Background of “La Paloma y el Ruiseñor”

September 22, 2014

In early 2003 our dear friends Tom Brooks and his painter wife, Jessica Rice, invited us to visit Mazatlán. Unbeknownst to me, they had arranged a meeting with a gentleman who was the head of the Teatro Angela Peralta. He took me on a tour of the theatre and told me of its amazing history. Before leaving, he gave me a book about the history of the theater, but more so about the future heroine of our future opera, Angela Peralta. I was amazed that no one had ever made an opera about her most dramatic life. And so I decided——there and then——that I would.

Repos au Ruisseau

I began doing exhaustive research about Peralta. My late colleague and friend, Robert Stevenson, was an authority on AP and told me many amusing but mostly scholarly bits about her life. Every year, more information would appear on the internet. Her life could make an amazing movie, in fact at one point, as I began writing the storyline, I fancied that I would turn the story into a movie script after doing the libretto. By mid-2005 I came up with a treatment and ran it past many friends who gave me excellent feedback. I was planning on doing the libretto at this time, but all I created was a synopsis. I decided it would be a poetic thing to do by returning to Mazatlán and start writing the libretto. I wrote at a feverish pace and turned out seven lyrics in five days. I read them to my spouse, and to Tom and Jess. They were polite, but I could tell it wasn’t quite working.


The early titles I went through were numerous and amusing: “Duarte’s Wives” “Angela Peralta” “Rosa and the Nightingale” “Duarte’s Fate” “Duarte’s Wives” “Nona and Duarte” “The Rose and the Nightingale” and then finally “The Dove and the Nightingale” which became “La Paloma y el Ruiseñor” in the Spanish adaptation.

I decided to put the story aside, and then all of a sudden I got a whole series of commissions culminating with becoming the Chair of the Music Department for four years. In 2010 I decided to take an early retirement from UCLA with a few strings attached: I got a year sabbatical (which I had earned) to compose my opera, I would return for a year and at the end of that year, my opera would have a workshop performance by our opera program, and THEN I would retire.

During all this, I approached Mitchell Morris, my colleague in Musicology at UCLA, and someone who knows far more than I about opera, to compose the libretto. I gave him my treatment and the permission to do with it what he wished. None of my lyrics survive, thankfully, but he included chunks of the content scattered here and there. Mitchell also did extensive research and I was delighted to see how much drama there was in the details of boat ride across the Sea of Cortéz. [The recent Hurrican Odile is a reminder of how dangerous that little 12-hour boat ride could be.]

Composer, Jake Heggie advised me to have at least one workshop before the premiere. We decided to write four of the big arias first, spaced like dramatic pillars throughout the opera. That piece was called DUARTE’S LOVE SONGS. Mark Carlson‘s Pacific Serenades chamber music ensemble commissioned the work, and Russian baritone, and my UCLA colleague Vladimir Chernov gave a wonderful performance for its premiere. This was, in effect, our first “workshop”——a concept I was told Steven Sondheim first invented. The songs were all cut back in the opera, but left in tact in that quartet of arias from the point of view of the male lead, Julián Montiel y Duarte.

The “real” and final workshop was directed by Peter Kazaras and performed by the terrific talent at UCLA, the UCLA Opera Workshop, in May 2013. At that workshop, a group from Mazatlán——headed by Raúl Rico González——came to listen. Once again, our dear friend Jessica Rice made the connection with Raúl. Raúl was moved by the work, and offered to have the work premiered at the Teatro Angela Peralta in Mazatlán. I said: YES.

Juliana GondekFrom the beginning, I composed the work for my long-time friend, colleague and collaborator, Juliana Gondek. Her voice had an enormous range, but her instrument was evolving more towards a very low soprano. The high C that I wrote for her at the end of ROSARIUM, didn’t exist any longer. That was ok, as I decided I would use the lower voice, especially in Act 2 where Angela begins to get sick, and the lower voice gives the impression that the soprano not feeling well. After the workshop, and after hearing from all in attendance, especially my friends from Mazatlán, including Enrique Patrón, they all felt it was a mistake ignoring the range of Angela’s true range——she was, after all, famous for roles like Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. So, although I decided to transpose the part up to Angela’s original range, and not Juliana’s, the true inspiration for the entire part was Juliana Gondek and her versatile personalities.

Painting credit: “Repos au Ruisseau” (oil on canvas 48×48) by Jessica Rice

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