When film and television composer /conductor Don Davis found out his friend, fellow composer William Kraft wrote an opera, he was surprised, to say the least.
“Why would you want to do that?” Kraft recalls asking the respected, distinguished artist. “It’s so much work!”
Kraft’s response? “It’s what composers do.”
Davis, 53, is in his studio in his native Los Angeles, piano literally at his fingertips. (He’ll play a few snippets of melodies over the course of our phone interview). In his 40s, Davis became well-known for scoring “The Matrix” movie trilogy, in addition to Hollywood hits like “Behind Enemy Lines” and “Jurassic Park 3.” But, after all the years in film and television, the idea of writing an opera appealed to him.
But opera? All that work?
“Maybe it was an epiphany,” he says, “something I had to do.”
That led to the creation of his first original full-length opera, “Rio de Sangre,” which has its world premiere in Milwaukee as the season opener for the Florentine Opera. Excerpts from the work were performed in 2005 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale as well as at New York City Opera in 2007.
With a story and libretto by Kate Gale, “Rio” is set in a fictional South American country in the midst of political upheaval. As one successful coup brings about the downfall of the current dictator, a new leader arises only to discover that idealism has its own pitfalls.
The Latin American theme came about as a result of Davis’ desire to create an opera in Spanish (“Rio” is sung in Spanish with supertitles in English projected above the stage). “I was looking toward a (Juan) Peron-like concept,” he says, adding, “I wanted to make a comment on Latin American politics.”
While this is a fictionalized story, Davis mentioned that there are “rough references” to any number of dictators, including Allende, Pinochet, Noriega and Castro, among others.
The storyline is meant to be ambiguous as opposed to following a specific political perspective. “I didn’t want to get preachy,” Davis says. “This is a statement on the human condition, rather than left wing or right wing. In the end, oppression is oppression, as opposed to liberal or conservative.”
“The politics (in ‘Rio’) are interesting because (they) reflect what’s happening in the world today,” says Florentine Opera general director William Florescu. “The uniqueness of this project is that it’s new material, whereas most new operas are based on preexisting material.”
Doing a brand new work can have its challenges, particularly in a recession and with a built-in audience more accustomed to seeing “Rigoletto” than “Rio.” “I feel like the god Janus,” jokes Florescu, sitting in the Florentine’s offices in downtown Milwaukee. “We have to look forward and backward.”
Florescu, 55, has been at the Florentine for five years and sees his role as bringing new works to current audiences and building new audiences at the same time. Will “Rio” achieve that?
“I feel my job is to keep this art as a living art and not as a museum piece,” he says. “We’re bringing that to the next generation of what this art form is.”
For Davis, the “art form” called opera has come full circle and continues to evolve. He is currently working on his second opera, based on a short story by science fiction/fantasy writer George R.R. Martin. “The Second Kind of Loneliness” will be a “one-man drama” involving electronics in the score.
“Creating an opera is the ultimate art form,” Davis emphasizes. “It combines drama, dance, music, visuals, and architecture. It’s the ultimate collaboration.”