Tobias Picker – Photo by Harry Heleotis

5 Questions to Tobias Picker (Composer)

On July 20, 2014, the Glimmerglass Festival presented the premiere of a new version of composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer’s An American Tragedy, originally commissioned by and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Nine performances in total will be presented until August 24. We asked Picker five questions…

You have said that you knew the Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, had to be your subject when the opportunity to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera arose. What was it about the story that made it a particularly good subject, a good pairing, for the Met’s commission?

I felt it was the greatest story for the greatest  American opera company because it goes to the heart and the heartbreak of the ‘American Dream’.  The gap between rich and poor during the Great Depression, is no less relevant today than it was just before the Great Depression when Dreiser wrote the novel. At the core of the story is a doomed love triangle with an unconventional conclusion. A poor boy from the Midwest with dreams of making a success of himself goes about it completely the wrong way in large part due to a rigid fundamentalist upbringing. He makes terrible mistakes and pays the ultimate price. An American Tragedy is the dark side of the American Dream.

Tobias Picker - Photo by Harry Heleotis

Tobias Picker – Photo by Harry Heleotis

The Glimmerglass production is of a new version, revised following the production at the Met, and the press release goes into great detail about changes that were made, the products of the revision if you will. But how did you engage with the process of revision? What is it like for you to undertake revising a work?

The further away in time that one gets from the original version—which was, in this case, nine years—the more objective one becomes and the less aggravating a revision of any kind becomes, because it’s no longer fresh out of the oven. It’s had time to sit around and collect itself and be absorbed and thought about before being carved up. I revised it working very closely with my librettist Gene Scheer, who had wonderful ideas about streamlining the first act and about getting to the meat of the story—the conflict, if you will—much faster than the original version, which took 20, 25 to pull the audience into the story. Oscar Wilde said a writer’s best tool is the waste basket. We made good use of that tool by getting rid of a long exposition that was unnecessary, including the entire 20 minute first scene.It certainly isn’t easy to let it go but, with nine years and another opera under my belt, it was really not so painful to do. I only saw the entire opera played—on the stage, with costumes, with lighting and sets—for the first time at Glimmerglass last week. It is far superior than what we did at the Met back in 2005.  I am convinced the Glimmerglass version is the definitive version and it is the only  one that we will leave in the world.

Glimmerglass is located in Upstate New York, not far from where the events of the novel and the real-life events upon which it is based occurred. How does this environment inflect the new production?

When you’re in the audience and you hear characters on the stage sing about meeting at the Utica Station, which is not so from here, and talking about the Adirondacks, which are right near here, you realize this is all based on a true local story  which has turned into legend.  And the story is still very much alive upstate. Glimmerglass is very close to where the real-life murder happened at the turn of the twentieth century. There are still people in this region, a hundred and ten years later, arguing about the case and whether or not Clyde was really guilty. And since there were no witnesses to the drowning of Grace Brown, nobody knows. Nobody will ever know what really happened that day. An American Tragedy is Dreiser’s take on the true story, and the one which we go by. The opera characters also talk about New York a lot. For example, Sondra goes to The City and comes back and sings a whole aria about what happened to her and what it was like in New York. If you’re seeing An American Tragedyin New York City, it also feels close to home, but Cooperstown is really close to home since it’s only minutes away from the courthouse where the murder trial took place. Herkimer (30 miles outside of Cooperstown) is where Chester Gillette was jailed during the trial. Herkimer, Old Forge, Big Moose Lake, Old Cortland (Lycurgus) and  Utica, – are all key places in the original murder story.

Your fifth opera was based on Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne, and the Minnesota Opera has announced commissioning a new opera based on The Shining. Could you address the particular challenges and rewards of setting a King novel for the operatic stage?

Dolores Claiborne is unique in Stephen King’s oeuvre because it’s a true psychological drama—the kind that I’m especially attracted to. It has murder and suicide, and the mandatory love triangle, though it’s between the three women. There is nothing supernatural and there is nothing that one associates inherently with Stephen King. Unless you understand that first and foremost King is a great writer, you would never think he wrote Dolores Claiborne, it is a very great story and very masterfully told. The Shining is much more typical of Stephen King’s work because it does involve the supernatural and obscene brutality and cruelty that Dolores Claiborne does not. Dolores Claiborne was, in many ways, a very compelling movie but by no means a masterpiece, so I felt there was room for an opera to do something with the story— to elevate it, to make it better. Whereas Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece and a very iconic Stephen King film. I would imagine, that those factors present a whole new challenge in recreating that story for the operatic stage and so it was one among many Stephen King stories that I rejected.

Tobias Picker - Photo by Harry Heleotis

Tobias Picker – Photo by Harry Heleotis

Interestingly, one thing that was not particularly challenging was obtaining the rights for Dolores Claiborne from Stephen King because his then-attorney Jay Kramer was just so supportive of my making an opera out of a Stephen King novel. But Stephen King himself was never part of the creative process and had no association with San Francisco Opera’s production, San Francisco Opera, or the creative team — and he never saw it. Oddly, it was rather like working with a dead author. With Emmeline, the author Judith Rossner was alive. She looked at the libretto, she took notes, she came to rehearsals, and she came to Santa Fe. She was very interested and engaged by this foreign art form reinventing her novel, whereas King wished to have no input whatsoever except to approve the libretto once finished. And, he certainly had no interest in seeing the opera version of his book. But, I was very happy that the marvelous actor who played Joe Saint George, David Strathairn took a strong interest in my opera and flew across the country to attend the premiere.

2014-15 is the first full season in which you are the Artistic Director of Opera San Antonio. I was particularly struck by the pairing of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna and Poulenc’s La voix humaine. Considering the range of operas the Poulenc has been paired with, could you discuss the chemistry of the pairing of these particular one-acts?

What could be a better pairing than the two faces of comedy and tragedy? The two operas are also vehicles for Anna Caterina Antonacci, who sang them at L’Opéra Comique in Paris and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in the spring of 2013. Voix humaine  is  tragic. Il segreto di Susanna is effervescent and charming and silly; and the pieces were written fifty years apart, so they kind of cut the twentieth century in half. I wanted to give the San Antonio public some Italian opera. It fit perfectly with the needs of the season. Wolf Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna will be our only Italian opera, and with Poulenc’s La voix humaine we have a French opera, something that has not been heard in San Antonio for decades.  We will have more Italian opera in future seasons, but the first season shows a broad palette and the kind of balanced and interesting programming a great opera company has to espouse.

As for the programming of the other operas in the 2014-15 season, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the first production Opera San Antonio is presenting because we know that San Antonio families are hungry for performing arts they can attend together. As Mr. Fox is a family opera, and it was also due for a major revival, it made sense to present the opera. Opera San Antonio’s production has a cast of both rising and established stars, and it’s a very lavish production so it will be a major revival. And as Artistic Director of the company, and a very active working composer of operas—it was entirely appropriate to offer this as our inaugural production.

For the brand new Tobin Center which opens its doors for the first time in September we are presenting all brand new productions R. Strauss’s Salome, starring Patricia Racette is her first fully-staged Salome so it’s a big occasion for us. It’s also Michelle DeYoung’s first Herodias, Jay Hunter Morris’s first Herod, Renée Rapier’s first Page, and Brian Jagde’s first Narraboth and the great Alan Held recreating his John the Baptist. So with all of our operas in San Antonio we are giving the community what they have told us they want – and that is operas and productions that you cannot see anywhere else in the world.

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