Classical Music: Novel Passions

First the book, then the film, and now the opera, or the music-theater version, if “opera” seems too conventional a label to pin on Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, Philip Glass’s Dracula, and John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. All three works are due to arrive in New York this fall – Harbison’s music drama at the Metropolitan Opera, the Anderson and Glass pieces as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival – and arbiters of music-theater fashion think they’ve spotted a trend. Not so long ago, the opera stage was full of such unlikely heroes as Richard Nixon, Mahatma Gandhi, Harvey Milk, Leon Klinghoffer, and Malcolm X, real-life figures who added spice to the so-called CNN school of opera. Apparently, all that is now out. Perhaps the economic boom and a lack of burning social issues have depoliticized the scene, as composers once again go back to famous works of literature for their sources.

Laurie Anderson and cetology – an odd mix even for this quirky artist, whose high-tech blend of music, poetry, film, and audiovisuals seldom focuses on the predictable. Coming to BAM for ten performances from October 5 to 16, Songs and Stories From Moby Dick bills itself as the Herman Melville novel reinvented as a “postmodern musical” and Anderson’s most ambitious project since her 1983 epic, United States. This whaling extravaganza also includes, for the first time, performers onstage other than Anderson herself, although her trademark spiky haircut, wry gamine presence, electric violin, black suit, and red shoes will all be very much a part of the show’s defining elements. Anderson will also be making ample use of a newfangled instrument called the “talking stick,” an electronic magic wand that can generate sounds of all description with the simple wave of a hand: A New Age harpoon for Ahab.

“Being a somewhat dark person myself,” Anderson confesses, “I fell in love with the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.” Beyond that, the sheer encyclopedic scope of the book fascinates her, a narrative that moves through ideas about history, philosophy, science, religion, and the natural world. Anderson is also struck by the fact that Moby Dick is a strangely silent book in the sense that its descriptive imagery is mostly visual or spiritual rather than auditory, factors that leave a composer free to create her own musical world.

“My goal,” says Anderson, “is to translate some of my favorite parts of the book into music and images that suggest the flavor and strangeness and beauty of Melville’s world. And to make a world of my own where ideas and obsessions take a new sensual form.”

As befits a captain of musical industry, Philip Glass is serving up his new film score to the classic 1931 horror film Dracula with Bela Lugosi in three commercial formats: a sound-only CD (Nonesuch Records), a videocassette of the movie with its new score (Universal Studios Home Video), and a live tour of the whole package, which visits BAM during Halloween week, on October 26 and 27. The music was composed for the Kronos Quartet, which will play in person at BAM as the film rolls, joined by the composer himself, adding an extra sonic dimension on keyboards. As one of the earliest talkies, Dracula was never provided with a proper musical soundtrack to complement the film’s dank Transylvanian atmosphere, tomblike castle, and beady-eyed undead hero as he stalks his prey. Glass has now corrected that omission, and his 67-minute score aims to capture all the sinister goings-on with deadly accuracy.

The live performances make severe physical demands on the Kronos, which must play virtually nonstop for over an hour. This doesn’t phase David Harrington, the group’s first-violinist, who thinks Glass has written one of his finest scores ever, a huge musical canvas that unfolds in a way that seems to conjure up the image of Lugosi himself as he spreads his huge bat wings. “When you watch the film,” he says, “it’s amazing how minutely the musical moments are synchronized, right down to a single frame. For the viewer it now seems as if the music is actually driving the action. One of my favorite spots comes when a horde of rats erupts on the screen just as we are playing a lot of slithery ponticello effects – the eerie sound of string bows playing on the instruments’ wooden bridges makes the scene even more terrifying.”

What Anderson and Glass have come up with may be unclassifiable music theater, but John Harbison insists that he has written a real opera. And however audiences and critics react to the world premiere of The Great Gatsby at the Met on December 20, it seems to be a subject he was destined to confront sooner or later. Like Fitzgerald, Harbison came of age while attending Princeton University, and the music of the Jazz Age, so closely woven into the novel’s fabric, has been one of the composer’s passions since his youth. The opera began to take shape as early as 1981, but problems with securing rights put off serious work on the project until the Met commission materialized in 1993. A look at the vocal score indicates that Harbison found exactly the kind of material he could best respond to as a composer: an interior story of aspiration and disillusionment that can be shaped and defined, as with all great operas, by purely musical processes. Significantly, the composer has written the libretto himself.

With two earlier stage works to his credit, Harbison is not exactly an opera novice, although he did look to a model from the past as he worked on Gatsby: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, another opera based on a famous work of narrative literature that became a national classic. “I would be happy,” he says, “if my opera was just as intensely imagined and theatrically successful – Tchaikovsky always seemed to find exactly the right musical form to mirror the external events. In Gatsby, I have tried very hard to preserve the characters’ fixation on obsessive longing and determination to do anything to preserve their illusions. That quality of yearning pervades the book, and Fitzgerald gives it a consistent and persistent voice. It was a real challenge for me to find the right musical equivalent.” The Met has not stinted in helping him reach that goal. Mark Lamos directs the production, James Levine conducts, the sets are by Michael Yeargan, the costumes by Jane Greenwood, and the starry cast includes Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Jerry Hadley, Dwayne Croft, and Mark Baker.

Classical Music: Novel Passions