Local composer Matthew Aucoin headlined The New York Times Magazine this week [here] in a celebratory article by Carlo Rotella of Boston College: his new Whitman opera, Crossing, debuted Friday night to a packed house in an American Repertory Theater production at Boston’s Shubert Theater .
The youngest assistant conductor in the history of the Met, Aucoin, has had a busy year, acting as cover conductor for the Met productions of Shostakovich’s The Nose and head conductor for the Canadian Opera Company’s Così fan Tutte. He was selected as the second Solti Conducting Apprentice for the Chicago Symphony, studying four weeks with Riccardo Muti in Chicago and leading the CSO in a program of French music after Pierre Boulez suddenly cancelled.
Over the past three years, the A.R.T. at Harvard University has commissioned several new works and events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The 2012 premiere of Futurity: A Musical imagined a Union soldier collaborating with mathematician Ada Lovelace to end the war, and War Dept. (2014) was set in Ford’s Theater after the assassination of Lincoln. New A.R.T. plays like The Boston Abolitionists’ Project (2013) and Father Comes Home from the War (2015) explored the lasting effects of the conflict.
Director Diane Paulus and the A.R.T. put together over $1 million to develop Matthew Aucoin’s new 100-minute American opera, which she commissioned as a result of hearing his student opera Hart Crane in 2012. Her large professional staff was particularly flexible concerning rewrites, participating in several local workshops and rehearsals that centered in New York City. A.R.T. has championed other American opera, notably reviving Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in a new form last year before sending it on to Broadway.
Although early drafts of Crossing included a wider variety of leading roles, Aucoin “ruthlessly murdered” several minor characters, and the resulting final version focuses on three male leads (tenor, baritone, and bass-baritone). For all of his dramatic projects, Aucoin works on the libretto first, and this opera begins and ends with quotations from Dante’s Divine Comedy. After first constructing three main character scenes for Whitman, the deserter John Wormley, and escaped slave Freddie Stowers, Aucoin engaged in a complex, long-term process of drafting, re-writing, and editing the piece. As a choral musician and lover of modern opera, I hear small structural and musical similarities to Britten’s War Requiem and Peter Grimes throughout the work, mostly due to the works’ blending of texts that inform each other about war and those who have separated themselves from mainstream society.
In an interview with the Harvard Gazette [here] this Spring, Aucoin discussed the evolution of the music and libretto for Crossing: “I worked on the first draft from about December 2012 until January 2014 […] and then let it sit for a couple of months. We did a workshop of it in April of last year, at which point I realized I really wanted to change it. So it’s really just between June and September that the piece as it stands was written. And that might sound like a short period, but it’s just the opening of the floodgates and the pressure behind the gates had been building for a long time.”
Baritone Rod Gilfry, who teaches at USC and has premiered six leading roles in contemporary operas, worked with the composer for over two years to develop the character of Walt Whitman. His deeply felt and emotional portrayal of Whitman sets the tone for Aucoin’s meditation on identity, war, and what it means to be “in relationship.”
Set Designer Tom Pye and Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton worked miracles with minimal set pieces by combining video, projections of Whitman’s handwriting, and stark, flat surfaces. Their haunted, bleak hospital for wounded Union soldiers would be at home in the fishing village of Britten’s Peter Grimes or the Maine seacoast town of Carousel.
The soloists were uniformly excellent, and the 11-man chorus acted as a single character at the beginning of the opera, layering short, powerful solos and building thicker dramatic textures from small fragments (“I was.. I was.. I was… I was… seventeen… seventeen…). As tenor Alexander Lewis (soldier John Wormley) sang about his tribulations, lost in the forest south of Washington, images gradually shifted from indoor lights to outdoor forests, and eventually to burned landscapes. These were pictures that were truly moving.
David Zinn’s costumes transformed the four dancers from patients to soldiers to characters in a dream ballet. The gown he designed for soprano Jennifer Zetlan (the Messenger) provided a shocking burst of color and shape on the stage: it perfectly complimented the surreally high tessitura of her music, acting as both a shock to the soldiers, and a relief for the audience, after 90 minutes of male voices.
Although Aucoin’s favorite operas are Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Verdi’s Otello, he has high praise for Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress (which he conducted while at Harvard) and Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face (1995). Aucoin’s music, especially in his solo vocal writing, can be highly emotional and chromatic, often built on series of thirds or fourths, rather than stepwise or tonal melodies. Melodic lines often build up tension and then resolve with a sudden shift of register: instead of a seventh scale degree resolving to a tonic eighth (B-natural to a C in a mode based on C, by typical classical half-step motion), lines suddenly conclude by dropping a seventh or ninth.
His harmonies are often transcendental and technically innovative, but they are characterized by floating musical lines. These dense, busy flourishes (think the opening of Smetana’s Die Moldau, but bitonal) don’t always allow the text to be heard clearly, but the addition of supertitles on screens to the sides of the proscenium arch assured that Aucoin’s (and Whitman’s) ideas were understood.
Aucoin’s orchestration will continue to develop as he gains a larger audience, but Crossing shows evidence of his preference for composing at the piano. In this opera, where almost all of the voices are male, the orchestration floats above the singers, and the orchestra doesn’t firmly ground the score until the final two scenes, featuring a gently driving, minimalist setting of Whitman’s poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Aucoin also pulls text from Whitman’s shorter poems (“Come, O lovely and soothing death/ Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving”) and writes a lovely final aria for tenor Alexander Lewis, whose elegant delivery and memorable stage presence deliver the most intense moments of the opera.
Aucoin’s orchestra for this project is the (usually) conductorless A Far Cry, an excellent ensemble which brings to life the high, keening dissonances of the soldiers’ suffering (through piccolo duet, string harmonics, and bowed vibraphone). The ensemble seemed to be slightly enlarged for this production: pairs of winds contributed gorgeous melodies during the extended arioso sections, acting as equal partners to the singers.
Recent articles about the 25-year-old Harvard graduate compare Aucoin to Wagner [here] (for writing his own libretti), Bernstein [here] (for his youthful energy and pianistic skill), and Whitman himself [here], but this score sounds a lot like the kind of opera Britten would have written if he had lived past 1976. There are moments of Alban Berg and even a lovely spiritual-aria for bass-baritone Davone Tines (Harvard ’09, Juilliard ‘13), to feature his vocal and dramatic range.
Aucoin received his graduate diploma in composition from Julliard, where he studied with Robert Beaser. His music for Crossing was “designed to counteract … the innate Italianness of opera” through rhythmic density and shifting meters. The composer returned to Harvard this March for a lecture and discussion on Crossing which featured one of the work’s final arias: “This is the Hour, O Soul.” It was designed specifically for the powerful, elegant voice of bass-baritone Davone Tines, whose moving delivery of Aucoin’s melody at the Harvard recital, accompanied by the composer on piano, [here] was much more poignant and intimate than the full orchestral version.
Aucoin’s next two projects are a performance of his own recent chamber music at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (June 23) and the premiere of Second Nature, his children’s opera [here] commissioned for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in August 2015 at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Future commissions-in-progress include a 2016 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra commissioned by The Irving S. Gilmore Foundation for Charlie Albright, another opera for the Met’s New Works Program at the Lincoln Center Theater, and an orchestral work commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s fifteen-year-old “Sound Investment” program, to be conducted by Jeffrey Kahane. Carnegie Hall will celebrate its 125th anniversary next season by commissioning 125 works over the next five years, effectively doubling its commissioning budget to more than $1 million: Aucoin will contribute a vocal work for tenor Paul Appleby and pianist Ken Noda, to be premiered in March 2016.
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The Future of American Opera?
Regardless of the financial challenges facing American opera companies [here], the genre is thriving and attracting new audiences. Boston-area audiences have flocked to the world premieres of new operas such as Opera Boston’s Madame White Snake (2010) by Zhou Long, Osvaldo Glijov’s Ainadamar (2003, premiered at Tanglewood), and Eric Sawyer’s Our American Cousin (2007-2008, premiered by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in Amherst and Northampton). Boston Conservatory’s newest chamber operas include Curtis Hughes’ Say It Ain’t So, Joe (2009), and Andy Vores’ No Exit (2008), and Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis (2015).
Several 21st-century American opera companies have commissioned new operas from American composers. My “Top 40” recommendations are: Mark Adamo (The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 2013; Lysistrata, 2005), John Adams (El Niño, 2000; Doctor Atomic, 2005), William Bolcom (A Wedding, 2004), David Carlson (Anna Karenina (2007-10), Richard Danielpour (Margaret Garner, 2005), Anthony Davis (Wakonda’s Dream, 2007), David DiChiera (Cyrano, 2007), Mohammed Fairouz (Sumeida’s Song, 2008), Philip Glass (Galileo Galilei, 2002; Appomattox, 2007; Kepler, 2009; The Lost, 2013), Ricky Ian Gordon (The Grapes of Wrath, 2007), Daron Hagen (Amelia, 2010; New York Stories, 2010), Stephen Hartke (The Greater Good, 2008) , Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, 2000; The End of the Affair, 2004; At the Statue of Venus, 2005; To Hell and Back, 2006; Last Acts, 2008; Moby-Dick, 2010), David Little (Vinkensport, 2010; Dog Days, 2012; JFK, 2014), Paul Moravec (Blizzard Voices, 2008; The Letter, 2009), Nico Muhly (Two Boys, 2011 at the English National Opera, revived by the Met), John Musto (Volpone, 2004; The Inspector, 2011), Tobias Picker (An American Tragedy, 2005; Dolores Claiborne, 2013), André Previn (Brief Encounter, 2009), Stephen Sondheim (Séance on a Wet Afternoon, 2009), Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk, 1995; The Bonesetter’s Daughter, 2008), and Scott Wheeler (Democracy, 2005).
Seven new American productions are in the development stage right now. These include operas by Marco Tutino (Two Women/La Ciociara, San Francisco, June 2015), Jake Heggie (Great Scott, Dallas, October 2015), Jimmy López (Bel Canto, Chicago Lyric, December 2015), Bright Sheng (Dream of a Red Chamber, San Francisco, Fall 2016), Thomas Adès (The Exterminating Angel, Met, 2017-18), Osvaldo Golijov (Iphigenia in Aulis, Met, 2018), and Nico Muhly (Marnie, ENO 2017, Met 2019-20).