Q & A: Gregg Kallor on ‘Frankenstein’ and Making a Positive Difference in His First Opera
Arizona Opera makes its third world premiere with Mary Shelley’s heartfelt storyBy Jennifer Pyron
Gregg Kallor’s “Frankenstein” is commissioned by Arizona Opera and will make its world premiere in October 2023 with performances in Phoenix and Tucson.
This opera in two acts; adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel, brings to the surface humanity’s dire need for greater empathy. Composer and librettist Gregg Kallor in collaboration with director Sarah Meyers, dramaturg Cori Ellison and conductor Nicole Paiement bring to life Shelley’s voice and imagination in a most heartfelt way by asking deeper questions around “otherness.”
“Who’s the monster: a creature who is ‘other ‘ — or the person who can’t see past this difference, and acts hatefully?” asks Kallor.
OperaWire took the opportunity to connect with Gregg Kallor and learn more about how his creative process is positively influencing the opera world, one question at a time.
OperaWire: I want to better understand your creative process. Where did the initial spark of inspiration come from for you, when you first acquainted yourself with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein?” How do you get into the heart of your audience through “Frankenstein” as an opera?
Gregg Kallor: I love the way you framed that question. “Getting into people’s hearts.” This is exactly what I want to do.
I began writing a musical ghost story, in 2016, as a collaboration with the director of “Frankenstein,” Sarah Meyers. This was an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” We had a blast doing this project. When it was over, Sarah asked me if I had ever read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” I hadn’t read it yet and was hesitant at first because I didn’t want to fall down the gothic-maze. But, Sarah knows me very well. She suggested that I read it and chat with her afterwards.
“Frankenstein” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s epic, but also incredibly intimate at the same time. This story felt operatic in a way. I think because of maybe the very grand and the very personal parts of it. This book was a page turner. I couldn’t put it down and I thought about how this story not only speaks to me, but I think it’s clear how it has resonated with so many for over two hundred years. “Frankenstein” is a story I want to tell. I also want to stay as close to Mary Shelley’s adaptation of it as possible. This story reaches beyond backgrounds, geographic locations, ethnicities, and religions. This is about “otherness.” There’s not a single person alive who hasn’t experienced being perceived as “other.” It’s about what happens when there’s a lack of empathy and how we all experience this daily.
OW: Did you feel musical ideas started happening for you while reading “Frankenstein” or did you resonate with Shelley’s voice first and then allow yourself to process next steps from there?
GK: I think I just wanted to live in Mary Shelley’s world for a while and not try to impose anything. And now that you’ve asked this question, I’m thinking about the other text that I’ve said in songs. I think this has been pretty consistent across the board for me in my process. I need time to live with whatever world is being set up. Whether it’s a Dickinson poem or a novel. Ultimately, of course, I do impose something of myself when I compose, but this can’t be the first thing that I do. I want to let it all bake in the oven for a while and see what comes up naturally in response to it.
I read “Frankenstein” a couple of times before I even tried to write any music. But, of course, as I was reading I felt such a strong emotional connection to the story and to the character. So, something is happening as I’m reading, on some level. I also took notes and highlighted exactly which passages I wanted to preserve and what components I wanted to keep when creating a more linear version of it for the stage. As I’m doing this, I’m hearing Shelley’s words over and over in my head. I start hearing certain textures and some melodies while I live with it in this way. Then when I sit down and start to write, I respond to all that I am living with and approach my response from a deeper place.
Shelley actually wrote something in the introduction to the 1831 edition, where she says “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” She is speaking about how one can create something new by using what is already there. This project, for me, is one where I am already standing on the shoulders of giants. Composers, authors, and librettists. I’m taking what I’ve already gleaned from them and my own experiences of writing, performing, and composing in order to synthesize everything and honor Shelley’s novel.
OW: I also feel that Mary Shelley comes from an extremely tender place when she writes. The chaos that she does gather and use throughout her building process of the story, and how she builds the Creature, based on the internal/external happenings, mirrors this through line of tenderness. How do you feel through your creative process that you were able to evoke this same level of tenderness?
GK: This is another great question. It is tender. And this is so often overlooked when people think about this story. But, that’s really what it is. The tenderness that Shelley writes from is also from the lack of tenderness that she was shown throughout her life. She and her mother both had such a tragic existence. I think she does a brilliant job inserting this into her story so that the reader gleans that, but this was also written during a time when most of the reading audience were men. So, she had to write in such a way that the tenderness was there, but it didn’t alienate her readers. She is brilliant.
In terms of how I tried to get this tenderness across in the music, I just took my cues from her. Really. It’s very important to me that the Creature comes across as the thoughtful and sensitive being that he is. A lot of his music, I just wanted to be incredibly soulful. Gentle when he is reflective. And of course, when there are moments of anger that have to be reflected as well. Lyrical and heartfelt in his response to the cruel world around him. But, none of the characters in this story are one-dimensional. This has been one of my greatest gripes with so many of the adaptations. It becomes very black and white, but the Creature is not a perfect being. Obviously, he becomes murderous. And yet, the context that leads him to this is key. He is a very sympathetic character.
Viktor is also not just a mad scientist, or this evil genius. He is very human. His initial motivation, I think we can all understand it. His mother died from scarlet fever and that motivated him to create a being that is impervious to disease. I think we are all acquainted with the lengths at which we would go to save a loved one. Victor fell prey to obsession and he isolated himself. He had no counsel and no contact with loved ones. He physically isolated himself in a room he calls his “laboratory of filthy creation.” I worry now that we are all isolating ourselves behind our screens, our phones. In this way, rage is easier, obsession is easier. If we don’t have colleagues, family, friends, counsel, or just another perspective, we all have the potential to be a “Victor.”
I think having the overarching goal of creating tenderness in the music helps me to arrive there in the way that I set the vocal lines and in the way that I’ve orchestrated. There also has to be some pain in the music to reflect some circumstances. But, there also just has to be tenderness throughout so that we feel what the characters are feeling. We experience what the characters experience. This is our way into their world.
OW: This is leading me into my next thought about how Mary Shelley created Victor and the Creature as these male energies to deliver her female voice during a time when female writers were not valued as equals to male writers. I’m curious to know how your perspective as a composer has changed while working with this story and most specifically with Shelley’s voice. What transformed within you along the way while taking this story to a bigger stage and developing it into an opera?
GK: I have transformed the most through my collaborations and also through conversations I’ve had along the way. My wife gave me the gift of “The New Annotated Frankenstein,” co-edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao. The literary insights, historical contexts and visual art pairings are brilliant. It adds depth to my understanding of the novel and the layers embedded in it.
I reached out to Professor Wolfson, who teaches at Princeton, and she graciously invited me to sit in on a whole bunch of her “Frankenstein” seminars. She is an engaging teacher and the more I sat and listened, the more I understood the novel. My approach to it expanded. I wouldn’t say it altered my fundamental approach to the piece, but it did help me to see the subtleties and nuances which I then applied to how I created the personas of the characters and even some of their music. Professor Wolfson has been super helpful to me and my growth through this process. Equally helpful is my director, Sarah Meyers, and dramaturg, Cori Ellison. They have been my guides, supporters and champions. They are both so smart and thoughtful. I’m new to this field, and so when they ask insightful and probing questions, it helps clarify my thinking. They often have great ideas that I have not considered or that I could develop further.
Learning to balance input from those that I deeply respect and honing in on my instincts has been part of my evolution. Both as a composer and as a human. It’s also amazing how “Frankenstein” resonates and has these tentacles that reach into many different directions, such as criminal justice, disabilities, single motherhood, otherness, empathy, and even environmentalism. It’s been fascinating for me to connect with different people in all these different spheres and see how the story relates to them and how it resonates in our lives today. I want to take what it is that speaks to all of us on a very fundamental level and put that into the music.
OW: I love this idea of ongoing questioning and thinking about what it is that connects all of us at a fundamental level. I also enjoy hearing about how you work closely with your collaborators and synthesize with them. Sometimes new works can come across as detached because they reach too far with their ideas. They can lose their sense of grounding and balance if too much ‘newness’ is the focus. Your work, “Frankenstein,” goes back to a story written by a young female writer who was experiencing a lot of turmoil in her own life and made the choice to get her voice out. It’s interesting how you chose this new opera as a way to get your own voice out. How are you staying true to your core purpose for making this opera as you transition into a bigger stage and audience?
GK: The scale and scope of an opera is bigger than anything I’ve ever done. But, it’s still music, which I’ve done my whole life. My approach to it hasn’t been fundamentally different from any other piece I’ve written, in that it’s living with an idea, allowing some internal response to it and then working on it and refining it until it hopefully speaks to people.
Throughout my creative process, my work process hasn’t changed that much but I have made a point to reach out to others and make sure my approach in making an opera is the right way. I start by writing a draft and then I have to get together with performers and play it. We only know what works and what doesn’t by getting in a room making a mess. Our first piano and vocal workshop in New York was a week long. Sarah Meyers, Cori Ellison, eight singers, a wonderful pianist and the conductor Nicole Paiement were all there. It was amazing how all three people running the ship were women. It felt right with this project and all of these ideas were pouring in. Nicole knows how a conductor has to know everything about everything. She has such a vast knowledge and she loves new works. She was able to really pin-point things for me. Sarah is coming at it with all of her director knowledge and Cori with all of her experience as a dramaturg. She is a philosopher queen.
I was also very eager for input from all of the singers and the pianist. Everybody is coming to the music from a different place and they’ll see different things in it and be able to offer guidance specific to what they’re working on and in context of the whole. “Frankenstein” is stronger now than it has ever been because of this group effort. It’s better than what it would be if I were alone in a room composing all by myself. The key for me is to remember over the course of this process to not get too attached or stuck on any one thing so that it prevents me from changing it if necessary. On the flipside, I have to remember to not throw out the things that are essential to what makes this piece, this piece.
I’ve really been practicing being a student myself through my process. How I respond to what people are saying. How I respond to my emotional state over the course of five and a half years. Balancing my external life with artistic things. Asking myself if I’m being objective enough. Or, do I need to walk away and come back to something. I can work 18 to 19 hour days sometimes, but I don’t recommend it. It’s hard to come out of this state, but at some point one can’t see clearly so I need a little time to come back with fresh eyes and ears. It’s important to keep a clear perspective.
OW: What do you hope happens most for your debut in October? What do you want to celebrate?
GK: I want everybody who experiences this, both the audience and performers, to feel moved in some way. However “Frankenstein” speaks to them, I hope that we can get them to feel something enough to be removed from the chaos of their own lives in order to connect on an internal level. I hope people can walk away from this with a sense of urgent need for more empathy. If they can start to think about how they are seen as “other” and how they see other people in this way. Just to think about it for a second. Maybe it will affect a relationship or an encounter at some point moving forward. This is my greatest hope.