Q & A: Gregory Spears on Faith, Religion, ‘The Righteous’ & Santa Fe Opera

By Francisco Salazar

On July 13, the Santa Fe Opera is set to present the world premiere of “The Righteous” by Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith. The opera explores the tension between genuine faith and the fraught world of 1980s politics. Spears’ eighth opera represents the 19th world premiere for the company.

Over the years, Spears’ acclaim as a contemporary composers has grown with his “Fellow Travelers” becoming one of the most performed contemporary operas. Over the years, Spears has seen works performed by The New York Philharmonic, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, Cincinnati Opera, and Houston Grand Opera.

OperaWire spoke to the composer about his latest opera, faith, religion, and premiering a work at the Santa Fe Opera.

OperaWire: How did you come across the subject matter of this work and how did the process with Tracy K. Smith begin?

Gregory Spears: Tracy and I both think about God a lot, along with history, land, and the story of this country. From there we talked about developing an original opera exploring the tension between genuine faith and the fraught world of politics of the 1980s. As our director Kevin Newbury likes to say, the 1980s is the origin story for the creative team — that’s the decade when we all grew up.

OW: Religion, faith, and politics are huge issues today in the world. Your opera “Fellow Travelers” talks about repression and “the Lavender Scare,” which led to witch hunts for the LGTBQ+ community. Today faith groups and politicians continue to bring out similar discourse, creating divisions related to the LGBTQ+ community. What discourse do you seek to bring out in this work, and why do you think it’s important to tell these types of stories today in such a divisive environment?

GS: In both “Fellow Travelers” and “The Righteous,” I’m interested in characters who grapple with faith in good faith. Our media diet can keep us steeped in crisis and division, and in some ways, we can track the origin of that to the 1980s, so it’s also an interesting place to return to when looking at characters who are fighting through that and searching for self-knowledge, or even leaning into uncertainty. I think we over-valorize certainty these days. Certainty can feel good, like a sort of straightforward integrity. But so often conviction based in certainty can become a form of self-righteousness, no matter what you believe. That divisiveness you mention can feed that. However, faith can also give communities tools to embrace uncertainty and unknowingness, which is one reason why using religion to divide, as you mention, can be so unfortunate.

OW: Did you learn something new about religion and faith as you were working on this opera, and what were your biggest takeaways?

GS: I barely know where to begin! I’ll start by saying, that I think we all draw meaning and purpose from the unseen forces that structure our world, whether through religion or through other institutions. Communion can be found in a church, but also in civic structures, in a women’s shelter, in a courtroom; I would also say I’ve thought a lot about how this piece explores the tension between contemplation and action. As soon as we take action in the world, we start making mistakes; we fail, again and again. Perhaps belief in something bigger than us can help us move forward through life with some sort of grace and humility, always keeping in mind how incomplete our understanding of our world is in the end. I like to think that many of our characters are on that path, which is what makes me so interested in them and their inner lives. I’m also interested in how our characters often fail to know themselves.

OW: Tell me about working with Tracy K. Smith and the villanelle. How did it inform the vocal writing and how did it inform the way you wrote the opera?

GS: While the majority of the libretto unfolds like a play, Tracy wrote a handful of arias that take the form of a villanelle — two such arias bookend the piece, and function like prayers or Psalms sung by David. There’s a lot of formal symmetry in the score reflecting the kind of repetitions that characterize that form, both the small scale and large scale: in arias, in complete scenes, within each act, and over the course of the evening. I’ve always thought of opera as the reconciling of the circular forms of music (A-B-A; I-V-I) with the more linear, cause-and-effect forms of drama. So it’s inspiring to have those musical symmetries reappear in Tracy’s two prayer-like arias for David, written as villanelles.

OW: The Righteous has been described as an aria-driven work. What does that mean and does it go back to traditional forms of opera?

GS: Rather than think of the aria as something traditional, I actually think of it as something radical. The aria speaks to what makes opera so valuable, strange, and unique — one singer captivating a huge space, transforming text and the human experience into a musical monologue. Nothing in film or in theater can compare. I also think opera should center on singers and singing, and the aria is the place to do that. It also allows us to peek into our characters’ conversations with the beyond.

OW: Tell me about premiering an opera at the Santa Fe Opera. Was it something you ever imagined?

GS: I think any opera composer dreams of premiering something at Santa Fe, to work in that theater and at such a high artistic level. But it’s also an honor to be part of their longer tradition of developing new works with great care.

OW:  How does the writing process differ from your previous operas? Does your approach change as you are writing an opera, or is it similar?

GS: It’s both similar and different. This piece is on an even larger scale, so having the big orchestra and chorus has been a particular thrill. I love writing choral music, so “The Righteous” lets me bring that part of my practice onto the stage.

OW: What do you hope audiences take away from your work?

GS: I hope they recognize the complexities and paradoxes of real life in this piece. And I hope that in the end, they care about these characters as much as I do.


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