While rehearsals were in progress for this weekend’s performances of 9th Ward Opera’s production of Dan Shore’s “An Embarrassing Position”, I had the honor to sit down with the composer. Dan has had great success in the last few years with his operas and I was curious about his methods of composition..
Dan, audiences in New Orleans and around the country have fallen in love with your works. So I am excited to speak with you about how you create them. I have always been intrigued with the process of writing an opera. When I listen to the music, I always wonder if the idea, story or music came first. Would you give me some idea of your process?
For me, it is always the story first. I think story is the most important thing, and I think it is the most difficult, because there are so many stories out there that may not lend themselves to operatic treatment. You’ve got things that would make a great play, TV show, a novel or short story, but I am always looking for something that would work on the opera stage. Once I find the idea, then I say, “ok, I can spend two to three years writing this!” Even as you are writing it, the most difficult thing is still breaking the story down. I ask myself: what is their motivation, why are they there, why are they in each scene, what are they trying to do in each scene? And once I have all that sketched out, then I find that the music and the words come very easily. But getting to that step, that’s ninety percent of all the work.
So when you look at a character, is there something about the motivation of that character that helps you assign notes to them? Do you decide that a character is lovable, or not lovable, and then assign melody to them from that frame of mind?
I try to imagine what they are actually like, what makes them tick. Then, you have some general sense of what you want the opera to sound like. For instance, with “An Embarrassing Position”, I knew it was set in New Orleans in the 1890s. I wanted to have that turn of the century parlor music-whatever that is somewhere past Gottschalk, but not quite Scott Joplin. And so you have a general palate: that then helps narrow things down. But finding the right sound for an opera is hard; just that can take a couple of months. But once I have a few measures down, then I can say that’s good, that’s what I want, then I can take off from there.
Now, tell us about you. Did you come from a musical family?
No, not at all! But my father has a great love of classical music. He grew up in Philadelphia listening to WFLN and had one of those old reel-to-reel players. He recorded hundreds of hours of what he considered to be standards in classical music on to those reel-to-reel tapes. He always played them for me when I was growing up. He had very conservative taste- nothing before Bach. And once you hit [things from the] 20th century, he wasn’t so crazy about it. But out of a sense of guilt and obligation, he did have the Rite of Spring on it. But he was certainly not a fan of it. He had Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff; these were the things that were playing in the house. He did not like opera, though he did take me to see the film of “La Traviata” when it came to the 19th St. Theater. That poor man sat through two hours of Verdi, then gave me a clinic lecture on Tuberculosis as we drove back home.
So what turned you toward opera? When did you know that was your thing?
I have no idea, but I always wanted to do it. I really didn’t know much about it. I grew up in Allentown, PA, and the library had a great record collection. I could go there and get Wagner records and listen to that. In the children’s section they had these great books on opera that I have not seen since. And there was a book on “Carmen” that had a very easy to understand description of what happens- [with] little pictures-really appropriate for a 9 year old! They had melodies written out of some of the arias with the duets. I don’t know why these books were written, but I was glad to check them out with my library card. I thought, “Oh this is GREAT!” So when something came on the radio, I had all the information in front of me.
Thank goodness for libraries! We are glad that you listened to your muse. Tell us about “An Embarrassing Position”.
“An Embarrassing Position” is a very simple comedy. An Embarrassing Position, based on a sketch by Kate Chopin, takes place in New Orleans in the 1890s. Willis Parkham is a young bachelor running for political office. Late one night after a so-called “political meeting,” Eva Delvigné, the lovely and naïve daughter of a family friend, unexpectedly announces herself. Before Mr. Parkham can figure out what to do, there is another knock at the door, but this time it’s—gasp!—June Jinkins, the gossip columnist for the New Orleans Times-Democrat!
Can you tell us a little about how you came to write an opera on a story based in New Orleans?
My relationship with New Orleans began when my wife, Meredeth Rouse, got a job playing for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. She came down here in the fall of 2007, so I thought I should really do something “New Orleans-y”. So, I went to the library and took out everything I could find that would tell me a little about New Orleans and would have something in the work of a story. And the library of America had a lovely volume, which was The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. I read everything cover to cover. There were short stories, which I think are incredible, and her novels, and there was the play called “An Embarrassing Position”. It was a terrible little play that she had written for a competition. After it was rejected over and over, she never wrote another one. There were parts of it that I really liked- this part and that part-and thought, “oh, that scene in the middle there, that’s lovely, that’s really great writing.” So that is what really attracted me to it. Knowing that, since it did not work as it was, I was not bothering anything by turning it into an opera. The first production was at the New England Conservatory, which has also premiered my operas “Works of Mercy” and “The Beautiful Bridegroom.”
I love Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”. The story really affected me, as it dealt with women being their husband’s property. It’s so moving how she gave him his ring back as she walked into the Gulf to kill herself.
I think that, [the] sense of women as property and the unfairness of how women were treated was a major concern for her. At the end of the original play of “An Embarrassing Position”, the main character and the main female character get married. It is kind of understood that they had to do that or there would be a scandal. And I think, because it IS Kate Chopin, you’re supposed to walk away thinking, “[well,] now these two character’s lives are ruined!” They should never have been married, and they are forced together; what a horrible tragedy. But then I thought, if I am trying to write a comic opera, then they should be happy that they are married! So I had to work backwards from there. If it’s a comedy, it has to have a happy ending, or people will ask for their money back!
I was giving a lecture a while back about how the brain processes music, and the subject of 20th century opera came up. I shared my thoughts on the fact that my music therapy studies shows that we are born wired for consonant intervals. And it seems to me that when there is too much dissonance in an opera, and little to no arias, the brain of audiences are required to do a lot of mental work to process the patterns in the music. It seems to me that brain needs to have an aria with some familiar chord progressions to relax and enjoy the characters and story.
What I like about your writing is that you do a good job of being contemporary but still giving those melodies that allow the brain to say, “OK, I know where I am going.” I think that is an important balance to have. Is that something that comes to your mind, in terms of balance of composing melodies, or does it just come to you the way you feel like it is supposed to come together?
I can answer, “both”. On one hand, yes, I do think of things melodically. I definitely want music that people enjoy, and most of all enjoy singing. Your first and most important audience are your performers. If they are happy and doing a great job, then people like the performance. If they are unhappy, nobody is going to enjoy it. On the other hand, when I am working with something that has a certain historical time period or style, like “An Embarrassing Position”, when I want it to sound late 19th century, you can’t go too far in that direction. People will say, why are we listening to imitation 19th century music when we can listen to real 19th century music? So sometimes I have to stop and think, “ok, well, I have gone too far that way”: I have to turn around and go in the other direction. Fortunately, I was born just in the right time, when composers were starting to be allowed to write what they wanted to write. I think that was not true of preceding generations. You had a lot of composers who went to school, and it was drilled into their brain that you write music like “this”. It has to be very chromatic, and it has to be very atonal. And if you are not writing dissonant music, then you are doing something wrong. If people like it, you are also doing something wrong. I think it was a terrible time for a lot of people. I think this is why 20th century has produced a lot of pieces that serious musicians say this is an excellent piece, but most people in the audience think well, okay, but I really didn’t enjoy it. There was still some of that when I was a freshman in college. The other students did make fun of me, and I did get a lot of flack from certain professors. But by the time I was getting my doctorate, that had gone.
I think, for an opera composer, you have to have some degree of flexibility. Certain situations call for pleasant music, and certain situations call for hard-to-listen-to music. When we have music appreciation classes and we always play “Wozzeck”, the students always say “this sounds terrible”! But, we say, look what’s going on in the story. I mean, these are deeply, deeply disturbed people and Wozzeck is living in a hard time. And this is music coming out of Austria and Germany, between two world wars. It is not surprising that we have music sounding that way.
In terms of the considerations you have to make for historical time periods, sometimes I have found that composers throw in things that they think describes the people or place they are writing about. However, sometimes their choices demonstrate a lack of research, especially for music written to take place in cities like New Orleans. What I like about “Freedom Ride” is that you wrote original music that made me feel like I would have sung that if I was old enough to have been a part of the movement at that time.
Oh thank you! That was something that was very important to me.
I know you are still expanding on the piece. How is your research shaping your current writing?
I am still struggling to find a language for the piece, and a language for all the characters that works. One of the things that I been so fortunate with, and I keep going back to the library because I am so fond of the library, is that someone turned on a tape recorder back then and recorded all the songs that college students sang, and the protest songs that students sang at riots. And you can hear the actual songs that people were listening to at any given week. For me, that kind of research is critical. There is so much out there because so many involved in the Civil Rights Movement wrote memoirs. So you can see exactly what happened. It does not mean that I will always be getting [what I compose] right , but at least you have a sense that you are attempting [to do that]. Freedom Ride was commissioned by Longue Vue House and Gardens, and they and I agreed from the start they we really wanted to honor everything about the movement, but in particular the contribution of the people in New Orleans.
Yeah, I think the audience gets a feeling that you did do the research as part of your process. They feel like they could have been there, or they ARE there as they are listening...
Now as we speak of New Orleans, I am so glad your wife joining the LPO brought you to us. But how did you start teaching at Xavier?
She said look, I am here, you gotta get a job down here. So I saw the opening at Xavier and I threw myself at them. I begged them…I said please! My first application got lost in the mail. And it was a complicated series of events that finally put me in touch with Tim Turner and the rest of the Music Department. But when I finally got there, I found some of the best people in the world. It has been an incredible place to call home. And actually all of the names of the Music faculty have been worked into the libretto for “An Embarrassing Position”
To learn more about Dan, go to danshoremusic.com
Be sure to go out tonight, Saturday and Sunday to see:
The 9th Ward Opera Company’s summer production of 2 one-act operas: Blue Monday by George Gershwin (1922) and An Embarrassing Position by Dan Shore (2011), continues tonight through Sunday!Tickets: $20; $10 Students/Seniors – online at www.marignyoperahouse.org, or at the door.