Monday, September 10, 2007

Composer Richard Danielpour

Morrison and Danielpour

Margaret Garner
composed by Richard Danielpour
libretto by Toni Morrison
starring Tracie Luck, Lisa Daltirus, Maureen McKay, Joel Sorensen, Christopher Jackson, Timothy Mix, Gregg Baker
conducted by George Manahan
directed by Tazewell Thompson
New York State Theater
Performances through September 29, 2007

It may only be a coincidence that New York City Opera opens its fall season on September 11th with the local premiere of a new American opera, Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner, with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison, from the true story of a runaway slave which was the original inspiration for Morrison’s novel Beloved.

This is the first opera by the 52-year-old Danielpour, who has written several award-winning orchestral and chamber music compositions, including works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the San Francisco Symphony. In between intensive rehearsal sessions for this production of the opera–which had its world premiere in Detroit, followed by performances in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Charlotte, all with superstar Denyce Graves in the title role–Danielpour discussed the genesis of Margaret Garner.

Kevin Filipski: You’ve watched your first opera get its premiere in 2005 and play in four different cities. Now, in 2007, City Opera is mounting another new production, directed by Tazewell Thompson, who was the set designer for that premiere staging. Are you surprised at how quickly that’s happened?
Richard Danielpour: It is strange for a new-ish opera that’s only 2-1/2 years old to get a new production, but I’m so taken with what I’m hearing and seeing in rehearsals. Tazewell Thompson is an extraordinary director whose greatest gift is to understand how to create what’s inherently in the score: a commensurate and balanced sense of drama, emotion and right down to synchronizing certain images and movements with certain musical chords from the score. Why is this worthy of mention? Because there are a lot of directors who would rather use the music to further their own theory of what the drama should be instead of furthering the score to maximize the drama.

KF: How easy it is to work with the people responsible for putting this onstage, from the director and conductor to the singers?
RD: It took me a few years to compose the opera, but I’ve been able to let go – it feels like being a grandfather, where you get all of the love and none of the responsibility. At the same time, I worked with some of the cast at the beginning of rehearsals, and I have confidence that this is a team that will find the way to work out great solutions for dramatizing this work. I’m also very impressed with (conductor and City Opera music director) George Manahan, who has a wonderful way of keeping the music going dramatically – I love fast tempos, and a lot of my music is rhythmically driven, and George has a real sense in his leanness of approach in bringing out the inherent architecture of the entire work. He gets a maximum amount of results with a minimum amount of fuss.

KF: Talk about working with Toni Morrison.
RD: It was a great collaboration. I had set two sets of her poems to music–one in 1996 and the other in 1998–and they both were for (soprano) Jessye Norman: they got a great response as a test run for us. We had our initial discussion about Margaret Garner at lunch in the summer of ‘96, but it wasn’t until more than two years later that we started talking about it in earnest. We finally got opera companies seriously interested, but in the late summer/fall of 2000, she was very reticent. She said, “I’m not sure I can do this,” and I said, “There’s nobody else–you’ve got to.” Then the libretto gradually started to appear.

What I found remarkable about her in this role is that she’s someone whose novels are very thickly layered, and here she had to do the exact opposite: but she knew that immediately. For her to have written her first and only libretto at the age of 72 is extraordinary. What I knew would emerge was her extremely appealing sense of using the language, and I wanted a librettist who doesn’t write either poetry or prose but a hybrid of the two–which is how she write her novels. There was a lot of editing and rewriting by both of us, but the main thing I remember is how extraordinarily flexible she was even though she had never done this before.

KF: Did you research any period music from the America of the 1800s?
RD: No–if you’re a composer and your eyes and ears are open and you eat, sleep and read music, then your life is your research. To research music and period songs in a scholarly way would take the spontaneity away. There are songs in the opera that sound like spirituals that are not taken from any real spirituals, but from my experience and memory of spirituals. Composers somehow reprocess and refilter what they’ve heard and remembered. Many people think that opera composers just set a text to music – that’s not how it works. The composer is a dramatist because the music is what drives the work. Whether it’s Puccini, Verdi or Mozart or Berg, the composer is at least as much the dramatist.

KF: How did soprano Tracie Luck get the lead role for this production?
RD: Tracie covered Denyce for performances of this opera when it was done in Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Charlotte. What most people don’t realize is that Tracie also sang Margaret in the two workshops we did before the premiere. So while it can be said that I wrote the role for Denyce, I also wrote it for Tracie because she sang in the workshops as I was writing, rewriting and trying out things. What’s remarkable about Tracie is that she has developed in a parallel way to how this work has evolved. It’s lovely to see someone grow over a period of five years.

KF: Is this a finished work, or have you gone back to it since the premiere?
RD: There has been tons of tweaking: in 2004, during the second workshop, I cut 25 minutes, and there was other rewriting and tightening done. I learned an enormous amount (during that workshop) yet, after the premiere, I made five more smaller cuts – a few measures here and there. After that, changes were very small, mostly to do with tempi and dynamics. It was a very subtle sort of tweaking. But it’s also a real evolution in that way.

KF: How did composing your first opera compare to the instrumental, chamber and vocal works you’ve written?
RD: I never understood what novelists went through, living for three or four years with one work, until I wrote this opera. There’s a mental and physical stamina issue, because you have to write two opera scores–a piano/vocal score and an orchestral score, and I did both by hand, which is almost 5000 bars of music. I have a bone spur on my thumb! I’m told that doing it all in 33 months was fast, but for me it seemed interminable.

I wrote some completely different works to air myself out while doing the opera. I wrote my 5th string quartet between acts one and two for the Guaneri Quartet. I feel that I’ve been an opera composer in disguise because my orchestral works have been big–the equivalent of secret operas, with a hidden–or maybe not so hidden–dramatic schema. That personal dramatic trajectory took me through this work, so writing my first opera was returning to my natural habitat, so to speak. What took some getting used to was how long it took to write.

KF: What did you learn from this experience?
RD: One thing I can say is that there is no formula for how this works. I don’t know at all how it works, but I’m glad that it does.

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