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Composer/Librettist Walks Tightrope


Matthew Aucoin

The 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the War of Southern Rebellion, and of the assassination of Lincoln, has occasioned all manner of remembrance and observance. The issues latent and overt remain serious passions for some today. Young Boston composer Matthew Aucoin, all in the news recently, attempts in the manner of Walt Whitman to contain multitudes. BMInt had many questions concerning his new opera based on Walt Whitman for the American Repertory Theater. Crossing begins a six-performance run with A Far Cry and familiar soloists at the Schubert Theater on May 29th. BMInt’s Patrick Valentino conversed recently with the composer.

PV: Opening night is less than two weeks off. How are the rehearsals going?

Matthew Aucoin: [Stage Director] Diane Paulus has laser vision; she can look, like an x-ray, into the heart of the piece. To talk about last-minute changes, tweaks, cuts, editions, has been invaluable. I thought, this is a challenging new opera where the harmonies are unpredictable and the rhythms really challenging, so I figured that we would need to have proven it, so to speak, by now, that it would have to be the final product and that any changes would simply be freaky and terrifying to the cast. But everybody has been open to it. “Yeah, let’s take out five bars here, let’s add five bars there.” And the piece is coming into sharper and sharper focus, which feels so satisfying.

So in the course of the thing possibly changing slightly, do you feel that it’s becoming more of itself?

Exactly. It’s like you discover the true identity of the piece only by writing it start to finish, and then once you put it on its feet in a rehearsal room, you’ve internalized the piece’s hidden laws, the laws that really make it tick. And occasionally you come across a moment and say, nope, can’t do that. Maybe in a different piece, but not this one. I’m trying to think of a more specific example. There are some practical things, like a scene in which the ensemble expressed a kind of exhaustion at having waited for supplies for a very long time, and we found that if you did it at that point in the piece you would actually risk exhaustion in the audience rather than merely expressing exhaustion on stage. It’s implied by that point in the evening, so something like that just couldn’t be said. You can’t say that that late in the evening. Though, I guess Wagner does, in act III of Die Meistersinger. People have that conversation about “How’d you sleep?”; “Well, I didn’t sleep for long, but I slept well”; and it’s like Oh my God we’ve been here for five-and-a-half hours, I can’t believe, I don’t know if it’s Wagner….

Yes, that type of a realistic experience for the audience is probably one step too far.

Totally. In that type of opera it’s emotional realism but not temporal realism. It’s certainly not naturalism.

No reality TV opera.


You have mentioned of Crossings that, “Over the course of writing the first draft I actually found myself as a composer.” And then later on you went to talk about how many parts of it ended up getting changed, edited, cut out, revised. Can you speak a little bit in the first case what you meant by ‘you found yourself’ and also what your reaction is looking back to all those revisions you made?

First of all, the title is just singular, it’s just called Crossing. The finding-oneself question, which is a big one, I would never assert, “Okay, I’m done: this is me and I ain’t changing”, because hopefully I’ll continue to evolve my whole life. I think that’s the test of any composer who’s reacting and evolving to stuff that’s happening in music. But in the case of Crossing, the needs of the drama happened to align themselves with the needs of the music, in the sense that after the first draft had been played through in a workshop I felt that different scenes inhabited different musical landscapes, different harmonic rules, different patterns of rhythmic behavior. And the story at that time also had a kind of surrealist, almost Dantesque quality of featuring people of different periods of time wandering through this strange space. And seeing it played through start to finish, I just found like, okay, this person is more interesting than that one and this kind of harmonic chain reaction that uses familiar materials in what feels to me an unstable and exciting way—that’s more interesting than some of the other sections that were, to my ears now, either incoherent or predictable. So in both cases I think I found the tightrope that I want to walk as a composer and as a librettist. However, the one thing I cannot define is exactly what that sounds like. That’s the one thing where I have to say, well, come on and hear the piece.

Just digging a little deeper with that, because opera is one of the most complex musical forms that we have, with the interaction of drama and text and music and timing and blocking and lighting and all different artistic disciplines sort of interfacing with one another: I’m sure some of your revisions had to do with the reality of seeing your piece brought to life in a linear fashion in front of you rather than having the score written on the page. When you see it the way the audience is supposed to see it in the form it should be presented, do you see certain ways you can improve it? But now that you’re in the rehearsal process and you see the added layer of the stage direction, how is that process continuing for you?

I’m happy to say that there have not been any more surprises. At this point, at least in relation to the first draft, I think I have a surer sense of timing, so it’s been a pleasant surprise to rehearse a scene and go, “I don’t think I can do that any better right now”. Maybe somebody else could. Certainly the practical experience of seeing singer and pianist do it with stage direction is helpful as background experience for writing future operas, but I do believe it’s something you can get an inner sense for. I don’t think you always need to see it done in real time in order to be confident about it. I think what it requires is intimate familiarity not just with the medium but with the performers. One of the great things about working with Rod Gilfry, the baritone who’s singing Whitman, is that we’ve been going over this piece for more than two years, so now if I need to substitute a new phrase here or there I know exactly how his voice behaves and where the sweet spots are to maximize the incredible power that is coiled up in that voice. So yeah, the experiences nourish the action of writing stuff down when you’re alone. But thank goodness it’s not necessary to always be composing with a cast of singers at your disposal to test out whether what you did is any good.

A la Mendelssohn


Did you write the entire libretto?

I did, yes.

Is there any Whitman peppered in?

Of course there are a few quotes from Whitman and a climactic moment uses a good chunk of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. But as far as the drama, yeah, it’s all my words.

Where did the general plot come from?

It was a mix of a specific occasion to compose for and a preexisting interest of mine. ART approached me because they were doing this Civil War-oriented season, this past season, the previous one. And when they approached me I really wasn’t sure I was interested in writing a Civil War piece. I think in my head if I imagine what a Civil War Opera would sound like, a stereotype of a Civil War opera, I immediately hear Aaron Copland, like Red Badge of Courage. And I didn’t feel like that was me. It wasn’t something I was interested in doing particularly. But then thank goodness the ART’s dramaturge Ryan McKittrick pointed me towards Whitman’s diaries, towards his memoranda written during the war. Whitman as a poet and as a mysterious figurehead had fascinated me for a long time, also because he’s the most operatic personality in all of literature, so I thought, okay, Whitman I can definitely work with. This is a presence that I want to set to music. So everything merged out of the questions: “Who was this guy? What prompted him to drop everything and volunteer, anonymously and for no pay, in Civil War hospitals for several years in the prime of his life and literary career? It’s just a big mystery. Sure it’s a heroic action, but also it has a darker face. You can look at it as an act of running away from one’s life or of even potentially parasitically feeding off of the life and exploits and of course the physical attractiveness of all these soldiers, who led very different lives than he had. So he’s a complex and mysterious figure and the complexity is actually heightened by the way he presents himself, which is an everyman, as this kind of universal spirit of goodness and poetry, and of course we have to remember that that is a character. The Walt Whitman we know is a poetic persona. So this opera addresses the question: what was behind it?

Is that omnipresent tension evident in the musical score?

It is, yeah.

How do you achieve that?

I came to the opinion that we composers should use the whole toolkit of musical materials. We can be like scavengers using anything we want, but we have to be really honest about how the material behaves in our hands. That is, if I use a major chord, it’s not going to behave the way a major chord behaved for Brahms. It’s going to be something slightly more volatile, or maybe I’ll just pound away at that chord until it becomes totally numb and a foreign object. All this is to say that in the opera Whitman puts on many masks musically. It’s really a wide range, but by the end of the piece he finds his idiom. I think he finds the materials that are the most Whitmanian and that feel the most alive in his own hand. So there is this tension inherent in the way he thinks of who is this guy, what does he have to say? And he’s not honest about it at first. It takes him a long time to be able to open up.

Was the libretto written in a fairly poetic or prosaic cast?

It varies. I’d say most of it feels like poetry, but certainly there are long sections that are conversational. I tend to think that really prosaic language, like stuff that would work great in a spoken play, tends to sound like it’s trying to be cool in an opera and so it sticks out like a sore thumb.

So you think there’s a benefit to an inherent rhythm to the words.

Yeah, a rhythm to the words. I don’t mean that it has to be like super-elevated or that it has to have even poetic diction; it’s really about the rhythm of the words. There has to be something for the music to interact with in the way the language moves.

Could you speak a little more to that?

English is a very sticky language. Which is why the go-to line about English is that it’s bad for setting to music because we have all these ugly consonants and vowel sounds, and that’s precisely what I think makes English great to set to music. There’s so much variety, so much internal tension and pressure, there are some words that are so sweet and rich. And there are others that [are different]. English is a big mutt of a language that comes from everywhere and sounds like everything and that’s what makes it great for poetry. I mean everyone knows that the English and American poets have more variety within them than the poets of pretty much any other Western language. I once asked my teacher Jorie Graham—who is a poet who was raised in Rome and France by American parents, and so she grew up early speaking Italian and French, but she became fluent in English only in her 20s when she went to college, but she’s only ever written poetry in English—why did she not write poetry in either of the two languages that were actually native. And she said that there isn’t, for her, enough internal variety and pressure in those languages. She said that French poets have been fighting the French language for a thousand years, trying to make it anything other than sweet. But there’s nothing you can do, it’s always going to sound sweet. English has so many more possibilities and the biggest power of the English language is in its rhythms, because you can really flow or you can really articulate. And why waste that opportunity? Why not carve something that has its own rhythmic structure out of the language and see what happens when it comes into contact with the music?

You were composer-in-residence at the Peabody Essex Museum, which I found interesting because it’s right down the street from where I live. However, I didn’t know at the time that you were giving concerts there.

It’s actually an ongoing position. The residence part potentially means that there are a number of concerts every year, but I’m afraid so far there haven’t been more than three or four in a season, which is totally why you haven’t seen them.

I think they’re in the process of slightly changing how they do music there over the last couple years, so that’s probably up in the air a bit. But I noticed the cantata you had for countertenor. I’m assuming there’s no countertenor in Crossing.

There is no countertenor.

Aside from the baritone / bass-baritone of Whitman, what other prominent voice types are there, and how do you approach them as a composer?

The other lead is a tenor and the ensemble is a 12-voice male ensemble and the only woman arrives as a kind of messenger late in the opera. That is one thing that I really regret about the necessary changes between the first and second version. Because in the original version of Crossing there were so many characters moving trans-historically it was very easy to get some powerful female voices in there. But given that it’s now set in a particular place in time in a male-heavy environment, the balance is slightly skewed. So the challenge for me has been to vary the texture enough that it doesn’t feel deep and dark the whole time, and above all to maximize the impact of the female character. I think she arrives at a moment when you’re beginning to feel, as you hopefully should, a little bit claustrophobic in this space, where everybody is trapped and no one knows if this war outside is going to end. And this woman arrives and it really feels like a visitation from another galaxy because of how remote the space has been.

How specifically in each voice, more so than in orchestral texture or anything of that nature, would you be a proponent of the intelligibility of the sung word in your text setting and writing for various voices?

Of course, I think as an opera composer you’ve got to try to have it all. You want the words to be understood, but you don’t want the music to simply be the servant of the intelligible text. There are a few moments in the choruses where multiple things are being said at once or a melisma lasts so long that you might lose a word. But I think I’ve chosen those moments pretty carefully. When a chorus is creating a primarily musical effect, then I’m okay with losing a word for a moment or two. But yes, on the whole I really want people to get the specifics of the action.

But not to the point of the opera being heightened speech?

No, absolutely not.

How is it working with A Far Cry?

It’s great. I’m honored that I’m their first deviation from their own conductorless MO. Really, I approached them as a fan, saying I’ve been going to your concerts since early in college and I just love your spirit and your attitude and your gutsy way of playing, would you be interested in doing this project? And I really respect that it was a long conversation. They wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just an anonymous big budget opera production where they’d be shoved in the pit and that was that. On the contrary, they played an orchestral workshop of the piece last October, and the players have given me detailed feedback about their parts, which has been invaluable. And that’s great. It’s the opposite of showing up at the first rehearsal and seeing a bunch of players crack open the parts for the first time. And roll their eyes at the difficulty of it. On the contrary, A Far Cry dove in from day one. I’m really grateful.

Your comments on A Far Cry underscore what you’ve experienced with your singers and whatnot as well, sort of the benefit and luxury of personal interaction, which is wonderful to see a piece come to life, have everyone live with it for a while. But also being a proponent of the universality of music, music education and the desire to get out in front of everyone. How do you square those two? Obviously as a composer you’d love to work for years with specific people and tailor parts for every piece, and the balance of that is that the more music gets out there your own, or anyone else that you are promoting, the less that might be possible to do for the more people that it reaches. So how do you square those two in your mind and in your approach to music?

I think the vast majority of pieces that we think of today as repertory pieces, that have become universal, were written for a specific group of people. I think that as a composer, if you immediately jump to I’m writing for the universe, I would not deign to write for a specific human being for a specific occasion, you’re going to end up not reaching anyone. Whereas if you focus your attention on molding a piece to the strength of the people you’re working with, you will find that you’ve created something that is human and flexible. I really do believe that. That’s not to say that I simplify things. Even if I’m working with someone who might have a difficult time, you just ask the singers; they found the piece pretty darn challenging. I’m willing to put in the effort to work on it with them. I also find the performers tend to be much more open to something unfamiliar if the composer is actually in there in the trenches with them as opposed to sitting up in that ivory tower and saying, you deal with this shit.

Do you find the desire to interface with the composer similar among instrumentalists and singers or is it stronger in one group than another?

It’s similar in both cases. I suppose it tends to be stronger for instrumental soloists than orchestras, simply because it’s rare that you have the opportunity to really get to sit down with the personality of an orchestra before they play your piece. But I think in an ideal world you do.

Music & libretto by Matthew Aucoin
With the chamber orchestra A Far Cry

Directed by Diane Paulus
May 29th to June 6th at the Schubert Theater, Boston
Ticket information is here.

Inspired by the diary Walt Whitman kept as a nurse during the Civil War, this world premiere opera by the extraordinary young composer Matthew Aucoin explores how the individual experiences of soldiers are remembered and told. As Whitman listens to wounded veterans share their memories and messages, he forges a bond with a soldier who forces him to examine his own role as writer and poet. This new opera, featuring the Boston-based orchestra A Far Cry, an ensemble at the forefront of a dynamic new generation in classical music is produced in association with Music-Theatre Group.
The cast includes Rod Gilfry (May 29, 31, June 2, 4, 6) and Edward Parks (June 5) as Walt Whitman, Alexander Lewis as John Wormley, Davone Tines as Freddie Stowers, and Jennifer Zetlan as the Messenger; as well as William Goforth, Frank Kelley, Michael Kelly, David Kravitz, Matthew Patrick Morris, Miles Mykkanen, Daniel Neer, James Onstad, Jorell Williams, and Greg Zavracky. The creative team includes Set Designer Tom Pye (Witness Uganda), Costume Designer David Zinn (Highway Ulysses, Orpheus X, Olly’s Prison), Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton (The King Stag, Endgame, School for Scandal), and Projections by Finn Ross (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time).

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