BWW Interview: David T. Little on Becoming a Composer, Collaborating with Royce Vavrek and JFK the Opera
Last year's premiere of JFK by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek at the Fort Worth Opera (FWOPERA) caused some big-time foot-stomping in the Lone Star State. New Yorkers will have a taste of the work--ahead of its next full-scale production at the Opera de Montreal next January--on April 23 with the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan.
That's when American Lyric Theatre (ALT) and its founder, Larry Edelson, co-commissioner of JFK with FWOPERA and the Montreal opera, present excerpts from it and three other operas ALT has had a hand in developing: AFTER THE STORM by David Hanlon and Stephanie Fleischmann, STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME by Gerald Cohen and Deborah Brevoort and THE COPPER QUEEN by Clint Borzoni and John de los Santos. (Composer Borzoni and librettists Vavrek, Fleischmann and Brevoort are alumni of ALT's Composer Librettist Development Program.)
JFK is "noticeably grander"
JFK was a huge step forward for Little and Vavrek, best known as collaborators in contemporary opera circles for their post-apocalyptic DOG DAYS. Even though it is only marginally longer than DOG DAYS, the scale of JFK is noticeably grander--big enough to fill the stage of the 2000-seat Bass Performance Hall, FWOPERA's home--and involved ambitious story-telling, both musically and in the libretto.
JFK takes place in the 12 hours before Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, but it's no docudrama. It's a highly stylized--and highly compelling--piece that takes place in a hotel room, with the president and Jackie drifting in and out of hallucinatory dreams, taking them to various times and places, and exploring their innermost struggles.
Composer Little has always been interested in strong narratives: He was drawn into composing as a teenager, when he realized that it was someone's job to write the music in films he loved. (He'd played music since he was eight, in the fife and drum corps in Hackettstown, NJ and later in rock bands.) It wasn't long before he made a pact with himself: Be some kind of success as a composer by 30 or look elsewhere for a career. And the rest is...
Storytelling runs through his work
Storytelling seems to run through all his work, even an all-percussion piece like "Haunt of Last Nightfall," written for Third Coast Percussion, inspired by a massacre in Central America. But it has never seemed more apparent than in his work with Vavrek. They first met through Edelson at an ALT's Composer Librettist Development Program event (in which Vavrek participated). "We had a chat--he knew some of my work and he had a piece on the program that night--and I thought of him when I needed a librettist to work with on the first 20-minute iteration of DOG DAYS (for Carnegie Hall)," Little recalls.
He had previously provided his own libretto for the much-performed SOLDIER SONGS, which combines elements of theater, opera, rock-infused concert music and videography and features a single performer. (He told me that he didn't even realize it was an opera until opera entrepreneur Beth Morrison clued him in.) DOG DAYS was something else. "There were multiple characters and I felt less competent to do that on my own. It seemed like a good kind of test run for Royce and me--to write something that wasn't a full two-hour work together and try out the collaboration."
And, as Humphrey Bogart said to the chief of police at the end of in "Casablanca," "...I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Today, Little and Vavrek have worked on numerous pieces together, including songs, an operatic rendering of a cult novel (later a film), a work-in-development for the Metropolitan Opera "and ideas for about a thousand others," says Little. "So we're in it for the long haul. It's been a great collaboration so far--and we're good friends, too." ("Only half-jokingly I said to him," Little recalls, "'we should write a musical someday.' What would that musical be, if we didn't conform to current conventions of musicals and just wrote our version of a musical? Maybe everybody would hate it. Or maybe it would be amazing. Who knows?") Each of them also works separately, Little on orchestral and chamber music, Vavrek as a much-sought-after librettist whose recent works include BREAKING THE WAVES (with Missy Mazzoli) and ANGEL'S BONE (with Du Yun, the 2017 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music).
The collaborators don't have a defined way of approaching a project--sometimes Vavrek takes the lead, sometimes Little--but JFK had its own set of rules.
"Because JFK was so connected to the Fort Worth community, we spent time down there," Little recalls. "Initially, we went just to see where the story took place, to see the hotel where they spent the night before the assassination, get a feeling for the community--and to commune with the ghosts there.
"In the midst of that visit, we sat down and started working out a treatment, brainstorming and researching and throwing around ideas. Very gradually, it evolved," Little recalls. "I think what's interesting when Royce and I work together, there is 'the composing draft of the libretto,' which is where he stops working and I, as the composer, take over. In this case, the story continued to evolve as I was composing, as ideas would present themselves in my process. I would say, 'Well Royce, so this just came up; what do you think about this, if we change this line this way or if we insert the scene...'