We are thrilled to be kicking off our official Backstage at San Francisco blog. This first blog post comes from Christopher Theofanidis—the composer of Heart of a Soldier, our world premiere commission based on the book of the same name by James B. Stewart. Heart of a Soldier will have its premiere on September 10, 2011—the eve of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. While the opera may be new to all of us, there are many who have been working on it for years now. Read on to gain insight into some of the musical challenges Christopher worked through early in his composing process.
One of the things several people have already asked me is what ‘style’ will the music be in? This is actually a little more tricky to answer than it might first seem, as the opera takes place in many locales:
- WW II, on the shores of Cornwall, England, as the United States
GI’s depart for D-day
- Africa in the early 60’s
- The US in the early 60’s
- The US in the early 70’s
- Beirut in the 70’s
- The US from 1998-2001
The question of how a composer acknowledges those periods and places in the music was a necessary one for me to confront.
One of the things I am not so keen on in music is a kind of pastiche approach to representing style. That is, in general I don’t like the idea of throwing in a little jazz, then a little rock, etc. I think this has the potential to take away from a unified voice and ultimately tends to sound a little gimmicky. [Above: Christopher Theofianidis hears his Heart of a Soldier score come to life for the first time at an early reading workshop]
That being said, I did try to have the ‘feeling’ of certain musics in the background of what I was doing, without changing my own personal sound. For instance, in Vietnam, one of the characters, Dex, who is on drugs, has some music which has the strings bending pitches almost psychedelically, like a Jimi Hendrix guitar lick. This is done solely in the orchestra, however, and the kind of reverb sound you associate with acid rock is present, achieved non-electrically by sustaining certain orchestral pitches in the background of those pitch bended melodies.
There are numerous other examples of this kind of integrated approach in the piece. One of the protagonists, Dan Hill, remembers the call to prayer he heard parachuting over Beirut. Here, we actually have someone vocal keening like a Muezzin in the distance over Dan’s memory—a musical perfume.
One other musical idea is influenced by the traditions in Cornwall, as one of our protagonists, Rick, sees the American GI’s headed off for D-Day. He sings them an old Cornish fighting ballad called “Train your Heart.” For this, because we wanted to use original text that would be part of the meaning of the opera, we steered away from using an actual Cornish ballad (and there so many great ones—many of which Rick actually knew and loved in real life), and I wrote a ballad-like song that had the feeling of one of those, while still being original. The advantage of this was that I was able to do one or two very personal harmonic things that I think make that song ‘fit’ into the fabric of the whole of the opera better. [Above: Music Staff member Bryndon Hassman looks over the Heart of a Soldier
score with Christopher Theofanidis at an early workshop]
In general, about my own style, I see it as coming from a Romantic language. It is fundamentally melodic, and I put a premium on brilliance of orchestral sound. Operatically, I tend to be in the Italian camp of the ‘verismo’ tradition—heightened emotional states through music, ultimately very dramatic in conception.