Yaddo: Transforming Sorrow into Joy

Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, is more than America’s most prestigious artist retreat: it is a testament to one couple’s determination to transubstantiate loss into works of art. Like mine, Yaddo’s story is about what poet Kim Addonizio calls "the presence that absence makes." After the tragic deaths of their children, financier Spencer Trask and his gifted wife Katrina dedicated themselves to the creation of Yaddo for the same reason that my parents created me. There envelops Yaddo (rhymes with “shadow”) a profound Victorian melancholy that serves as an unspoken reminder to even the fastest of trackers in any given pack of ambitious young artists passing through the place of serious art’s immense stakes. To me, Yaddo is not just a hallowed place, but also my home.

I ended my mother's doomed gavotte with cancer at her request during the 1982 Christmas holidays, returned to school at the Curtis Institute, and unspooled my final year there as a pupil of Ned Rorem's. Upon graduation the following spring, without an address, my books in storage, my life a completely chance-ful thing as I prepared to move to Manhattan where, in a succession of sublets and rentals for the next 30 years, I'd live, I first came to Yaddo in summer 1984. I landed there at the very, very end of Yaddo's first great era, a time not long after the days that one could not even apply; Elizabeth Ames invited people directly. So it happened that Ned telephoned the President of Yaddo, Curtis Harnack (that wonderfully humane man), and his brilliant, wise wife, Hortense Calisher to arrange for my first visit. 

“Yaddo,” wrote Ned, “is necessary for you now. Don’t try so hard to be Rastignac. Perhaps a little less need to get ahead, to be a “professional”; a little more introspection and, indeed, egotism, will do you good. But who knows? One man’s meat, etc.….” Ned instructed me to ask David Diamond (with whom I would begin studying at Juilliard the following September) what books I should read before entering his studio. Along with decreeing that I spend the summer studying “Beethoven Quartets op. 59, No. 1, Opus 131, Haydn’s Opus 33, No. 1, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, and Berg,” David had commanded me to read Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. I arrived at Yaddo with the need not to be Rastignac, but Orpheus; I desired nothing more than to sing my departed mother’s spirit out of the Underworld, bring her back to life.

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984. (Photo Credit: Hortense Calisher)

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984. (Photo Credit: Hortense Calisher)

After a train ride up the Hudson, I disembarked at the Saratoga Springs train station. I had with me the clothes on my back, Mann and Rolland in my backpack, four shirts, three pair of underwear, two pair of jeans, four pair of socks, mechanical pencils and erasers, thirty dollars, and lots and lots of King Brand manuscript paper.

Now retired, James Mahon, a courtly, red-bearded Charon with a mild voice and probing, intense eyes who gravely addressed me as “sir” long before I had any claim to it, placed my backpack gently in the beat up old company station wagon. We drove slowly through town, past Town Hall and the Post Office, and the Adirondack Trust bank. We passed the Parting Glass, where mingled during August the jockeys from the Saratoga Race Track and their tall, glossy girlfriends, the Yaddo artists, the City Ballet dancers, the Philadelphia Orchestra players, the townies, and the bettors.

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

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

The life-sized portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask that hang in the mansion's main hall. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

The life-sized portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask that hang in the mansion's main hall. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

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

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

Tears spontaneously flowed as beloved, infinitely capable program director Rosemary Misurelli (who I had never met) bundled me up in her Rabelaisian Earth Mother arms at the front door of the office. “I feel as though I have come home,” I burbled. Weeping, she covered my face with kisses, and then took me in to meet Curt, who asked me why I was crying. “I have no idea,” I said. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I think so,” I said. “I don’t understand why I’m crying.” “Oh, I do,” he said, with a kind, open mid-western smile.

Upon arrival, a Special Assistant to the President escorts every artist to his or her studio and bedroom. That summer, Doug Martin and Nancy Brett served. I was given a tour of the grounds, and then shown into the mansion’s grand hall. Hanging there were two life-sized full portraits. Before being told her identity, I was as irresistibly drawn to Eastman Johnson’s painting as I had been to the Norman Rockwell portrait of Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist. We hadn’t met, but my heart instinctively moved out to her. I felt safe here. “Yes, that’s her,” Nancy said, gently pulling me away and leading me up the sweeping stairs. “Katrina Trask?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, pointing up at the two-story tall Tiffany window atop the stairs. “That’s her, too.”

My younger son draws from the lead-lined treasure chest in the library the note that has resided there for a long time and left, as far as he was concerned, just for him. And, at Yaddo, why not? (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

My younger son draws from the lead-lined treasure chest in the library the note that has resided there for a long time and left, as far as he was concerned, just for him. And, at Yaddo, why not? (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

We turned left at the foot of the window, passed a large brass spittoon, and reached the sliding door leading to Oratory (a place of prayer), the room next to what had been Spencer’s den that would serve as my bedroom.

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

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my 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 plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

There are always beautiful seasonal arrangements at Yaddo built of flowers from the estate's gardens. (Photo: Hagen Collection)

Yaddo is about the work, first. My work book lists the following pieces composed all, or in part, there between 1984 and the present: four major operas: Amelia, Bandanna, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Shining Brow; two cantatas: A Walt Whitman Requiem and Light Fantastic; my Symphony No. 3; and nearly a hundred art songs and chamber works, large and small.

Much of Yaddo’s magic derives from the effect that it has on one’s fellow artists. For example, I had learned about the extravagance, the power, and the beauty of raw talent at Curtis, that talent is like a natural resource—amoral and unearned. It can be cultivated and strengthened by its possessor, and it can be misused, of course. But I had never (and have never, since) met anyone quite as joyously talented as David Del Tredici, who I befriended during my first residency. He was—and remains—a nova.

At Yaddo with fellow composers David Del Tredici and George Tsontakis, Autumn, 2006. (Photo credit: Gilda Lyons)

At Yaddo with fellow composers David Del Tredici and George Tsontakis, Autumn, 2006. (Photo credit: Gilda Lyons)

I first met Joel Conarroe that summer. Joel, the author of books and articles about American literature and anthologies of poetry, president of the Guggenheim Foundation from 1985-2002 (and a trustee until his retirement in 2016); former chair of the English Department, Ombudsman, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and former president of the PEN American center, was deeply gentle, erudite, decent, and agreeable company over dinner during the weeks that our visits overlapped.

In 1994, Joel and David Del Tredici  reached out to Donald S. Rice, then Chairman of Yaddo’s Board of Directors, and together nominated me for membership in the Corporation. Subsequently elected by the Directors and Members that year, I was further elected by our brothers and sisters fifteen years later to continue beyond the restriction of a term limit as a “Lifetime Member”–an honor bestowed on only one other Member: Susan Brynteson, Yaddo’s beloved Librarian, and (now retired) Vice provost and head of the University of Delaware Library. In his letter commending me to Don, Joel described me as “represent[ing] the best of what Yaddo is all about.” I treasure Joel’s approbation and this honor above any other I’ve received in my life.

Performing with Gilda Lyons in the Music Room during the Annual Meeting. Aaron Copland premiered his Piano Variations on this exquisite instrument. (Photo credit: Angellos Ioannis Malefakis)

Performing with Gilda Lyons in the Music Room during the Annual Meeting. Aaron Copland premiered his Piano Variations on this exquisite instrument. (Photo credit: Angellos Ioannis Malefakis)

I was taught a briskly affectionate character lesson of immense value one evening at West House during the early 80s by novelist Lynn Freed. She’d been in residence long enough to observe our small society in action, but it was our first real conversation. “What do you make of so-and-so?” she asked. “And him? And her?” We compared notes. Presently, she asked, “Darling boy, why are you such a Rabbit with people in public, and so Dead-Spot-On-Brutal in your assessment of them in private? Surely there’s a balance, no?”

When at 16 I told my English teacher Diane Doerfler that I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever's short stories I possess to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later Susan Cheever and I became friends at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift. Years later, playwright / actor Ayad Akhtar was made a member of the Corporation. He charmed me, when we met for the first time during the annual fall meeting, by regaling me during dinner with fulsome reminiscences of Doerf, whom he credited as “an essential guiding force in his early development.”

Yaddo's  Collected Balzac , shelved in West House.

Yaddo's Collected Balzac, shelved in West House.

It was at Yaddo—reading the Trask family’s exquisite 1901 Little, Brown and Company Works of Honoré de Balzac shelved in West House—that, over the course of fifteen years, I savored every word of Balzac’s monumental La Comedie Humaine, in English, and then in French. He remains to me as precious as Georges Simenon is to Ned. Rastignac—he, whose name is an insult in France, has served all my life both as a warning and as a negative example, as surely as Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe has constituted a blessing and an imprecation. In other words, on the one hand, “la vie humaine se compose de deux parties: on tue le temps, le temps vous tue,” and, on the other, “there are some dead who are more alive than the living.”

Katrina Trask’s was one of what Rick Moody calls the “momentous and astonishing and beautiful deaths” that have taken place at Yaddo. During my first visit—summer 1984—I had spent several weeks composing a requiem, what poet and memoirist Richard McCann might call a “ghost letter” to Katrina. Richard wrote, in one of his poems, “Quiet! Don’t you know that the dead go on hearing for hours?” I believe that they continue hearing forever if they are of a mind to. I believe that Katrina Trask continues to hear what goes on at Yaddo to this day.

A photo of a Daguerreotype of Katrina Trask that hangs in West House.

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

The Grand staircase. Katrina Trask is portrayed in the Tiffany window. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

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

“What did you see?” I asked. “A woman in a white dress, so help me God,” he said.

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

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

How, I wondered as a boy, would it feel to experience happiness without dread, and, if I did, how long would it last before the inevitable happened and I ended up, at two in the morning, my ass is in the air, scrubbing again and again the same square foot of asphalt tile until I had forgotten what the question was? Now I wonder, when I’m telling my sons a bedtime story about the animals at Yaddo (who have names, and speak, and have adventures, and inhabit a world that is entirely real to my boys, as real as Yaddo is to me, and as precious), I wonder how it is possible that there is no dread in our home; how is it possible that this happy story won’t end for my sons the way that it ended for my brothers?

After much discussion, and many Yaddo bedtime stories, and Elaina Richardson’s permission, I agreed to take my son with me to attend the 24 July 2015 ceremony at Yaddo at which the mansion and grounds would be proclaimed a National Historic Landmark.

The water in the “Sleepy Naiads” fountain was cold and clear. “Brr,” said my son, now aged 6, pulling his small, perfect feet out. It was his first visit to Yaddo. To look our best, we had dressed in matching starched white shirts and shorts. But a child’s a child, and we’d decided that, before touring the mansion together, we ought to dip our feet in the fountain. I passed him his stockings. We sat in the grass. I handed him his shoes. “You make the ears,” he explained. “Then you jump through the hole, right?” I asked. “Uh huh. And then you pull the ears tight,” he said, pulling on his shoelaces with a look of satisfaction.

The Yaddo Mansion seen from the Sleepy Naiad Fountain. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

The Yaddo Mansion seen from the Sleepy Naiad Fountain. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

I looked up. At the top of the hill, framed by cloudless blue sky, sat the Yaddo mansion. My son's attention shifted from his shoelaces to follow my gaze. “Papa?” “Yes, honey.” “How did the children die?” he asked. I looked back down at the grass, deciding how much to say. “There were four of them. They all died before they were teenagers,” I said. His eyes widened. “Do you really want to hear this?” He nodded gravely. “One lived only 12 days.”

My son shook his head in wonder: “Like the ‘Other Daron,’ Papa?” “Yeah,” I answered. “No wonder you love this place so much,” he said. “More than you know, baby,” I said. “So, tell me,” he said, placing his hand on my beard the way that I sometimes stroke his cheek. “The oldest child had Uncle Kevin’s middle name, Alansson,” I began. My boy looked up at the house as I spoke. “He died of some childhood disease. The middle children were Christina and Spencer Jr. At some point when they were children, they caught Diphtheria kissing their Mama goodbye.” He turned suddenly, and asked, “Did their Mama die, too?” “No,” I answered, “their mama Katrina was okay.” He threw his arms around me, and began to cry. “It’s okay, baby,” I said, stroking his hair. He looked up at me, and asked, “What happened to the last one?” I pulled him close. He buried his head in my chest. “The last child was named Katrina,” I told him, stroking his hair. “She lived only nine days.”

Presently, we gathered up our things and walked to the car. "Can we come back, Papa?" "Not only can we return, we must," I told him firmly, digging my chin into the top of his head as I held him, tears falling into his hair's golden ringlets. "Why, Papa?" I looked at him—his tender, small frame just beginning to flesh out with the wiry strength of the man into whom he'd grow, and I thought to myself that Life is fragile, that Art is fragile, too; I thought that the Loud drown out the Rest most of the time, but that Art, so simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, like Love, can do more than prompt a tyrant's tears; it can give strength and hope to those fighting for a better world for our kids, a safer place to bring them up, a more tolerant mindset, more open hearts. I had to look away from him. and up the hill towards the mansion as I formulated a simpler answer, an answer that, hopefully, even a child might understand. "Because Yaddo," I whispered, "is a place where sorrow is transformed into joy."

My older son at Yaddo, Summer, 2014.

My older son at Yaddo, Summer, 2014.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post in an earlier form on 5 June 2012. You can read it there by clicking here. Below is a little fundraising video shot in the Yaddo Mansion's Music Room several years ago.

Taking Wing: Composing "Amelia"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 12 August 2016. To read it there, click here.

Librettist Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen in New York City, 2007. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Librettist Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen in New York City, 2007. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

This is the story of how Amelia, an opera commissioned by Seattle Opera about a first time mother-to-be named Amelia, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot-father in Vietnam, got written.

The opera tells the story of how she breaks free from anxiety to embrace healing and renewal for the sake of her husband and child. The original narrative unfolds over a 30-year period beginning in 1966. Amelia interweaves one woman’s emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, the mystery that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and elements of the Daedalus and Icarus myth to explore man’s fascination with flight and the dilemmas that arise when vehicles of flight are used for exploration, adventure, and war. With an intensely personal libretto by American poet Gardner McFall, whose father was a Navy pilot lost during Vietnam, the opera moves from loss to recuperation, paralysis to flight, as the protagonist, Amelia, ultimately embraces her life and the creative force of love and family.

Daron presents the completed partitura to Speight Jenkins. (Photo: Kelly Tweeddale)

Daron presents the completed partitura to Speight Jenkins. (Photo: Kelly Tweeddale)

As the old saying goes, “Life is short. Opera is long.” And grand operas are beautiful beasts that sometimes take a very long time to gestate. In another life and time, say, 1860-something, I might’ve met Speight Jenkins while squinting over a hand of poker in the saloon of a tumbleweed-infested ghost town—he, the editor of the local gazette and local magistrate; me an itinerant alcoholic Lutheran preacher making a forlorn show of shepherding a flock.

Instead, a hundred years later, Speight graduated UT, Columbia Law School, served in the U.S. Army, and later became a music critic and journalist, helming Opera News for seven years, and then writing about music for the New York Postfor another seven before a guest lectureship about Wagner’s Ring brought him to the attention of Seattle Opera’s board of trustees such that they offered him the post of general director of the company in 1983. As it happens, we met for real by Email.

“I’m writing to you,” Speight’s 5 November 2003 message began, “to find out if A) you are interested in writing an opera for Seattle, and B) what your ideas for such an opera might be. My first interest is in the music; the crucial factor in any opera is the music.”

We began an 18-month epistolary working relationship, during which I pitched him no fewer than two-dozen potential scenarios. He chose the last, a sprawling, innigpiece in which I explored my preoccupation with flight as metaphor for life, birth for letting go and linking with the past, and the fact that the dead are not lost to us. Characters included the Wright Brothers (two male sopranos), Icarus and Dædalus, Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Leonardo da Vinci, and a little boy (me) laying on the floor on his tummy watching the moon landing on television. Once sold on my idea, Speight green-lit the project, my attorney began billing, contracts were drawn up, and collaboration agreements sketched out.

The evening of 25 June 2004, pacing back and forth in the Pink Room (the room in which Katrina Trask spent her last years) in West House at Yaddo, the artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, I drained the battery in my cell phone talking for six hours with famed director Stephen Wadsworth about the treatment on which I’d sold Speight. His role, Stephen explained, was to “strengthen the through-story and transform my oratorio into a dramatic vehicle.” I proposed (before even asking her) that we use Gardner McFall’s life experiences to hold together the narrative and ask her to write it.

I’d met Gardner at Yaddo during summer 1984 and set one of her poems, “Sonnet After Oscar Wilde,” which closes the song cycle Love Songs. Most importantly, I loved her poetry. Secondly, Gardner’s flier father was lost at sea during the Vietnam conflict, triggering a lifelong poetic fascination with his unknown fate. Because I wasn’t interested in doing a “take down” of the military, but rather in exploring the human toll that military service extracts, Gardner’s self-contained dignity and complete identification not just with my heroine’s emotional state as an expectant mother (Gardner has a daughter) but also with her psychological makeup as a Navy junior guaranteed that the characters that she drew in the opera would personify the honorable rectitude that they do in real life.

The next day, Stephen sent me his first scenario draft of the first act, in which he had begun incorporating Gardner’s experiences (as I had related them), thereby anchoring the opera I had initially conceived in the events of Gardner’s personal narrative.

When I called her, later that day, explained what I had in mind, and invited her to write the libretto of Amelia, I took for granted that she would be willing to mine her past as I do mine, and to lay bare her most painful memories for the sake of telling our story. If I hadn’t intended to strip myself every bit as bare in the process, I would never have asked.

The following summer at Yaddo, a few weeks after David Diamond’s death, Gardner began tentatively committing to some words for the libretto of Amelia. Each afternoon we met—again, I was in the Pink Room, and Gardner was down the hall—and talked about Amelia and the sort of opera we wanted to make together.

“I wish,” I wrote to Speight on 8 July 2005, “I could express how excited Gardner and I both are by what we have come up with. When, at about two this morning, I slipped under her door (she has been lodged in the same house, down the hall) the tenth generation of revisions to the work we’ve done together here on Ameliabefore pouring myself a glass of wine and doing a little reading, I didn’t expect to hear from her before her departure. But this morning I discovered that Gardner had slipped a note under my door, which read, in part: ‘Daron—I feel the Amelia project is such a Blessing—truly—and about our work together in the coming months I can only say: CAVU: Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited!’”

“We did not begin in earnest until May 2006, again at Yaddo. By that time, we had contracts with Seattle Opera and a final, mutually agreeable scenario. … Each morning, I sat down at my computer in Yaddo’s High Studio to write, using the scenario as an outline but feeling free to invent key imagery to associate with the characters and to supply emotional motivation for their actions. When I completed a scene, I would share it with Daron, who processed the text by retyping it, sometimes making a deletion, or asking for an additional line or two. … By the time I left Yaddo in mid-June, I had finished the first two scenes of Act I.” - Gardner McFall, in the Afterward of Amelia, the Libretto

I began working out the opera’s musical ideas by setting a sheaf of Amelia Earhart’s public statements to music for treble chorus and string quartet. The Milwaukee Choral Artists and a string quartet made up of members of Present Music conducted by Sharon Hansen premiered the song cycle, called Flight Music, in November 2005 at the Cathedral of Saint John in Milwaukee. Most of the music of this cycle ultimately turned up somewhere in Amelia.

Over the course of the next year, Gardner, Stephen, and I met periodically at Gardner’s home on the Upper West Side to thrash through the libretto together. We were not cooks sharing a kitchen but, rather, dreamers sharing a vision, each asking tough questions of the others. For me, it was like a return to the summer months of 1992, when I played and sang through Shining Brow for Stephen at his apartment in the Village and I was compelled by a trustworthy collaborator to justify every dramatic beat.

The Acosta Nichols Tower Studio at Yaddo, where much of  Amelia  was composed. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The Acosta Nichols Tower Studio at Yaddo, where much of Amelia was composed. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

It wasn’t until May 2007, fully two years later, that I sat at last at the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio at Yaddo, and began, with trepidation, writing the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will bTe fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

During April and May 2010, Seattle Opera rented a cozy house for me atop Queen Anne Hill. New commissions came, including one for a new opera based on Winsor McCay’s seminal surrealist Little Nemo comic strip for Sarasota Opera, based on a libretto by J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy. On my own for the first time since marrying Gilda, desperate for an escape from the pressures of production, I drank every night. I was sober for rehearsals, but I felt desperately over-exposed as a person. When Kate Lindsey, as Amelia, “saw” Icarus, Dædalus, and her dead relatives in the room, she was playing my reality. When Nathan Gunn cradled the newborn at the end of the opera, he was playing me.

Daron looks on as Gerard Schwarz leads the  wandelprobe  of  Amelia. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Daron looks on as Gerard Schwarz leads the wandelprobe of Amelia. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

After five weeks of staging rehearsals, production moved from the rehearsal hall to the opera house. My heart began to lift during the ritual introduction of the production team on the empty stage. The orchestra had rehearsed the score. The focus of production shifted to the realization of my larger compositional vision (including sets, lights, a mighty orchestra, and an audience) as the huge mechanism of the company came into play.

Technicians walked purposefully about, whispering. The lighting designer conferred with his assistant at the portable board set up in the orchestra. The enormous sets were assembled and struck, one after another, on the stage. I walked the darkened house for hours, memorized the sightlines, and gauged what would “speak” to what part of the audience.

Opening night of any opera is exhilarating as hell, but this was Amelia, in which I had invested so very much. The McCaw Hall curtain slid silently up to reveal the first scene. Gerard Schwarz brought his baton down, and the Seattle Symphony began the first bars, intentionally redolent of Vere’s music from Billy Budd—a blessing, homage, and a curse on this opera’s characters. In the front yard of a suburban tract house lay a young girl on her back holding her father’s cap, on which could be clearly seen a commander’s insignia. Her mother folded laundry in her room. Her father sat in the kitchen, cutting himself a slice of pie.

An S.O.S. rhythmic tattoo began. It was this particular household’s—and the opera’s—stuttering heartbeat. (I chose it because Father was a radioman and because its underlying message was that, as in my childhood, anxiety underpinned the bourgeois family scene.) I knew that the audience wouldn’t entirely understand until the moment that the mother received the news from the Chaplain that her husband was lost in action what they had been intuiting: what they had thought was the present was the past; the happiness unfolding between father and daughter was a memory. Dodge was not there—he was singing in the past. Amelia’s mother Amanda sang a duet with that past.

I wondered that hay fever had struck this audience as hard as it did. “Those sniffles are not because of allergies, darling: they’re weeping,” Gilda whispered.

The first scene ended and the orchestra segued into the first interlude. A set of variations on the lullaby that Amelia’s father had sung her as a child, the interlude traced her evolution as a person from the age of nine (the point at which she learned of her father’s disappearance) to age 31 (the point at which we meet her in her third trimester of pregnancy).

The curtain rose. Amelia’s dream life counterpointed her waking life. On one side of the stage sat Icarus and Dædalus constructing their wings; on the other side, Amelia and her husband slept. At the end of the scene, her dream shifts to a memory of her mother giving her the news of her father’s disappearance. Amelia leaves, and in her absence, her dreams and memories intermingle. Icarus and Dædalus, prepare to take to the air. “Who invented flying? And why?” asked Amelia’s memory of her mother.

The orchestra joined her on this pitch, because it was in this dark, subconscious place that the second interlude would move and unfold. Then, the curtain, accompanied by a smear of polytonal string chords, rose to reveal Tom Lynch’s set. The Vietnamese couple recounted Dodge’s (final?) moments, which were enacted around them. The loss. As the characters spun out the long moment of discovery with which the scene ends and the orchestra quietly explored the moment, the house was absolutely still. It felt as though the opera house was collapsing in on itself.

“Did you hear that silence?” Speight asked, aglow with satisfaction, during the intermission. “I mean, did you read it? It was incredible.” He sped off to confer with his peers—the general directors of other companies considering productions of their own. Shell-shocked, Gilda and I did a walkabout arm-in-arm through the lobby. Several tearful Vietnam veterans approached, expressed thanks to me for addressing their experiences in the opera. “I’m honored by your reaction,” I responded, hoarsely. The air was earnest. People had been touched.

The second act began. The curtain slid up to reveal a painted sunset nearly identical to the one I had just seen during intermission. Amelia arrived. The action moved through Amelia’s breakdown—the most straightforward story telling in the opera, intended to reassure those theatergoers who had felt set a bit adrift during the first act.

The orchestral interlude exploring her relationship with her father and flight ended. The death of the boy unspooled, the reunion of Amelia and her dead father took place, along with her subsequent reawakening. Cue the interlude tracking Amelia’s labor towards its climax. The orchestra dropped out, the baby emerged, and the final unaccompanied nonette pealed forth. The wave of emotion that swept through the house was like an unexpected spring shower.

I thought of sitting at my mother’s feet as a child, watching her sculpt. I thought of the six things that she had taught me that every worthwhile piece of art required: hard work, love, dedication, discipline, craft, and the revealed secret. I had committed my life to the pursuit of the secret. I had learned that the secret was my Truth. The frog behind Amelia’s back? The final tableau was an exact portrait of the inside of my mind and heart the moment that my son Atticus was born. I had been given the opportunity to share my truth, and to know that for one instant I had gotten “it” exactly right.

The final scene of  Amelia  as staged at Seattle Opera (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

The final scene of Amelia as staged at Seattle Opera (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Amelia held her baby. Paul held her. Helen wept for joy. Dodge and Amanda (having returned as a couple of middle-aged doctors) cuddled, and then kissed gently on the other side of the stage. The Flier squatted down center, gazed brightly into the night sky. Young Amelia (as a young resident) slept on a bench outside the delivery room. The Young Boy’s Father, holding the little cellophane bag containing the last of his dead son’s possessions, walked slowly toward the exit. Characters slowly exited; like mist rising from the sea, the set flew up and out. As each character parted, I felt as though another of my ghosts, one of my presences, departed. I felt lighter and lighter. By the time the Flier sang Mother’s final words, “I was never bored,” I felt suspended in midair like Icarus before the fall, weightless, a completely “chanceful” thing—.

Amelia (or was it my wife Gilda?) sang to her newborn, “Anything is possible.” That moment was for my elder son. I thought of his wonderful dignity—my son, who had allowed no assaults upon his integrity—had made no concessions of personality except those made through love to his parents. Those concessions remain the ones, solely, which in no way reduce or cheapen the giver. A child can concede through fear (through physical fear of punishment or emotional fear of rejection) and become at last a vicious rebel or a spiritless thing. That perhaps is truly dignity—inviolate integrity of personality that has made concessions only to beloved people, institutions, or principles.

I had not expected that, in summoning all of my spirits to form the finale of the opera as I had, I would also be waking them. I had come to understand that, in the future, they would no longer be available for me to sing for and about, to remember as and when I pleased. I had transformed my sorrow into joy, my Life into Art. I had also learned that telling one’s “truth” is not enough. Living it is what counts.

Amelia has received a number of revivals since its Seattle Opera premiere, notably by the University of Houston and the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. Learn more about the opera here.

Loving and Losing: Composing "Bandanna"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 14 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

Writing a prescription for Prozac in autumn 1997, my therapist at the time described my condition as “clinically depressed.” Years before, just after my mother’s death, I’d also been prescribed pills—even electro-shock therapy (which I had violently opposed) had been discussed. My family’s appetite for mood-altering substances, and my fear that medication would “blunt my compulsion to create” had kept me from filling the prescription.

I was all too aware that, as Julia Kristeva pointed out in Black Sun, “depression is the hidden face of Narcissus” and that Christian theology, in which I had been immersed since childhood, considered sadness a sin. Dante even consigned the melancholic to “the city of grief” in Inferno. “The loss of the mother,” wrote Kristeva, “is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to becoming autonomous. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine-qua-non condition of our individuation, provided that it takes place under optimal circumstances and can be eroticized.”

Came at this time a commission from the College Band Directors National Association (over a hundred colleges ultimately joined the consortium) for a full-length opera on a subject of my choosing (using a librettist of my choice) by way of a phone call from conductor Michael Haithcock.

I chose Othello as my subject matter in order to explore not just the feelings of betrayal and anger that I still felt towards my ex-wife (we had recently terminated a turbulent and nearly entirely disagreeable ten-year marriage) but also the guilt I still felt, and the incomplete mourning in which I felt caught like a fly in a web, as a result of having been called upon by my terminally-ill mother to euthanize her. In other words, I chose to fight my “battle with symbolic collapse” by creating an opera about it.

I decided to recast the Venetian tale of the Moor in a 1968 Texas-Mexico border town. The result was Bandanna, a two act grand opera. The commission required only that I could not use strings (except for basses) in the pit. I asked Paul Muldoon to write the libretto based, as usual, on a detailed co-written treatment in which I determined the exact length of every section of every scene, and mapped out the structural underpinnings of every scene, aria, and ensemble.

I composed the prologue and most of the first scene of the first act at the MacDowell Colony during January 1998 in Chapman Studio, the most remote of the many cabins dotting the property—fully a mile away from Colony Hall. I would have completed the entire first act there but for the fact that there were 26 inches of snow on the ground. For nearly four hours each day, I slogged through the snow in a decidedly non-meditative frame of mind—the walk to and from the payphone, where I was jacking in to check E-mail and to send Muldoon requests for changes, took over an hour each way.

I wrote the balance of the vocal score at home in New York City. Composer Eli Marshall, a former student and friend, stayed with me for much of the time. My work routine consisted of rising at 7 AM, composing until 5 PM, dining at a nearby burrito joint where I spoke Spanish with the waitress, and copying out the fair score in the evening while drinking a bottle of Antinori Chianti. The vocal score was completed in just over four months.

When I co-wrote with Paul the treatment for the last scene of Bandanna I was entirely aware of the agonizing sequence of matricidal, fratricidal, uxoricidal, and suicidal acts that would be ritualistically enacted. Accordingly, in her concluding Willow Aria, the music that Mona sings is written from the point of view that she already knows that she is dead; the strings that accompany her are, throughout the opera, associated with death, inasmuch as they, unlike the wind instruments featured everywhere else in the score, do not breathe.

The transition from Mona’s aria to her murder features three violins, and it tracks Morales as he crosses the stage with excruciating slowness, to her hotel room door. He is Charon, and he is in no hurry. Morales is Orpheus to Mona’s Eurydice. In fact, both Mona and Morales already intuit what must happen and are now just going through the motions: once Morales opens the door, his deputy Cassidy appears. Morales executes his friend. He then turns, as though in a dream, to Mona. He strangles his wife, who does not struggle, with the opera’s eponymous bandanna. Then, without really pausing, except to muse, “Holy Mother of God,” he kills himself by placing his service revolver in his mouth and blowing himself away.

One critic complained later that “the final scene—the climactic murder-suicide—is anguished to a grotesque degree.” If I could have made it even more grotesque, more like a slow-motion nightmare, I would have, so focused was I on capturing my inner state. While composing it, I felt such an intense sense of closure that, at one point, I actually felt as though my mother was standing behind me at the piano, her hand resting on my shoulder. When the chorus crashes in, they sing “Dona nobis pacem” (pun intended: my ex’s name was Donna) to anything but comforting music. The trombones, in fact, are marked, “blaring like the horns of an approaching semi.”

In those days, I used to send a copy of the vocal score of whichever opera I had just finished to Jack Beeson, who would go through it and make marginal comments very lightly in pencil like “You buried a plot point here. This is an intrinsically slow word: why did you set it fast? Courageous! This is the Nieces from Britten’s Grimes! Watch the passaggio!”

Jack, exclusively published by Boosey and Hawkes and ensconced with tenure at Columbia University, was a major behind-the-scenes power broker during the years that I was coming up. I respected his opera Lizzie Borden and particularly liked Hello, Out There, a trenchant one act. Jack’s knack for setting American English in a way that was understandable across the footlights I admired. His operas rarely blossomed into full-fledged song—something I found as a colleague regrettable. Jack, like the many other powerful old guard colleagues I knew then, never did anything for me, and it never occurred to me to ask him to.

During spring 1998, Jack and I played and sang (and argued) our way through Bandanna one afternoon at his spacious Columbia University faculty apartment while his wife Nora kept the tea coming. “You’re going to take a pasting from amateurs for the male ranges,” he predicted. “The men are slung high. I get it: they are all being macho. I know you want them to sound that way. Moreover, I see you are saving up the sound of the female voice for the final scene. However, you are pushing the limits of verismo writing. Maybe too much.”

A page from the Hagen-Muldoon treatment for "Bandanna" with Daron's hand-written notations.

When Jack asked me a few years later to join him as a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera I asked him why. His answer was cheerfully truculent: “Because you’re not one of my former students, threatening to kill yourself if I do not throw a Pulitzer your way. Also, you are sane, you happen to write good operas that get produced and your expertise is required.”

I orchestrated the first act of Bandanna by hand at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts during June 1998. The second act I orchestrated mainly at Yaddo the following month, completing it in New York that July. It is the last of my operas whose full score is still in manuscript form. I switched to engraving all of my own music shortly after the farrago that correcting vocal score proofs of the vocal score for Carl Fischer became—an incompetent engraver whose work was so slipshod and inaccurate that I was forced to work through five sets of proofs had been engaged.

Bandanna’s first staging, which served as the centerpiece of the College Band Directors National Association’s national convention that February was a calamity. Upon arrival I learned that the University of Texas graduate students serving as lighting and set designers were unequal to their tasks. The student singers struggled with the roles. A few days into production, the poor fellow singing Kane simply stopped showing up. I watched, like impotent Madam Racquin, as tempos shifted wildly from rehearsal to rehearsal, student singers made up music as they went along.

I contacted Paul Kreider, with whom I had recently performed, along with Carolann Page, selections from Shining Brow at the Guggenheim Museum at the invitation of House Beautiful magazine. Paul had initiated the Vera of Las Vegas opera commission, written his doctoral dissertation on my songs. He was a fearless performer, and a trusted friend. If he couldn’t save this situation, it couldn’t be saved. Paul flew in, and learned the role of Kane in three days. With relief and gratitude, I paid his fee myself.

The premiere production did not represent the work I created. Its first performance (half a dozen players were for some reason absent from the pit for much of the first act) was greeted with what seemed to me to be defensive, uninformed distaste by most of the conventioneers.

Since the band and opera worlds are mutually contemptuous, the constituencies most inclined to produce Bandanna cancel one another out. As Tim Page wrote, “neither fish nor fowl—as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care, [Bandanna is] a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation.” Catherine Parsonage expands upon this assessment: “[it] is wholly convincing as a modern opera, ranging stylistically from the music theatre of Gershwin, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to traditional mariachi music and contemporary opera of Benjamin Britten. Hagen, who served his apprenticeship on Broadway, acknowledges that holistically the piece falls between opera and music theater. Hagen’s style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work.”

From the start there were also other colleagues who really got it, like Ukrainian-American composer, pianist, and conductor Virko Baley, who had for years conducted the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and was professor of composition at UNLV. A dynamic, thrilling pianist, tough-minded thinker, and musical swashbuckler, Virko and I had had some great adventures together. I admired him: he knew life, and he wasn’t afraid in his music to offend. He had entirely grasped the fact that Bandanna’s score meant to push people’s limits. “These characters are at the end of their shit,” he told me. “They’re in extremis. That’ll make people who like their opera tame uncomfortable. The whole damned score is unsettling. You got what you wanted, baby.”

The partitura from "Bandanna's" Act I, scene 1 "fistfight" sequence.

A few months before the premiere, presenting the great conductor and promoter of the wind ensemble as a performing group Frederick Fennell with a copy of Bandanna, I asked him how he thought the piece would go over in the band world. Eyes twinkling, he told me that he felt that there were three kinds of band conductors: “First, you have what I call the Educators: they teach high school band and play simplified arrangements of pop songs and movie themes. Then there are the Spit and Polish Men: they play marches, and for them music history stalled around the time of Holst. Finally, there are the Maestros: they could have been orchestra conductors but chose to conduct bands because they love them. These men and women are hungry for new repertoire, and can have a better grasp of the symphonic repertoire than their colleagues can in the orchestra world. Almost none of them know anything about opera, my boy, so your opera is doomed.”

The music of Bandanna, to my mind, not only successfully evoked the morally bankrupt world in which it’s Touch of Evil-infused characters lived, but also gave voice to my own inner world at the time: I was an unhappy fellow at the end of his rope, in a dark place, and looking for a way out. Bandanna addressed and expressed what was then my “truth”—that Life was a shadowy, Conradian “horror” glimpsed during flashes of lurid Malcolm Lowry lightning over Cormack McCarthy landscapes. The music was aggressively at odds with the words that it carried much of the time, like a horse that will not be ridden. Even if I removed the band world from the equation by re-arranging it for orchestra in the pit, Bandanna will never find its niche, perhaps because people like categories and the music draws equally from jazz, musical, and operatic idioms.

Thanks to the efforts of Michael Hitchcock, Paul Kreider, Thomas Leslie, and (owner of my former exclusive publisher, E.C. Schirmer) Robert Schuneman, among others, I was able in 2006 to conduct a complete recording of Bandanna (available on the Albany label) that I felt invalidated the criticisms the score had received.

The reception accorded the staged premiere was counterbalanced by the recording’s accolades from major magazines like Opera News and industry experts like Henry Fogel, who understood what Muldoon and I were trying to achieve. “Bandanna,” Fogel wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “is a poignant, dramatic, and moving new opera, one that belongs in the repertoire not because it deals with the politically hot topic of illegal immigration, but because it is powerful music theater.”

Among my operas, Bandanna shall always have been for me that problem child—the one that was too much like me to get perspective on; the one I listen to even now, 20 years later, through rueful tears as it gallops off into its own, self-immolating sunset of love and loss.

Learn more about Bandanna here.

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.