One of the five chosen shorts for the Inaugural Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Opera harkens back to the days of vaudeville. Part of the Act will receive its regional premiere on April 15, 2016 in Austin, Texas.
To get to know them better, OOO Member Maureen Broy Papovich recently discussed Part of the Act with its creators, Composer Liam Wade and Librettist John Grimmett. Maureen, who will be taking on the role of “Ginger Taylor,” had these questions for this winning team:
1. For John and Liam: my character, Ginger Taylor, is a seasoned actress with a complex history. The situation she in which she finds herself is timeless. How did you decide on this story for an opera? Is the character of Ginger Taylor based on any actress in particular?
John: Liam and I went back and forth on a couple of ideas, everything from original stories to adaptations. We settled on a short play we both liked by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar (who is most famous for his play Liliom which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted into Carousel) called A Matter of Husbands. We were both drawn to the humorous ironies within the play — we found them timeless, too.
I proposed we move the time and place to a 1920s vaudeville house, where “show business” was born, and then we gave names to the characters (Molnar had them notated as “Famous Actress” and “Earnest Young Woman.”) I think Ginger Taylor is an aggregate of many different types of comic actresses we think we know — Fanny Brice, Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minelli (or, maybe, Minelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles from Cabaret is most accurate), etc. She is a complicated character, and I hesitate to say she is an archetype or a stock character, though it’s easy to typify her in that way since she is in a “musical comedy.” I never set out intending to create her as an imitation of anything other than who she is — and I think Liam succeeds in giving her some really indulgent music. That’s who she is, after all.
Does she feel sorry for Mabel? Maybe. Does she really love Seamus? Probably not. But in both cases, I think she loves making you think she does, and that’s truly what she loves the most.
Another note: not every composer can write “funny” music, and many people think “funny” music does not exist. Liam, however, has created a score that re-contextualizes the musical jokes that we all love in Looney Tunes. What I love most about Liam and his music is that you have a composer who clearly understands Brahms and Wagner and the masters of classical music and who has a very funny sense of humor. Those two things — an awareness of craft and one’s self — are necessary when writing a farce, and I think that’s why this piece continues to speak to audiences.
2. For Liam: Are there different aspects and qualities of the music you use to capture qualities of the characters?
Liam: A big musical influence on Part of the Act was the early Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon scores by Carl Stalling. His scores were often a patch-work of musical references mixed with his technique of “Mickey Mousing” the actions of the characters with musical sound effects. This approach has its roots in vaudeville and the music a pianist or organist would play in the theater accompanying a silent film.
John created some three very dynamic characters, each with lovable and deplorable qualities. In that way they felt very real to me. It was clear that Ginger was a showoff, so I took her into a Queen of the Night/ “Glitter and Be Gay” direction. Mabel needed to work on her self esteem, so I gave her some “Trouble in Tahiti” and Electra moments. And Seamus is the sweet talking Irish Bari-tenor who’s completely in love with himself.
There is a lot of physical comedy in POTA, so as I was acting out the libretto in the music, the piece really took on an authentic vaudeville-slapstick feel. The idea to really play up the slapstick was also something I got from talking to my great aunt Maureen Wade who remembered seeing vaudeville shows as a child in the 1920’s. Another thing I really like about John’s libretto is how fast it moves. It’s a very quick 20 minutes, and that really helped me find the comedic timing. John recommended that I watch Looney Tunes too.
There is a coolness about Ginger Taylor, but she’s also a trouble maker. I always thought of her like Bugs Bunny. Along those lines, the role Mabel McGinley is a bit like Elmer Fudd. Gullible and gunslinging. We sympathize with her, but she might actually blow someone’s head off. Ginger and Mabel kind of play out a role reversal of antagonist and protagonist, like Bugs and Elmer in “What’s Opera, Doc?”, or any other Bugs and Elmer cartoon.
And the husband, Seamus McGinley… I initially though of him as pretty simple like Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk”. Working with tenor John Packard on the studio recording helped me realize that there is a real sliminess to the role, like Nick Apollo Forte’s character in Broadway Danny Rose or Michael Caine’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters. Woody Allen’s casanovas are always such jerks.
3. For John: I noticed that you have authored both lyrics and composed music for different pieces, much like Stephen Sondheim. As a librettist, does the fact that the story will be set to music affect your words? Do you have ideas about how the music should sound?
John: A good librettist understands music and its function in an opera. I happen to write both music and words, so I feel like I’m at an advantage than, say, a playwright or a poet who attempts libretto writing without a clear concept of how music functions dramatically. My teacher, Edward Albee, considers himself a composer over a playwright because he attempts to compose music with language. I aspire to the same, and I think my musical training in composition and orchestration have been incredibly useful in this regard. That said, I’ve never considered myself a composer who writes dramatically; instead, I feel like I am a playwright who happens to write music, much in the same way some actors are actors who happen to sing rather than singers who happen to act.
The words in an opera have to inspire music and serve as a vessel for the music to create dramatic subtext. Otherwise, the entire thing becomes too muddy and convoluted — if a play is a perfectly good play or a poem a perfectly good poem, why need it be set to music if the emotional response garnered from the play or poem has already created a unique experience? I argue that music has little to add, at that point, since the literature seems to possess a music of its own. I believe some of the great librettists of the 21st century — people who have influenced me like Gene Scheer or Deborah Brevoort or Royce Vavrek or Donna DiNovelli or Mark Campbell — strive for balance. No longer do we believe that a libretto is a skeleton upon which hangs a musical flesh; instead, we strive to balance a work of literature on its own merit against being a vessel for musical drama. It’s very difficult thing to do, but when it’s done right, the audience has a transcendent experience.
Technically, a librettist must understand rhythm in all aspects, both musically and dramatically. There are dramatic beats when things happen in an opera (versus a song cycle, when poetry captures a bit of the mundane and makes a single moment extraordinary), and there are musical beats that put the story and characters in the spotlight. How one makes this happen, rhythmically, is similar to how an artist decides what medium she should use to create a work of visual art. I paint with words, so should this moment, rhythmically, be a lyric with a structure? Is that how I’d like the drama to land? How will I parcel out the story that way as opposed to using something freer in terms of form? Does the content (the characters, the story, etc.) demand this? Sondheim, as you mention, masters these things, and I’d like to think it is because he understands rhythm as both a musical and dramatic fundamental. Read the lyrics to “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures and see for yourself how rhythm is paramount to the librettist.
It’s hard for me to talk about my own work because I can only comment as an observer (meaning I’m not sure any of these ideas I have about writing are active choices as opposed to an instinctive ones). I think I will always have my musical ideas with the libretti I write with other composers, and while we certainly discuss those ideas during the writing process, I celebrate the composer’s unique voice on whatever piece we are working on together. There is a reason I make things with the composers I make things with: I find them fascinating, complex people, so I don’t ever try to impose my own opinions too much and disrupt the black magic that goes into making something new. In fact, I feel that they are so brilliant that, selfishly, I am inspired to steal from them as I develop my own musical voice — that’s my only motive.
4. For Liam: From your website, it seems most of your compositions are for smaller ensembles and soloists. What factors have led you to write for smaller groups and ensembles? Do you have an interest in compositions for larger ensembles?
Liam: I write for soloists and smaller ensembles because I love to hear my music performed! The only reason I haven’t written more for larger ensembles is that it’s not very practical. I think it’s very important for a composer to write many, many pieces and have the chance to hear them as often as possible. That is the way a composer develops his/her own voice.
Also, writing for singers is what really inspires me. My music is driven by words. Poems and lyrics are often written in a singular voice, so the music comes out that way. However, I love the combination of voice and orchestra and plan on writing many operas and song cycles with the full Monty as well.
LIAM WADE was the 2015 recipient of the Wagner Society of Northern California William O. Cord Memorial Grant Fund. He was also recently awarded the 2014 Boston Metro Opera Festival Award for his opera, Part of the Act; and the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music 2014 Musical Grant Program Award for his song cycle, Full Fathom Five. This spring he will write a new piece for The Atlanta Opera’s 24-Hour Opera Project.
His chamber opera, Part of the Act, was commissioned by Washington National Opera and premiered at the Kennedy Center on their 2012-13 season. His music has been championed by singers who include sopranos Lisa Willson, Emily Dorn, Ann Moss, Heidi Moss, Jennifer Piazza-Pick and Shantelle Przybylo, mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, tenor John Packard and baritone James Shaffran.
His music has been heard on concerts at La Jolla Music Society, ProQuartet France, Toronto Music Garden, West Edge Opera, Academy of Vocal Arts, The Kennedy Center and Semperoper Dresden.
He recently worked with the Lee Trio on a new piece that premiered on a recital at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts last October, and with librettist Caitlin Vincent on a new song cycle for soprano, cello and piano titled Love in the Time of Email that premiered on the same concert. Last June, tenor John Packard and pianist Markus Pawlik premiered Wade’s dramatic scene for heldentenor, The Eve of Waterloo, based on a poem by Lord Byron, on a recital presented by the Wagner Society and the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany. For the last two year’s Wade’s music has been performed on Semperoper Dresden’s Semper Soiree series.
Wade studied composition with Philip Lasser, Howard Frazin, Kurt Rohde, Ross Bauer and Jake Heggie. His musical interests range far beyond the opera house as he can regularly be heard performing Jazz, Rock and Country.
JOHN GRIMMETT (b. 1988) is a composer-lyricist, librettist, playwright and poet.
His work has been performed internationally by such theatre and opera companies as the Washington National Opera, Fort Worth Opera and the Baltic Chamber Opera Theatre as well as at universities and conservatory training programs at the University of Houston, New York University and Indiana University, among others. The composer of musical theatre and art songs as well as solo instrumental, chamber, and choral works, Mr. Grimmett is the recipient of the 2014 Festival Award in Opera from the Boston-International Contempo Festival for Part of the Act and the 2015 runner-up for The American Prize in Composition (Opera, Theater and Film Division) for Rain Down the Ruin.
Mr. Grimmett’s mentors include Edward Albee, Jake Heggie, and David Ashley White. He also studied at the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University, where he was a recipient of the Max Dreyfus Scholarship from the ASCAP Foundation in recognition of his talent as a musical theatre composer.
His most recent collaborations include Rain Down the Ruin, a musical with 2015 Kleban Prize finalist Jason Carlson; an arrangement commissioned by Ann Moss for Chanticleer on Moss’ upcoming album, Love Life; and a viola sonata for violist Justin Ouellet. He is also writing the music and words to the children’s opera, Henry the Steinway (based on the children’s books of the same name); the libretto for Nothing in the Nothingness, a chamber opera with music by Daniel Zajicek to be premiered in Houston in February 2016; and the libretto for The State of Jefferson, an opera with music by Kenneth Froelich and commissioned by the Fresno State Opera Theater for their 2016-2017 season.
In addition to three new operas, upcoming works include Regrets Only for soprano Ann Moss and cellist Emil Miland; Finite Differences, a song cycle with Kenneth Froelich for soprano Ann Moss and the Hausmann Quartet; and a commission by the Alvin Junior High School Symphonic Band for the dedication of the school’s new band hall.
During the academic year, Mr. Grimmett directs a junior high theatre program in the Pearland Independent School District (Pearland, TX) and recently won first place in the 2016 Pearland ISD Junior High UIL One Act Play Competition. He is also a teaching artist for the Red Door Theatre Company (Pasadena, TX) and the Director of Educational Programming for CMASH, a new music repertory group dedicated to establishing long-term collaborative relationships between composers and performers and welcoming new audiences to the genre of contemporary chamber music. When not teaching, he lives in New York City.