BWW Interview: Fort Worth's JFK, the World of Contemporary Opera and American Lyric Theater's Lawrence Edelson
The premiere of JFK in Fort Worth on April 23 is a big step forward for composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek--who made a splash in contemporary opera circles with their post-apocalyptic DOG DAYS--as their first "grand" opera. It's also a major leap for American Lyric Theater (ALT), and its founder and artistic director, Lawrence Edelson, which co-commissioned the work with the Fort Worth Opera.
But ALT, which Edelson created in 2005, is not an opera producer in the traditional sense. It's not trying to update LA TRAVIATA, DIE FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER or WERTHER to make them seem more relevant for modern audiences. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...) Instead, think of it as a kind of "Silicon Valley" for contemporary opera rather than high tech start-ups: an incubator that's helping to expand the repertoire by nurturing emerging composers and librettists while growing new opera-goers. Through its Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP)--which Edelson calls "the closest thing to a Master's program in writing for opera that exists"--ALT commissions works, mentors the writers as they develop the works and advocates with forward-thinking companies, like Fort Worth, who are in the business of putting on a show.
The best libretti
"Needless to say, I'm very excited about the premiere of JFK," says Edelson, which imagines the evening before the president's assassination, in the Kennedys' hotel room in Fort Worth. "I've known David's work for many years, and Royce was in the first class at our CLDP and it has been incredible to see his career blossom. The dialogue between them, the way these artists interact with each other--that's what I think makes this piece so strong. For me, the best libretti are the scaffolding through which the music is interwoven; when balanced beautifully, they tell a story in a powerful way that you wouldn't get from either one separately.
"To me, what is perhaps most fascinating about JFK is that it's nothing like DOG DAYS. Yes, it's the same writers and it's also theatrically vibrant; but the way the story unfolds is different, the music is not the same (NB: It is written for a full symphonic orchestra). "I don't think David is a composer you can pigeonhole. If you listen to his earlier operas"--which include VINKENSPORT, OR THE FINCH OPERA (about the Flemish sport of finch-sitting) with Vavrek and SOLDIER SONGS (about changing perceptions of war in our society and by those who experience it)--"then I think you'll be very surprised when you hear JFK. It's another side of him that this particular story has brought out, with some incredibly beautiful, lyrical music."
"I remember the first time we were sitting at the piano-vocal workshop for JFK in New York and David and Royce went through it," says Edelson. "Our jaws were on the floor. It was this incredibly beautiful thing, which I think comes from the fact that they both, clearly, know what they're doing. There's a trio toward the end that, I believe quite frankly, gives the trio in DER ROSENKAVALIER a run for its money. Of course, they're not trying to write ROSENKAVALIER, but they do understand the expressive potential of classically trained singers and it's extraordinary." Workshops like the ones ALT held for JFK, to move it along creatively, are just part of what the organization does in developing artists.
"The program at ALT is a rare one. Our model is very much about the identification of gifted writers-- both composers and librettists--for the opera stage, mentorship for the development of their works and then advocating for them to get out into the world. What's unique about our model is that we don't produce here in NY, we don't have the intention to--there are lots of companies producing operas of all sorts here. When I was thinking about creating ALT, I realized that's not a niche that needed to be filled."
His "light bulb moment"
His "light bulb moment" (as he calls it) about creating a program for composers and librettists happened when he was talking to composer Mark Adamo, when they were working on a production of the composer's LITTLE WOMEN at the Glimmerglass Opera. "Many opera companies have long experience with young artists' programs--which have played a great role in the ascent of American singers over the last decades--but they haven't had the resources to do the same for opera creators." (Young performers also offer an immediate return, providing low-cost, highly skilled artists for supporting roles and chorus.)
One of the core components of CLDP is an extensive year-long course in opera dramaturgy with Cori Ellison (who's from the Met and Glyndebourne), to see what the great composers-librettists of the past did with the form. "Not that we're encouraging anyone to be a carbon copy of anyone else," says Edelson, "but I think you need to have a good grounding in what has worked historically and why, and the environmental factors that shaped opera at different times in different countries. I think it's a really critical thing to understand, because right now we live in a time in a society when there are no rules and the word 'opera' means so many different things to different people."
Clearly--and Edelson freely admits it--there are certain "aesthetic preferences" at ALT that are defined by his taste as its founder. First, he believes strongly in opera as a story-telling form, a somewhat narrative form--"but that doesn't necessarily mean a linear narrative form all the time. I believe in the power of opera to tell exciting stories for our time." Second, he considers himself a major advocate for "composers and librettists who are interested in exploring the expressive potential of the classically trained voice."
"That's a very important thing for me," he says, "because there are a number of people who are working in new opera for whom that is not important. It is a prerequisite for me," he avers. "I don't think the classically trained voice is dead -and I've heard people in interviews express that it's an archaic thing, that its time is gone." He clarifies, "I don't mean that amplification isn't something that can be used in new opera but when we look at opera history from the earliest times to the present day, singing styles have evolved with the times--different for Monteverdi than it was for Mozart than it was for Strauss.
The potential of the classically trained voice
"I believe that there still is a core of the classically trained voice that has incredible potential to tell stories and be a vehicle through which composers and librettists can work. I firmly believe that opera can tell really exciting stories for audiences today--and in ways that our communities can relate to and be excited by, as an evening in the theatre."
While ALT is not a producing organization, Edelson nonetheless puts his money where his mouth is, when it comes to contemporary works. Parallel to his work at ALT, he is Artistic and General Director of Opera Saratoga, where he's made it part of the company's artistic mission to do contemporary works alongside "old masters."
The obligation to produce contemporary work
"I believe that every opera company--whether you're the Met or a regional company in a small community in the Midwest--has an obligation, to both to the audience and the art form, to produce contemporary work. I love my Mozart and my Verdi, even Monteverdi and the earliest works, but that's not all opera is. I'm always excited when I see season announcements and there are works that demonstrate that opera is not a museum art form--like the Met's L'AMOUR DE LOIN (by composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf) or City Opera's HOPPER'S WIFE (Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie) and FLORENCIA EN EL AMAZONAS (Daniel Catan and Marcela Fuentes-Berain)." This summer at Saratoga, that means Catan's IL POSTINO (based on the Italian film) and the American premiere of Philip Glass's opera/dance work, THE WITCHES OF VENICE alongside LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (which he promises "won't be a museum piece, but won't take place on a space shuttle, either").
Back when Edelson was getting his Master's in Performing Arts Administration from New York University, he referred to opera as "the irrelevant art[i]." "That was just part of the title of my master's thesis*--part tongue-in-cheek and part serious--because I don't think opera is irrelevant at all," he says, slightly cringing at his youthful quip come back to bite him. "But I do think that, in this country, we have done many things to remove opera from popular culture quite consciously. What we're seeing now--particularly in the last 10 or 15 years--is that opera is playing a very different, more important role in the contemporary conversation about the performing arts."
Four operas in development
Right now, ALT has four operas in various stages of development that are extremely different, which, says Edelson, speaks to the fact that "new opera is so many things": THE LIFE AND DEATH(S) OF ALAN TURING, a fantasia on the life of the famous mathematician and code-breaker (but without Benedict Cumberbatch), written by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico; and LA REINA, which has electric and acoustic musical forces by Jorge Sosa and libretto in Spanish and English by Laura Sosa Pedroza and Jorge Sosa, dealing with the drug war between Mexico and the US. (Both have had staged readings in New York.) There are also two operas that were commissioned to reach the next generation of opera audiences: THE HALLOWEEN TREE, by composer Theo Popov and librettist Tony Asaro, based on a Ray Bradbury story about kids' discovery of the origins of Halloween from all different cultures; and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE FALLEN GIANT, which is "a mash-up of fairytales and Sherlock Holmes mysteries," from composer Evan Meier and librettist E.M. Lewis.
"If we commission a work, we make a multi-year commitment to bring them to life--throughout the process of creating an outline for a libretto, libretto workshops, piano-vocal score, piano-vocal workshops, orchestral score, orchestral workshops, and so on," says Edelson. "We collaborate with companies all around the country to get these works into the repertoire. In particular, Fort Worth has become a major partner of ours; three of the four operas they are producing this season were developed at ALT, two of them commissioned by us." (The pair of one-act operas being done in Fort Worth, based on works by Poe, by the teams of Jeff Myers and Quincy Long, and Patrick Soluri and Deborah Brevoort, had their premiere at Fargo-Moorhead Opera in North Dakota, its first world premiere ever.)
ALT is not quick to let go of pieces developed in the program and already finding success. Edelson talks proudly of THE LONG WALK by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann--based on Brian Castner's memoir of his tour as a bomb-disposal officer in Iraq and his struggles on returning home--which was developed at ALT and then premiered at Opera Saratoga to high praise last summer. (In 2017, it is going to Utah Opera.)
"The collaboration between Beck and Fleischmann was fascinating because they both entered the program at the same time, but not knowing each other, and they built this wonderful collaborative relationship," says Edelson. "As the piece evolved, Stephanie could talk about the stuff as a librettist, but she could also talk about the music as articulately as Jeremy could talk about the libretto; it wasn't a matter of Stephanie writing the libretto and handing it off to Jeremy, who went into a room for a year and composed it. Which, of course, is how some people imagine it is," he adds, laughing. "And that's what helps artists find their unique voice. Separately, Jeremy and Stephanie are great writers--composer and librettist--but together they are so much more powerful," he concludes.
"When we did THE LONG WALK last year in Saratoga, it was a huge success in our 500-seat theatre. Many people came up to me and said, 'I really didn't want to come to this; I didn't know whether I was going to like this. And it was my favorite thing I've seen here...ever,'" he recalls. "People have preconceived ideas about what 'contemporary opera' means--what does it sound like, what stories are going to be told. For someone to come to a piece like THE LONG WALK, to have a gripping emotional experience and then be hungry for the next thing we're going to do is exciting. That's how we keep opera alive," Edelson concludes.
"We have to be continuously infusing the repertoire with new works; we have to champion the work of young composers and librettists and give them the opportunity to develop their craft-and to have their works produced. I'm proud to say that's what ALT is all about."
[i] "Opera: The Irrelevant Art: Uniting Marketing and Organizational Strategy to Combat the Depopularization of Opera in the United States."