Operagasm Exclusive: Wiprud on My Last Duchess
by Melissa Wimbish
Today is the day!!! Cutting Edge Concerts will present a double-bill of modern opera from composers Robert Sirota and Theodore Wiprud this evening and a week from today on April 30th. This program got me thinking…premieres like this must be somewhat equivalent to an audition for composers, right? Sitting in the audience hoping people don’t say anything like, “This really sucks”or, “Wake me up when it’s over”… I think I would just die. But, this is the composer’s courageous way of life and without it, there would be just be a bunch of weirdos improvising on stage all the time and that would get kind of annoying after awhile. Join Operagasm in wishing Mr. Sirota and Mr. Wiprud along with Cutting Edge Concerts, a wonderful NYC premiere!
Today we hear from Theodore Wiprud, creator of the opera My Last Duchess, which sounds like it’s going to be cray interesting:
This month at Operagasm, we’re discussing efficiency and realism in our approach to auditioning..as well as the need to be able to laugh at the process sometimes. How would you describe your audition process as a member of the audience during a premiere of your work, for example? Essentially, what are your audition moments like? Feel free to share stories.
Hearing the premiere of a piece of mine along with an audience can dramatically change my perception of the music. Somehow being with other listeners enables me to hear it from the outside, for the first time. I think this effect is lessening as I become more experienced as a composer – my risks are better calculated, I guess, and outcomes more sure! But I suspect I share something with the panicked auditioner when I have felt that a passage did not achieve its desired impact on listeners.
Please talk about reaching into the past to find inspiration for a new opera and how it speaks to our modern culture? Can you talk more about the significance of the Renaissance era and its influence during your composition process? What about Browning’s connection with that era, if any?
I love the music of the Italian Renaissance, particularly the secular madrigal tradition, so reaching back to that musical source material was a sensuous and personal choice. I spent a very happy summer studying a number of those composers and writing short studies in their various styles. The most extended study, a setting of a poem by Robert Browning (not My Last Duchess itself) turned out so well that it became the overture of the opera, and the source of most of the opera’s tunes. The overture is an a cappella madrigal, rather than orchestral – placing us immediately in the Renaissance vocal tradition.
I think the story of My Last Duchess – about the various objects of love, the ruthlessness of materialism, the helplessness of the powerless – are timeless. Browning – who lived in Rome and was deeply involved with Italian culture – wrote voluminously about that period, often identifying a decadence in its artistic splendor – most notably so in the dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess. His themes and tone are consistent enough that my librettist, the playwright and director Tom Dulack, was able to piece together passages of five Browning poems in all, to provide dialogue for the four characters in the piece. The Duke Alfonso II (an historical figure) has the entire poem My Last Duchess; the other characters – the young man to whom the Duke is making his monstrous confession; the late Duchess herself, who sings to us from beyond the grave; and the young woman to whom the Duke has just become engaged – his next Duchess, and possibly his next victim.
What were some of your initial thoughts about the poem My Last Duchess and its musical qualities?
The drama of the poem is what first appealed to me; and then the thought that it takes place in a specific time and place – Ferrara, 1550 – that has a specific sound. The downside of setting exquisite poetry like Browning’s is that it can be hard to parse – as a reader, you can go back over a line to figure out the syntax and get the sense and then marvel at the artistry of the expression. Hearing it sung, you don’t have time to do all that. So I was very careful in setting the language to clarify it as much as possible. And of course providing a libretto to the audience is very important!
When you write for voices, what do you consider? Are you typically writing with a specific voice in mind, or does it vary? Who are some of your favorite singers?
Prosody above everything – how the words are naturally spoken with the emphasis and expression I want to give them. Occasionally I’ve had the chance to write for specific voices, but that’s not the case with this opera. I’m not so much a voice connoisseur as a music connoisseur – I’d say whatever voice is thrilling me at the moment is my favorite. And I’m experiencing a lot of that in rehearsals for My Last Duchess, without exaggeration. I am so impressed by every member of my cast.
Would you share some details about your collaboration with librettist, Tom Dulack? I was particularly interested to read that he had written a play about Ezra Pound. Do you think that some subjects in our culture are highly neglected by the “opera community” because of a desire to uphold tradition?
Tom and I have been collaborating on Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic for seven years, so we know each others’ abilities and foibles quite well. He’s an incredibly lively intellect, with such a flair for theatrical gesture, and it was he who initially suggested the subject of My Last Duchess. The collaboration mostly proceeded by his providing words (from various Browning poems) and my setting them, but with lots of back-and-forth about the order of text, the intentions of the characters, etc. Our first draft was long on poetry but very short on story-telling – I think all our subsequent versions (we are performing the fifth version) have made the story clearer and the emotions more pointed, better highlighted.
As a composer, can you offer some thoughts about the state of music in our culture and the hopes that you have for its future in our society? That’s not meant to be a terribly epic question, but you are welcome to answer epically if you have time.
Without waxing epic, I’m thrilled about the state of music in our time. Of course I’m lucky – I hear the New York Philharmonic every week because of my day job directing education there. And I hear a fantastic mix of standards and new works. But more broadly, while there is surely low-value mass market music out there, I don’t discount the artistry of hip-hop, country, pop, or anything else. The United States generates a staggering amount of highly polished music in every style. And looking just at “classical” music, alt-classical, post-classical, or what-have-you, I love the ways many composers in their 20s are finding their own takes on the classical tradition. Yes, one hears flavors of the month, briefly dominant esthetics, but each of these leaves a trace of something valuable in the culture. Music is such an innate, necessary human activity, I have absolutely no concern about its thriving in diverse forms. And I even believe opera and concert music are thriving traditions with bright futures.
Are there any jokes about composers that are favorites of yours that you would like to share? You’re also welcome to share jokes about other subjects, but it would be nice to hear a joke about composers.
I hesitate to repeat jokes half-remembered because I’m sure to get something crucial wrong. I may come up with one but this is not my forte I’m afraid! I do know a bunch of viola jokes…
My Last Duchess is one of the great dramatic monologues, written by Robert Browning in 1842. It conjures up the splendor of the Italian Renaissance in the person of a sophisticated and monstrously proud Duke. In Ferrara, around 1550, the Duchess Lucrezia died young, and poisoning was suspected. Her actual portrait was the basis of Browning’s poem, and now of the opera My Last Duchess, composed by Theodore Wiprud to a libretto by Tom Dulack, derived completely from poems by Browning.
The Decameron of Boccaccio is the greatest trove of Renaissance-era stories, many of them bawdy. One of the most charming seductions in the whole collection is found in The Clever Mistress. Composer Robert Sirota has composed a comic opera to his own libretto based on this story of feminine initiative.
Now these two Renaissance-inspired operas are premiering as a double bill presented by Cutting Edge Concerts, at Symphony Space in New York City. There will be two performances, on April 23 and April 30, Mondays at 7:30 PM.
The tragedy of My Last Duchess – composed as a modern take on the great Italian madrigalists; the farce of The Clever Mistress – composed as a cheeky take on both medieval and Renaissance music: the two make a perfect pair. And when some cast members take roles in both, the connections become priceless.
Victoria Bond, the leader of Cutting Edge Concerts, will conduct. Award-winning playwright and director Tom Dulack is directing a full production featuring dance. Tyler Learned has designed the production and lighting. Matthew Galek is creating a video to promote future performances. The cast is out of this world. These two evenings promise to be unforgettable.
To purchase tickets for the operas, please visit Cutting Edge Concerts.