Tearing Myself Away

Tearing Myself Away

By the time this essay is posted (Monday, April 23, 2012) I will be flying halfway around the world from New York City to Hong Kong to visit my in-laws, whom I have not seen in three years. The technological breakthroughs of the past 100 years have certainly made everyone on this planet increasingly more connected. But even in the advanced high-tech world of the early 21st century, getting from NYC to HK is still quite an undertaking—my direct flight will last more than 16 hours.


Dominick Argento signing copies of his memoirs prior to a performance during the University of Maryland's ten-day Argento extravaganza.

Before arriving in Hong Kong and disappearing from NewMusicBox for the next two weeks (I won’t be back on these pages until Monday, May 7), I wanted to share some observations gleaned from this past weekend. Not content to take just one trip, I prefaced my Hong Kong vacation with a journey to College Park, Maryland, to attend the first couple days of a ten-day Dominick Argento marathon taking place at the University of Maryland. I managed to catch performances of two Argento operas while I was there. The first, the absurdist Postcard from Morocco, from 1971, is somewhat reminiscent of the zany theatrical antics of Richard Foreman and also seems to foreshadow Paul Griffiths’s libretto for Elliott Carter’s What Next?. The other, Miss Havisham’s Fire, is a sprawling Great Expectations-derived melodrama which has remained its composer’s favorite opera despite its critical failure during its initial run at New York City Opera back in 1979. It was great to finally see both of these works for the first time. It was also very gratifying to see a university pull out all the stops to honor a living American composer.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the weekend for me was hearing Dominick Argento talk about his compositional aesthetics during two pre-performance discussions. I jotted down a few of his quips thinking they might provide for some interesting debate here.

1. Over the years Argento has had a preference for setting prose instead of poetry (i.e. letters, diaries, etc.) According to him, poetry is written “to be exposed” whereas many of the texts that have attracted him over the years are more private musings. And, as a composer, he acknowledged that he feels freer when setting prose since poetry “has rhythms that need to be honored.” I’ve always thought that prose also makes specific rhythmic demands.

2. Argento also explained that he rarely revises older pieces because “when you revise an older piece it’s like sewing up a garment with the wrong color thread; no matter what you do, there will be a patch.” So, what then to do with a work that you feel very strongly about but which doesn’t completely work for you now?

3. Argento suggested that composers should try to write their own libretto when working on an opera, because that way they can always write to their strengths. Yet, for me, what gives most operas their depth is that they are almost always the creation of more than one person. Of course, there have been some extraordinary exceptions to this rule, but still.

4. Argento explained his devotion to Miss Havisham’s Fire, despite its poor reception, claiming that composers’ favorite pieces are usually the ones that failed. I’m curious to know what other folks here think about this one in particular.

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One thought on “Tearing Myself Away

  1. Mark N. Grant

    I saw both the City Opera production of Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire and the original Broadway cast of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd within the same month in New York in 1979. I attended Sweeney Todd on Friday evening, April 20, 1979 (yes, I’m an obsessive record-keeper), less than two months after it opened, but I’m not sure of the exact date of the performance of Havisham I attended (it premiered in late March), I’d have to open up an old box of playbills and concert programs from 1979 to pinpoint it.

    I loved Miss Havisham’s Fire and have never understood why it’s supposedly a “failure.” I remember distinctly thinking at the time (and this at a far younger and greener stage of my development) that the Argento piece was the “real McCoy” and that Sweeney Todd was high-concept sham opera, slickly and cleverly staged by Harold Prince, expertly performed and acceptable as Broadway, but dressed in all manner of pretense and pose as weighty and artistically important. Sondheim is brilliant at what he does, but let us also be clear about what he does not do. Argento’s music is real opera music; Sondheim’s music for Sweeney Todd is musical comedy music. One can be moved by either; there is weighty musical comedy music (Gershwin, Weill, Bernstein); but seeing both of these works in short succession I felt that the music (and drama) of Havisham was far more compelling. There was no comparison. I left the opera house pondering Miss Havisham and her metaphysical dilemma and how the composer had amplified Dickens. I left Sweeney Todd diverted but unmoved.

    Argento is a marvelous composer who has lived his life and career apart from the money centers and for some reason doesn’t seem to enjoy the reputation his work deserves, the sort of reputation that Carlisle Floyd, for example, enjoys. I guess Argento didn’t have a big hit like Susannah.


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