Q & A: Composer Matthew Peterson on Creating ‘Voir Dire’ & the Challenges of Academic Training

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
Credit: Froede Wendelbo

Swedish-American composer Matthew Peterson is an independent and vital voice in the new opera world. He studied at Gotland School of Music Composition, Indiana University School of Music, and St. Olaf College. Just as his education is varied, this composer’s music defies categorization and encompasses many different genres.

His dynamic, socially relevant true-crime opera “Voir Dire (To Speak the Truth)” was in the making for many years and went through a series of rejections and rewrites before the world got to see its straightforward portrayal of today’s justice system that accounts for the human element.

The opera is based on real court cases, witnessed by lyricist Jason Zencka. Therefore “Voir Dire” drills into the real tragedies of ordinary people, presenting a bitter critique of the conditions of modern justice. Themes of drug abuse, fractured families, economic precarity, and sexual violence are openly explored on stage, which has caused diverse reactions from the public. Through “Voir Dire,” opera has once again served as a catalyst for major societal debates.

Now in 2020 the groundbreaking opera is reappearing in a new skin, as an audio recording of “Voir Dire” is being made and released publicly.

In this interview, the opera’s composer Matthew Peterson discussed public reactions to ‘Voir Dire’ and the challenges, as well as creative opportunities, that come from fitting an opera into an audio recording format.

OperaWire: What pulled you the most to Jason Zencka‘s experiences at the court?

Matthew Peterson: I was 24, I’d just earned my master’s degree and I stopped for a day in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to visit Jason en-route to Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were planning to write an opera about a North Dakotan far-right partisan named Gordon Kahl who had killed two US Marshals during the farm crisis.

OW: While composing the piece, you discussed and critiqued the inner workings of our system of justice. Did you do any research in order to understand these inner workings of court?

MP: We sat in the courtroom together. That was about it. I would call him on Skype. I would write him emails and ask questions about courtroom procedure. Sometimes he would correct me after I’d already composed something, usually when I’d had to leave out or abbreviate a part of the libretto. We had a good collaboration on those things; we saved our fights for bigger issues like how the opera should end; or the title!

I’d actually been in court myself in 2002 at the age of 18, the Cavalier County Courthouse in Langdon, North Dakota. The county sheriff–who must have been 70 years old–had caught me and some friends drinking at a bonfire in the Pembina Hills, and of course, we were underage, so I had to go to court a couple of weeks later. I told my parents I was going fishing all day when really I had a court date.

In the courtroom, we were sitting next to a man who was there on assault charges who smelled like he’s been detoxing in the jail for a day or two, and he was giving the three of us some hard looks, so we tried not to make eye contact. In our case the judge granted leniency and let us off with a warning because the sheriff had written him a note. The note told the judge how, after the sheriff had written us up, he got his car stuck trying to drive back across the prairie and we’d pushed him out! We were pretty nice boys after all I guess.

OW: What was the most challenging thing you encountered when creating on topic of crime? Did the theme itself push you to take many creative risks while composing this opera?

MP: This opera was based on and adapted from true stories, the characters were based on real people; Jason combined different stories into new stories. To do justice to the truth of the subject matter, “Voir Dire” needed to be true, and I felt that musically it required both directness and circumspection. I put a great deal of thought into this aspect, and a great deal of pressure on myself to reach every single audience member, no matter what. Obviously an impossible task, but it was a goal worth aiming for. Sometimes that meant writing a really simple, emotional, almost banal song like the “Alycia Simpson Aria”; sometimes it meant creating something really dissonant and complex like Professor Milton’s scene, “A Plea.” Perhaps the biggest risk was how diverse and eclectic the piece was overall–like channel surfing musically–but that’s how the courtroom is. One person goes out, another comes in. New person, new crime, new story.

OW: You hold degrees from the Gotland School of Music Composition (Artist Diploma), Indiana University School of Music (M.M.) and St. Olaf College (B.M.). How have these three institutions changed you and made you the composer you are today? Would you say there are elements from these institutions that could be found in your opera?

MP: I began composing at St. Olaf College. Composer Mary Ellen Childs was a visiting instructor and I–a double bass student at the time–took her composition course. She is a brilliant artist and my first composer role-model. She introduced me to an entire world of music that I didn’t know existed and I was hooked. Jason and I wrote our first opera during our final year at St. Olaf College.

I didn’t know anything about opera: I’d never even seen an opera! It was my second year of composing, and I along with several other student composers were asked to write an opera scene for the new lyric theater program. I asked Jason, a religion student, because he was the only writer I knew. As the other composers dropped out of the project, we grew our scene into a short opera, “The Binding of Isaac,” a modern retelling of the biblical Abraham and Isaac story. I discovered I had a natural aptitude for composition and stage-writing. So St Olaf was where it all started.

At Indiana I studied with Sven-David Sandström. He was my idol. All his students loved him. He was so wise, so generous and caring, and a truly great composer. He utterly loved what he did. I learned so much about composing and being a composer from his music and his example. He gave me the courage and inspiration for me to find my own voice and to use that voice to give others as much music as I can. I don’t think I would have had the guts to write the “Alycia Simpson Aria” if I hadn’t had Sven-David’s example to inspire me.

OW: Your work can’t be categorized. How did you free yourself from the academic training and the structures into which you are taught?

MP: That’s a good question. I think about this often; how I ended up where I’m at. I think that a certain part of my composing voice was there from the beginning: my rhythmic vitality, elements of my harmonic language, and melodic sensibilities. Ultimately a composer is accountable to his or her own creativity and conscience, and the development of that can take time and experience; it grows just as a person does.

I don’t want to badmouth academia. I learned a lot in my studies; I was exposed to so much incredible music; I met so many people that are still important to me today. But I definitely needed to get away from a certain mindset that I think academia, in particular American academia, instills and encourages in too many composers. At least it did back then in the 2000s because a lot has changed back then. Still, studying composition at a top graduate program in the US is academically rigorous more than creatively rigorous. You’re being prepared to be a professor, not a freelance composer.

A possibly negative side-effect of learning all that theory, repertoire, and analysis is that some students start thinking that in order to justify their existence as a creative artist, they have to be every great composer rolled into one. I think subconsciously I felt that. There is this attitude about what music is worth knowing and what composers should aspire to; that every piece should be serious, full of references, composed for posterity. At Indiana, certain composers and movements were totally ignored, there was this attitude of “this is the music/composer that is worth knowing, this composer is superior to that composer,” that kind of thing.

In hindsight, some of my teachers were really clueless, and it’s not their fault; it was a generational thing. And I maybe wasn’t confident enough yet: I felt deep down that I was a fraud, because–for example–Prince, No Doubt and the musical “Rent” were more musically formative for me than, say, Ravel, and I was hiding this from my teachers. I liked Steve Reich and Meredith Monk more than “smarter” music like György Kurtag or Kaija Saariaho. I liked them too! But it didn’t speak to me in terms of being a language I felt was true to my experience of being alive. One of my teachers actually said “minimal music is for minimal minds” and I felt ashamed when what I should have done is tell him to screw off. Politely.

Moving to Sweden in 2008 was freeing. Moving to a different country always is, but also because of what I began to see in my colleagues there, who were young musicians from very different backgrounds. Some had been working in theater, some were coming out of electronic dance music or rock or whatever. They were freer, there wasn’t the “academic” mentality in the same way. We had a band together, we listened to music, we talked about life. And that was the final piece for me, that year where I experienced so much freedom and so little prejudice.

Ultimately I’m also a composer that wants to do many different things: I’m composing for different mediums, I’m writing pieces that are serious and pieces that are lighter. I actively pursue different kinds of opportunities, from fun solo works to large scale works. I’m constantly reacting to the world around me, and I always try to follow my conscience and compose with integrity. I really do care about other people and their experiences, and I want to serve that in my music in some way. Creating music is my way of sculpting meaning out of the strangeness, the pain, and beauty of existing in the world.

OW: When composing the music, what was your approach towards the text? What elements of your music did you choose to combine with text? What music elements were the most important while composing the score?

MP: I think everything comes from the text, in a way. When it comes to how the text affects me as a composer, it’s like a chemical reaction between two substances. Something new is created. Jason’s text is so percussive and incisive that my music became that way.

OW: The opera is filled with strong, ever-changing emotions. Was music the opera’s main tool for the cultivation of emotion? Was it challenging to compose music that each scene had wildly varying emotional affects?

MP: I remember walking home to my apartment from the Gotland composer school in fall 2008, and I was mentally singing through the fugue from the child-pornography case, where the clerks of court are describing the PDF images of child pornography, and it hit me; the text and the heaviness of that case. I was obsessed with the piece being true. At times it was really challenging, because of how tragic some of these cases are, and how far they were from anything I’d gone through. Sort of like method acting, I was able to find a sliver of something I recognized, understanding how things could turn out that way. In that way, I was even able to make the audience see a known pedophile as a three-dimensional character and give a rapist an honest, emotional aria without glamorizing in any way what he had done.

OW: All the characters in the opera are complex and multi-dimensional. Were you forming the characters differently musically, while knowing that they would be sung by the same performer?

MP: Well, each character really only sings one multi-dimensional, dynamic character. The other characters are small roles that don’t experience any arc; they’re a prosecutor, or a bailiff, someone who is a foil to a main character like Alicia Simpson or Dr. Milton.

OW: How did you musically balance the wholeness with the fragmentation of the work? What determined the unique structure of the opera?

MP: Dramatically and dramaturgically, Jason started with the libretto for individual court cases; the Dr Milton child pornography case, the Alycia Simpson bond hearing, the Kalcek rape trial. Only later did he start fitting them together, using the Jeffrey Schumacher matricide case and the opera’s dream sequence as a through-line, with scenes weaved in between the different court cases.

As Jason starting putting the pieces together, arriving at a through-line–and as we arrived at a title, “Voir Dire” –my music coalesced around a single tetrachord of four descending notes: C B A, and G#/G. This tetrachord formed the basis for the music, though in different ways for each scene. The Bond Hearing’s machinery-of-the-courtroom bassline, the melodies of Alycia Simpson’s devastating ballad, Judge Dodsworth’s beat-poet meets lounge-lizard monologues, the twisted-nursery-rhyme ickiness of a fugue depicting images of child pornography, Professor Milton’s convoluted chromatic progressions climbing downwards like Jacob’s ladder in reverse, “The Mother’s Ghost” with her unearthly vocal harmonies and spectral ostinati. I think of those four notes as a tortured chaconne, as if the sounding notes of humanity have been pressed, ill-fitting, into the strict formal framework of the courtroom.

OW: What is important to do when tastefully combining several music genres in one piece?

MP: I think it’s important for it to grow naturally out of the dramatic requirements of the piece; out of the setting, the conflicts, and the characters. I composed most of “Voir Dire” in 2008-2009 at age 24-25, and part of the reason that it ended up being such an eclectic work is that’s where I was at creatively at the time. But it was also a conscious dramaturgical choice. There had to be the courtroom of reality and the courtroom of the dream sequence and the music needed to differentiate those settings. So the courtroom reality is rhythmic, disjunct, angular; a malfunctioning legal machine. The music for the dream sequence is dreamier, with its atmospheric orchestration, floating ostinatos, instruments uncoordinated in time.  And then there were the individual characters to represent, from Alycia Simpson’s direct, heart-on-her-sleeve ballad, a melody with chord changes, to Professor Milton, who is hiding from himself in the most complex harmonies of the opera. There was also the channel-changing nature of the form, and the music is telling us when we’re in a different case, a different world.

OW: The language of the opera is unique: it is reminiscent more of rock and hip-hop music, not the typical opera lyrics from the libretto. How different was it to compose operatic music to such a different and non-operatic libretto?

MP: The text is percussive, rhythmic, and eclectic, so the music is as well. And I like that. English is a rhythmically complex, percussive language. You see examples of this from Shakespeare’s plays to hip-hop. Italian is a rhythmically simple, lyrical language that lends itself to opera singing. I grew up in the American upper-Midwest, which is where the opera is set. The language and people in the opera were familiar to me; I knew it inside and out.

OW: The original text was more of a theater play. How did it end up being an opera? How do you define the obscure genre of this piece?

MP: Jason and I fought a lot during the process of writing and rewriting this piece. I felt at times that Jason would put too much into the text, and not leave enough room for the music. That he would make it, as you say, into a play. Jason thought I was controlling and arrogant. We were both right I think. Jason is a writer first, librettist second, he’s not an opera buff by any means.

But that’s also his strength; his distance from the tradition frees him from the pressures and preconceptions that come with it. For a time, we called it a ballad opera, but I don’t think that really fits after the 2016 rewrites. It’s an opera now, albeit an eclectic and unique one. But if we go back historically, take for example Mozart’s “singspiel” like Die Zauberflöte; those also were fundamentally different from his Italian operas, but we call them all “opera” today.

OW: For you, does music or words take primary place of importance? How did you use this dynamic while composing this opera?

MP: Music. It has to be music. Of course, that was one of the reasons that Jason and I fought. Jason saw no reason that the text couldn’t stand on equal footing, but no-one goes to the opera to listen to a libretto. But it’s partly thanks to Jason’s text that the music of “Voir Dire” is so strong.

From August 2008 until August 2009, Jason emailed me the libretto piecemeal as he completed it. I have most of those emails still saved on my computer. I particularly remember one email from September. It was an aria to follow the bond hearing scene, typed in verse in the body of the email. As I read the song, a sort of jailhouse ballad, I was taken in from the first slant-rhyming triplet: “I’ve never been so cold before / as in this jailhouse corridor / remember I’m from Florida” I can’t overstate the importance of that particular aria, Alycia Simpson’s aria, in my development as a composer. It gave me the courage to write melodically in a new and very direct way.

OW: The opera has a moral that is delivered at the end. How do you understand the moral of the opera and how did you decide how to show it in music, text and staging?

The staging was all David Gately, our creative and insightful stage director; the delivery of the final ensemble was simple and intimate, directed towards the audience. My interpretation is that the main characters’ final exhortation to “forget the truth, remember me” is perhaps a challenge for us to reconsider the role of law in society, to shift the conversation from crime and punishment towards justice. A more humanistic approach. I think that is happening now, at least the conversation is.

One of the patrons at the first hearing was a very wealthy man who thought that the opera was pessimistic. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a very dark opera at times but I don’t think it’s cynical. Then again, this patron thought the other opera on the festival, “Carmen,” was “uplifting and inspiring,” so I don’t know what he was smoking; if he thought that famous tragedy had a positive message!

OW: How was the idea to record the opera born? What determined that the release of the recording happened only now?

MP: Usually opera companies will decide to record a new opera immediately following the premiere. We had a very successful production, but general director Darren Woods, the opera’s champion, was fired during the rehearsal period, so a recording was not in the works. Music director and conductor Viswa Subbaraman and I knew that the best chance to get the opera recorded was to do it independently and as soon as possible, and with the original cast. After managing to raise just enough to cover initial recording costs, we were able to record during two very intense days in June 2018 at Minnesota Public Radio Studios.

The release took longer than planned thanks to the rough cut taking a very long time–a year–getting from St Paul, Minnesota, to me in Sweden. This was due to–among other things–the recording engineer having his computer stolen when his car was broken into. Per England and I spent every other Wednesday evening from fall 2019 to spring 2020 mixing and mastering the recording, often working until well after midnight. Our initial plan was for a worldwide release on May 9, 2020, with a huge release party in Stockholm; but then the pandemic struck.

OW: You have composed a total of three operas. Do you see an evolution of yourself as a composer, when looking at these three operas?

Yes. Composing “The Binding of Isaac” I knew very little about opera. Jason and I just felt our way forward, and the result was a piece that I’m still very proud of. However there are these big leaps in time during the opera, leaps of years, so over music between these scenes we projected verses from Genesis to sort of fill in the gaps. In that way we were beginners, but the scenes themselves, the music and text, is still really quite compelling.

When it comes to determining if a subject is right for opera, it has to immediately stimulate my imagination in some way. I have to see it on the stage, or understand what the music is doing. Imagining the Isaac sacrifice, I heard music and saw colors and images. Imagining Sarai–Isaac’s mother–as a person, I understood what song would bring story and character to her. It felt honest, and this is something I’m obsessed with in my music, whether or not such a thing as musical integrity exists.

When it came toVoir Dire,” I immediately understood the role music would play in establishing the setting and the conflict between the courtroom and the people that came into it. Each person had a story to tell, a world behind them, and here they were, in the courtroom, perhaps recounting–or experiencing–the worst day in their respective lives. That needed opera, it needed music and song. I think the fact that for at least the first year–and maybe until the 2016 revisions–neither Jason nor I knew how the opera ended, whether it was a whole or a collection of parts, speaks for itself as to where we were in our understanding of opera. “Voir Dire” took me from point A to point B in terms of understanding dramaturgy; that is, storytelling on stage.

“Lifeboat” is in some ways the opposite of “Voir Dire.” It’s a short opera: three characters, with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet like “Voir Dire,” it takes place in a single setting: a lifeboat on the Mediterranean. By the time I composed “Lifeboat: in 2016, I better-understood opera as an art form–at least traditionally–and I think that I was interested in following the arc of characters in a more linear narrative, even if it was a short arc.

OW: How many changes or transformations musically did this opera overcome? What elements have changed the most from the initial idea?

MP: I think the most important change occurred after the 2014 workshop at Seagle Music Colony. At that time the opera had an important speaking role for the conductor, who played a sort of judge. Jason and I realized that we had to remove that part, and create a new bass-baritone roll, Judge Schumacher. That single character resolved some of the issues with the opera as a whole, and provided a direction for a new and I think more satisfying and effective ending. The Judge inhabits both the real- and the dream-courtroom, so he’s this character who is moving in and out of both realities. I love his musical language, this sort of beat-poet meets lounge-lizard thing, with musical textures that seem to come out of a David Lynch film.

OW: “Voir Dire” anticipated the major societal debates of the present day. While composing the opera were you already feeling the relevancy of the opera’s themes?

MP: Absolutely. In summer 2008 I saw what was going on in Steven’s Point, which was similar to what I was seeing in my hometown Grand Forks, North Dakota, as well as where I had been living in Southern Indiana, which is to say the increasing stratification of society along lines of race and class, a decline in the prospects for working-class people, even in more rural regions that were more culturally homogenous. Then the 2008 recession struck and put that situation into overdrive. I never had a lot of respect for the institution of the police to begin with, and then the smartphone starts allowing people to record all sorts of assaults and murders by law enforcement. The prison industrial complex had grown to maturation out of the 1990’s law-and-order politics. It was really a paradigm shift in the way the US was seeing itself and its criminal justice system.

OW: What can court cases tell us about the present world and human condition? What elements of it did you try to transmit to the audience?

MP: Right before he began working on the libretto in summer 2008, Jason wrote an email to a former professor that I think sums it up better than I could, with the erudite enthusiasm of a wordy 24-year-old writer: “If the eternal drama of Genesis is played out, over and over, like some Nietzschean can-can I’d breathlessly typed, its contemporary mise-en-scene is undoubtedly the county courtroom. Every homicide takes a page from Cain and Abel, every small business owner who committed some zoning violation and finds himself struck down by a thunderbolt of legalese shares a burden with builders at Babel, every shoplifter or trespasser or 14-year-old dead of an overdose after sneaking painkillers from his grandparents’ medicine cabinet is a chip off the oldest block, lunging after that same forbidden fruit as if he and Eve shared a rib.” So it’s a sort of microcosm of human failure and human fallibility.

OW: Did your view, understanding, and opinion of the court system change over the course of this experience?

MP: Sure. While I’ve been critical of the institution of law, I actually came out of it having a lot of respect and understanding for judges and lawyers, many of whom I think are decent and highly thoughtful people who are acutely aware of the ultimate shortcomings and futility of their profession to account for the depth of human suffering and experience which they are confronted with. In other words, they are doomed to fall short of justice, but they go out and do their best, with inadequate tools, to arrive at justice. I’m a little fatalistic as a person, so I can respect that, I think it takes courage and dedication and no small bit of humanity.

OW: Your collaboration with Jason Zencka is long-lasting and the author has called that relationship like a marriage, as in you pick whom you want to fight with. How would you describe your working relationship him? How did your collaboration evolve?

MP: Well, I think we’re still the same couple having the exact same fights over and over. We’re just wiser now, we care for each other more, and maybe take ourselves less seriously than we did at 24 or at 28.

OW: How much deciding power do you have in a staging of an opera, as its composer?

MP: I suppose it depends. David Gately and I had some good discussions about the opera. He was really interested in my thoughts and, more importantly, he shared his with me. I was so grateful and impressed that such an esteemed and experienced director took my work so seriously. So I trusted him completely.

OW: The genre of the performance is reminiscent of a circus, with different bits of comedy and drama, talking animals and magic, and the troupe of five actors each brings alive approximately six characters. What overall impression did you intend for the genre to have upon audiences?

MP: You know, the original version of the opera was composed for a particular ensemble; a vocal quartet. They performed new music, early opera, all sorts of stuff. The baritone had been a circus performer, so I created some roles–like the macaw parrot–with that in mind. The tenor and baritone were both excellent falsetto singers, and the four singers were very experienced with tight dissonant harmonies. That informed how I composed “The Mother’s Ghost.” Then when that production was cancelled, I was left with this piece that had been created for this completely unique ensemble.

OW: What surprised you when watching the opera? What did you absolutely not expect while composing the piece?

MP: Seeing the opera for the first time, I was amazed by all these aspects I hadn’t imagined; such brilliant staging, evocative and creative lighting, inventive costuming. I had sort of imagined those things in my own simple way, but each person in the team from the stage director to the lighting director brought their own creativity and expertise to the piece. So it was better than I could have ever imagined.

OW: What main thing did you take away from the experience of writing and now recording this opera?

MP: It would be the value of perseverance and believing in myself and my music. I could have compromised with the first ensemble and cut the Kalcek Trial like the soprano wanted, and the opera would have been performed in 2010 after all. But I knew that they were wrong about the trial scene, and to cut it was wrong. I didn’t back down, I chose to wait for another opportunity, and then to revise, and those were the right decisions. And the Kalcek Trial scene was truly a highlight of the opera: that scene more or less completely unchanged from when I composed it in 2008.



Behind the ScenesInterviews