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From Hip Club to Opera House


Composer John Aylward

If not entirely quieting the cry for more classical performance spaces of high quality, the announcement that a hip spot in Cambridge is becoming our latest opera house causes salivation—especially when a restaurant of no little pretension is associated. As part of a year-long residency, Le Laboratoire in Cambridge has invited the Ecce Ensemble to stage the world premiere of John Aylward’s opera Switch. The run will extend from February 12th through February 20th.

Founded in Paris in 2007 by inventor, writer, and Harvard biomedical engineering professor David Edwards, Le Laboratoire is an art and design culture center “aspiring to the frontiers of science and innovation now open in the Kendall Square area. From plastician Fabrice Hybert to chef Thierry Marx and designer Philippe Stark, Le Lab Paris has showcased world-renowned artists, designers, scientists, and engineers. In keeping with this cross-disciplinary approach, Le Lab Cambridge will highlight original work by leading international artists and designers in collaboration with scientists from the Boston and Cambridge areas and around the world.”

Ecce’s commitment to contemporary music extends through concerts, symposia, and other community-centered events. Switch explores the relationship between an artist and his muse, featuring two vocalists, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and Mikhail Smigelskii, backed by Vasko Dukovski (clarinet), Keiko Murakami (flutes), Serafim Smigelskiy (cello), and Mike Truesdell (percussion). According to composer/librettist Aylward, the libretto borrows from a range of sources, including Hemingway, Calvino, Mann, Lawrence, and Plato. “Because the libretto draws from ancient, Romantic and contemporary texts, I composed a sonic landscape that also employs a pastiche of vocal styles including Medieval chant and modal Renaissance counterpoint. Thanks to the vocalists’ omnivorousness, I was able to explore a variety of unconventional uses of the voice. The vocalists’ spoken word, movements and speech are choreographed so as to become extensions of the ensemble writing, combining dramatic expressivity with complex musical textures.”

In addition to his opera for Ecce, Aylward’s oeuvre includes, chamber music, orchestral work, and music for film, in commissions from members of Klangforum Wien, from Ensemble , Sound Icon, the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society and from Open Space.He also advocates for new music pianist and as a director of the Etchings Festival for Contemporary Music.

His awards include a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship from Harvard University, a Koussevitzky Commission from the Library of Congress, a Fulbright Grant to Germany, a DAAD fellowship and First Prize from the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) among other honors. His fellowships and residencies include those from the MacDowell Colony, Tanglewood, the Aspen Music School, the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He currently lives in Cambridge, and teaches music composition at Clark University.

BMInt had an extended conversation with the composer.

LE: As your libretto explores the relationship between artist and muse, one wonders if there is any action.

JA: Are you asking if there’s a plot?

Yeah, is there a story, as well as philosophical musing?

Well, I think that the first place for me to start is that I think my music has always been fascinated with the way texture and timbre and harmony can really affect psychological states.

Affect them, or reflect them, or both?

That’s a very good point. Previously it’s really been about reflection, and I think that the opera is a jump for me because the vocal line is now able to express somewhat more concrete affects that perhaps up until now my music has only been hinting at. But now these affects kind of take full bloom and I think it’s a reason why I had to go into theater, why I had to start working in opera, because I did feel there were always some things that could be done with these psychological states I’m fascinated with. And I didn’t realize that for a little while, but I fell into the opera quite comfortably because of the way I was able to move the music in this more effective way, and really think about psychological states of a character connected to the psychological state of my music.

Since you’re the librettist and the composer, the question of which comes first, the words or the music, is probably even more difficult.

I did write the libretto completely first, in consultation with a trusted poet friend and a screenwriter in New York who took a few reviews and passes at it. I kind of tried to write it with a village, so to speak, because it is my first libretto and I didn’t want to go about it in the dark, without having a lot of input from colleagues. And so once that was finished, it dawned on me that I had kind of completed something in and of itself. That it had its own legs and that now, putting on the composer’s hat and manipulating it and really sculpting it into an opera, would be a completely different task. And I wound up striking lines and changing words, almost as if, for a moment, the libretto was not mine anymore and I was simply receiving something that had been done and now was looking at it fresh and new. That excited me because I was sitting on the other side of this piece and digging it in a completely different way. It was then that I started to realize how the music would map onto the expressive natures of the characters. I probably had an inclination at first, maybe instinctually, as I was writing the libretto, but then when I was writing the music, it really started to come out and came out very naturally. It took me maybe 18 months to write the libretto.

Was it always going to be a libretto?

Oh, yeah, from the beginning. But I was interested in writing it myself, because I was very interested in engaging the theater, and so it’s interesting for me to hope that the opera comes off as opera theater. There are a lot of theatrical aspects to it and many times the vocalist simply speak. And for me the engaging aspect of the project was to create something in that liminal space, where at times it’s an opera, at times it’s theater. How do we straddle that line? And what is the payoff? What do we gain and of course what do we lose? But what do we gain in that synergy, taking opera one step closer to theater.

Carmen has plenty of spoken dialogue, and that’s why it had to play at the Comique instead of the Opera Garnier.

Absolutely, and Brecht, and so much of singspiel. Of course I was very influenced by all of that. I also feel a real connection to Berg and Lulu and the deep theatrical aspects of that opera. And then I have to say that a great deal of my vocal treatment is really inspired by Berio, his text setting and all of the work he did with Cathy Berberian, which I find fascinating. His vocal treatment always inspires me because it’s so theatrical. Think of a piece like Circles, which is so deeply theatrical and very musical at the same time. So that’s where I’m coming from as a composer, trying to bring elements of music and theater together in a different way.

Is any of the libretto in verse or is it all prose?

It’s a prose libretto and I’ll give insight into where that came from. The first inkling I wanted to write an opera really came from reading Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden. This was a real captivating book for me, and it’s very different from Hemingway’s other works. It was cut down from a large volume that was never published; in fact it was one of the last posthumously published books of Hemingway. It’s about a disillusioned artist. Newly married, he and his wife vacation in the French Riviera; he’s an alcoholic, another woman is involved, and lots of fascinating psychological thrill ensues. So I loved the book, and thought I’d love to turn it into an opera. But what do you do with all these fantastical settings of the Riviera? It would cost $100,000 just for the backdrops.

And that’s before the royalties.

[laughter] You’re not kidding. So then I thought, maybe I could adapt it and begin with the general idea. I loved all of the themes in the Hemingway and wanted to see what else I could add and bring to the table. Instead of an obstacle I looked at it as an opportunity to infuse the basic theme with my own fascinations. I’m fascinated by the muse throughout history and the muse as D.H. Lawrence describes her and as Joseph Campbell describes her. One text setting I chose is from a beautiful Plato dialogue, Ion, in which Socrates discusses the muse. So I took it as an opportunity to plumb the depths of the muse throughout 20th-century history. I just loved that feeling of harvesting all of these fascinating literary aspects of the muse. And then asking, how can I make a coherent dialogue out of this and showcase all of the fascinating aspects of the different sources?

Does it have to be coherent?

A good question. For me, there is a sense of coherence simply in the pastiche, and so it’s really not about striving for coherence. I’m simply striving to communicate my own fascinations in music. [A musical example is follows]

One of the most representative of all these musings, pardon the pun, is this beautiful text by Plato that I mentioned earlier. It comes up late in the opera. One of the things that really struck me as librettist/composer, through a lot of various feedback from other readers, is that I had to make the muse real. We understand the artist’s plight and begin to understand the frustrations he’s having, but we also must understand that the muse also struggles. As the opera goes by, we start to understand that she’s also got feelings. In Ion there’s a nice part where the muse talks about (I guess it’s really Socrates talking) the magnet of Euripides, and the idea that it attracts many rings, all intertwined and all drawn to each other through the magnet. It is an image that Socrates uses to talk about how the muse inspires one and then another and then another and that all of these inspirations ultimately can be traced back to the muse:

The magnet attracts iron rings and imparts to them the power of attracting other rings. Imagine many rings suspended from one another. In like manner, the muse, first of all, inspires artists herself, and from these inspired persons, a chain of others is suspended. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, pose their beautiful poems not by art, because they are inspired and possessed.

That’s a vivid line. I hope the composer lives up to the librettist in that case.

[laughter] I hope so. That’s right, that’s what I mean about becoming the composer and taking a look at the libretto and thinking oh my God, I don’t know if I’ll be able to set all this.

Composers are often unlucky in their librettists. You never know.

You’re very right. Some of this came out of necessity when I wanted to begin this project. I wanted to set the Hemingway and I didn’t know how to go about it and I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to set just the Hemingway text. I wasn’t positive. It’s very hard to first of all find a librettist, let alone have that kind of relationship where you can communicate all of your artistic interest to this person. So I thought, maybe I’ll save myself a lot of time and trouble by taking a stab at it. And it turned out that I fell in love with the project just as a libretto.

A page of the libretto is switch libretto here.

*  *  *

There are set pieces, arias and duets and you said there’s sprechstimme, actual speaking and singing, so it’s pretty well mixed up?

I would say that it is, a real mix of things, speaking, operatic singing; what I’m trying to do as a composer is play in the middle of that and see how the voice, just as a natural voice, has so much lyricism to it. And how musical sounds can emerge very naturally from natural speech pattern. So I am going for something a little different from the traditional operatic vocal style. And I think that is in line with this idea of exploring the psychological states of the actors.. For example, the piece opens with the writer at his typewriter. And you hear the sound of the typewriter and just as you hear it the bass flute enters with a very sharp attack. For me, the question is, how has the sound of the typewriter become the sound of the bass flute? How has that sharp attack become somewhat rounder, somewhat breathier? And then from the breath of the flute we hear an exhale from the actor. So from the sharp timbre of the typewriter into the flute that provides breath and then out to the vocalist who has exhales. That idea captures the range of expression I’m exploring in the opera, from the sharp mechanical industrial all the way to the breath of life. And how do we play in the middle of that?

Is the typewriter played by a percussionist? Is it written out in strict time?

It is written out. And that’s why we’re lucky to have a brilliant ensemble who can actually get this to happen.

But it’s all through-composed, not improvised?

No, it’s through-composed.

Talk about the ensemble.

One flutist playing flutes, piccolo, c, alto and bass. And then a clarinetist who plays bass clarinet also. Cello, and percussion. And two vocalists.

And the percussionist is not playing just the typewriter?

He’ll play vibraphone, bass drum, tam tam and then a setup of smaller percussion.

What is the theater like? Is there going to be much staging, lighting or action?

Yeah, there will be a lot of staging and I’m working with this wonderful director, Laine Rettmer. She is very experienced with chamber opera and a very physical director who is really hands-on. The vocalists love working with her. She has so many wonderful ideas about how to bring the piece to life physically. We’ve been collaborating for about a year on the project now. I brought her one of the last drafts of the libretto, maybe it was last summer, and the collaboration fell together very nicely. She’s wonderful to work with.

We’re working together at a venue that is really interesting. It’s an installation gallery large enough to do interdisciplinary performance works. When they opened last year, I knew David Edwards, the founder, and also Carrie the Executive Director, from a previous fellowship I had done at Harvard.. David and I got to talking about this great new space he was developing as a visual arts installation gallery and I asked him if he was interested in a music series, because I help direct the Ecce Ensemble with Serafim Smigelskiy and Vasko Dukovski. So I said, David, meet these great performers and co-directors and if you’re interested in having a contemporary-music series, we could do some interesting projects together. It just worked out well; he was very interested in the idea, and asked if we would produce a large work at the space, and I said, how about opera? It fell together quickly. I think David was happily surprised to hear the idea of putting on an opera in a gallery. And I could talk at length about that, because where does contemporary opera find a home these days?

Is it going to be amplified?

No. It’ll be acoustic and in fact the space has beautiful acoustics very naturally.

Unlike other club environments, is it quiet?

It is, it’s very quiet. It has a beautiful acoustic to it that can accommodate a nice large sound because it is a big space.

How many will it seat?

Once we have the stage up we anticipate having 100 seats. But without a stage that space could easily fit 200 people, for instance if it were set up for a string quartet. The stage could easily be modulated. But the actual stage takes up a lot of space.

Meaning risers?

We’ll bring in risers and then we’ll bring in a set that Laine Rettmer and her colleague Andrea Merx have designed.

Click here to see a sample video.

Le Laboratoire
Le Laboratoire

The Ecce Ensemble Presents the World Premiere of the Opera Switch, Part of Its Yearlong Residency at Le Laboratoire

World premiere of the contemporary opera Switch
February 12-14 + February 19-20 at 7:00pm.
Le Laboratoire, 650 East Kendall Street, Cambridge MA, T: Red to Kendall Square
$40/$20 Students. To purchase, contact Le Laboratoire at 617.945.7515 or visit


Librettist: John Aylward
Composer: John Aylward
Director: Laine Rettmer
Conductor: Jean-Philippe Wurtz
Lighting Designer: Sebastien Lamouret
Costume Designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Set Designer: Laine Rettmer and Andrea Merx
Henry: Mikhail Smigelskii (bass-baritone)
Molly & Anne: Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano)
Musicians: Ecce Ensemble—Vasko Dukovski (clarinet), Keiko Murakami (flutes), Serafim Smigelskiy (cello), Mike Truesdell (percussion)

 Switch performance and lecture series schedule is as follows:

  • Reimagining Contemporary Opera (lecture): Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 at 6:30pm
  • Performance: Friday, February 12th, 2016 at 7:00pm
  • Performance: Saturday, February 13th, 2016 at 7:00pm
  • Performance: Sunday, February 14th, 2016 at 7:00pm
  • Composers’ Reading Session (Workshop/Presentation): Monday,February 15th, 2016 at 12:00pm
  • Performance: Friday, February 19th, 2016 at 7:00pm
  • Performance: Saturday, February 20th, 2016 at 7:00pm


Founded in 2008, ECCE (John Aylward, Executive Director; Serafim Smigelskiy, cello; Artistic Director; Wei-Chieh Lin, Co-Artistic Director; Catherine Gregory, flutes; Vasko Dukovski, clarinets; Hassan Anderson, oboe; Doug Balliett, double bass; and Mike Truesdell, percussion) is a group of today’s most accomplished performers who are committed to presenting captivating and visionary performances of contemporary music. Through concerts, symposia, and other community-centered events, ECCE shares new forms of engagement in modern music with a diverse international audience. For more information, please visit

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