The story really matters. That premise may seem self-evident, but there’s a long-standing cliché, at least as far as opera is concerned, that the story is what you have to put up with to get to the music—never mind that Verdi and Puccini obsessed over their choice of subject matter and tormented their librettists whenever it was time to consider a new project for the stage. One of the happy side effects triggered by the American Renaissance in opera that’s been unfolding for the past two to three decades has been to puncture the silly notion that the story is, at best, incidental to the experience.
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Patricia Racette as the title character of Dolores Claiborne
Photo by Scott Wall
“For me,” asserts Tobias Picker, “opera is about telling stories in music.” By doing just that, Picker has made himself into one of the key instigators of said Renaissance. Emmeline secured his reputation as a composer who possesses a powerful and effective theatrical instinct. The first of his five operas to date, Emmeline won an enthusiastic reception when it premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1996.
dedicated to San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, who Picker describes as “the man who has done more for American opera than any other in our history”—shows the composer at the height of his powers as an operatic storyteller, but it also represents a new departure. Of Picker’s preceding operas, three are set in the past (both Emmeline
and Thérèse Raquin
take place in the 19th century and An American Tragedy
in the early 20th) and one in the imaginative world of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox
(a “children’s story” that’s very much for adults).
Stephen King’s novel, first published in 1992 and made into a critically acclaimed film in 1995, attracted him above all because of its more contemporary resonance, according to Picker.
Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser, whose novels were transformed into the operas Thérèse Raquin
(Dallas Opera, 2001) and An American Tragedy
(the Metropolitan Opera, 2005), respectively, once wielded great influence but can no longer be considered a central part of the culture. “
In An American Tragedy
, I realized that I was limited in terms of the bones of the story, which wouldn’t really work in contemporary terms,” Picker remarks. “Stephen King is a major storyteller for today. Having written operas that were set in the past, I wanted
a modern story that applies to modern times.”
Before he wrote An American Tragedy
, Picker had already latched onto the idea of Dolores Claiborne
as a subject with thrilling operatic potential. Various delays prevented him from taking up that project—Picker was finally able to start composing Dolores Claiborne
in September 2011 and took about a year to complete it—but in a sense he benefited from the additional experience of grappling with An American Tragedy
. The music critic Alex Ross deemed the latter, despite its trappings as a “Gilded Age melodrama,” to be “a serious, substantial piece.”
For Dolores Claiborne
, Picker teamed up with the esteemed poet, librettist, and literary critic J.D. (“Sandy”) McClatchy. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, McClatchy is also a veteran of the opera stage and has written librettos for more than a dozen composers, beginning with William Schuman in 1989 (A Question of Taste
) and including two upcoming premieres this fall: The Death of Webern
to music by Michael Dellaira and, with composer Jeanine Tesori, the children’s opera The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me
As for King’s novel, McClatchy points out that the operatic possibilities lurking within the story were immediately apparent—though “the narrative had to be tweaked” to adapt it to its new medium. “King has always been interested in people in extreme situations. So is opera. And he is an astute observer of the varieties of human psychology. Again, so is opera,” says McClatchy. “The dramatic plot and fascinating characters in Dolores Claiborne
seemed just right for the opera stage.”
The choice of a best-selling novel that also commands widespread recognition as a film might sound like merely opting for populist fare in lieu of bygone literary classics. But Picker affirms that both the dramatic scenario peculiar to Dolores Claiborne
and its modern relevance are what convinced him that he’d discovered a story ideally suited to the opera stage. He notes that the novel itself departs from the trademarks usually associated with King’s fiction: “I wasn’t interested in the supernatural aspect or graphic violence in King. His writing here is different from most other King stories in that it’s not particularly gruesome or supernatural. What interests me about King as a writer is how he can get inside people’s heads. And the triangle of the three women at the heart of this story—Dolores, her boss Vera Donovan, and her daughter Selena—is very powerful. I always look for a triangle in the dramatic structure.” And rather than play down the story’s melodramatic aspects, Picker draws attention to the way these intensify our sense of what’s at stake in the story: “Essentially it’s a psychological Gothic melodrama set in modern times.”
Dolores Claiborne’s House by H.S. Picker (acrylic on canvas, 2011). Henriette Simon Picker, mother of Tobias Picker, studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York before pursuing a successful 45- year career as a shoe designer. Her catalogue, spanning 80 years, continues to grow; since 2011, she has produced more than 100 new works. Picker’s first solo exhibition at age 95 at Hudson River Studio in 2012 led to a retrospective exhibition at PMW Gallery in March 2013. She currently exhibits at Waxlander Gallery in Santa Fe.
Image used with kind permission from hspicker.com
McClatchy understands how Picker, as an opera composer, would find this combination so richly appealing: “Tobias’s music has the muscular strength to carry a violent plot, and the emotional tension to divulge the inner lives of its characters.” With its plot of false accusations, physical and sexual abuse, and desperation that leads to murder, Dolores Claiborne
readily elicits comparisons with Italian verismo
, and with characters like Tosca who are forced to take extreme action in a world dominated by male authority. But McClatchy thinks it would be more apt to compare Dolores “with a Janáček heroine” and the Czech composer’s operatic depictions “of the dynamics of strong women in a claustrophobic society.” He adds that what really fascinates him about the story is its ending: “Just where we expect, from a lifetime spent watching conventional melodramas (which I adore), an affirming reconciliation of mother and daughter, we have instead a shocking reversal of that expectation. Here is a mother who would do anything to save her child, even murder, and in ‘saving’ her she loses her. The cruel ironies make Dolores an even more sympathetic character.”
Incidentally, those familiar only with the film version (starring Kathy Bates as the title character) may be rather surprised by how much the opera’s story differs from what they remember. The role of Detective Thibodeau is focused on the issue of Vera Donovan’s death, while in the film a new subplot is developed in which this character attempts to vindicate his previous failure to convict Dolores for the murder of her husband, Joe St. George. Selena’s part in the opera—here a lawyer rather than a journalist—also lacks the film’s overlays of motivation. For the most part she appears as a girl, in the context of the past that’s being reenacted, and without her adult character’s addiction to drink and pills to escape its trauma.
After generously granting the rights to adapt his novel for a fee of one dollar, Stephen King officially approved the libretto but otherwise never became directly involved in the project. Picker and McClatchy decided right at the beginning to hew closely to the novel. “I’ve only seen the film once, and a while ago,” McClatchy recalls. “It is well done but ‘opens up’ the book in ways that some will feel is ingenious and I feel distract from the novel’s essential arc. The opera returns to King’s sad, tortured, violent story in which everyone is hurtled into a whirlpool of loss and violence and no one is redeemed.” At the same time, McClatchy is intrigued by the affinities between opera and film in a more general sense: “Opera is closer to film than it is to prose. Though it moves so much more slowly, opera has either learned from film or taught it lessons in montage and pacing, the texture of time, the pitch of the close-up. Film has more speed and variety, but opera has more intensity. Film has more subtlety, opera more grandeur and intimacy. Film has more excitement, opera more emotional depth.”
McClatchy’s perspective as a poet also shaped the libretto. “My training as a poet was an ideal preparation for writing libretti. The whole point of a poem is its concision, its metaphorical power, its ability to transform in a heartbeat our view of the world. That doesn’t mean I want a libretto to sound ‘literary.’ (Auden is my hero, but I’ve always found the libretto for The Rake’s Progress
too fussy.) But I want the words to have resonance, and to create a pattern of images that gives depth to a character.”
As much as Dolores Claiborne
, with its more modern context, heralds a new direction for Picker, the opera consolidates some signature features that can be found in his preceding stage works. He was surprised by a few of the uncanny resemblances it turned out to share with his first opera. Both Emmeline and Dolores, he says, are strong women who defy “the conventional life that would have made their situations even worse,” and both operas are even set in Maine. (In an unforeseen development, Patricia Racette, who created the roles of Emmeline and of Roberta in An American Tragedy
, was called upon to do the same for Dolores, together with Catherine Cook, after Dolora Zajick withdrew from the production.) The psychological emphasis of Dolores Claiborne
, moreover—and the dark truths this unveils—intensifies a similar focus in Emmeline
, Thérèse Raquin,
and An American Tragedy.
Picker is returning to his roots in still another sense by renewing his collaboration with Sandy McClatchy. “Tobias and I met where all people meet—at a party,” recalls the librettist. Immediately they began plotting out a collaboration—McClatchy mentions that their first idea was for a “Proust Requiem” for French radio, though nothing came of it—and their first success as a team came with Emmeline,
which McClatchy adapted from a novel by Judith Rossner. Why did their collaboration suddenly stop? There were some more attempts to try out new projects, “but nothing worked out. Both of us have strong personalities, and our relationship hit the rocks.”
For his last two operas, the composer had partnered with the much sought-after Gene Scheer, but scheduling conflicts kept them from teaming up for the Stephen King opera. Picker turned again to his former colleague. Almost at once, we resumed a confident friendship and have worked happily on Dolores
.” says McClatchy. “Tobias is a superb composer with canny theatrical instincts, so it is an especially exciting pleasure to work with him again.” So much so, he adds, that they’ve already started planning two more operas together.
Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy
“The words are another color for me,” remarks Picker. “Especially with Sandy’s words, I’m very respectful of the rhythm of the poetry. I am with Gene as well—they each have their own unique voice, and those voices do have an influence on the way I write.” For his part, McClatchy has a clear sense of his responsibility as librettist: “My job is to give the composer musical possibilities, to think of the characters as singers, and to work up a drama for voices.” For example, a significant reworking of King’s unbroken first-person narrative was the choice to frame the entire opera with the scene of Vera’s death. For the audience, McClatchy points out, this device manages to “open the opera with a bang” and at the same time to lead them “through a mystery they must, in time, solve themselves”—a gesture that may be “more Hitchcock than King.” On a musical level, it reinforces the emotional logic of Picker’s taut network of leitmotifs, which continually clue us in to new angles and cross-references.
McClatchy similarly creates the musical “space” for the ensembles that are especially important to the composer. “I don’t like operas where you have just one person singing at a time for hours,” Picker explains. His fondness for the contrapuntal variety of ensembles—a trait throughout all of his operas—takes many forms in Dolores Claiborne
: the quintet of maids who spell out Vera’s imperious demands; Vera’s July 4th party with the comic touch of the trio of Knox, Cox, and Fox juxtaposed against the hair-raising quartet that ends the first act; the chorus during the eclipse; or the trio for the women split between locations—the definitive musical embodiment of the dramatic triangle Picker refers to and the three generations of women, each of whom struggles in her own way with the predicament of powerlessness.
As for giving his characters distinct musical identities, Picker devised a system of melodic, harmonic, and even rhythmic motifs derived from the spelling and accents of particular names. Selena, for example, conjures triads of A minor, while Vera, into whose world we are plunged in the opera’s opening measures, is associated with a powerful chord that the composer uses to portray her “regality.” Vera’s world of privilege “is the world Dolores Claiborne has to cope with and survive, just as she does with Joe St. George.” Joe’s motif is a dramatically downward-plunging G-E-F-sharp, but he’s also characterized by the singsong tune “Daddy go up, Daddy go down” which he uses when sexually abusing his daughter. “I wanted to write a catchy tune that can sound innocent and sinister at the same time,” says Picker, “and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night with it stuck in your head.”
Neither Picker nor McClatchy worries that their unforgiving portrayal of Joe will be perceived as too extreme or “two-dimensional.” McClatchy recalls that “Tobias, Jim [Robinson, the stage director], and I all felt the same way: sometimes a man is simply evil, through and through, and we wanted to leave him as he is, a total monster. He has none of Scarpia’s suavity. He depends on booze and brutality to have his way. Americans love victims, but that softness doesn’t belong in this story. The complex characters here are the women, as they should be. Women are so much more in touch with their own emotions than men are.”
It’s especially fitting that Dolores Claiborne’s music is so closely linked to her name (motivically, with all possible variants of D and C, flat and sharp): that’s how she asserts her identity, from her very first words in the opera. Harmonically, this is reinforced by the heavy chords of C minor that end each of the two acts. “She comes into her own as ‘Dolores Claiborne,’” Picker explains. “In that sense she’s a modern woman who takes her own name back to define herself.”
To help carry over from one scene to another in a time frame that spans over forty years, Picker uses leitmotivic devices as well. The brittle rhythms in the Prelude are part of Thibodeau’s interrogation music—“like rats crawling around in the orchestra and foraging for some crumb of evidence”—and are used “to bring us back to the present in the story line.” Picker adds that his approach to the orchestra is to treat it both as narrator and a character alive in its own right, though “less is more, I always feel, since I don’t want to cover the singers.”
Referring to the inevitable adjustments and last-minute fine-tunings that are part of sending any opera out into the world for the first time, McClatchy rhapsodizes about the process of musicians feeling their way into the music, of singers “beginning to feel the text in their throats” along with the pitches: “The task of both librettist and composer is to make the singers thrill and move their audiences. Theirs is the hardest task of all. I’m nervous in front of a typewriter. What would I do if I had to worry about hitting a B-flat in front of 3,000 people?”
Thomas May, a regular contributor to San Francisco Opera Magazine, is an internationally published arts writer. He blogs at memeteria.com.