Stephen Schwartz and Lauren Flanigan: Corners of the Sky

Stephen Schwartz and Lauren Flanigan: Corners of the Sky

Stephen Schwartz and Lauren Flanigan in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
March 8, 2011—11 a.m. at Lauren Flanigan’s home in New York City
Audio/video recorded by Jeremy Robins
Edited by Frank J. Oteri, Molly Sheridan, and Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Few composers in any genre can boast as great a popular success as Stephen Schwartz, who has left an indelible mark in several musical areas including pop, Broadway, Hollywood, and most recently, opera. Few singers have starred in as many contemporary American operas as Lauren Flanigan, for whom the lead role of Schwartz’s first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, was created. At first it seems an unlikely alliance, but the seeds were actually planted in the beginnings of their respective careers forty years ago.

In 1971, Godspell, a modern-day retelling of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, opened on Off-Broadway with music and lyrics by Schwartz. A year after that, a song from the show’s original cast album, “Day By Day,” climbed to Number 13 on the Billboard pop singles chart and Schwartz’s second musical, the equally contemporary-sounding Pippin, landed on Broadway. (Pippin‘s cast album was released by Motown Records, a first for musical theatre.) As Pippin was still all the rage, Schwartz’s The Magic Show came to Broadway, as did Godspell, making him one of the only composers to ever have three shows running consecutively on the Great White Way, and the only one ever to accomplish that while he was still in his 20s. By the 1990s, Schwartz was the go-to song man for Disney’s animated features, writing the lyrics to Alan Menken’s music for Pocahontas and writing both music and lyrics for The Prince of Egypt. His triumphant return to Broadway was in 2003 with Wicked which, eight years later, is still going strong. But before any of that happened, Schwartz had studied composition at Juilliard and while an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon had composed a one-act opera. Although he was admittedly not attracted to the contemporary classical music scene at first:

I shared a lack of affection for the extreme contemporary music. To this day, I don’t like serial music. I don’t understand why that dominated classical music for as many years as it did, because it seems to me so over-intellectualized and so limiting.

Back in 1971, Lauren Flanigan was only twelve years old, but she had just made her stage debut in Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. And while she claims that she hated modern music when she was first exposed to it during her vocal studies at Boston University, that “pre-exposure” at the age of twelve must have ultimately had the upper hand, since she went on to champion the work of so many living composers. Although she has appeared in over 100 different operas on stages all over the world, Flanigan is most treasured for her roles in such important contemporary works as Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, Deborah Drattell’s Lilith, Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and Thomas Pasatieri’s Frau Margot—many of which she either debuted or helped bring back into the repertoire. Carnegie Hall even expressly commissioned Philip Glass to create a special work for her, which resulted in his Symphony No. 6, a setting of Allen Ginsberg’s massive Plutonian Ode.

Ironically, when Flanigan was starting out, she opted not to pursue a career on Broadway because the more overtly pop/rock musical style of the new shows, like the ones composed by Stephen Schwartz, were not suitable for her voice:

That vocabulary was just not going to work for the soprano-y Show Boat-y way I sang. You can’t make a career off of a hundred productions of Hello Dolly, although I’m sure some people have.

But forty years later, Schwartz has created the perfect role for Flanigan. As he exclaimed to her in the middle of my talk with the two of them, “Even though I wrote all of the music and I wrote all the words, and I knew what it was going to sound like, when I actually saw you do it, there were things that completely blew me away. You revealed things that I was not aware were in the work.”

Without revealing too much of this new opera, which both of them insisted should remain a surprise until after the run at New York City Opera this month, both Stephen Schwartz and Lauren Flanigan reveal a great deal about themselves, the creative process, and the state of both musical theatre and opera today.



Frank J. Oteri: The very first musical I ever saw on Broadway, when I was 11 years old, was Pippin. Aside from it being such an effective show, since it was the first one I ever saw, it really left quite an impression on me. And, of course, I knew Godspell. I saw it not long after when it finally came to Broadway and even before that “Day by Day” was all over the radio. And more recently I saw Wicked. But when I first learned about the opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I was somewhat baffled. The idea of Stephen Schwartz writing an opera was kind of a surprise to me, and, beyond that, an opera starring Lauren Flanigan.

Lauren Flanigan: It’s because you didn’t read his bio. You didn’t read the Juilliard/Carnegie Mellon part.

FJO: I didn’t know any of that. I also hadn’t yet seen the 1964 movie, which the opera is based on; I didn’t know any of this stuff yet. So I had a real disconnect with the whole thing. But then as I probed into it, more and more of the pieces fit together. In some ways this project culminates a 40-year career arc. Godspell was 40 years ago.

Stephen Schwartz: It was; it was 40 years ago, literally, this May.

LF: That is amazing.

FJO: Forty years ago, you were a little girl.

LF: I was 12. My opera debut was 40 years ago. Forty years ago this year.

FJO: So both of you made your debut in the public arena 40 years ago, doing seemingly very different things, but I think there are some intrinsic connections between them, as well as with what both of you are doing now. Lauren, as a 12-year old, you were singing in an opera by Benjamin Britten. So you were doing an opera in the English language, by a contemporary composer who was still alive at that point. It was the beginning of a career that would be defined by your being a champion of contemporary works in the English language by living composers.

LF: To be perfectly honest with you, when I went to Boston University in the late ’70s, the concentration there was not on opera. It was all on modern music, which I loathed and detested and made fun of constantly. I ran screaming from the room any time there was a Xenakis piece or a Cage piece. Everybody wanted to go see David Del Tredici’s Alice, and I literally made up a big lie that I had to do something or somebody needed me for something so I didn’t have to go. I wanted to be pretty and be Juliet. But once you kill someone, they never let you go back. You know, once you’re Abigaille or Lady Macbeth, you can never go back, so maybe that is what it is. Now it’s so funny that I’m friends with David, and I love that piece, and I’ve sung it. So you’re right, in a way. Having to conquer that crazy music at 12 maybe put some kernel in the back of my head, it created a musical curiosity that lay dormant for a while and then, you know, once I came to New York, started reviving itself.

FJO: And Stephen, it seems you wanted to completely change the tradition of what the Broadway musical was 40 years ago and what you did was revolutionary. But now, 40 years later, you’re embracing the traditions of grand opera. The word opera is simply the plural of opus—works, which means that the word could theoretically be used to describe anything and people have taken it to do just about anything. And yet the word has a very specific meaning for most people. Similarly the word musical is not terribly specific despite many people making assumptions about the kind of music that is in a musical, although that has changed quite a bit, in no small part due to your musicals.

SS: Well, I don’t think that I had revolutionary goals when I started out. I was just trying to do shows that worked as shows, and I was writing the kind of music that I was listening to. And that happened to be what I guess we would call pop music, or rock music. But I had grown up going to see shows, always having an ambition of writing for the musical theater, and so really all I did was to take the structure of musical theater and the sort of storytelling drive that I loved in musical theater and set it to rock music, because that’s what I listened to and it was the kind of music that I would want to hear. I guess there was something a little bit revolutionary about it. I wasn’t the only one doing that, but there were very few of us, and when I first started out, lo these 40 years ago, there was a lot of criticism, particularly in the intelligentsia and critical community, that you couldn’t actually tell a story using rock music. Rock music was fine for a revue kind of format like Hair, or in fact Godspell. Once you actually got to characters in storytelling, you had to revert to more traditional musical theater sound, and I just didn’t believe that was true. And of course, time has proven that it wasn’t true because now all music on Broadway basically is rock music.

FJO: In the early 1970s, before the rock revolution really hit Broadway and seems to have ultimately conquered it, opera was still sort of a bizarre middle ground between popular music on one side, and classical music on the other. Of course for a previous generation, the music that was done for the Broadway theater was the most popular music. The songs from those shows were the hit songs of the day. And even earlier, arias from operas were the popular songs in 19th-century Italy. But cultural shifts happened in terms of what was popular. This certainly affected the public perception of opera long before it affected the popularity of songs written for musicals. But you at least can address that shift vis-à-vis Broadway, since you were a kid going to shows when their songs were still mainstream popular music.

SS: You would turn on the radio and “The Sound of Music” was being played as a pop song. Songs from West Side Story or Gypsy became pop hits. With the advent of rock and roll, if you will, or rock music, there started to be a bifurcation between Broadway music and what was being played on the radio. So by the time I was writing for theater, there was a big gulf. So when a show like Godspell wound up having a hit song—not only from the show, but from the cast album—that was very unusual at that point.

LF: It’s funny you say that, too, because growing up I wanted to be a musical theater actress. I didn’t want to be an opera singer. I grew up singing all those songs from The King and I and Carousel. All of the things were still being played on television, and occasionally in some movie theater in San Francisco, and that’s sort of the way I thought my voice was going to work. But by the time I got into high school, you’ve got Godspell, and you’ve got Pippin, and you’ve all these other shows like The Wiz, and Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, and Raisin, and things are jazzy pop. I know my voice won’t do that and I end up going more toward classical music unwillingly because my voice couldn’t go where Broadway was going at the time. That vocabulary was just not going to work for the soprano-y Show Boat-y way I sang. You can’t make a career off of a hundred productions of Hello Dolly, although I’m sure some people have.

SS: Well, I know someone who has.

LF: But you know what I mean. If you’re going to move with the times, you have to find something. Even as an undergrad, I wasn’t sure I was still going to be a singer. I thought I was giving up singing to concentrate more on acting, because if modern music was the only way to go, I wasn’t that interested in it.

SS: Well, I’m glad you didn’t. But I’m also glad you concentrated as much on acting as you did because we need them both.

LF: I love that. That’s my passion, my real passion.

FJO: So going back again to 40 years ago. Lauren said she didn’t initially like contemporary music, and you, Stephen, were listening to rock music and wanted to bring this stuff into the musical theater. But at the same time, you were also listening to classical music.

SS: I was classically trained. And I started out by writing little classical pieces. I wrote a very bad one-act opera when I was in college, along with the musical theater stuff that I was doing. But like Lauren, I shared a lack of affection for the extreme contemporary music. To this day, I don’t like serial music. I don’t understand why that dominated classical music for as many years as it did, because it seems to me so over-intellectualized and so limiting.

LF: And I love that now. I like that it’s over-intellectualized and in its over-intellectualization, I find it not limiting. But I’m 52 now, so.

SS: Well, classical music has turned around again, starting with the minimalists, who sort of just broke the mold and allowed classical music to be accessible again. Then from there, you have people like John Corigliano, who’s certainly not a minimalist but is writing extremely tuneful and very emotional music and is not at all intellectual in terms of how he approaches music.

FJO: But in terms of what his compositional toolbox is, he incorporates serial techniques, too.

SS: He uses everything.

LF: That is true.

SS: Well, Leonard Bernstein used serial techniques as well.

FJO: There’s a 12-tone row in West Side Story.

SS: And in Mass, you know—which I worked on—there’s a lot of 12-tone stuff in that. But the point is that’s not all they’re using. Now I feel classical music, or what we call classical music, is much more interesting, much more accessible, and much more varied than it was for a very long time.

FJO: Well, that’s the other thing: the labels we put on stuff. When we say classical music, there’s an assumption in the general public—the public who will listen to hit songs and will probably know “Day by Day” even if they have never been to a Broadway show. For them, the word classical conjures up the past.

SS: The dead.

FJO: Yes, so to say “I’m writing classical music” now in a way hurts that music’s ability to ever become popular.

SS: They don’t realize that they’re being sold cars and other products with classical music playing.

LF: How about when somebody says, “Oh, I hate classical music. I’ve never been to an opera.” And their ring tone is the Toreador. I’ve been in that situation so many times when people are talking, or where they talk about how crazy modern music is, and you can’t listen to it, and I say, “Well, have you seen Lord of the Rings?” And they’ll say, “Well yeah.” And I’ll say, “Do you understand that in any given scene in Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, you were hearing soundscape; you’re hearing sound effects; you’re hearing a confluence of sounds come together in a way that John Cage had never even thought of.” Our ears are so sophisticated now: somebody can sit through something like the Lord of the Rings, especially these big battle scenes where your ear is taking in so many disparate musical sounds and sound effects and making sense out of it. I think it’s fascinating that we’ve come to that, and yet we’re still saying there’s a death of classical music.

SS: I agree.

FJO: Except that with a film, or even an opera, there’s a storyline. There are words. There are things that take you along, as opposed to sitting in a concert hall, hearing an instrumental piece, and having certain expectations about what that’s going to be. No matter what genre you’ve worked in, and your music’s taken many, many forms, words have been pretty primary to what you do. And you write your own words.

SS: Yeah, for the most part.

FJO: Once you open the door that your music is narrative, the music can be anything you want it to be to serve those words.

SS: To serve the narrative. That’s exactly what I was going to say. I feel that it’s not so much words that are important to me, though of course they are, but it is storytelling. It’s narrative. That whatever medium I’m working in, I’m very much about what the story is I’m trying to tell, why I have an emotional connection to this story, and how I transmit my connection to this story to my listeners, or viewers, or audience, or whatever, so that they also have an emotional response to it.

FJO: To draw a connection between Godspell and Séance, because I’ve been trying to figure that out—

SS: I know you think there are connections, which I don’t see.

FJO: Well, both are telling supernatural stories, stories about miracles, but in a way that’s totally believable. They both take something otherworldly and bring it down to earth somehow.

SS: I guess you can say that. To me what’s interesting about Godspell is that it’s really not dealing with the sort of supernatural or religious aspects of the Jesus story, but is dealing much more with the philosophy. What was he actually saying? What was he trying to teach people about how to behave to others and to themselves? Its emphasis is on the philosophy rather than did he actually ascend to heaven or not. Those things really have nothing to do with Godspell and so to me, that’s what’s so interesting about that particular piece. In Séance there is some maybe supernatural stuff that happens, but to some extent it’s open to interpretation. And in the end, for me, that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about this woman and what she needs, what she wants, what she loves, and the lengths she’s willing to go to get that.

FJO: I’m curious about the road that led to making this opera happen. There’s quite a big difference between getting a show on Broadway and getting an opera produced in an opera house. I mentioned that the first show I ever saw on Broadway was Pippin. As an impressionable pre-teen who wanted to write music, I thought Broadway theater was something I could aspire to one day. It seemed like there were opportunities for people at that time. And you were certainly a hero role model, because you were in your 20s and you had three shows on Broadway simultaneously. So it led me to believe that this was somehow possible, whereas at that time almost nobody ever did an opera by a living composer; in the ’70s, that was unheard of. But now it seems, 40 years later, that the tide has turned in the other direction. You had this immense and unprecedented success on Broadway—at least for anyone your age—but then decades passed. You were writing lots of things that had lots of exposure—film, T.V.—but it wasn’t for Broadway again until Wicked. These days it seems as though Broadway takes fewer chances whereas opera companies have grown more adventurous—every time I turn around, there seems to be a contemporary opera by a living composer being done somewhere.

SS: I think some things have changed in the opera world. The most important thing is that opera companies have discovered that when they program the new piece, and either the composer or the subject matter is interesting to people, they can actually sell tickets. In the old days, I think that was not their experience. It was the new pieces that they couldn’t sell, and the warhorses that they could. So first of all, that’s changed a bit because the nature of what audiences will go to see has changed in the opera house.

LF: I’ve done Merry Mount, Peter Ibbetson, and Mourning Becomes Electra—operas that were done in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. What opera houses needed to do was if you had a Butterfly, everybody learns Madama Butterfly. But when you have Merry Mount, you have one cast that learns Merry Mount. You always have a specific cast do a new piece, and so it becomes very difficult. It’s very easy if your Butterfly gets sick to have another Butterfly come in. If your Pinkerton has an engagement and he can only do three performances and you need another Pinkerton for three more performances, it’s very easy to find another. If you were an opera company and you were going to do Merry Mount, and then every college and university decided they would add Merry Mount to the curriculum, you would have a certain level of singer who would have come up through the ranks knowing Merry Mount. So in any given time, you could do it, and you wouldn’t have to pay special singers to learn a special piece.

It also would set up this idea of seeing different interpretations of the same thing. That just simply never has been done in modern music. It was always a one-off. I think Ghosts of Versailles broke the mold for that. Baby Doe certainly did for a while, but Ghosts of Versailles did it very big. It’s been done in a lot of different places by a lot of different casts. And it’s really held up very well, and is very popular. So part of the issue is what opera companies need to do, and does modern work fulfill that, or does it work against it. I’ll be honest with you, Rosenkavalier, Romeo and Juliet, La Sonnambula, Lucia—those were the things you studied in college. I’d never heard of Merry Mount or Peter Ibbetson or Mourning Becomes Electra.

SS: But now people are learning Mark Adamo’s Little Women.

LF: And Dead Men Walking.

SS: Many, many different companies.

LF: Tom Pasatieri’s operas are being done in colleges and universities all over the place.

SS: That’s what I’m saying. There’s a shift that’s happening in the world of opera, which I think is very encouraging. In some ways it is akin to what was happening on Broadway in the ’70s, where you had a kind of music that had become popular and was being played on the radio. The people who were producing shows for Broadway or running record companies didn’t really understand that music because they were from a different generation. So they were much more willing to take a chance on young writers such as myself, and I think to some extent opera companies are now saying we need to broaden our audience. We need to reach a younger, more contemporary audience, so we’re willing to take more chances on younger, more contemporary writers. Or not even younger writers, but more contemporary writers.

LF: And yet what always makes me laugh is whenever we do VOX for City Opera, or whenever I do something for American Opera Projects, the average age of the audience members is clearly in their 50s, early-60s. I went to the Armory two weeks ago for all that music. The audience was my age. But there is an intellectual group out there that is adventurous in what they want.

FJO: Well that makes me ponder what you can do in the opera house that you can’t necessarily do on Broadway and vice versa. Stephen, you have mentioned that, for you, writing for opera means writing for unamplified voices, which requires a different kind of orchestration; whereas, in Broadway theater, you always write for amplified voices. Of course, once upon a time, there were no amplified voices on Broadway, either. But there are many contemporary operas that use some amplification.

SS: We don’t do any miking.

LF: No. God, no.

FJO: There are certain critics who will go ballistic if there are microphones or any kind of an amplification enhancement used in an opera house, but in a way aren’t they like the folks who were criticizing that same stuff on Broadway back in the ’70s?

SS: Well, I think it depends on the style of music. When I was offered an opera commission by Opera Santa Barbara, before I made the choice to do Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I did think a little about doing something for opera voices which involves more electronic instruments and is therefore miked. But I didn’t want to do that. I actually wanted to do a more traditional opera, an opera that was written for classical voices that would not be amplified in any way. But I think that you could legitimately do an opera in another way. It depends on the instrumentation. If I really thought about it, I could find a way to compose something which used more contemporary instruments, Fender bass, electric guitar, etc. Actually there’s electric guitar in Séance, and yet it still allowed voices to be unamplified because of the way it’s orchestrated and because of the way it’s structured. But I think there is a way to use “legit” voices.

LF: There are so many issues related to amplification. One of them is what you actually create. What Stephen’s suggesting is orchestrating in such a way for instruments that are amplified that it necessitates that the voices also become a part of that soundscape. That’s one way of looking at it. Are you trying to recreate the sound people have in their home with their surround sound? My feeling is, if you want that, stay home. Or create a performance that specifically says, “This will be a Madama Butterfly in surround sound.” Are we going to experiment with this for one performance only? What separates me from, let’s say, Cristine Ebersole or Victoria Clark, is that I’m specifically training to be heard in a 3,000-seat theater without amplification.

I remember one time he wanted to change a note—he didn’t understand what I said—and I said to him, “Why are we changing that note?” And he said, “I can’t really understand you.” And I said, “Let me work on it. And then once I’ve worked on it, if it’s still unintelligible, or if it’s still covered, then let’s deal with that.” But see, your job is to come to me and say, “I can’t hear you here.” And then I say, “Oh, OK.” And I fix it. And then, if despite my fixing it, he still doesn’t get what he wants, then we start changing things. I expect that a conductor or a composer’s going to come to me and say, “I have no idea what you’re saying. Can you either walk downstage, fix whatever you’re doing, take it to your teacher or coach, but fix it?” Because in Butterfly, they’re not going to change the notes for you; you have to fix it.

SS: But I also feel that in writing for opera, because it’s unamplified, part of my task was to orchestrate in such a way that words could be understood. When I write for theater or movies or records, I’m not really thinking of trying to stay out of the way of the voices. I’m writing music that voices sit above, and I know I can always bring the voice out through mixing and amplification. So it’s kind of a horizontal writing of music. With opera, and in listening to classical operas, and really hearing what they did as I was preparing to write this piece, I realized that it’s much more what I call vertical writing. When the voices are singing, there’s much less going on underneath it—unless you’re Wagner. Then, in between, the music comes up. So you’re getting these peaks and valleys, and the voice is sitting in an instrumental valley. I was very conscious of that in writing. Not to say that happens all the time, but I feel that part of the responsibility is to write in such a way first of all where the voice is set, that if you really need to understand the words, it’s in a place where the sound can be produced so it’s understood, and to make sure that the orchestration is not overwhelming the singers. A great strong voice—yes, you—can sing over far more instruments than anyone on Broadway, mostly.

LF: But I’m also acutely aware that there are some Strauss operas I’m appropriate for and there are others that I’m not, simply for the fact that the orchestration is so big.

SS: And so heavy.

LF: I will not be heard over it. Maybe every piece isn’t meant for every singer. Maybe you do write specifically for a singer, and then maybe you have to wait a generation for another one to come along who can fill those shoes. I think Philip Glass’s Symphony [No. 6] is a terrific piece. I happen to absolutely love that piece. There may be nobody else who’s ever going to try to sing that piece. It’s possible. It’s 55 minutes of non-stop singing, and there are probably about 130 high B’s in it, with words on them. What I always found fascinating about that is when reviews came for it, I was criticized for unintelligible speech. And I thought, not once did anyone say, “How the hell did she sing up there for that long, and it still sounds so pretty?” Do you know what I mean? Like if it’s pretty and if you’d have listened to it twice, I feel like I’ve done my job because now you’re compelled to understand the text. I’m not saying that I seek to do that, but we’re not all meant to sing every piece. And there are Wagner pieces some people can sing, and then there are Wagner pieces that they cannot sing. As singers, we know that. It’s an interesting discussion to have with a composer. That was one of our ongoing discussions. I kept saying, “It has to be able to be only sung by an opera singer.” It has to utilize the things that we do.

SS: And that’s certainly true. I definitely wrote for you.

LF: This will not be done by colleges and universities pretty much. The stamina alone would be an issue. It’s why schools don’t do Elektra or Salome. They can do it, but they don’t, or Ballo in Maschera. It’s like you didn’t write your version of La Bohème where there are some arias, and then you’re off stage.

SS: You’re always there. Well, when we first met, I just wanted to warn you about it, and you did say to me, “I like to be on stage.”

LF: I’m a stage creature. Keep me on the stage.

FJO: You were talking about having to change a vocal line that could not be heard against the orchestration; in a Broadway show if the singer can’t be heard above an orchestration, I would imagine that it’s the orchestration that would be changed.

SS: That’s true. With Broadway, basically what happens is the orchestrator comes in and watches a number once it has been learned and staged, tapes it, wanders off with the composer—you kind of talk through what it is you want and what it is you’re hearing—and then they go off and orchestrate. And you as composer are still at rehearsal doing other things. There are almost no Broadway composers who’ve orchestrated their own pieces, including Leonard Bernstein who did sketch things in, but didn’t orchestrate his own Broadway work, never, despite obviously being an extremely competent orchestrator. The only time that I’ve experienced as a composer orchestrating my own stuff is when it’s a pop band and you’re just working out the arrangements with your band live. Then afterwards, it gets written down. Then you do it. Like for Godspell, that’s how we did it. And I think maybe Duncan Sheik for Spring Awakening may have done his own arrangements or some of his own arrangements that way. But basically, you just don’t do it for Broadway. Also, you’re thinking of the song. Sure, you have orchestration in mind, but it’s much more about what the song is, as opposed to what the sound is of the orchestra that’s carrying it. Conceiving for opera is completely different; the orchestration is absolutely integral to the conception of what the music is.

FJO: Since Séance is an opera and not a musical, I want to dig a little bit further into how you draw these distinctions without giving away too much about the details of Séance. I thought it was interesting that you had rejected basing a musical on Séance on a Wet Afternoon, but yet that film was the first thing you thought of when your received a commission to write an opera.

SS: Absolutely.

FJO: This gut reaction seems to strike at the heart of what you believe inside yourself are the differences between these two genres.

SS: When we were talking about this before, I was trying to think of an answer that was very articulate and specific, but the truth is that a lot of it was just instinct. It didn’t feel like musical theater to me, but it did feel like opera. But, since you asked, and I knew you were going to ask, I did try to analyze why I made that sort of leap. Musical theater is a lot based on energy and humor. And opera, particularly if it’s not opera buffa, doesn’t necessarily need those elements.

LF: Pelléas et Mélisande is very humorous and has a lot of energy.

SS: And I think we have laughs in our show.

LF: Oh, we have wonderful laughs in our show.

SS: And we have a lot of energy. But it’s basically about the mood, and the music sets a certain tone, and the music carries so much of the story. There’s so much subtext going on. The characters are saying certain things, and behaving in a certain way. But there’s all this other stuff going on underneath, and the music is telling a lot of that story. So that to me seems particularly operatic. Sure there’s subtext in the best musical theater songs, but basically what they’re singing is what’s going on. And in opera, that’s not always the case. So there were a lot of these instincts that led me to say this is more of an opera. And then I just felt the characters were operatic characters, whatever that means.

FJO: What’s interesting is the piece where you came closest to that sort of thinking before—where you thought that the story demanded that you write a different kind of music than what you normally would write—is The Baker’s Wife.

SS: Because it’s set in France in 1935. Real France, not fake medieval France like Pippin, which is supposed to be contemporary. I felt it was very important for Baker’s Wife that the music be redolent of that period and that locale. It’s all about where it’s taking place. So musically it had to summon up the locale. But I don’t see The Baker’s Wife score as particularly operatic, though the voices are a little bit more legitimate. I think it’s more a harkening back to a more kind of traditional Broadway writing than opera writing.

LF: It’s operatic in its emotional language, though. The big separation between musical theater and opera is when the audience can go there. In opera, we almost always go there with every character. It’s beyond that basic level of communication when you just need to open it up and then the only thing that can do that is some sort of extended vocal writing. In The Baker’s Wife, all the characters get so close to that emotion where it’s just like, here I am. I felt that piece specifically seemed to fit what I really have come to know and still know, 40 years later, as operatic emotion. It’s just contained differently.

SS: It’s so hard when you have this discussion about what is opera vs. musical theater. I tend to say that it’s like the Supreme Court definition of pornography: you can’t quite define it, but you know it when you see it. For me, Séance on a Wet Afternoon just seemed an ideal subject for opera and not for musical theater. And I can’t really tell you why, but I just felt it needed to be treated in the way that I did. In musical theater, I don’t think I could have gotten the same kind of psychological complexity.

LF: This story allows for the orchestra to say something the voice is not saying. Whereas in some, not all, musical theater, the orchestration acts as an accompaniment, and often pushes things along. In opera, there are times when we’re able to sing something and the orchestra’s saying something completely different. That is, I think typically, a compositional idea that’s employed in classical music. Do you know what I mean? Or in, you know, symphonic music where instruments are saying different things at the same time. And I think that’s what really makes this piece operatic is that he does do that.

SS: I agree.

FJO: O.K., so to take it beyond the music and to take it to the words, and the differences of the roles of words in operas and musicals. We’ve been talking so much about music and the details of the mechanics of orchestration and shaping vocal lines. One of the things that I thought was very interesting—without giving away the plot Séance—is how the opera and the film it was based on are very different pieces in a lot of ways. Film is very specific in a way. It’s a very immediate medium, even though that particular film is so wonderfully ambiguous. One of the things that I get from that movie is how much about London it is. There are all these amazing shots of London, very specific details that you see close up: various street corners, the Tube, etc. You could never do the same thing on a live stage in an opera performance. And in a way, it really doesn’t matter where the opera is supposed to take place.

SS: It takes place in San Francisco.

FJO: But it has to be a stylized and somewhat mythologized San Francisco. Even Nixon in China, which was based on a very specific event in recent history, has to mythologize to some degree—because of the very nature of the medium of opera. There’s a kind of distance that automatically happens in opera because the action is being sung, and as a result, the drama takes a different form.

LF: Like La Bohème, it becomes emotionally specific and not place specific.

SS: Though I did want to set it someplace where it’s always raining.

LF: And the fact that I was born there was very, very helpful. But, you’re right, and I never thought about it. This piece is emotionally specific in the way that La Bohème is, and in the way Don Giovanni is, and that’s why it can successfully take place almost anywhere because the emotional context is what it is. And it speaks. It really does speak.

SS: But I still try to be really accurate about where I was placing this. I went to San Francisco. I researched locations. They’re mentioned in the piece. I found the house I thought it had taken place in, and took a picture of it. I found the house where the rich people whose daughter gets kidnapped lived and took a picture of that. Because the movie takes place in London, the kidnapping plot very specifically unfolds on the Tube and he gets off at Leicester Square and so on and so forth. I had to find a way that the husband in the piece could succeed in collecting the ransom in San Francisco and went and figured out how you could do that with the trolley, and the bus system. It actually is described in the text.

LF: If you see La Bohème and you walk away going, “God, I want to go to Paris,” it has not been a good night for you at the opera. So maybe in a way, it succeeds because it transcends specificity and so you follow this story instead of the locations.

SS: Movies are very real. Theater, by its very nature, is abstract because you can’t bring in all the reality and detail that you can in film.

FJO: Since Séance is an opera based on a motion picture—something that is out there and that’s very tangible, you can easily acquire a DVD of it—this raises another issue about expectations. Of course, there’ve been a number of very successful contemporary operas based on motion pictures. You referenced Dead Man Walking, and before we talked about André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I think in a way, Séance overcomes some of the baggage that those other operas might have had initially in that those movies were so famous and everybody knew them so well. When you’re watching Streetcar recreated as opera, it’s really hard not to think of Marlon Brando. But even though Séance is an amazing film, it’s not that well known. It’s a cult film, but it’s not something that everybody immediately knows. In a way, that allows you to make something that’s really surprising. If it were a plot that everybody knew, you wouldn’t have been able to do that.

SS: Right. I agree.

FJO: But, even still, you changed the story somewhat.

SS: Because that’s what you do. When you want to adapt something, I think you have to make it your own. But in light of what we’re saying, it’s significant to note that I would say 75 percent of the libretto is the screenplay. It is literally lines from the screenplay that I set. And then maybe 25 percent is either stuff that I invented because I was changing the story, or it’s stuff that I lyricized by giving it more of a song structure or aria structure. Like doing some light rhyming. But I used a lot of the screenplay because it’s so well written.

LF: It’s really brilliant.

FJO: I know that you want the audience to be surprised. So would it be better if they saw the movie or not before they see the opera?

LF: I found it doesn’t matter.

SS: I don’t think it matters. The movie’s very repressed. Part of the effectiveness of it is that it’s claustrophobic and very, very repressed. Opera by its nature is not going to be repressed. But I was very pleased that when Brian Forbes, who wrote and directed the original film, came to see the opera in Santa Barbara where we did it, he was so enthusiastic about it and felt that I’d actually improved the story because I took it places that he didn’t really dare to do for commercial film. He was really taken with it. So I felt that I’d at least done well by its creator. But I like that people don’t know what’s going to happen. If we’ve been successful, it’s the equivalent I hope of a page-turner. You want to know what’s going to happen next. That I feel doesn’t happen often enough in contemporary opera. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have to assume that when people went to see Tosca for the first time, when it first was presented, they didn’t know how it was going to end, and they really wanted to know.

LF: Well, they did because it had been a famous play. But you get so used to La Dame aux Camelias or La Tosca, and then it’s suddenly recreated in front of you in a way you had no idea. That’s what’s so great. Those words and the situations are the same, they’re not really changed. My friends had the exact same experience [with Séance]. You take something that’s so direct—spoken word is just really direct—and then suddenly it’s musicalized and there’s something before it that brings you into it. Very often, in a play, you can put your own brakes on in the audience. But sometimes in an opera, you’re seduced. A musical idea starts to happen and you’re listening to it and all of a sudden, you’re like “Oh my god, I can’t believe he just did that.” You’re led into a story that in a play sometimes you’re able put the brakes on and say, “I’m not ready for this yet.” A great playwright has another character do something and suddenly now you’ve been brought in by another character. You know, great writing is that it’s not one person’s story that you’re constantly following. But when you musicalize language, the music can often take you somewhere where you wouldn’t allow yourself to go. I think this definitely has done that.

FJO: Although one of the things that we hope is that this becomes repertoire. And, when it becomes repertoire and gets done all over the world, all the time, every other season, in some other city, people are going to know the story.

SS: Well sure. I remember when Wicked first opened, and we were just begging everybody not to give away the ending and not to tell people what happened because there are so many big surprises in the second act. Eventually one loses that battle. Now most people who go to see Wicked do know how it ends.

LF: But everyone knows how Tosca ends and they still go back.

SS: It can’t just be about the surprise, but I think there’s fun in people seeing something and not knowing what’s going to happen next.

LF: I think it’s the interpretation; people go repeated times for the interpretation and to re-experience it. The interesting thing about theater is the surprise element may have captured 50 people, but it might not have captured 100. It could have been someone else’s way in through a character, and they want to keep re-experiencing that, and they don’t really care about the surprise element of something.

SS: You want to be able to identify with characters, feel for them, feel how you are like them, how you’re not like them, etc. It’s really how much as an audience member you get inside the character. You take the emotional journey with the character, and that doesn’t necessarily depend on surprise.

LF: Right. I mean I’m in a business where everybody knows the endings to everything that I do. It’s what can I bring to it Tuesday that I didn’t necessarily hook into the Saturday before that, but then maybe the following Friday I find something else. That’s the thing that compels people to come back to the same operas over and over again.

SS: You remind of one of the things that’s been so great about working with you. Even though I wrote all of the music and I wrote all the words, and I knew what it was going to sound like, when I actually saw you do it, there were things that completely blew me away. You revealed things that I was not aware were in the work.

LF: That’s where I pretty much feel like acting stood me well. I don’t make a decision and impose the decision on a piece, which is basically how we’re trained as opera singers. I wasn’t trained that way. I was trained to be open to finding something every time. And I always say the piece that literally lit me up the most was Mathis der Maler by Hindemith. It’s such a dense, thick score, so it reveals itself differently every night. I remember so clearly—Allan Glassman and I had this big duet, and every so often one of us would make a mistake in a performance, which was really anathema to both of us. We would constantly talk about it, and he would say, “Where’d that flute come from?” And I would say, “You gotta be kidding me. It’s the same flute every night; it comes in exactly the same place.” And he’d say, “I never heard that flute before.” Then I would make a mistake, and he would say, “What did you wait for?” And I would say, “Well, I was waiting for the oboe.” “What do you mean, the oboe is playing the note over and over and over again.” That was a score that was so complex that in a performance, you never ever heard it the same way twice. That’s the genius of a Thielemann; that’s the genius of a James Levine. Every night, they’ve got the same material in front of them, 50 times, but they take this amazing step to try to reveal it to you differently.

FJO: So a final basic communication question then. Wicked and The Baker’s Wife are being done in Germany, in German. Séance was written in English. We do Tosca in Italian here in America. Let’s say they’re going to do Séance in Germany. Translated?

SS: No. It’s an opera. That’s one of the good things for me. It has to be in English all the time. When you do theater, you translate mostly into the language of the country where it’s being performed. Although I know in opera, there are plenty of cases of Mozart operas in a couple of languages, etc., so I’ll take it back.

LF: The funny thing is, Strauss and Poulenc wanted their operas in the vernacular of the countries they would be performed in—

FJO:Dialogue of the Carmelites.

LF: He wanted it done in English; he wanted it done in Spanish. And the same with Strauss. Neither was happy when it was done, though. It just sounds different. The emphasis is different. You’ll get to the point at the end of the sentence in English, and in Italian or in German, you don’t get to the point at the end of the sentence. You know what I mean? Composers have to give up control. They have to get used to the musical line making a shift—this note becomes that note. So it’s a mixed bag.

SS: When Wicked is being done in Germany, or Japan, or Finland, or Denmark—now I’m working with the translator into Dutch for the Holland production—I work very closely with the translators and we pretty well achieve what the lyric achieves. But you have to go quite far afield in terms of the meaning.

LF: Everybody gives a big thing about the Ruth and Thomas translations for all the Schirmer scores, but basically they found a very compelling way to keep the emphasis completely intact. A really great English translation changes the emphasis in the middle of the line.

SS: Anyway, I will be happy for this to remain in English, but I do hope it gets done in countries where English is not the lingua franca. Sorry to make a pun.

LF: It would be interesting if this is a universal. I don’t know. The situation seems oddly, quintessentially Anglo to me.

SS: There’s a Japanese movie based on Séance.

LF: There is?

SS: Yes. I think it’s a very universal story because it’s about two people who want things very, very much, and it causes them to make very extreme choices. People all over the world want things and do things to get what they want.

FJO: It’s a quintessential tragedy about parenthood, and all the different layers of it.

SS: To me it’s about love, which is very generalized. I hope this doesn’t give too much away, but one of the lines I added that’s not in the screenplay is the character Bill—who plays Lauren’s husband—says to her at one point in a big confrontation scene, “We both wanted what we wanted. We both loved what we loved too much.” I wanted that stated out loud because to me that’s the tragedy of these people, and of this piece.

LF: For me, it’s a real piece of transcendence. I feel like that’s why people like me in the piece. I cling to that in every scene, this desire to transcend that moment. In that way, I think it very much is Godspell; there’s a thing of transcending your human experience, being asked to do something and figuring out if you can transcend that, the constant search for something else. Do I accept this thing, or do I transcend it and try to change it?

FJO: Transcendence does crystallize the connections between all of your pieces. Because Godspell‘s about that. Pippin is about that. It’s about Pippin transcending his fate in what he’s asked to do, and what he winds up doing. Baker’s Wife is about that. Wicked is about that, too. And it’s about acceptance. They’re all about that.

SS: Well, thank you.

LF: At some point, we transcend our relationships with our mothers, with our husbands, with our neighbors. We are seeking something else. It’s so interesting. [Stephen and I] had our picture taken for Vanity Fair by this guy, Steven Pyke who’s this amazing photographer who became quite famous in the 1980s for these beautiful black and whites that he took in Ireland. At first I thought this can’t be the Steven Pyke. It’s just the weirdest coincidence ever. There’s a line in the very beginning of our piece about my relationship with my mother and my grandmother and passing this family idea of being a psychic. I always look for interesting visual representations in art and literature and everything and I put a book together for every piece that I do. And I found this beautiful picture, this black and white photo of three women just standing in a doorway. It’s just three women standing in a doorway, and I thought, “There we are: that’s me, there’s my mother, and that’s my grandmother, and it’s San Francisco.” Not so much. It’s Connemara in 1985, and it’s a Steven Pyke picture. So the picture that I’ve been basing my whole emotional life on for the piece was taken by the guy who ended up taking our photograph for Vanity Fair.

SS: We’ve had a lot of coincidences like that. I also like that audiences come out and have little arguments about what actually happened. I like the ambiguity. The ending [of Séance] is both tragic and joyous at the same time.

LF: It’s for everybody. It should be. Our dress rehearsal audience was 700 high school kids. It was the greatest single audience I’ve ever had, and I’ve had great audiences, you know what I mean. They were so vocal the entire time. Then I happened to be shopping in downtown Santa Barbara. I was trying on something. These five girls all went Aaagh! And then my friend Paula said, “You have to come out.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “They were at your show last night. They have to talk to you about it.” They’d been following us for an hour. So I ended up going to the high school, and I spent two hours with these kids. And we talked about theater, and drama, and what is a happy ending, and what ambiguity is, and is anything that’s ambiguous good. You know, is it good for you to have your decision about what something is and for me to have my decision about what something is, even though we’ve seen the same thing? This piece is very exciting because it does create a conversation.

SS: I have to feel good about whatever else it is, about having written an opera where teenagers who happen to be in the audience follow you around because they have to talk about it.

FJO: Forty years ago, when you were traumatized by contemporary music, and you were you disassociated from contemporary classical music and were connected to pop music, did either of you ever imagine that a contemporary opera could trigger such reactions from high school students?

LF: No.

SS: But I always knew that someday I wanted to write an opera. And therefore I was hoping that I could do it in such a way that it would tell a good story and connect with audiences. So, maybe I hoped it.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.