Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh was as famous for his madness as his work: perennially cranky, blasted out of his mind on Absinthe, and mental illness all made for chillingly gorgeous, shimmery visions on canvas full of vibrant colors and kinetic brush strokes. Why no one thought to make him the protagonist of an opera sooner has been answered by Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, who've commissioned a new opera on the life of the tortured painter to premiere in Spring 2011 for Indiana University.
The opera has been composed by Bernard Rands who carried around his Van Gogh love from over 30 years ago when he was living in Amsterdam, impacted by visits to Netherlands' famous Van Gogh Museum. Rands collaborated with librettist (poet, and editor of The Yale Review) J. D. McClatchy. Both McClatchy and Rands read through Van Gogh's personal correspondence for inspiration.
But don't expect the opera to pity the lunatic Van Gogh. McClatchy explained, "The challenge with Vincent is how to portray not only a difficult life filled with unhappiness, poverty, neglect, madness and suicide, but how to link that desperation with his inspiration. His life was a wrenching paradox. He sold only a couple of paintings in his lifetime, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time."
Very few American poets writing today can be mentioned in the same breath as J. D. "Sandy" McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review and president of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. (To read an excerpt from his latest, "Mercury Dressing", click here; his 2004 collection, "Hazmat", is another OC favorite).
McClatchy, who's also an extraordinarily insightful critic, and a co-executor of James Merrill's estate, is an opera librettist, too: he has given words to the music of composers such as Ned Rorem, Lorin Maazel, Lowell Liebermann, Tobias Picker and Elliot Goldenthal. And he has written the libretto for Giorgio Battistelli's forthcoming opera, "An Inconvenient Truth" (from Al Gore's book) that will open at la Scala in 2011.
Opera Chic: How did your transition from poet to librettist go -- how much of the job is learned as-you-go, especially considering that most librettisti indeed start out as poets, which is obviously a very different business altogether?
J. D. McClatchy: Everything is learned on the job. There are no courses to take. We go to the opera house as kids, and watch and listen. The Met radio broadcasts were a way for me to learn the repertory, but also to listen to the drama as music. Later, in the upper balconies, I could see how people entered and exited, how the soprano’s lonely solo was followed by a chorus, and so on. Operatic dramaturgy has its own rhythms. I think being a poet trains you to be concise, to move in language by images, to understand the dynamic of speech. Advancing a plot and revealing a character in opera—well, there’s very little time to do that. Poets seem best equipped for the task. And some of the greatest poets who wrote libretti—Metastasio, Romani, Hofmannsthal—were able to give psychological depth to their characters in astonishingly effective ways.
OC: How’s working with the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli for the Al Gore opera “An Inconvenient Truth” that you've written for la Scala for 2011?
JD: I don’t know how Giorgio’s music will sound because he hasn’t written any of it yet—or none that I’ve heard. That’s because, when we took on a new director for the project (ed: William Friedkin was originally scheduled to direct), the supernaturally talented Robert Lepage, he had new and provocative ideas and we all decided to take the libretto, which was then g]finished, in an entirely new direction. We’ve had strategy sessions in London and New York, and I’m just now finishing up the new version. Since the curtain doesn’t come up until October 2013, there’s plenty of time, though I know Giorgio is itching to start composing.
OC: How difficult is it to make something that’s beautiful and not simply, so to speak, “educational” when writing an opera about the environment ? The Gore book can be dry at times. Is it paradoxically liberating for you as a writer to have such an unconventional source? How do you make a nonfiction work sound poetic? How much harder is it than turning, say, Orwell's "1984" into an opera for Maazel?
JD: “1984” was, more or less, a straight adaptation, and the material was a well-known novel, with a plot and characters, a villain and a denouement. “An Inconvenient Truth” is another kettle of fish, but that’s what makes the whole project so intriguing. What we’re doing is interlacing the story of Gore’s coming-to-his-decisions with a grand technological panorama of the world and its environmental problems. That’s essentially Lepage’s portfolio. What I’m doing now is crafting Gore’s story—and it leads up to the time the first shaky slide goes into his projector—as the development of an environmental conscience. It’s less a personal story than a moral fable.
OC: What are you working on now besides the “An Inconvenient Truth” libretto?
JD: I’ve done the libretto for a children’s opera, “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” that will be written by composer Daron Hagen for the Sarasota Opera. Next year, in San Antonio, “The Secret Agent” by composer Michael Dellaira opens; the libretto is based on the Joseph Conrad novel about terrorists in London. And in the spring of 2011, “Vincent,” an opera on the life of Van Gogh, with music by Bernard Rands, will open at Indiana University’s music school. For the Metropolitan Opera I’ll be making an English version of “The Bartered Bride,” and I’ve just finished a book for W. W. Norton that gathers new translations of the seven major libretti for Mozart operas, all in their original verse forms.
OC: Which American poet do you think would make a good librettist?
JD: I’m sure they could. Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, Dana Gioia, Gardner McFall—of, and many others already have. More poets than ever are bringing their skills to the business of making new opera, a very exciting development.
OC:You’ve edited “Frank O'Hara: The Voice of the Poet”, for Random House. O’Hara, as a student, wanted to be a composer – did you see (or hear) any of his compositions? And do you think he’d have made a good librettist?
JD: I don’t know if O’Hara ever actually wrote music, but, no, I’ve never heard any. Yes, he would have made wonderfully goofy libretti. In a sense, his friend the poet Kenneth Koch wrote what O’Hara might have. He wrote a libretto or two for Ned Rorem—exuberant and witty.
OC: On October 22, the Center for Contemporary Opera will premiere a semi-staged version of the opera “The Secret Agent”, based on Joseph Conrad's book with music by Michael Dellaira. Is this your first collaboration with the CCO? What's it like working on American opera for a smaller arts organization, as opposed to the larger American and European houses? Is it a more organic process to write the libretto and can you take more artistic liberties?
JD:I’ve worked with CCO before. They produced and recorded an opera I wrote with Francis Thorne, “Mario and the Magician,” based on the Thomas Mann tale. So this was a happy re-union. These sorts of complete readings—it was the first time I had heard the whole piece—are enormously valuable to the creators. I sat there on both evenings, the score on my lap, a pencil in hand, furiously making notes about what could be cut, what needs to be added, what could better be shaped into an aria, what needs loosening up. I work in exactly the same way, whether it’s for the Met or for CCO. For me, the stakes are just as high, the responsibilities just as great. What I like most about the opera world is the extraordinary dedication of everyone involved. Lots of ego, sure, but in the end it’s all focused on what happens on stage when the curtain goes up. It’s an elaborate, expensive, exhausting undertaking, but nothing else in my life has ever been so exhilarating.