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Interview: Composer Don Crockett on The Face

Seems like all the buzz in town this week is about the upcoming premiere of Don Crockett’s opera, The Face, this Saturday at the Japan America Theater. A summary, which I’m entirely lifting off of the opera’s official site, certainly promises a lot to look forward to:

Set in Venice Beach, THE FACE is a deeply compelling story about the price of fame, desire and creativity. The central character, a once famous poet named Raphael, struggles with the recent loss of his lover/muse, while juggling the demands of a movie being made about his life and his increasing notoriety. The narrative is both passionate and raw in its candor, offering an insightful view of the human condition as experienced by an artist/poet.

THE FACE is a multidisciplinary chamber opera (featuring music, film and choreography), which was conceived of and created by USC composer – Donald Crockett and USC poet David St. John. The artistic team for the production includes the innovative Parisian stage director/film maker, Paul Desveaux and renowned European choreographer, Yano Iatrides.

THE FACE features an exceptional international cast including acclaimed British tenor, Daniel Norman as Raphael, American lyric baritone, Thomas Meglioranza as the movie producer Memphis, mezzo soprano Janna Baty as the director, Infanta and the talented young Australian soprano Jane Sheldon as the actress Cybele.

As you may have guessed, I got a chance to talk to Don about what’s on tap. Here’s what he had to say:

First off, congratulations on the project. I’ve only been hearing good things about it and can’t wait to hear it for myself. Tell us about the opera.

The Face got started about seven years ago when I approached poet David St. John about a possible collaboration on an opera. I had set his poetry in 2003 in a piece for The Hilliard Ensemble, and I very much responded to his language. David suggested his novella in verse, The Face, a collection of 45 poems with several possible narrative threads. I agreed that this was a great choice, and off we went. David constructed a narrative through-line in eleven scenes. He asked me to highlight lines of text in the novella which particularly spoke to me, and he always included them in the libretto. He was also very flexible about text order, repetitions, etc., which is a composer’s dream situation with a librettist.

The opera itself concerns a central character named Raphael, a once-famous poet struggling with the death of his lover and muse, Marina, who appears only on film (Raphael’s “home movies”) in the opera. A movie director seeks to make a movie about Raphael’s life, assisted by the producer, Memphis, the devil himself. The young actress Cybele is cast to play the role of the lost Marina. Raphael agrees to the deal, a Faustian pact, and filming begins. Intense emotions swirl around as the characters become involved with each other, and Raphael’s confusions and struggles continue. He finally reaches his low point, a dark night of the soul, before he can move on with some sort of reconciliation, a sense of rest. Through it all the producer, Memphis, observes and manipulates as a devilish master of ceremonies.

The Face has four singers, a silent role on film, and an ensemble of eight instruments: flute (with doubles), horn, percussion, guitar (classical, electric, and steel string acoustic), piano, violin, cello, and bass. It is in one act of eleven scenes, lasting about 80 minutes.

You’ve got a pretty long list of collaborators for this production, including contingents in France and on the east coast. What influenced your choice of teammates? Are there any new names or long-time friends working on this with you that you’d like to share something aboout?

In addition to David St. John, I am working with a French directing/lighting design team and a Boston-based new music ensemble. I had heard about the French artists from a soprano I knew in Los Angeles who was working with them. On a whim, I decided to travel to France to see their work, and I was strongly compelled to get them on this project. Yano Iatrides, director choreographer, Laurent Schneegans, lighting designer, and Amaya Lainez, assistant director, came over from Paris for the project. They have created a wonderful and quite amazing theatrical experience, with their colleague, stage director Paul Desveaux, who created the theatrical concept.

I have worked with Firebird Ensemble and their director, Kate Vincent, on several projects in recent years, and Kate decided to take the opera on as a project for Firebird Ensemble’s 10th anniversary season. It has been great to work with them, and this all creates a certain freedom when outside of the traditional opera house. Definitely a challenge as well, as Firebird doesn’t have the infrastructure associated with an opera company. They have done wonderful work as well.

Can you discuss what it was like to work with him to turn the novella into a libretto? Was there much back and forth between the two of you in the process?

In addition to what I mentioned above, we had numerous exchanges about how the characters would be fleshed out. We were essentially mining the novella for passages that would work for the opera, and creating clear characters out of this more vague (and beautiful) poetic landscape. Our working relationship has been very cordial throughout, and I now count David among my close friends.

The instrumentation you mentioned above sounds like an enormously fun combination to write for.

From the beginning, I imagined this work as a chamber opera with a small group of instruments. I chose them to offer a great deal of color possibilities and to suggest a certain heft of sound when needed. I viewed this as singers with a new music ensemble from the beginning, so having Firebird Ensemble be the “orchestra” in the work seemed a perfect solution. We also were able to bring Gil Rose on to the project as music director, and he is a very well-known champion of new American music, particularly as the music director of Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

As a teacher and department chair in one of the most prestigious music schools in the country, I imagine you must see a huge amount of diverse work coming through from students and younger composers. I know it’s a bit of an extreme generalization, but have you noticed any trends among you students’ work over time, or in recent times in particular?

A wide range of styles continues to be a hallmark of students who come to USC, and I am aware of this in recent American music in general. Looking toward European composers for ideas as well as a strong interest in melding “classical,” “vernacular,” and “ethnic” musics continues to be a common thread.

What’s your take on the new music scene in Los Angeles?

I think it is vibrant, and that there’s lots going on. It helps that the big institution in town, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has such a strong commitment to new and recent music, which they perform at such a high level. There’s always more going on than one (or I, at any rate) can get out to hear.

Thank you!

For complete details and tickets, visit

1 Comment

  1. Cindy Sheets on 08/20/2012 at 6:25 PM

    Can’t wait to see it. Congratulations to our good friends Don & Kate.

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