Words First: Talking Text in Opera
Melissa Dunphy and Composing Politics
Daniel Kramer, Keturah Stickann, Steven Osgood of Words First Podcast
March 22, 2021
Keturah Stickann (00:00:08):
Welcome to Words First: Talking Text in Opera.
Politics, opera’s filled with it. And I don't just mean in the rehearsal hall. Operas played with political figures in historic moments, such as Donizetti’s Three Queens or Verdi’s Don Carlo. With political prisoners, such as Puccini’s Tosca, Beethoven's Fidelio, or Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. With responses to a political moment, such as Verdi’s Aida. Whether intended or not, politics comes to bear on many a libretto, and this is especially true as we move forward in time. Today's three interviews are about political opera, though not necessarily specifically about politics itself. Perhaps more truthfully, these three interviews are about operas that speak to actual historical truths, both in literal and poetic ways. First up, with a piece that is a poetic response to a political moment in history, director Daniel Kramer, discusses Pat Nixon’s aria in John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China.
Can you talk about this little moment specifically, and, and what it is about her poetry in this moment that just reaches you, or what made you color those words red for me?
Daniel Kramer (00:01:47):
Is a bit of context useful?
So she's on the tour of Beijing and she, was sent to China as this symbol of capitalism and Christianity being the way to go for the world. Cause we knew that this was a televised event. Every moment of this visit was staged. And what I love about this moment is like all of act three, Alice stops history and stops anything that could be known or could have been recorded and steps inside Pat's private thoughts, which no one can know. So it's instantly as a director, as someone who's gonna work with a singer, and my mantra is always language is action. And obsess with why every phrase or word is chosen. It’s literally like a swan dive into liquid mercury of what this woman really feels inside, being married to a man who, like Mao, was seen as a prophet - the first word in, this is prophetic, who was seen as a hero, who was seen as one of the greatest criminals of all time. This opera was written post Watergate. So of course, Alice is looking back knowing his fall from grace and the way in which Alice and Pat start to step into the giant titanic forces of capitalism with luxury dissolving into the atmosphere like perfume and everywhere the simple virtues root, which is communism. Mao talks about like, it's enough for, I love that Mao say ‘it's enough for our people if the sun shines on their face after a very hard day at work’. Of course it wasn't enough for his people, right? The philosophy talks about like that we're on earth for a certain amount of time and hey, you gotta follow some philosophy. You guys chose capitalism. Mine chose communism. We’ll all be erased eventually, but the way she steps into it, and of course for me, she really quickly starts to go into the domestic and talk about, I believe her husband, and the way in which Nixon was not ever treated well as a politician. And talking about bedroom communities being taken by surprise.
I love that.
I know, I know, like the women at home, and the standup comedian, who for me is Nixon.
Right. And her let the band play on and on. I mean, it also just reaches into small town America so easily.
Yeah. And then her as Gypsy Rose kicking off her high heel party shoes, let the men who, she was so in a world of dominant men who pushed her aside to redecorate the White House every five years. And she was on the cover of Good Housekeeping five times for Housewives of the Year, and let routine dull the edge of mortality. I mean, my designer and I must have spent a month on that. What does that line mean? Do you know, whose point of view is that? Is that a positive thing, or is that a bad thing?
Well, it's also the beauty of that line to me. And, and I know I'm stepping on you. I'm sorry. But the beauty of that line is that that works in communism and capitalism.
Amen. Oh my God. That's a great, I'm stealing that. That's a great observation. Let the routine dull the edge of mortality. Amen. God, that is so capitalist. Yeah. Let the days grow inperceptively longer, let the sun set in cloud. I love that so much - the gentleness of her spiritual wish. And then this section I think is where - so tiny side note, I went to school with Jenny Eisenhower, who's Pat's granddaughter. And when JFK come out and when Nixon came out, it was a very rough film on Nixon and he came and spoke at our University and there was this whole apology to Jenny. And in the most general way I wrote Jenny and was like, is there any actual book about your grandmother, which I should read? And it was more the letters recently. And I love this next passage because I feel like it- Pat Nixon is a farm girl, isn't she? Like you and I, Midwestern. And she really, I think, loved her family and wanted a family life, but married this crazy man after he kept proposing 5 billion times. Have you read that those letters? It's incredible. His obsession with her. I love this: let lonely drivers on the road, pull over for a bite to eat, let the farmers switch on the light over the porch. And I love this: that passers by look in at a large family around the table, let them pass.
And that, I just feel in my own imagination, which I'm sure you'll understand deeply is like, I just think there was such a complex relationship with Pat, and her father, and men, and drinking, and the fact that her mother died so young, and she basically had to raise the family and Nixon, as we, I think know, had some emotional violence in his character and perhaps physical violence. Which was more accepted in that period, but, I love this idea of like, please stop looking at us.
And I just keep seeing like this little girl at the table and the dad comes in from a hard day at work and how tense that must have been. And then from going from this delicate, domestic, Midwestern family, painful image of American realism. I mean, it's every American play around the dinner table, isn't it. Then she goes, wait for it, Alice Goodman, straight back to the Statue of Liberty.
To go immediately national, let the expression on the Statue of Liberty change just a little, let her see what lies inlet.
And isn't that exactly what we're all struggling with right now of the, you know, how could this have happened in the United States? How could we have so many people looking to Trump when, I think there are a lot of people struggling and they don't understand the outlet. And I think that speaks right to it. Why is America first suddenly a thing that people are glamming onto in such a way?
Well, I mean to build on that, I think the outcomes, when I look at that map of the last week, it's actually, it's beautiful. It's such a beautiful reminder of the delicacy of all the lives in America. You know, I don't think it's fair to say every red boat means I'm racist. There's a problem. There's a big problem.
There’s a big problem. Yeah.
There's a huge problem there. And I think that seeing the map, I pray, is like the beginning of change. Now we can just go, we have to admit – this wasn't just Trump, as everyone saying, this has been growing for 20 years. This is an eight year response to having had a wonderful African American president. But now we see it, and I love that there's no hiding from the reality of just how red and blue this country is. Well, that's a bit of me going off on a tangent, but I can tie it back in!
No, of course that's the beauty of, of good poetry, right?
Yeah. I mean, the way in which she wants America to look at itself, I think with a more critical eye and really see what's going on inside. And then, in this strange way, with Pat, how she brings it back to across the plain, one man is marching. And for me, that's Dick.
The unknown soldier has risen from his team. He was a soldier. I mean, all of act three, he always said the best time in his life was in Hawaii flipping burgers.
Let him be recognized at home. The prodigal, give him his share. Here's the line, the line of lines in the entire opera for me, the only line I asked Alice Goodman about, cause I thought I had to be picky. The eagle nailed to the barn door. I just think that's the greatest piece of poetry in the whole opera for me. And the biggest mystery, and Alice of course did exactly what I knew she would do as well. ‘I don't know. It'll be interesting to see what it means to you.’ But I love this symbol of our freedom. Bald Eagle, and the plain, they landed on, being nailed to the barn door again, back to that family in Idaho, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Missouri, back to that Midwestern family and freedom. Nailed to the barn door, both as a symbol of what we stand for and as a crucifixion of an illusion. And then this last line, which I just - the sirens wail, has bride and kiss through veil, bless this union with all its might let it remain in violet. And just the complexity of that marriage. That marriage of Nixon to America, that marriage of, I mean, for me, this sums up my understanding of the whole piece, about the oceans of space between all of us. Between China and America, Russia and America, between Mao and Nixon, between Enlai and Kissinger, between Mao and Pat, but also between a husband and wife, the impossible gulf.
Yeah. Just last week I spoke with conductor Steven Osgood about his work with composers and librettists for AOP’s Composers in the Voice. Now here is an interview I did with him last December, about David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s JFK, whose premiere and subsequent performances he conducted. We discuss a particularly poetic beat during a particularly historic moment in the life of Jackie Kennedy.
So I chose, really it's two lines, but kind of pan out, you get four lines, from part two of JFK - libretto by Royce Vavrek and music by David T. Little.
This is a piece that I didn't get to see and have been so curious about since its inception. So I'm really excited to talk about this.
What I love about this text is it's so concise, and yet when you kind of look at it in the context of the piece and what they've done, you know, of what we know about history and JFK, it just becomes like, mind bogglingly profound.
Okay. Can you give me the text? Can you give me the context around the text first?
Sure. So, there's two characters, Jackie Kennedy, and Jackie Onassis. And it is one of the many dream sequences, nightmare sequences, fantasy sequences from the opera. It is really the last of the fantasy sequences, and it is as Jackie Kennedy is being dressed in that iconic pink outfit. But she's being dressed by Jackie Onassis, her future self, coming to her in her dreams. There's been already the first statement of the trio theme. I have a rendezvous, and we've heard it as a duet between Jackie Kennedy and Jackie Onassis. And right after this, then Clara Harris, the other kind of mind boggling figure, joins in, and it becomes this kind of Rosen, Cavalierien trio. But these four lines are the bridge between the duet and the trio statements of the theme.
Got it. Okay.
And so it's on the morning of the assassination. And John Kennedy has gone - Jack has gone down to the breakfast, in Fort Worth that precedes them flying to Dallas and the motorcade. And Jackie is upstairs getting dressed, and has this encounter with her future self.
Great. Okay. Go for it.
So, all right. I'll try. Jackie Kennedy says, ‘but does he love me? Does he love me?’ Jackie O says ‘he does.’ Jackie Kennedy says ‘every day for the rest of his life?’ and Jackie O says ‘he will’.
Wow. You know? Wow. It's so simple, right? It's so unbelievably simple.
Yeah. And there is one acting note over Jackie O’s line, her, ‘he will’, says: hesitant, dutiable. She has to tell the truth.
And it is the truth. And Jackie O knows what it means. And the audience knows what it means.
Has that unbelievable dramatic irony that happens in that moment.
Yeah. And for the whole opera, when David and Royce were tackling it, an opera about JFK’s last day, the last night, before the assassination, marking the fact that they were in Fort Worth. And it was commissioned by Fort Worth opera. One of the biggest challenges was - how do we, like, where do we take the story to? The audience already knows the end of this story.
If the end of the story is assassination, then there's no drama.
And so it takes us up to the point where they leave for the airplane, for the motorcade. And in this moment of text, Jackie O is acknowledging with the audience that we all know what's going on. We know where this is going. And we know that this is the last day of his life.
Yeah. What is it about those particular words that you find particularly moving?
They're so simple.
There's only one word. Every - is even two syllables. Every other word is a single syllable.
And the way the word, even within this, like, what, an eight measure passage - can echo each other. But does he love me? Repeat the question - does he love me? He does. Same exact two words from the first. Every day for the rest of his life - now that's a totally different introduction.
He will. Tenses - he does, does he, question, does he, question, he does, period, present tense? Will he? That’s future.
The understanding of length of future and what that means. You know, just all of that. One of the things that I find so amazing is - I've done so many of these interview is, just the, lines that really grab us. The moments that really seem to grab us are so unbelievably simple when we actually say them out loud. When we just deliver them without the music, without the context, with just as the line, there's something about the simplicity of the economy of the words that hit us harder than when something is a more complicated statement. And I'm fascinated by that.
And these particular ones, I mean, the whole trio is glorious, it's just shattering - you can't listen to it and not just bawl. The tune of the trio and the way it becomes a duet and then a trio is musically so romantic. This part though, where it's the text that gets me, is almost rhetetitive.
And it's set incredibly simply. And so we've heard all that rhapsodic music, and then it becomes simple for a second, but does he love me? Does he love me? He does. Every day for the rest of his life? He will.
Do you think these words are - do you think they're as powerful divorced from the musical landscape, as they are in context?
Yes? From the musical context. But not from the context of the opera.
Without the context of the opera, as Jackie talking to Jackie, they're nothing.
I just think about these words and I tear up.
Yeah. Yeah. It's amazing how language can do that. And memory of language too. I mean, I'm sure that some of the emotional life that you experience with these words has to do with your understanding of the context and having lived through this somewhere.
Yeah. A couple times. And, and there's silence in between these. Now we're kinda like, getting into the musical treatment of them, but the silence can be there because the text - the questions, in particular, the questions and the answers need to ring, they need to hang in the air a little bit. And the hang, the rests, are between the questions and the answers.
So the setting has something to do with it as well. The way that David set it.
The way Royce set David up to be able to set it. And the fact that David realized it, that every day for the rest of his life rest, rest, rest, you will.
There's a symbiosis between these two people - between the two that are speaking, but also the two that were writing this piece.
Yeah, absolutely. And they get inside it, I mean, they respect what each of them is bringing to it. Royce deeply respects what David, and every other composer that he works with, brings to the conversation. And this is something I think I heard Royce say it in his conversation with you, I've heard him say it repeatedly in conversations with other librettists, that his job is to figure out the text that makes the composer blossom. That sets them up. And it's gonna be different for each and every composer. And then you see when he works with David, or when he works with Missy, those repeat collaborations really become deeper and deeper and deeper because they understand what each other needs in order to set each other up for the deepest potential.
It's like any great relationship. That’s the way it works, right? Hopefully, in any solid relationship, regardless of what type of relationship it is, that's the way that you're working with each other. It's nice to see it in practice.
And actually what you just did was you kind of summed up JFK, the opera, like at this moment - oh my God. And that's what's so like - another shattering thing about it is that you start the opera and they're it is dysfunctional that you're seeing. And at, at the end of it, you see, they, they really have said, there's promise here. I recommit, we're in this. Let's go.
Well, that's the great tragedy they've set up right there. Isn't it? Yeah. Amazing.
Writing a libretto in response to a political idea or moment is one thing, composing music that responds to politics is something else entirely. When I heard composer Melissa Dunphy's Gonzalez Cantata composed using the transcripts of the congressional hearings surrounding the ultimate resignation of George W. Bush's Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, I knew I wanted to talk to her about what it was like to set actual transcripts to music and what political music actually is. Dunphy considers herself a political composer. And so I set out to explore what she meant by that, as well as what her relationship to words was - both inside and outside the political spectrum. Here's my interview with Melissa Dunphy recorded February 16th, 2021.
Melissa, welcome to Words First. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Of course! You're a composer of all shapes and sizes of music. I've been filtering through your website, looking at all the stuff that you've done. So how often do you actually work with words?
Almost all the time, actually. You know, I came to composing initially through theater. I worked as an actor for a few years. I was a full time in rep actor at Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, and a children's theater up there. And I got the composing bug for real when I was asked to write some songs for A Mid-Summer Night's Dream, and it was during that process that I went, oh my God, this is what I wanna do with the rest of my life. And it was really like the process of setting words to music that interested me right from the beginning. It's like working on a puzzle almost, you know, and I really love that aspect of composing. I went back to school when I was in my mid-twenties, as a result of that experience. And all of my most successful pieces were vocal pieces and I was very happy to lean into that. So I'm almost exclusively a vocal composer, although, you know, I have some instrumental stuff in my catalog. I have a new commission come up for Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra in LA and, I love doing that stuff too, but you know, my real jam is words.
How often do you write your own words, or do you always set existing text?
I almost always set existing texts. I've written my own words a couple of times. I wrote a libretto for -it's a project that is still on the back burner, but when I was getting my PhD at Penn, my dissertation project is an opera about the sex life of Ayn Rand, narrated by Alan Greenspan. And so I wanted to write my own libretto for that, and so I have my own libretto there, although that hasn't been released yet. More often, I'm either setting other people's words or I'm doing my own edits of interesting texts that… I guess I have this reputation as being the composer who sets weird texts that nobody else would touch with a barge pole.
This is not the worst reputation to have. I think that's kind of great. Let’s talk about how you use existing text and set it. When you do that, do you manipulate the text or do the words themselves dictate how the music, or the sound, or the rhythm will be? What’s your relationship of words to music?
So the way I describe it, and I know this sounds kind of airy-fairy, but I really do believe in it, is: when I get a text, whether it's in a form yet to be edited or whether it's a poem that I'm setting as is, it's like, you know that old Michelangelo thing about how he gets a piece of marble? And then he finds the statue inside the marble? That's how I feel about the words. And that's either, for instance, if I'm setting a transcript of something that is just people speaking off the cuff, I will try to find, I guess, the poetry in the words, the settable poetry, the settable libretto in the words. And then, it's a process of finding the music inside the libretto, you know, so it's sort of two stage and I have to do them very separately as well. The words have to come before the music for me, and I've always had that sort of relationship with it. The structure of the words dictate the form, very much. I get ideas when I see words, when I see the text. You know, “oh, this part needs to be repeated. This is the theme. Like this small line is actually the crux of this whole thing. Where should that fit within the context of the song? How do I make it the climax? Is it something that I repeat throughout the song? Like how do I work out the form?” And then once you get into the nitty gritty, absolutely the words dictate so much about the meter, the rhythm, all of that stuff. I love setting poetry or prose that doesn't have like a meter, because it forces me to think outside of the iamb, or something like that, it forces me to really puzzle out how those words fit into music.
You're going to manipulate the music around the words more than you manipulate the words themselves, inside the piece?
Correct. Yeah. I would definitely say that.
I find that really fascinating.
Occasionally the only thing I might do with words is, I will sometimes edit words out, or down. And that's the process that, it's a delicate process. Well, it's more delicate when I'm working with an actual librettist. If it's my own edit, I can just, slash and burn as much as I like. But it's the process of figuring out what needs to be said explicitly in language, and what I can imply musically, and no longer needs to be said explicitly. It's kind of like show don’t tell - that film maxim, where, it's like, if you are setting something to music, that sounds really, really sad, do you really need the character to sing the words: I feel sad?
Can they just sing something else, sadly?
I hear this over and over and over on this podcast, because this podcast is largely about text, and what I hear so many times from librettists and others is just that the words need to leave room for the music. So it sounds like that's largely what you're doing, is making space for the music to fit into the text.
Totally. And sometimes the best words - I don't wanna use the word best, cause it's sort of assigns this value to it or hierarchy to it that I don't believe in, but sometimes a really, really well composed poem is sort of perfect on its own and doesn't need music. In fact, music could only tract from what is there in the poetry. I use the example all the time - and I know he's a dead old white man, but Yates poetry. I love Yates.
A talented, dead old white man.
A talented, dead old white man who, despite everything, I'm still a huge fan of his poetry. I wouldn't - this is a personal choice - I would never set Yates' poetry because I feel like it is as it is. It's a poem, and I cannot add anything to it musically. It just feels wrong to rip it apart and turn it into music. You definitely need to choose words that have space.
I wanna talk about - on your website it says that you collaborate regularly with Jacqueline Goldfinger?
How does your relationship with text change when it is written for the project, versus when you've grabbed something that's already existing?
Sure. Jackie and I, our artistic collaboration hasn't been that long, but we've done so much collaboration just in the last year. I keep throwing projects at her and she's really excited to be doing this and, you know, we're kind of learning as we go. Something that is really new and different for me, I guess in a way with working with a librettist in real time is that I can make adjustments. Like I can talk through adjustments with her, you know. If it's a poem in the public domain, I can just make the adjustments myself. It's fine. I know how I wanna set something. I know what I wanna set. But in this case it's like, I have someone who knows what they're doing. Who I can give feedback to and say, you know, “Hey, can we adjust this line? Is there another way to say this? I noticed that this word in this line was repeated in another line. Should we a different word there? Or are you intending to have that word come out twice? Like, should I set that twice?” Cause these kinds of things are much more noticeable in a song than they would be in a script, like a theater play.
It's very cool, and different, and awesome to not have to rely upon myself because, I don't think that I'm the world's best artist at all of these things. And I can doubt myself very much. So when you have someone else in the project, it's a comfort in some ways to have someone there who was also committed to the project, who is also providing creative energy to the project, who you can bounce ideas off and vice versa. She and I get on so well, we've been friends for years, actually, and we've been looking for a way to collaborate for some years. Like we had regular lunches for a few years, where we just got to know each other and talked about, you know, how can we figure out ways to collaborate in the future? Because it seems like we're constantly circling around each other and never actually getting to work together. So, when I got a call from Oberlin middle of last year, I guess it was. And they said, “we want to commission you to write an opera. But we need to find you a librettist.” And I think they actually floated Jackie's name early on. And I was like, “wait, are you kidding? She and I are friends! We've been itching to work together for so long.” And since then, you know, I've had her write a couple of choral texts for me. We're working on a song cycle now for organ and voice, that is like a longer term project as well, for like 2024, I think. And of course we have the opera libretto. I think the main thing like, is that I trust her, she trusts me, and that's probably the most important part of the relationship.
Yeah. I think that's so crucial. Right. You have to trust somebody enough to let them tell you that something's not right. You know, if you don't have that trust in them, then it just becomes this, you know, unfortunate back and forth. You've been described as a composer, specializing in vocal, political, and theatrical music. So, I want to talk about the political part of that. And I love that you say that specifically on your website and, what is it about the political that you are drawn to as a composer?
So, I came to the USA in- what year was it? My gosh, 2003. So I've been here 17, almost 18 years. 2003 was in the middle of the Bush administration. I was coming from Australia, which has very different politics to America. And even though on the surface Australia and the US don't seem that different, it's like the further down you dig, the more different it feels, in various ways. So, when I landed in America, I also had the experience of coming from a big city that is Sydney, and landing in central Pennsylvania, which…Pennsultucky as I lovingly referred to it. So it was this huge culture shock. Right from get. And, I guess in Australia I was kind of a bit politically engaged, but not overly so. It wasn't something I thought about all the time. Just, maybe at elections, you know. Then I arrived in America, and suddenly there were just so many things hitting me in the face that I was like, ‘wait, healthcare costs how much? Wait a second. Wait, anyone can get a gun, wait, what is going on? This is so weird. How do you treat poor people?’. And then of course the Iraq war. There was just so much going down. And I found myself just walking around in this red mist of rage constantly. Just being, horrified and angry. And also, because I knew from experience that it doesn't have to be this way. You know what I mean? I think that's the difference between Americans who've lived here their whole lives, and immigrants who come from other countries and experience America and go, ‘you shouldn't have to be going bankrupt because you get an infection, like that shouldn't have to happen’. It's not preordained that that's a thing. Writers- young writers, get told all the time, ‘write what you know, and write about things that you feel very strongly about’. And during those years, the thing I felt the most strongly about was politics. Like I was so angry- and it's so funny now because you know, we've just come out of four years of the Trump administration. If you had told me back in the mid 2000s that I could be any angrier about politics, I wouldn't have believed you, but I really redefined and recalibrated what rage is during the last 4 years.
We have no idea what the bottom is, do we? We really don't.
Really, really, so, you know, given I felt so strongly about various political issues. When I was in undergrad, I just started writing music about those issues. So, I wrote a piece about, about gun violence, which coincided with me learning about the L’homme armé in music history. And I was like, wait, ‘The Armed Man, The Armed Man Should Be Feared’. I'm like, wait, I'm gonna write a L’homme armé and it's going to be about American gun violence, you know? And just various topics - gay rights, of course, was very much on the agenda. I mean, it still is, but back then, gay people couldn’t get married. The 2004 election was basically about abortion and gay rights. And it was horrifying to me as someone who comes from Sydney where, there's a massive LGBTQ+ population, and things are somewhat freer. So, I started writing about these issues because I felt so strongly about them. And then I discovered that this resonated really well with audiences who were also interested in these issues, or in some cases, performers would actually be introduced to these issues through my music, which was a very cool thing. I've had some really awesome experiences with performers who were like, ‘I didn't really think about this before and now I did.’ And also performers who were affected by the issues and never expected to have contemporary music address those issues. I wrote a piece, called ‘What Do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach?’, which is about gay marriage. It's a choral work. It sets a speech by a World War II veteran in front of the main Senate. A speech that I saw on YouTube when it was first recorded and just could not stop crying, watching this speech, it was so emotional. So I set it to music as one does, when one is a composer who sets things to music that they have very strong, emotional reactions to. And, one of the most, you know, meaningful experiences I've ever had as a composer was: a singer in- I think on the west coast, wrote me an email after he performed that piece and said, ‘Thank you so much for writing this. This piece gives me hope that one day I'll be able to come out to my conservative grandfather.’ And it's like, I didn't have that in my mind when I wrote the piece, but you never know how your music is going to affect people when you send it out into the world. And when you write about issues that are this important, it's going to affect people in these kinds of ways. I'm not egotistical enough to think that my music is going to change the world. Like ‘I'm gonna save America with my choral music!’ I'm not thinking grandiose like that. But I also think that music has the power to change one person's life. And in some ways that is changing the world. And so that's what I think about doing when I'm writing music and when I'm writing on social justice issues, and thinking about those things.
What percentage of your work do you think fits into that sort of social justice, political space?
I would say 75-80% of it.
So this is a huge part of what you do.
Yeah, and sometimes I think I tie myself into knots about it a little bit. But I do feel like even my sacred works, I have some sacred choral music works- even that work is political to me. So, every now and again, a congregation comes to me and says, ‘we want to commission a piece from you. What would you like to set from the gospels?’ or something. And the last one of those I did, I put it to them- and they agreed- I was like very pleased. I set, ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven.’ Which is a very political text.
Right? Like people don't realize, or don't really think about the fact that Jesus was really a political figure. And still is! Totally still is. We think, oh, it's like separation of religion and state... like, the whole message in the New Testament of like topsy-turvy-ing, you know, poor people are actually better than rich people. I mean, that was a huge radical message for the time. And it's still a radical message today. So, when I get the opportunity to write sacred work, I'm so often setting verses from the New Testament that I'm like, ‘this is a political text. This is actually a leftist political song now, that I'm writing for you, even though it's going to classified under the umbrella of sacred music.’ And thus, thought of by most people as apolitical.
So great. Yeah. It's like, you can sort of slip it in there, regardless of what the genre is, you can… and everything is political ultimately, right.
Exactly. If you choose as a choral- I say choral, but, as a composer to only write music about, I don't know, stars and clouds or something, that's actually a political choice too. You know, you are making a statement that you are trying to be timeless like that you are trying to be outside of the current world by writing about issues that you think are eternal, that will still be relevant in 100, 200, 300 years, whatever. And I actually think that that's a very new concern in a lot of ways. Like, I think most composers in the past, weren't thinking, ‘oh, you know, I'll write this opera so that in 400 years time, people will still be performing Così fan tutte because women are always gonna be like that.’ Like, nobody's thinking that way. But, I wanna say for some reason, but I could probably point to a bunch of reasons- we have this idea now that composers all have to be timeless and out of the filth of common, everyday existence. And I like pushing back against that.
Yeah. That's great. I wanna talk specifically, just because this is what sort of brought me to you in the first place- so I saw The Gonzalez Cantata, in series, it's an older work actually, but then it was sort of re-put out there, in a new production, in a new virtual production. Speaking of political music, using the actual transcript. So, can you tell me just a little bit about this work, and just talk about like, how you decided to take this particular transcript and turn it into a cantata?
Absolutely. So, I've given a little bit of the preamble already talking about the Bush administration. I remember listening to the Alberta Gonzalez Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on NPR. And I particularly remember one very dramatic sound bite that I heard when I was driving home one day. And it was so dramatic that I got stuck in the driveway having one of those, you know, stereotypical NPR driveway moments, listening to this recording. It was Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican Senator, at the time, he of course crossed the floor in later years- grilling Alberto Gonzalez, like basically telling him that he was a liar in these hearings. And I remember thinking it was so dramatic because it was the first time since I had moved to the United States that I had heard a Republican criticize or attack another Republican. I had not heard that before, because if there's one thing Republicans know how to do, at least at that time, it was just excuse everything as long as you're Republican.
Yes. And that has continued into the present day.
It has continued, although now they’re censuring people who do attack other Republicans, or do criticize other Republicans. So there's some kind of weird internecine drama happening now. But, at the time I just thought it was so dramatic and it came to me in a flash. Again, I was taking a music history class and I was learning about cantatas and oratorios. And so, I think that's always what happens to me. It's like an intersection of all the things that I'm learning. And I went, ‘wow, you know what, a Senate judiciary community hearing is like a made-to-order cantata, cause you have a chorus of people in this very dramatic sort of semicircular circular thing. You have one person in the middle who stands up and gives speeches. Other people give questions and answer sessions so you can have duets, you know, I could write choruses where everyone's speaking’. And also, there's a weird sort of resonance between them in that- Baroque forms, like the cantata, there's so mannered. They're so, almost, ritualistic, you have this very set form that you're going through. Overture, and it ends with a chorale. And there's something very ritualistic, and almost absurd, also, about these congressional hearings. You know, it's very, very strange. If you've ever seen pictures of the press photographers, like clumped up down the bottom taking pictures, it's so weird, right? Like hiding out of the way of cameras, but if you're in the room, you can see them all... it's just such an absurd setup from the get. So anyway, I just went, ‘this is what I wanna do’. I went to my composition teacher and I said, ‘I'm gonna write a Cantata about the Senate Judiciary hearings of attorney general Alberto Gonzalez.’ And I remember he looked at me and he had absolutely no idea what I just said. He was like, ‘I'm sorry, who?’ I had to sort of explain to him. And he still looked unsure, but to his credit, he was like, ‘all right, let's do it. Go for it. Let's make it a reality.’ So I spent the next few months- I think over a year, I had a couple of different composition professors by the end of it, writing this 40 minute cantata. It began with a couple of months of going through all of the transcripts, and editing them into a libretto, using that process of, chipping away, figuring out what's necessary. I also did a few sort of avant garde-y type edits, where I searched all of the transcripts for every time he cut himself off, or he sort of stumbled in his speech, and knitted them, all of those instances into an aria, which is differently, which happens toward the end of the piece. And gave some of the speeches to the chorus, and left some of the speeches in duet form, question and answers, between Gonzalez and various senators. And when I finished it, I had spent the previous year in my undergrad networking with all of these singers, who were undergrads with me and roping them into performing the work at my senior recital. So right from the beginning, I said, ‘well, who all is on the Senate Judiciary Committee?’ And I looked at the list of names, and my mouth fell open, because there were 20 people on the committee, I think, and it was 19 men and one woman.
And I remember thinking, ‘I don't think I even know 19 men who could sing this piece that I'm writing.’ But I know so many women, like I could overcast this piece with the women who are singing, who were voice majors, or talented singers in the music program. So I swapped the genders. And I had 19 women and one man on the stage. And that was like a big, it was very political message, but also a practical thing. America prides itself on being, you know, the land of equality and very sort of feminist. And it's such a facade yeah. It's like such a facade. America is one of the last countries in the Western world to never have had a female leader. Our gender split in Congress is abysmal. Like, countries that we derive as not being as advanced as us in the Middle East and in Africa have better gender equality in their parliament than we do. And yet, we are constantly harping on about ‘America is great for women, so much better than these Muslim countries’ or whatever. And it's like, Pakistan has had a female leader, like what are you talking about? So, I wanted to draw attention to that, the fact that there's this important committee that still to this day, Republicans have never nominated a woman ever to be on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Is good political drama truthful? Do you think it's truthful? I mean, I'm thinking about like all the changes you've made, like changing it, knitting all of those moments together for Gonzales. And then, you know, switching the genders for everybody, and this whole notion that political people don't feel real somehow. What’s your relationship with the truth with this sort of work?
So, truth is a tricky thing. And it really depends on what you were trying to accomplish, with the piece of political drama, whatever it is. So obviously, my first impetus to write this piece was, I feel like there is drama in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would work in a cantata format. The more I read about the background to the proceedings, and about Gonzalez's backstory, the more I realized that actually, this piece, for me, was a character study. An exploration into why this happened. Why did this person, Alberto Gonzalez, who, has an incredible backstory- he came from a working class, Mexican family, Mexican laborers. He excelled so much in his education that he got to Harvard Law School, the most prestigious law program in the country. And then when he graduated from there, he became a judge in Texas and then Attorney General of Texas. And then he becomes White House Council for the President. He gets into the White House, and then he becomes Attorney General of the United States, like the top lawyer position in the entire country. That trajectory is incredible. And then to fall so far during this scandal, to become- it's like, he's being scapegoated. I think he did terrible things, don't get me wrong. He did terrible, terrible things, I don't agree with all this stuff. I'm very angry about what he did to the Justice department. I think we're still feeling the effects of his tenure at the Justice department today. You know, he paved the way for Bill Barr to mess with the Justice department. I wanted to sort of get into who he was, cause he seemed like this weird cipher in those hearings, like what is going on, like why did this happen? And it really wasn't until I was halfway through, I think, writing the libretto or, finishing up the libretto, that he resigned officially. And during his resignation speech, I watched his resignation speech, and I remember just having this huge light bulb moment, like electric shock moment. There's this throwaway line in his speech. He says ‘even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days.’ And this hit me like a bolt from the blue, because I suddenly saw all of this in the light of his family and what they expected of him, and what he did with his life. And I say this as the child of immigrants, in my case, Asian immigrants, who pushed me so hard to do well academically at school. And I was this shooting star through school, I was constantly getting academic prizes. I was excelling in math and doing math Olympiad and science and all of that. Music was something that they made me do because they had read a study that said music makes you smarter at math and science. So that's why I was trained in music in the first place. And the expectation for me was that I was going to get this incredible education and succeed, and become a medical doctor or someone really important in a high flying field. And I lived that, I understand that kind of pressure. I understand that immigrant story of the desperate desire to improve your station, to be upwardly mobile. And I suddenly saw all of his actions through the lens of someone who made the choice to compromise his morals in order to be in that ‘in crowd’. Like the allure of these incredibly high up, old boys club, white, Republican dudes, giving you legitimacy, giving you power on their terms, but giving you all of this, this legitimacy and power, for some people, I understand how that could be so alluring. If you've been brought up to believe that this is your path in life, and that this is the way out of what you've come to consider the gutter. And so that line, where he's like ‘my worst days as Attorney General had been better than my father's best days’, you know, his worst days as Attorney General included things like signing off on torture. And to me, someone who took a different path who made different ethical, moral choices, signing off on torture is so much worse than digging a ditch in a field. Like I would rather become a manual laborer any day. I've done manual labor, I've done construction work myself, you know. I'm not saying this from a position of, ‘I've never done this’. I know how hard it is. I would still rather do that than sell out my country. So I started to understand where he had gone wrong. Something I didn't examine in the cantata, which I think could be examined if I was writing it today, is how racism also played into his downfall. He was the first Latino Attorney General of the United States. And even though so many other people in that administration did so much illegal stuff, he was the one who kind of went down for it. But then at the end of the day, he's the Dean of a Law School now. And he teaches ethics. So irony is dead! He landed on his feet, we don't need to worry about him as a person. We don't need to feel sorry for him. I think it is a pity. I don't think I pity him. I think it is a real pity that someone who had such potential and was such a pioneer then, made such bad choices and took us down this path.
Yeah. Melissa Dunphy, thank you so much. This has been such a great conversation. I really enjoyed this today.
Thank you, me too. I hope I didn't talk too much. I tend to rabble on when I get on a topic I really excited about.
Thank you to Melissa Dunphy, Daniel Kramer, and Steven Osgood for chatting with me about politics in opera. Tune in next week, when I interview director and librettist Mina Salehpour about her Opera America IDEA Grant, and her collaborations with composer Daniel Reza Sabzghabaei. Until then, thanks for listening. I'm Keturah Stickann.
If you'd like to hear these interviews in their entirety, as well as bonus materials and outtakes, you can become a patron of my podcast by going to patreon.com/wordsfirstpodcast. All of my episodes from every season are available at wordsfirst.buzzsprout.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. Words First is recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee. A special thanks to Matthew Duce and Richard Stickann in for their generous support. Urle Duce for a beautiful watercolored logo, Ilene Downey for the Mozart, and Randy Ravioli for the minimal barking. Until next time, take care of each other and keep telling stories.