Making Room for Melismatic Embroidery
NEW YORK | WORDS BY MILES FORRESTER & MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK | MUSIC - Issue 8
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
Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch
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.
Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch
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.
Lord of the Cries, Courtesy of the Artist
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.
My role was not so much to assert order and try to tamp him down, quite the opposite. The idea was, “Let’s make the shape.” Here’s where we want to set up the Apollonian world, then this language is where everything should overwhelm. There are moments in which the more disciplined Pentheus music is much more strophic and tightly formed. Then, when we get into Dionysus, there’s much more of Euripides’ language. It’s looser! There’s more room for repetition. There’s more room for melismatic embroidery, so he can throw a thousand notes into a single syllable. That will not only give him the freedom, but give the audience the impression that this is how the Dionysian forces are coming up from under and cracking through the surface.
Another way of answering your question is: the way to avoid conflict is to accept that there’s going to be. Both of those values need to be there. When it needs to be Apollonian, make it Apollonian. When it needs to be Dionysian, set it up and let it bleed. I was in a unique position to do that because I do both. I’ve done that in my own work. I’ve gotten to a point in a libretto and said, “Do I need this?” And I cut it. (Laughs) So at that point, the composer overrules the librettist. The libretist had a good idea and the composer had a better one. Sometimes the opposite is true, where it’s: “I need more here. I’m going to have to go back and expand this because, musically, I need more to hang on to it. The language isn’t giving it to me.” Because I’m my own world, it's easier for me to collaborate, particularly with John.
Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch
sM | Technology and performance appear more enmeshed than ever. As an artist and aesthete, what is lost and what is gained?
MA — What’s gained is flexibility and intimacy—in so far as the most effective multimedia productions tend to happen in smaller houses. You can cast a singer whose voice does not need to be acoustically organized in such a way that she can fill, unamplified, a 3,000–seat house and soar over a Strauss orchestra. If she has the right sound and colour—and is the right actress—she can make just enough sound to make it beautiful and expressive, the technology can take that and run with it.
There’s a risk that the better the technology, the more miniature the performer seems. It’s possible for technology to take so much of the expressive burden—and we’re all living on screens, we are “screen creatures”—the question that arises is: “Why are we going to the theater to begin with?” If we want the live experience simply to recreate the brilliant streaming experience, then why bother? The question is not so new. This has been true—particularly in opera—since the turn of the last century. Once there was the camera, once there was the microphone and the phonograph, opera was dethroned as the largest acoustic experience—the loudest acoustic experience you could have. If you went to a production of Aida, the equivalent would be seeing Dune.
I think it’s telling that the very first silent films actually took operatic subjects. There was a King Vidor La Bohème! The ability of spectacle was shifting to the camera, shifting to the microphone. As we know from a rock concert, one person at a guitar and a drum set can drown out the sound of a [Boeing] 757. So what then? If we are then going to see people playing this box with some strings on it, and other people behind them playing boxes with strings on it: Why? How’s that better than the recording? What need do we have for that, that is not being fulfilled by all of our glittering toys?
We used a little technology in The Lord of Cries, very little treating the voices, to give the impression that the divine figures were leaving the human realm and were now becoming unearthly. A very little echo, but not a whole lot—that I completely support. You know, that sense that the technology is giving you a different kind of experience than the acoustic version. But we need to be aware of the risk of the tail wagging the dog.
Mark Adamo Cello Concerto, ROCO. Concert, Courtesy of Melissa Taylor Photography
sM | As well as Dionysus, you’re taking on another mythic subject in Becoming Santa Claus. What can you say about this production?
MA — It’s the Chicago premiere actually. It’s also the first time that piece has been produced on the scale that it was written. We did this glorious production in Dallas with six dancers and it was thrilling, but it was only written for the seven singers. It’s still being quasi-choreographed, but it’s just with the seven principals, which I think is probably going to make it more focused. It’s trying to do an origin myth of Santa Claus. That was another opera that I dabbled a little bit in technology, just in the Dallas production.
At one point in the second act, Prince Claus has forced this quartet of elves to come up with the most spectacular toys imaginable because they are going to show up at the manger and outshine the gifts of the Magi. I made up the idea that the Magi are actually elves in disguise. The good news is the toys are spectacular and the bad news is that, because it’s taken so long to make them, they’re not going to get there in time unless the Prince’s mother—who is a sorceress—can intervene. And so the Prince has the elves do this audition of these four toys, one after the other, to persuade the Queen of the value of the project and to get them to the manger. The last one, the bass elf, has this thing that looks like a telescope upfront. He does this rather delicate sort-of Music Man/Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. But then in the second verse, it turns into a microphone and he does a quasi-rap. An elf rap. (Laughs) The point is that, again, like in The Lord of Cries, this thing that was once in one register when it’s acoustic, becomes a very different kind of thing when it’s amplified. The same text and the same music largely, but because of the amplification, we got another kind of quasi-spoken word that you would not be able to do acoustically, as easily.
I’m neither anti-technology nor pro-technology. I feel like it’s another tool. I don’t feel that acoustic technology is going to be displaced by electronics, partly because, as we become more surrounded by electronics, we really long for the human. The question is, how do you do that in a way that honours both of those things?
Our newsletters bring you the best in the visual and performing arts.
Exclusive interviews. Global Coverage. Local Perspectives.