After Little Women, Mark Adamo Garners Residency and Second Houston Commission

After Little Women, Mark Adamo Garners Residency and Second Houston Commission

Composer Mark Adamo begins work on a new opera based on an old story
Photo by Christian Steiner,

Mark Adamo has been getting a lot of press lately. Still coming down from the success of his first opera, Little Women (recently broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances and released commercially on the Ondine label in late August), he is already at work on his second, an adaptation of Lysistrata, and was recently appointed Composer-in-Residence at the New York City Opera.

On music and artistic philosophy in the 21st century

While in residence with City Opera, Adamo will serve as the company’s advocate for new music Whether talking to audiences, addressing the board of directors, or writing the program notes, Adamo sees himself “articulating what our vision is really vis-‡-vis new work and how that fits not only in our own world but also what we’re trying to do in the greater world of American music.”

As an advisor in the selection of new work for both the “Showcasing American Composers” project and the Company’s main stage productions, Adamo says he will resist taking a view which places art far above the needs (and heads) of its audience.

Rather than art for art’s sake, which he sites as the primary internal philosophical problem facing classical music today, “I think we’ll be stressing an idea that was current in the early 20th century — as well as leaping over the 19th into the 18th century — that art is a form of service, that to the extent that the artist is important is the extent to how that service is valued. The value of the piece is not about the artist’s investment in it, but in the creation itself and what it tells us as a group of human beings about the truth of who we are and what we need to be.”

Taking a surprisingly utilitarian stance, he continues, “If a company or an artist is going to ask, in an age that’s suffering from a kind of mass attention deficit disorder: if I’m going to ask thousands of people and the company to commit perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars of its resources, to devote all of that to my vision, my vision has to have something other to do with than my own delight and the intensity of my feelings.” Composers, in Adamo’s estimation, must offer “a vision not only of who we are as individuals:but then you also have to have a vision of where we are as a culture, what is true about us as human beings.”

“I think it’s time to return the prestige of general address to art,” he continues, seeming to take an indirect philosophical stab at the critics who found Little Women too straightforward for their taste. “Usually when people talk about accessibility or mass audience, it’s always sort of talked about with a shrug, as if all we’re really talking about is marketing, all we’re really talking about is getting fannies in the seats.” Though we may have forgotten it, Adamo points out that mass appeal hasn’t always been a dirty word. “It belongs to the history of ideals rather than the history of fundraising. If something can make a community for as brief a moment as two hours of people who have nothing in common other than [the fact that] all of their credit cards were accepted at the ticket window. That I think, and I say this very tentatively, that I think is one of the few evidences of higher human value, that lifts what we do out of an extensive and historically aware form of show business.”

For Adamo, it’s this drive to express something about humanity to as well as with society at large that is the “only reason to use the word artist, to assume that as a mantle rather than to simply put that on your tax form as what you do for a living. You have to do it because you believe in some way. I think there is something ideal in capturing the imagination of a large public.”

Adamo tries to clarify the issue of artistic motivation further. “If you’re going to do this it’s because you believe it is worth doing in some metaphysical way, and I mean that in a rather narrow sense. Simply, it is not that we need to write another string quartet because there isn’t enough for people to play. We are not repertoire driven. There are already 1,000 in the filing cabinets of publishing companies. So it is because you believe not only in that particular combination of instruments but because you believe there is something more than a mere 30 minutes of diversion that is possible in the combination of music and musicians performing in a room.”

But as for the state of the art, it forces continual reflection on the great, simple, but insanely difficult “Why?” question: Why do we need another opera? The lack of supply and demand economics in the world of concert music has its positive side, Adamo says. “It’s not very good for our careers particularly, but I think it’s very good for us as artists because it keeps us from, and I’m going to say this carefully, from doing things frivolously. By that I don’t mean that everything we do should be solemn. Stephen Sondheim makes a very good distinction between the solemn and the serious. It’s entirely possible to do an absolutely serious comedy. And of course I can say that with some authority right now because I’m in the middle of trying to do that very thing.”

On how to write an opera

Adamo seems to know how to handle a journalist, naturally segueing into a discussion of his current work in progress even before he is prompted. He says he was looking for his next project to be something more adult than Little Women, perhaps something with a ring of an Elizabethan comedy to it. He found what he was looking for in The Nude Goddess, his adaptation of AristophanesLysistrata,

A far cry from the domestic intimacy of Little Women, “I wanted the sense of masses of people, sort of dueling choruses. I really did have the texture before I had the play — the brawling idea of men and women together rather than this tender idea and was actually looking for a piece that would get me in that sort of energy. That was as vague as it started. I could sort of mime the way I wanted to these people to move on stage but I had no idea who they were or what words they would speak. And then I found this play.”

Despite the shift in subject matter, Adamo’s process remains largely the same. “The way that I generally do that is to outline it from two or three perspectives before I write a line or a note.” As if he was sitting down to write the program notes even before the opera was written, Adamo asks himself, “If it was already done, what would it be?”

In the case of Lysistrata, Adamo contends, “we remember it in a way that is rather different than the way the play actually is. The play really used the sexual burlesque as a way into a rather bold sincere political track. I mean it’s completely a propaganda piece. Whereas I argue that one of the reasons we continue to go back to it is not that we have a compelling interest in Peloponnesian politics, but because there is something in the way that piece was structured that reminds us more of something like Taming of the Shrew, something more on the idea of men and women as sexual equals struggling for love and control.”

Finding the story line was only the beginning. Once he distilled the script down to the material he wanted to use, Adamo found himself inventing new characters and essentially rewriting the entire play.

He illustrates that “if Little Women was all character and no narrative, this was narrative and no character. If the Alcott is five wonderful people bundled at the back of a limousine with no engine, than this is an empty Porsche. And so it was a scarier challenge because in opera, your main character is really what you live and die by and I was going to essentially write new characters, which I ended up doing. I changed Lysistrata quite radically and then made up an entire new set of male characters. But at least I knew what I was going for.”

With both operas, once Adamo realized there really was an opera to be found buried in the text, he returned to his outlines. He played out two scenarios: First, “if you’re deaf and you do not speak the language, but you are seeing the whole thing produced on stage, what can you glean about the story, simply by the body language, from the number of people on stage, from what they seem to be doing, from what you sense are their actions?” Adamo equates the view to watching a silent film. “That gives you one insight, when the theater begins and ends, how people enter, how people exit, all of those ways in which you make sense of a piece as you perceive it.”

He also looks at the production from a second vantage point. “I say alright, now I’m blind, I’m in the theater, I still do not speak the language, but I’m hearing the voices and I’m hearing the orchestra. Period. Now given what I know from the first outline, what are the vocal registers telling me, what is the orchestration telling me, what is the difference between tempo, between different kinds of harmony, all of that, what am I gleaning from that?” He admits that the process “sounds very intellectual but is really more a Jungian game.

“It gets you into that part of the brain where [you can imagine that] if it were done, it would go like this. And at the end of that you’ve got a lot of information about structure, about how the piece is going to track through time, how you’re going to make sense of it aurally as well as kinesthetically seeing the bodies in space, and it is to that that the words and music have to pertain and fuse.” Sounds like a lot of groundwork, but it provides the early structural framework that Adamo needs to write and likely saves him time in the long run. “That’s how I came up with the first draft of the libretto in both cases. But to say it was the first draft of the libretto is really kind of deceptive because in the libretto is all the musical structure. The whole point is to find a language in which your musical ideas, your verbal ideas, your dramatic ideas can be talked about the same way, and you really can do that without starting at the upper left corner of the page and starting with the piccolo line and trying to figure out what you do next.”

In Adamo’s estimation, “you have to do that with something so large [as an opera]. I’m always amazed at the largeness of opera, just the titanic effort to learn it, to stage it. It’s amazing. I’m really humbled by that. To feel like here I have created this document, a couple hundred pages of music, and this whole community is forming around it and I just feel that I’d better have something to say. Not in the pretentious sense that this is the great American opera, not that. But in the sense that ‘Do I believe in these people? Are they as true to life as I can make them?’

On Opera vs. Broadway

Perhaps because he started out as a playwright at New York University before graduating from Catholic University in Washington D.C. with a degree in composition, Adamo doesn’t blanche at the mention of musical theater and opera in the same sentence.

Still, it’s a little surprising to hear him say that there are very few differences between the two arts for the writer. “If you’re going to take away commercial considerations, because most opera exists in a nonprofit context and most theater does not, then most of the differences have everything to do with casting and how that effects the balance of words and music.”

A song (as opposed to an operatic aria), he explains, is about economy — how to reveal character in the smallest number of gestures. The theater also makes great use of rhyme to tell the story in a way that is friendly to music. “Such is the great legacy of the American Theater,” Adamo says. And something opera composers might find it useful to pay attention to.

Still, Adamo remains firmly rooted in opera for the time being. Why? “The musical ceiling is lower in musical theater, plain and simple. You may have the most extraordinary actors, but they may have the range of an 11th, you may not be able to hear them without a microphone, and they may not be able to count in anything other than four. Now there are people that you could throw anything at,” he acknowledges, tossing out names like Audra McDonald. “So if you can cast in correctly, you can have all of it.”

All the same, he says, “the theatrical aspect is something in the libretto, and it’s not that the more theatrical it becomes the less operatic. That’s the composer’s problem, and the composer’s problem in the opera house is the same as the theater, the same technical problems.”

But the question really isn’t as simple as it appears once you step outside the technical. “If you’re talking from a cultural viewpoint, there are a million things. The opera house has a different agenda and all that.”

Obviously no purist, Adamo acknowledges without apology or qualification, “on the page, Little Women could go to Broadway. I really do believe that if Audra McDonald sang Jo on Broadway it would be a musical.”

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