Regional premieres of new operas are exciting enough, but as part of the celebrations surrounding the renovation of Aycock Auditorium on the University of North Carolina Greensboro, a major benefactor gave additional funds for a project for the prize-winning School of Opera Theatre. Its director, David Holley, opted to commission an opera. Libby Larsen, one of America's most performed living composers, was selected, and her first choice was William Inge's Pulitzer prize-winning play Picnic. Her ability to set the English language to music has been compared favorably to that of Benjamin Britten. The world premiere performance is April 2 in Aycock Auditorium, and the work will be repeated April 3 and 5; for details, see our calendar.
Inge's plays are noted for their real-life tone and the contrast between the grit of life, such as alcoholism and sexual impropriety, with the "white picket fences 1950's American Dream."
While most audiences warmly received Picnic for its superficial charms, critics praised it for Inge's handling of much darker themes. According to the online enotes site, "Picnic has come to be regarded as a pioneering drama for its frank depiction of sexuality and its subliminally cynical take on the 'love conquers all' hypothesis."
CVNC submitted ten questions via email to librettist and director David Holley covering how this world premiere commission came about and aspects involved in transforming a play into an opera.
CVNC: How did the idea of commissioning an opera for UNCG come about?
DH: In 2004, we had a man in our development office (Weston Hatfield) who was the son of the executor of Charles A. Babcock and his estate. Mr. Babcock had (over many previous years) donated over $100,000 to make renovations to Aycock and wanted to make another gift of $50,000 for three years for a total of $150,000. Weston and Nancy Shane (our then development director) approached me and asked what type of project the UNCG Opera Theatre could do with $150,000. I have had several dreams over the years, among them to begin a summer opera program and another to commission a new American Opera. That idea appealed to Mr. Babcock. I put together a budget and timetable that included workshops and residencies for the composer we would eventually select.
CVNC: How was Libby Larsen selected to compose the commissioned opera?
DH: When we got the gift, we formed a committee to explore whom we should approach with the commission, but I wanted Libby all along. I had seen her Mrs. Dalloway (based on Virginia Wolff's novel) at the Lyric Opera of Cleveland in 1993, and I thought it was fantastic. She subsequently came to UNCG and did a master class, so I got to see her work personally. The committee had other ideas, but we narrowed it down to composers who had already written operas, since we didn't want this to be a composer's first opera. We all eventually agreed on Libby.
CVNC: How did Inge's play Picnic come to be selected?
DH: Once we settled on Libby and she accepted, Picnic was the first thing out of her mouth as far as what she wanted to write.
CVNC: Making an opera out of a literary text often involves condensing and discarding extensive amounts of characters and text. What were some of the difficulties encountered while adapting the play into a libretto?
DH: I eliminated one character and added one. The play, however, is structured so well and very operatically. My main task starting out was to treat Act I as the first movement of a symphony (i.e., sonata-allegro form), with a clear exposition: introducing the characters and defining relationships. This is where I pulled a great deal of information and text from other parts of the play. I knew the second act needed to heighten a conflict, and the pivotal scene in the play is clear: Hal's and Madge's dance scene and Rosemary's subsequent tirade. I knew that had to end or be close to the end of the act. The third act was the easiest: Inge wrote an amazing scene for Howard and Rosemary, followed by a short poignant scene for Hal and Madge. After an interlude (giving the orchestra a chance to shine by themselves), the third act serves as a resolution to the conflict and ends much the same as the opera opens, with Flo and Helen alone on stage.
CVNC: How were the major arias or vocal scenes selected?
DH: I took many of my cues from the structure that Inge set up in the play. I wrote some original arias/scenes, and adapted some of Inge's text into scenes/arias. Major arias in Act I include "You Were the First Born" (Flo), "Pretty tired" (Madge), and Hal's "Yellow Convertible/Picket Fence Fantasy." Act II has some much-needed comic relief with the school teachers' (Rosemary, Irma, and Christine) "Pot Roast of Veal," as well as the dance scena and Rosemary's tirade. Act III opens with two great duet scenes, first between Rosemary and Howard, then for Hal and Madge. Hal sings a terrific aria toward the end: "You're the only real thing I've ever wanted."
CVNC: How much of Inge's words was kept and how much new material was involved in creating arias or dramatic vocal settings?
DH: Libby and I both agreed that we loved Inge's use of language, and I retained quite a bit of it. I did, however, become so immersed in the process I can't remember the percentage (unless I went back through all of my copious notes).
CVNC: How was instrumentation determined?
DH: One of the things that I believe attracted Libby was that we offered her the chance to write for whatever she wanted. There are four saxophones in the orchestra and a complete Jazz band comprised of our jazz faculty: John Salmon, Steve Haines, Ed Bach, and Thomas Taylor. They are the "Ernie Higgins and the Happiness Boys" who are mentioned in the play as the musicians who play at all the social events in town.
CVNC: Did budget play a role?
DH: No, since we are using the University Symphony that really was not an issue.
CVNC: How would you describe the musical style of the score?
DH: Much of the musical language of the score is based in jazz; in fact there are sections that are totally improvised by the singers; each performance will be different! Then, other parts of the score are more classical, but there are many tri-tones and jazz chords, even in sections that are not specifically "Jazz."
CVNC: What aspects led to the selection of a vocal type for each main character?
DH: Libby and I discussed those things first, and they really developed out of how we saw each character. Flo had to be a lyric mezzo, Hal, a baritone. Rosemary is also a lyric mezzo, but with the ability to be "bawdy" as her character is. It was really driven by Inge's clearly chiseled characterizations.
CVNC: How important is a chorus in this opera?
DH: There is no chorus. The makers of the movie manufactured the big picnic scene where Madge is crowned the Queen of "neewollah" (which is "Halloween" backwards) — with all of its pageantry and people. It doesn't exist in the play, and I felt it was stronger without it. No scene change, no chorus costumes… easier to produce.