SFOpera - Q&A with "Usher House" composer Gordon Getty

Q&A with "Usher House" composer Gordon Getty

Lacking much action and dialogue, Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” may not seem the most obvious candidate for operatic treatment. Yet it has captured the imaginations of some of the most gifted composers, including American minimalist Philip Glass, whose 1987 opera has been seen all over the world, and, of course, Claude Debussy who worked on turning it into an opera from 1908 until 1917. Despite his close affinity for the subject, Debussy left La Chute de la Maison Usher unfinished when he died in 1918. His original plan—to write a double bill of Poe operas—was never fulfilled.

Now San Francisco Opera presents its own double bill: the American premiere of Robert Orledge’s completion of Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher, alongside the American premiere of Usher House by San Francisco-based composer Gordon Getty.

Getty, who has composed operas on diverse subjects such as Joan of Arc and Falstaff, draws unabashedly on 19th-century musical models. San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a close friend, has described Getty’s music as “a kind of free declamation. [His] harmonies and melodies come through in a very clear way: there is nothing murky about his music, even though his harmonies and transpositions of the notes can be very surprising.”

As Getty notes, “I feel that I belong to the nineteenth century. I have nineteenth-century ideals. I want to make the world better.”

Why did you choose Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher" as the subject of an opera?

For years and years, I thought about setting "The Fall of the House of Usher "as a short play or short opera. I wrote the play 20–30 years ago, realizing I might set it as an opera later on.

What drew me to the story was that it’s so operatic, with the house coming down at the end, and also—which was a challenge—because Poe gives you no story really. He gives you the last scene in great detail and a few details before. Outside of that, if you write a whole opera, you have got to make up a whole lot of story. I haven’t seen Philip Glass’ version of Usher. I did see two or three different reconstructions of the Debussy opera, including this one, which we’ll hear [as part of this double bill]. They all had to make up quite a bit of a story.

Debussy wrote his own libretto, based loosely on the French translation by Charles Baudelaire, and I wrote my own libretto. We both made up this story, sticking to what we do know—except that I didn’t even particularly stick to what we do know. I turned Poe upside down. Poe’s story is all about malaise; it’s an absolute masterpiece. But I wanted to get gallantry, valor, and chivalry into this story.  I wanted to turn these characters inside out, so I make the three principal characters the good guys: Madeline, her brother Roderick, and the visitor whom I make to be Edgar Allan Poe.

Except, of course, that Madeline is mad (but sweet), and Roderick tells us he’s sick to near death, though he doesn’t show any of it.  Still, we believe him. The visitor, whom I make out to be Poe, I made chivalrous and valorous. He wasn’t really. Poe was actually a feisty dude, temperamental and crusty in real life. But outside of those ailments and liabilities, I wanted all three (Roderick, Madeline, and Poe) to be the kind of people you’d want your children to marry.  This certainly isn’t what Poe had in mind, but it’s what I had in mind.

It’s this idea of making a story of chivalry and gallantry against the forces of evil.

How did the idea of bringing the Usher ancestors come into the story? They play an important part, especially at the conclusion. It’s certainly an original idea.

I’m not sure it’s so original. I think it’s in half of the Hammer Films, the B-horror movies of 40–50 years ago with my good friend Christopher Lee as the bad guy in most of them. (By the way, Christopher was an opera singer before he became a movie actor. He once sang Iago to Set Svanholm’s Otello in Stockholm.)

I felt that we needed the forces of evil. The house itself falls apart in the end, and I think it’s not just from faulty construction. There’s something about evil going on here, so I throw in an interdict by 11th-century English sovereign Edward the Confessor.  The house of Usher was already ancient then.  And in my version, Edward the Confessor ordered it sundered stone from stone, and the stones cast into Usher Tarn (mountain lake). Then the grandfather of Roderick Usher drains the tarn, dredges up the stones, brings them to Georgia (in the U.S.), and reconstructs the house near a tarn just like the old one. The ancestors were in the crypt all along, including the founder of the Usher line. They show up for the ballroom scene and other scenes. I thought that was a corny touch, not original, but I liked it. I don’t demand originality. Originality should be incidental.

You have Madeline succumb during the dance, in a scene which is very striking, very operatic.

The obvious model for that would be Olympia from Tales from Hoffmann. She’s not mad but she’s a mechanical doll. It’s a brilliant operatic tour de force, and I stole that, too. But I don’t mind stealing things.

Do you confer with anyone while composing? Do you show drafts to anyone?

Usually not. And if somebody pipes up later, I’ll listen to them, if they know what they’re talking about.

Did you consciously write in the style of Poe?

Yes, in this particular piece, I decided to write the libretto in the style of Poe, without trying too hard. It still has to be me. So there are long sentences, and I violate all the laws of dramaturgy. I have people sitting and talking about cabbages and kings with music going on. And the laws of dramaturgy say, “Oh, there ought to be some activity outside of people’s jaws moving.” But Wagner didn’t think so. He didn’t mind people standing or sitting and talking for 10–20 minutes on end. And neither do I. I think my music can carry it.

You gave Poe a lovely ballad, the tenor aria “Where Is My Lady?” Where did that ballad idea come from?

Again, I wrote it in the style of Poe, more or less, but also in my own style. It’s not untypical of me. It’s meant to sound as if it came from the early nineteenth century or from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Somewhere in there. I’m very old-fashioned. 

Are you excited about the upcoming performances of Usher House at San Francisco Opera?

I’m excited and very confident. I thought that [the 2014 world premiere in] Cardiff went very well. I’m quite enthusiastic about the production. I subsequently strengthened the music. There were certain spots that needed touching up, and I touched them up. The director, David Pountney, is a genius.

Where did the idea to pair Usher House up with the Debussy come from?

I think I suggested it sometime as kind of a natural, because it’s the same length. Both Robert Orledge [who reconstructed Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher] and I are living composers. Debussy only completed one-third of his La Chute. He left sketches for a third, and the rest had to be made up, but I thought it was a beautiful job that I heard in Cardiff.

When you first conceived of Usher House, did you have in mind another opera to go with it?

At the time I wrote Usher House, I did not have in mind another opera to go along with it. But Job Maarse who runs PentaTone Records is always needling me to write something new., I was thinking about this three to four years ago, and the thought hit me like a ton of bricks: obviously The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde’s ghost story. It is ghosts again, but the opposite [of Usher House]. This is a lovable ghost, a bumbling, lovable ghost. A true-blue American family and a beautiful love story, too. So I thought Usher House would come first, and Canterville Ghost would come second and that would be my double bill. There are also plans-- which I cannot say more about because I’ve been sworn to secrecy-- to put this on as a double bill. But I can’t say where.

Do you have a vocal sound in my mind as you create these characters?

Yes, in the case of Doctor Primus, a bass, I wanted a dark sound, ominous and understated. He doesn’t bellow, my Primus. Most of the whole role is mezzo voce [sung at half voice]. Of course, he thunders at times just to show us he can, but he should be understated, even obsequious. Boris Karloff was usually like that. The obsequious villain.

You have written music about a variety of subjects, including Joan of Arc and Falstaff. How do you pick these subjects? What appeals to you in a subject that makes it operatic?

What do I want in an opera? What I want is a beautiful subject. There’s a lot of beauty in Falstaff, if you look for it. In Usher House, I contrived to put nobility and gallantry into it. There’s plenty of it in Canterville Ghost, too. The ghost himself is a lovable clown, bless his heart. But there’s beauty in the love story between Cheshire and the young girl Virginia. And Wilde gives us overwhelming beauty in the scene where Virginia saves the soul of the ghost. That’s heartbreakingly beautiful.

In the case of Poe, he gives you no lines until the last scene. And there I took most of his lines just as he gave them to us. But Wilde gives us lines all over the place, even though it’s a short story, not a play. And I cribbed from Oscar Wilde all I could.

What advice would you give a young composer?

The tip I give every composer—pop or classical, but particularly classical—is, for the love of Mike, please yourself; don’t worry about pleasing your audience. But, on the other hand, I do advise them in opera to play to the audience and be very theatrical. But make it an imaginary audience of 2,000 people just like you. That’s my suggestion. Please yourself, otherwise the audience can tell. Write what you think the world needs.

Completing Debussy
"I could not bring my passions from a common spring”