09 January 2013

Interview: David T. Little

This is a big week for composer David T. Little. Call Soldier Songs an opera or a song cycle or a stunning musical-theatrical experience: in any case, the piece is receiving its New York premiere this weekend (performed by baritone Christopher Burchett as part of the Prototype Festival series), at the same time that it’s released on CD (sung by baritone David Adam Moore, a passionate advocate for this piece).

And these exciting developments come nipping at the heels of the official announcement by Fort Worth Opera that Little’s work will play an integral role in the company’s ongoing commitment to contemporary music. Fort Worth Opera’s general director, Darren Woods, has commissioned Little and his librettist, Royce Vavrek, to write a new opera for the 2016 season centered on President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Fort Worth in 1963 — the last night and morning of his life.

In addition, within the next few seasons Fort Worth Opera also will produce Dog Days, the stunning opera that set the entire Eastern seaboard buzzing about David and Royce when it had its premiere at Montclair State University in October (produced by Beth Morrison and Peak Performances). Suddenly, they’re the hottest young composer–librettist team in America.

I’m still sorting out my responses to Dog Days, but make no mistake: I’m a true believer. David’s music encompasses “classical,” electronic, and heavy metal to reflect his own tastes (he’s a drummer, too) and also to express character with complete and unflinching honesty, no matter how tender or how intense the dramatic situation. That’s why I’m proud to play a very small part in the process of writing the JFK project: I’m contributing research and background interviews that will help David and Royce construct their opera. (It’s a job not unlike holding the bag while somebody else makes Shake ’n’ Bake. But at least I can say I helped.)

This week seemed like an exceptionally good time to check in with David as he looks back at where he’s been and charts the path he’ll be following for the next few years.

I feel a song coming on: Kennedy in Fort Worth, November 22, 1963.

WVM: Soldier Songs will have its official New York premiere this weekend.

DTL: It’s very exciting. The piece had its first showing in 2006, performed by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and sung by Timothy Jones, who is wonderful. Then in 2007, I met Beth Morrison and started working with her on this project, and did the New York showing in 2008, with David Adam Moore singing and directed by Yuval Sharon. That was really the workshop for this performance here, which is a fully staged. The world premiere was in New Haven, as you know, in 2011. It’s been interesting to watch the piece evolve over the years. We’ve been in rehearsal for this performance, and it’s continued to evolve. Details are being tweaked, and it’s been really great. It’s really exciting to be part of a piece that’s still growing and changing and feels very alive.

This performance, we’re coordinating with the release of the CD, which David is on. Christopher Burchett is singing this set of performances, which I think was just a scheduling situation. It’s great to have two Soldiers now for the piece, as we try to get it out around the country and into Europe.

WVM: It’s officially billed as a song cycle, but it’s very dramatic, and it has the potential to draw out some very powerful emotions from the performer, as it’s done with David.

David Adam Moore and Sam Poon in Soldier Songs at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven, 2011.
Directed by Yuval Sharon, produced by the heroic Beth Morrison.

DTL: When I first wrote it I called it a song cycle, but I always intended it would be staged. Hence the title and the structure, and the idea of using songs is important to it. But as the piece has lived and evolved — at the time I didn’t realize I was writing my first opera, which is good, because I would have been more freaked out. But it really is an opera: it has the dramatic arc that one expects from an opera, though it’s a little unusual perhaps. That was when I started to realize that I thought like an opera composer. It was funny because it was as much a discovery for me. A lot of different changes came along for me as a composer, one being that I really was interested in writing opera and dramatic pieces. The other being an aesthetic shift, my decision to embrace all the kinds of music that I grew up with, from death metal to musicals. That’s the most honest expression of who I am. It turned out that it worked really well in the context of a dramatic work. At the premiere in Pittsburgh in 2006, I didn’t know if it was going to work. I was frightened, sitting in the house. It was the only thing on the program. I thought, “Here we go, this could be really a disaster.” In the end I was happy to see that the audience responded to it, the musicians responded to it, and the singer responded — but I felt like it worked, it was successful as a piece from the perspective of a composer. That experience gave me the courage to think maybe I could write a bigger piece, with other characters and conversations. At that point I thought, “I really need a librettist,” and that’s when Royce and I started working together. The libretto to Soldier Songs, I wrote it, but it was largely pulled from interviews. The songs are mostly first-person. They’re sort of declamatory in a way. I thought, “Let me think beyond that.” It wasn’t my area of expertise, so I sought help. I started working with Royce. We did Dog Days, and now we’re embarking on this very fun JFK project.

WVM: Months after the premiere, I’m still processing Dog Days. How do you feel about it, at this point?

DTL: I am really, really happy with it. I’m happy with it as a piece. Similar to Soldier Songs, there’s a sense of as a composer: did I do what I set out to do? I’ve been happy. There haven’t been too many things that Royce and I talk about revising, maybe one tune, or one line. The response has been just unbelievable. I feel so grateful that the audiences who saw it and the press responded so strongly, and that people want to do it again. I think that’s always the fear when you write something this big that takes four years, if you can get just one performance. You can guarantee by not writing it unless there’s one performance guaranteed, but that can be it, the only time it gets done. With both Soldier Songs and Dog Days, there’s interest in giving life to these pieces in terms of repeat presentations. I’m looking forward to bringing Dog Days around the world. I feel good about it as a piece. It got into a lot of issues that are really heavy that Royce and the director, Robert Woodruff, and I thought very seriously about for a number of years. That people are still processing it after the premiere, that’s really meaningful. As an artist, it means a lot to see that the piece has a lasting impact, jars you and makes you think about something in a different way than when you entered the theater.

John Kelly and Lauren Worsham in a promotional portrait for the world premiere of Dog Days, 2012.
Robert Woodruff’s production, seen at Montclair State University thanks to Beth Morrison Projects and Peak Performances, will travel to Fort Worth.

WVM: Darren Woods has been very eloquent the past few days, talking about how he feels very smart, having commissioned you to write the JFK opera for Fort Worth even before he heard Dog Days — and now you’re the hot new composer everybody’s talking about.

DTL: It was great going into Dog Days knowing that we were already talking with Darren and that we had a project that we could do together after that show closed. It helped us feel that, even if Dog Days didn’t get performed a lot, we’d still have the JFK project, which will be great. Darren took a chance on us, which we really appreciate. I know Darren heard Soldier Songs and Vinkensport, the one-act that we did, but Dog Days is a different piece, and he hadn’t heard it yet, so I’m grateful that he took a chance and that he feels it paid off. We’re excited to write him a really great piece!

WVM: Let’s talk just a little about JFK — though of course we can’t give away the store here.

DTL: The material for JFK is so rich…. As soon as Soldier Songs closes, I’m just digging through all of the documents and research, and Royce and I are getting together in Fort Worth to start brainstorming, to see the sites, and get working. But the story, and the reason I was initially so excited about it when Darren approached us, there’s so much there and all these little details that, in context of what happened, feel so profound, whereas in the moment they were just part of everyday life. Those things, personally I find really exciting. The story has a lot of that, and the characters are complicated, interesting, conflicted characters. I mean, LBJ — come on, what an amazing, complicated person he was! Kennedy, too, and Jackie, they were amazing people. It’s going to be surprising, and I’m going to tell a really great story, and illuminate something that the audience can take away with them and make part of their own experience. I feel this material is great for that. I know Royce is very excited to get to work!

Soldier Songs plays January 11–13 and 16–18 in the Prototype Festival at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. For information and tickets, click here.

The CD of Soldier Songs is available here.

For more information on Fort Worth Opera, click here.

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