the ‘making of’ a great good thing

This blog entry is an ongoing in-depth interview between operamission’s director Jennifer Peterson and the two creators of a new full-length family opera: The Great Good Thing, music by Bruce Wolosoff, libretto by Debbie Danielpour, based on the novel by Roderick Townley.  operamission is currently workshopping this opera.  Check back as we add entries to this interview and to find out more about the progress of the work.

The Interview

Thursday, September 4, 2014, from Jennifer:

Bruce and Debbie,

After an exciting two days of workshops with most of our cast, I would love to share your process, as well as some of the fortunate elements of your collaboration if you wouldn’t mind.

I don’t know of many ‘family operas’ in the repertoire, which was the first aspect of The Great Good Thing that caught my attention.  We will talk about this later, but first could you both fill me in on what led you to transforming Roderick Townley’s wonderful book into an opera?

Thursday, September 11, 2014, from Bruce:

Debbie and I are very old and very close friends, going back to our student days.  For years we’ve talked about some day collaborating on an opera together.  From time to time we’d kick around an idea, and some of them were pretty good ones, but it never felt like exactly the right idea, UNTIL . . .

My wife (the artist Margaret Garrett), and our two daughters, Juliet and Katya, took a vacation to visit family in New Mexico.  While we were there, one Sunday we took an excursion to a cute little town way down south where there were motorcycle gangs and a nice little bookshop.  My kids loved books more than anything, and one of them pulled “The Great Good Thing” off the shelf and wanted us to buy it.  We did, and Margaret started reading it out loud to the girls over the vacation.  They all seemed to be loving it. For some reason, I wasn’t paying attention.  Margaret kept saying “this book would make a really great opera, Bruce!” She actually forced me to read the book!  I saw what she meant right away.  What a magical story!

I did some research about the author, Roderick Townley, and found out that he went to Bard College, which is where I went to school, and that we both studied there with the poet Robert Kelly.  It felt so karmic!

I told Debbie about the book and I think she loved it too.  Did you, Debbie?

Monday, September 22, 2014, from Debbie:

Yes!  I loved the magical premise, humor and characters of the story and it seemed like a tailor-made project for me and Bruce.  We were both very involved parents of daughters and we both love to laugh.  On top of that, there’s a metaphysical angle to the story:  the young princess in a storybook looks up at her adolescent reader and they establish a real relationship.  (I’m a bit of a nerd, love science fiction.)

What a great challenge:  How to make that notion accessible to kids?  How to use the stage and the audience to convey this?

So yes, Bruce.  I loved the book—though the libretto has taken many liberties in the adaptation—and I’m loving working with you.

Wednesday, September 24, from Jennifer:

It’s wonderful from my end that the two of you have so much history together and are fast friends. Exploring the collaborative process itself is something I find never leads to a predictable pattern.  I have heard panels on it, I’ve asked maybe a hundred composers over the years, but I honestly haven’t a clue what techniques or strategies a ‘Composer-Librettist Matchmaker’ would use.  The closest I have come is comparing it to a romantic relationship.  The variables and complications are endless, yet when it’s right it’s right!

There are so many angles to the story Townley has told and to what both of you have made of it.  But since I’m interested more here in letting our readers in on the process itself, can you tell us how you contacted Townley, and what he thought of the idea of making an opera out of his book?  Did he say no at first?  Was he surprised?  Was he expecting your call?  Did he set any rules that were difficult (or easy) to follow?

Did he have any say on the scope or shape of the opera, or is it all from Debbie?  Does he like your music, Bruce?  Did that play in his giving permission?

Friday, September 26, from Bruce

Romantic relationship?  Uh-oh!

But yes, there are many ways to be in love with somebody!  And just like in a real-life marriage, I think this relationship requires a lot of give and take, listening to the other person, patience, and an openness to the possibility that I might not always be right!

Debbie spent months carefully analyzing Roderick Townley’s book before she wrote a word of the libretto.  She was intent on treating the novel “The Great Good Thing” with greatest possible respect.  That said, some things needed to be adapted and changed to transform the piece into a stage piece.  She has done such a brilliant job, I think, in keeping the feeling of the original work intact while streamlining things so that our family opera will not be longer than Götterdämmerung!

I originally got Rod Townley’s email address from a poet friend who knew him.  When I approached him about the opera, he seemed interested but cautious.  After he listened to some of my music, he felt that we were a good fit and he became enthusiastic about the project.  There were some complications at the time because the book had been optioned to a film producer, but Rod and his agent have been terrific in their support of the project.

We wanted to show him the libretto once we had a complete draft of it, to include him in the process at that stage, and to “get his blessing.”  Rod and his wife Wyatt Townley, a wonderful poet who is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, came out to my house on Shelter Island and we worked through the libretto together (I want to add here that Roderick Townley is 7 foot tall, and Wyatt Townley is also a very tall person, and I was nervous that the bed in our guest room would not be long enough for them!).  He had many notes and suggestions, which were very helpful. I played them the music for the first act and they were very appreciative.  Both of them are quite sophisticated listeners.  Wyatt’s mom had been a distinguished piano instructor, I think in the Kansas city area, and Rod had actually studied jazz piano with Lennie Tristano!

Yes, i think he does like my music, at least he says he does!  It probably doesn’t hurt his opinion of me that I think he’s a brilliant writer who has written a perfect story!

I also think that Debbie’s libretto is fantastic.  It not only tells the story clearly from the stage, it is very imaginative, funny, and the words practically sang themselves to me when I first read them on the page.

Saturday, September 27, from Debbie:

I’m continually grateful for Bruce’s confidence in me and the libretto.  I was often floored when he would send me the piano-vocal score of, for example, a duet or aria; his music would add a level of irony or bittersweet emotion that I could never have imagined.  I’d be sitting at my computer with earbuds, tears welling–and this without the actual voices!  And now, hearing what Jennifer has done with these phenomenal singers… it was difficult to keep the tears at bay during the workshops.

To answer some of Jennifer’s questions…#1:  ”Did he [Townley] set any rules that were difficult (or easy) to follow?”

I was relieved and honored that Mr. Townley did NOT set any rules once he granted Bruce the rights to adapt his book.  Many authors who aren’t filmmakers or playwrights or composers smartly understand that their work is about to be translated into an entirely new language with its own restrictions AND magic.  In film, for example, an excellent actor in an epic landscape can tell the proverbial 1000 words.  I’m grateful to Mr. Townley that he never held us back from taking full advantage of the music, singers and stage-audience relationship.

#2) Did he have any say on the scope or shape of the opera, or is it all from Debbie?

While I held onto most of the book’s brilliantly conceived characters and the functions they served, the story structure had to be simplified and entirely dramatized, that is, all interior musings translated to action or voice/dialogue/song.  I don’t remember if any notes Townley gave Bruce changed the way I reshaped the story, but I do remember how pleased I felt when he expressed approval and didn’t bristle at the many invented songs and resulting shift in some of the characters’ personalities.

My guess is that Townley was so bowled over by the brilliance of Bruce’s music, any issues he might have had with the libretto seemed to fade.

Working with Bruce has been characterized by mutual respect at every step.  We’ve listened to each other, rethought original ideas, entertained new ones–all without tension and almost always (other than when we’ve been exhausted) with pleasure.

Poor Bruce…. I’m already imagining what opera we’ll do next.

Saturday, October 4, from Jennifer:

When I read the libretto away from the score, I am struck with how naturally Bruce’s melodies have spun out of Debbie’s words. It does seem to be quite an organic pairing. It might have been subliminal, but now that I have spent so many months and hours with the score, I see that it might be exactly what grabbed me and hooked me in as my first impression.  All the heavy labor involved in writing an opera seems to be hidden by effortless flow.

For someone reading this interview who doesn’t know the story of The Great Good Thing, it’s hard for me to ask more questions without explaining the plot, so I want to go a little more into your process.

Bruce, you have musical motifs, themes, and tunes associated with bits of text, phrases, lines.  When I asked you about this, it sounded like this was also something that came to you organically without thinking about it a lot, and that Debbie did have a few requests for themes to return in places, and I see that now that I look more at her libretto.

We were all exposed to Wagner as music students, and that psychological effect of a musical motif finding its way into the listener’s experience is something that really serves an important practical purpose in this piece.  The lessons Debbie (and Townley) were imparting with their words find their way so smoothly into our comprehension by way of the easy tunes they are riding.  I hear this opera as something even very small children will be able to gain something from.  And as gentle lessons to parents, grandparents, teachers, etc., it really does speak to all of us.  I sense that your processes were organic or at least intentional, so that’s not my question.  I guess I’m wondering if either of you grew in your appreciation for the medium of opera itself, as a communicator, comforter, or teaching tool.

And back to your process, a huge part of what has been happening in these workshops has been in tightening up the sprawling flow of organic music and words you have created.  I have always considered ‘cuts’ in opera brutal, evil, even dangerous.  Sometimes cuts make the opera feel longer.  So especially with something that seems to have been created so organically, I was afraid to start chopping, yet I knew it needed to be done.  It was clear from me pretty early on that this piece had spun into something that was going to lull the audience into a less interested state at quite a few points.  I was able to look at the music and follow it and see your intentions, but was very afraid it would be too hard for the singers to hold attention in some stretches.  Bruce, can you try to concisely describe to us the kinds of trimmings and tightenings you have been doing over the last month?  You did it MUCH faster than I ever imagined possible.  Was it hard?  Was it fun?

And Debbie, there have been a couple of times when you have suggested cutting words where both the singer and I have protested, no wait that’s my favorite part!  You seem to be able to keep a very fresh ear for changing possibilities.  Are you more stubborn about the big picture, would you say?  Or do you enjoy the elasticity of the process at this stage?

Saturday, October 4, from Bruce:

There are few feelings as satisfying as the feeling that you are doing something you love and working on it at full intensity.  Yes, the revision process was brutally demanding these past couple of weeks, but I also recognized its necessity.  I want this piece to be as good as it can possibly be!

It can be a little tough on the ego, you know, the pursuit of truth and beauty!  A part of me would just like everyone to say “Bruce, you are wonderful, your music is beautiful,” but when you get right down to it, I want the truth.  In the end, the truth will win out anyway, won’t it?

I knew coming in that a significant part of the reason and purpose of these workshops is to get the bugs and kinks out of the piece and take it to the next level.  I came into this workshop process with that attitude, that I would do whatever was required to make the piece better.

I once saw an interview with Neil Simon that made a strong impression on me, in which he discussed the amount of re-writing that was necessary practically every step of the way.  I am a big reviser, and am not afraid to make changes to a piece if it will make it better.  Sometimes good performers have insights into a piece that they can share with me, and I am always grateful for those discussions, yet most of the time it is usually just me alone in my studio doing draft after draft of revision by myself, based on my own critical reactions to what I’ve composed.  It’s between me and my conscience!

I don’t always have enough perspective on material I have written though, and can be too close to it sometimes to make effective critical judgements concerning it.  I’ve always envied the way that writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway had a brilliant editor like Max Perkins to work with.  In these workshops of The Great Good Thing, I have felt so fortunate to have Jennifer Peterson in that role, going through my score with me, sending me laundry lists of places she felt needed attention, mostly either with regard to the vocal writing or the pacing.  Jennifer’s comments were insightful, accurate, and very very helpful.

That said, there were times when I would work through alternatives in a passage and decide in the end that what I had written in the previous draft was just the way I wanted it to be.  Mostly though, as hard as it often was, I took the suggestions from Debbie, from Jennifer, and from these terrific singers, and made what changes were required.  Opera feels like it may be, by nature, a more collaborative medium than other forms of composing.  As much as I may have wanted to simply not read the email that came in from Debbie or Jennifer with suggested changes when I was already exhausted and my head was spinning, I knew I couldn’t just bury my head in the sand in the hope that it would go away!  It wouldn’t.

With regard to the pacing questions, “tightening up the sprawling flow,” as Jennifer characterized it, I think I have some understanding of how that sprawl came about.  When my ideas first come out, they tend to be too compressed.  Sometimes there is a sheet or two of music paper that ends up being a road map for twenty minutes or more of music!  So, working off those first sketches, my first draft of a piece tends to be in too much of a hurry to get from one idea to another idea.  In my next draft I typically go through a piece and expand things, trying to let each idea receive its full due.  Then it gets too long, and some trimming and re-shaping is required!  That’s some of what we have been doing these past couple of weeks with regard to pacing.


Sunday, October 4, from Jennifer:

Thank you for explaining that.

Yes, the collaborative process in opera is indeed one of the most exciting.  Rarely in my career have I felt the vivid alive energy which is created by the sheer number of minds involved in making a new opera happen.

Monday, October 6, from Debbie:

I’m in awe of how humble and ruthless Bruce has been as he’s revised the music–this is one aspect of why he’s been so great to work with.  He always has “his eyes on the prize,” the prize being an astounding family opera that’s the product of many moving parts.  

Jennifer,  you asked me:  “You seem to be able to keep a very fresh ear for changing possibilities.  Are you more stubborn about the big picture, would you say?  Or do you enjoy the elasticity of the process at this stage?”  Because I’ve spent significant time in the filmmaking world, I’m (somewhat, I’ll admit) immunized to the angst of revision.  So yes, I’m not stubborn about much other than the big picture of the story and characters.  

A screenplay is only a starting point for a film, very much as a libretto is for a complete opera.  When you write the script, you write a draft of the whole thing then invite changes from directors, set designers, producers and actors.  However with this libretto, I felt as though I was writing the piece WITH Bruce, often consulting him on how he heard the sound of a given, say, duet or aria before finishing it.  Once we heard the singers, another layer was filled in, essentially offering more feedback on the libretto and music.  Oh, and the beauty of actually hearing it!  

So to answer your question about enjoying the elasticity of the process, not only do I enjoy it, but I hunger for it.  With your guidance, Jennifer, this workshop process has been essential to making the opera whole. 


About operamission

conductor, vocal coach, pianist, harpsichordist
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