Q & A: Composer Daron Hagen, Orson Welles & the Biggest Train Set Ever

By David Salazar

Orson Welles is one of the most fascinating figures of the past century, his art among the most influential of all time. But one of the things few people know about Welles is that he was as much concerned about process as he was about the final result. In fact, some of his films, most notably “F for Fake” examines this very aspect of the creation process.

Hagen arrived in the opera world nationally in 1992 with the critical and popular success of his first major opera, “Shining Brow,” which has been revived numerous times since, and is currently enjoying a new production mounted by Urban Arias in Washington D.C. Three more operas with libretti by Irish poet Paul Muldoon followed (also based on treatments co-written by Hagen) before the composer began writing his own libretti outright and co-writing others with playwright Barbara Grecki, with whom he is currently adapting Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy.” A career watershed came with the 2010 premiere by Seattle Opera of “Amelia,” a critical and popular triumph based on a story by Stephen Wadsworth, with a libretto by Gardner McFall, which has already received several revivals. Hagen made his professional directing debut with Kentucky Opera, crafting site-specific stagings of his “New York Stories,” in Louisville townhouses; his mainstage debut with Kentucky Opera came when he designed and staged “A Woman in Morocco” at the Actors Theater of Louisville in 2015.

Viewed in light of his progression through the various opera theater disciplines, Hagen’s evolution into an auteur post-genre music theater composer-director polymath seems almost inevitable. The result is an innovative collaborative work called “Orson Rehearsed” that examines, in a non-linear narrative, the American Story by limning the memories and half-remembered dreams of actor, director, writer, and painter Welles during the last few moments of his life.

Hagen discussed this new chapter in his life, and his auteur-approach to the art form, recently with OperaWire.

OperaWire: Where did the idea for “Orson Rehearsed” come from?

Daron Hagen: I’ve admired Welles since childhood. I had already internalized the “meta-reality” of an auteur like Fellini, whose films were so fake that they were hyper-real, by seeing “8 1/2,” and had thrilled to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, with its chilly, sober sexiness. Hitchcock’s infernal mechanisms fascinated me, but he was a Brit. What I didn’t know that I needed was an American auteur’s touch. One evening at the Oriental Landmark Theater in Milwaukee I saw “Citizen Kane” the way it should be seen—in a booming, drafty old 30’s movie palace— and was branded for life. I knew that one day I’d treat Welles the way that he had treated his own life—as a work of Art that aspired to be more—more than just Art, more than just a life. The title of the new project refers, of course, to Welles’ great torso, “Moby Dick Rehearsed,” which was never performed the same way twice. It also refers to the stance I’ve taken in treating my extraordinary subject—a man I posit considered himself in process until the moment he died, and for whom flamboyant behavior was a means to an end—a way to amuse the civilians while the deadly-serious business of changing hearts and minds was gotten on with by a world-class thinker.

OW: What is your favorite film by Welles?

DH: While I can’t overstate the astonishing, galvanizing effect that “Kane” had on me—in a way, you could see him learning how to make a film while making it, sense a young man speaking truth to power with Icarus-like abandon, I’m more moved by sequences in “Ambersons,” and by some of the quieter, more “innig” stretches of “Chimes at Midnight,” the lurid bravery of “Touch of Evil” and his guerilla-filmmaker “Othello,” shot literally on the run after having spoken his mind during the McCarthy witch-hunts, and the social activism of his modern dress “Julius Caesar.”

OW: What is the most fascinating aspect, for you, of Welles’ filmmaking? 

DH: Welles expressed his social conscience—it seems to me, at least—by harnessing the artifice of Brecht to the hyper-stylized naturalism of Fellini. This strikes me as profoundly in harmony with the way that opera works. Just as it strikes me as counter-intuitive that Welles was so manifestly opposed to the Method, (Method appears naturalistic but acknowledges the primacy of craft in creating the illusion) Welles’ films are not naturalistic. Opera manifests the same seeming contradictory impulses: people howl at the top of their lungs their most intimate feelings.

OW: Tell me a bit about how “Orson Rehearsed” is supposed to work. It won’t be the same from performance to performance, from what I understand?

DH: Right. The piece consists of 52 electro-acoustic environments divided into four suits—one deals with the women in his life, another with his personal demons, another with his relationships with men, and a final suit that mixes them all together. I call the piece a “prestidigitation” because I (or a chosen magician / director for that iteration of the project) will trigger via an app which reveals to the cast and orchestra (which is treated as an extension of the cast and sings, speaks, and moves) only moments before it begins what the next environment will be, like a magician producing a card from her sleeve. The audience’s reactions and the improvisational component of the performers’ roles will help to dictate which environment succeeds which.

OW: So will it be real-time creation of music?

DH: Although the pre-recorded sonic environments do not change, the acoustic components do, and I’ll be remixing the sonic environments to include elements of previous iterations of the piece, so that it is constantly being “recut” the way Welles obsessively cut and re-cut his movies. The instrumentation and cast can change from performance to performance. Characters can be omitted entirely, or be played by dancers. An iteration of the piece could consist of three Orsons, or one, or just the women, for example. The piece’s “truths” are clear; the themes are the obsessions of a creative mind, endlessly interwoven motivically, like the pages of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” so that the work itself is like a river—meaningful in itself wherever you jump in and out—with no terminus, except the deus ex machina of the fact that we are inside of Welles’ mind during the last few moments of his life.

OW: How will you incorporate live musicians into this?  

DH: The live players will all play some of the cues that are written out. Some require improvisation and some require vocalization. And some require them to be actors and recite lines while they walk around. Their parts are displayed on i-Pads, the correct pages triggered by the Magician’s app. Versions with a traditional orchestra in a pit or onstage will see their music the same way, but be led by a conductor, whose partitura is revealed to her at the same moment the parts are revealed to the players she’s conducting. For the first iteration of the piece, the fantastic Chicago-based new music ensemble Fifth House will collaborate with me as part of the work’s development at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, where I’ve joined the Artist Faculty, charged with creating projects like “Orson Rehearsed” that energize and foster synergistic collaborations between different areas of study within the College Conservatory and Roosevelt University’s student body and faculty.

OW: And the singers?  

DH: I have assembled a group of artists under the name of “New Mercury Collective” to help me on this journey. The name refers to the Welles’ great Mercury Theater, of course. Robert Orth will play Orson / Ahab. We’ve known one another since Bob played Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago Opera Theater’s revival of “Shining Brow,” and he’s recorded the role with JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic. That same recording also featured Robert Frankenberry as Louis Sullivan. Rob will be playing Orson / Falstaff. He’s an amazingly versatile conductor, music director, composer, and singer, and served as m.d. for “Vera of Las Vegas” when it was given its staged premiere by Center for Contemporary Opera at Symphony Space in New York. Composer / vocalist Gilda Lyons will play Rita Hayworth. Gilda specializes in extended vocal techniques and appeared in “Vera” on Broadway, “Brow” in Buffalo, and “The Antient Concert” in several productions as Nora Barnacle. Melisa Bonetti will play Paola Mori. We first met when I directed her in “A Woman in Morocco” in Kentucky. She gave a very brave performance of the role of Clare, which she created. Carol Greif Schuele, who is at home in both music theater and opera, and for whom I wrote the role of Rosie in “I Hear America Singing,” a musical I wrote the music and lyrics for and directed for the Skylight Theater in Milwaukee, will play Marlene Dietrich. Finally, Gabriel Preisser, artistic director of Orlando Opera, who I first met when I staged him in “Broken Pieces” when he was still a young artist, will take on the role of Orson / Kane.

OW: How did you create this technology?

DH: There is brilliant grad student at NYU who has created this app that allows me to choose which soundscape to trigger.

OW: Is this your first time taking on opera that puts media together?

DH: I have integrated pre-records and electro-acoustic soundscapes into my theatrical works for decades, and learned to conceal them just as commercial composers arrangers do. This is the first time I’ve given them equal weight with acoustic elements. They aren’t the point, but they help to eradicate the rhythmic grid, abolish stylistic orthodoxies, and maintain a seamless flow of music by eliminating the frantic moments when everyone would otherwise be searching in their hymnals for the next number.

OW: What are the challenges of adding in all these variables?

DH: Honestly, it makes me think of what Welles is quoted as having said about making a movie being like having been given the world’s largest train set. I find the entire process intensely liberating, and none of the technical challenges in any way insurmountable with the most easily-manipulated technology. It is exhilarating what you can do, marrying the craft of a traditional composer with five symphonies, nine operas, hours of orchestral works, hundreds of songs, and a dozen concerti behind him with the intuitive, fluid finger-painting of digital collage and editing.

OW: How has your process for creating this opera differed from your previous experiences?

DH: I would say that “Orson Rehearsed” combines everything I have learned composing operas large and small, with a dozen different dramaturgical strategies, over the past thirty years, condenses them, and then throws them against the wall, there to stick or to fall, like freshly-boiled pasta. For better or worse, the audience will experience a once-in-a-lifetime event, culled from a source document so large that they’ll never hear more than a third at a time. Back stories, alternate realities, dream duets. There’s no reason the opera can’t take place among the audience, for example, provided the singers and auditors are brave enough, and a safe space has been created in which the encounter can take place.

OW: What have been the greatest challenges for putting “Orson Rehearsed” together?

DH: How to do we adequately prepare the rules of engagement for the performers to empower them to take away their fear of not being emotionally accessible. Their fear of non-linear performance. Acting is so essential to opera now. That tethering the physical demands of singing with the demands of an actor to remain psychologically accessible is tough stuff. That will be the hardest thing for this work.

OW: What do you hope audiences take away?

DH: I would like to have the many-faceted texts of the libretto have to do with Welles’ interaction with social policy, art, politics, and social responsibility as an individual. What I hope to do is to blow people’s minds with a sense of possibility and awareness that through becoming accessible themselves, they can access their better nature and their sense of social responsibility. It’s a scary thing that this audience will be invited to do. The true challenge as a director is to create an environment where people are not simply mystified but also invited to dream. That takes us back to the most important reason we made opera in the first time. To sit around a campfire in the dark, and talk about the scary things out there in the dark. “We’re going to talk to about them, master them and then we’ll turn around and fight them.”

OW: How did you first fall in love with Opera?

My brother was listening to Billy Budd on LP and there was a scene where the Indomitable goes into battle. I was nine years old and you could hear the powder monkeys slung high, the guns going off, the officers on the quarter deck, the crew below-decks hauling the enormous weapons. Good god it was magnificent. And Britten’s imagination had generated every component of that massive engine of destruction in all its detail in order to muster the psychological verisimilitude needed to tell a story about forgiveness. Wow: action manifesting emotion. When opera does this, it is hyper-real. Welles could do this. I suspect that’s what he meant when he said, “I’ve just been given the greatest train set a boy could ever had” when he was working on “Kane.”


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