On Sept. 14, 2017, Opera Philadelphia will open “War Stories,” a double bill featuring Monetverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and Lembit Beecher’s “I Have No Stories to Tell You.”
The pairing features two stories about war and their effects on their heroes. It is also a chance to see a classic baroque work juxtaposed with a modern work.
Beecher is an upcoming composer who was a resident of Opera Philadelphia and one who has had work performed at the Tanglewood, Aspen and Cabrillo Music Festivals. He has also composed four operas, one of which is slated to premiere this year.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with Beecher about his work “I Have no Stories to Tell” and its upcoming Philadelphia premiere.
OperaWire: How did you get involved with “War Stories?”
Lemit Beecher: So this was originally a commission from Gotham Chamber Opera. At that point, it wasn’t called ‘War Stories’ and they had asked for something that would be a companion piece to Monteverdi’s “Il combatimento” and also a piece that would work within the medieval sculptures of the Met museum. This was while I was in residence with Opera Philadelphia.
OW: When you were developing this opera and knew it was going to be performed alongside Monteverdi’s opera, did you try to find inspiration from Monteverdi or did you go a separate way?
LB: It was crucially important that the pieces would talk to each other in some way. But that did not necessarily mean trying to imitate the Monteverdi. I think the two key elements of connection are the instrumentation and the fact that I use the same ensemble except I added a baroque oboe and that instrumentation ended up affecting my style in a lot of ways. In some ways, the music pushes close to the Monteverdi and in other ways, it pushes away from it. It was trying to explore some of the sounds that the instruments could create. I think the other connective thread was more thematic.
OW: Did you ever feel the pressure of sharing the double bill with Monteverdi’s music?
LB: I didn’t feel any extra pressure. There is always pressure when you’re writing an opera because of your responsibility to create something that doesn’t waste people’s time. There is pressure to create something moving, emotional and effective and there are already such great models. But I think in this case it was helpful to have such a secure starting point. It was something to bounce ideas off of and knowing that audiences would have the Monteverdi, it felt like it would start them off in a good spot. And then what I did could compliment that. That was helpful for me.
OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Hannah Moscovitch?
LB: Throughout the development, Robin Guarino worked with us and it became a creative team of three people. It was a process of throwing ideas back and forth and figuring out what the world and the story were that we were trying to tell. And I knew that I wanted a series of scenes that grew and repeated. Scenes that either showed the same event in multiple perspectives or a series of events that reflected the main theme. And we quickly decided that we wanted something on the after-effects of war. Having the Monteverdi as a starting point and being in a space that was filled with preserved relics of domestic life and war certainly made one think about the brief moments in battle or in war that could have effects that last for years, if not the rest of one’s life. And after that process, Hannah went to write and then we reconvened and went through a series of drafts.
OW: At what point did you know what voices you wanted for the piece?
LB: Pretty early in the process, we decided the vocal types. We also knew these singers would be singing a more straight-toned style with a different sound.
OW: When you’re writing for the voice, what are the biggest challenges?
LB: Writing in a way that helps the diction or lets the words come out is always a big focus for me and a challenge. If you can get the right emphasis on the text but still make it good for the singers, then you succeed. And then getting into the intricacies of individual voices is always a challenge and a joy and finding those spots that sing out. I think it’s a lot of the details that we tend to focus less on because we’re thinking of arias.
OW: You do all types of compositions from chamber works to large orchestral works. Do you find it more challenging to write for voice as opposed to instrumental pieces?
LB: I feel less natural at writing large ensemble pieces. So I think I love chamber sounds and the way the instruments and voices relate in a chamber setting. And I think opera has the most pitfalls and is the most delicate to navigate. It has the most balancing to do from the storytelling to the vocal lines. It’s a challenge but that’s the work I love and I love having a group of collaborators who work on it with me.
OW: You have experimented with all forms of opera and played with the art form. What is it about opera that gives you that liberty and what else would you like do with it?
LB: I think one thing that is crucial is that opera finds new ways of telling stories. What I love about it is that whatever experimentation you do, it’s tied to the way people tell stories. There are so many different ways of doing that and while opera has a certain set of traditions and conventions that are powerful and effective, it’s important to experiment and move away from them. Writing Chamber operas opens so many doors because we don’t have to worry about the size of the house and the way voices and orchestras interact on a large scale. One can be more creative and still be effective. I really like exploring with sounds and the way they can work with operatic storytelling. I love taking an unusual element and thrusting it into an opera and then seeing how the form will relate or has to readjust to incorporate it. I haven’t done a lot of electronic but that could be interesting. I’m particularly drawn to different ways of generating sound and finding alternative instruments, especially with instruments that could interact with the drama.
OW: When you are writing an opera do you focus on melody, creating an effect or both? And what is most important when you’re writing an opera?
LB: The most important thing is balance and that part of the joy of opera has always been moving between moments where the text is a priority to moments where the vocal line is a priority to moments where the texture is a priority. So it’s about finding where these elements can connect to the story you are telling.
OW: Is there any composer that you influenced by?
LB: There are a lot but it’s hard to single one out. The first opera I really listened to was “Eugene Onegin.” My dad used to listen to the Met broadcasts and those included Verdi, Donizetti, and others. But when I started writing, I discovered Britten and Janacek and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” It was one of the first modern operas that grabbed my attention.
OW: What excites you about premiering a work with Opera Philadephia?
LB: The people are amazing and for me, it’s my operatic birthplace. I was fortunate enough to have a residency with the company where I started to learn how to write opera. And they are amazing in the way they have been able to put an emphasis on working with artists and collaborating. It’s a really supportive and positive environment.