aOn Tuesday night, after five years, soprano Renee Fleming will return to the Metropolitan Opera for the world premiere of hours. As the hall packed with her adoring fans eagerly awaits, she’ll spread her majestic voice with the sweet opening word: “Dishes.”
This is correct. dishes. Her character in the opera based on the 1998 novel and 2002 film The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan, is preparing a party for her best friend Richard who is dying of AIDS, and is in need of dishes.
It’s the juxtaposition of star power and the mundane that tickles the composer of the new opera, Kevin Potts. “It’s kind of funny,” he told The Guardian, “that ‘Dishes’ would be Renee’s first big return to the Met.”
Not that he takes opening night of The Hours remotely lightly. To find himself at the Met with Fleming, having grown up in Alma, a town of 9,000 people in Michigan’s deepest countryside—that’s no platter.
“For an American composer, doing something at the Met is beyond your dream,” he said, looking genuinely a little stunned.
Fleming isn’t just a champion in watches, he was influential in creating them. She and Puts had been working on smaller pieces, and they had developed such an affinity for each other’s work that it seemed only natural that he would ask her if she would join him if he wrote a new opera.
The singer was excited, and suggested the watches. “It immediately seemed very interesting to me,” Potts said. “I knew the film and the book, and my first impression was that the atmosphere of the piece, its ambiguity, and the relationship of three women across three time periods, spoke to the kind of musical vocabulary that would be exciting for me.”
Clocks as a story seem to lend themselves to multiple art forms. She began her life as Michael Cunningham’s protégé in one of Virginia Woolf’s most revered novels, Mrs. Dalloway. In his novel, Cunningham traces a single day in the lives of three women affected by Woolf’s remarkable work – Woolf herself in 1923 when Mrs. Dalloway wrote in a suburban purgatory in Richmond, England; Laura Brown, who is reading the book in 1949, longs for her literary charm to transfer far beyond her life as a wife and mother in Los Angeles. and Clarissa Vaughan, a 1999 New Yorker haunted by her past.
Potts, 50, said he immediately saw the potential for opera to take the story to places that literature and film can’t go — particularly in the interactions between characters across time and space. “I learned with opera that once you’ve created the three ballads, you can begin to intertwine them with duets and trios—the music and harmony allow this in ways that other art forms don’t.”
Given how Puts and Fleming conceived of the opera together, it is not surprising that the composer wrote the music so often with her voice in mind. Early in the process, she tells him, “I really just want to sing beautifully,” and he replies, “Yeah, I can do that,” implying that, having worked with her in the past, he knew that his composing style was suited to her voice, and equally to suit Her singing is his music.
Fans of The Hours were blown away by the trinity of exceptional performances – Meryl Streep as Vaughan, Julianne Moore as Brown, and Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman as Wolfe. The Met production meets the same extraordinary high standard by bringing together three female lead singers: Fleming as Streep, Broadway musical singer Kelli O’Hara as Moore; and another Met favorite, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, instead of Kidman.
Potts said writing for three of these giants placed “tremendous pressure” on him, which he dealt with by drawing on his musical muscles developed over 25 years of composing. He’s been creating operas for more than a decade—his first, Silent Night, about the Christmas Eve truce in World War I, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011; The hours are four for him.
The more he knows about the nuances of each singer’s voice, the more he hones the score personally for her. In the opera, the three women are given their own world of sound.
I asked Puts to describe those sonic bubbles, and though he protested that he found it hard to put his work into words without referring to other composers which he tries not to, he made a good stab at it.
Clarissa’s vocal world has an American quality, I think you could trace it back to Leonard Bernstein, maybe even Aaron Copland, with bright, rich textures bulging behind her. For Laura Brown, living outside Los Angeles just after World War II, I wanted to capture the music of that time and the feeling That she lives a happy home life, Pleasantville, but it’s not her world, it’s not her music. And for Woolf her music is more intimate and accessible, with harmony that closes in on itself and takes turns taking turns you least expect, just as her writing is with her own streams of consciousness.”
The Hours is an exciting yet dark story. The three women grapple with lives in which they feel trapped, or in which they feel denial, and the other main character, Richard, is on the verge of death and despair.
Once he immersed himself in the part of Greg Pearce, Potts said, he found himself feeling intense sympathy for the characters. “The piece is about, to me, a very huge and powerful theme: the compulsion of oneself to live in an inauthentic way.”
It made him think about growing up in small-town Michigan, and how that resonates with today’s expressions of intolerance for the recent stripping of the constitutional right to abortion and fears of a similar possible attack on LGBT rights.
Friends in high school were gay, couldn’t be gay, and they were traumatized by it. I’ve seen the effects of that over time,” he said.
The composer delved into these ideas while composing The Hours so much that he says they affected him personally in ways he had never experienced before. “A lot of composing the piece was stressful. I felt overwhelmed. I tried to figure out why that was, because in general I love composing. I think it was just the weight of those things and connections that I was making.”
The emotional toll, by all accounts, seems to have been worth it. The Hours was first performed as a concert piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra in March, and the Local Inquirer Job description “Instantly likable, with lush harmonies hitting you in the solar plexus.”
This chimes with something memorable Fleming said to The New York Times On why she was drawn to Potts’ style of music. “Kevin is not afraid to write something poignant and beautiful for the general public,” she said, noting that the composers in her life struggled with it.
Do you agree with Fleming’s assessment? Is he more apt to write for a wide audience than many classic authors?
He said, “I have always felt that the composer’s prerogative transcends a kind of duty to support the aesthetic ‘movements’ and trends of their time, though they must be taken into account.” “I have the feeling that composers feel a stylistic duty to other composers, and a need to be seen respectfully within contemporary music culture. Given the nature of what I write, I know this is probably impossible for me.”
Is he writing for the public?
“I know what drives me. I have no idea what the audience tastes, I can just imagine myself as the audience and make my decisions based on that.”
All of these reflections on musical style, craft, aesthetics, realms of sound and authenticity to life come to a head at the end of the hours. He unleashes the opera’s freedom of crossing boundaries by bringing the three women together on stage to sing in unison.
As a musical, it is a stage show. “My God!” exclaimed puts. “The three big stars on the same stage, singing together? I was fully aware of the need for this.”
But it’s not just a historic moment in the Met. It is also the artistic conclusion to the piece, Puts’ chance to finish the interplay of his sonic worlds.
“It’s the end of the day, the end of the opera, and the three stories come together, and it feels like something different. We’re trying to create some sense of hope, the feeling that you bear, as you bear, and I bear, you know…”
And with that, Kevin Potts walks away, leaving us to wonder where, finally, his musical imagination will take us.
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