Opera Blog

Follow my progress as I blog about the process of composing and adapting the libretto for my first full-length opera, Thurso’s Landing based on the epic narrative poem by Robinson Jeffers.

First Audio Sneak Peek!

June 25, 2016

I’ll keep this update short and “suite” — pun definitely intended.  Check out the recording of the Symphonic Suite from Thurso’s Landing performed by the DePaul Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Cliff Colnot!  Program notes are below the audio.

“Thurso’s Landing is an opera in two acts based on Robinson Jeffers’ epic narrative poem by the same title. The opera is set in the summers of 1932 and 1933 during the construction of Highway One and the real-life location of Bixby Bridge in California. The Thurso family, which dwells in a failing farmhouse far back in this ravine, struggles to come to terms with the modernization of the California landscape, the intrusion of outsiders, and spectres of a troubled familial legacy, challenging their own ideas of loyalty, identity, love and morality.

This Symphonic Suite explores various instrumental materials, textures, and dramaturgical vocabularies that will be further developed throughout the course of writing Thurso’s Landing. Presently included materials illustrate the dynamite crew blasting away at a steep cliff face, the passions of Helen Thurso, the rigid coldness of Reave Thurso, and the wild, swirling thoughts that lead Helen to a critical decision at the climax of act II.”

Onwards!

Until next time – JH

Upcoming Festival Appearance!

December 16, 2015

It’s been a while since my last Opera Blog post, and it is high time for an update. First and foremost, I am delighted to announce that my work has moved decidedly past the “thinking about the art of adaptation” phase. The libretto is complete, Act I Scene i is fully composed and orchestrated, and Helen’s big aria (“Death Is…”) from Act II Scene iii is complete (in both short score and in a piano arrangement).

In fact, Thurso’s Landing has already received its first recognition — “Death Is…” has been selected for performance at the 2016 Women Composers Festival of Hartford in the professional voice and piano division. I couldn’t possibly be more thrilled for this affirmation of these years of work.

While there are still many years to go, I can see the end in sight and can’t wait to continue to share my milestones with you here. For now, I’ll leave you with this preview of the piano/vocal sheet music.

First Page of "Death Is..."

First Page of “Death Is…”

Until next time – JH

Putting Everything Into Context – Jeffers, Freud and Physics (Part I)

March 15, 2013

Buckle your brainbelts – the title I almost chose for this post was “The Philosophy of My Approach to Contextual Character Analysis and What That Means for the Compositional Process”. Yeah, I’m glad I didn’t call it that either. So, instead, let’s start putting things into context.

Now that the plot has been outlined, the motivations have been translated, and the line-by-line work is well under way, I’ve had some extra room in my thought process to start examining how I really want this opera to sound. Not just in terms of the themes and motivic gestures that fit in with these characters and ideas, but in a more serious way, exactly how this sonic language will be expressed – and exactly why it should sound that way. What I’m getting at here is that it’s not enough to simply evoke the general emotional state of any given scene (what I would call “surface level” emotion and sonic illustration) – I want to create a richly dynamic foundation (especially in the orchestral textures) that illuminates the inner psychological workings of these characters (musically communicating the complex emotions that go beyond the surface of the text).

While it’s possible to create a musical language that carries this level of complex relationship to the emotional connections of the characters by aesthetic instinct alone (without conscious concern for doing so), I know that I’ll need a more structured sense of the “how” and the “why” in order to sustain this level of complexity for the long haul of both Acts. We’ll get to the sonic elements of my strategy in Part II of this post (coming soon!), but first let’s explore the idea of character analysis. So, with any number of analytical techniques available in this day and age, how does one decide where to start? Whose method to emulate? How does one put these characters and their actions into a context in order to derive structured analysis?

In this case, it’s all about Freud. No really! Here, I’ll explain.

It seems to me that it’s critically important, when looking at a given creative work, to be aware of any historical or anthropological context surrounding the artist during the creative process that may have influenced the work’s properties (or its creator). There are many different levels and layers to this kind of context, ranging from the very basic (i.e., knowing that England has a constitutional monarchy will aid in the viewing experience of someone watching The Queen) to the very complex (i.e., having gone to medical school might make the diagnosis scenes in medical dramas completely riveting whereas the casual observer may miss the intricacies of the origin of that particular strain of flu). No matter the range of background possessed by the audience or consumer, every spare bit of context can add to the appreciation of an artist and their work.

This can be especially crucial if an element in this range of context was widely known to the artist and their contemporary audience at the time of creation, but is no longer in the popular consciousness.

Take, for instance, the outdated pseudo-science of phrenology. While, as Waylon Smithers put it so eloquently in an episode of the Simpsons, “phrenology was dismissed as quackery 160 years ago,” it was nevertheless quite popular through much of the 19th century and was widely accepted as an accurate tool to gauge and gain insight into the personal characteristics of others. How does this apply, you might ask? Well, when we read a passage in Edgar Allen Poe referencing the shape of someone’s skull, that passage may be sufficiently dark or spooky on its own. But noting that Poe was an avid phrenologist and that his writings were deeply influenced by those theories can bring new depth of understanding to the text. In other words, while today’s reader needn’t subscribe to the ideas of an outdated pseudo-scientific fad, or even know exactly what those ideas consist of, knowing that the concept itself existed and most likely influenced the writing and how the author thought about character, emotion, and action can shed new light on motivations and descriptions and thereby enhance our reading experience – in much the same way, we might enjoy a movie without knowing why the director made certain choices in lighting or in casting, but listening to the director’s audio commentary on the DVD might give us more appreciation of the final cut.

Which brings us back to Freud.

Unlike phrenology and its non-impact on medical science, Freud’s philosophies and writings shaped the foundation of psychoanalysis and behavioral therapy as we know it today (meaning that “Freudian Analysis” is still a part of the general consciousness). However that doesn’t necessarily mean that the parts of Freud’s theoretical legacy that are still influential and important today are the same elements of his work that were well-known or popular at the time of Jeffers’ writing. Specifically, while Freud’s concept of the three parts of the psyche (the Id, the Ego, and the Superego) is no longer the be-all, end-all cornerstone of modern analysis and psychotherapy, it was widely known and very popular in the early 20th century (especially amongst authors and other creatives) and thus is the perfect method and structure to use when diving deeply into the psychology of these characters. In other words, it makes sense to look at these characters through the same lens as Jeffers likely did at the time of their creation.

Okay, so, how does this apply to the libretto as a whole?

In a very basic way, it seems to me that Helen Thurso (the wife) makes a journey starting from the Id, to the Ego, to the Superego by starting off her story arc with adulterous hedonism and ending with measured moralism at the expense of self. Reave Thurso (the husband) makes the opposite journey from the height of self-control to the final admission of animal instinct. They each seem to spiral through these layers of the psyche in a way not entirely in their control, as if they are being pulled or pushed in these directions by other forces in exponentially increasing fashion. In fact, Jeffers himself wrote a note about the original poem that seems to correlate to this very idea:

“A duel between the centripetal and centrifugal–executive and imaginative–types of mind.” [The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Five Textual Evidence and Commentary]

How exciting! Freud and Physics and Opera – oh my!

In case you are wondering where I’m going with all of this, do you remember that alternate title I almost named this post – “The Philosophy of My Approach to Contextual Character Analysis and What That Means for the Compositional Process”? Well, in a nutshell, I’ve chosen the three psyches concept of Freud for my analytical method because it was popular during Jeffers’ time, and based on that analysis (supported in Jeffers’ note above), I’ve been led to explore the ideas of centripetal and centrifugal force (including the challenge of expressing properties of physics in a linear fashion) in order to produce a more solid foundation for the musical language of the opera and to provide cohesion in my creative approach over the long haul – while still leaving ample room for aesthetic instinct and artistic choice.

But I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself – there will be more on the sonic implications of this line of thinking in the next post, “Jeffers, Freud and Physics – Part II”.

Until next time – JH

The Joys of Adaptation

January 9, 2013

When I first began work on this project, I was truly daunted by the depth and breadth of the source material (read below for my previous post).  How on earth would it ever be possible to turn this complex story into a strong libretto?  My first few attempts at outlines left me with Wagnerian-length epics but without the high drama or strength of plot of the original.  Somehow, in my quest to stay true to the poem, I was causing it to become diluted when looked at through opera-goggles.  I am happy to announce that, after much struggle, much research, and a lot of time away from the source material, I have emerged from the adaptation-struggle and arrived at what I believe to be a strong structural foundation that will allow me to continue the detailed line-by-line work that is the next step.

What is it that makes an adaptation successful?  It certainly isn’t adhering to the source material as if one were performing a strict point for point conversion from one medium to another.  A play filmed straight-on from the audience and shown on a big screen doesn’t work as a film – the audience will see it simply as “a tape of a play”.  A photograph of a painting does not necessarily have value as a photograph beyond simply being “a picture of a painting” (unless choice in composition, lens, filters and development elevate the photograph to something more – its own work of art based on previously created material).    Imagine, if you will, a stenographer in a courtroom.  As the legalese drones on and on, and the bits of evidence and strings of rhetoric are dragged out and put on display in a carefully choreographed legal dance, the poor steno is left to type it all up with the utmost respect for accuracy.  While this drama may be riveting to those in the courtroom, and those for whom their entire fate hangs in the balance – well, should a director try to film that transcript word for word and air it as the latest crime drama on network television, the show would be canceled before its first commercial break.  It simply would not make for good television.

The magic of successful adaptation happens when, for example, that same screenwriter (who is perhaps basing the script upon a true courtroom event) takes apparent liberties, such as allowing the story told on the witness stand to instead be filmed in flashback, or condensing testimony of 3 expert witnesses into one witness with an agenda, or allowing the emotional investment of the prosecutor to inform her now utterly moving closing statements (who for the sake of audience connection is now portrayed as, perhaps, a single mother with [insert major character flaw here]).  Was the perpetrator still found guilty?  Did they still commit the murder with a candlestick in the drawing room?  Was the motive still monetary greed and a broken heart?  Then I ask you, for all those apparent liberties, did the story really change?

Another way to say what I’m trying to get at here is that there are elements to a story that are essential, and those that are not.  In the example above, if the alleged perpetrator had, in a distinct twist from the original court document, been found innocent, would the essence of the story be changed?  Would it cease to be the same story?  Probably – but only if the essence of what made that story that story revolved around the verdict.  If the essence of the story was the self-discovery of the prosecutor, then perhaps the verdict becomes non-essential.  But these choices about essential vs. non-essential in the source material are personal and can only be made by the adaptor of the story when they ask themselves the following questions: “What makes this story important?  What essential elements define this story that simply must be shared with the audience, without which this story would cease to be this story?”

When I first tried to ask myself these questions last April, I came back with unsatisfactory answers, namely “every detail makes this story important,” and “every part of this story must be shared with the audience, and there are no parts that are non-essential” in this other medium.  This was why I kept ending up with 5-act outline-monstrosities that were, to put it mildly, simply ineffective.  It was only by spending time apart from the material (refraining from re-reading the poem for a few months, and instead focusing on building up my sonic tool-box for the musical language I am beginning to pin down) that I realized that the truly essential elements to the story (as I see them) were the only elements I could remember.  Little plot devices, tiny motivations, even whole characters and moments completely departed my memory.  And somehow, the parts left over still told the essence of the story as I see it.

Now, sonic tool-box mostly in hand, orchestral overture sketched, a full outline completed and the line-by-line libretto nearly complete for Act I Scene 1, I am excited to be moving forward with words and music, and am excited to share my progress.  Moving forward from the “what to keep, what to cut and what to change” phase is a huge relief, and I am truly excited about getting closer to sharing the essence of Helen and Reave’s story with you as work progresses.  For now, I will leave you with a few newly written lines from the first scene (sung by the Foreman of the road crew).

“Old Man Thurso! Ha! / Reave himself is bad enough without the ghosts of the dead to trouble us. / And you San Quentin boys are all alike – superstitious lot. / You should know better than the others / there’s nothing to fear that ain’t in a man’s eyes.”

Until next time! – JH

Foundation of a Libretto

April 30, 2012

 

Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers, July 9, 1937. Photo by Carl Van Vechten

If you have never heard of Robinson Jeffers, it’s time for you to go check him out. Seriously. You could read about him here, or – less academically – here.  If you like what you see, consider buying this book, here, which, as it happens, is only the tip of the iceberg – there are 5 massive volumes published by Stanford University Press which were painstakingly edited by this cool cat over the course of nearly 2 decades.

If you skipped all of the links in that first paragraph (and I can’t say I blame you if you did), I’ll try to summarize as best I can – though, fair warning, at this point we are leaving the realm of academia and entering the realm of personal observation.  Jeffers is, to my mind one of America’s most underrated poets.  He was actually widely known in the 1920s and 30s, but fell out of popular favor by the 1950s, most likely due to his political objections to the U.S. entering WWII and other elements of U.S. Policy at the time (objections that were made explicitly clear in many of his poems of this era).

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here – Jeffers was not only a poet of the political persuasion, but also – if not most importantly (at least in my opinion) – a fascinating landscape artist, depicting the California coastal region (where he built himself a house and a tower made of stone – by hand, no less!) with a dexterity and a versatility that evoke the ecology, astronomy, and vast geology of this beautiful region with a mastery that completely envelopes and sweeps the reader away into a timeless world where humanity, and all its trivialities, is just a speck of dust being blown about in the cosmic coastal winds – even as he shows us this through the eyes of his very human observers and participants.

Jeffers wrote poems in many shapes and sizes, from works of a single, short stanza up to novel-length, free-verse epics.  Up until beginning work on my opera, I had been mostly fascinated by his shorter landscape-heavy pieces.  In fact, I set 5 of these shorter poems in my song cycle Songs of Autumn for Baritone and Piano, originally performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 2007. The language and rhythm of Jeffers is so inherently musical, his words such a joy to write to and such a fit to my natural voice-setting inclinations in terms of contour and structure, I always knew I wanted to set his words again for some future project.

Now, while this post has been mostly about Jeffers, at this point I should take a short detour and tell you how I got to this point – poem in hand, adaptation underway.  I have wanted to write an opera for the last decade – no joke!  It seems like the perfect marriage between my love of vocal performance, instrumental composition, and dramatic storytelling.  After coming up with a few-too-many terrible ideas for a libretto-from-scratch, and sharing these a few-too-many times with those unlucky enough to be my sounding boards for things like this, the suggestion to look again at Jeffers came to light and inspiration struck.  It might be possible, with quite a bit of adaptation, to use one of Jeffers’ epic narrative poems as the basis for a libretto — so here I am , underway on my adaptation!  Thurso’s Landing, with its core ensemble of soloists, full chorus, intrigue, love, lust, dynamite, revenge, mercy, and death is just begging to get the full opera-treatment.  I am so excited about the possibilities.  I wish you could step inside my head for a moment and watch this final scene in Act III like I can.

But I know it will take a long time and more work than I can possibly fathom just yet to bring this project to fruition.  My first challenge, of course, is creating this libretto. The story and characters as they are in the poem are already so epic and operatic – the dialogue (what there is of it) is imminently set-able and is already crying out for music.  But structurally, I have 23 chapters to somehow mold into a 3-Act opera. And there are countless passages of third-person narration in the poem that somehow need to become first-person “lines”.  And those two challenges are only the beginning of what has already become a completely daunting list of obstacles that I will somehow need to find a way to overcome as I make my way towards a first draft of this libretto. I am hopeful that my sheer force of will on this will be enough to get me through this tough early period of the process.

For now, I will leave you with this quote that Helen (the wife) says to Reave (the husband) in chapter 7 (or rather, what will most likely be the beginning of Act II):

“At last you’ve struck something / Stiffer than you. Reave, that stubborn will / is not strength but disease…”

Something to ponder.  But for now, at least, I will go on hoping that I can prove Helen wrong!

Until next time – JH

Welcome to the Opera

April 27, 2012

Welcome to the first post of my opera blog!  In the coming months (or - more realistically – years!) this will be where you can go to follow my progress.  I’ll be looking forward to sharing my journey with you as I create my first full-length opera, Thurso’s Landing, including adapting the libretto from Robinson Jeffers’ original epic narrative poem by the same title.  Here we go!

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