Q & A: Composer Felix Jarrar and BARN Opera’s Creative Team on ‘Cask of Amontillado’

By Chris Ruel

Prolific young composer and pianist Felix Jarrar’s ninth opera will premiere virtually on Oct. 31, 2021, and in keeping with the Halloween season, his latest chamber opera is based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. This time around, Jarrar’s libretto is an adaptation of “The Cask of Amontillado” which relates the tale of a quest for a bottle of Spanish wine that ends in horrific murder.

Jarrar’s collaborators include Joshua Collier, a tenor and Artistic Director of BARN Opera, a Brandon, Vermont-based company for which Jarrar serves as Assistant Music Director. Collier sings the role of the Montresor, a deranged individual who seeks murderous revenge on the wine-loving Fortunato, sung by baritone Nicholas Tocci.

Poe never reveals what the unfortunate Fortunato did to incur the wrath of Montresor, but the villainous character explains that his intentions are entirely justified. Montresor lures the unsuspecting oenophile into the catacombs where he drugs the poor fellow, places him in chains within a dark recess, and brick-by-brick encases the man. As the courses of brick rise, Fortunato awakens and screams in terror as Montresor calmly goes about his terrible business until finally, only Fortunato’s muffled wailing are heard from within the wall. Not a pleasant way to go, that’s for certain. The story has stuck with me since I first encountered it in high school. It terrified me then, and does so to this day.

Josh Collier as the villain, Montresor. Photo courtesy of BARN Opera

In this Q & A, the creative team comprising Jarrar, Collier, Tocci, and violinist Adam von Housen field questions about the opera’s origins, the characters, and Jarrar’s score and libretto.

OperaWire: Felix, you seem to be a Poe fan. This is your fourth opera based on one of his stories.

Felix Jarrar: Yes, I am a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe! Of my 12 operas, 4 are adaptations of Poe. The first one I adapted was “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which I wrote as my undergraduate thesis while I was a student in Vermont’s Marlboro College. The second one, “The Oval Portrait,” was a micro-opera for bass-baritone and piano I wrote as a call for scores winner for Opera Elect, an opera company in Idaho. “The Tell Tale Heart” was the third adaptation, and is my longest of the four. I’ve workshopped the piano-vocal score virtually this past April on my Social Distance Salon Series, and am currently orchestrating it. “The Cask of Amontillado” is the fourth, and most recent. For each of these operas, I both wrote the score and the libretto (adapting heavily from the Poe originals and other contemporaneous literature).

OW: Why “Cask?” What drew you to this tale?

FJ: Last year, BARN Opera world premiered “Patience & Pearl,” my micro-opera with librettist Bea Goodwin. I recorded the accompaniments virtually with my colleague and dear friend Adam von Housen. It was a Halloween operatic premiere, and I really enjoyed working with Josh. He mentioned offhand that I should write a short opera for himself and Nick to perform. Adam was also down for another collaboration. I had been working on a draft of a libretto for “The Cask of Amontillado” while chatting with Kirsten C. Kunkle, another colleague of mine. I love chatting about literature with friends and colleagues, as it inspires me to write music. When Josh asked for another piece, I immediately thought of this libretto, reworked it for tenor, baritone, violin, and piano, and sent the final score to him during early November 2020 a few days after the world premiere of “Patience & Pearl.” Similarly to that opera, we recorded “The Cask of Amontillado” virtually. Adam von Housen and I recorded the instrumental track together in my apartment, while Josh and Nick recorded their vocal takes separately. After that, they filmed the opera together this past summer and fall.

OW: The story is highly condensed. What was your process for making the cuts while still maintaining the heart of the story?

FJ: The wonderful thing about adapting “The Cask of Amontillado” was that the story was already super condensed. That is why I wanted to set it as an opera in the first place. From the first line to the last, Poe drew me into the disturbed world of Montresor. The story was literally screaming at me to be adapted into an opera. I write a lot of text when drafting my libretti, and then pair it down from there, as there needs to be space in the words for music to fill it out completely. I tightened some transitions of Montresor and Fortunato walking through the catacombs using two melodramatic, spoken-dialogue sections, with an instrumental underscoring that morphs into the final tragic instrumental dirge that concludes the piece.

OW: You also used some Longfellow poetry. Tell me about that.

FJ: For Fortunato’s aria, I used Longfellow’s poem “Venice” as its text. I had interpolated two Longfellow texts for two arias in “The Tell Tale Heart,” and really found his poetic style to give another emotional level to the very dark and gothic undertones of Poe’s stories. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” I bring out the darkness and lack of humanity in Montresor’s actions by really emphasizing the comedy and zaniness of the carnival, which in BARN’s production, is a Vermont state fair. The switch of tone towards the middle is really helped by the comic gross-out moment that characterizes Fortunato’s drunken behavior, and Longfellow’s text was perfect for the scenario.

OW: Tell me about the music. What areas of your musical imagination did you explore?

FJ: In this work, I really explored the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy for the maximum effect of the latter. Musically, this meant using motifs that could work in both spheres. The first three chromatically descending notes of the opera come back in various guises either in whole or in part throughout the score. One moment, it’s the motive for Fortunato’s laughing motif in his duet with Montresor. Next, it’s the beginning of the music underscoring their doomed walk to the catacombs.

OW: What Poe story are you looking to adapt next?

FJ: I am looking to adapt Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” as my fifth Poe operatic adaptation. Stay tuned for more details!

OW: You wrote the score for this cast. Did you try to stretch them musically?

FJ: Josh and Nick are wonderful singers. They are also colleagues and friends of mine. I always write music for specific singers, not categorized ‘voice types.” Josh has a large range, and I knew I wanted to showcase it for dramatic effect, so Montersor really showcases that aspect of his voice. Nick’s voice is really rounded and velvety, so I wanted to showcase the warmth and lyricism of his timbre.

OW: What excited you about this project, Joshua?

Joshua Collier: With Felix’s music, Poe’s source material, and the opportunity to play one of my favorite demented literary characters, what is not to be excited about! From the first look through the score, I could tell that the piece was musically impactful but also incredibly theatrically tight, and would be a wonderful step forward in the filmed opera track we started with “Patience & Pearl” last Halloween.

OW: Why did you choose to present virtually? And is this a practice you’ll continue?

JC: The piece is only a little under 30 minutes, so it could not comprise an entire evening’s music, and I did not want to have this remarkable piece share the spotlight with any other work. By filming as opposed to live performance, we could explore different locations, environments, and acoustics, to give the atmosphere that the work needed. I really like the film medium, and I believe that opera, when treated as a film, as opposed to opera in the traditional sense, can really translate well. I would very much like to continue to hone my skills directing in the filmed operatic medium, but it will just have to be the right piece – stay tuned!

OW: “Cask” was a very local production with places and events in/around Brandon used as settings. Did anyone ask what you were doing, and what was their response when/if told that an opera was being filmed?

JC: Oh yes, as you could see in the “carnival” scene, we actually approached quite a few people to be a part of the piece. As one can imagine, it’s not often that the residents of Brandon have been asked to be in a film, less a film of an opera. They were overwhelmingly interested and eager to be a part of it, and even after some takes, we had conversations with people about how they could see it. I think that the idea that their (read: our) town was being featured in an opera that would be seen by many people was a real point of pride, and if for no other reason than that operatic evangelism, we’ll continue to do things like this.

OW: Along those lines, how has Brandon received opera within their community?

JC: Brandon is a small, generally blue-collar town that has been known for the arts because of renowned folk-artist Warren Kimble being its most famous resident. Now, however, after the operatic successes of the past few years, the town of Brandon, both at a leadership level and also at the community level, has completely embraced BARN Opera. In fact, I have been a part of a major town scandal that played out in the middle of the town grocery store, where one housing host was upset that they did not get to host an artist when another host did. It is an amazing thing to have so much support and passion behind a project such that I don’t have enough artists per show to satisfy the desire for housing and community engagement. It’s a remarkably special place, and as lucky as the residents of Brandon feel about having BARN Opera in their town, we are, and I am, just as lucky to be there.

OW: What were the chief learnings you took away from the creation process?

JC: Always plan more time than you need, and make sure that you have multiple takes, shots, angles, perspectives, responses, and camera positions than you think you’ll ever use. If you are as much of a control freak as I am, editing is a tireless job that is made significantly easier with more footage to choose from. There is one moment in this piece that sticks out to me like a sore thumb, from an editing perspective, and that is because I just simply had no other option. We have shown the film to around a dozen people, and no one seemed to notice it, but because I lived with it, conceptualized it, and edited it, I have learned my lesson and will be much more intentional about there being nothing considered inconsequential in the filming process.

OW: Nicholas and Joshua, tell me about bringing the two characters to life.

Nicholas Tocci: It is always a treat working on projects and realizing characters with Josh. He and I connect on so many things and often catch each other’s references really quickly. When Josh suggested what he had in mind artistically for Fortunato, I immediately knew how to bring this not-so-loveable drunkard to life. Now, I didn’t go full method, but we definitely had a couple of beers before we filmed some of his high jinks. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there are some disgusting and deplorable shots we got of Fortunato, and I couldn’t be happier about it! Let’s just say it involves disgusting carnival food. As for Montresor, it seems that Josh has an uncanny ability to play a crazed killer. It must be all his time playing the heroic tenor. He’s just dying to play the bad guy. Regardless, I should watch my back!

Joshua Collier: In opera, there are always so many incidental characters that are really nothing but ambiance: They don’t help the story move along, and they don’t fulfill any dramatic purpose. In this opera, there are two characters, with the entire action and the psychological development happening with them exclusively. From Montresor’s monologue at the beginning of the piece, the character tries to convince the reader (listener) that what he was going to do was completely justified. I think the brilliance of Poe and Felix is that we don’t know what Fortunato did to Montresor, only that it was an “insult” enough to warrant murder. I love the psychology of “the villain,” first because I so rarely get to play one because of my tenor voice, but second, because I find it endlessly interesting that they don’t think they are bad, but righting a wrong, or justified for their actions in some other way. Nick’s Fortunato is absolutely ideal. In real life, he is the most wonderful, kindest, gentlest human, but I wanted to make sure that the audience found him a lovable jerk. He is definitely not someone you want to be friends with, but you also don’t want him to get what is inevitably coming to him. I don’t think that Felix when he was writing the opera, thought that Fortunato’s song about Venice would be developed into a come-on in a bar (incidentally, with my wife being the object of his affection!) but that’s what I suppose you get with a Collier production!

OW: You’re both familiar with Felix’s work, were there some surprises as you studied his score.

NT: Felix is truly one of my new favorite composers. We met over the course of the pandemic, where I had loads of time to get familiar with some of his music, and I fell in love with it immediately. He truly is in a league of his own. His works are fresh, challenging, and always evolving. I am always surprised by any of his new compositions. This one was interesting because he has such a skill for painting a picture of the mood of the piece. The opera starts off ominously with Montresor’s monologue, but you almost immediately forget about it when you are taken into the carnival scenes, and Fortunato’s aria, which is much-needed comic relief. Once one reaches the climax of the piece, the tension is all found in the music itself. It made it so easy for us to get into it, and to feel the real horror of the piece. Felix really considers the story in his writing, and it is just so impressive to me.

JC: When I first started listening and working on Felix’s music, I noticed his unending ability for melody, and his uncanny ability to marry music to theatre. I love the operatic medium because of the drama of the story being matched with the heightened vocalism. Felix can, in 13 minutes (with “Patience & Pearl” with librettist Bea Goodwin) or 30 minutes with “The Cask of Amontillado,” bring us into a sonic and harmonic world that grips us and leads us through the story at a breathless pace. Felix is a wunderkind, and with the singability of his music, I have no doubt that his works will be on every major stage (and audition room!) in the world.

OW: Tell me about how you collaborated with Felix—what the dynamic was like?

NT: We now have had the pleasure of working with Felix in real life, but most of “Cask” was collaborated on virtually. Josh and I were early adopters to virtual collaboration with our Social Distance Opera project, so we had plenty of practice with sound editing and mixing. I first worked with Felix on one of his operas with Bea, “Patience & Pearl,” which premiered with BARN as well. Felix, Josh, and I work so well together and became friends rather quickly. We all have the drive to get the best product possible, but also we are very flexible and easygoing. I always looked forward to our zoom meetings, not just because I was excited about the opera we were creating, but mostly because we had so much fun doing it all together.

JC: As Nick said, we created this piece during the pandemic and recorded it remotely, with Felix being involved in all aspects, and giving final approval, but still at a distance. We had been the first company in the country to mount a recorded opera project, The Social Distance Opera, in March 2020, and took a great deal of time to learn how to sound edit and mix. I will freely admit that Nick is infinitely better than I am at that, but that’s why we have such a great team! We became good friends and had at least weekly zoom meetings – which were always creative, fun, and more like a social hang out rather than a business meeting. We were extremely excited to welcome Felix in person to Vermont last December. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of Covid-19 at that point, such that intrastate travel was not advised. We have FINALLY worked together in person on two projects (BARN Opera’s Tosca in August, and the Grand Opening production of La Traviata in October!) and have many more in the future that are coming soon – but not soon enough!

OW: Adam, What did you find most interesting about the violin part of Felix’s score?

Adam von Housen: Actually, what I found most interesting was how idiomatic Felix’s writing is for violin! I feel like a large chunk of the time that I play pieces by composers who don’t play violin (including Schumann, Brahms, etc…), I can tell from the writing that they don’t play the violin. In “Cask” I really felt Felix has a great understanding of how to write for the violin, which was particularly evident in the chords he wrote. I honestly don’t think I had any corrections or suggestions for the part, which is pretty rare.

OW: Did you feel challenged by the score? If so, how?

AVH: Honestly, I find every piece of music challenging in some way, even beginner pieces. Things can always be better. Playing in tune on the violin (or any stringed instrument) is particularly difficult, so that’s a challenge I face with every piece, including this opera. Felix and I are friends and he knows my playing, so he definitely wrote some challenging things in there (particularly the unaccompanied moments). And in general, opera is always stressful to play since there are so many parts that need to fit together (recitatives are especially scary and if things aren’t perfectly lined up it can really kill the vibe!). “Unfortunately,” Felix and I had to record our parts first and approximate how much time the singers would need in certain parts, so it was actually more stressful for the singers this time, I think. Whenever we perform this in person, it’ll be more collaborative and reactive, as it should be, so I think that’ll be a bit of weight off the singers’ shoulders… and a bit more weight on the instrumentalists’ shoulders, adding more challenge to the violin part!

OW: What drew you to the opera?

AVH: Well, Felix and I are friends, so the fact that he wrote it drew me to it. I always love playing my composer friends’ music! They pour their hearts and souls into their art, so as their friend I feel so drawn to their music because it represents them. Also, chamber opera is recently new to me, so that instrumentation is also super appealing! I think my favorite music is actually chamber music. I do like orchestra music, but I think chamber music is the perfect marriage of solo and ensemble playing and suits my personality best. And as Felix knows, I love to have my “diva” moments, which I definitely get in this opera with this kind of instrumentation. And most importantly, playing music with friends is my favorite thing to do, so I had a great time in this project, for sure!

One more thing: an opportunity to work with singers is always great for me. I always learn so, so much about phrasing, vibrato, character, stage presence, and other things from listening to singers, so I feel like any opportunity to work with them really benefits me as a violinist and musician.

Solo? Chamber music? Playing music with friends? Working with singers? This project has all of it, so it was perfect for me!

Watch BARN Opera’s free production here starting at 6:00 p.m. on Oct. 31.


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