Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.
Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”
The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.
As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.
Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.
The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.
Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.
After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.
This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.
Two years ago we interviewed composer Andrew McIntosh about his opera-in-progress, Bonnie and Clyde, before the first reading of a few excerpts at The Industry and Wild Up’s 2015 First Take program. Tonight in inaugurates the first ever Second Take, with a complete performance of the work. Andrew and his librettist and partner Melinda Rice somehow had time to answer questions in this week leading up to the premiere, which is at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre tonight at 7.
Bonnie and Clyde made an appearance in the first edition of First Take back in 2015. The Industry is now inaugurating Second Take with a full concert performance of the piece. Obviously there are more scenes and more music, but could you tell us what’s changed about the opera since First Take 2015? Did that reading alter your original conception of the piece? How did it influence writing the rest of it?
Melinda: Andrew and I have discussed this a lot.
In the excerpt of this opera performed at First Take in 2015, Bonnie and Clyde are on the edges of the story, both literally (singing from behind the audience) and in the narrative.
I felt their absence in First Take. I believed that we had created space for seeing other characters. But as I continued to work on the libretto, selecting the stories that I wanted to tell out of all of the stories that have been written down concerning them and their affects on others, Bonnie and Clyde crept back into the libretto, and back onto the stage.
In a vocal workshop of what was meant to be the full opera in mid 2016, I still felt that Clyde, and to some degree Bonnie, were missing, so I apologized to Andrew, who had thought his work in creating new material for this opera was coming to a close, and said that I wanted to write more for them. Scene 11, among other things, came out of that conversation.
Andrew, I heard you once say that you didn’t mind if audiences didn’t like your music, but that you cared a lot about what the people playing it felt. Is that sentiment the same with opera, in which there is – at least in many cases – a plot and staging that needs to communicate with a viewer?
Andrew: I’m hesitant to engage with this question, since I don’t remember the original context and I’m not sure it’s a statement I would necessarily stand behind. Also, I do have a tendency to frame ideas provocatively in conversation in ways that I often wouldn’t write down.
What I can say is that I do care quite a lot about the way performers feel while playing my music. I take extreme care to make the notation as clear as possible, solve issues like page turns, making sure the musicians have all the information they need during long rests, enough time for instrument changes, etc. Also, it is my goal to write with a kind of radical clarity, so that even if there’s only one note then it’s a note that requires love and affection from the performer and that it has some particular quality to it that they can engage with. There aren’t any throw-away notes in my music – every single one of them counts for something and asks the performers to engage critically in some way. Thus, it’s important to me to create something the performers will care about and invest in, since their parts are often exposed and transparent, even in a setting like Bonnie and Clyde where there are 27 people on stage.
1. Consider Bach’s Musical Offering or Art of the Fugue. They were completely theoretical exercises. He wrote the music because he was interested in exploring certain ideas in an almost absurdly focused, deep, and abstract way, to the point that he didn’t even specify what instruments were to play – it’s just abstract harmonies, counterpoint, and rhythms. He certainly wasn’t imaging what audiences might think or care about, yet that music continues to be performed and loved and evolve centuries later. If he had written only for a particular audience in some town in 18th-century Germany then perhaps the music wouldn’t have ended up as radical, iconic, and powerful as it did. I suppose the Musical Offering was written partly as a challenge from Frederick the Great, but I don’t know whether Bach expected the work to actually be played or not.
2. I have many small pieces that I’ve written for friends. One of those is the Symmetry Etudes, a set of eight pieces composed between 2009 and 2012 for Jim Sullivan and Brian Walsh (both of whom are playing in Bonnie and Clyde, incidentally). I wrote them simply as little experiments for us to play together in Jim’s living room for fun, not even for an audience at all. Yet, one of those pieces was the first work of mine to be played in Disney Hall, since John Adams happened to come across it and decided to include it on a concert. If I had been composing for Disney Hall I certainly would have written a different piece, and chances are that it wouldn’t have had whatever quality the Symmetry Etude had that made John select the piece for the concert. I don’t know.
3. The longer I live the less I trust my own judgment about other people’s music or art. I am fully aware that I can hear something and have a strong negative reaction the first time, yet completely embrace it the next time I hear it. In the past I’ve written off whole genres of music thinking that I didn’t value them, and then later realized that it is some of my absolute favorite music to listen to (eg. opera). If my own tastes fluctuate that much, how could I expect a whole audience to react or engage in any kind of predictable way? All I can do is write sounds that I love, try to write for the instruments or singers to the best of my ability, write in a way that asks them to engage intensely, and attempt to do so with the clearest voice I can find. If that resonates with people who listen then I will be overjoyed and grateful, but I also understand that I am never going to please everyone in a room, nor am I going to attempt to. Much of the music I love to listen to myself would probably have a somewhat polarizing effect on many audiences. If it speaks with intensity and clarity then it’s probably going to rub someone the wrong way at some point.
Melinda, I know you as a musician, but before this project didn’t know your work as a writer. Did you study formally? Or is Bonnie and Clyde a sort of first creative foray into writing?
Melinda: First, thank you for mentioning my work as a musician. I appreciate that.
This is my first libretto. I did release an album in 2016 with some of my original lyrics on it, words that I had been working on in 2013-14. I also studied fiction and non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as writing in the context of film. And at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, I was a writing minor (you could do that there, which was a pleasure).
I often worry that my desire for the accoutrements of writing (the reflection, the imagining, the words, the reading of words, the editing of words, and the physical feeling of a paperback in my hands) is stronger than the concepts I have to communicate. But on the topic of Bonnie and Clyde I have made myself comfortable through reading the words of many people affected by the couple, and the ideas in this opera that have come through that process have felt necessary to share.
Andrew, in our first interview before First Take two years ago, you said you “feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time…I don’t know where it will lead, but I have a feeling that all the work I’ve been doing with singers over the past year will have a significant impact on the future of my writing.” Now that you’ve been at it a while, can you discuss a bit about where that has led?
Andrew: Ha! I still don’t know where it will lead. I’m not in the right space yet to answer this question. I don’t usually understand what I’ve done in a composition until a year or two after it’s finished. Working extensively with singers definitely changed my musical language quite substantially, but I don’t think I could articulate the nature of the change right now. So, ask me again in 2018…
As a wife and husband creative team, how has work on this project made its way into other parts of your lives, or has your relationship made its way into working? Has there been a separation between work and life, so to speak?
Melinda: I don’t know how other people’s relationships work, how much they talk about work, how much they talk about hobbies, how much they talk about ideas. For Andrew and I and this project, we would make dates to work on the opera, and we would sometimes even leave our home and walk somewhere for the meeting, so that we were really clear in our focus. But once an idea became interesting to us and was developing, our conversations about the opera would become a big part of our lives together. It felt important, so we discussed it a lot. I don’t think either of us ever felt like we didn’t want to talk about it when the other one brought it up.
What about tonight’s performance has you most excited?
Melinda: It is an honor to get to share this opera with these musicians with an audience tonight. I am terrified and excited to feel how it is received with an audience. And I am excited that my parents are here.
Andrew: Hearing the incredible talents of the musicians on stage, hearing the whole thing in one fell swoop, listening while knowing that my family has traveled from far-away corners of the country to be here and see what the little brother is up to.
We here at New Classic LA cannot wait to hear Bonnie and Clyde tonight at Second Take. Full details on the concert are up at theindustryla.org/projects/bonnie-and-clyde. Thanks to all of the composers who did interviews this week for First Take as well – you can read all of them at newclassic.la/firsttake.
If you’re in new music in LA, you probably know the name Andrew McIntosh. His skill as a violinist and violist is invaluable as a member of the Formalist Quartet, wild Up, and others. He’s a co-founder of populist records. And his music, as a composer, is gorgeous. He’s also the final composer on our series of interviews about The Industry and wild Up’s First Take, which takes place this Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. Here’s Andrew, on his opera Bonnie and Clyde.
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
In creating Bonnie and Clyde, our goal was to start from what is known about the infamous couple and work our way backwards through the stories of people around them who left first-hand accounts. Melinda Rice, the librettist, has done incredibly extensive research, sifting through biographies of family members, police officers, government officials, and friends, as well as historian’s accounts. Together with Berlin-based artist Claudia Doderer we’ve designed an experience that functions like a gallery of images of Bonnie and Clyde, filtered through the subjective eyes of the people around them. In a way, Bonnie and Clyde are not illuminated by this opera, but are left open as characters that the audience can find for themselves. In portraying this story, there are a few questions that are explored. What is it about their lives that has come to symbolize freedom and love in popular culture, when the actual lives that they led were extremely unglamorous, tedious, and full of poverty and tension? Since the accounts that have been left behind are sometimes contradictory, how do we attempt to portray a factual representation of important events in their lives? Why has our society been so fascinated be them, even 80 years after they lived? Is there something universally human about their characters that makes us identify with them?
Musically, the score reflects Bonnie and Clyde’s lives on every level. The shape of each layer and corner in the music is a reflection of the tension, the openness, and the unexpectedness of their lives. Bonnie and Clyde are embedded in the score in other ways as well. Clyde played the saxophone and a large feature of the orchestration is a pair of antiphonal saxophones (although I didn’t know that Clyde played saxophone at the time that choice was made). A classic American steel-string guitar is also prominently featured in the orchestra, as are piano and vibraphone. The only thing Bonnie was afraid of was thunder, and their deaths are represented by the use of thunder sheets. The passage of time can be felt on multiple levels as well, often with a layer that is moving very slowly underneath layers that move at more active pacing, with voices sometimes floating on top in yet another layer of time. I think that this might have been my subconscious way of expressing the constant tension between open field and city that defined their daily existence.
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
This project is the culmination of several years worth of attempts at translating my musical language into something vocal. It is certainly a different language than my comfort zone of instrumental writing. That instrumental relationship to sound has developed during 25 years of playing the violin, and it’s difficult to transcend that. Writing for singers feels naked and vulnerable, and I am in awe of the power and depth that words and human voices bring to music.
I have immersed myself in the land of performing with singers very heavily over the past few years through the work that I do as a period instrument baroque musician, working with Bach Collegium San Diego, American Bach Soloists, LA Master Chorale, Tesserae, and other early music ensembles. Also, during my undergraduate degree I spent two seasons as a violist with the Nevada Opera. I derive a lot of inspiration from studying and performing old music, and the performance aesthetic around it as well. In general, the performers tend to have common interests in creating something that is highly emotional through the use of subtlety, nuance, color, and shape; interests that I also share. I first met several of the singers in Bonnie and Clyde through working in the early music community and I am incredibly happy with the entire cast of Bonnie and Clyde.
I also just recently invested a huge amount of energy into another Industry project (Hopscotch) writing for another singer that I met through the early music community, Estelí Gomez from Roomful of Teeth. Every aspect of the vocal writing was written specifically for Estelí’s remarkable voice and unique talents. I find it incredibly helpful to have a specific singer in mind and write for that particular person when I’m writing for voice. It definitely changes what comes out on paper.
Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?
I don’t know that it changes my process very much, but I feel changed as a person. I still use a pen and a ruler and start with drawings of the forms of the works on blank paper, finding patterns and symmetries in the content of the material and making maps of the harmony (more or less my typical process). The only significant difference in process is that now the very first step consists of writing out the text several times by hand. I have to write it myself on paper in order to internalize the rhythm and flow of the words.
It is hard to describe exactly how I feel changed since the change is still quite new and also ongoing, but I feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time. It’s actually quite emotional to hear music that I composed come directly out of other humans’ voices – more so than hearing it through the filter of an external instrument. I don’t know where it will lead, but I have a feeling that all the work I’ve been doing with singers over the past year will have a significant impact on the future of my writing.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
I recently completed a 40-minute commissioned percussion quartet for the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which will be premiered at Zipper Hall on April 10. They are exquisite musicians, and it took me over two years to write the piece, so I feel quite invested in this performance!
I’m also working on a small piano concerto for Richard Valitutto and wild Up, which will be premiered on April 26 at UCLA, as well as a chamber piece for MUSA Baroque in San Francisco, and of course Hopscotch, the upcoming collaborative Industry project.
Check out more of Andrew’s music at septimalcomma.com. Full details on First Take are up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. While Andrew is the final composer in this year’s First Take series, there’s still one interview yet to go: The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, who will be featured here tomorrow at noon. See you then.