Q & A: Composer Daniel Thomas Davis on Creating ‘Family Secrets: Kith and Kin’ With 7 Librettists

By David Salazar

The year 2018 is shaping up to be a major one for composer Daniel Thomas Davis.

On Feb. 15 and 16, he will witness the staged premiere of his 2015 opera “Family Secrets: Kith and Kin” and then, this weekend, his opera “Six. Twenty. Outrageous,” will also get its world premiere.

The composer hails from North Carolina and has had a tremendous career that has included his music being performed and/or commissioned by such organizations as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Lontano and Odaline de la Martinez at the Purcell Room, Charlotte Symphony, Lexington Philharmonic, Ensemble X, Yarn|Wire, 21st-Century Consort at the Smithsonian, Ossian Ensemble at Saint-Martin-in-the-Field’s, Latvia International Festival, BBC Singers, Locrian Ensemble, Boston’s Back Bay Chorale, and the Meehan/Perkins Duo, among many others.

The composer recently spoke with OperaWire about “Family Secrets” as it prepares for its staged premiere in his home state of North Carolina.

OperaWire: Where did the idea for this work come from? What were the inspirations?

Daniel Thomas Davis: The original idea, to combine new texts from seven writers, all working in complementary versions of the Southern Gothic tradition, came from the soprano Andrea Edith Moore. When Andrea and I first discussed the possibility of me writing a piece that somehow merged these seven voices into a single musical work, we weren’t quite sure what the final form would be, but we knew that each writer created stories with a strong sense of place. We imagined that the seven scenes would, more or less, be united by a common musical language, but beyond that it would be some time for the ultimate structure to emerge. Would it be a chamber opera? A song cycle?

OW: From there you went out and got seven writers to help with the libretto. How did you secure the collaboration of so many writers?

DTD: I think that one of the things that makes this seven-writer libretto so strangely coherent is that all of the writers know each other — at least in varying degrees. That of course, helped secure the collaborations, which again was Andrea’s doing. They all knew each other’s work and live in relative proximity to one another — adding another layer of continuity.

OW: So with so many collaborators, what was the greatest challenge to putting together this work? 

DTD: First and foremost, it was in creating a larger dramatic framework for the entire show. I received, in one daunting email after another, a large bundle of texts — far more than the seven scenes now in the opera — and a great deal more than a single evening’s worth of music. The task then fell upon me to make something of this stack of stories, as there was no dramatic arc as yet. So, after many readings, a selection and order of stories/texts began to emerge in my mind. At the same time, the writers were very generous in letting me mold, recast and reimagine their writings to fit a larger operatic scope. Without this flexibility on their end, I’d never have been able to make this into a single evening of musical drama.

I resolved this structural challenge by conceiving of the work as a kind of hybrid between an opera and a book of short stories. The seven scenes and prelude/interludes would all be set in the same place but didn’t need to lead directly into one another. Like a curated collection of stories, each narrative would inform the others but might also stand on its own, too.

Another challenge, one that many composers face when working with narrative-driven prose, is how to tell a story efficiently with the singing voice. Whenever I write for the voice, I always start with the question: why is this being sung? What does the encounter between written language and musical sound — which work on very different timescales —- offer this text? In this case, given the very strong sense of storytelling that runs through nearly all of the texts we selected, I knew early on that I’d have to reckon with this fundamental question if the piece were to be anything beyond a series of vignettes. In the end, my solution was to create a role for a speaking actor; not only did this eliminate the need for long stretches of recitative and keep the disparate stories moving at a quicker pace, it also clarified the role of the singing voice: to witness, mourn, love and experience.

OW: How did your composition style change to suit each text?

DTD: To be sure, each writer’s text invited a distinct musical vocabulary. Some texts prompted a direct, folk-infused mode of expression featuring big tunes, chorus-verse structures, and banjo accompaniments, while others suggested a more atmospheric, richly orchestrated, and freely episodic music. With another text, which featured a strong sense of memory and nostalgia, I chose to write a prerecorded song for voice and banjo, which then plays on a record player through much of the scene, beneath the live music onstage. In working on this piece, I also felt my own sense of rhythm and tempo change according to each writer’s sense of rhythm. Of course, as a composer, that rhythmic contrast proved to be very useful in pacing out the drama of the whole work.

At the same time, even as my own language shifted according to the text at hand, I also felt strongly that the entire work be woven from the same fundamental musical fabric. To be sure, a handful of melodies, sonorities, and passages recur throughout, even as the musical landscapes shift from scene to scene.

OW: You’ve mentioned Andrea Edith Moore quite a bit. What was the collaborative process with her like?

DTD: Andrea has been the guiding spirit of this piece — a many-hued voice I first heard and admired a few weeks after I started my undergraduate degree at Peabody. In addition to being an extraordinary performer, she also has that rare ability to bring a wide range of artists together in all phases of a project’s creation, development, and execution, and does so with enormous style and grace. To be sure, the ability to write for and work with a fellow musician like Andrea is one of the greatest gifts I can be given as a composer.

OW: Speaking more generally about you as a creator, what opera composers do you draw inspiration from and why? 

DTD: It’s really all over the map. The Janacek operas occupy a very special place in my heart and mind; they’re so exquisitely compact, ravishingly beautiful and delightfully weird. And I’m always sustained by Mozart and Handel, in ever new ways. William Bolcom, who was one of my teachers, has certainly shown me insights into the musical stage unlike anyone else on this planet, and I’m also a big fan of Judith Weir’s chamber operas. I’m also lucky to know a number of excellent younger opera composers in my generation and am proud to be working alongside them; my good friend Greg Spears, in particular, often provides invaluable insights over a beer and a libretto.

OW: This work is rather unique in what it is looking to accomplish and how it sets out to do that. In today’s culture, what do you feel that opera should represent? How should opera fit in with today’s milieu?

DTD; Ultimately, I think each piece must address that question differently and on the composer’s own terms —- and that’s because I feel strongly that opera needs to be wide-ranging, inclusive, flexible and not always know what it is. And willing to get it all wrong. As for fitting in with today’s milieu: I don’t think I’ve ever fit into much of anything, and that sense of otherness is one of the things I’ve always loved about opera. It’s a musical and dramatic space in which things are never as they are in the real world, which is exactly why I think opera is so powerful now. We need that transformative experience urgently.

OW: Talking more specifically about your career, what is one major challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career and what did you learn from overcoming it?

DTD: To be completely honest, I’ve always struggled with self-promotion, which is something composers are so often called upon to do. Of course, I do it, but moving from the sanctuary of the desk to the public arena frequently creates some friction. I love performing (as a pianist or conductor) and am a pretty social person, but the cottage-industry model of new-music composer continues to present some challenges —- even though I always say to myself and my students: we have to do it!

OW: What’s next on the radar? What upcoming projects should people get excited about?

DTD: This month also sees the premiere of another new opera of mine, “Six. Twenty. Outrageous,” presented by American Opera Projects and Symphony Space in NYC, with a libretto by Adam Frank and a production by Doug Fitch. It’s based on three little-known Gertrude Stein plays and is very different from “Family Secrets.” Later this season, the vocal ensemble Modern Medieval will be touring with a new piece of mine. Next season, Rhymes with Opera will be developing, workshopping and then presenting my new opera based on Eleanor Roosevelt.


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