I rarely ask forgiveness of my readers, but forgive me for being a spotty blogger for the past few years. I’ve been busy, have been processing the transition from being a tenured university professor to an opera composer, moving to a new city, composing an opera, suffering from some medical issues, and taking a break from telling you things that have been on my mind.
I figure if I live to be 90, my first thirty were about learning, the next thirty were about teaching, and my final thirty will be about composing my best music––and in my dream, opera. Having composed five large-scale choral and orchestral works, a short opera, a grand opera, a musical, four feature films, choral music, songs, and hours and hours of chamber music, I am ready to synthesize what I’ve learned as a composer and do what I think I do best as a composer: write good tunes. I don’t particularly want to compose chamber music: too few performances. I have no track record nor interest of composing and amassing lots of orchestral works, hence my invisibility in the orchestral world. But I do know how to orchestrate and orchestrate beautifully. I prefer large scale works at this point in my life over three to fifteen minute pieces of chamber music. So opera seems the right way for me to go.
My old classmate and bandmate, Robert Aldridge, got a Grammy for best new work a few years back for the opera he’s been working on for years [Elmer Gantry]. My student, colleague and friend who performed in two of my large scale works, Jake Heggie is going great guns in the opera world; and my heart was broken when we lost Daniel Catán, who appeared to be a brilliant new star on the opera scene.
Aldridge and I were original Composers in Red Sneakers and played in a rock/blues band together with composer Robert Rowe. Our music shares a vitality, and if I were to die and had a piece unfinished, I would commission Bob to finish it. That being said, his opera, Elmer Gantry, is not like mine. And I was amazed that the Grammy voters chose IT over the others, it being completely tonal––as tonal as Bernstein.
Jake Heggie studied with me at UCLA, orchestration as an undergrad and I “guided” his MA in composition. I use quotes because Jake didn’t need guiding at that point. He was already Jake Heggie. His musical language is his own and a powerful one it is. He always had his own voice and his own way of writing for the voice. His piano accompaniments were always much more interesting than my early songs: he is a marvelous pianist––as a pianist, I get by. If Jake learned anything from me, it was through performing in my HIDDEN LEGACIES and FLASHPOINT/STONEWALL (both pieces with lyrics by John Hall). On second thought, I’ll let him tell you whether and what he learned from me, if he so chooses.
Daniel Catán was a California composer/university professor who worked really hard outside of being a teacher. The LAOpera premieres of his operas were wonderful, and I was delighted that the audience, buzz and press was so positive. Although our musics are not that similar, I can imagine future critics lumping us together in terms of harmonic language, but we are both tonal composers.
Of the four of us, Jake’s musical language is probably the gnarliest, followed by me, then Catán, and then Aldridge. I love the word “gnarly.” I stole it from Tison Street‘s partner Ray––who was not a musician and used it to describe what we musicians might otherwise call atonal (a term Schoenberg [the ur-Gnarly] despised). Of the four of us, as of 2013, Jake is probably the most popular and performed with Catan hot on his heels; Aldridge made a big splash––finally––and I am just beginning.
So who am I to even imagine putting myself in their league?
After the two workshop performances that we just had of my new opera, THE DOVE AND THE NIGHTINGALE, the audience was thrilled, as were we. My librettist, Mitchell Morris kept saying: “Roger, there is nothing like it.” And I don’t think he meant it as an evasive way of saying the piece is terrible: he meant it. The opera is filled with memorable tunes. Filled. Peter Kazaras, who directed the UCLA Opera workshops, insisted throughout the opera that I make EVERYTHING melodically interesting: “Go listen to Puccini: it’s all continuous and memorable melody.”
And as I step forward taking this risk, I have Angel Kazaras on one shoulder whispering MELODY, MELODY into my ear, and Angel Swed on the other telling me I need to compose like Helmut Lachenmann. I had to knock Swed off my shoulder in order to be me. I learned in 1978 that I had no interest in being the next Elliott Carter or Karlheinz Stockhausen, even though I went through years of trying to be. My SEVEN POLLOCK PAINTINGS (1978) won the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood and was my first publication and second record. The piece ENDS on a major chord––something rather naughty at the time. That final cadence helped me come out as a tonal composer.
I am gambling that the opera world just might go nuts over a new opera filled with memorable tunes. By composing music like this, I run the risk of being called a composer of musical theater. So be it. My inspirers these days are Bizet’s CARMEN, Bernstein’s WEST SIDE STORY, and Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD. In my opinion, these are all operas that are crossed with music theater. Someone will come up with a term for what this new genre is but I find the terms incomplete nowadays. Whatever that is, that is the road I’m interested in taking. And if it doesn’t work, and the people are not interested, then I’ll move on.
Writing songs is something I will continue to do for the rest of my life. And it’s so much easier than composing an opera! I’ve never worked as hard as I did in composing DOVE. And then I laugh when I read the interview with Donizetti who when told Rossini composed WILLIAM TELL in two weeks, he replied: “I always knew he was a lazy composer.”
#rogerbourland #opera #jakeheggie #danielcatán #robertaldridge #composers