09 January 2011

Interview: Neal Goren on Muhly’s ‘Dark Sisters’

Dark Sisters, Bright Prospects:
Nico Muhly (composer), Rebecca Taichman (stage director), Stephen Karam (librettist), and Neal Goren (conductor, co-producer).
Photos by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy of Michelle Tabnick Communications for Gotham Chamber Opera.

Neal Goren possesses one gift that other conductors and impresarios must envy: as if by nature, he can generate buzz. From its inception ten years ago, Goren’s Gotham Chamber Opera Company has made itself the talk of the town, offering repertory New Yorkers won’t find anywhere else, in theatrically intriguing productions with appealing young singers.

Even for Goren, the company’s latest coup is remarkable: the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, scheduled for November 2011. Commissioning a work from one of the hottest young composers in America was only the start of the buzz about this project. You may recall that the Met has scheduled Muhly’s the U.S. premiere of first opera* — for 2013–14. Smaller and swifter, Goren and his co-producers, The Music-Theatre Group and Opera Company of Philadelphia, have stolen a jump on the mighty Metropolitan.

Now — let the buzzing commence!

With a libretto by playwright Stephen Karam, Dark Sisters depicts a family in a polygamous, breakaway Mormon sect,** and focuses our attention on the women of that family. Musically, “The more I get to know Dark Sisters, the more I love it,” Goren told me, “because it is very, very complex — it’s complex, but worth it.” And it is — past question — one more feather in the cap of a man who launched his company with the U.S. stage premiere of a Mozart opera (Il Sogno di Scipione) and has since then led U.S. and world premieres of works spanning four centuries.

How the buzz began: Georgia Jarman in the U.S. stage premiere of Mozart’s Scipione

Attending the press conference at which Dark Sisters was announced, I understood instantly why Goren wanted to wait until afterward to speak with me for this blog. I’ve found his work interesting from the start, but the topics I’d proposed — start-up opera, choosing rep, working with young singers — paled beside the brilliant news he wanted to discuss, but couldn’t, until the press embargo lifted.

Due to (absurd, embarrassing) technical difficulties, I’m unable to provide the full text of our conversation from November 1. Happily, Goren is eager to seize any opportunity to talk about Dark Sisters, and he met with me again this week.

WVM: You just had the first workshop of Dark Sisters in November. How did it go?

NG: It went extremely, extremely well. All of the plans we had made paid off, I feel. The way that we approach this opera is different than contemporary opera is often approached, in the order in which we did things. First, Nico was brought on board — logical. And then Stephen Karam was brought on board. Often these days the composer and librettist come up with an idea together, and then pursue it. We on the other hand — I can’t say we did a marriage — we proposed a bunch of librettists to Nico, and he decided that Stephen would be the most appropriate. They became fast friends, as well as artistically compatible, which is fantastic.

Dream Cast: Scipione also featured soprano Celena Shafer
(I can’t remember: is that Kevin Burdette with her?)

Nico and Stephen got together, and the plan for this opera was that we wanted something that had the potential to have legs. In concrete terms, that meant something with a preponderance of women, so that it would be attractive to conservatories; and something with an orchestra of the size that would be attractive both to larger companies and to smaller companies. From that, we settled on a Britten-size orchestra of 13, the same size as Turn of the Screw or Rape of Lucretia, because history has proven that both large and small companies like producing that.

So those were the exigencies that we started with. For me, the ultimate exigency was that the piece have resonance for anyone listening. That it have emotional resonance for anyone listening.

How the buzz built: David Adam Moore in Dido & Aeneas, 2001
Another impresario characterizes Goren’s ideal singer as one “who looks good in a Speedo and sings like a god.”

Hearing so many complaints that audiences can’t connect with opera, I pressed Goren on this point: what opera does not have emotional resonance? “I think almost any opera that hasn’t made it through the ages,” Goren replied, adding that he set this goal of connection, precisely because he wants Dark Sisters to endure. However, only after some deliberation could either of us name a well-known work that fell short of the standard.

NG: Yes, Trovatore. I cannot empathize with throwing another baby on the fire — or taking poison, or all of these things.

WVM: Believing your mother when she says, “You’re not my son,” and then says, “Oh, no, just kidding, son.”

NG: Exactly.

WVM: I don’t relate to any of those characters, that’s true. Inès, maybe, but that’s it. [Laughter]

Identifiable Inès (Myriam Tola)
with Improbable Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky).
Photo from a recent production of Trovatorenot at Gotham Chamber Opera!

NG: That’s a possibility! So — yes, there are situations — but even in this opera, Dark Sisters, the situation is not anything that any of us, or most listeners, can empathize with, because how many of us are part of a plural marriage? However, I felt it was very important, and we really spoke about this a lot throughout the whole compositional process, that something about the characters has to resonate with all of us.

As you know, it’s the story of a woman and her relationship with her sister-wives. In an early scene, Eliza is her name, she discovers that her 15-year-old daughter is to be married to a man who is much older. Very few of us can relate to that immediately. But then what occurs is a crisis of faith in Eliza, and she ultimately decides that she needs to escape from the sect with her daughter.

There’s no problem with me spoiling the denouement, which is that at the end, the daughter refuses to go, because Eliza has done such a good job instilling these values in the daughter. The piece is so effective that it doesn’t make a difference [to give away the ending]. But the important thing is Eliza’s story, in that her struggle to decide at what point can she no longer stay — that’s the story that I think most people in the audience will empathize with.

Searing-hot mezzo Beth Clayton in Sutermeister’s Die Schwarze Spinne
U.S. premiere, 2004.

We all have to decide within our lives what aspect of our selves, of our essential personalities fits comfortably within the society in which we’re raised, whether that be our family or whether that be society as a whole, and which parts of our personalities do we have to repress, suppress, or hide. For many of us, the balance becomes no longer tolerable, and you move to New York. But not for everyone!

So there are some people who will see themselves in Eliza, there are others who will see themselves in the wives who decide to stay, because conformity is more attractive to them, or necessary for them, or whatever. The story is a window into ourselves, and I felt that was very important, and luckily the librettist and composer felt the same way.

Clayton again in Die Schwarze Spinne

WVM: What did you learn in the workshop?

NG: It was wonderful, I must say. We ended up doing the whole show —

WVM: Was there a possibility that you wouldn’t?

NG: Well, Nico had only orchestrated about half of it. So the public aspect of it — we did the complete first act, both the parts with and without orchestration. But in rehearsal, we did the entire opera, just with piano, so we could see if it was as we had thought. We had a post-mortem, about a month afterward, with Nico; Stephen Karam, the librettist; Rebecca Taichman, the director; myself; and Diane Wondisford, who’s one of the co-commissioners, co-producers. We all had taken notes about things that we not necessarily felt needed to be changed, but we thought we should discuss, that we didn’t feel worked as well as they could have. Mine were quite small. I wanted to question the reaction time before a particular line was spoken —

WVM: Good grief! That is incredibly small!

Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, 2007

NG: Yeah. Nico and I had already met before the scores were given out and had gone over the bigger musical issues. Not the dramatic issues, but the bigger musical issues: range, tessitura, vocal issues. Nico is such a hand at orchestration; his orchestration is gorgeous. Anyway, this was mostly about the dramatic issues, our post-mortem. When we got together, Nico said, “Let’s start with me, and I’ll tell you what I think needs to be changed.” Forty-five minutes later, we realized that he had already discussed all of the points that all the rest of us had in our notes. So he’s that finely attuned to the dramatic aspects and the dramatic structure and architecture of the piece as he is to the fine musical points. Which was very heartening for us.

So there are going to be some changes. Some characters are going to be developed more. Some things have been cut that he felt were superfluous. You know, a libretto needs to be very, very tight, because it’s brief. It takes a long time to sing these things. So sometimes it was a matter of cutting this word, or changing this word, or eliding this sentence into the next one.

But Nico and Stephen both are extremely facile, as well as being young — I’m sure those two things are related. [Laughs] They’re very willing and comfortable with making these changes. Moreover, they’re very anxious to make the changes: they’re extremely invested in making the piece as good as it can be, and they’re not defensive about what they’ve done.

Robert McPherson joins Celena Shafer in Sogno di Scipione

So the opera itself was terrific, and the workshop — we had people crying who had never seen it before. However, we’ve all decided that “really terrific” is not good enough; we want it beyond that, as good as it can possibly be.

And I think we’re gonna get there. We have another workshop coming up in March, again with time afterwards to make more changes. Then after those changes are made, another, brief workshop in September, with a little bit of time to make final changes before we open in November, in New York.

WVM: Have you had any moments where you said, “Gee, I wish I’d just revived a 350-year-old opera that nobody in New York has ever heard of”?

“Look good in a swimsuit and sing like a god”:
Haydn’s L’Isola Disabitata, 2009.

NG: Not for a second! This has been a wonderful, joyful process from the beginning. I’m delighted to say that every aspect of it has been — forgive the pun — harmonious. Nico and Stephen get along wonderfully. Rebecca Taichman is heaven. We love being in the rehearsal room together. The cast members like each other: there’s no enmity, animosity, jealousy — that I can see — I think I would notice! So far, there have been no bumps whatsoever. It’s been an absolute joy. I’m really, really spoiled, because I don’t know if one can replicate this in the future. But I’m grateful for what we have.

WVM: I think we talked about this last time, but the difference between having the composer in the room, and having the composer six feet underground somewhere in Europe. What do you like about that?

NG: Oh, it’s fantastic, because the changes can be made, and they can be heard immediately. Actually, there was one day — what we did was that Nico and Stephen would come in the afternoons. We would rehearse in the mornings, intensely, and then they would come in the afternoon and we would present what we had spent all morning working on. And you know, make changes, working on balance, whatever needed to be done.

Desert Island Discussions: Isola

Jennifer Check was singing one of her wonderful lines that ended on a pianissimo F-natural. I said, “God, that was gorgeous! That sounds like it’s the middle of your voice.” She said, “Oh, I wish he’d written a higher note here,” and I said, “Like what?” [Laughter] She said, “Oh, I don’t know, let’s try something.” So she threw in a high A-flat pianissimo. And everyone in the room, their eyes rolled back into their heads, it was so beautiful. I said, “Let’s just show it to Nico this afternoon and see what he thinks. In fact, let’s not even tell him, let’s just do it.”

We did it, and both Nico and Stephen, their eyes rolled back into their heads, and Nico said, “That’s a take! We’re keeping that!” [Laughter] So you couldn’t do that with Verdi, for example.

WVM: You’re in charge, so presumably you don’t have to edit yourself much. But are there ever moments where you don’t say about the score something that you would say about Verdi’s music? Do you ever hold back at all?

Hlas lesa (The Voice in the Forest)
One of a double-bill of works by Bohuslav Martinu, 2002.

NG: I think part of life is diplomacy — but also, part of life is learning. So I don’t always say what I’m thinking. I say, “Nico, can you explain what you were after here?” If I don’t get it, I’ll ask what the intention was. Then most of the time I’ll get it. There have been times when he’ll explain and I’ll say, “It’s not coming across that way.” And then he’ll say, “Hmmm. Okay, what if I change it to such-and-such?” And then he does it. So it’s a collaborative effort, but sometimes it’s a matter of me really understanding what he’s after. But there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to really ask. It’s better to assume — with any composer — that they know what they’re doing. [Laughs]

WVM: Don’t we usually find when we go to the opera that, when the opera runs off the rails, it’s because somebody involved didn’t have faith in what the composer was doing — didn’t trust that the composer did know what he was doing?

NG: I agree.

WVM: Among stage directors, I find that, when they don’t trust the composer, it’s hash.

NG: Yeah, absolutely, I can think of a number of productions that way. However, I can think of many productions that are roundly criticized, that I really love. So it’s one thing paying obeisance to someone who’s alive; it’s another thing to someone who wrote an opera 400 years ago, or 300 years ago. Because times have changed, and what we would have seen and heard back in — you name it, 1710 or 1810 — might fall differently on our eyes and ears than they would now. Or they would have then. So times are changing, and that’s okay.

The fabulous Caroline Worra took the title role
in Handel’s Arianna in Creta, a U.S. stage premiere, in 2005.

WVM: We had talked, when we tried this earlier, quite a lot about how you were available to Nico to help him learn. You had gone through the score minutely about how a certain word might not be intelligible if it fell upon a particular note, and did he want to think about changing that. I was very impressed by that as a learning opportunity for him. Here, we’re getting a little bit more into about how this is a learning opportunity for you. Is there anything else you’re learning? [Long pause] And I hope you are, because you haven’t done this particularly!

NG: I’m always learning. I mean, I’m learning how to be diplomatic. I’m learning how to ask questions. This piece is very complicated, and it has a lot of challenges that I’ve never been asked to overcome before. The pitches, the notes, the intervals are in some ways very complex, and I must say, after I get to know it, it sounds perfectly logical. But at first, it was more difficult than Pierrot Lunaire, for example. But all of it in retrospect makes perfect sense.

Ground control to Major Marco Nisticò:
Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, staged in the Hayden Planetarium, 2010.

A lot of it is asking. The process is not different than doing Mozart or doing Verdi or whatever, because the process of learning and studying for me always is asking questions. Those questions are: “Why did the composer put this interval instead of this interval? This note instead of this note?” Learning music for me and studying music is often a reconstructive process, and it’s sort of a forensic process. You start with the text, and think of how — what the emotions are behind it, and how I would set it.

WVM: Really?

NG: And I then go and look at the music and find out why they’re a better composer than I would have been. [Laughter] Once you do that, then you understand their piece, and it’s very easy to learn and memorize, because you’ve already asked the same questions they asked when they were looking at the libretto.

WVM: Interesting!

To infinity and beyond! More buzz at the Planetarium.

NG: Actually, I teach a course at Mannes for graduate students, and that’s what I try and get them to do, as well. For singers especially, it’s important, because they’re called upon by directors and conductors to do any number of things, and if they want to get hired, they’ve got to be able to make changes on a dime. The only way you can do that is if you’ve thought from the beginning about what the spectrum of possibilities is within any phrase. You have to come upon an interpretation of your own, but that should be one choice within a huge spectrum of possibilities.

As I think I told you last time we spoke, when I used to play piano for Leontyne Price, when we used to rehearse for concerts, we would practice any given piece of music in any number of ways, so that we would establish an emotional spectrum of possibilities, from which we could choose in performance. So we would see how cool a particular piece or phrase could be, and still work. How highly strung it could go, and still make it work. And then decide what couldn’t work, so that we would know what boundaries we could play within, still doing justice to the music. “Still”! In order to do justice to the music! And then take the temperature of the audience and of ourselves and of the acoustics in any performance.

WVM: So it would vary along that spectrum from night to night.

NG: Enormously. You got it. So that rehearsals with her were about developing that spectrum. It wasn’t just a matter of learning the notes — or making any decision, of “This is the way it’s going to be.” Because you shouldn’t do that. Different theaters, different audiences, different acoustics are different. And we’re human beings! People want to hear our variability.

Britten-size: Albert Herring, 2006.

So actually, it was interesting working on this opera with Nico, because I would say, “Do you prefer this tempo or this tempo?” And he would say, “They’re both good. They both work.” He actually would say, “I would prefer not to set hard and fast rules about tempo.” So again, we would develop a spectrum.

WVM: So even though he’s in the room, you feel a certain freedom to do with this music what you would do with Mozart, what you would do with anyone else.

NG: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s when a composer — and I’ve worked with a number of them — says, “This is perfect the way it is. Don’t vary it, ever.” That’s when you know: if the music can hold only one interpretation, it’s not a very strong piece. That’s not the way Nico works.

The Haydn in the Hayden, “The World in the Moon”

*NOTE: Nico Muhly’s first opera, Two Boys, will receive its world premiere at English National Opera in June, 2011. ENO is co-producing the work with the Met and with Lincoln Center Theatre.

**The co-producers are quick to emphasize that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints banned polygamy more than a century ago. The disavowal of polygamy by LDS leaders was a principal factor leading to the establishment of breakaway sects professing “fundamentalist” adherence to earlier doctrine; it’s one such sect that serves as the setting for Dark Sisters.

No comments: