(Credit: Josh Huskin)
As Tobias Picker puts it, “It’s not something that happens every day.”
The Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera is referring to the 2020 Grammy for “Best Opera Recording” bestowed on the 2014 recording of his opera “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on Roald Dahl’s 1970s children’s novel of the same name. The recording is also a nominee in the 2020 International Opera Awards, now scheduled for September 21 in Sadler’s Wells (Picker is the only living composer among the nominated recordings).
OperaWire recently spoke with Picker about the Grammy and his career as a composer.
OperaWire: What was your reaction to the recording winning a Grammy?
Tobias Picker: It felt like I got a Grammy, even though the recording got it. I composed that opera in the 1990s. It premiered in 1998 at LA Opera, but that original version with full orchestra wasn’t played again until Gil Rose did a semi-staged concert in Boston in 2014. It was recorded the next day, but it took a long time to raise the funds to get it released.
OW: Why do you think the original version has not been fully staged since the premiere?
TP: It’s expensive to produce—it has a large cast, and the orchestra has 55 players. It’s also a family opera. We thought we were inventing a new opera genre that would be appealing to children, their parents, and their grandparents—it certainly works as a family piece, and it was a success with 90% capacity audiences in the 3,156-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for eight performances.
But I have since learned that it is a stretch for many opera producers to think in terms of anything other than children’s opera or adult opera. Some do get that this is an age-inclusive piece, but economics have changed since 1998 when an orchestra of 55 was not considered large. Small orchestras and small casts are what opera companies need in order to survive today.
OW: Tell us about the creative team—the conductor, producer, and performers—and the process behind the recording. What do you think “clicked”?
TP: The conductor and producer of the recording is Gil Rose, who founded Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 1996 and has his own record label. It’s a very fine orchestra that plays contemporary music, and he’s made dozens of recordings and released them commercially. He’s a major force in contemporary music in America.
I had cast the singers for a new production with small orchestra for my company in San Antonio, in 2014 [he co-founded Opera San Antonio in 2010 and served as Artistic Director until 2015]. So, for that semi-staged concert and the recording three months later, Gil used the same singers—except for one, who wasn’t available—and rented the costumes from my production. The singers knew the piece cold.
OW: What appealed to you about becoming a composer?
TP: From the time I was born, music was in my household. When I was three or four years old, I was listening to Lotte Lenya sing Kurt Weill. When I was five or six, I was listening to Beethoven symphonies and Brahms concertos. That was my “food.” In those days, we were also exposed to contemporary opera on network television, more than once a year. I could see operas written for television on television. When I was eight, I wrote a letter to Gian Carlo Menotti to
say that I was planning to write operas, and he wrote me a nice letter back because my name, as a child, was Toby, and the central character of “The Medium” is Toby. In January 1963, my mother took me to a Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” [at the New York Philharmonic], and by coincidence, it was André Watts’ headline-making debut. When we left the concert, I felt like I was being torn from my home, leaving Philharmonic Hall. I wanted to be part of that world.
OW: Are you drawn to certain instruments or types of instrumentation?
TP: I’ve written in all genres, but lately I’ve devoted the majority of my compositional energy to writing operas because I love composing them, they take a lot more time, and I love the culture of everyone working together toward one common goal. So, I am writing for the most fascinating instrument of all, the human voice.
For the orchestration, I’m conservative, and I believe it’s still true what Rimsky-Korsakov said, that the strings are the backbone of the orchestra. I have certain approaches to the orchestra: more or less, a Beethoven-sized orchestra, not a lot of percussion—except in “Fantastic Mr. Fox”—winds, strings, brass, piano, harp, and timpani.
OW: You once said in an interview about your opera “An American Tragedy” that you’re “a tailor, not a composer.” What did you mean?
TP: I was referring to writing for singers—and writing for specific singers whose voices I knew and who, in some cases, I had written for before, such as Patricia Racette. I knew how to tailor the writing for their voices. If they knew me well, they asked me, “Can you take it in a little here and let it out a little there?” If I’m writing for someone, it’s nice to know what their money notes are.
OW: What attracts you to a subject?
TP: I’m fascinated by strong women and stories that involve strong women and how they interact with the world. I’m much more attracted to stories that are based on true events than on fiction. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is allegorical, but it has a message.
The other operas, except for “Dolores Claiborne,” which is very believable fiction, are all based on true stories. I’m attracted to real human beings. It’s a combination of loving the verismo style and finding that it makes for strong drama on stage.
OW: Have your preferences changed for which types of books you choose as source material?
TP: I’ve become more interested in more contemporary subjects, and more immediately relatable subjects than I used to be. My concept of “relevance” has evolved over the years because times change. I see the operas that I wrote in the past through the lens of “today”—they take on new contours.
OW: What is your process for composing music in relation to the writing of the libretto?
TP: I start with the story and libretto, and I work on librettos with the librettists. For my past operas, I never started writing the music until my librettos were finished.
With my newest opera, “Awakenings,” there wasn’t time [for me to wait]. So, my librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman, who is also my husband, stayed a scene ahead of me while I wrote the music for a previous scene. I had never done that before, but it was a wonderful way to work together, and we will do it again. He writes great lyrical prose, and has wit and subtlety, so I was responding to all of that in the music. But with another librettist, I would return to my previous process.
OW: Do you find areas in the source material which could become an aria or a duet or an ensemble?
TP: Yes, or in the libretto itself, the librettist may or may not think that something is an ensemble, and I will decide that it is.
OW: Is there a different mindset when writing an opera versus a ballet or other musical form? Is one harder to write than the other?
TP: A two-hour opera takes longer to write than a 30-minute piece for violin and piano, or a string quartet, or a piano concerto. As far as the approach, it’s very different writing abstract music that has no narrative. If you don’t have a specific story, you have to tell a musical story.
My most recent orchestral piece, “Opera Without Words,” is the first orchestral piece I’ve written without soloists in 20 years. I asked a writer friend to write a libretto for it, I used the words as a story to write the piece, then I took out all the words, which was the plan from the outset. It remains abstract music, so people can imagine their own stories.
OW: Looking back over the years, how have you developed as a composer?
TP: If I were a painter, I could take just the primary colors to create any color, but it could still be reduced to the primary colors. Compositionally, I get more and more control of my palette so that I can create any colors I want. Every opera is a new challenge, with new colors to create.