In choosing Boston’s new-music Firebird Ensemble to perform for his new opera, The Face, instead of “pitching it to an established opera company,” California-based composer Donald Crockett continued in a collaboration he called “quite remarkable.” One week after the world premiere performances take place in Los Angeles, the ensemble will be trekking to Boston with a concert version. The librettist of the 80-minute opera is the American poet, David St. John, and the conductor will be Boston-based Gil Rose. Thanks to the Free for All Concert Fund, all seats for the August 31st performance at The Boston Conservatory Theater on Hemenway Street will be free.
Set in Venice Beach, California, The Face is a Faustian meditation on the price of fame, desire, and creativity. The central character, a once-famous poet, struggles with the recent loss of his lover/muse while juggling the demands of a movie being made about his life and his increasing notoriety. The international cast features British tenor Daniel Norman, American baritone Thomas Meglioranza, American mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, and Australian soprano Jane Sheldon. The singers will appear in costume, though they will not be choreographed as they will have been in the staged production in LA. Further information about the show, players, composer, and librettist is here.
BMInt recently spoke with composer Donald Crockett.
BMInt: To paraphrase Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, which came first, David St. John’s libretto or your music?
Crockett: David St. John’s libretto. David and I are both in Los Angeles; he is a colleague of mine at USC, and in 2003 I had a commission from the Hilliard Ensemble [the male vocal quartet] and I asked to use two of David’s poems. Having enjoyed that experience a great deal, when I got a Guggenheim fellowship to do an opera, I thought of David, because I’m very interested in his language and in particular the way that he described human emotions. Love, basically. His work is very lyrical in the best sense. When we had a meeting, he suggested three or four possible opera topics: his first choice was his fairly recent novella in verse called The Face. In 2005 I read it and agreed to set it. David fashioned a libretto in 11 scenes that became our opera. It’s contemporary modern poetry, but with a lyricism that I was drawn to.
How lyrical is the compositional language?
Since I grew up as a singer, there is a strong vocal element/lyricism in my music. However the stylistic range within my music and even within The Face is quite wide. There are moments of lyricism and then there are crunchy dramatic elements — syncopations and so on. An American rhythmic style, you might say. But lyricism is definitely a part of my voice.
I wanted to write an opera that did not have a conventional or prosaic libretto. Rather I wanted a poetic libretto. There is no recitative, though there are bits of conversation in this poetic language. It’s all in contemporary verse, not rhymed couplets, not iambic pentameter… But within the opera’s 80 minutes there are only about five short spoken lines, so it’s virtually all sung.
Are the characters fully developed or symbolic?
The story is archetypal. It’s about the struggle of an artist, a poet named Raphael, over the death of his beloved and muse, Marina. Then there’s a Faustian pact in which a movie director wants to make a film of Raphael’s life. Overseeing it all is a producer named Memphis (as in Mephistopheles) who seals the deal with our protagonist. So it’s a basic story, but within it there is a very strong psychological, emotional drama going on. The director/choreographer has put together a dramatic staging that is very much about dancing, so we picked our four singers very carefully. In that sense the work is less traditional in how it unfolds onstage. But the emotional narrative and the action surround the poet Raphael as he struggles with and the making of the movie and his collapse and recovery and release.
We find out early on that Raphael can’t write because of his grief over the loss of his beloved. He’s drinking. He’s falling apart. We find out immediately that the movie director, Infanta, wants to make this movie about the artist’s life. She’s in turn being run by a producer who’s the devil. A “hot young actress,” Cybele (sung by Australian soprano Jane Sheldon), has been cast to play the dead, lost love, Marina.
So yes, it is a story about archetypal characters, but set in contemporary Venice Beach, California.
Please describe the ensemble?
There are the four singing characters, British tenor Daniel Norman, American baritone Thomas Meglioranza, American mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, and Sheldon. There is a fifth character, the lost beloved Marina. She appears in a silent film role on a large screen for about 20% of the opera. We shot this film in April using the same soprano who is singing the role. Part of the story’s interest is about the confusion Raphael experiences between the actress who is playing the “lost beloved” on stage and the same actress’s character in the ‘Super8-style’ movie that Raphael took of his lover in the past, though she does look slightly different on stage. The movie role is silent, but her part is suggested musically by the eight instrumentalists of Firebird Ensemble.
The Face is in a single act with 11 scenes and no intermission and feels like a short movie. Each scene has a particular kind of music. It opens with solo, then there’s a duet, then another solo and so forth. In the center of the opera are two extended quartets. So in that sense it’s easy to see models from Mozart or Stravinsky. But there are no terzettinos, or duottinos, or arias…
This is a “concert performance of a chamber opera” so that means no staging, presumably. Then what are you doing with film and choreography? Will Bostonians see the full production the Californians see?
No, and that’s an important clarification. We are doing our fully staged premiere run in Los Angeles with conductor Gil Rose and Firebird Ensemble, then we’re taking the whole thing to Boston because of the Free for All Foundation grant to do a concert performance. We will have the projected film, the four singers on stage, Gil and the Firebird, and I will do a concert preview to set the stage. I think the Boston production will be more like a radio play, in a sense. We may be missing scenery and choreography, but singers will be in costume; they’re coming off a several days’ run, and they’ll be very expressive. But it will be a stand-in-place show. Concert performance of opera can work very well, in any case.
The French stage team Heliotrope’s extensive work will not really be visible in Boston, though it was their director, Paul Desveaux who had the theatrical concept. Yano Iatrides, the stage director/choreographer and her assistant director, Amaya Lainez, are also from Heliotrope. But it was actually Anton Nadler, a talented young US filmmaker and director, who shot the film.
How did Boston’s Gil Rose and Firebird Ensemble get involved with a California composer in the first place?
I’ve been working with Firebird Ensemble since the Harvard Musical Association assisted them in commissioning me for a work, to airy thinness beat (from John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning) in 2008. After the performances of the HMA-commissioned work, Firebird did a recording of my music entitled Night Scenes, which came out in 2011 on New World Records.
By the way, Jeffrey Means, Firebird’s regular conductor, is assisting in preparation for Gil Rose. Gil joined the cast and musicians in Los Angeles for rehearsals and performances in the theater.
I didn’t write The Face specifically for Firebird Ensemble, but we decided to go for it with them as a new music ensemble making an opera, rather than pitching the show to an established opera company. That’s quite remarkable, I must say.