When Mark Adamo sits down to write an opera, his methods are clear, concise and deliberate. But never for a moment think that the process is either swift or simple for the 53-year-old artist.
In fact, wags who bemoan operas that are hourslong in their delivery should know that they also can be yearslong in their composition for even the most accomplished artist. And Adamo, who writes both the music and librettos for his operas, is as accomplished as they come.
“Opera is a complicated form and if you don’t enjoy the richness of it you probably should be doing something else,” Adamo says.
Local opera fans can experience the richness and results of Adamo’s arduous creative process when Madison Opera mounts Little Women, the composer’s first and perhaps his finest opera.
From its shimmering opening notes to the heartfelt resolution, Little Women may be the best opera that its composer never wanted to write. He was prompted to it by the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor of music degree in 1990. The university’s Summer Opera Theater Co. approached him about the prospect of adapting Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel after the premiere of Adamo’s successful first symphony Late Victorians, but the composer says the idea left him less than enthused.
“Initially, I thought it was the worst idea for an opera since the phonebook,” Adamo remembers. “I read the novel and saw the various film versions and, while they were charming, I failed to see what the drama was that would lead to an opera both urgent and modern.”
But the more he dissected the story about four sisters in 1860s New England, the more he warmed to the idea. What finally sold him was the novel’s development of relationships between the primary characters and their male suitors, and how that changed the sisters’ original dynamic.
“The story was very much about the relationship among the four girls,” Adamo says. “The various events contribute to a single sense that people outgrow their relationships with each other. When I understood that to be the single phrase that could best describe the narrative, then I began to understand and appreciate the book.”
Creative differences stalled the Summer Opera Theater partnership, but the idea was revived after fellow composer Carlisle Floyd (best known for the opera Susannah) introduced Adamo to artistic staff at the Houston Grand Opera. The company, known for championing new works, was interested in commissioning the opera as an avenue for the company’s younger artists.
It was first produced there in August 1998, and revived shortly thereafter, in 2000. Since, the work has played in some of the world’s finest opera houses and has become a full-fledged member of the repertoire.
“It’s been performed three to six times per year somewhere in the world since it was first produced,” Adamo says. “I know we’re well over 100 different productions by now.”
Unlike many composers, Adamo has experience in playwriting as well — it’s been a passion for him since his youth, and he even attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University’s dramatic writing program before attending the Catholic University. He says he draws heavily from that experience when he develops his operas, as well as insights from the Stanislavsky System of method acting. It’s an unusual approach, he admits, but one that has proved successful with the operas he’s written and has minimized the need for rewriting the works.
“Uta Hagen, one of the great method acting teachers, said that acting is a series of small actions that lead to larger results that help define the character,” Adamo says. “She would say with every line of the script, ‘What am I trying to accomplish?’ She then would mark up her scripts with notations that helped the character achieve her goal, which she called ‘the acting score.’”
Opera tells a story with both words and song, but the playwright in Adamo says the story still comes first. Using the method approach gives him an “actable structure,” as well as informing the music and helping define what it needs to accomplish.
“Oscar Hammerstein always said a song should be a one-act play that tells a story,” Adamo explains. “Once I figured out the basic story — that time passes and people change whether you like it or not — I decided to try it qua Hagen, by using active verbs and voice and with no sentence longer than the width of a page.”
He also heavily outlined the narrative from several points of view, writing one scenario as if he were deaf and needed to understand the opera based simply on the actions onstage, and another if he were blind and simply relied on the music to convey the story and its emotional timbre.
“The approach gave me a design for the action, which gave me a structure on which to hang the score’s motif,” he said. “I had so much information in the narrative’s first draft that it almost gave me the first draft of the score. It got easier because the big decisions were clarified before I wrote the music and the words, which led to the creation of a ‘sturdy’ show.”
The resulting music contains a variety of genres, as well as a fresh, dramatic sound that does not trade on the otherwise expected musical clichés, Adamo says.
“I really did not want to do fake (Aaron) Copland or a nostalgic 19th-century tonality,” he explains. “I wanted to do something fresher and more exciting and realized if it were done crisply enough in a brisk tempo and light enough in texture, it might give me that quicksilver recitative quality I was looking for.”
Based on reviews of productions worldwide, Little Women has achieved Adamo’s musical and dramatic goals. He followed the same creative discipline for his subsequent operas, including Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess (2005) and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (2007). Narrative comes first, but it must be written in a way that informs and directs the music’s development, Adamo says.
“Content dictates form. What does the piece need to be and do and what are materials you need to get you there?” Adamo asks. “Unless it sounds, it doesn’t count. Unless you can hear the idea, it’s not music. Tonality gives you a sense of home.”
Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women will be presented by Madison Opera at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Adamo will appear an hour before the Feb. 5 performance for talk. For tickets, call the Overture box office at 608-258-4141 or visit overturecenter.com.
Adamo to collaborate on next opera
Collaboration on a major project is unusual for Mark Adamo, but his next effort will be a labor of love in more than one respect. Adamo has been working with his husband and fellow composer John Corigliano, perhaps best known for his film score for The Red Violin, on a new opera.
“I just finished my first libretto and he’s written the score,” Adamo says. “But it’s not finished. So I can’t talk about it.”
The unnamed work is the first-ever substantial musical collaboration for the pair, who married in California in 2008 before passage of Proposition 8. But the process held no surprises for Adamo, who found it thoroughly enjoyable.
“He works the same way I do, but I do it with language and he does it with colored pencils and paper,” Adamo says. “The overlap between his way of thinking and mine is the reason we got along so well when we met.”
As is his style, Adamo stressed structure — even over-structure — in blending the narrative with the music. Once it’s all down on paper, he believes, it’s easier to cut things out than it is to fill in gaps. It’s a style Corigliano didn’t always appreciate.
“Of course he complains about it, but then he complains about everything,” Adamo says.
Adamo, who expects the opera to premiere in the spring of 2018, declined to discuss specifics of the show.
“If I did we wouldn’t have anything left for the press release,” he added.
— Michael Muckian