Boston Lyric Opera commissioned a piece from Richard Beaudoin to accompany its historic production of Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis,” being performed from February 1 through February 6 at Boston Center for the Art’s Calderwood Pavilion. Beaudoin’s new chamber opera, “The After-Image” (Das Nach-Bild), is a tableau for two voices and ensemble, with a libretto he compiled from historic sources. Information has been scant on this piece, so one of BMInt’s reviewers, Joseph Morgan, conducted an interview with the young composer, currently a lecturer in the Music Department at Harvard.
Greetings, Richard! Can you tell us about how this extraordinary commission from Boston Lyric Opera came about?
The Boston Lyric Opera wanted to perform Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis during its 2010-11 season, but the opera is quite short —it’s only about fifty minutes long — and so they needed more music. They wanted not just to find a piece from the repertoire, but a modern-day response, somehow, to the material and to the music of the Ullmann, and by doing so not only to create something that was unique for the BLO, but something that could have a future as a pairing for the piece.
Can you speak about why you specifically were chosen for this commission?
BLO wanted an American composer, but with me they have someone that is a bit more in the center of the ocean. My mother and my grandmother, who lived with me for my whole life, were both born and raised in Poland and experienced the war there. They only came to the United States in the 1960s. My father’s first language was French, even though he was born in the United States. I am a composer who is interested in what it is like to be a descendant of survivors or witnesses of this wartime period. They found that out about me, and they found out about some of my other vocal works, particularly a piece called Nach-Fragen (The Inquiries), which was written for Annette Dasch, that explores some of these themes and is on a text by an East German writer. …
[BLO] gave me free reign in terms of subject matter to make a piece that did not rehash the battle scenes as it were, but took the conditions of 2010, of a young composer who is a descendant of people who witnessed these things and who is writing from that perspective. That led me off, to be honest, into some quite interesting directions.
How closely have you worked with the creative team for this production?
We had three or four meetings including in New York. I sat with David Schweizer and John Conklin [director and artistic advisor] in the very earliest stages, which is to say when everything was still on the table. We came to some consensus what the piece might be, but there was no music at that point, and then I composed the entire piece and gave it to them. And there have been no changes in the piece since then.
How would you characterize the musical style?
Well, let me speak about the text for a minute. The piece has two characters, the daughter and a photograph of her father. The daughter is sung by a mezzo-soprano and the photograph of the father is sung by a bass. I have recently been told it might be the first opera in which a character is a photograph. He is not a ghost, he is not a photograph that comes to life, but he effectively, is an image, and he is deceased. The daughter’s interaction with this photograph is the subject of my opera. The texts are drawn from three sources: a poem and a letter by Rilke about looking at a photograph of his late father; a poem by Rückert, actually two poems; and a passage from one of the inventors of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot. The piece is effectively about photographic images and what they mean to us in terms of representing people who are no longer there. Now I’ll speak about the music for a moment.
The ensemble is drawn as a subset of the Ullmann, which is to say I let him have his colors. I don’t use the full Ullmann ensemble, and instead I pared it down to the ensemble of Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, which is violin, clarinet, piano and cello, so it’s two singers plus that ensemble. Keeping with the photographic analogy, my piece develops in terms of its color over time. At the beginning one hears the clarinet, and then the voice is added, and then the clarinet goes away and the strings are added and the male voice comes, and it’s a trio, and then it becomes a quartet with all the instruments plus voice and then the other voice is added and near the close of my piece you essentially hear the full ensemble. So, if you like, it’s like a Polaroid, which develops slowly as it were, in front of your eyes. The piece is called The After-Image. An after-image is something that leaves a trace on your eyes after you close your eyes, which is to say, something which is retained because of the capture of light by your eye, and again, in keeping with the photographic material for the piece. So the color over the course of this chamber opera, which is twenty minutes in length, develops, becomes more saturated, becomes clearer over time.
Can you talk about the relationship between your piece and Ullmann’s? Are they autonomous? Can they be performed separately; are they related thematically or harmonically?
Let me talk about the most important way I feel they are linked. My piece is about a woman looking at a picture of her late father. That photograph doesn’t share any of the molecules of her father, yet it seems to represent his entire existence for her. Ullmann is gone, but if we think of his opera as a kind of photograph of him, it’s an object on paper like a photograph, and we make great use of this object as a kind of relic of him. The re-performance of his opera is effectively a re-showing of his musical photograph and we remember him through that. My piece is really about the act of remembering someone by a token of them, on paper. So it is in the broadest sense that I feel the two pieces share a great deal.
One step down from that, I should say that in fact, my piece is a chamber opera but it is a work for two voices and quartet which certainly could, in other venues, be played alongside or with the Quartet for the End of Time, for which it would make an excellent first half. In terms of the musical material, since the piece hasn’t been performed yet, I don’t feel it necessary to try to describe in words what the piece is like—let’s leave it at that.
What’s next? Do you have any projects on your desk that you’d like to talk about?
Yes. This spring is going to see a great flourish of recordings of pieces that I’ve been working on over the last several years. A set of pieces called Étude d’ un prelude, of which I have written twelve. Nine will be recorded in London by two separate ensembles in February and March, and I’ve just finished a large work for quartet, The Artist and His Model, that will also be recorded as part of these sessions. That’s the most recent piece that I have finished. That’s on the recording side.
On the performance side, the great German soprano, Annette Dasch, who sang Elsa at Bayreuth this summer and who has had leading roles at the Met and La Scala, —she is really one of the finest singers in the world — is doing a tour with a piece that she commissioned from me called Nach Fragen, and she is performing that in Hamburg, Linz and Slovenia through April, so I’ll be going and hearing some of those performances as well.
Well, thank you for speaking with the Boston Musical Intelligencer, and safe travel in the coming months!