Local composer creates original work for Skylight

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Daron Hagen

Three theatrical friends past their prime reunite to audition for the revival of I Hear America Singing, a Broadway musical that blends traditional ballads with new melodies featuring lyrics from the poetry of William Blake, A.E. Houseman, Gertrude Stein and others. The friends share stories, relive memories and experience epiphanies that composer Daron Hagen, a New Berlin native, describes as “a revolution of the heart.”

Hagen wrote the work specifically for Skylight Music Theatre, and he’s returning to Milwaukee to direct the production, which opens on May 9. A graduate of UW-Madison, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School, Hagen is an accomplished composer, conductor, pianist, educator, librettist and stage director. He’s one of the busiest men working in classical contemporary music and opera.

We spoke recently about his career and the upcoming Skylight production.

Michael Muckian: Describe your musical evolution growing up in Milwaukee. 

Daron Hagen: I grew up in New Berlin and attended Elmbrook Schools, including Linfield Grade School, where, as a sixth-grader, I wrote, directed and starred in my first full-length play. Linfield School was recently plowed under to make a new subdivision, and I remember nothing else about the play itself but that we performed it for a school assembly, largely because Norman Cummings, my teacher, believed in it.

How did I Hear America Singing come about?

This is brand new and very old at the same time. Half of the songs are my reinterpretations of American folk tunes, ranging from the Civil War era to World War I. The other half are new show tunes and art songs. The musical score is a crazy quilt of eras and styles all held together by the three characters and their story.

Is the title an homage to Walt Whitman’s famous poem I Hear America Singing

The title comes from the musical that the three characters in the play have come together to audition for backers. It also refers to all of the different styles of music that the composer in the play hears and loves. Finally, it is meant to conjure up the spirit of Whitman’s all-embracing, visionary American positivity.

What is Singing about at a narrative level?

The story’s quite simple. Three old Juilliard school chums — a composer named Robbie, a singer named Roger, and Roger’s ex-wife, a singer named Rose — reunite at Robbie’s request to perform for financial backers a revised version of I Hear America Singing, the show that made Robbie a famous Broadway composer years ago. Roger’s alcoholism has stalled his career and ended his marriage; he’s living with his ailing mother in Milwaukee. Rose lives in Chicago and tours endlessly in B-level regional productions. She’s worn-out and seriously considering accepting a teaching position. Robbie lives in Manhattan on the Upper West Side (where the show takes place). He hasn’t had a success in years. This show represents his comeback.

What about the show’s deeper themes? 

The characters experience revolution of the heart as a reconnection with their earlier selves, the acceptance of the necessity for personal reinvention and the rebirth of old love. The show’s score does the same thing by taking old songs and making them new, and providing new songs that revisit old tropes. The characters find closure and a way to move forward by returning to an old show and making it new.

Out composer Leonard Bernstein was an early champion of yours. How did that evolve and how did fellow out composer Marc Blitzstein figure in the story?

Harry Sturm, who ran a summer orchestra for youngsters funded by Milwaukee County at the time, graciously allowed me to compose and conduct a piece for that orchestra. My mother sent a recording and the score to Bernstein, whose enthusiastic response galvanized our household. At his suggestion, I ultimately attended Juilliard. 

I had little to do with him until he heard me improvising at the piano in the style of Marc Blitzstein one summer at Tanglewood. He challenged me on the spot to complete Blitzstein’s unfinished opera Sacco and Vanzetti. I did not accept the challenge, but when I wrote Shining Brow, my first major opera, I took several scenes into work sessions with him. Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock had inspired me to write opera, and working with Bernstein was only a step away from Marc. I’ll forever be grateful for the priceless, nuts-and-bolts practical music theater advice Bernstein gave me during those sessions. 

Tell me about Shining Brow, your work commissioned by the Madison Opera in 1993.

Two visionary leaders of Madison Opera, general manager Ann Stanke and conductor Roland Johnson, were set on bringing to life an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright. They contacted me. I said yes. I engaged the poet Paul Muldoon to co-write a story and to write the words. The opera — which was a big critical and popular success — launched my career nationally as a theater composer. That was 20 years ago. I have since composed nine more operas and am a known quantity. 

Describe your style of music.

What makes me hard to pin down by most observers is that the music each one of the characters in my operas sings is the kind that they demand to sing, not the kind I’d like them to sing. That has made every one of my operas different from the others. The score to Singing is eclectic, colorful, highly tuneful and emotionally engaging. 

You’re also directing the Skylight production. Tell me about your experience at the helm.

I made my professional debut as a stage director with the Kentucky Opera a few years ago, with site-specific stagings of New York Stories, my trilogy of one-act operas. I’ll be directing my new opera, A Woman in Morocco, for them next season. I’ve directed Shining Brow in semi-staged versions several times, including the recorded version by the Buffalo Philharmonic available on Naxos.

I’ve directed informally ever since conservatory, including directing my opera based on Edward Albee’s play The Sandbox at the Curtis Institute. I was always attentive to the work of directors like Stephen Wadsworth, Ken Cazan (both Skylight alums) and a dozen others. I learned from them all. It became clear to me five years ago that, because I had the skills, I also had the responsibility, as composer Gian Carlo Menotti admonished me in the 1980s, to eventually begin directing.

Where does your music fit into the new classical music scene?

I serve on various composition juries because, as a citizen, it is my honor and duty to do so. That is where, every couple of months, I get a snapshot of what other composers are doing. I get to know every major new opera immediately after the premiere, if not before on a jury or during its development. I am amazed by the appetite so many composers have for new music. I just don’t have that appetite, probably because I am, every day, desperately in need of time to write my own.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Daron Hagen’s I Hear America Singing runs May 9 through June 1 at the Skylight Music Theatre’s Studio Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. For more information, call 414-291-7811 or visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.