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BWW Interview: David T. Little on Becoming a Composer, Collaborating with Royce Vavrek and JFK the Opera

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Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth, as
Jackie and John F. Kennedy in JFK at the
Fort Worth Opera. Photo: Nine Photography

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"

David T. Little. Photo: Merri Cyr

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."

Royce Vavrek.
Photo: Ricardo Beas

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).

Approaching JFK

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.

Left to right: David T. Little
and Royce Vavrek

"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...'

On a bar napkin, at midnight

"The whole thing really continued to evolve right up until the very end. There's a final scene that we wrote on a bar napkin, at midnight. We just happened to be at a bar--we mostly drank coffee--because we were working at the Opera Center in Fort Worth and it closed, I think, at 10:00 pm or something like that and we just set up shop in one of the bars downstairs. We said to each other, 'We need this scene; it needs to accomplish [this thing]. OK, ready, go.' It was terrifying, because it was we were nearly out of time and had to solve this one last thing.

"It was a really organic process and finding the right thing, where we both knew 'Yeah this is right--this is the right story, the right way of telling the story, the right proportions, the right flow through the evening.' And it was, yeah, fun," he admits, with a broad grin.

Despite the appreciative reception, has he been busy making changes in the score for JFK, I ask? "You know I don't tend to do that. There are little things that will change, they're like 'oh that should be a G instead of an F' and things that maybe were typos," he says. "Oh, there's a string passage that is notated in a way that makes it unnecessarily difficult for the orchestra and I'd like it to be easier for them so I'm going to change that. I tend to be 'When it's finished, it's finished,' because I've worked through all of those sorts of doubts earlier on.

Doing the process

"That's what I say about that last scene that we inserted. That was because we had done a workshop and we had done the process. We were lucky to have a good workshop process; ALT as the co-commissioner was part of that, and Opera Philadelphia also helped through my residency there. And so we were able to really know exactly what we were dealing with, with the piece."

What was the opening like? I ask.

"I mean, it felt great." (He laughs) "We went into it believing that we had done our best work and we wrote a piece that we felt worked really well. And I felt that the production worked really well and honored the piece, respected the work that we had done. The director, Thaddeus Strassberger, was fantastic to work with and we'd love to do more with him."

"Yes, it is a strange thing to suddenly be sitting in a room where the people are assessing the work that you've done--especially this work, which is the largest work that I've written. There's a little sense of...you wonder if people are going to respond to it. It's not so much the idea that people will like it or not like it. I mean, some people are going to like it and some people are going to not like it. Every audience is its own beast; they're going to laugh at some parts, they're not at other parts, some might not laugh at all. Some will laugh way more than you think they should." He laughs.

Trusting your gut

"I think you can't really worry about that. On some level, you want to understand how an audience is reacting, but, ultimately, you just have to trust your gut about what was delivered, because you've been really merciless on yourself, leading up to it and made sure it's just exactly what it needs to be.

"I think, as an artist, you need to trust your instincts, even if you can't tell somebody exactly why it has to be a certain way," Little concludes. "If you really think it's the way it needs to be, then, that's what you need to do. You need to trust in that--which is scary, especially when you're dealing with opera which is very large. I think I've worked that into my own process of writing where I do a lot of analysis of different ways of looking at a scene; I try to go through all of those variables in advance. Just so there are no surprises.

"The opening night of JFK was amazing, for sure--we had great support from the New York community and the opera community, in general, from all around the States," he recalls. "Finally, to be able to say, 'Well, everybody, here it is--this is what we've been up to for the last three years.' And, you know, people really responded to it. Oh yeah, I mean, it felt great."


American Lyric Theater (ALT) and The Morgan Library & Museum present ALT Alumni: Composers & Librettists in Concert on Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 3pm at The Morgan Library & Museum in the Gilder Lehrman Hall, 225 Madison Avenue, NYC. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members of the Morgan) and are available at 212-685-0008, ext. 560 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?orgid=24379&pid=8293573.

David Hanlon and Stephanie
Fleischmann of AFTER THE STORM
Gerald Cohen and Deborah Brevoort of
Clint Borzoni and John de los Santos

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