Q & A: Composer Steven Mackey on His New Opera ‘Moon Tea’

By Greg Waxberg
Credit: Kah Poon

Not “afternoon tea,” but “aftermoon tea” is the subject of a new 25-minute opera by GRAMMY-winning composer Steven Mackey and Obie Award–winning librettist Rinde Eckert. Composed in under two months, it premieres June 10 as part of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s “New Works, Bold Voices Lab,” which supports contemporary storytelling by American composers and librettists.

Artistic Director James Robinson “believed Steven Mackey would be a fantastic fit for the series and bring a uniquely creative and compelling voice,” according to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s Press & Communications Manager Chantal Incandela.

“Aftermoon tea” from the opera’s libretto refers to the historic October 1969 event at Buckingham Palace when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, met the Apollo 11 astronauts after they landed on the moon in July. The visit was part of the astronauts’ celebratory tour of 24 countries over 38 days, arranged by the White House. As fate would have it, the opera’s premiere comes not long after the deaths of Michael Collins and Prince Philip.

They are two of the five characters, the others being the Queen, Neil Armstrong, and Janet Armstrong. Composed as an opera buffa, “Moon Tea” consists of five scenes with monologues, a duet, and a final quintet. OperaWire spoke with Steven Mackey about the inspiration for the opera, how true to history it is, his musical influences, and how he chose the opera’s genre.

OperaWire: Why did the moon landing captivate you?

Steven Mackey: My father worked for the U.S. government and was posted in England in the early ’60s, when I was starting school. Around this time, John Glenn had just orbited the earth and I have a distinct memory of walking in London with my parents and people stopping us on the street and saying, “You’re Americans—congratulations on your John Glenn.” That got me very curious about who John Glenn was and what he did, so my parents explained it to me, and we watched some news coverage. Around this time, Kennedy was saying that, by the end of the decade, we will land a man on the moon. At that very impressionable age of six, I was suddenly attuned to space travel, astronauts, and the idea of going to the moon. When I was 12, in sixth grade, I presented my big oral science project on how the moon landing would actually work. Two years later, the moon landing happened. And in college, I started as a Physics major. The way science works, the way mathematics works, and the pondering of all the calculations that had to take place, to get from here to there . . . it was miraculous.

OW: Did living in the U.K. influence how you depict the characters?

SM: I probably spent more time thinking about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip than any other six-year-old American boy because I was [in England] and they were in the news. It helped me depict Janet because of my mother’s reaction to the Queen—she was enamored with the ritual, the fanfare. My mother always imagined that, if she had a chance to meet the Queen, the Queen would really like her and they’d be good friends. It also helped me depict the Queen because I found the Queen very likable, having, as a six-year-old, seen her on a horse and as part of impressive pageantry.

OW: How did you get from physics to composing?

SM: I was thinking I’d be a scientist, and I was pretty good at physics in college. But I was not a very practical physicist. I was more of a theoretical physicist. So, I thought, “What am I going to do with a physics degree?” Meanwhile, I couldn’t wait to play the guitar every day and, to check the box of an arts requirement, I took a music appreciation course. Up to that point, I’d been a rock guitar player. But for the first time in my life, I heard classical music and opera. This was music in which composers were trying to distill all of life’s experiences into a listening event. I thought, “That’s what I should do.” I went to the head of the Music Department and said I wanted to be a composer and changed my major to Music.

OW: Which pieces made an impression on you in that course?

SM: Monteverdi madrigals and late Beethoven string quartets, especially the scherzo in the last string quartet, when a wrong note interrupts everything. It was an awkward rhythm that knocked me off my seat, and I thought, “Wow, I want to do something where a single note can be so powerful.” “The Rite of Spring” floored me. Also, partly the piece and partly the instructor’s explanation—a piece by George Crumb with a marimba roll that sounds like an organ. I asked, “How did he know it was going to sound that cool?” The instructor said, “He’s a composer—it’s his job to know.” I also heard “The Marriage of Figaro,” attended a student production, and went to the San Francisco Opera’s production. That opera is big on my horizon of influences.

OW: How do you describe your music for this opera, and have you been influenced by other composers in writing it?

SM: [I was influenced by] Mozart—18th century comic opera. Also, John Dowland and the Elizabethan madrigal [Mackey’s path from physics to composing included lute playing because he thought he might direct an “early music” ensemble]. My own musical language is influenced by Igor Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin. I am really driven by vivid characterizations, more than process or craft. I really enjoy writing theatrical pieces, picking out the characters, and figuring out their music.

OW: Why did you choose the opera buffa style?

SM: It’s an homage to Mozart and “The Marriage of Figaro.”

OW: How did you approach writing in this style?

SM: It comes naturally. My music has always tried to describe a wide range of emotion, just like in opera buffa. There are laughs, but “Marriage of Figaro” is a serious class study, and there’s some beautiful, heartbreaking music, and a wide range of human experience.

OW: Why did you want to write an opera about the meeting between the astronauts and the Queen and Prince?

SM: Given the invitation to write a short opera, this story came to mind. From a practical level, it was appropriate to the time frame I was given, and a nice escape from a rough year. It’s a light, comic piece with a lot of beauty, as I think there’s beauty in the moon. Its ultimate goal is escapism—let’s just revel in art and the comedy of our human foibles.

OW: You have said that you love “fish out of water” stories. Why do you love them?

SM: It’s something about the way they reveal the arbitrariness, at times, of culture and etiquette. They mark how time goes by, like the movie “Back to the Future,” which I like a lot, where you see how out-of-place the fashion of one era is in another [traveling in time from the 1980s to the 1950s]. It’s just funny. That’s why I love this story of the astronauts visiting the royal family—they’re trying to navigate the protocols of Buckingham Palace, while the Queen and Prince are themselves amazed to be meeting these history-making men.

OW: How true to the real-life meeting at Buckingham Palace is your opera?

SM: It’s true but very exaggerated. It is true that Michael Collins was preoccupied with protocol and was really concerned about not turning his back on the Queen. He was going down the stairs backward because he was a little bit ahead of the Queen and didn’t want to turn his back. He tripped. In “Moon Tea,” he trips and breaks a vase. There’s also a duet between Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet. It’s true that Neil was sick and it’s also true that Janet had no sympathy, that they weren’t going to miss the opportunity to meet the Queen. I had to extrapolate and imagine what that hotel room dialogue was like.

OW: How did it feel to write the opera in under two months?

SM: It was great to feel that pressure again, the pressure of a deadline. Even if I had more time, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. It doesn’t suffer from a lack of time. It benefits from the ecstasy of adrenaline.

OW: Please describe your collaboration with Rinde Eckert.

SM: We met almost 30 years ago when we wrote an opera called “Ravenshead,” a two-act monodrama. We wrote an oratorio, “Dreamhouse.” We have a rock band together, “Big Farm.” We wrote another experimental music theater piece, “Slide.” Given the tight timeline for “Moon Tea,” he was my “go to.” He supplied the text, and I wrote the music, but there are places where I needed a more explosive consonant so I substituted my own word and he would okay it. Or I needed 30 seconds more [of singing], I’d write based on his style, and we’d craft it together.

OW: How did you approach writing an opera that’s meant to be performed by a socially distant cast?

SM: It’s in five scenes where they’re all singing independently, thinking about their individual points-of-view and preoccupations—Philip imagining that he could have been part of history as a pilot, Neil consumed with his cold, Janet looking forward to meeting the Queen, the Queen awestruck by tales of adventure, and Michael resentful about not stepping on the moon. In the big final quintet, they’re all singing together—I’m the most excited about the finale.


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