BWW Interview: Composer and Pianist Felix Jarrar
Felix Jarrar is a 22-year-old composer and pianist whose list of accomplishments includes performances at diverse venues such as Symphony Space, (le) poisson rouge, BAM's Fisher Hillman Studio and Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. His works have been performed internationally by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Atlantic Music Festival Orchestra and the duo Unassisted Fold. He is currently working on his fourth opera, Tabula Rasa presented by Cantanti Project.
BWW: How did you become interested in music? Any major influences?
Jarrar: Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Many influences helped me become who I am today. When I was very young, my parents would purposefully take me to visit their friends who owned an upright piano, just so I could play with the instrument. My parents tell me I demanded piano lessons.
I used to study ballet and my desire to pursue a career in composition stemmed from my initial interest in dance. I wrote my first musical composition when I was five and I called it The Firebird. I named it after Stravinsky's renowned ballet because I loved its score and the story.
Many of the pieces I wrote when I was young were composed for solo piano and I got to perform them for school concerts, studio recitals for my teacher, Burton Hatheway, and concerts sponsored by local music organizations such as the Wednesday Music Club in Connecticut (but I also loved to improvise!)
I gained interest in writing vocal music after seeing Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro when I was in 5th grade. This was my first exposure to opera and I absolutely fell in love with the genre.
In 2006 I saw a staged adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. I loved the story, the characters, the ambiance and, most importantly, the character of Lady Madeline. She makes few appearances in Poe's story, yet her aura is just as omnipresent as the Usher curse. I wanted to adapt the work as an opera because I wanted to use music to tell the story from her perspective.
My chamber opera The Fall of the House of Usher was my second work in the genre. I wrote it when I was 19 as a part of my undergraduate thesis at Marlboro College in Vermont. Through grant funding from the school, and a multi-faceted fundraising and promotional campaign that spanned a year and a half, I produced the work at my college and off-Broadway at The DiMenna Center in NYC. These shows jump-started my life as a working musician in New York.
As far as my influences are concerned, I emulate Strauss for his elongated, soaring, decadent vocal lines; Mozart for his ability to communicate complex emotions in a single gesture; Wolf for his harmonizations that accompany the vocal lines of his lieder; Schumann for his brilliant fusion of literary influences and musical vitality; Liszt for his revolutionary use of the piano; Stravinsky for his rhythmic genius and dramatic sense in works such as Oedipus Rex and L'Histoire du soldat; Berg for his juxtaposition of atonality and tonality; and Messiaen for his ravishing harmony.
BWW: Among your own work, do you have a favorite performance?
Jarrar: It's a tie between the world premiere of The Fall of the House of Usher at Marlboro College and the premiere of Songs of the Soul Beams at BAM's Fisher Hillman Studio last year. With The Fall of the House of Usher I was able to fulfill my artistic vision for the work. The singing actors and instrumentalists were exceptional in their interpretation and commitment to my score. The premiere of Songs of the Soul Beams at BAM was a cathartic experience for me because of the personal narrative of grief that tied the whole performance together. I loved the space we performed it in because it worked beautifully with the simple lighting and staging by Brittany Goodwin, the work's librettist.
BWW: What are your goals as an artist?
Jarrar: I aim to write music that is inspired by my own life and communicate ideas through music. I grew up as the oldest child of two parents who emigrated to the United States. My mom is from Sri Lanka and my Dad was from Jordan. I'm a first-generation American, and growing up in Connecticut, I had a very hard time relating to other kids.
I am gay but didn't come out until I was 19. The process of coming to terms with who I really am and owning my self-worth have served as my greatest sources of inspiration for my music. I experienced a lot of frustration, anxiety and depression when I was in the closet.
Part of what made The Fall of the House of Usher so special (in my opinion, my strongest work to date) was that it was a seminal part of my coming out process to my family and friends. My experiences growing up, as the son of two immigrants, did not include exposure to the rich world of queer art. Classical music is gravely lacking gay/queer narratives, and I am very passionate about writing and performing works with such narratives.
Another very personal work, Songs of the Soul Beams, was inspired by the death of my father. He never got to fully experience The Fall of the House of Usher but he supported me until his final day. I recorded clips of arias from my rehearsals, and emailed them to his nurses, so they could play my music for him on his deathbed. These images haunted me, and the composition of this song cycle allowed me to express my grief and share it with the world through song.
BWW: Are there any professional challenges you've faced in your field?
Jarrar: While I have run into some difficulties in my field, many of these have not approached the hardships I have experienced in my personal life. This allows me to take all of the challenges that come with a career in music in stride and keep moving forward. I've been very fortunate to have wonderful mentors that have nurtured me and supported me. It's a real privilege to be able to live in New York and produce original work. I have met so many incredible artists who have collaborated with me and been invaluable sources of support.
That said, one professional challenge that hit hard for me occurred last year when a tenor refused to sing the aria "Take this kiss" from The Fall of the House of Usher. He refused because The Friend, the character who sings it, is gay. We ended up finding another singer, but it was a hurtful experience.
BWW: Anything interesting coming up?
Jarrar: I am currently in rehearsal for the world premiere of Tabula Rasa, my fourth opera. The libretto was written by my frequent collaborator, Brittany Goodwin. Tabula Rasa is a jazz-opera about 1920's model Kiki de Montparnasse (who will be played by soprano Sara Lin Yoder) and her passionate relationship with photographer Man Ray (who will be played by baritone Frank Fainer). The main arch centers Kiki's self-discovery that she is not Man Ray's object to be destroyed.
Cantanti Project will present the production as a part of New York Opera Alliance's Operafest. Performances will take place on May 4th, 5th, 11th, and 12th at 8pm at the Blu building (222 E 46th St, New York, NY 10017.) Tickets can be purchased here.
I will also be playing keyboard with my sister's band, which is headlining a show she curated with Women that Rock, at the Knitting Factory on Wednesday, April 4th at 11pm. You can find more information about that show here.
For more information about me, visit my website at www.felixjarrarmusic.com.