A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, opera a cappella now available at Albany Records

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Congrats to Robert Ward

This year the National Endowment for the arts opera honorees include composer Robert Ward. They will be honored at a free concert and ceremony in Washington in October. Although Bob is primarily known for his adaptation of THE CRUCIBLE, he has written several other operas, and lots of instrumental music. Some of those operas-- MINUTES TIL MIDNIGHT--were not so successful, but others, such as ABELARD AND HELOISE, deserve another look. Although well into his nineties, he is still composing, though not so much opera any more. The other honorees include Speight Jenkins, Rise Stevens, and John Conklin.

I studied with Bob and consider him to be my principal composition teacher. The opera I'm writing now, SLAYING THE DRAGON, is kind of my Robert Ward opera. His operas have heroic characters who try to do the right thing, even when society is not looking kindly at them. Bob's musical style was tonal back when tonal wasn't cool and he kept to that style as serialism gave way to minimalism gave way to whatever it is we call what we do now. Bob's most important advice was that if I couldn't play and sing something I had written,  it might not be truly honest writing. He was also a great example of a warm and mentoring colleague, something that I have tried (not always successfully) to emulate. And he's a great example of remaining engaged in one's work as long as one can. I plan to be there cheering for him when the NEA acknowledges him on October 27th.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Evolution of an Aria (long)

One of the reasons I started this blog was to document the process of composition so that it might be useful to composers and librettists starting out on their journey. In the eight months that Ellen Frankel and I have been working on our opera, there have been eight versions of the libretto created. In the fifth scene, some of the supporting characters who have been harassed by the Klan Grand Dragon, Jerry, have gathered together with Nathan, the Rabbi and male lead of the opera. They all must decide if they should cancel their Martin Luther King Day Commemoration event because of Jerry’s threats. They are split on it. Nathan answers that they must go ahead with the ceremony, but it has taken us awhile to get to the best way for Nathan to convince the others. If you're not interested in process, take a brief look at versions 4,5,6 vs version 7.2. (Thanks to Ellen for helping to compile this)

The Evolution of an Aria
Nathan’s aria in Scene V, “Slaying the Dragon”

Version 3 stub

Nathan (aria):

We must slay the dragon--
The three-headed hydra
Of silence, indifference, and fear.

Version 4, 5 and 6

Nathan (aria):

We must slay the dragon--
The three-headed hydra
Of silence, indifference, and fear.

Where can we find this odious beast?

Don’t look in the dragon’s lair,
Far beyond the margins of town,
A place of ghosts and haunted dreams,
Nor root in the underworld,
Where monsters fete their evil deeds.

No, this dragon strolls our thoroughfares,
Tips its hat at passersby,
Kisses babies, donates alms, keeps us safe at home,
Soothes our fears with lullabies
Which numb us into sleep.

Nathan: We must gather to honor King’s legacy.  It’s good for the community.

Emails between Michael Ching and Ellen Frankel (June 2, 2011):

MC: Ellen--Could we talk about this lyric? I think we need to clarify what we're trying to get at here.

EF: What I'm trying to get at with this lyric is that the "dragon" of the opera's title points not only to the Grand Dragon of the KKK and other obvious monsters that live in "lairs at the margins" of civilization but also to the more benign dragons which inhabit our neighborhoods and daily lives--people like Bud Connor and the Klansmen who wear hoods but also cheer their kids at football games and bake brownies at home.  

If the metaphors drown the message, I can simplify, either by cutting the number of lines or by making the message more explicit.  What precisely bothers you about it?

MC: Well this opening:

We must slay the dragon, The three-headed hydra--Our silence, denial, and fear.

The last line, "Our silence, denial, and fear" makes me think that the dragon is the GOOD GUYS’ unwillingness to stand up for what they believe. 

If I understand your intention as expressed in the e-mail, one head of the hydra is the fire spewi­ng Jerry Kriegs, another head is apparently friendly, but really is not. And the third?

I like your sentiment, but it strikes me as two arias here, and we should do only one:

One is we should slay the monster (or dragon) of our unwillingness to act. The other is we should slay the dragon of prejudice and intolerance in both its overt and covert forms.

You are suggesting that Nathan is about to sing about the second one, but it seems to me that it's really the first one that he's talking about here to motivate the particular crowd he's talking to. I'm wondering if that is the case, whether we should address it in some way other than "slaying a dragon." 

EF: As usual, you are right on the money in spotting a problem, in this case, two different messages.  And you're right that the primary message in this aria should focus on the indifference of the "silent majority" who allows intolerance to flourish--by keeping silent.

Emails between Michael Ching and Ellen Frankel (June 22, 2011):

MC: Ellen--I'm sorry to keep bringing us back to the drawing board on Nathan's text but I still don't think it's right. The focus of the aria, the hook, needs to be what he says in your text, right before the "aria"--"We must not let hate win!" That's what the song should be about. 

Fear feeds the dragon of hate and cancelling the rally lets the forces of hate grow stronger. "Silence, denial, and fear"  feed the dragon too, but the dragon itself is not "silence, denial and fear" is it? It is hate. So it's almost like "We mustn't feed the dragon of hate" (not that you'd put it that way).

Also, I think Nathan needs a few words of sympathy at the beginning. He's behaving like a man, launching into a lofty speech about a dragon, and not saying "I'm sorry this happened" to any of them. 

EF: I couldn't be happier that you keep coming back to the drawing board about this piece! Second-best will simply not do.  Clearly my metaphor is standing in the way of the message (or as the lit crit folks say--ask your wife--the vehicle is getting in the way of the tenor (and I don't mean singing voice).  Let me meditate on the meaning of this scene more deeply so that I can move the narrative and emotional arcs forward effectively and give you the lyrical launch pad that you need for the music.

Never regret pushing me to higher and more valid focus.

Version 7.1

Like a cancer in our blood,
Breeds on dirty, little lies--
It’s not my place to say,”
I haven’t heard all the views”--
And so we temporize.

Like a cancer in your blood--
Breeds on dirty, little fears.
Clouds your eyes,
Clogs your ears
So you can’t hear your neighbor’s cries.
Silence like a cancer
Eats at your heart
And hollows your soul--
Till you burn it out,
Burn it out,
Burn it out,
And shout the truth!

We must honor Doctor King's legacy tomorrow. For the good of the community.

Emails between Michael Ching and Ellen Frankel (August 11, 2011):

MC: Ellen--A suggestion for Nathan's aria in Scene V. It might be good if it was a little longer and here's a suggestion about how to make it so: Instead of focusing on a single word "Silence," perhaps we could add "Inaction" and "fear" (We kind of had something a bit like that when we were still fussing with the dragon idea)


Inaction-- (or perhaps being passive) (not sure)


And then he could sum it up--

We must not be silent, we must speak out!
We must not be passive, we must act
We must not be afraid, we must be brave

We must go ahead with the King program...

EF: Ah, so the three-headed hydra has reared her ugly head again...!

I went through the libretto and realized that there are several sets of three's:

Scene 1: "Honor, happiness, and life" vs. "Dishonor, disgrace and death"
Scene 2: (In "God, hear our prayer")--"hate, fear, and revenge" vs. "love, truth, and grace"
Scene 4: 
     "He has stolen my peace!" 
     "Will I ever know peace?" 
     "He has robbed us of peace!"
Scene 9: 
     Darkness cannot banish darkness
     Hatred cannot banish hate
     Vengeance cannot cancel vengeance

So there seems to be a motif of triplets, a sense that both good and bad things come in three's.  Maybe that's why the mythological figure of the hydra popped into my head.  (Maybe that's where the trinity comes from--who knows?)  Three has always been a magical number in all cultures.

OK, enough with the anthropology lesson...

I'm going to see if I can foreshadow the signature song sung by Nathan in Scene 9, based on the words of Martin Luther King, by figuring out what human habits, when left unattended and unconscious, eventually blossom into full-fledged intolerance such as expressed by the KKK.  I think you're onto these when you mention "silence, inaction, and fear" as creating the social climate that allows intolerance to flourish.  Let me see what I can come up with.

MC: Well, I wasn't so concerned about a triad. Silence just didn't seem to cover it alone. But regardless, not bringing a god-damned dragon into it seemed to make it clearer!  ;) MC

EF: Do I detect an intolerance toward dragons...?

Version 7.2

Nathan (aria):

Like a cancer in our blood,
Breeds on dirty, little lies--
It’s not my place to say,”
I haven’t heard all the views”--
And so we temporize.
Like a wasting in our bones,
Reduces us in size,
It makes us small and mean,
Conveniently unseen
When we turn away our eyes.
Like a blockage in our heart,
Takes us by surprise--
Though the signs have all been there
As we shrink from every scare,
And hide in sheep’s disguise.
We must not be silent, we must speak out! We must act!
We must not be passive!
We must not fear but be strong! Be strong!

We must honor Doctor King's legacy tomorrow. For the good of the community.

MC: Nathan's lyric is working great. It's funny how when things line up they fit like a hand in a glove.

Monday, August 22, 2011

David Olney at Byron's in Pomeroy, Iowa

Last night I drove 90 miles up to a little dot on the map,  Pomeroy, Iowa, to hear an old friend, David Olney. Olney has made a career of combining blues rock and a variety of other styles with a wide range of subjects and points of view, including Van Gogh, Jesse James, and baseball players.

There was much to learn from his performance which was structured very much like a classical two act numbers opera. As he got into his second set, he started to run the songs together to build to his finish. He interspersed narration like recitative--sometimes serious and sometimes funny--to introduce his songs. His fellow performer, Sergio Webb, provided a wide variety of guitar styles and rousing solos. David is a master at holding the attention of a barroom concert, where most are listening, but some are not. He isn't afraid to throw in a daringly slow and contemplative song about Van Gogh in the midst of songs about love gone wrong, or men gone bad.

Byron's Bar has a great vibe. There is the usual Iowa and Iowa State memorabilia, and pictures of previous acts--and an extensive Grateful Dead shrine--but also a tie dye backdrop and a Buddha in the upstage corner of the little stage. Byron himself presides over a doorprize giveaway that included plungers, jump ropes, and koozies.

The room was full to capacity and everyone clearly enjoyed David and Sergio. I'll be back in Pomeroy again someday.