Q & A: Composer David T. Little on Creating ‘BLACK LODGE’

By David Salazar

Called “one of the most promising stars on the 21st opera scene” by WQXR/Q2’s Olivia Giovetti, David T. Little has made his mark on the art form in quite a few ways.

He has six operas to his name of his “Dog Days” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Beth Morrison Projects and has received performances not only at the venerated hall but also Los Angeles Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and PROTOTYPE Festival. Then it made its European debut at Bielefeld Opera. “JFK” was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera, Opéra de Montréal, and Americal Lyric Theater with Opera News calling it a “ravishing grand opera” and “a triumphant work.” It also obtained raves from the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Observer, and Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps his biggest hit to date has been “Soldier Songs,” a 60-minute multimedia work for baritone and amplified septuplet. The work has been championed by numerous opera companies over the year and was transformed into a visual experience by Opera Philadelphia; that recording then received a Grammy Nomination for Best Opera Recording.

Little has now landed another Grammy nomination for the recording of “Black Lodge,” an industrial opera in three parts. Commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects and created alongside poet Anne Waldmann, the work premiered in October 2022 at Opera Philadelphia in a film production by Michael Joseph McQuilken.

OperaWire recently spoke to Little about the process of creating the Grammy-nominated work.

OperaWire: What inspired “BLACK LODGE?”

David T. Little: “BLACK LODGE” initially grew out of a conversation that Beth Morrison and I had in 2011. She was interested in the idea of commissioning a series of operas based on David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”—one mini-opera for each episode of the series—and asked if I’d be interested in writing it. Around this time I had also been reading Antonin Artaud’s “The Theatre And Its Double,” and as I rewatched Twin Peaks to consider Beth’s proposal, another idea took hold of me: that somehow Lynch and Artaud were connected in some way, along with a third figure, William S. Burroughs. I did a little research to see if there was any documented connection. Did Lynch ever mention Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” being an influence? Did either of them intimately know the writings of Artaud? But other than a passing mention of Burroughs possibly appearing in an episode of “Twin Peaks” as a detective—probably more about his pop-culture status at the time than his writing—or that Burroughs mentions the black lodge in his 1981 novel “Cities of the Red Night,” I came up empty. This led me to wonder whether the shared energies I felt in the work of these three artists were something bigger and deeper; something mystical or spiritual, something metaphysical. It was this that first inspired me to write “BLACK LODGE,” and what the piece itself, in part, is exploring.

OW: What was the process of working with librettist Anne Waldman?

DTL: It was a real dream to work with Anne. Aside from being a genius poet, she is also an incredibly generous collaborator. She originally wrote a much longer libretto, a mix of verse and prose called “Artaud in the Black Lodge” (our original title). I hope she’ll publish it one day—it’s amazing—but it would have made for a very long opera. So with her permission, I took that original libretto and made a kind of figurative “cut-up” out of it. Keeping in the spirit of both Burroughs and Dada, another big inspiration, I pulled it apart and reassembled it. This allowed us to distill her original text down while still keeping the structure and themes intact—it was very important to Anne from the very beginning that the piece be structured to follow the stages of the Bardo. Burroughs said of the cut-up technique, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out” and indeed, the future leaked out in ways we could not have anticipated. Anne’s 2013 lyric “I’m the doctor here / give you killer virus” comes to mind, or her channeling of Artaud’s rants about “la peste,” etc.

I’m still amazed that she let me put her original text through this process. She would have been well within her rights to say no. I mean, here’s this amazing poet, friend of Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, etc. A whole world of genius she lives in; a tireless creator, guardian of poetry. She could have totally told me to go jump in a lake. But her openness, her trust in the process, and her trust in me, is a real testament to her beautiful and collaborative spirit. It really meant a lot to me, and I think “BLACK LODGE” as it is wouldn’t have been possible without it. Her openness also made me more open when our other collaborators got involved, making “trust your collaborators” a kind of mantra for me in a way it hadn’t quite previously been. It made me see that trust leads to discovery.

OW: Was it conceived with the film in mind? What was the process to get it into film form? Why was this opera perfect for cinema and how does the film shape the way we experience the opera?

DTL: When I started composing “BLACK LODGE,” I wasn’t thinking it would be a film. While my roots are in theater and film, both of which predate my life as a composer, and though I often tend to think filmically when I write opera, “BLACK LODGE” was always intended to be a live show. When the pandemic happened, we realized that our plans for the live show were not tenable. We’d imagined an opening gesture where 200 audience members were squeezed into an extremely small space. No one is going to that show post-pandemic! So we started asking, what if it was a film? I think it was actually Beth’s suggestion. And once we expanded our frame of what we imagined to be possible, it really came to life. It was as if this was what it was always meant to be. All the things in the score that we’d struggled to manifest on stage—quick changes, hard cuts, doppelgängers, surreal shifts in location—were suddenly available to us. It was really as if, when the pandemic forced us to consider other possibilities, the work finally revealed itself to us. It cut into the present, and the future leaked out.

I had already by then been involved in the film versions of both “Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera” with Houston Grand Opera and “Soldier Songs,” nominated for a GRAMMY® Award for Best Opera Recording in 2022, with Opera Philadelphia, so I had some sense of how it might work. But, “BLACK LODGE” was really next level in a lot of ways. Michael VQ (f.k.a Michael Joseph McQuilken) wrote a powerful screenplay, drawing elements out deep from within the score and libretto. We then recorded all of the music remotely, musicians all scattered in their lockdown-hubs, one player at a time. Thankfully the piece was designed from the start to have a click-track because of the electronics. I led these sessions from NJ using Audiomovers to hear the audio, and Zoom for talkback. It was weird, but it worked.

Andrew McKenna Lee then assembled all of this audio into a final edit. Once we had that, we could shoot the actual film. We shot the first batch of scenes in Maine in April, 2021, just as vaccines were rolling out—all going together to get tested every other day at the local urgent care center—and another batch in the Mojave Desert in July. It was very hot. A third shoot took place later that month in a forest in California, with a final pick-up shot in early August in LA. Michael then dug in to editing, color, and VFX, all while Andrew McKenna Lee and I finished up the final audio mix before sending it off to Reuben Cohen to master it as Lurssen Mastering in LA. It was like we were all very carefully racing to the finish line together. We locked picture with final audio by the start of September and held a friends and family screening in mid-November, only eleven months from when we held our first recording session, and eleven months before the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia. It was a whirlwind, but a thrilling one!

OW: Can you describe your process as a composer? How do you develop the musical language? Where do you start in terms of the sound world of the piece?

DTL: I’m a very intuitive composer. The piece tells me what it wants to be, then I help it become that. Because of this I sometimes don’t totally understand what something is really “about”—or the reason why something must be the way it is—until well after a premiere. But I just have to trust my gut, and trust the piece, and keep going. I can’t really do it any other way. This was very much the case with “BLACK LODGE,” and I’ll confess that there were whole years of the process that I felt pretty lost in it. But eventually you find your way.

You just have to trust the process, and the moments when the piece reveals itself to you are really magical, and very much worth the wait. I knew from the start that I wanted this piece to live in a sonic world that blended rock, metal, industrial music, punk, and opera, in part because of the story it was telling. So this was built into the DNA from the outset, and the result of more than a decade of prior work exploring these ideas in different ways: “Dog Days,” “Soldier Songs,” “sweet light crude,” “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” “AGENCY,” and many other works from around 2007 onward are asking big questions about genre, what it communicates narratively, and how we experience it. For me, genre is as much of a tool in a composer’s narrative toolkit as harmony, melody, etc., and in “BLACK LODGE,” I took all of this even further, bringing the rock/metal/punk/industrial elements to the foreground. Still, at its core it’s still 100 percent opera.

This operatic core takes root in the astounding Timur, the fabulous, brave, and wild singer who can do absolutely anything. I don’t know what the piece would have been without him involved, not only because of his vocal performance but also in the later phases because of his experience as a film producer. Timur came on board early, and the role was completely built around him, written specifically for him, and he completely owns it. I hope people will come and see the live performances that we’ve got coming up in 2025: hearing Timur sing this show live is something really magical.

OW: What do you hope audiences experiencing “BLACK LODGE” for the first time take away from it?

DTL: “BLACK LODGE” will have something different to say to everyone. It really depends what you bring to it, and how deep into it you’re willing to go. Of course, I hope people love the music and the libretto, and enjoy the film as a film, the opera as an opera; enjoy the ride, with all its twists and turns. But I also hope they’ll feel like it’s a piece they want to come back to and dig into it further. I think it could have a lot to tell people—it had a lot to tell me. It really asks each listener to look deep inside themselves. That’s really where the story takes place. And though that can sometimes be a bit scary, and definitely intense, I think it can also be really rewarding.

This passage from Anne’s libretto, with nods to both Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and Artaud’s writings about van Gogh, really sums it up for me: “You find a severed ear in a field. You look into it, falling down into it, sliding down into it into it like cascading down the spiral inside the nautilus. Which spirals down deeper and deeper into the core of your listening, into the core of what you hear, the core of the earth, the core of the mystery you are perpetually investigating…down…down deeper…be careful, be very careful of what you need to know…”

But it’s not all scary. At the end of the day “BLACK LODGE” is really about pursuing beauty as a kind of peace, in spite of the ugliness we often find in the world. And indeed it has a lot of beauty in it. Scene five, “The Hungry Ghost Who Sings In Lamentation” is a personal favorite. And I hope that these moments of beauty can help transcend some of the darkness, both in the context of the piece, but also as listeners move beyond it and back into their lives.

OW: How does it feel to be nominated for a Grammy for your work? What does it mean for you?

DTL: Recognition from your peers means a lot, and it is especially meaningful for a piece like this, which is so personal and was so difficult to write. “BLACK LODGE” lives between worlds in a lot of ways, and you never really know how something like that is going to land, which makes putting it out in the world especially scary. You just have to trust that you told the truth, and let that be enough.

But this also makes it feel extra meaningful when people connect with it. Since the nominations were announced, I’ve heard from a lot of people who I didn’t even know had listened to the record, telling me how much it had moved them. That means a lot. My biggest wish as an artist is to connect with people, even when—or especially when—the subject matter in question might be challenging. When that happens, those connections feel really significant, because they are often the deepest.
Check out “Electric Cereberus” from”Black Lodge.”


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