Composing an opera is the ultimate test of a composer’s mettle, and associate professor of music and director of bands Kirk O’Riordan has always relished a challenge. An opera is an art form like no other. It’s singing and stagecraft, storytelling and dance, graces made whole by the pulsing heartbeat of a musical score.
But he knows he can’t do it alone. As good as he is at composing music that ripples with verve and sophistication, someone needs to write the libretto, or text, for the piece.
He sets his sights on Lee Upton, an award-winning writer and poet who holds the Francis A. March Professor of English faculty chair.
O’Riordan, highly acclaimed in his own right, knows Upton only by reputation; the two have never met. He thinks it would be a great experience to work with her.
“Artists of her caliber inspire me,” he says.
Both O’Riordan and Upton are attending the annual faculty and staff awards dinner in Marquis Hall. O’Riordan spots Upton on the other side of the room and decides to introduce himself after the meal. When the time comes, he takes a breath, strides to her corner, and says hello. The two exchange pleasantries before O’Riordan cuts to the chase.
“I would like to write an opera,” he tells her. “Would you be willing to write the libretto?”
Upton seems flattered. She says she’ll try.
The next day she lists her obsessions, in hopes of discovering an idea that could work for an opera. She writes: gardens, violence, domestic abuse, mermaids, hybrid forms, nature, Edgar Allan Poe.
She pauses at the last entry and feels an immediate tug of possibility. She read Poe as a child and is familiar with his poetry and fiction. He was a tragic character, inherently dramatic. His father abandoned the family when Poe was a boy, and his mother died a year later of tuberculosis, the same illness that would claim his young wife. And then there’s Poe’s death, the cause still a mystery after he was found on the streets of Baltimore days earlier incoherent and wearing another man’s clothes. She knows if she is to succeed in this new genre, she will have to find a topic that is deeply rooted in her heart. Like Poe.
She begins to read. First, other librettos by writers she knows like Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet who visited Lafayette twice over the years during National Poetry Month, and Dana Gioia, California’s Poet Laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
She takes notice of the use of rhyme, the cadence of lines.
Thank you so much again for approaching me about a libretto. I love the idea and want to check with you about a possibility I have to make sure I’m not entirely thinking about something that would be horribly off-base for you. Would you be reluctant to work with a comic/absurdist libretto—perhaps that focuses on Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary couple, and cooking? This is just an immediate possibility that occurred to me, very hazy. I’ve been dashing off a few lines. I’ve never thought of such a combination before today; I thought I should run it by you before I went further.
Thanks for the note…this is interesting. I haven’t done much with comic or absurdist subjects but it might be an interesting challenge. I’d definitely like to hear more about what you have in mind…let’s talk about it! I am something of an amateur cook, so that angle has immediate appeal.
I’m really looking forward to this!
An opera is an art form like no other. It’s singing and stagecraft, storytelling and dance, graces made whole by the pulsing heartbeat of a musical score.
O’Riordan receives an email from Upton saying she’s written a 19-page double-spaced “rough-rough” draft and will be able to send a more polished version before the end of June. He’s stunned. That was fast, he thinks.
She also has given it a tentative title: The Masque of Edgar Allan Poe, as the libretto pays homage to “The Masque of the Red Death,” written by Poe in 1842. The short story takes place during a masquerade party at the abbey of a nobleman in the wake of a deadly plague.
She’s also decided to drop the reference to cooking.
“At any rate, the major emotional mood of the one-act is yearning,” she writes. “There are three principal characters: a scholar who has studied Edgar Allan Poe for so long and in such depth that he believes he is the famous author; a woman he meets (as yet unnamed); and the Red Death. The play opens at a party set in contemporary Baltimore and ends in the afterlife.
Thanks for letting me know if this still sounds of interest to you!”
Thanks, I just gave it a read, and I like where this is heading. Can I assume that the section marked “Poe and Woman” should be interpreted as dialogue? Or did you imagine them as more of a duet?
In my next few readings I’d like to try and get a sense of motivations, particularly for Red Death. I’ll also think about staging some…and how the characters might interact.
O’Riordan heads to his office in the Williams Center for the Arts, opens the file containing Upton’s libretto on his computer, and gets lost in the narrative.
The language is pure Upton, wry and outré; it lunges and feints and then when you least expect it BAM, it clocks you in the nose, like this monologue from Red Death.
“I drift from room to room
handsome as the groom at a wedding.
Women can’t help but want me even when
they’d rather not want me.
Men too. And kittens.
Even kittens want me.”
The more O’Riordan reads and rereads, the more the characters rise from the pages, becoming complex and conflicted creatures he knows he can animate through chords and notes. One of the first decisions he makes when realizing the slow collision of two worlds is to use a classic 12-tone serialism, a technique invented by Arnold Schoenberg, to create an eerie dissonance that signifies the ethereal entrance of Red Death.
He emails his friend Blake Smith, director of University of Delaware Opera Theatre and an associate professor of voice and opera.
The two have been friends for 10 years, and Blake’s wife, Noel, a mezzo-soprano, has performed some of O’Riordan’s pieces.
“I’m working on a chamber opera; it’s going to be small scale,” he writes. “I can send you some score excerpts. Would you be interested?”
“Send it to me,” Smith replies.
Artistic collaboration can be inspiring but also tricky, a balancing act of concession and instinct. Not everyone can sublimate their ego for the sake of someone else’s vision.
But this isn’t the first time either O’Riordan or Upton has partnered with a member of Lafayette faculty. Over the years, Upton has joined forces with artists Curlee Holton, Jim Toia, and Ed Kerns, as well as fellow English professor Carrie Rohman. O’Riordan also has worked with Rohman, as well as Nandini Sikand in film and media, and Larry Stockton and Jorge Torres in music.
“Collaboration is incredibly important,” says O’Riordan. “It’s what makes a liberal arts institution really function as a liberal arts institution.”
After receiving the libretto and score excerpts in fall 2013, Smith agrees to produce the piece, and he and O’Riordan start looking at dates. One of Smith’s suggestions is fall 2015, but O’Riordan says the timing is too tight as he’s preparing his file for tenure, a distinction he receives.
They agree to stage a workshop performance at University of Delaware (UD) in February 2016 so they can work out any kinks. The show will then premiere at UD that November, followed by a one-night performance at Lafayette.
This gives O’Riordan and Upton about two years to marry the score with the libretto. O’Riordan assumes the role of editor, trimming words and lines he believes linger too long. Upton agrees with most of the incisions but asks him to restore, “Could I get bolder and hang my leg over some man’s shoulder? Did I say that out loud?” It’s a line she wrote for the hostess, a kind and generous woman who is fretful the party is dying.
“It’s got to go in there,” she writes in an email to O’Riordan.
O’Riordan restores the line.
Artistic differences between the two are rare. They respect not only each other but the process, and it’s through a rigorous back and forth that they begin to understand and refine what the characters are doing onstage.
In one scene, Poe and Annabel Lee, a socially awkward woman abandoned at the party by a friend, drift toward one another from opposite sides of the room. This is supposed to happen while Poe delivers a lengthy monologue, Red Death laments why he can’t be called Blue Death, and the hostess scurries about with drinks and a tray of crackers.
But Woman, as Upton refers to her throughout the script, doesn’t have her own lines. O’Riordan comes up with the idea of having her sing some of Poe’s. By echoing each other’s thoughts, the couple is beginning to form an intellectual and emotional connection, a verbal manifestation of chemistry.
“I’m right here.
See me now.
Take this chance,
I’ll show you how.”
O’Riordan and Upton communicate primarily by email, and O’Riordan begins sending Upton PDFs of the score and electronic recordings of music he’s composed for different scenes. She’s worried the vulnerability of her characters may make some people uneasy. But when she hears how the music taps into their loneliness, bestowing them with emotional sophistication and dimensionality, she exhales.
The piece begins to take flight.
Workshop at UD
The workshop affords O’Riordan and Upton the first opportunity to see how the libretto is interpreted by different performers. It’s not a full show, but it provides enough sense of story for them to realize that the hostess needs more to do as she’s on the sidelines for nearly three-quarters of the performance.
There are other details they make note to tweak.
One of the highlights is when Smith, who is playing Poe for the workshop, steps on stage. The music swells, and he unleashes a torrent of emotions in his tenor’s voice of steely timber.
By the end of the workshop, Upton is exhilarated.
“It’s an uncanny experience to hear one’s words sung by these powerful voices,” she says later.
Upton gets to work expanding the hostess’ role by having her open the show with three modest words.
“Oh! Hi! Hi!
“It’s an uncanny experience to hear one’s words sung by these powerful voices.”
Lee Upton, Francis A. March Professor of English
“I’m so glad you could come! Welcome! Welcome! So good to see you here!” the hostess’s says as she scurries about offering guests wine and trays laden with skewers of curried cheese, radishes, grapes, and pimento rice balls.
“Bloody hell to get all that on a skewer,” she says later to Poe.
Upton’s imaginative hors d’oeuvres become an inside joke with the performers and they insist on serving pimento rice balls at their cast party.
“I thought it was really cool,” says O’Riordan. “It showed they were really into the story.”
University of Delaware
Upton can’t make the two days of rehearsal so O’Riordan attends alone. It’s been a busy month for him. He’s composed music for four concerts and his third CD, The Preludes Project, which he produced with pianist and wife Holly Roadfeldt, was released.
Nonetheless, he’s eager to hear how the different pieces he’s written for the woodwinds (flute, clarinet, oboe, saxophone, and bassoon) blend together. What he doesn’t want is for the music to overpower the singers.
He emails Upton during the rehearsals.
“It’s really terrific.”
Upton arrives for the Nov. 11 world premiere. She is nervous even though O’Riordan has done his best to ease her jitters. The show is well attended and goes off without a hitch. The audience is effusive with its applause.
Upton and O’Riordan feel good about what they’ve seen and ready themselves for the Nov. 13 performance at the Williams Center for the Arts. It’s the first time an opera has been performed on campus by a Lafayette composer, and producing one is no small feat. Operas are difficult and expensive to produce, and the market for them is selective. That’s why this one is such a big deal. In a display of support, Lafayette’s Academic Research Committee and the Provost’s Office helped finance the project, which represents the holistic type of collaboration celebrated by the College.
Day of the Performance
The UD group arrives at Lafayette and immediately gets to work installing the sets and lights on the Williams Center stage. The group will be performing two operas tonight: Juniper Tree by Philip Glass and Robert Moran and The Masque of Edgar Allan Poe.
Stephanette Schwartz-Smith, production coordinator at the Williams Center, works with UD’s lighting designer to write lighting cues, operate the lighting console, and take care of other details for the afternoon show. She also helps hang a 75-pound clock on the back wall of the stage. The clock was the idea of Smith as a way to mark the passage of time by having Red Death use his scythe to push the hour hand to the appointed time.
“It was a nice piece of scenery I didn’t know was coming,” she says.
O’Riordan, Upton, and Smith give an artists’ talk in Room 108. It’s only the second time the three of them have had the opportunity to download about the project as a group since the February workshop.
Upton says she loves the scene where one of the party guests takes a bite of skewered rice ball and then spits part of it into a cup.
“I don’t know if you did it or Blake did it, but that should always be in stage direction,” she says.
O’Riordan says he’s glad they didn’t kill Red Death’s line about kittens.
“As a singer you can just jam so much anger into the ‘k’ sound,” he says.
The kitten line was a risk, Upton admits. “I thought, ‘How could I get away with that?’ It was so wrong that I thought, ‘Let’s just go with it. Let’s show that this guy has no self-awareness.’”
Twenty minutes after the first opera ends, the house lights dim, signaling the start of The Masque of Edgar Allan Poe.
A hush descends upon the packed theater. The curtains part, revealing clusters of guests conversing in low tones at a party.
The hostess bustles about the stage greeting new arrivals with unfettered enthusiasm.
“Oh! Hi! Hi!”
And the magic begins.