Q & A: Nicolas Repetto on Composing the Music for ‘The Sound of Identity’

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Nicolas Repetto)

On June 1, “The Sound of Identity” will be released on digital platforms and demand. The documentary follows the baritone, Lucia Lucas, on her historical performances of “Don Giovanni” at the Tulsa Opera.

Having premiered at the OutShine Film Festival, the movie went on to win the Programmers Award For Excellence and scored rave reviews from critics around the U.S. and U.K. Directed by James Kicklighter, the film saw the director reunite with some of his collaborators including composer Nicolas Repetto, who composed the music for the film.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Repetto about the scoring of the film, opera, and Lucia Lucas.

OperaWire: When you first saw “The Sound of Identity,” what was your first reaction, and what were your immediate thoughts for the music?

Nicolas Repetto: When I saw “The Sound of Identity” for the first time, I remember saying out loud “is this a documentary?” It was a simple shot of Lucia Lucas–the subject of the film–under stage lighting, but the lighting created such beautiful contrasts and illuminated Lucia in a dramatic, but very powerful and real way. The imagery felt like something out of a narrative film, but with the realness of a documentary. I don’t think I’ve seen this in a documentary film before. James Kicklighter, the director of the film, really did a brilliant job.

Those initial frames planted the seed for this “Identity” motif–something I heard in my head as a distant solo violin playing very fast arpeggiated bow strokes, representing the drama created by the contrast in light and shadow on Lucia’s angles and facial features. The film’s imagery really provided me the foundation I needed to start writing the score organically from an emotional place.

OW: Did you have time to speak with Lucia Lucas before you got to write the music?

NR: Not initially, no. James and the producers were the intermediaries between Lucia and any other member of the creative team. Later on, I did have the pleasure of being on a panel for the OUTshine Film Festival with Lucia, as well as James and producer Russ Kirkpatrick. We discussed the film and the process of shooting it from beginning to end after we discovered “The Sound of Identity” won the Programmers Award for Excellence at the OUTshine Film Festival in Miami, FL. After that, Lucia and I became Facebook friends. She’s just a fantastic and fascinating human being with such innate talent.

OW: Were there any operatic ideas when you were composing the music? How do you combine the operatic nature of this project with a musical score for a film?

NR: James and I had a conversation about this very topic. We discussed the fact that nothing could top Mozart nor his music since it is universally agreed that he is a genius — so we wouldn’t be incorporating it into the main film score. The score that I realized straddled more neo-romanticism, but there was room to incorporate certain dramatic moments from the music of “Don Giovanni” and weave it into a musical tapestry that straddles both score and diegetic music during a few transitional moments, like during the Tulsa Opera Opening Night.

One reason for doing this is that James could only use a limited amount of music from the actual Don Giovanni performance that Lucia sang on due to Union rules, so it was my job, with the help of my music team, to take Mozart’s music and weave it into transitional elements that fit certain scenes. There were a few other moments in the latter half of the film during certain shots of the opera performance where transitions between the actual performance and our Mozart arrangements had to align. The result was a seamless incorporation of Mozart’s music recorded during the film score recording session and then adding some room adjustments during the final mix to complete the sonic illusion. We were all very happy with the end result.

OW: Tell me about your work with James Kicklighter. You have worked with him before. What is his process?

NR: Well, let me preface this by saying that James is one of the most hardworking young directors out there. He’s incredibly organized and radiates an extraordinary amount of energy about each project. He knows the subject matter and characters inside and out. I think that is the sign of a great filmmaker. Knowing your subject matter, the characters, the narrative, and the story is important since at the end of the day — a really great story is what we’re all trying to tell. Another thing I love about James is that he rarely temps his films as edits. In other words, he does not add a “temporary soundtrack” to his film.

He brings me in early enough in the scoring process, usually during pre-production or even in production, to preview initial cuts or edits of the film. We did this for “The Sound of Identity” and a few other films in our portfolio. From this, I am able to create a bit of “pre-score” which means that I can try out thematic ideas or motifs and see if they work. This is especially useful if we are in a time crunch, which is mostly the case with today’s modern filmmaking and digital editing. James really makes the scoring process incredibly delightful but pushes me as well, which is great because as a creative and artist, you want to be challenged to do your best work. I think with the score of The Sound of Identity, we created something really special that hopefully resonates with everyone in an intimate and emotional way.

OW: How did this film differ from your previous work with him?

NR: I think with each film, both James and I grow as creative individuals. For this film in particular, I could sense a tonal shift in terms of his approach. It felt more personal, more intimate, and contained a maturity beyond his years. This film is about Lucia Lucas, yes — but it is also about James, and every other artist out there in that it mirrors what we experience as creatives and artists. It doesn’t shy away from the struggles we encounter. It faces them head on, showing the good and the ugly. It’s in that honesty that I think separates a good filmmaker from a great one. This is James’ most personal film yet and I’m glad I could be on this journey with him.

OW: Do you find there is anything similar with opera and film scoring? If so, what?

NR: There are an enormous number of similarities, and here are few: first and foremost, opera is a storytelling medium, which includes a built-in soundtrack similar to what we do in film scoring. It also contains a libretto similar to what a script does. The singers are also actors and just like in film, there are moments when they speak and the music supports the visuals onstage to heighten the drama. The first few operas dealt with stories from myths and legends in order to wow the audiences of the time, similar to what Marvel films are doing to wow audiences today. The basic premise is still the same — both are there to tell a story and entertain audiences.

OW: What did you learn from writing the music to this film?

NR: I’ve learned that “less is more,” as well as learning to embrace who I am as an individual, including all my strengths and shortcomings. In terms of the former, the film had incredibly touching moments where a heavy-handed approach would have been terribly inappropriate. It needed a more intimate approach. Hence, less is more. The simplest gestures were usually the ones that drew the most impact.

But there were also moments where the film opened up into a grander scale with beautiful wide shots of Tulsa and its Art Deco-inspired architecture that helped inspire a bolder approach musically for those moments. The film is also a documentary, so the music, in addition to supporting the information given to the viewer, had to support the more emotional hit points as well. I worked to seamlessly integrate the informational aspects, as well as to support the more intimate, emotional moments. For the latter, embracing one’s identity is crucial in forming the foundation of who we are, especially in the creative world.

Personally, I love exploring aspects of my Argentine roots, especially the rhythms from the tangos I love and other music from my formative years. Some of these elements were used in the score for “The Sound of Identity.” I think using those experiences brings an authenticity and honesty to the work and invites audiences to relate to who I am as a musician and composer.

OW: What are some of your next projects?

NR: I’m currently scoring an epic fantasy film called “Empire Queen: The Golden Age of Magic,” which is an adventure fantasy movie filled with magic, wizards, dragons, and other lively characters, all created by the amazing director and creator, Chris Dane Owens. The film is based on a series of music videos Chris released about 10 years ago. He embarked on a journey to complete this feature film and to hopefully pitch it as a family-friendly television series.

I’ve also written preliminary music for James Kicklighter’s next feature documentary, “The American Question,” which tackles value systems around the various parts of the U.S. and abroad, while observing them through the lens of the past and the future.

And finally, I have the indie horror/thriller, “Spider,” directed by Desmon Heck, a wonderful director I met through my social media channels. We both had coffee and hit it off. Desmon has given me carte blanche to experiment with some unique sonic ideas for this film score, so I’m excited for that and the opportunity to work with him. Lastly, I’m speaking with several composer agencies who have an interest in representing me as an artist. I’m looking forward to continuing my conversations with them and seeing which direction I will go. Thank you again for having me!


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