Sunday, May 10, 2015

Librettist Claudia Stevens 'Springs' to Life

By Erica Miner

Glowing reviews have abounded for Middlemarch in Spring, the latest operatic effort of librettist Claudia Stevens ( Based in the Bay Area, Stevens wears many hats: librettist, playwright, a contributing director of new music series Sonic Harvest in Berkeley and Visiting Scholar at William & Mary College in Virginia among them.

A collaboration with composer Allen Shearer gave birth to Middlemarch in Spring, a full-length adaptation of George Eliot’s imposing novel. One of four chamber operas Stevens has created with Shearer, Middlemarch premiered in San Francisco on March 19, 2015.

EM: Congratulations on your success with Middlemarch, Claudia. Tell us about your background. 

CS: Thank you, Erica. Middlemarch in Spring did achieve success, not only with reviewers but with our audience in San Francisco, which was especially gratifying. I was born and raised in a very small Northern California town but have always felt my voice as a writer to be more British than American. My parents, Jews from Central Europe, escaped from Hitler and found refuge in British Palestine and in England before coming to America. So I grew up reading Victorian novels and speaking very much like an English child, studying piano, drama and singing - ultimately taking music very seriously. I worked with great teachers including Leon Fleisher and Leonard Shure. My first career was as a pianist - you and I knew each other as young musicians at Tanglewood, as I recall. 

EM: We did indeed. At what point were you bitten by the writing bug? 

CS: This happened when my career as a pianist morphed into a quite active solo “performance art” career, where I combined keyboard playing with speaking, singing and dramatic acting. The technical demands and possibilities were quite singular - so I found myself creating my own repertoire. That included text creation and, later on, music composition. I was also my own director, making such decisions as where speech should elide into singing and where movement away from the keyboard should happen. Short experimental works soon grew into full-length solo pieces - some twenty works over two decades. Several of these mono play texts were chosen to appear in AndrĂ© Codrescu's poetry journal, Exquisite Corpse. In a number of my pieces I portrayed multiple characters, using staging, costumes, hats, even noses, to switch from one to another. My experience and comfort level in writing for the stage evolved in this way. Writing was something I came to do out of necessity, in order to generate new pieces for my own performance. 

EM: How did that evolve into writing libretti? 

CS: It is a similar process to create text for other performer/singers. Knowing about vocal placement - what words and phrases sing well - is essential. But also, choosing the story is critically important. One has to be able to visualize quite early on how the whole opera will work: whether singing will enhance the story and serve the drama, and vice versa. One must have characters in mind that can be created musically and dramatically. Without interesting and distinctive characters opera can be a bland affair. While a focus on contemporary relevance - making connections to contemporary issues - can sharpen the experience for an audience, for me opera is always about story and character. 

EM: How long have you and Allen been working together? 

CS: In 2006 Allen wrote the incidental music for my solo play Blue Lias, about Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning. Because it tied in with the hot topic of women in science, as well as controversies about science and religion, I had many invitations to perform the piece. During that time Allen and I also were working on our first chamber opera, The Dawn Makers, a fanciful one-act based on the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonos. Its 2009 premiere at Herbst Theater in San Francisco featured tenor John Duykers and was a wonderful success. We also created a droll one-act for three male singers, A Very Large Mole, based on a Kafka short story, which had performances in Berkeley and San Francisco in 2010, as well as an opera, Riddle Me, for youth audiences commissioned by the Opera Theater at UC, Santa Cruz, performed there in 2011 and elsewhere in 2012. The story of Riddle Me was based on a Grimm’s fairy tale but updated for a contemporary young audience. Middlemarch in Spring is our fourth opera and fifth collaborative work. 

EM: Why did you choose ‘Middlemarch’? Did it take a long time to come to fruition?

CS: The opera was born of my passion for the novel and came to fruition over four years of painstaking and inspired work by Allen. It began when he asked me to come up with a single opera scene for two females and one male to present on a small concert series. I thought of the opening chapter of George Eliot's Middlemarch, where two sisters divide their mother's jewels, revealing so much about their own characters while their clueless uncle spouts platitudes. Before we knew it, the possibility to develop a full length opera completely took hold of us. I wrote the libretto for a two-act opera in six scenes with six characters in a matter of weeks. The scenes would project the novel's main story of Dorothea, leaving out parallel plots and characters. Text revisions would be necessitated by the evolving musical score, but the trajectory of the whole work, its essential structure, was present from the beginning.

EM: How did you decide to use projections in the production? 

CS: In 2011 and 2012 we put on semi-staged versions of several scenes for the concert series Sonic Harvest. We were ready to forge ahead and complete the opera, scored for 11 instruments, by summer of 2014. Condensing a huge work of fiction that I love deeply into a two-hour opera, while striving to retain its underlying values as well as the author's voice, occupied my thought and energy throughout the entire process so much that I often don't know what text is George Eliot's and what is my own. I thought of including another voice - that of a dramaturg or the author - to provide commentary at certain points. This seemed artificial. I then had the idea to use projections to convey a psychological landscape, allowing the audience actually to "see" what the characters might be imagining - their unspoken motivations, yearnings and fears. The early Romantic period was rich in erotic, often frightening imagery. I found some of William Blake’s pictures especially potent in conveying moments of the characters’ terror, mysticism and revelation. Allen created wonderfully evocative music to accompany those moments, and our projection designer, Jeremy Knight, brought those and his own images into beautiful realization.

EM: Do you have plans for another collaboration with Allen? 

CS: While Middlemarch in Spring was in rehearsal, Allen was at work on Kissing Marfa, a short dramatic work for mixed chorus and soloists based on a funny short story by Chekhov. It is slated to be performed at Cal State, East Bay next year. And we have been brainstorming about another project, a major new full-length opera, which we hope will capture the interest of an opera company in future. 

EM: Will Middlemarch in Spring be performed elsewhere in the future?

CS: That is our hope. We think - and so do colleagues, as well as reviewers - that it has all the ingredients to enter the permanent repertoire of chamber operas.

Photos used by permission of: Jim Dennis/Jeremy Knight
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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