Keturah speaks with librettist, director & choreographer, John de los Santos about his path into libretto writing, comedy in contemporary opera, looking at work as a director vs. a librettist, and experiencing paranormal activity while doing research for his and Clint Borzoni’s upcoming opera, The Copper Queen.
Keturah speaks with librettist, director & choreographer, John de los Santos about his path into libretto writing, comedy in contemporary opera, looking at work as a director vs. a librettist, and experiencing paranormal activity while doing research for his and Clint Borzoni’s upcoming opera, The Copper Queen.
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This is Words First: Talking Text in Opera. I’m Keturah Stickann.
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So there was a lovely bit of news announced on Friday concerning librettists, and the education of librettists. I was listening to Good News Friday on Opera America’s YouTube page, and Marc Scorca had librettist, Mark Campbell, on, who I interviewed two weeks ago for Episode 3. They both announced the creation of the Campbell Opera Librettist Prize, which will award $5000 to an early-career librettist. The applications open this fall, and the winner will be announced in 2021. I mentioned Mark Campbell’s generosity when I was speaking with him before, and this is yet another example, as well as an example of his continued mission to raise the profile of librettists in the opera business. I’m so excited to see this move forward, and I hope they get a lot of applicants. Earlier last week, I had the joy of interviewing John de los Santos. He and I have many similarities, having both grown up as dancers, we both started directing careers while choreographing. John has recently gone another step and begun writing libretti. He had his first opera, When Adonis Calls, composed by Clint Borzoni, premiere in 2018, and several libretti later, he and Clint are about to premiere The Copper Queen in Arizona. Our conversation ran the gamut from writing and directing to ghost stories and dance careers. Take a listen.
John, I haven’t spoken to you in so long, and I want to thank you for agreeing to come on and chat with me about stuff in the opera world.
Yeah, no. It’s really great. It’s been at least....has it been ten years?
It may have been ten years. I’m trying to think of the last time I...I can’t remember if the last time I saw you was actually in Fort Worth or Dallas. It’s probably Dallas.
Was Moby after Mikado? I can’t remember.
You know, I can’t remember, but it was right around there and Moby was in 2010, so it’s entirely possible it’s been ten years.
Yeah. Oh my god.
And you’re in Texas right now? You’re...
I’m in Texas right now, yeah. I’m hoping to get back to New York City next month, but yeah, I’ve been quarantined down here, and gaining weight, and...
Yep. That’s the way it works.
Yeah. The virus has now, like, chased me, and so I’ve got to go back to the city.
Yeah, just don’t bring it with you, huh?
No, no. Hope not.
Oh my gosh...
Bring that Texas strain.
...it’s a crazy, crazy time. So, it’s interesting because you and I are both directors, and I do want to talk about that actually a little bit, but I want to start with...you know...this podcast is about librettists, and I’ve been watching your career, and watching you suddenly start writing these pieces, and I’m just so fascinated about, both the intersection, and also just this career shift that you’ve done inside the world of opera. So, you know, I saw an interview with you and Clint Borzoni, and I think it was Nathan DePoint that was interviewing you, and you said you started writing libretti because you wanted to start writing operas that you personally wanted to see. That it was basically a way to move away from people asking you why you were deconstructing an existing work, or doing something different with a existing work.
Yeah, I was a lot younger when I said that, and it’s still true to a degree, but I think also it was just, as you know, the gateway into directing new opera is very competitive. And, you know, there’s so few. There’s so few really good jobs, and people who prove adept at it, they are automatically often approached to do them, and so, while, yes it was a way of directing the things I wanted to do, it was also a way of getting into that very small group of people who are associated with doing new work, and not just revivals.
Has writing always been an interest of yours, or was it something that just sort of came out of nowhere...suddenly kind of slipped in there while you were directing?
It’s always been an interest. I’ve always [chuckles] I’ve always written little horror and macabre short stories...
...since I was in middle school. Yeah, yeah. Some of them are pretty bad, but some of them I’ve actually developed. I’m hoping to one day do something with those. But, yeah, I’ve always written things down because they were my friends growing up, you know. And so I’d go home and I’d write these stories, and I wrote a couple of plays when I was in middle school and high school that actually ended up getting performed, but I kind of put that to the side once I started seriously pursuing directing, and yeah, it was just kind of...I was like, “well, I’ve got that interest on the back shelf. Maybe I should break it out again and see if I can do something with it.”
I wanna talk to you about...I feel really akin to you actually because we both came from dance too...
So it’s like we...I want to talk about your triple—threat intersection at work here in a while. But let’s actually talk about some of your libretti. Was When Adonis Calls, was...that was your first piece?
Okay. And that was with Clint Borzoni.
That was with Clint, yeah. When Adonis Calls was actually...it was based on several volumes of poetry by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, who was a brilliant poet, and I had read his autobiography, and I had contacted him saying, “Hey, I think this would make a really great opera.” And he said, “Nah, I’m not sure about that, but let me send you some books and see if you can do something with that.” And so I read all of these books, and then I kind of created this pastiche and dialogue between characters, entirely using these different poems from about forty years of writing, and yeah, I turned it into this ninety minute piece about a couple. It was a really great kind of first foray into it because they weren’t my words, but it was entirely my own structure and dramaturgy that went into creating it.
So it was a true adaptation of an existing work then.
Yes. I mean, it was an adaptation, but it was definitely something new as well because no one had ever used all these different combinations.
Where did When Adonis Calls premiere? Did it premiere at Fort Worth?
It premiered...The first time it was ever seen in part was at Fort Worth Frontiers, but then it was part of a New Works Forum in New York, and then it premiered in a production I directed at Asheville Lyric.
Oh no kidding. Wow. Right around the corner from me.
And so then, sort of immediately after that, was Service Provider sort of in that same general time period?
Yeah. Service Provider actually was written before Adonis even premiered. We had done a lot of networking, trying...We wrote Adonis in, oh god, I can’t even remember what year. I think 2013 or 14 was when we were at Frontiers. Then I went to Washington National Opera and did AOI, which is the American Opera Initiative, where I wrote Service Provider. And then after that premiered at the Kennedy Center, Adonis actually had its world premiere.
Okay. And can you talk a little bit about AOI actually. How did you get involved with them?
Yeah. AOI was a huge step for me. Actually, at the time, composers had to be recommended by a mentor or, I think, an educator. And Clint, who I’d just done Adonis with, actually applied. And, he knows this story, he won’t mind if I tell it. But basically, he applied with me, and they said, “Well, we really really want to work with John. We think that Clint is doing his own thing,” essentially. Because Clint had already done AOP and a lot of things, and I was brand new to the whole thing, and they decided to pair me up with someone else.
And that’s how you met Christopher Weiss then.
That’s how I met Christopher Weiss. Because actually, Christopher looked at the samples, and I had nothing to send them other than Adonis and some of my crazy short stories. And he was like, I want to work with this crazy guy, because this is kind of insane...
Crazy, macabre horror stories for the win. Perfect.
Yeah. It worked. And Christopher chose me, and we wrote Service Provider there. We were mentored by John DeMain, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Mark Campbell.
So it was a great crash course.
Yeah, I just spoke to Mark a couple weeks ago, and he mentioned American Opera Initiative, so yeah, I think...it seems like a pretty great program.
It’s a really great program. I mean, it’s a crash course because they...at least the mentors that we had did not pull any punches, but as a person with a dance background, that’s how I preferred it. It’s like, I don’t need to be complimented, I need to be told how do I make this better. How do I make this succeed? That’s what we got there, and I think that’s why Service Provider ended up being a really mass...it’s been produced several times, like over a dozen times...
...Since then, yeah.
So...and I’m just going down your list now. So, you’ve also worked with composer Scott Bradley Joiner. You did The Shower with him.
And, uh, that....was that in Vienna?
It was premiered in Vienna, yes. Scott...I met Scott at an Opera America event for something totally unrelated, and I’d worked with his...now fiancé. I’d worked with Jessica before. And she said, “Yeah, you should talk to my boyfriend. He’s a really great composer, and you guys should work together.” And we met and had about a four hour lunch, and just at it back and forth talking about things. And The Shower is actually a sequel to a short opera he had written previously with another librettist, and he said, “Yeah, I want to do an unofficial sequel with a new writer.” And, um, Shower was just kind of a fun little twenty-minute Bridesmaids-Esque kind of sketch...
...that ended up, yeah, being premiered in Vienna, so...
Do you find yourself sort of drawn to comic ideas?
I think...uh...here’s the thing: I can write comedy, and I think that very few operatic comedies are successful, and so I’m often asked to do that. And I do enjoy it. I can write a scary, macabre, crazy weird thing in my sleep, I mean, that’s...you know...I’m not saying that that’s easier, but I think that there are more people who do that well, whereas comedies I think are just so much more specific in opera. And the timing, and the synergy between words and music have to be so precisely adhered to and really thought about and I really think that when it comes to comedy, in opera especially, the words really have to have equal footing with the music, especially in moments of jokes and comic timing. It’s just so...it has to be so specifically done.
Yes. Do you think that’s why comedy...it’s so difficult for comedies to make forays into the opera world? I mean...you know, there are periods of it. We think about Rossini, you can sort of go into the Gilbert & Sullivan way, and then we look at modern operas, there’s just not a lot of it that exists right now.
Right. And I think it...I mean you mentioned Gilbert & Sullivan, which I love, but I think that Gilbert & Sullivan...Sullivan was always having to be subservient to the words. The words always came first and were always very specifically adhered to, to get the jokes, and to put the comedy and the satire first. And I am always of the belief that, in an opera collaboration, the composer and the music is fire. It’s heat, it’s warmth, it’s light, and the libretto is the kindling. And while the kindling may not be as interesting, without good solid strong kindling, you can’t have a fire.
And so I think that’s how they work together. You don’t think about the libretto as being in the forefront with opera, but if it’s not there as a strong foundation, the piece will not succeed. And I think that comedies, you...we’re having this actually interesting debate right now with my class with Cori Ellison about comic music. About whether comic music even exists, and the idea that can music be funny without any context at all. We’ve talked about, not just opera, but also about orchestral pieces like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. If you hear The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the music is charming and bright and bubbly, but does it really make you laugh if you don’t know what it represents, and the story it’s trying to tell. So it’s an interesting kind of discussion.
That’s a really interesting discussion actually. Yeah, I think that there’s a lot to that too. You know, I think when you look at opera, which is the marriage of words and music, that it does seem that, you know, without those words really creating that spark, you’re unable to really get that fire going. It’s a great metaphor.
Yeah. Yeah, because even if you listen to the overture of Barber, which is hilarious, we automatically mostly think of Bugs Bunny, or we think of the characters we’re about to deal with and witness in this opera. But if you listen to the piece just by itself, I think it might have a very different context in how it...the emotions it evokes in the listener.
So, long-winded answer, but yeah, I do a lot of comedies.
I like the long-winded answers. I think we get more...we get more into the meat of things when we really talk about them. I think that’s great. You mentioned having a class with Cori Ellison, is that through the Juilliard Opera Lab?
And are you with them right now?
Yes. I’ve been very lucky. Cori Ellison and I worked together on The Copper Queen, which is another opera I’ve done, and then we worked on a world premiere in Santa Fe that I directed, and she started this wonderful new program called Opera Lab at the Juilliard School with Vocal Arts, and basically we recruit and...several composition students, along with some musicians and singers, and we learn about opera composition and write arias, and then at the end of the term we create these twenty minute operas that will then be performed.
Yeah, it’s really really amazing, and we’re hoping to expand on that program and incorporate other...there’s a director in this last class, and everything... Obviously because of Covid we’ve had to take it all on line at the moment, but we’re hoping that in ‘21, when we’re able to all meet in person again, we’ll proceed with the premieres.
Fantastic. I’ve been really interested also lately in just educating librettists, and educating...I feel like...I’ve been talking to directors about this too, which is also relevant, that there’s a whole class of people in the opera world, composers...I feel like directors and librettists sometimes...composers and singers? Yes, but directors and librettists somehow get stuck in theater world of drama writing and directing plays, and boy they’re so different, so I’m really interested in how start to educate people who are interested in actually writing specifically for opera, and directing specifically for opera. Talk about The Copper Queen a little bit. You’re about to have your world premiere? You wereabout to have your world premiere?
Yes. Yeah, we were set to premiere at the end of September of this year. Yeah, and just some context was the Arizona Opera had a composition competition called Spark, and The Copper Queen, which is based on a legend of a real haunted hotel in the South of Arizona, was selected as the winner. And after five years of work and rewrites, and with Cori Ellison as dramaturge, Clint Borzoni and I went to the hotel, experienced some interesting paranormal stuff, and then incorporated that into the piece, and...
So you actually...you actually experienced some of the...
Oh yeah. Clint did not...
So you’re working off personal experience here.
Well, I mean the thing was we wrote the first act and we did a public workshop, and you know, we were questioned by a lot of local Arizonans about “have you been,” and we’re like, “Oh no, we haven’t been yet.” And my mother actually said, “You have to go. You have to go!” Because my mom loves scary stuff just like I do, and so we booked a room and Clint and I drove down there and had quite a harrowing night actually.
It was very very...very unsettling and a lot more than we were expecting. So...but yeah, Copper Queen, which is going to be directed by Crystal Manich...we’re kind of in a bit of limbo right now. Arizona is looking at a couple of different options of how to proceed, but they will be producing a premiere of it in some form within another season or two.
Got it. Wow. You know, everyone I’ve spoken to, myself included, we’ve all just...it’s not even that we’ve lost things, it’s just that they’ve sort of gone into this strange limbo space where they just hang and wait for something to happen. I just feel like it’s such a...I almost feel like I would be more able to deal with my career right now if everything was just canceled. [Laughter] you know?
Yeah, because don’t you find that as a freelance artist and contract worker, we’re so used to hustling. We’re used to going out, getting jobs, making contacts, and keeping our schedule full. And right now, my schedule is packed, but they’re all kind of just floating in this sea of uncertainty, and I’m hoping that they’re going to, you know, eventually be picked up before they sink.
Exactly. That’s exactly how I feel, and I...you know I went out and bought myself like a five-year calendar because so many things...people are like, “Well, it could be in ‘22, it could be in ‘23, we’re looking at May maybe.” And I’m like, “Wait, I have three other things floating in that space, like...I don’t know.” And you can’t, you can’t turn down anything at this point because everything’s just sort of moving around in this strange gel, and I just find it the most unsettling part of the career aspect of what Covid has kind of done is that everybody’s just kind of doing, you know, a little dance trying to figure things out.
Yeah, we’re just treading water. Yeah. And I’ve always said that it’s interesting because directors really don’t have a forum in which they can audition, for lack of a better word, you know? It’s all based on, have you seen their work, have you heard of their work, has someone you know worked with them? And that’s really how you get jobs, because we really can’t apply for things in a conventional way, so it’s tricky.
That’s right. It’s very tricky right now. So, thinking about just the different subject matter that you have approached, how do you choose your subject matter, and how much of it has been sort of put on top of you versus you saying, “I want to write about this particular thing.”?
That’s really...that’s a great question. I began by just writing the things I wanted to. Adonis and Service Provider, and Copper Queen were all three things that I just said, “Oh,, I’ve got an idea. Let’s try this.” But now that I’m starting to work with other composers, and really broaden my...I guess, broaden my work and my collaborators, I definitely have had people say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do this. Does this interest you?” And I think that’s one of the trickier things because I think I have...I don’t think I have, with the exception of maybe one or two times, ever turned down a directing gig because I didn’t like the material. I can usually...I think that’s our job as a director. You find something in the material that speaks to you, that you can make a concept out of. And even if you, you may not prefer the cast or like the company, or whatever the situation is, you’re like, “”But I love this aspect of the story, or this singer, or this designer,” and you make it work. Whereas, libretto writing is a lot lonelier. It’s kind of you and the material, and you have to figure out how do you tell this? So, I’m still learning how to reconcile with pieces that I don’t really have an initial passion for, and create that to adapt it or to create something around a certain topic. I’m still trying to sort of navigate the two careers in a way because they really...they don’t intersect as much as I thought they would.
This is my next question actually because I think this is really fascinating. And you know, the first few interviews that I’ve had for this podcast have been with people who basically are librettists. That’s what they do, and so I’ve started now to interview people who have either made a complete pivot, or are dancing between two or three things and so... You know you have directed a number of your own pieces. Do you like doing that? Do you feel like that is a good way to intersect, or would you rather have someone else direct them?
I love doing it. I love doing it because I think, like you, I am a major control freak, and I am proud of it.. I admit it, I’m open to...
I think you have to be. Especially if you’re a choreographer, you have to learn to because you have to man this ship. If it goes down, it’s your fault, you know? However, as any writer or playwright will tell you, or librettist, you know, when other people direct your work, you do learn things about it. You do learn things that only worked in your head, and they’re able to peel back a lot of different layers. I would never say that I want to be the kind of librettist who only does his own work, but at the same time, I definitely have very very strong feelings about certain things and certain areas where there is freedom for the director to come in and conceive things. Because I’ve definitely worked on a couple of world premieres, or pieces that have premiered long before me, and worked with living composers, and I have a lot of respect when they say, “This needs to be like this.” And even if I’ve conceived of it in a different way, I’m like, “Okay, I did not write this, and if this person feels a very strong...feels very strongly about this aspect of the music or words, I need to do the best I can to adhere to that.” Because ultimately I’m bringing their story to life. It’s not about me. So, I just...it’s a tough thing to navigate. I always write a piece with a very strong directorial concept in mind. And I make sure that that’s going to be in the stage directions, and every premiere of a piece I’ve done so far, I’ve been at. And, you know, when I show up they know I’m going to be like, “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. That’s not correct. That’s really...” And again, it’s not like Oh, I don’t like your work, it’s that that’s not going to work with what’s going on here.
Right. So you feel like you still maintain a certain amount of control over the work even once it’s been handed over to a creative team that is not you?
I mean, yes, I...It’s weird because, I guess Service Provider is the best example because that piece has been directed by several people and gone all over the place. And that’s a...it’s a farce. It’s a farce about how cell phones are ruining romance basically. And I...having seen it so many times, I know where the comedic beats are. And I really don’t care what the characters are wearing. I don’t care what the design looks like. I don’t care about things like that. What I do care about is that the dramatic beats, a lot of which are written into the score, are adhered to very strictly because that’s how you get the most laughs.
You know, it’s one thing in a tragedy, there’s a lot more freedom I think to explore the emotional journey and dramatic arc and through line, but in comedy it’s very specific. It’s like Neil Simon. It’s almost scientific the way that that works. And so I think that I’m more about the dramatic beats than I am about an overall visual concept of something I write.
Do you learn a lot about your own pieces when you direct them yourself?
Oh Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting . I was talking to Clint the other day about this, and how in Adonis we really had no idea what we were doing. We were just two kids...Kids, it was ten years ago now. We were just writing something because we liked the subject and the poetry and we were trying to do something new. But it wasn’t until I staged it and worked with other singers and artists on it that I realized, oh wow, there are so many levels to this that probably weren’t because of me, they were because of the original poems and because of the music. And putting these words in a human being’s mouth who didn’t think of it , and then all of a sudden all of these new revelations occurred. And that does happen with good directors when they work on a piece. It’s not like, oh everything they do is terrible. Crystal Manich has unearthed some incredible new emotional truths about Copper Queen that I had never thought of.
Yeah. So I’m always eager to hear that, it’s just, you know, it’s your baby. It’s your baby and you have, you know...you’re pregnant with it for five years and then you give birth and hand it off to a new mother. It’s scary.
Right, it’s terrifying [laughing]. I mean I think that is the hierarchy, right? I feel like as a director too, it’s the same thing. You know, you birth this thing, you hand it off.
But that’s what’s great about working and having a past as a director with other directors like yourself. Because then it’s like, listen, I know this person. This person is incredibly detailed, does their research, and is very respectful of the overall vision of what this piece is. So I’m always encouraging librettists and composers to cultivate relationships with directors rather than just allowing the company to say, “Well, we’re going to go with so-and-so,” you know? Because...
Yeah. I agree. I think there’s something about... And I feel like sometimes it gets lost in opera and I wish it didn’t, is that there is something that happens when you put a full creative team together. And that means the writers, and the director, and the designers. When you have all of these people working towards the central goal of putting a piece up, I feel like there’s something that happens in that that is so much more powerful and more cohesive and more...true, than when it’s a bunch of disparate people who don’t know each other that have sort of been slammed together, and so I...
Mmm Hmmm. Yeah.
I’m so into and encouraging of people really having teams. And you can have several different choices, but people having groups of people in different disciplines that work the way that you understand each other, and I think that it’s not something that happens as much in opera as it should.
Absolutely. And composers and librettists, I mean, so often they’ll go see pieces, new pieces at Prototype or, you know, wherever, and then they’re always focused on the actual piece itself. And my thing is, you know, you’re never gonna...a composer is not going to collaborate with another composer. So, it’s like, why don’t you spend some time thinking about the direction of this, and research...if you like the production, look at that director, have a meeting with that director. That’s what I’ve been doing. Frequently, when I go and see a new piece, if I like the composer or I like the direction, I will write them, and then have coffee and say, “yeah, I like your work. I’d like to know more about it.” Because that’s how you cultivate these things, because... You know, having worked on several premieres and having directed for Jake Heggie, for example, Jake doesn’t have complete control over the teams. It’s amazing how, even a composer at the top of their craft, don’t have say over everything, but if an opera company says we’re looking at so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so, the more familiarity that you have with the people that are out there and the artists, you can say, “Yeah, I saw her work wherever, and she’s brilliant. That will be great.” I think that the more familiarity you can have with the people who will be realizing your vision, I think, is really important.
Yeah. And then you know what you should walk in the door ready to talk about too because you know what that person’s strengths and weaknesses are, so, it’s important. I want to also talk about you as a choreographer in relation to you being a librettist. I noticed When Adonis Calls actually was written with dancers in mind. Do you naturally see choreography when you’re writing words as well? Does that come into play on a regular basis?
So, When Adonis Calls....actually that’s not true, there is a little dance in Copper Queen. Adonis is kind of a different animal because it really is sort of a ballet with words, in a way, because you have these two singers, and then while they’re singing, you have these two dancers that represent their erotic selves. Represent their...the spiritual side of their sex lives. And, I think at the time, I definitely...I didn’t think of choreography with words. I definitely thought of it when the music started coming in. You know, what I tried to do was, I would have these segments of poetry and I would say, “Okay, this is a beautiful passage here and very evocative of a certain picture. It would be great to have dance here.” But then I would give it to Clint, and say, “Okay, this is about a minute or so. I need about a minute of music here and this is the mood. This is the mood I’m looking for.” And then when he would send me the MIDI, then I would see battements, and lifts and different kinds of things.
Yeah, it’s so funny because when I direct, the first time I listen to music, I always see it as choreography first even if there’s no choreography in the piece. I think it’s just my brain automatically goes to music.
Well, it’s a language.
Oh, it absolutely is. And when it’s the first language you’ve learned, then that’s where your mind always goes. It’s interesting working with poetry, I wonder if somehow that also just...the poetic aspects of words puts in mind movement in a different way as well.
Yeah, I mean, there are definitely certain lines where there will be a movement described, whether it’s a falling embrace or something. You know, and you don’t want to be literal, but that at least puts a movement in your head that you can create other things out of. I mean the Adonis choreography was really very collaborative, just because we had a week to put it together, which is terrifying, but somehow we did it.
[Laughing] It is what it is.
It is what it is. I mean, that’s the thing. I think out of all of the disciplines, and a lot of people disagree, dance I still believe is the bravest. Because it does require this unbelievable amount of...leap of faith, no pun intended, because you really are in the hands of the choreographer and the music and you just do it. Dancers will bash their head against a wall if you ask them to and make it beautiful.
We are crazy crazy people. I’m not sure exactly how that happens...
Yep. Absolutely. And our careers are the shortest. That’s the worst part of it.
That’s right. Cause we just pitch ourselves off a cliff, and when we hit the bottom, and we go, “Well, that was fun.”
Yeah. Yeah, our bodies fall apart by the time...yeah, mid-thirties, we have the body of an eighty-year-old.
That’s right. Yep. That’s me.
But not us.
[Laughter]. So, what...in this climate, looking forward for you in your career, and...not in this climate. What stories are you interested in writing, or what stories should we be writing, or where are you going as a storyteller, I guess is my question.
It’s really interesting because the whole question of, what are we allowed to write, what stories are we allowed to tell, is a really difficult thing, and I... It’s like, I don’t ever really seek out a story just because, Oh, this is...this is my story. It’s usually what I think will put asses in the seats, what I think a company will want to produce. So much of what I want to write are things that people are going to want to see, that will be on a season brochure. If you’re doing Tosca, Boheme, and then one twenty-first century piece, what’s a title that people won’t be intimidated by? You know, that’s why I think for example, Silent Night is a genius idea, because it fits in perfectly with that. Obviously I love telling stories with LGBT plus themes. I love stories about Latino...stories. But, you know, those are two that I guess I’m, I hate to say allowed to, but those are part of my heritage, and I can.
Yeah, I understand that, yeah.
But I think that we have to create opportunities and spaces for artists of color, for women. And not just in,, “oh, we need to get a person of color or a woman to write this libretto.” It starts with education in university programs, in libretto-writing programs, we have to create opportunities for them there, and younger. We have to create visibility for all people in outreach, so that kids...I remember the first time I ever saw an opera. And it was awful, it was so bad. When I was in, I think, elementary school. You had these opera singers come in, and you know, they were doing their job. They were probably YAPs at a company, who were doing tours like we all have to do of fairy-tales and whatever. And, you know, they tried to make it interesting, but it...you know, the kids get bored, and the kids feel like, “I have nothing to...I don’t see in myself in what these people are doing.” And I think there’s been a really conscious effort in the last several years for companies to really have a diverse group of YAPS, and also do pieces that engage the kids, engage them in a new way where they see opera as something cool and fun and another way of storytelling. And that’s how you create this desire in children to see opera, and be part of it, and to want to pursue it. But we have to create spaces and opportunity and education where we will be seeing more librettists, composers, singers, designers of color etc. to have these opportunities, but it’s a tricky thing. I mean, if someone came to me and said, “Do you want to write an opera about the Trail of Tears?” Not really. That is a momentous, huge subject that can be told from so many different perspectives and I don’t really feel that I...I don’t know what I could bring to that. And I feel like that my strengths right now as a librettist are that I can write funny, I can write exciting, and I can write sexy. So those are things that I tend to move towards. I mean, I got an offer just yesterday. I can’t talk about what it is specifically, but I got an offer about a subject that I have absolutely zero investment in as the human being that I am, but I’m going to look at the material, I’m going to research it and see if ...you know, maybe it speaks to me, because the composer really wants to do it with me, so...
It’s a tricky thing, and I think it also comes down to...this is why what you were talking about, the cultivation of a team can be really great, because then you can, “Okay, if we have these two writers who really don’t have a heritage based in whatever this subject is, then we need to get a director and design team that can.” You know, but it’s difficult, I mean again, it’s such a hard thing to talk about because the line of cultural appropriation, for example, is very very grey, and it means something different to different people. I think that it all comes down to intent and respect and research, and really what is it you’re trying to say with this story, and why you? Other than, oh I want to do a world premiere about this.
I think that’s it, John, right? Why you? Why me? What is it about me that makes me the person who should be doing this? And I think it is a hard conversation..it’s definitely a hard conversation, but that’s what makes it such an important conversation is because it is difficult.
Right. Yeah. I mean, at Santa Fe Opera, I just directed Augusta Reed Thomas’ world premiere of Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, and it was interesting because it was written by two women, and they interviewed several people, and I brought on an all-female design team, two of whom were women of color. And there were a couple of people who...there were rumblings about, “but why do you have a male director?” And it wasn’t because I was male, it was because I had a strong choreographic background, and this piece had an insane amount of movement and interpretive areas, and it ended up being a great thing. I was the only man on the entire design team. And it was wonderful, it was great. I was in a room full of women. And it was interesting, someone actually said to me, “How does it feel being on the other side?” And I said, “I came from the ballet world. I was always the only boy.”
[Laughter]. Right! That’s right.
It’s nothing new. And the thing is, I didn’t select those women because they were women or because they were women of color, I selected them because...Liliana Duque was one of them. I selected them because they’re incredible. They’re brilliant artistic minds.
She’s an amazing designer.
She’s one of the greatest set designers working in opera right now.
I agree. I use her every time I can.
Yeah. She’s so damn humble. I’m always telling her, “Liliana, we’ve got to get you an ego.” She’s just so humble about everything. But that’s the thing, cultivating these diverse teams. Because they, they bring diverse people with them as well. The people that they paint with or design hats or other things with, so it’s really creating a diverse and far-reaching network of people that you cultivate these ideas with, and I think that’s how you can tell a variety of stories. Because I don’t want to write stories about half-white, half-Latino gay guys all the time. But at the same time I would never want any of my audience or collaborators to feel like, “Who are you to tell this story,” so it’s a difficult conversation that I don’t have the answer for frankly.
Yeah, and I don’t think we do, and that’s why we keep having to..or should be talking about it because I think it’s something that’s consistently fluid, and moving, and important. John de los Santos, thank you so much. This was such a spectacular conversation. I’m really happy that I was able to reconnect with you and we could talk.
You too. It’s great to talk to somebody who has suffered through decades of barre work, and we understand the joint pain that comes with that, so it’s wonderful. And I have such great respect for you too, Keturah, on your career, and you know we didn’t really grow up together but we were kind of nurtured in the same little environment.
We were. We kept circling around each other in various places.
Yeah. Never in the same room, but in the same break room, you know, crying over the hours.
That’s right. Ah, the good old days.
I want to thank John de los Santos again for a joyful conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing more of his work. Next week, I’m interviewing Kanika Ambrose. She’s a young Canadian playwright and librettist, who premiered Anansi and the Great Light at Curtis in Philadelphia a couple of years ago. She’s been associated with Tapestry Opera in Toronto for several years, and will premiere a new work with composer Ian Cusson there in 2023. I hope you’ll join us next Monday for that conversation.
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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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