Is Victorian England Ready To See Two Men Declare Their Love For One Another On Stage; Or For That Matter Is 21st Century America?
by Frank Barcone
This past year I attended a reading of a new work that was being presented by The Lark Ascending, a small not-for-profit group in New York City devoted to works of high culture. Skeptical as always about new vocal works and composition I was hesitant to make the sojourn from my Chelsea apartment to the village. With some prodding from a good friend I did indeed attend and was quite moved by what I experienced.
What I did encounter was a live reading of a new opera by the composer Richard Brooks entitled Robert and Hal. What struck me immediately about this opera was that Brooks has a gift for lyrical writing and a true sense of dramatic invention that is rare with new works. His vocal writing was challenging to the singers but not alienating toward his audience.
Indeed I waited till after the performance to congratulate Mr. Brooks on his reading of Robert and Hal (and waited) over 15 minutes on a receiving line to do so.
What makes this opera so different is the theme. Two men finding their true sexuality in a society that is not interested in having them express their true sexual preferences. No I am not referring to the current tenor of middle-America, I am referring to the period in which the opera is set, Victorian England. What makes this opera so compelling is the mind set of the societal acceptance. "The more things change the more they say the same is more than an old saying". It is clear that what Mr. Brooks has touched upon is more than just a sentiment, it is a reality that continues for many gay male and female couples in the United States and elsewhere.
I had the opportunity to interview the composer about this new opera and discuss his work in general, here is what he had to say:
FB: When you first read the libretto for Robert and Hal did you see it as an opera, or did the idea and eventual form grow from your thoughts?
RB: The libretto was conceived from the beginning as an opera. I responded to an announcement in the Society of Composers, Inc. Newsletter. The librettist, Marcia Elder, had placed it looking for composers interested in collaborating. When I contacted her she asked me to send some tapes of my work as several composers had responded and she wanted to find someone whose music she liked. I thought that was pretty sensible and was pleased when she selected me. We subsequently became very close friends. Sadly, she died before we were able to arrange the workshop performance last October. She had heard only a recording made of one scene.
FB: Are your intentions to make a political or ethical statement with your opera, or are you leaving it open for the audience to interpret. Either way could you elaborate on the impact you hope it has when professionally premiered.
RB: I think Marcia had a definite social-political "agenda" as her impetus for writting the libretto. She was the child of an extremely fundamentalist Christian father. He raised her with all sorts of strong biases against lots of people, among them, of course, homosexuals. As she matured she began to seriously question these attitudes and struggled her entire adult life to overcome her prejudices. In high school her best friend was a gay man, although she only learned that after high school. His name is Hal and she asked his okay to use his name for one of the protagonists (though the character is not modeled on his life). Marcia had a strong mission to use the opera as a vehicle for helping to break down people's intolerance of gay people. While I certainly sympathize with her, I am more interested in having the opera be a solid dramatic piece with memorable music. It's a love story and though the central figures are a gay couple, it's still a love story fundamentally. I feel listeners will understand the other issues if I can pull them into the drama through the music.
FB: Your style of music is very friendly, certainly you are a well-rounded composer and have composed in many styles over the years. Is Robert and Hal in your current harmonic voice or was R&H composed to be gentler than your other works.
RB: I have always tried to explore a wide range of musical styles and not be dogmatic about any one of them. I have tried to gain some mastery over various important compositional techniques with a view to using them to express my musical thoughts as fully as possible. I am very pleased when people respond emotionally to my work but it's not my main objective, which is to fashion a good piece using whatever means seem appropriate. In terms of vocal music I feel very strongly that the human voice is a fundamentally lyrical instrument and that it sounds best when music is written keeping that in mind. I also think there is nothing wrong in writing for a specific audience; after all Bach did it, Mozart did it and a whole host of others.
FB:How much will your orchestration effect the final work. My demonstration recording of the piano and vocal recording is a fine one, but leaves many questions about R&H's final orchestration.
RB: I did want the opera to work with just piano and I think it does. But I have orchestrated it for strings and one each of woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) and percussion--no brass. I think the orchestration will flesh out the harmonic language and provide a lushness at certain moments which the piano can't manage no matter how good the player. It cannot sustain as well as strings and winds can.
FB: I understand that this is not your first opera. Could you tell me about your first opera and the success you have had with it?
RB: This is actually my third opera. Prior to Robert and Hal I did a version of Moby Dick with a libretto by John Richards. I think it's a very strong work but has not had a full production. There have been excerpts done using small instrumental forces. It's a large cast with a very large orchestra so it's hard to get a production.
My first opera is a one act piece for young audiences, Rapunzel. It was written as a commission from the Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, NY in the late 1960s. The company was doing educational tours of operas for children in school districts in central New York State under a special government grant. After a while they had exhausted all the literature they could find which was suitable and practicable. The directors knew I was a fledgling composer and they asked me to try my hand. Naturally, I was very excited to be given such an opportunity. They placed several limitations: no more than an hour in length, no more than four characters, and a story suitable for kids. It took me a while to finish the score and when I did they were no longer receivng the grant for touring. However, they mounted a production with sets, costumes and full orchestra and did three performances. You can imagine what a thrill that was for a composer in his mid-twenties! Not long after the production I moved to New York City to pursue graduate studies. I thought that was the end of Rapunzel.
In 1976, I was contacted by the Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia in Arlington. They wanted to do Rapunzel. They did 3 or 4 performances, again with full staging and orchestra. Amazing, but that had to be a fluke, I thought. Nevertheless, a d few years later it was mounted by Wolf Trap; a few years after that by the Denver Symphony. So it had four productions with full orchestra. Quite a while went by and then in the Spring of 2002 I was contacted by the Cincinnati Opera. They have a very ambitious educational opera program. They did eleven performances in a theater where the students came with their parents. That was in the Spring of 2003. During the 2003-2004 season they toured it and performed it in 54 additional schools for a total of 65 performances. Since then several companies have asked to see the score, so we'll see what happens next.
FB: What would you like to have audiences saying as they leave from the premiere of Robert and Hal?
RB:It'd be great if they left humming some of the tunes! I would hope they would leave feeling moved by the dramatic plight of the characters. As I said earlier, I am less concerned about whatever socio-political issues may be addressed (and they are) than with telling a good story and making the audience empathize with the characters.
Richard Brooks lives in Brooklyn New York and is founder and president of Capstone Records a recording label dedicated to the works of American Composers. He is chairman of the American Composers Alliance and has recently retired from his position of department chairman of music at Nassau Community College in New York.
You can find more information about Richard Brooks and his music at www.capstonerecords.com.
Copyright 2005-Frank Barcone, music writer.