Friday, June 13, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, while unpacking some papers, I found something I had only glanced at in decades. It was always there on a shelf in my study but I just never bothered with it, a notebook that contained an unfinished work I’d started composing when I was in college. The music was one thing, the recollection of the time in which it was composed was, more importantly, another.

It was not my first opera. I had started one when I was still in high school and finished it during my freshman year in college. It never got performed but at least I completed it and wrote out the full score. This second one, not only incomplete, never got beyond the vocal score (more a rough draft “short score” written on two staves whether playable at the piano or not, with indications for subsequent orchestration). It’s a setting of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, though as often happens in adaptations the title had been changed, why I’m not sure: instead of “Ghosts,” the past coming to haunt the present, I felt something more direct was needed, involving the main character.

The play is basically the story of Mrs. Alving, a well-to-do widow in a conservative Norwegian town who has discovered her son, a would-be artist (with all the pretensions accorded thereto) visiting home from Paris, exhibits many of the same personality traits she despised in her late husband. These ghosts, however, turn out to be more involved: the son has fallen in love, superficially at least, with the maid who, it turns out, is really the result of his father’s affair with a maid who’d worked for them shortly after his parents were married. The end of Act One, where I’d stopped composing, is her confrontation with the realization it’s happening again, catching her son and the young maid in the same situation (with the same dialogue) she had years before caught her husband in with the girl’s mother. But she hid it, kept it to herself, just distanced herself from her husband, maintaining the public veneer of a happily married couple. By the end of Act Two, Mrs. Alving is confronting something more than a ghost: her son (however suddenly) now exhibits symptoms of advanced syphilis, presumably something else he inherited from his father.

While the moral is often described as “the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons,” I felt the focus was really on Mrs. Alving’s confrontation, what the impact her past inaction had on not only her present but now her future: having lived with her husband and kept this a secret (as her pastor advised her), she now must face living with her son who has now been destroyed by that same secret (not that her actions, had she had the courage to change them, have had any effect on his growing up with an inherited disease, but the disease, really, is more symbolic than crucial to the plot, I guess).

Anyway, that’s why I chose to change the title to something I felt had more “punch” to it – at least from the late-60s’ standpoint. So I called it Through a Small Glass Darkly after the biblical expression in 1 Corinthians: we live with an imperfect perception of reality, but as we age (the preceding verse, “when I was a child, I spake as a child,” ends “but now that I am a man, I have put aside these childish things”) we discover things, looking in the mirror of our lives, and see them now differently than we saw them before. This seemed a suitable description of what was going on in Mrs. Alving’s soul – the “small glass” being one individual rather than the collective biblical one.

The irony, of course, is at 20 I could hardly have the accumulated wisdom or experience to understand the various implications of this story and saw merely an operatic story with an ironic twist at the end. Looking at it almost 40 years later was a rather startling experience.

In this mirror, as I sat there hearing this in my head probably for the first time since I stopped working on it, I heard reflected more of Berg’s Wozzeck and Britten’s Peter Grimes than I would care to – two operas that were then (and still are) among my favorite works. Aside from the dramatic musical gesture of a crashing chord spotlighting every exclamation point as if swatting at flies with heavy artillery, an aria for Pastor Manders, where he reminds Mrs. Alving of her past actions when she chose to leave her husband (“what right have we to happiness”) and how he guided her back to her path of duty as a wife, is set to an accompaniment of triads in contrary motion, moving through various dissonances to resolve hymn-like at the cadence, straight out of Ellen Orford’s scene in Act One of Peter Grimes, another biblical image beginning “Let her among you without fault / cast the first stone,” a parallel that I no doubt thought clever, considering how Manders had passed judgment on her as an erring wife and forced her back into society’s straight-jacket.

Here and there, sound-bytes imitating the town gossip in the opening scene of Grimes underscored the dialogue with the village carpenter who was passed off as the father of Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter. But these ghosts I could dismiss as the learning experience of a young budding composer: it is rarely easy for an aging composer (having budded or not) to face youthful indiscretions, even successful ones.

Curiously, when I decided not to finish this – and why, I don’t really know – I ended up recycling the title, at least, for my next opera which was another examination of the biblical “I” facing reality, in this case what I called a “plotless life-cycle opera” as if someone were confronting their entire life and seeing it in a flash just before the moment of death (momento mori as opposed to memento mori), a collection of quotable quotes in a series of disconnected episodes. This one, however, did get staged when another composer on the faculty and I wrote chamber operas to inaugurate the University of Connecticut’s first opera workshop during the 1976 Bicentennial.

I suppose I should mark the earlier score and change the title back to Ibsen’s original, rather than have two works in my “catalogue” with the same title, as if there would be anyone who’d bother to be confused by that.

But sitting there with this score, then, I began thinking who I was at 20 compared to who I am now and what dreams I had then and what, if any, dreams were left. Ever since I was 5 or 6 years old, I wanted to be a musician and soon after that, realizing I wanted to be a composer, too. Having a composition performed by the Harrisburg Symphony when I was still in middle school and writing an opera before I graduated from high school, the dream of having an opera premiered at The Met, no less, by the time I was 50 was not unreasonable, then. However unrealistic it may have been is one thing, but it’s not a dream one can keep alive, especially now that 50 has long gone and I spent so many years not composing at all.

Redefining ones dreams, then, is a necessary part of life, adapting to the realities one sees in that mirror, darkly or otherwise (and don’t even get me started on aging). As a result, I went back to reading Harold Kushner’s “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” which helped supply a certain amount of perspective – something always necessary for an individual who sometimes has trouble dealing with day-to-day reality. Granted, the book is primarily concerned with people facing divorce (like Mrs. Alving) or the death of a spouse, but a lot of it applies easily to people who have felt failure in this world that says “you didn’t win the silver, you lost the gold.” There is much to be said for the mid-life crisis – the real culprit, I would imagine, behind my 16-year writer’s block – and ones sense of self-confidence and accomplishment which can turn momentary setbacks into destructive lifetime failures. The process of even finding your bootstraps is difficult enough, but the risk of redefining yourself and getting beyond those setbacks is not much different than those faced by a habitual couch potato who decides to lose weight and start exercising.

This, I tell myself, is why I have been doggedly composing for the past few years, now, working at it as close to every day as possible: it is important to my soul, to defining who I am, but what I realized in the process of facing this 40-year-old piece, what I’m doing now is just composing, not really dreaming. And I need to have a dream, otherwise I’ll continue to do what I’ve done so often in my life: finish something, then put it away and start something else. For years, this has been enough.

But now I realize I must give myself time to dream – something more realistic than an opera at the Met, certainly – to give myself permission to dream and to not feel like a failure if it doesn’t happen.

Dr. Dick

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