The Meaning of Life & Death – How John Young & Alan Olejniczak Reconnected to Create ‘Death of Ivan Ilych’ for Opera Orlando

By Greg Waxberg
(Photo Courtesy of Opera Orlando)

The canon of operas based on Russian literature is expanding with a new entrant that will receive its world premiere by Opera Orlando this week: the one-act chamber opera “Death of Ivan Ilych,” based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella. Composed by John Young, with the English libretto by his former singing colleague Alan Olejniczak (oh-leh-NEE-check), it finds its origins in a Google search . . . and in Young’s own brush with death.

Olejniczak and Young sang together in Atlanta in the early 2000s, in church and at The Atlanta Opera, as chorus members in “Tosca,” “La Bohème,” “Aida,” and “Der Fliegende Holländer.” Then, their paths diverged: Young to New York City and Olejniczak to San Francisco.

Sadly, Young’s singing career ended because of cancer; he was treated for a tumor in his nasal cavity that caused nerve damage in his mouth and throat. He became so depressed that one of his former professors from Georgia Southern University, where he majored in Oboe Performance and minored in Piano, made this suggestion: channel your energy into writing a piece for oboe and piano that expresses your journey through cancer. The result was Young’s three-movement “The Journey.”

In San Francisco, Olejniczak became a playwright; he had majored in Theater but never envisioned himself as a writer. That changed when he attended a table reading of a play and wondered, “How hard can this be?”

It proved difficult, “but I work with trusted dramaturges and directors as part of writing practice.” Opera libretti came next, and he found that fewer words work better when crafting text for singers.

The Google Search

When Young and Olejniczak reconnected around the same time of “The Journey,” they decided to create an opera. Young supplied his music and Olejniczak was able to supply the literature.

It turned out that, at one point when he lacked ideas for a libretto, he had Googled “50 great novellas of the world,” which turned up a list that included Tolstoy’s story.

“It was one of the only novellas on the list that had not been turned into an opera. That made me kind of nervous, but I thought, ‘It’s a classic, the story is short and intimate, it has great economy—few characters and one setting—and it has universal themes of finding the meaning in life and death.’”

He also said, “If there’s one composer who understands what it means to face mortality, John would.”

Then, given opera’s overall expense and especially the current pandemic, Young and Olejniczak agreed that a one-act opera with a small cast would give an opera company more reasons to be able to stage a piece. They decided on a cast of six (including one non-singing child) and a maximum time of 80 minutes.

As part of his adaptation, Olejniczak added moments that do not exist in Tolstoy’s work. “One of the things Alan did so beautifully,” Young said, “was to write in some backstory to help soften the story, so it’s not so negative—like how Ivan and his wife met and fell in love.”

The opera is scored for string quintet, oboe (representing Ivan), and piano, keeping the two instruments from “The Journey” and adding strings for, in Young’s words, “different colors. With strings, you can add those colors where needed. I’m a romantic at heart. I love music that can touch you. I wrote it how I would want to hear it. I put myself in Ivan’s place and tried to write music that really hit the core of what was happening in the scene.”

Sharing the Experience

Opera Orlando Executive Director Gabriel Preisser is looking forward to sharing the new opera with the company’s audiences, particularly because of the music. “A big element of why we jumped into this project is that we feel the score and subject matter are very accessible, that it has a universal message of our mortality.”

Young and Olejniczak hope listeners take away new thoughts about their lives. “It took me going through cancer to realize that I took stuff for granted,” Young said. “I am now happier than I’ve ever been because I’m doing what I want to do and what makes me happy. I’m living my life to the fullest because I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. Reevaluate what you’re doing in your life and do what you can to make yourself happy.”

Olejniczak added, “During the pandemic, we’re rethinking our lives and asking, ‘Am I living a life that’s authentic?’ Find pleasure and value in life.”

“Death of Ivan Ilych” will be performed in partnership with Thompson Street Opera Company on February 19 and 21 at the Orlando Museum of Art. Gabriel Preisser said that rigorous COVID-19 protocols are in place for the company and 50-member audience. The cast includes Sean C. Stork as Ivan Ilych and Adriana Nieves as Praskovya, with members of the Alterity Chamber Orchestra conducted by Deniz Uz. Gabriel Preisser’s brother, Grant Preisser, is directing the Orlando production in February and the Thompson Street Opera Company production in September.


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