Keturah interviews Gene Scheer about his time on tour with Cats, his eclectic body of work, his collaboration with Jake Heggie, his upcoming premiere with Joby Talbot, and adapting libretti from existing work.
Keturah interviews Gene Scheer about his time on tour with Cats, his eclectic body of work, his collaboration with Jake Heggie, his upcoming premiere with Joby Talbot, and adapting libretti from existing work.
I remember the first rehearsal of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby Dick in 2010. I was the assistant director, and seated beside me was Gene Scheer with his score open and his pencil poised. Patrick Summers to my right, and Leonard Foglia out on the floor with Jonathan Lemalu and Stephen Costello, talking about the opening moment of the opera when Greenhorn can’t sleep because of Queequeg’s praying. The air was charged with excitement, and as Lenny looked back to give Maestro Summers a rehearsal number, Gene glanced over at me with a breathless look and said, “Oh my god. It’s really happening.”
00:39 – [Mozart played on a piano]
This is Words First: Talking Text in Opera. I’m Keturah Stickann.
01:02 – [Mozart played on a piano]
It’s the child-like wonder and excitement of discovery, no matter how many shows are under his belt, that makes Gene Scheer such an enthusiastic evangelist for opera, and an exciting colleague with whom to make work. Over the last week, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Gene a couple of times, and I’ve cut these conversations together for you today. We talk about his body of work, how he likes to write, and his salad days in Vienna. Take a listen. So Gene, I’m so glad you’re here. It means a lot that you would take the time to chat with me.
I’m delighted to be here.
I actually think this is going to be a hard interview because I know you so well, and it feels strange to ask you questions like you’re a stranger, so I’m going to try not to do that, but I’m not a very good extemporaneous speaker, so I do have a script.
But you know, I think…I’ve been thinking about this. That I think being a librettist is a little like being an opera director. No one says, “I want to be an opera librettist” when they’re seven, and…when they’re asked, like, what do you want to be when you grow up? So, I’m just going to ask you because, I think I know the answer to this, but I could be totally wrong. Am I right in saying that you started writing songs, actually, while you were in Europe on tour with Cats?
I wasn’t on tour. It was actually before that. I did do Cats. I was at Theater an der Wein, which was actually…it was the third production in the world at the time. It started like in ’83 or ’84. I think I joined it in ’84 or ’85. And…
You know I found a really old Cats-era headshot of yours on a Cats musical fandom site?
I did. It’s amazing…It’s an amazing photograph, and it’s going to make me really sad that I’m not doing a video podcast right now.
That’s funny. Anyway, it was a great experience. But I started writing…I was in Europe for a few years before I got Cats. I did a tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, a European tour of that. And, I actually went over to Vienna originally to study lieder with [unintelligible] at the Hochschuler in Wien, so I was still, you know, sort of classically…I still…[unintelligible] I always think I was one voice teacher away from getting it together and becoming a classical singer, and so I was studying classical voice through my entire time in Vienna, but I was working in musical theater. And I did Superstar, Man of La Mancha, and these were all in German. And I did wind up doing Cats, which was a great…I had a great time doing it. I have nothing but great memories of doing it. The show is not my favorite show, but doing it was an incredible experience.
There’s such a difference right? There’s such a difference between the value of a show from an audience’s point of view, and what that value is when you’re a performer.
I think that’s true too. I also think you get to know pieces when you get to do them. Just…it’s such a different experience from watching it and doing it.
So how long were you writing songs before you got your first full opera gig, doing an actual libretto for a full opera?
I would say about twelve years, honestly.
No, even longer. Because what happened was, I wasn’t thinking about writing shows, I was just writing songs. I was writing cabaret songs at first. And so, what happened Keturah, was I was, you know, I was in Vienna for almost ten…in Europe for almost ten years, mostly in Vienna. And, so I was writing…I wrote a show based on Measure for Measure which was with Brad Blake, who is an expat living in Europe. It never got done. It was workshopped once, but never got done. So I was working on this theatrical piece at one point along the way. But mostly I was just writing songs. I had no real great ambition to be a writer, it was just something I was doing, you know, on the side basically. When I came back to the states, a number of prominent singers: Denyce Graves, and Renee Fleming, and Nathan Gunn, started singing songs of mine. And through Nathan I was able to meet Francesca Zambello, and I had this stack of music, libretti, and songs to show her. So when I had my opportunity to meet someone who was in a position to help, I had a lot of material prepared. And Francesca then introduced me to Tobias, and that was Therese Raquin, which ended up being for Dallas, and…
So, Therese was your first full-length libretto?
It was. It was the first one…
I remember seeing that. I saw that four times in the theater when it was in San Diego.
Wow! Well, they did a good job in San Diego with it.
I thought the show really came together there, really nicely. And…yeah, so that’s kind of how it all sort of evolved…
It’s really about who you know, isn’t it? I mean, it really is about the connections you make in the business.
It is. But my point is, it is a question of being lucky and connecting, but you also have to be prepared. I think when I came…when the moment came, I did have stuff to show. You know, I had a complete libretto, I had a complete, you know, thirty or forty songs to show, and various things. So, it’s a combination of…luck is a big part of it, and also being prepared and working hard.
So as I look down your list and I look at all of these composers, your most enduring relationship seems to be with Jake Heggie. And we look at all of the works you’ve done together, works like Moby-Dick, It’s A Wonderful Life, If I Were You, To Hell and Back, Three Decembers, song cycles Like A Question of Light, Camille Claudel: Into the Fire… How did the two of you become involved?
Well, we had a common friend, a wonderful mezzo-soprano, Chris Jepson, and Chris said, “you know, you guys should work together,” and she was the one who facilitated us connecting. And it was a good thing that she did that, because it changed my life. My relationship with Jake has been, as you said, the most enduring artistic collaboration of my life. It continues now. We’re working on a new piece, which I really wish I could tell you about, but it hasn’t been announced yet.
And it’s really exciting. I think it’s a very current…it’s actually set in the 19th century, but it’s probably the most current piece in terms of being connected to what’s happening in the world.
What goes around comes around, huh?
What goes around comes around, huh?
Yeah, no, absolutely. But anyway, Chris suggested that we work together, and Jake was working on an opera at that time. He..and we talked about that, and what we wound up writing was this song cycle for Joyce Castle called “Statuesque,” and that’s where it all began, and it was a great pleasure working with Jake because I immediately understood that we really were singing out of the same hymnal artistically. We’re both storytellers at the center, whether it’s a song cycle, or the operas that we’re working on, we’re all about telling stories. And, you know, Jake is so incredibly gifted theatrically. And also, we also, we both come from a history of song writing. That’s where it began for both of us. So…
Do you think that that’s part of what makes that symbiosis, is that, sort of, shared or collective history of coming from that space?
I do, I do. I think because for both of us, we love singers. We love putting the human voice at the center of the operatic experience. And you know, Keturah, that sounds like that’s the self evident way to go, but it isn’t necessarily, because, I mean, a lot of – certainly modern pieces, modern libretti, modern operas are very, sort of, arioso focused, where there are long sections of dialogue that are set to music. And Jake and I are looking for these moments of catharsis, these moments of operatic excellence in which the human voice is the thing that really tells the story. That’s one of Jake’s great gifts, it’s to…that’s, you know for, I think for Jake, and through Jake, for me, our greatest part of our work has been the singers themselves. They want to sing Jake’s music, and that’s been a great way to get my caboose on that train…
We can pull it along. So, it’s been an incredible experience. All the pieces that you’ve listed, by definition some are more successful than others, but I’m very proud of the body of work that we’ve created, and that we continue to create. As I’ve said, this new opera that we’re working on right now has a spectacular cast, and it’s a very moving and interesting story based on true events in the 19th century.
That’s great. Can you tell me, do you have a favorite collaboration with Jake?
Well, you know, there are so many different [sic].
You don’t know…. I mean, the…certainly Moby-Dick was a highlight for both of us because we didn’t know how it would be received. And of course it was received in a very positive way and it continues to performed and, it’s…and I’m very proud of the work we did there. It was a big task to take that, you know, large novel and distill it down to an opera. And I think we…I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish there. But there’s no…there’s song cycles and “Into the Fire” with Joyce DiDonato was certainly a highlight, working with an artist of that caliber, and telling that story which is such an important story about, sort of, a woman denied her role in history. You know, there’s a new exhibition that’s being planned by the Art Institute of Chicago. I was just contacted by the curator, who’s doing that…organizing that exhibition. So, that piece has had a wonderful life, in large measure due to Joyce’s incredible performance of the piece.
So there’s…I mean, it’s…It’s been so…we have been so blessed to have these great singers perform these pieces, and continue too. Also, I just want to add one more thing.
It’s not just the great singers, it’s the fact that these song cycles are being done by students in their recitals, both from their bachelor’s recitals, their master’s recitals, their doctoral recitals. I mean I’m constantly being contacted by students who ask me about the pieces they’re about to perform for opera school presentation. And I find that also very gratifying. I think that it’s just great that these songs are having a life in the voices and the imaginations of all different kinds of singers at all different levels in the journey.
Yes. So, going back to talking about creating libretti…you’ve said about writing libretti, this is specifically with Jake, but I think it applies to your other collaborations as well, that you wanted to, quote, provide Jake with an opportunity to allow music to tell the story. Do you see that as a good job description for yourself?
I do. I think that’s…that’s certainly how I would describe what a good librettist has to accomplish. For me, music is, first and foremost, it is the most important aspect of an operatic experience. That doesn’t mean to undersell the importance of a great libretto, the drama that’s being told. But we’re there for the music, we’re there for the music to illuminate the drama. That’s the thing that’s idiosyncratic to an opera, and that’s what a human voice can do so beautifully. When I’m crafting an opera libretto, it’s not dissimilar to creating a scenario, at least in my mind, for a silent film. In that case…yeah, because when you think about it, in those cases, the poetry was in the cinematography. There were these, basically these grand gestures, or broader gestures because of the nature of a silent film. And then the subtlety and the brilliance of it was in terms of how it was filmed and, of course, played. And it also gave room for the cinematographer to tell the story in pictures. But ultimately we’re telling our stories in music, and so when I think of great operas, operas that really resonate for me, while the words are great, it’s the structure…it’s how it’s being told structurally that matters most because it allows music to tell a story through…rather than talking in abstract terms, I’ll give you an example.
You think about, like, the opening of Boheme. A woman comes up the stairs to this garret to have her candle lit and she sees this guy, they’re attracted to each other. And before she leaves, she drops the key on the floor, and they both get down on their knees, and they are looking for the key and their hands touch. And of course, he sings, “Che gelida manina.” Now, without any words, without knowing what they are singing, the words they’re singing, you can see that whole thing unfold. And music, even if they were singing it on “ooh” or “ah” or humming it, you can imagine that playing. Of course, then you add beautiful language, meaningful language, and it becomes something that’s even greater. But I think that that is how I’m looking at each scene that I’m trying to craft. I’m trying to create a musical moment that the composer, he or she, can then, as I say, win the day and allow music to really tell the story. So that’s how I…you know, whether it’s the opening of Moby-Dick with Queequeg praying and you can see that Greenhorn, who of course is Ishmael, his sleep is being interrupted by Queequeg. You know, without..in fact, he’s singing a Samoan chant at that moment in the show, so you don’t actually know what the words mean but you know what’s happening. You can see it all, and music can then tell the story. So it’s, I mean…that’s…I take my cues from these great standard rep pieces in which it was done so successfully. I mean, think of the opening of The Marriage of Figaro: a guy measuring the bed and his fiancée is saying, “Not here. Not now.”
You know, like…again, without the words, you can tell what’s happening. And that’s what I…and that, if you start like that, that gives the room for music to be the primary thing that is communicating, as I say, the marrow of the matter, which is the dramatic content that is…which you’re trying to deliver. If words are the way in which the story is being told exclusively, or you’re depending too much on the words to tell the story, that’s when you get these operas with too many words, and the music suffers, honestly because the music is constrained. I mean, I work with many different composers, and they feel…you know…how am I going to set all of these words? You want to distill it down to something that allows music to be the thing that is the most important aspect of the storytelling.
So, with this notion that the words are in service to the music, even though the words are what begins the process, how much do you find that your libretti change once it’s been handed over to the composer?
Oh, it does change. I think what happens is when the composers are writing the scores, if they’re open to it, what will happen is that they’ll learn more about the characters, they’ll learn more about the situations from the music that’s being written. The music is telling the composer about who these people are, and as a consequence, new words, new operatic moments can be required., In my experience, honestly there’s more editing, more changes that happen with Jake than with other composers I work with…
Because Jake, he’s so theatrically minded, that he is constantly learning from the characters as he’s writing them. But, you know, I’m incredibly proud of the pieces I’ve written with other people as well, and it’s…
And it depends on the specifics of the piece, and you do change things. And then of course, you know, in a workshop things change too. The audience is the final character in this whole experience, so when they come, you learn something about the pieces…
You know, I’ve thought that many times. Listen! Sometimes I’ve discovered it, sometimes it’s too late, you know, you know…
You say, “ah, I should have…” I can see…you can feel…it’s not even to whether other people are applauding or laughing, you can feel the dynamic in the room when people are really connecting to the story and when they’re not, and so, you know, this is a hard art form we’re working in because we don’t have previews like musical theater, so that part of the experience is…you’re doing your best, but it’s…so it’s a mixed bag. I know we’ve worked together a lot, Keturah. Luckily I’ve gotten to work with you and Lenny, and Elaine, you know, a number of times. I think, what is our rule of thumb, that it takes three times?
That’s right. It’s the third production where we finally figure it all out.
Where we finally figure it all out. And, you know it’s…luckily, like with Moby I think we were in good shape when it opened. But for those who don’t know, it wasn’t fully formed until the third production.
Yeah. That’s right. We figured a lot out in Australia, the second production, and it really didn’t find its completion until Calgary. That’s absolutely true.
Yeah, like two in the morning and you go, “Oh my god, I know how to do this!” Right? [Laughter from both]. And you figure it out. So I think that that is…I think that’s part of the deal too.
Well, and as you mentioned before, with opera not having a preview system, it’s much harder. I mean, you look at the first city or the first performances, the first several performances of a piece really as being previews because it’s the first time you really actually get to see everything put together with an audience.
Right. Right, yeah. Listen, by definition, let’s get real, it’s a hard art form to get right. Look at the numbers. When I started doing this around 1999, 2000 with Tobias. I had a wonderful experience with Tobias doing Therese Raquin, there were a few operas each year that were being performed…um…premieres that were being done. And now, luckily, there are so many. But again, how many are entering the standard rep? How many get done over and over and over again? Very few, and part of that is just that it’s really really hard to get it right.
So, we’ll get to…I want to ask you about adaptation a little bit later, but just to complete your body of work here, so… You’ve also adapted Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain with Jennifer Higdon which was 2015 in Santa Fe. And now, at this point, you’re on your second work with Joby Talbot. Everest was your first, also in 2015, and now The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which we will hopefully – cross fingers – get to experience at the Dallas Opera this spring.
Yes, I’m very excited about it.
I’m sure you are. And I just want to say, it’s so nice to see you coming back to collaborate with Joby after Everest. You know, I saw the final dress rehearsal in Dallas and I just found that piece to be so brilliant, so I was hoping that the two of you would make something else together.
Well, it’s been a great pleasure working with Joby. I really had a great experience with Everest. I think the piece came together beautifully. His score is great. I mean, Joby is a storyteller. I mean, he’s just…that’s what he is. He’s just a storyteller with music. He’s had a long history of writing scores for ballets with Chris Wheeldon at Covent Garden and other places, and also a long track record of writing film scores.
But he’s, I think, he’s done lots of Hollywood stuff. But he’s a gifted composer, and he’s a gifted theater…man of the theater, so it’s been a great pleasure. And The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, this was not my idea to do it, but I have really embraced it. And it has become a real passion of mine. You know, Keith Cerny, who was running the Dallas Opera at the time and commissioned it, allowed me…he gave me the funds to go to….I explained to them, you know, I’m using the novel of course. But Jean Dominique Bauby’s family is still alive, his kids and his wife. And so I went to Paris to interview them, and I went to the hospital where Jean Dominique was being treated on the coast. And I really got to care deeply about these people, and I’m really excited about the piece. I think it’s going to be really something special. And I’ve heard a good chunk of the score, Joby’s still working on it, but it’s quite beautiful I think, and I’m excited about it.
Yeah, it’s fantastic. I’m excited about it as well. I also just want to go back for a bit, and can you talk just a little bit about working with Steven Stucky? Was the oratorio, August 4, 1964, was that the only thing that the two of you wrote together?
Yeah, so sad. We were going to do a lot of other things together…
…and you know, Steve passed away, and we became such good friends, and I was so inspired by Steven. You know I’m inspired by a lot of these people I’ve worked with. I’ve gotten the chance to work with really gifted and brilliant folks. You know, Jennifer is an incredibly talented composer and a brilliant woman. And, of course working with Joby and Jake. Steve was a very special person to me. You know we became good friends, and my wife and his wife, Kearstin became good friends as well. It was just such a tragedy that he died so young. We were planning to…I can say it, it’s never going to happen. We were planning…we had…we were going to do an opera based on Slaughterhouse Five.
Oh my gosh!
And we were well on our way, and then, you know, life intervened. So, um…
Yeah, as it does.
But anyway, he was a great guy and August 4 was a commission from the Dallas Symphony from Jaap Van Zweden who is now at the New York Phil. As I said…I set it to commemorate the 100th anniversary of LBJ’s birth, so it was in 2008 was the performance. And August 4, for those who are listening who don’t know, was just an interesting day…an important day in history. It was the day that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman’s bodies were found. It was also the day of the Gulf of Tonkin. So when I discovered that, or when I learned it, when you learn about that, it just seemed like a really good way of focusing on this…LBJ dealing with this one day in his presidency in which he confronted the two major issues of his presidency and of his time, really, you know, Vietnam, of course, and the Civil Rights Movement.
And Steven wrote a beautiful score and Chris Jepson, who introduced me to Jake, was the mezzo-soprano who sang it at Carnegie Hall, and it was one of the last things she did before she passed away.
It was very moving. She’s also on the recording, so…. But, so, Jaap conducted. And it was a special to have that piece at Carnegie, to do it with Steve, to do it with Chris, and the Dallas Symphony who just did a beautiful job of it.
Would you consider that piece a political piece?
Well, I think… Yeah, it’s a political piece. I mean…
I mean there are pieces about politics, and then there are pieces that are political, and I’m just curious because a lot of your work doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, but I was struck by August 4 by how it sort of did.
Well, the thing is, Keturah, I think the piece…I think a lot of the pieces I’ve written are political, they’re just about personal experiences and personal lives, but they’re all caught up in the politics of their time.
And, you know, American Tragedy, which I did with Tobias. It’s a very intimate story about this guy, but it’s a story of class. It’s a story that is, you know, quite frankly I think feels very very current right now because class struggles and economic disparity and “what is the American dream?” And what is the cost of the American dream? The story is about this young guy and these two women, and how this love triangle plays out. But it’s really…it’s swimming in this whole…of all the issues of the American class struggle, and I think with August 4th, I think that is also the case. I mean, it tells the story, but when you’re telling the story of the Goodman family, and it’s a personal story, but it’s the story of the country. And Chaney, of course, James Chaney.
Right. Right, and I…
And I spoke with Ben…. One thing about that, I got to speak with… It’s interesting when you do these projects, I got to speak with David Goodman and Ben Chaney. I got to speak with James Chaney’s brother, who told me just incredible stories about what happened from the family’s perspective. When Fannie Lee Chaney’s…who’s one of the characters in the oratorio, perspective. And I said to him, you know, I said, “You know, Ben, how did you find out that they had discovered your brother on that day? How did you discover it?” He said, “Gene, you have to understand, you know, all summer they were dredging various lakes and streams and such.” And they found many bodies of other people whose, as Steve said, the other people, their hometown newspaper wasn’t the New York Times. And they would come up to Fannie Lee Chaney’s house and show them the clothing that they had dredged out of these…
Oh my god.
…rivers and streams, and said did this belong to James as they were trying to find the body. And it didn’t until it did, until they actually found the bodies of the three guys…
…who’d been killed by the KKK. So, I mean it’s just, you know, these are amazing stories. So, I mean, just telling the story, sort of emotionally to the music, of..I think the whole…it’s all political.
I want to change the subject, but not entirely. I actually want to talk about adapting books. We’re talking about speaking from our own voice, but, what it takes to then take somebody else’s voice and instill your own in it by adapting it or distilling it down. A large portion of the pieces that you have written, of the libretti that you have written, are adaptations. So, I just want to talk about that process of adapting versus writing something new. How do you start with a piece that you know you’re adapting from an existing work?
Well, I think for starters, I’m looking for the lay-ups. I’m looking for things that I think are overtly operatic, either of the story writ-large, or moments of that particular story that are sort of overtly operatic. And, but then, to come back to what I was saying before, I’m looking for ways of using music to deliver the distilled major point of the piece. By definition, if you’re taking a large, any novel, it doesn’t have to be a large novel, there’s just so many more words in whatever novel, but certainly a large novel. You have to distill it and cut it down and trust that music will be able to communicate what you’ve cut. I mean I say…one of the lines I’ve thought of…when, in a novel, there is, of course there is frequently a narrator who’s telling the story and sort of providing the sinew in between all of the muscles of the story. There’s not a narrator in an opera, and yet there is, of course, because the narrator is the composer. And he or she is threading together this story, and the stuff that’s cut – I’m going to take as an example Moby-Dick – the stuff that’s cut is then reinvented in musical language. I like to think that, if not the whole story is being communicated, much of the story or the essential aspects of the story are being communicated, but it’s almost being distilled into different forms. Then, of course, it extends beyond the music into the visual components. And, I mean Moby-Dick, that is a great example of that with Elaine and Lenny’s realization of that piece, which is so…and Robert Brill.
A lot of what was not in the libretto was in the set design, it’s the gestalt of the experience. But when you’re crafting a libretto, coming back to adaptation, you have to give room for these other artists, for this whole gesampt und schmertz to come together to communicate the story and not try to hit every point or try to tell too much of the story. I mean, one of the other pieces I’m working on right now, which I also can’t mention because it hasn’t been announced, is based on a large novel. And I’m in the process of wrestling it to the ground right now, and just…I have to be brutal in terms of how much I’m cutting from this story.
Knowing and trusting that the composer and the visual artists who are working on this piece will be able to, not point for point, but just the feeling and the essential gifts of the piece will be able to deliver them to the audience.
Gene, I am so happy to talk to you. I always love my conversations with you, so I’m just so honored that you were able to do this with me today. So thank you very very much.
It’s my pleasure, and good luck with the podcast, and I can’t wait to get to work with you again, to be in a room with you.
Aww, likewise. Me too, thank you again. I want to thank Gene again for his generosity and insight. Next week, I’ll be speaking with Mark Campbell, another prolific writer of libretti and art songs. Tune in to hear his opinions on Sondheim, how he wrote the libretto for Stonewall in seven days, and why he believes political issues by themselves don’t make good stories, among many other topics. I’m Keturah Stickann. Thank you for listening.
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This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee. Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband, for keeping the dog quiet. Thanks for listening. And until the next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.
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