Welcome back 2-time FSO winner Steven Serpa, Austin-based composer and singer. His winning short opera Thyrsis and Amaranth made the 2016 Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Opera program, and has been hailed as “powerfully emotional” and “truly beautiful….a magnificent story.” Maureen, who played Amaranth, takes on Serpa once again, and along with OOO newcomer Chelsea DeLorenz, will breathe life into Steven’s quirky song cycle The Creatures: A Bestiary Retold on Friday, November 3rd.
And now, with the help of Maureen and Chelsea, let’s spotlight Steven and his work. Enjoy!
Maureen: I’m absolutely loving these pieces. I think my favorite thing about these songs is how dark parts of them are. So many songs about animals are cute and funny. I love how the poetry and music reflect a truer portrait of living beings (even the fantasy ones!)
Anyhow, a couple of questions for you about your process with these pieces.
1. An obvious one is, how did you choose these particular ‘beasts’ to set?
2. I’m also curious what drew you to Jeffrey Beam’s poetry to begin with. You speak in the notes about your relationship with Lee Hoiby – which is so interesting – and you talk about your love of Beam’s poetry, but not how you came to find his work and what about it moves you?
Steven: Hi Maureen & Chelsea! I’m glad to hear from you and glad you’re enjoying the beast songs. I’m really looking forward to hearing what you do with these songs. After wrestling with the notes and rhythms on the bars of the music/cage, I’ve grown fond of these little monsters. Whether spikey or fuzzy, each animal has its beauty and light, their ugliness and darkness. I also think the Prologue is one of my favorite vocal things I’ve written! I’m looking forward to this.
So 1st, these little monsters…
The Creatures is a work I have wanted to write for a bunch of years now. The poems are such entertaining gems. They are quirky mixtures of “scientific observation” and mysticism that Jeffery crafted from snippets of Elizabethan bestiaries. While Jeffery drew on the tradition of these medieval authors, I drew on the tradition of beast songs from the last century. So why did I choose the creatures I did? Some of the creatures I chose because composers before me had written really great works on them, like Poulenc’s Le Dromadaire or Cage’s Litany for the Whale. The others I was drawn to for the combination of myth and reality or of their beauty or power. Each creature has two sides, like all of us really: the Beaver has its sweet, playful quality but is also a crafty creature of the night– the Manticore is a dangerous man-eater with a radiant, clear voice.
So 2nd … What is it about Jeffery’s poetry…
The Creatures is actually my third work with Jeffery’s poetry. Last year the Austin Symphony Orchestra premiered my work An Invocation, a tone poem inspired by his poem of the same name. But the first time I came across his texts was in 2008 when I was writing a choral cantata for a World AIDS Day benefit in Boston. I was looking for text that possessed both memorial qualities but was also uplifting, and I found this absolutely perfect and inspiring poem:
Heaven’s hounds guard your ashes now
Shine their green light
on a humbled earth
For every gray stone
alive with moss and left
unturned by your kind feet
Heaven’s birds sing
That was my intro to Jeffery Beam’s work. Since then, I’ve extensively explored his poetry. It has inspired me and had me scheming new partnerships between his text and my music. On top of that, learning that Lee Hoiby, one of the best art song composers in the history of American song, learning that he had set Jeffery’s texts made me feel even more connected to the poetry. Lee was an early mentor to me. When I first started composing, he graciously looked over my songs and gave me words of criticism and support. I feel like these songs are a spiritual return to those early songs, and so I’ve dedicated them to Lee Hoiby’s memory.
Steven Serpa is a composer whose music has won recognition with ensembles and opera companies across the United States, Canada and Europe. His work An Invocation was recently premiered by the Austin Symphony Orchestra and featured on the TreeFalls new music series in Spartanburg, SC. His one-act opera Thyrsis & Amaranth was premiered by Hartford Opera Theater in 2011 and has since been produced in Halifax, Cincinnati, Austin, St. Louis, and recently at Syracuse University. Critics praised Thyrsis as “Truly beautiful… a magnificent little story jammed full of thought and feeling and meaning” with “gorgeous music and wrenching lyrics.”
To find out more about Steven, visit his website http://serpamusic.com.