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Mark Adamo

Making Room for Melismatic Embroidery


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch
Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch
Lord of the Cries, Courtesy of the Artist

Composer and librettist, Mark Adamo, writes as if he was an actor: he finds the character and emotion of the music, when he crafts his pieces, by experiencing them himself. It’s why he still tears up when he hears the recording by Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra of his new cello concerto titled Last Year. That piece is an interpellation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, projected through the prism of the climate crisis. Composing Last Year was a process of becoming conscious of a disaster many of us instinctually ignore. This method is also why he’s an excellent interview subject: he moves intuitively between first and second person when he’s telling a story, pulling the listener into his world of erudition, humour, and “muscular empathy.” His new opera, The Lord of Cries—written in collaboration with his composer-husband, Pulitzer-winner John Corigliano—uses Euripides’ The Bacchae, by way of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to find the tragedy and empathy in the repressive drives still endemic in our culture now. Adamo takes us on a ride through the history and future of opera—and even the origin of Santa.

sM | What was your process like in representing an abstract peril like climate change in Last Year?

MA — The original soloist [Jeffrey Zeigler] and I had been trying to find a moment to make a concerto together for a long time. It occurred to me that it needed to be more than an abstract idea of, “Let me compose a cello concerto.” I was listening to a recording of The Four Seasons because my beloved’s father [John Corigliano, Sr.] was the soloist in it. It’s a wonderful, vital, unusual—rather extreme for its day—way of doing four small concerti, rather than a large movement. There’s an innocence about it. It’s the opposite of waking up in the morning, going out in October and realizing it’s 50 degrees [Farenheit]! I have literally found myself going, “This is seasonal weather. Okay. Take a breath.” But, of course, I turn off the Vivaldi, turn on the news, and the first thing I hear about is how Hurricane Harvey—another once-in-a-lifetime storm—has drowned Houston, a city I know very well.

So I thought, “You couldn’t write that Vivaldi concerto today. You couldn’t be that sunny and optimistic.” I thought maybe that’s actually a good idea for a piece. In order to write it, I’d have to confront all the feelings that we spend most of our time not thinking about. All of that dread and hope—and for that matter, guilt—you’ll do something stupid. Like, you’re going to the fish market, buying scallops, and the fishmonger’s wrapping them in plastic. You’ll say, “Oh, I don't need the plastic bag.” You’ll think, “I’ve done something! That’s at least one plastic bag that isn’t ending up in the belly of a porpoise.” Even as you miniaturize that and laugh it off, it’s a denial that you need to employ just to get through the day.

In the same way that Vivaldi’s subject isn’t really the seasons—it’s the Italians experiencing them—I came up with the subject of what we moderns experience with the seasons. How can I come up with musical tropes which speak to the way we live now? Maybe this is because I’m principally an opera composer, but I write as if I’m an actor. I have to excavate from my own emotional process, or nerve endings. I also work architecturally, planning events and all of that. But, ultimately, the sounds are coming off your own body in some way. So I’m glad it’s done! (Laughs) I’m glad I am no longer doing it. I am glad that it is recorded.

sM | What inspired you to cast the god of wine, Dionysus, as Dracula in your opera, The Lord of Cries?

MA — It’s one of the great disturbing characters. The Vampire is Dionysus. And Pentheus [The King of Thebes] is those of us who want to deny the kind of—sometimes ecstatic and sometimes disordering—lifeforce that Dionysus represents. How the whole show began is that I had been invited to consider Dracula for the opera house and couldn’t find a way that didn’t seem like a played card. All the symbolism of that narrative just seemed to be stuff that we had moved beyond. But the idea that in some way you can deny nature through force of will, or desire to be good… we’re still dealing with that.

We often read this as comedy. Whenever you hear of some anti-gay Congressman trying to lobby against marriage equality—set your watch. You know that in two weeks, you’re going to find him dragged blinking from the boyfriend’s meth den. It’s funny because it’s banal. But it’s still going on, this desire. The subtext is: “If I align myself with the ‘forces of good,’ I can change who I am.” That’s actually not a funny story. That’s actually a rather deep story.

I follow the Zadie Smiths, the Richard Russos, and the Tony Kushners of the world saying the real value of art is muscular empathy. It’s trying to understand, not just the people who are like you, but to get inside the people who are not at all like you and try to figure out how they tick. I thought, “That’s where Dionysus comes in.” The Dionysus-Pentheus dynamic is really the oldest example in our dramatic literature, in which we see that thing at work. And if you read Dracula through the lens of Dionysus, you realize it’s the same story. The only thing that Stoker does is put on this falsely happy ending in this Pentheus-like hope that, “Oh, we really can, we can wish this away.” But then he says it’s weird, that of all the documents that tell the story, none of them are firsthand. It’s only newspaper stories and memoranda. He’s already planting the doubt that the Vampire could stay in the coffin. So that’s why I thought that it would be really good in a modern piece.

sM | Collaborating with your husband for this opera, who was Dionysus and who was Apollo?

MA — One of the reasons I thought that John would be right for this is because, if you know the score of Altered States or anything of his, no one can do the atavistic, no one can do the chthonic—these seemingly chaotic sounds—better than John. The end of Circus Maximus is absolutely the end of the world. I’m a composer as well, and I’ve known him for 20-something years, so I know how he ticks a little bit. For example, the language is a little more elevated than it might be in another project, because that’s what John responds to.

Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch