Operagasm Exclusive Interview with Mark Adamo: ‘Happiness is a black Labradoodle’
Operagasm: You’re primarily an opera composer, but you’ve written instrumental pieces as well. How do you approach the voice differently from an instrument like the harp?
Mark Adamo: From one point of view, the process is identical; you learn the features, colors, strengths, and challenges of each instrument. For example, while the voice is capable of wide and sudden leaps, they’re less
idiomatic gestures for a singer than they’d be, for, say, the bassoon. The very thing—its rich, distinct, sostenuto timbre—that makes the voice, like the oboe, ideal to carry a theme poses problems for the harp, which is glorious in chords and glissandi but less interesting (and powerful, and cutting) when called on to spell out an important idea in a single line. (More on that here.) But voices, of course, can do what no other instrument can: they can sing words. Certainly words pose their own problems to line and intelligibility (diphthongs, syllabic stress, chewy mouthfuls of consonants, &c.) But words can not only supplement musical meaning; they can generate it. A good libretto or poem contains music of its own. Sometimes, all a composer needs to do is to set it free to sound.
O: Your very first opera, Little Women (which just turned 20 years old) quickly became one of the most successful operas of the twenty-first century. How did you find that magic formula for a hit, and how do you advise young composers who are struggling to make something meaningful while still trying to pay the bills?
MA: I couldn’t possibly tell you. When Little Women was first proposed to me, I thought it only slightly better an idea for an opera than the ingredients list on a bottle of Soylent. I’d known the book as a child, and cried over Beth’s death as we all did, but I couldn’t imagine it could communicate to me, or to anyone else I knew, anything urgent about the way we were living in 1998. Of course, I eventually found my way into it (as I’ve explained here) —but maybe the important part of this story is not the answer, but the question. If you ask yourself, before you start, “Why do we need this opera at this moment?” maybe you’re on your way to an interesting piece.
Inevitably this goes back to that question one gets asked all too often, which is, “Do you write for yourself, or for the audience?” I think the smart response to that question is that you write for yourself as the audience. Of course, you as an artist will bring all your experience, interest, personality, and talent to the making of the piece. But what if you begin by imagining yourself in row K of the theatre—with all the hopes and needs that any other citizen of your society may have—and then wonder: if this opera had just played its last bars, how might its sense and its sound have given me more energy to engage the world in which I live? I think, then, the piece you write will succeed no matter how many or few performances it gets. It will have told the truth, on time and in tune.
O: With Becoming Santa Claus, were you trying to completely turn the Christmas story on its head or just provide a slightly different shading to the tropes we all know? This is the second time you’ve offered a fresh perspective on an old story (the first one being The Gospel of Mary Magdalene). How do you fight against an audience’s preconceived notions of how the characters should act? Is that a difficult process for you?
MA: In Becoming Santa Claus, I mostly wanted to bounce a new, secular Nativity scene—the birth of the persona of Santa Claus, angel of generosity, from the actual person of Prince Claus, spoiled (if suffering) brat— off of the Christian one. What suggested the link was my observation that the first instance of gift-giving at Christmas in the sacred tradition was the Magi bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ-child, as writtten in Matthew 2. Suddenly I thought, “Is there some way of whisking a teenaged Santa Claus into the story as the fourth, uninvited King—bursting into the crèche with all the glitter and materialism we enjoy, or endure, from secular Christmas—and making a piece from that?” That’s what the whole opera grew from. It turned into a story of how a troubled Elfin royal family uses gifts to heal their emotional wounds—which also includes, in Act Two, these tour-de-force vocal turns as each of the worker Elves sell their fabulous toys in a series of numbers that could well be entitled “Can you top this?” But the impetus was my own ambivalence, as a kid, about gift-giving at Christmas, and the dream of working that ambivalence into a new fairytale. It is less dissimilar from The Gospel of Mary Magdalene than it may look. In each case, I’m trying to create, for an old tradition, an origin myth that I could believe in.
As for preconceived notions, I’ve been happily ignoring them my whole career. Many commenters were surprised, if pleased, by what I emphasized in Alcott’s Jo—not her androgyny, or even her artistic ambitions, which I simply accepted as givens, but the observation that at that point in her life, she’s smart enough to know that she’s happy but not yet wise enough to know that this happiness must change. My Lysistrata is, in essence, an entirely different character than Aristophanes’ (not as great a reach, as she wasn’t much of a character in the original.) Yeshua, Mary Magdalene, and especially Miriam (the Virgin Mary figure) in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene were, of course, radically different from their familiar iterations: and, unsurprisingly, some people arrived at the theatre rather committed to the versions they brought in with them, thanks. But many people got what I was trying to do.
As for fighting those preconceptions, how can you? You have to tell what truth you can by the light you have to see by; hope you’ve been clear to your audience; and then move on.
O: You’re married to another prolific composer, John Corigliano. Do the two of you ever struggle with jealousy? What pointers would you give any people who are dating or married to someone in the same professional field?
MA: We’ve been very, very fortunate in that both the way we met as well as the arc of our careers has supported, rather than sabotaged, the relationship. I’d known, and loved, John’s music years before I’d met him; and, by coincidence, he’d heard about my first big piece for orchestra, Late Victorians, just before we met. We’d met as composers, backstage, at the National Symphony Orchestra, after which I sent him the recording of that piece, which he loved. So any potential musical conflicts were solved on arrival. It was hard on my ego at first to move with John to New York, where I knew very few people, and everyone I met was so much more accomplished than I: there was one dinner for four at which I was the only person at the table without a Pulitzer Prize. What was lovely—and, again, it just happened—was that Little Women happened within three years of our meeting each other: at which point we were both now established in our respective worlds.
Advice? I don’t know if I can offer anything specific. We travel a bit more for music than many composers we know; but we both work at home, so we see each other enough to nourish the rapport. I’d say what I’d say to lovers not in the same field. You need lives as individuals, as well as a couple. You can’t live or die by professional success. Be patient. (Also: happiness is a black Labradoodle.)
O: You’ve said before that each aria is like a 3-act opera and that each opera is like one long aria. What did you mean by that statement, and how does it inform your process of composing?
MA: Whether it’s a small form, like an aria, or a large one, like an entire opera, you can still use both variety and repetition to build an experience. In music, as in life, aren’t we asked to consider: What must change? What should stay the same? What comes to feel different, even as the thing itself hasn’t changed but everything around it has? You find examples of this in everything from AABA theatre-song form, through baroque arias, to contemporary pop-gospel songs that work like baroque arias. (When I first heard Whitney Houston sing “I Will Always Love You,” I thought: this would not be strange to the ears of George Frideric Handel! Every time the refrain returns, it’s all the more ornamented to get deeper into the moment!)
So, when I work, I’m always asking: when do you forge forward, and when do you loop back? When are the moments in which the repetition of something we heard before is actually going to drive the process forward? Even if the material is identical, where we are in the evening has changed: you can’t step in the same river twice. And then, if you vary the material even slightly, those variations will be more clearly expressive precisely in comparison to what hasn’t changed.
I work with memory in music for the same reason we work with it in life; to take stock of where we’ve been in order to make better sense of where we’re going.
Mark Adamo’s latest opera Becoming Santa Claus is now available on DVD! PS, there are only 49 shopping days until Christmas. Happy November!