I am returning to Pittsburgh for the final three performances of The Summer King, which has played (since Saturday) to very responsive, near-capacity audiences at the 2,800 seat Benedum Centre for the Arts. Tomorrow’s morning performance - the student matinee - has been sold out for some time - and the hall will be filled by school kids as young as 8 years old. Which is a very good thing, since I’ll be attending with three eight-year-olds of my own. My boys Satchel, Pablo and Levi are taking their first plane trip, followed shortly thereafter by their first opera (one that just happens to have been written by their dad).
The euphoria of the last week has been tempered only by exhaustion, as I trudged through a seemingly endless array of telephone interviews, rehearsals, campus visits, and family arrivals in the run-up to the opera’s premiere this last Saturday. We composers of concert music and opera don’t so often find ourselves smack dab in the center of the limelight, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place to be. But also, quite draining. I’m an extrovert by nature, and my inclination is to say yes to everything - to share myself whenever it seems it might be meaningful or helpful to do so. And I also have this strong desire - in the face of family and friends spending hundreds of dollars and traveling hundreds of miles to support my creation - to be demonstrative in appreciation. Devin - my partner (romantic, not business) - arrived during our final dress rehearsal Thursday night, and was instrumental in getting me to rein it in, stay focused, and not spread myself thin to a point where I would simply disappear if I turned sideways.
Saturday night, when the Summer King officially launched itself upon the world, was unforgettable, and hard to describe. Some time late on Friday, the day after the final orchestral dress, I submitted my final notes to Pittsburgh Opera Music Director Antony Walker. My notes for the final rehearsals all had to do with balance - a critical component in the world of opera, where singers sing without microphones and need to be heard above a lush and potent orchestra. I brought dynamics down, and cut certain percussion hits - things like tambourines and cymbals, whose transients have the capacity to completely obliterate the comprehensibility of text. Sometimes it was as simple as having the brass start their crescendo two beats later. Bit by bit, we got it sorted.
The moment I hit send on those notes, and thus essentially completed my real, creative responsibilities to this production, I started to feel genuinely nervous. It was nervousness without specificity - inner acknowledgment that the piece I’d worked on for so long was now spinning into existence, and the arrival of family, friends, former students, reviewers, and a healthy-sized general audience just added to the reality of it all.
On premiere night, after a luxurious, if rushed, dinner with Devin, Sam Helfrich (stage director) and leadership of Pittsburgh Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre (who will present this production in 2018), I was whisked across the street to the Benedum and thrust upon the stage in the closing five minutes of the pre-concert talk, where I uttered words that were - according to Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting, then in the audience - “brilliant, if not necessarily coherent.”
A short while later, after hobnobbing and greeting and hugging and smiling my way through the warm and eager masses - and dashing briefly backstage to impart upon the cast my babbling cocktail of goading and gratitude - I made it to my seat, reconnected with Devin, and let the opera wash over me.
The Pittsburgh Opera production of the Summer King is so strong - each element so tightly hewn, the singing, orchestra, lights, sets, costumes, and video design - and is so generously representative of my intentions for the piece, that I felt the strange sense that what was really and truly up for consideration was the piece itself. So often as composers we have the sensation that an audience is hearing 73% or 85% or 61% of the piece we actually wrote. The humble among us blame ourselves - the piece was too hard, impractical, especially given the rehearsal time. And to be sure, all of these statements are true about the Summer King, and yet somehow all of the performers are living up to just about every note, and I’m hearing a piece that is in the 98-99% range of what I wrote and conceived [and even closer, after each successive performance]. It’s better than I ever imagined was possible. So what’s left is: is it good? Does the structure work? Are the characters clearly enough delineated, and are the larger points of the opera coherently (to use that word again) articulated?
Fortunately, I’ll have three more viewings during which I can contemplate these issues. On opening night the room was feverish with excitement, and the audience was wonderfully responsive, including leaping to their feet at the final curtain for one of the loveliest standing ovations I’ve experienced (rivaled only by the standing ovation this piece received when given its concert premiere, in an earlier version, by Portland Ovations in 2014).
A mostly complimentary review hit the Pittsburgh Post Gazette almost immediately, followed by several more. As I mentioned to my friend, composer Matt Schickele, the review we composers generally really want to see is: “this opera makes any subsequent effort in the genre pointless.” And these were not that - but they were intelligent and thoughtful, positive in sum, and had kind things to say about my music, the production, cast, and the ambition of the project.
The overall response to the piece, for me, is still to be ascertained. For the next period of time, I’ll receive an influx of feedback, and all of it is welcome (if sometimes painful). At some point, I expect general opinion to coalesce around two or three central points (in terms of criticism - apart from the everyone-should-stop-writing-opera-now thing), and I’ll have some time to decide what, if any changes, I might wish to make for subsequent productions.
I came home this past Monday to find my opera plastered all over the front (and back!) page of my hometown paper, the Portland Press Herald, (no sign of my OLD hometown paper, the New York Times, at these performances so far, and that’s a bit of a disappointment). And I was treated very kindly when I briefly showed my face at the University of Southern Maine for two days of lessons and classes.
Now - back with my boys for the last shout of this tumultuous but wonderful period in my life. Devin and her son Parker (also 8!) join us on Friday, and more friends and family will be attending in the coming days. I am looking forward to some restful and peaceful days in the coming weeks - maybe stealing off to an island someplace with Dev, drinking some tropical drinks, and skimming rocks and cellphones into the turquoise sea. The immense desire to be thoroughly lazy won’t stay with me long - given my history - but I’ll embrace it while it’s here.