I was thinking and feeling, but I understand now that what I was experiencing was the intersection of aesthetic, political, psychological, and spiritual forces that constitute performance at the highest level. It blew my mind. The concert hall was like a cathedral, the audience like a congregation, and the communion—for me, at least—entirely spiritual.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that—sitting there 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 my father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; my mother had by example taught me that Authority can 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 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, whose game-changing Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in 1927, once told me, “Don’t worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves.”

Never has there been a composer who so comprehensively manifested both in life and work the ironic union of opposites than Marc Blitzstein. Son of a wealthy banker, he received a full scholarship to study piano at no less than the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music; but he wanted to compose. Believing in “art for art’s sake,” this tonal composer traveled to Europe and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, dean of modernist atonal composers. Homosexual, he married a woman whose translations of Brecht introduced him to not just his theories on theater, but his politics, and the socially conscious Weimar Composers—Hans Eisler, Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith. By 1938, his first “commercial” music-theater work, which was really a numbers opera, The Cradle Will Rock’s "second act" opener was a self-lacerating duet called “Art for Art’s Sake” in which a painter and musician do, well, what Blitzstein was taught to do during Tea Time at Curtis. The apotheosis of this transit? Composing, for the Metropolitan Opera Sacco and Vanzetti, a grand opera about two humble immigrant anarchists convicted and executed for a crime for a crime they may not have committed. Had there been no Blitzstein, there would have been no “radical chic” at the Dakota for Bernstein, no link from Eisler to Bernstein, by way of Boulanger. And we’d all be deprived of the most vital branch of the American lyric theater’s stream.

When Olive Stanton (who was not the neophyte that myth and Tim Robbins in his lovely film paint her as having been) stood up on cue in the audience in 1937 there was Method (though Welles famously hated the Method) in the madness, magic in the moment. “I’m checkin’ home now,” she sang, and our hearts are meant to rush to her, knowing full well that she’s all artifice, Blitzstein’s throaty Lenya. The sarcastic earnestness of Blitzstein’s lyrics embodies his own inner-conflicts. For example, instead of allowing us to really care for Moll when she asks Andy behind the lunch counter for “Coffee and” Blitzstein crafted a joke: “Coffee and … Andy.” His come-hither dramaturgy is smacked down by a Brechtian, distance-making pun. (Similarly, when Paul Muldoon and I wrote the opera Bandanna together, I encouraged him to indulge his penchant for Oxonian wordplay, even though the characters would, by and large, not have expressed themselves thus, and his hand, as an author, would constantly push the audience away as the music pulled them in.) Blitzstein penned broad caricatures not meant to engage us emotionally, yet, in Moll—on whom I modelled the character of Doll in my own Vera of Las Vegas for this reason, and who is portrayed movingly by Ginger Costa-Jackson in this production—he created for the audience a compassionate avatar.

In the Druggist—evocatively sung with vocal slice and clear diction by Keith Jameson in this production—Blitzstein has clearly crafted a Lear figure, but gives his character no satisfactory payoff. We’re meant to be stirred by Larry Forman’s moral authority, yet we meet him two-thirds of the way through the show and, deprived of the personal magnetism of a Jerry Orbach, the role falls flat—Christopher Burchett is a forceful, slightly bemused, ultimately charismatic Larry in this production. Who do we hear about all night long? Mister Mister. He’s more fun to spend time with, after all. We’re not meant to care about Larry. As Everyman, he’s the manifestation of our righteous indignation. Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1933 Inaugural, had put it plainly: “The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.” We don’t need to know Larry until he, by showing that he is not afraid of Mister Mister, deprives the Trump-ian Monster of his Power by revealing that he has no Authority.

Bernstein told me that Marc had intended to respect “the third wall” up until the offstage trumpets at the end. Only a year after that fateful night in 1937 when Welles and Blitzstein were compelled by circumstance to eliminate the third wall, Thornton Wilder would run with it, eliminating it without fuss entirely in the shape of Our Town’s Stage Manager. That in 1935-36 the season Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, Blitzstein would compose an opera (that is a musical that is an opera—it all begins to feel a bit like the reveal in Chinatown: “My sister, my daughter”) that bites the hands of the people who most underwrite opera is unsurprising—I write operas to speak Truth to Power, too. But that he would score it for an orchestra in the pit and embrace the idea of the extravagant, Welles-designed crystal palace set for the 1937 staging is deeply ironic. The orchestra is, after all, an artistic manifestation of 18th century European society, everyone playing their part, only the benign tyrant on the podium knowing the score. Welles’ masterstroke of an insight (he was, above all, a genius of an editor, dramaturge, and adaptor of found material) was to understand that the Authority, the Authenticity, of the piece would be damn-near apotheotic if the composer was alone onstage at the piano, calling the scenes out as though at a backer’s audition—simultaneously the audience’s and backers’ supplicant and god.

In the theater, there are strict protocols for who may speak to whom during production. I’m well-versed in them and have, in the past, relied on them during moments of high-stress, when one is taking artistic risks and feeling particularly exposed. As a Curtis grad (and composer / conductor / librettist / director of nine operas) who, like fellow-alums Blitzstein and Bernstein, was presumeably schooled during weekly Tea Time on “how to behave” in a Green Room, and who “plays the clarinet in the room, not the one in his head,” I sat in the house during the orchestra dress rehearsal and took the piece’s temperature as a seasoned peer. The forces at play during the performance were absolutely incredible: I could feel the grinding of gears as the (decadent?) European Power Structure Paradigm of the Orchestra (with a capital “O” onstage, not nine feet below in a pit, because of the practicalities of this particular theater) and the Maestro both served and upstaged the document. I thought of the great actor / writer / director Howard Da Silva, veteran of the Blacklist and the original production of Cradle, director of several revivals, including the 1947 one conducted by Bernstein. Suspension of Disbelief was never in the cards, of course; but this was different.

When Bernstein conducted that 1948 revival—the first to use Blitzstein’s original orchestrations—he was given a few lines of dialogue, thereby creating what John Mauceri referred to as “provenance” for his own uttering of the same lines last night while conducting the orchestra dress rehearsal of Opera Saratoga’s production—the first to use Blitzstein’s orchestrations since the 1960 New York City Opera radio broadcast featuring Tammy Grimes conducted by Lehman Engel. When we discussed it, Opera Saratoga’s artistic and general director Larry Edelson elaborated,

“I wanted to give Cradle a fully staged presentation, as so often it is done semi-staged or in concert. My one nod to the original circumstances of the premiere is to have Maestro serve as the Clerk. This has become a part of the tradition of the piece, and with our theater and having the orchestra on stage behind the set, I felt we could honor that part of the piece’s history while still maintaining the through line of a fully staged production. (If our theater had a pit, I would likely have made a different choice.) In the libretto, it actually says that Blitzstein played the roles of Clerk, Reporter and Professor Mamie on Dec. 5, 1937 when it opened at the Mercury Theatre!”

Blitzstein, a man of the theater, would have known himself well-served by a maestro who respected and protected the integrity of his notated document as expertly as did Mauceri. (His Decca recording of Blitzstein’s Regina, with Angelina Reaux, Samuel Ramey, and Katherine Ciesinsky is one of my treasured touchstones as a composer.) But would Blitzstein have assigned Maestro lines of dialogue? Did he want to have that conversation? It’s a daring idea, and one I’ve seen put into play in a dozen black box operas and shows over the years. In the context of the Opera Saratoga production, the orchestra and Mauceri onstage, albeit behind the crafty single-piece set painted Rust-Oleum burnt red to match the interior of the theater, it strongly underscored the fascinating Power versus Authority dynamics at play between Maestro and Composer, Maestro and Director, Orchestra and Cast, Document and Production.

In fact, to my ears, the presence of the orchestra in Opera Saratoga’s production serves as the “dramaturgical nuclear reactor” that powered the document—not the least because Edelson’s staging expertly counterpoints with specific choreography and stage a dozen orchestrational flourishes. That Blitzstein’s orchestrations—suave European Weill-isms and an instrumentation similar to Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel—married to sure-fire American commercial-scoring tricks from the 30s by way of vaudeville (read: those wonderful Paramount circuit orchestras all playing Charlie Chaplin’s scores) and tartly Stravinsky-esque doublings by way of Boulanger and Copland. Indeed, biographer Howard Pollack (whose recent Blitzstein biography eclipses even Eric Gordon’s superb Mark the Music) underlined for me just why the orchestrational similarities between Blitzstein and the Brecht-collaborator Weill are so important: “the novel use of accordion, guitar, and Hawaiian guitar ... all enhance the Brechtian distancing effects found in the work proper.” The Eisler-iana is there, too, of course; but the effect is not as chiaroscuro as the European; Blitzstein’s scoring is more fun, and a bit sexier.

Maurice Abravanel told me at Tanglewood that, when he conducted the first Broadway production of Weill’s Street Scene in 1946, he agitated for a “scrappier” orchestral sound, but that Weill insisted that American Broadway audiences wanted “sumptuous strings, plush tuttis.” There are few of those in Blitzstein’s Cradle orchestration—it is quirky, original, edgy, and far more like Little Threepenny Music than a commercial score. Throughout, as one might expect, the effects that Hershey Kay and Sid Ramin would in a few years craft with Bernstein for On the Town, and West Side Story are nascent. In Blitzstein, however, they all are dropped within a few measures, the point having been made. During one sequence for Missus Mister, Blitzstein uses a single maraca to limn what Bernstein would have fleshed out into a fully-scored rhumba; during another, a tender duet for the doomed Polish couple, Blitzstein adroitly adds a dash of menace in a bass drum, stalking away below like a heavy; in another passage, scored for low brass, as Bugs threatens Druggist, Nino Rota’s “Corleone Theme” from his 70s score for The Godfather is thrillingly presaged.

“As the director,” pointed out Edelson, “I didn’t feel the impulse to update the piece or to view it through a particularly 2017 lens, because the piece, written as allegory, speaks to me as if it were written yesterday. I certainly added a few things in the staging to highlight themes that resonated strongly with me, but I also trust the audience. I wanted to set up Blitzstein’s ‘Steeltown, USA’ so that the audience could have their own response to the material—not to force a response on them.”

This is evident throughout the production. One of Edelson’s crucial, droll grace notes is the surprise appearance on the feet of the members of the Liberty Committee of stylish red pumps that perfectly draw a line from them to the prostitute Moll, who, of course, has had the fashion sense—not to mention the integrity—to sport them from the start.

The opera house is a secular cathedral, the audience a congregation, and the communion celebrated by the actors and audience, presided over by a trinity comprised of Author-Director-Conductor. There is no greater transposable story than that. There’s an old saying: “The ink’s not dry until you die.” At the beginning of the rehearsal, Mauceri, dressed in blazer and tie, about to give the opera’s downbeat, rose from his stool and, over his shoulder, drily announced to the production staff, “I’d like to point out that the paint on my stool is wet.” I cannot think of a better metaphor for “free, adult, uncensored” theater. Thanks to this production, I am ready, as a devotee of Blitzstein’s work, to let go of Marc on the piano stool and allow his authorial Authority to grow, to allow the ongoing struggle to reconcile Power, Authority, and Truth to be carried forward through the lens of a conductor’s vision. I encourage everyone else to witness as Blitzstein’s powerful orchestral Cradle at last begins to earn its rightful Authority by catching this production while the paint’s still wet.

This essay has appeared in the Huffington Post. You can read it there by clicking here.

I've also written about Marc Blitzstein here.

Pocket Scores and Patrimony

You could be a stranger alone in a foreign city and still find a friendly face to sit next to by locating the little flash of yellow in the audience and heading for it as, onstage, musicians rehearsed. After a quick whispered greeting (no introductions necessary) you could take a seat next to the partitura's holder, who would, without being asked, share it with you -- possibly even place a finger momentarily on the spot being rehearsed to help you get your bearings. By the end of the rehearsal you would have made a new friend -- possibly for life. Rome, New York, Vienna, or Paris -- the city's name and geographic location were irrelevant: you were a musician, an artist, a citizen of the world, and that flash of yellow, that pocket score, was your passport, universally accepted and valued. 

John Updike called the (now Knopf) Everyman Classics volumes "the edition of record." Hard to dispute. They were designed to fit in the vent pocket of a man's blazer, there to be found while seated alone in a cafe drinking espresso or absinthe or both one assumes; or drawn out whilst seated on a park bench enjoying a good pipe; or to be drawn like a sword by a physical laborer during his break intent on intellectual self-betterment. One can't rekindle, as it were, a conversation with a book or score begun decades before when reading it on an iPad. And, if one's blessed to have had parents who wrote in the margins of their books, then their conversations can continue with you as you come upon them as you read them; at those times it is as though they had never died. 

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday when I drew from the shelf in my studio the yellow Eulenburg edition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 to study, as a musician does, prior to rehearsing it last night with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia. As a composer of concert and theater music in his fifties, one of my passions is the symphonic works of Beethoven and Haydn. As devotedly as I study Verdi as an opera composer, I am deadly serious -- particularly after having composed five symphonies myself -- about improving as a symphonic writer: climbing into Beethoven's skull and physicalizing his musical thinking by conducting it is just the thing. 

I turned to the first page and was surprised to find, jotted in the upper left hand corner, "Max Rudolf, 20 September '83, Curtis." I'd completely forgotten even attending the rehearsal. Yet, in a sudden rush (like that episode of "Star Trek" where Spock puts on the Smart Guy Helmet) all of the maestro's comments suddenly downloaded from some sort of musical cloud. I paged forward and found notes I'd taken on the use of "piqué," a bowing technique ideal for setting up the entrance of the first movement's second theme. Later, in the Menuetto, "October 10, '83 -- Rudolf takes repeats in the da capo." And so forth.

Returning to the first page, I read, in the upper right hand corner, "LB, 1986 -- 'longest continuous fortissimo in classical music'," from a masterclass Bernstein had given at Tanglewood.  "Rare forte-fortissimo at 190," and, later, comments about the "empty" measures in the first movement (bars when nobody plays) pointing out Beethoven's defining of musical structure through negative space (read: silence). Suddenly I recalled the humid Berkshire morning in it's entirety -- me, 25 and hung over, watching the young conductors sweat bullets, my yellow score on my lap, learning. 

Returning again to the first page, written above the title, the words "NOT VACATION" in capital letters. Above them, in parentheses, the name Masur. That rehearsal I recalled. Maestro had mentioned to the Philharmonic sometime during his tenure there that Beethoven is said to have finished the 8th while still composing the 7th, the magnificent choral 9th still nascent in his imagination. There was nothing "light" about a piece many call one of the lighter symphonies. My notes above the trio in the Menuetto, for example, note Masur pointing out that the writing clearly foreshadowed Brahms. "It's like he was seeing into the future," I said to the orchestra last night as we rehearsed the section again. "This time, play it like Brahms," I said, "and you'll see!" They did. We did. 

I have written often over the years of matrimony -- the many things ("all of the good things," as my father once admitted, without a trace of sentimentality) that my artist mother taught me. I'm acutely sensitive to the concept of "hegemonic masculinity" in music history. It's wrong, from our historic perspective, that women composers' works have been sidelined by the men programming concerts and writing the history books. I've worked to change that during my life in music. I do understand, also, that young composers of all gender identifications are understandably eager to wriggle out from beneath not just their professors' thumbs but from the demands placed upon them by the perceived excellence of prior generations' artistic achievements.  The repertoire forces us to come to terms with the troublesome, ultimately inescapable demands of Acquiring Craft, and of Continuous Study. These facts of musical life are, to me, gender non-specific. 

I went to sleep last night with Beethoven's music in my muscles, and his way of thinking in my brain, confident, excited by the fact that the study beforehand and the movement during rehearsal, the activity of transforming with my brothers and sisters in the orchestra the master's notes into sound would somehow rewire my own thought processes during the night. I awoke this morning changed -- better, humbler, intensely grateful for the opportunities that a life in music has given me to reconnect with a past that is smarter and wiser than my own. I'm launching at last into a multi-year project to rehearse every Haydn symphony with the orchestra. I am ready to draw his scores from the shelves of my studio and learn. 

This piece has also appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to see it there. Learn more about the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia by clicking here.

The Ink's Still Wet: How Composers Keep Score

Observing as Gerard Schwarz rehearses "Amelia" for Seattle Opera. (Photo by Rozarii Lynch)

Lukas Foss told me once (by way of justifying his reorchestrating of parts of Beethoven’s Eroica prior to a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra rehearsal he was conducting) that, as far as he was concerned, “we should always treat music as though the ink’s still wet.” Fascinating as the resulting performance was (it certainly had an electric spontaneity to it), Lukas was asking for an awful lot; his days as music director there were numbered.

As a composer, I was apalled when, twenty years ago, I showed up at the first “orchestral read” of a revival of one of my operas at a regional opera company, looked at the parts on the stands, and realized that the conductor had gone through them and—with great care—changed all my dynamics. I caused a fuss with the chap, who explained that he had limited rehearsal time, and that he was simply doing what he had to to make sure that my orchestrations worked with him on the podium—a variation on the old musician trope "play the clarinet you have in your hands, not the one you see in the store window." In other words, I learned over the years, it was I who was shocked to find gambling going on at Rick's. Twenty years later, settled in my seat in the theater to observe a wandelprobe of a revival of another of my operas, I wondered, throughout the first act, why I couldn’t hear the low piccolo doublings of the violins (a useful commercial pit orchestrator trick that subtly firms up the pitch and plumps the tone of a small section of strings) and the very high, Britten-esque passages for two piccolos (they make orchestral climaxes for a small orchestra sound a lot bigger). When the musicians took a break, I walked down to the rail and leaned over and asked the venerable maestro engaged for the revival quietly, “Where are my flutes?” He shot a look at the flutes, both of whom were swabbing out their instruments and all at once attentive. “There was a lot of low piccolo that can’t be heard, and a lot of very high piccolo that sounded shrill, so I had them play everything on the flute in the correct octave,” he replied. “Ah,” I said, “I understand. Thank you.” I made quick eye contact with the flutes as I turned away. One nodded almost imperceptibly. Subsequently, they played their parts exactly as written. I’m proud of that moment, because it is the way I believe a mature professional composer should behave.

Nevertheless, the older I get, the more I agree—when it comes to my own music, at least—with Lukas. I now look to Verdi and Puccini, who laboriously crafted new iterations of their operas for each major production, adding and subtracting arias, changing tessituræ, crafting—in the Italian fashion—roles specifically to the artists who would sing them. When I worked as a proofreader and copyist on Broadway I witnessed firsthand as songs were added and excised from scores by the shows’ creative teams at lightning speed. After all, the American music theater would be a lot poorer today if Stephen Sondheim hadn’t retreated to a hotel room in Boston during out of town tryouts for A Little Night Music and come up with Send in the Clowns.

Astonishing it was, back in the early 80s, to sit next to David Del Tredici in the shed at Tanglewood as the orchestra rehearsed one of his magnificent, sprawling Alice-inspired orchestral works, and to see (in green pen for Solti and Chicago; blue pen for Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, red pen for Slatkin and St. Louis, and so forth) his small, though trenchant revisions as each score was run through its paces by a different set of players. Even more astonishing it was as a student in Philadelphia to examine Leopold Stokowski’s copy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and to see, in one color, his own orchestrational changes for performance in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and Stravinsky’s own, in another color, for another performance.

Nevertheless, when it comes to concert music—symphonies, string quartets, and so forth—there’s still a strong feeling amongst most composers that “the document”—that thing labored over in private for months and years by the solitary composer in her studio—is sacred, and that changes are made only with the greatest trepidation. Even I, as hard as I’ve worked to cure myself of this attitude, find it hard to revise my symphonic works. Orchestral rehearsal time is incredibly expensive—especially nowadays, when a twenty-minute long composition can receive thirty minutes’ worth of rehearsal before the first performance. When a player stops the rehearsal to ask a question, it costs money. Moreover, although the composer has (in principle, at least) all the authority AND the power when her music hits the music stands, every question diminishes her authority. The players cease trusting the dots and dashes on the page. They begin second-guessing things. The result is as inevitable as it is chaotic.

Consequently, the full scores of serious concert and operatic works attain an almost tombstone-like stolidity, crafted as they have been to withstand bad performances and facilitate great ones. I’ve conducted Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony with a community orchestra that struggled with it, and a regional orchestra for whom it represented no serious technical challenge. The transcendent glory (and I mean glory!) of its execution is that it came off with both.

What does a composer do, after the inspiration and composing is over, to protect her vision and to furnish to the players the most durable road map she can—one that, like Copland’s Third, will make a bad orchestra sing and a great orchestra burst into flames? I was asked this the other day by one of my adult pupils whose opera was being premiered at long last by a major company and wanted to know if I had a “work routine” I could share with him so that he wasn’t at the mercy of the generosity of the company’s orchestra librarians and musicians once his music hit the stands. I was surprised to admit that I didn’t have one. Sure, I had in my files “work routines” for use back when I was a proofreader during the 90s, but nothing more current that considered engraving software and contemporary practices. So, I jotted these thoughts about “ten passes” through the score for him, and share them now with you. They are by no means comprehensive, but they represent a starting point, and making yourself go through the score ten times to check for these things will make life better for everyone, including the audience.

Full scores of some of my operas.

ONE

First I go through the vocal parts and recheck the hyphenation of every word with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, I go through again and check the punctuation. Singers and vocal coaches look to punctuation for an indication not just of what the words are trying to express, but where they can breathe. Finally, I check the prosody. In short, I set text for sense first, then, for sensibility. I avoid putting unaccented syllables on downbeats, since that isn’t the way people speak in real life. Well, William Shatner does, but he’s the magnificent exception.

TWO

I go through and check all the key changes if it is a tonal work. Engraving software tends to leave vestigial bits of code around double bars that confuse not just the midi triggers hidden in your score file, but they mess up the spacing. This leads to a pass through to double check the layout of the score pages. Most software defaults to putting too many bars on each system of music so that, when you must squeeze extra music in to facilitate a page turn you can. I deduct a measure each page to give more space to the music.

THREE

Then I pass through the clarinet part to see if I can’t make the keys easier by having the player switch to an instrument with a different transposition, like D or E-flat. I then do this for the trumpets. Finally, I’ll change heavily sharp keys to flat ones for the brass. Happy players perform better.

FOUR

Then I go through and recheck all the slurs in the winds and brass. Slurs in the winds refer only to where the player should breathe, not to the shape of the phrase. Then I check all the bowings (yes, I do my own bowings) in the string parts. Again, bowings are NOT phrase marks. If there’s something tricky, I’ll pick up a violin and try it slowly; I’ll physicalize it so that my authority is actual, not hypothetical.

You're perfect, now change: the score to one of my operas.

FIVE

I pass through the entire orchestra to recheck articulations. Each composer develops her own personal glossary of what each accent means. I lean on Benjamin Britten (whose articulations are the best of anyone’s—they always sound without special explanation, even out in the audience) and Richard Strauss, both of whom spent a lot of time on the podium and were taught a lot by players about what they needed to see in order to give the composer what she wanted.

SIX

I then conduct through the score one more time, checking to make sure that the time signatures I’ve chosen match the beat patterns that the conductor will likely choose to keep things together most efficiently. Sure, they’ll choose their own patterns, but, as with bowings, one wants to establish a basis for a mutually-respectful dialogue.

SEVEN

I then check the “dove tails” in the score. These are the points when players “hand off” tunes to one another—whether from solo to solo or from one choir to another. These are frequently a little tattered. A seamless orchestral sound is something attained only through attention to this detail. One never gets any credit for having done it, but one can tell when a composer hasn’t. (Remember, craft is only really satisfying when it is good enough to conceal itself.)

EIGHT

I then go through and check the dynamics. I remind myself that the players have been trained since childhood to balance with one another. Second-guessing their training leads to the same chaos that a conductor “following” rather than “leading” the orchestra does. It’s like a sonic hall of mirrors, and it leads to disaster. If you want the winds to balance as a choir, just give them all the same dynamic and score it accordingly. Nothing else is needed. If you want the different sections of the orchestra to balance, look at the repertoire and you’ll see that they are marked the same dynamic; the composer’s choice of suitable ranges is what ensures the balance, along with the players’ training. Fine-tuning with all sorts of dynamics within the chord leads to stressed-out players and weird sounding tuttis.

NINE

After running through the percussion parts to make sure that I’ve given the players enough time to run from one instrument to another, I check the rising chromatic lines to make sure they are spelled in sharps, and the falling chromatic ones in flats. This is particularly important when the music is based on an octatonic (or any artificial) scale. The players see only one part in front of them. All those augmented seconds make sense intellectually when you see them in the full score, but they make a single line player's life harder. That said, a famous composer once asked me “Why do your chords ring and mine don’t?” I was compelled to answer that it was because I spelled mine correctly. After all, an A sharp is higher in pitch than a B-flat, and so forth. The other composer was not amused.

Kelly Kuo rehearses "A Woman in Morocco" at the Butler Opera Center as I observe, flanked by the production's vocal coach Kathy Kelly.

TEN

Finally, I go through and make certain that all the rests are “collapsed” into sensible groups. Double bars exist only as a reminder to the player to “look up” for information from the podium. Composers who’ve mainly played chamber music always divide up the beats too much in their orchestra pieces. Players need to see only where the stick is probably going to be in their peripheral vision—nothing else. Then, if I’m using Sibelius software, I’ll go through and “reset note spacing” to get rid of more digital kudzu, and then “lock score” and “freeze position” so that all my work isn’t lost.

AND THEN...

I’d say that, if you do all that, then you’ve found about ten percent of what is likely to go wrong in rehearsal. Throw your hands up in the air and begin again, friend Sisyphus. The ink's still wet.

This essay has appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.

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.

Being Frank: Composing "Shining Brow"

Muldoon and Hagen in 1993.

Muldoon and Hagen in 1993.

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.

Robert Orth and Brenda Harris as Wright and Mamah Cheney in a concert performance by the Buffalo Philahrmonic released by Naxos.

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.”

Carolann Page, creator of the role of Mamah Cheney.

"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.

Michael Sokol as Wright in the 1993 Madison Opera production.

Michael Sokol as Wright in the 1993 Madison Opera production.

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.

Kevin Kees as Wright in the "Fallingwater Brow."

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.

“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.

The Fallingwater premeire by Opera Festival of Pittsburgh in 2013.

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.

Robert Orth as Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago Opera Theater's revival, directed by Kenneth Cazan.

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.

Tim Petty as Wright in the Tulsa Opera revival.

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.

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)

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. 

First published in the Huffington Post on 8 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

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. Here are six dramatic beats about Marc Blitzstein.

One

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.

Two

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.

Three

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.”

Four

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.

Five

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)

Six

“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 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.

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.