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The Hours at The Met

Composer Kevin Puts Weaves a Tapestry of Possibilities for Mrs. Dalloway


MAR 13, 2023 | ISSUE 10

Kevin Puts by David White
Kelli O'Hara as Laura Brown, Renée Fleming as Clarissa Vaughan, and Joyce DiDonato as Virginia Woolf in Kevin Puts's "The Hours." Photo: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
Kevin Puts by David White

The way Kevin Puts describes the possibilities unlocked in opera, it seems only inevitable that Virginia Woolf's landmark novel Mrs. Dalloway would be a perfect fit for this powerful genre. Woolf's novel of a day in the emotionally resonant interior lives of strangers—aging socialite, Clarissa Dalloway, and "shell shocked" veteran, Septimus Smith—challenged London’s notions of time and the individual. Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, The Hours, interpolated Woolf herself into a story of three women living in three separate cities and generations. The 2002 film adaptation, directed by Stephen Daldry and scored by Philip Glass, won an Oscar for Nicole Kidman as Woolf.

Twenty years later, another adaptation commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera, composed by Puts and his librettist, Greg Pierce, will be staged at The Met this November. This premiere will be a few months shy of a century-long journey from Mrs. Dalloway’s dramatized composition in 1923. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato will play Woolf and sopranos Kelli O'Hara and Renée Fleming—who collaborated with Puts in Letters From Georgia—play Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan. Earlier this year, the opera was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, also under Nézet-Séguin's baton. We speak to Puts about how his fifth opera introduces a new perspective to this story of a very long day.

sM | This new opera was performed earlier this year by the Philadelphia Orchestra. What did you learn from that premiere and seeing the music come to life?

KP ─ It's unusual for a composer to have an opportunity like that. Comparing opera to musical theatre, they undergo all kinds of scrutiny and trial and revision before they go on Broadway. In classical opera, we almost never have that. Sometimes there are workshops in the years preceding, but for the most part, everything happens a few weeks before the premiere with little time to separate the different aspects of the production.

To think about the music without worrying about how the staging, lighting, sets, costumes, and so on, would play into it was extremely useful. To have the great Yannick [Nézet-Séguin] conduct such an amazing orchestra and take ownership of the piece, and for me to hear the balance of the singers with the orchestra and get to make adjustments a good half a year before the premiere, was invaluable for me. It's hard to imagine going into November without that.

sM | This opera is only the latest layer to the story of The Hours. At its core you have Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, then there’s Woolf’s life itself, then there’s Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, then Stephen Daldry's film, and then Phillip Glass's score for that film. Composing this, how did you not feel suffocated by all the artists and art forms that have engaged with this storyline?

KP ─ Every opera I've done is based on something else. There's always something else in the room with you as you're writing. But there's something about addressing the libretto on its own terms. The book is incredible. I've known it for many years. I saw the film somewhere thereafter. Both are just beautiful creations. What's beautiful about Philip Glass's score is how he embraces the quotidian, the hours. My score delves more into the mystical nature and intersection of the three stories. How is it exactly that they're all connected? Is Clarissa being operated by Virginia Woolf as she writes this novel that's about her?

What you can do in opera that you can't do on the screen or on a written page, is you can introduce these three stories separately (Virginia Woolf in the 20s, Laura Brown living outside of LA after the Second World War with her family, and then Clarissa in, let's say, 1990s New York) and begin to blur the lines between them until they're simultaneous. You can transcend time. And what allows for that is music, is harmony.

I remember in the film Amadeus—which I saw when I was in seventh or eighth grade—there's a scene where Mozart's talking about how you can have six or seven people singing at the same time and it makes perfect sense. You can't have them speaking. But on the operatic stage, you can see them. They can sing duets which are separated by 40 years of time. Especially if they're singing something where there's a common overriding emotion to the scene. To plan the pace of that overlap was a great joy. By the end of the opera, time and space have cleared away entirely. We're living in a realm where everything is in the same space.

I think the biggest lesson of loss and grief is that it forces you to face your own mortality. There’s a huge blessing that comes after the grieving part. You get to look at life like it matters again. Everything matters a little bit more and not in a bad way. I was on TV with bands a few weeks ago, and I remember cracking jokes with the host and I was thinking, “Why am I so unafraid right now?” And I think part of it is, we’re all going to die. Might as well have fun. Might as well be real. Don’t be afraid of the status or the situation. Talk to people, find out about them, learn about them.