This week I began coachings for the world premiere of my 10-minute opera, Maya’s Ark, which Ardea Arts is presenting to the kids at Children’s Village on March 5th (and then in a Salon in their Soho studio on the 6th), featuring Michael Lofton and Guadalupe Peraza and directed by Grethe Holby.
Maya’s Ark was inspired by the story of Kea Tawana, who built an ark with salvaged materials in the parking lot of a church in downtown Newark in the mind 1980s; it was hailed as a major and inspirational piece of folk art, but she was eventually forced to tear it down because of zoning regulations. I’ve been wanting to write a musical about this for years—tried twice, only to run aground on the fact that the villain of the piece is the (yawn) zoning board—but, when I was looking for a subject for a ten-minute opera, one scene of the story jumped up waving its little hand and saying, “Me, me!” It’s the (totally imagined) moment when the pastor of the church asks Kea, “What’s all that scrap lumber doing in the parking lot?” If you’d like to know more about either the actual story of Kea’s ark, or about Maya’s Ark, please check out the impressive page that the Ardea Arts staff has put together about the piece (scroll down until you see the link for Maya’s Ark on the lower right, I can’t link directly to that page.
Why would anyone write a 10-minute opera? How could such a thing be performed? There’s a company that presents an evening of 10-minute operas every year, which I will not name here for reasons which will become clear shortly. I am friendly with the directors of the company, and they had told me that if I wrote a piece for them, they would include it—they couldn’t promise what year, but they’d do it eventually. So last spring I wrote Maya’s Ark and sent it off to them. They didn’t respond, but hey, they’re busy people.
Meanwhile, Grethe Holby, to whom I’d shown the libretto, offered to do an informal reading at the Ardea Arts space in Soho in July. We did that—sung by Lars Woodul and Judith Skinner—and it was most encouraging. Grethe got the idea that it might be something we could market and license to churches, and then handed me the most thorough, detailed and dead-on critique I’ve ever had of something I’ve written. (Truly: the marked-up score, with its annotations in different-colored pencils was a thing of beauty in its own right.) It took me several months to get the time to rework it, but finally that was done (it’s this version which we’re doing in March) and I also sent the revised score off to the UnNamed 10-Minute Opera Company.
A few days later, I got an email saying that they didn’t think the piece was appropriate for their audience. That rocked me back on my heels: the story takes place in a church; there’s no sex, violence, profanity or partisan politics; as the Ardea Arts website puts it, it’s “an investigation into the nature of faith with something to say to almost any audience.” The plot involves the rekindling of the pastor’s faith inspired by Maya’s quixotic ark-building project. I asked what on earth they could possibly be talking about. The reply to that was, “Maybe it’s just us—we don’t get it. And if you’d like to talk to us about it, we can talk—in April.”
Oooookay. Now I guess I know what it feels like to be a misunderstood artist. I’m still mystified as to what could possibly be troubling them about this, but it doesn’t matter now—I have three performances of the piece coming up, and a company that’s going to try to get more.
Is there a moral to this story? Maybe not yet. While I’m waiting for the punch line, though, I’m writing another 10-minute opera on a faith-related subject: the Rapture. Last April, when dozens of people were striding through New York City street fairs carrying signs informing us that the Rapture was coming at 6 pm on May 21st (and the world would end five months later), I thought, “Oh, to be a fly on the wall when six o’clock comes and goes.” That’s the inspiration for this new piece, which I’m calling (surprise) Rapture.
I’d been thinking it could be a sister piece to Maya’s Ark, maybe something else that could be marketed to churches. But Grethe’s response after reading this libretto was that it was not at all suitable—whereas Maya’s Ark is uplifting and inspirational, Rapture is, well, a bit of a downer, and shows faith in a bad light. (The Rapture never actually happens, you see.) So perhaps the moral of the story is a post-modern one: that one never knows how one’s creations will be viewed. I suppose they’re a bit like children in that regard…
I spent much of last week as the accompanist for the Acting Your Song classes at Making It On Broadway‘s intensive summer workshop, taught by the very wonderful Jose Llana. Jose admonished the students, repeatedly, to tell a story when they sang a song.
Jose’s emphasis when he coaches is a little different than mine; he’s an actor, I’m a writer (of music, but still a writer). But what struck me is that dramatic writing is exactly what actors are doing when they prepare a song; the playwright’s building blocks of Event, Desire, Obstacle, and Action—the ingredients of narrative—are the same kit that Jose was trying to get his young students to learn (although he didn’t use those terms). In an audition song, of course, the specifics of the actor’s story may have very little to do with the words of the song, which probably don’t even tell a story, at least not in the 32-bar audition cut. The drama, the story—what the auditors get out of a good auditioner’s performance—is a story without words, the story behind the words—a story made of yearnings, frustrations, joys and disappointments.
We humans seem to have a hardwired need for stories. The idea of narratives has become a huge part of politics in recent decades; a recent New York Times editorial laid out the case that it’s Obama’s failure to lay out a compelling narrative that is to blame for our recent governmental, ahem, difficulties. Parables—stories—have always been a staple of religious teaching. Stories are the mainstay of most forms of entertainment and art. And, of course, we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves to make sense of our lives. And then there’s music.
Can music, by itself, without words, tell a story? It can as much as an auditioning actor can, telling his real story behind the words he’s singing. It was my piano teacher, the late James Tannenbaum, who introduced me to the idea that there needed to be an impulse of some kind behind every note you played. Now, he was talking about Beethoven (when I brought in a piece by Roger Sessions to my lesson a couple weeks in a row, and accidentally left it behind one day, I’m pretty sure he threw it out so I’d have to work on something different next week), but the same thing applies elsewhere. Humans find stories everywhere, the same as we do other patterns, so if a performer is generating a story behind the notes, a listener will get a story as well. I’d venture to say that in music that doesn’t ask the performer to put themselves and their impulses into it—John Cage’s music, say—it’s the listeners who supply their own stories that enjoy it, and those who don’t that do not. (Remember, I’m not talking about a literal, plotted narrative here—it’s the ability to endow sounds with meaning that can come from either performer or listener, or both.)
Music only tells stories in the hands of a good performer, though. As a composer, if I want to tell a story, I’m going to use words: I’m going to write a libretto. I wrote a 10-minute opera this spring inspired by the story of Kea Tawana, who built an ark in the parking lot of a church in Newark in the 1980s. I’ve tried a couple of times to make a full-length musical out of it over the decades since, but the villain in the real-life story is the zoning board, which just doesn’t lend itself… The moment I used for the opera was the pastor of the church confronting Kea (Maya in my version) and saying, “What is all this lumber doing in my parking lot?”
Grethe Holby’s company Ardea Arts presented an informal reading of the piece (Maya’s Ark) last month, and we’re talking about ways to get it performed somewhere this fall, maybe as part of National Opera Week. I’ll keep you posted!