Interview: Joel Feigin on Twelfth Night

On January 30 and February 1, UCSB’s Department of Music will present the West Coast Premiere of Joel Feigin‘s opera Twelfth Night, based on the play by Shakespeare. The opera will be produced by Benjamin Brecher and directed by David Grabarkewitz, with Brent Wilson as music director. Full disclosure: Joel is a good friend of mine, and I study composition with him. With that in mind, I felt we could dig a little deeper into his work than the usual “what’s this piece about?” I heard the opera in Chicago in October, and it’s definitely worth driving out to Santa Barbara for, especially if you’re a fan of the play.

Tickets and event details are on UCSB’s website at http://www.music.ucsb.edu/news/event/532. Here’s our conversation:

Composer Joel Feigin

Of all of Shakespeare’s works, what attracted you to Twelfth Night to opera-tize?

Any play beginning “If music be the food of love, play on—give me excess of it…” is just begging to be turned into an opera!  What more could you ask for?  “music”… “love”… “excess”…

And I love the play and I love Illyria, and I love all the gender-bending—women and men falling in love with a girl dressed as a boy—and in Shakespeare’s time, it was even more extreme:  a boy dressed as a girl disguised as a boy in a love scene with a boy dressed as a girl—

Auden said that “a credible situation in an opera is a situation in which it’s credible for the characters to break into song as frequently as possible.”  By that standard, Twelfth Night is perfect—it’s in a place we’ve never heard of, and the only half-sane person in it is a Fool.

How much did you need to alter the source material?

The difficulty in converting a play into an operatic libretto is that it takes at least three times as long to sing something as to say it, quite apart from fun stuff using long notes or melismas.  But the time it takes to effectively unfold a story acted before an audience is likely to be fairly similar no matter what the medium.

As result, the libretto of a two hour opera needs to be something like a tenth the length of the play, a mere scaffolding. I was very lucky to work with Elizabeth Harr, a contralto who had sung with New York City Opera, and who had had dramatic training in England. My first attempt to turn Twelfth Night into an opera libretto would have taken twelve hours to perform and would have been horrible!  With Elizabeth’s help, I cut the text mercilessly: the hardest aspect of writing the work was destroying some of the greatest poetry ever written in any language.  After lots of cutting, I realized that my draft of the first act was a third longer than I wanted.  Shortening it to an hour demanded sacrificing still more wonderful poetry—and it turned out that almost all the compositional problems I had encountered arose out of unnecessary words in the libretto.

Could you talk a bit about your love of the opera genre?

Music has special powers that affect the structure of the drama.  Action tends to split up the ongoing flow of music, as the characters react to different events unfolding onstage.  But music develops its full power through a more continuous flow, which has tremendous power to express the feelings of the characters.  Therefore dramas with music tend to lead up toward sections in which the music can flow continuously for a while, as the emotions of the characters are expressed with a passion difficult to achieve on the spoken stage: for sheer visceral impact, the most magnificent speaking voice pales compared to a great soprano singing over an orchestra.  Music also allows characters singing simultaneously to be understood, whereas speaking actors can speak only one at a time if they are to be understood.

For example, the climax of Twelfth Night is the reunion of the twin brother and sister.  Many people are on stage, and several of these have had complex relations with one or both of the twins. In the spoken play they can only speak one at a time, but in an opera, they can all sing at once, and their varied reactions can be expressed both simultaneously and with more completeness.

After a recent conversation with a dear composer friend, I realized that what I love about opera is precisely what he disliked about it: the sheer power with which feelings can be expressed by the operatic voice.  For me, this power was a much-needed reassurance that we indeed could assert our needs and desires in spite of everything.  For my friend, this assertion was simply false: for him we have no such power. Some reassurance that we can have this kind of power is what I love.

This opera has been through enough challenging situations in its short history to write another opera about. Could you talk about some of the challenges of getting an opera produced?

When people say to me “it must be very hard to write an opera”, I always answer, “No, it’s easy.  What’s hard is getting it produced.”  The reason is money—opera is the most expensive art form using music, and is therefore most susceptible to fluctuations in the state of the economy and to the tastes of patrons.  The less money there is, the more opera companies just want to do Traviata, Boheme, and Carmen, and absolutely nothing else!  I know a fine music director of an opera company who had to fight with his board to do Rigoletto and Cosi.  For composers, the smaller the orchestra you have the better. The fewer singers you have the better. It’s better to have a predominance of female singers—there are a lot more of them around.

Twelfth Night is really bad on all those counts. Shakespeare is a mixed bag—he’s classy and prestigious, which can be good on big anniversaries of his birth and death, but it can also drive people away.  Doing Shakespeare also prompts the concern that operas in familiar, contemporary settings are likely to be more successful and “relevant” and therefore bring in more people.  Actually, I think they’re much harder to pull off.  It is more credible for characters to break into song in a time and place that’s strange than a time and place that are familiar, since we know perfectly well that the people we know usually don’t break into song.

The greatest commentary that has ever been done on the art form is the Marx Brothers’s Night at the Opera. It’s when it’s ridiculous that opera becomes sublime.  I have a fantasy of doing The Trojan Women and being asked why I wanted to do a play that’s 2500 years old.  I’d answer, “I want to be sure I’m up-to-date.”

You’ve spoken before about being pressured to write in a modernist style while you were in school, and finally, when studying with Roger Sessions, deciding to write for yourself instead of doing what your other teachers were saying. Do you think that that pressure to write in a certain way still exists?

I think that this was the experience of my whole generation of composers. The problem here is that it wasn’t exactly that I “decided to write for myself”— that doesn’t quite say it. What many of us rejected was the rigid ideology that there’s any one “right” way to compose music at any particular time.

The idea that only one kind of music should be written still exists to some extent in some places, but much less than it did.  But the problem that confronted my generation is something that arises all the time in different guises– we all want security, none of us have it or can have it, and it’s very comforting to feel that what we’re doing is exactly what “history” demands to be done.  Modernism began as a rebellion but then it became ossified—it became the “only way to go”, which is the exact opposite of rebellion.  But “new or old” is something little and “music” is something big; “new” isn’t the essence of what music is: the essence of music is silence—and part of silence is vibration, every vibration—old or new doesn’t matter.  What does matter, for the kind of music I’m interested in writing, is that the music we make needs to come from the center of who we are, or from as close to that center as we can get.  And this center is neither old nor new.

I think it’s important to consider the very real differences between science and political science on the one hand, and some kinds of art on the other, especially since, starting around the beginning of the twentieth century, science assumed a prestige that “art” didn’t have any more, and part of the reason is that it was very clear why science or political science needed to be done.  If the best measurements of the perihelion of Mercury don’t accord with your best theory, it’s clear that you need to figure out what the problem is.  If the disparity of wealth and poverty becomes very wide, something needs to be done to prevent very dangerous problems from arising in that society.

There are a lot of good reasons to write music, and what “needs” to be written will be quite different depending on its motivation.  Some kinds of art are fairly analogous to science or political science. It’s necessary and wonderful to explore new sounds or new ways of organizing sounds.  That becomes closer to a scientific or technological model: here’s something new—what is it?  What can be done with it? Or, if your motivation is to change the direction of society, you need to make music that will be effective in helping reduce the gap for rich and poor, or to end war, or whatever you hope to do.

But to write music only to write music is less clear, less familiar to our present world.  What do music do any of us, personally, with all the causes and conditions of our life—need to write?

Sometimes what you need to write makes some kind of historical sense—for example, young composers using their experience of rock and other genres of so-called popular music.  You play in rock bands—for your music not to be influenced by that would be crazy, and for you to deliberately deny that experience would be suicidal for you as an artist.

But for someone else, depending on the causes and conditions of their lives, if they grew up on Beethoven, it might be suicidal for them as an artist to feel that they had to use rock, let alone only rock, in their pieces.  Very few people today grow up on Beethoven, so very few young artists are likely to have that experience.  But if they do, they need to be true to their experience.  The point is to be true to your own individual experience, the causes and conditions of your own life; that is where you’ll be able to connect with the center of other people’s lives; that is where your music might come to be important to them—how they might come to love it—however few there might be.

With all that in mind, why do you write music?

All the things we’ve been discussing are excellent reasons to write music. But to make any one particular reason the “best” reason, let alone the “only reason” is a big trap.

What happened with Sessions was not exactly that I “decided to write for myself”—I’m not clear that I “write for myself.”  I write what I hear in my head—that’s all.

Mario Davidovsky tells a wonderful story from the early days of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  One day a woman came and said that “she heard sounds in her head” and everyone said “wonderful!  You’re in the right place”.  Half an hour later, they had to take her to the mental hospital.

The best answer I ever got to the question “why do you write music?”—which I ask my students—is that “it’s a mental disease.”

Where did the sounds in this woman’s mind come from?  Where do any sounds come from? Where does anything at all come from?  They’re just there—there’s no answer for it. That is to say, they are the tao—they are an offering of the tao.

If someone is crazy enough to feel that a sound inside their head is worthy of offering to others, and if they are crazy enough to undertake the strenuous training without which it is impossible to offer it at least somewhat undistorted, then they are undertaking the business of being a maker of musical offerings.  A maker of offerings can only “just offer”—for me, an offering is made in the hope that it will be of value to others, but there’s no way you can be sure of it, and to be concerned about pleasing any particular audience—such as a subscription audience, or a composition professor, or a self-appointed new music guru—is just a distraction from the task of doing a good job. Talking to Sessions, it became clear that, at least for me, it just didn’t make sense—it was crazy.

The offering someone might need to make from the center of his or her being could very well be an offering of a new sound or a new method. The offering someone might need to make from the center of his or her being might very well be an offering of bearing witness to injustice.  As long as it comes from the center of their being it seems to me akin to what I am trying to do.

How does this affect your teaching?

It influences my teaching a lot, in that I don’t want to pressure my students to write any particular way at all.  I want them to write what they want to write. It’s hard, for the teacher, because students sometimes do ask what to write, (and sometimes, even as they’re rebelling, they’re asking what to write), and as a prof you’re always supposed to have an answer for everything.  But it’s impossible for the prof to know—only the student might be able to answer the question of what they need to write—and then it’s the koan of their life.

I’m often surprised by how many composers and performers in our area practice meditation – and was thankful for the lesson in it you gave me. From what you’ve already said, it would seem that your Zen practice is a huge influence on your composing.

I spoke of music coming from “the center of your being.” What is this “center?”

We can only find the center of our being within the causes and conditions of our own lives, and it is only when we know our stories so intimately that they fall away that the “center” is clarified.

And when the center is clarified, weird things become possible.  Stravinsky can say that he was “the vessel through which the Rite came.”  Homer can ask the Muse to “sing to him of the man of many ways…”

When composing is actually happening, it is Zen practice.  I could never have continued composing without Zen—it would be too hard and too painful.

The only sensible reason to make anything is that it fills a useful purpose.

So what is the purpose of music that is there only to be itself?

There is silence.  Within the silence there are vibrations. That is music.  Just music, just itself.

Music that is there only to be itself must be listened to in silence. This “silence” is an openness and readiness of the mind. The sounds of shuffling and snoring and yawning that pervade most concert halls are not silence.  Spontaneous applause, even as the music is being played, does not necessarily spoil silence.

Silence is simply “just this” vibration at “just this” moment.

There are 84,000 moments in a second.

“Just this” vibration at “just this moment” …

“just this” totally new vibration at “just this” totally new moment…

“just this” …

“just this”…

That is music.

That is music as an offering.

There is no reason for it.

It just is.

What do you hope listeners will come away from Twelfth Night with?

I hope they’ll love it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you!

More info on Joel is available at joelfeigin.com.

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