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.

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.