Composer Jeanine Tesori has a new work opening December 14th at the John F. Kennedy Center, with its special Christmas theme making it a suitable holiday treat for the whole family. Commissioned and produced by the Washington National Opera, The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me features singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program and a children’s chorus.
Susan Galbraith interviewed Ms. Tesori upon her arrival from New York to attend rehearsals. We begin with that portion of the interview in which they talked about her new opera.
Take us back to the beginning of The Lion, The Unicorn and Me. Who chose the librettist, for instance?
Jeanine Tesori: Sandy [J. D. “Sandy” McClatchy, librettist] is someone that Francesca knows, and I knew of him at Yale. Francesca sent me something he had written, the Nemo libretto. His words were very dynamic and exciting. I think the wordplay that he has would be wonderful for kids. He has the perfect tone to adapt this children’s book (by Jeanette Winterson.)
Did you start with the words?
We had the book. Sandy and I discussed it a lot with Francesca, because the book is slim and powerful. I like to understand where am I in a work, why should I write this work. If I don’t understand or see myself in a work I don’t do it. I’d rather do something else.
Did you choose to create an opera from the beloved children’s book?
Francesca chose the book. She called me and said, “I would love to ask you about doing this.” And I was thinking that my schedule was really tricky. Then I read the book and I called her and said “I’m in! I’m in!” It is everything I understand about the idea of how one looks and what one is capable of. And it goes all throughout life, starting with childhood. You just don’t know what someone is capable of until they make it happen. It’s true of ourselves. It’s true of our children. It’s true of our parents. That’s the beauty and innocence of the coming moment. And that’s the power of what theatre is, you don’t know what is going to happen.
What were the next steps?
Sandy did a pass at the libretto, then we got back together. I told him it was wonderful and then said, “And this is where I see what the two main characters have in common and so I will need to have the same material for them so we can tell the audience in song that they share something.” The donkey and Mary are both carrying those who must be carried. She’s carrying a baby and he’s carrying them. That baby is going to be carrying the burden of the world, as set in the book. That’s why the three of them are in the story, and so we must illuminate that for the audience in a very clear way. And I began to think of what we could do, and, after much conversation back and forth, I started writing. And when I would get to a place that I needed something I would call him. And we found it very easy to bounce back and forth. I never just receive a libretto and then set it. It’s just not what I do.
Were you writing for specific voices from the pool of the Domingo-Cafritz young artists? Did you and Francesca have particular people in mind in the roles?
I knew I was writing for ten young artists. There are obvious vocal parts you work with in opera. I knew from Francesca she wanted a children’s chorus. I also knew I wanted the angel to start in the audience.
A children’s chorus is a very important part of Francesca’s vision of opening up the experience of opera at the WNO.
And that’s why I asked for the angel to start in the audience without anyone knowing, because I wanted to mirror that sense of a new audience not knowing where opera was going to come from.
Is there any “heads up” that you think might be particularly exciting for kids?
Well, I think of all the animals are wonderful. Animals are funny. Cats on YouTube are funny, and I looked at plenty of them. I wanted to understand why lions are like that. But also I wanted to find the equivalent person, such as the flamingo is the New York City person who gets on the subway with her hair wet and make-up half on, and the unicorn that sighs and carries a Coach bag. I wanted to understand the human part. I wanted them to be funny and find a way for them also to involve the audience.
And how is the children’s chorus?
The children are really a diverse group and come from all over, and they are beautiful. The chorus master teaches with a deft, light, but sure hand and that is cool. Those kids make a really long animal. The children’s chorus is a snake, and they come down the aisle. I think all the animals will be really delightful.
Let’s learn more about you. You have been nominated for three Tony Awards, including Caroline or Change and are hailed as the first female composer to have two Broadway hits run concurrently. Did you always flag Broadway as where you wanted to work?
You know, I don’t think I flagged Broadway as where I want to be. I always want to work and always want to make work. I graduated in ’83, and that happened to be a time when there were a lot of off-Broadway musicals happening. I interned at Playwrights Horizon because of Sunday in the Park with George. March of the Falsettos was ending its run at the West Side Arts Theatre, and there was just so much happening at the Public [Theater in NYC.] The off-Broadway scene was blooming. I saw people making work and not with a lot of money. I worked on a touring show, Big River, as the Associate Conductor, and that was my first introduction. But I was never a Broadway kid. I didn’t have cast albums. I didn’t pin my hopes on that dream.
I started with classical music. I love the rigor of it, studying the science of counterpoint. I still keep searching for opportunities to study, as I did with Robert Shaw when I flew down to Atlanta to study scores by having him conduct me in his choir. Learning is my pleasure.
But I was really trained in an egalitarian way to view music as music. And that has given me a true sense of humility so I say find out as much as you can about the things that you are drawn to and then try to write. And where it ends up it ends up. Some things are Broadway. Some things are bound for Broadway. Some things are surprising with how they ever get to Broadway.
Has Broadway changed much since you’ve been working?
It’s quite a different scene now. Broadway is more event-based now. Then, people would decide on a show, grab a ticket, and go. There wasn’t as much planning. I’m not sure if that’s my age or the new environment on Broadway.
Do you think fewer risks are taken now on Broadway?
Fewer risks, yes. Someone said, “There’s less room for bad taste.” That’s true, but I think it’s unfortunate. It’s really great to have shows so off the grid. In my time, it was something like Into the Light, which was a musical about the Shroud of Turin, and it had singing and tap-dancing nuns and mime and child actors. And you just thought, “What is this!?” It wouldn’t happen now. It would have to be so tested and workshopped, and people would question every moment. Then, it would have just come in. And I miss that.
You were working as an arranger, conductor and pit player. That’s “insider stuff,” working in the orchestra for a show. Do you recommend that to other composers?
I would recommend it to everyone. I think the really interesting thing about opera and music-theatre is its ephemeral nature. Once you are not there, you are always not there. You always have not been there. You can record it and archive it, but it’s not the same as being around the campfire for the primal story-telling. So, when people say, “You had to be there,” they really mean you had to be in the presence of that feeling and that electricity. It’s the real deal and happens in real time.
That architecture in making something like that happen eight times a week is very important. This is how you study and come to understand the architecture of music-theatre in the way a conductor would study a score. You learn how it was built and where its inherent design is.
Making a Broadway musical is a machine. Every Broadway piece, every story, is completely different, but the machinery is the machinery, and there are certain things that are always going to be the same.
So, let’s talk more about your opera works. I feel fortunate enough to have seen Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, that you wrote with playwright Tony Kushner, when it debuted at the Glimmerglass Festival three summers ago. I noticed you threaded popular music strands throughout. Is it fair to say that that is a mark of your work as a composer?
That’s an interesting comment. Yes, I think so. I’m thinking about the new piece I am having done at the Public. I’m always interested in what my characters are listening to. I’m interested in what’s being piped in or played in the parlor, the two levels of the narrative, one that the characters sing and one that is going on in the world around them.
What do you feel are the special challenges and obstacles in writing for opera?
Well, first making sure that the source material is operatic.
That’s a challenging question, eh, what makes opera?
Yes, and there are many answers. I think for me, if it feels operatic, and by that I mean that the scope is huge and the proscenium is large and it just can fulfill the range —
Do you mean the big emotional scope?
Yes, but also, like wonderful lectures that Bernstein gave in the Norton Lectures when he talked about linguistics, I think there is the vocal scope from the bass voice to the highest soprano, and in opera that spectrum is quite wide. On Broadway, it’s not. You can’t do that thing, or maybe you can do that but in my mind, I don’t do that, that’s not how I hear it. The obvious thing is that on Broadway women don’t use their head voice so much. It attributes a certain character to a woman who sings like that rather than something that’s produced in a more earthy way. But I love the palette of opera and those dynamic voices where there’s no amplification.
So, how do you approach writing an opera? How does your role change?
The writing like everything with an opera has to be done well in advance, and I orchestrate everything. There is not the scurry as with a musical. I was writing on a recent musical and working with my orchestrator until the day before we opened. I love that, because I can make adjustments after I see what happened with an audience. I would love to be able to do that with an opera audience, but there is very little possibility within the structure and schedule of rehearsing an opera where you could do that. Although, happily, with The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, I have been able to do some rewrites. We did a workshop a year ago, and we did a really quick two days at Glimmerglass where I could try out material in August. Then two weeks ago we did a sing-through and I heard everybody.
Do you see your point of view mirrored in one of the characters in this new opera?
I consider myself first and foremost a dramatist. I’m looking for the dramatic moment. What’s the event? What’s the problem that the event causes? What does it do if the inflection would change? Would you lower your voice after a certain moment? Would you be humbled? Would you be loud in this place or would you do something softer which would make it surprising?
How do people behave? I watch people all the time. The world is a giant opera. It’s very epic. There’s tragedy and celebration. And there are so many stories that need to be told. Opera requires new stories.
Isn’t that what Francesca offers with her commitment to commissioning twenty-minute operas by new young composer-librettist teams?
Exactly. She is training creative artists. And you can’t be trained in theory. You have to learn by doing. With The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me the young artists are also getting trained in working on a new piece. And we will be hopefully training new ears.
Well, I wish you success with this and I hope you come back here to be part of this new direction that Francesca Zambello is forging.
It is exciting to be part a big picture of the WNO where there is a commitment to a lot of American work and not to rely on old repertory. Also, operas that respond to current events, as many were when they were written. And this will allow a new energy to come into the form.