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Composer Dominick Argento reflects on his work and the state of opera

by Graydon Royce

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

11 November 2009

 

MINNEAPOLIS — Dominick Argento didn’t see this coming.

“I’ve been sitting around waiting for ‘Casanova’ to open on Broadway,” the composer said. “Artie Masella (a Hal Prince associate) thought it would make a terrific musical, but he hasn’t found the angels yet.”

So Argento will comfort himself with a revival of the opera that he wrote 25 years ago for Minnesota Opera. “Casanova’s Homecoming” was commissioned for the opening of St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in 1985, enjoyed success at New York City Opera, won the 1986 National Institute for Music Theatre Award and survived translations into German and Italian.

“And then it faded into the distance,” the composer said, more amused than wistful. At 82, Argento remains vigorously articulate and full of unvarnished opinions. He looks back with a refreshing absence of sentimentality on a career that includes a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy, and he speaks with gruff eloquence about what passes for opera these days.

In 1997, Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Mike Steele referred to Argento as the “eminence grise” of Twin Cities composers — the occasion being Argento’s 70th birthday and his pending retirement after 39 years as professor of music at the University of Minnesota.

Twelve years later, Argento is still at work. At the recent meet-and-greet for “Casanova’s Homecoming,” for example, he encouraged singers to phone him (“I’m in the book”) if they had any problems with notes in the score.

“He still feels he has something more to say,” said VocalEssence director Philip Brunelle, who frequently has commissioned Argento. “His life is composing.”

Argento had just returned from his annual pilgrimage to Florence, Italy, when he welcomed a visitor into his Minneapolis home.

Unassuming from the outside, this manse opens up with a richness of soul and tradition. Framed photographs and magic-marker autographs line the back stairway: Tyrone Guthrie, Tanya Moiseiwitch, Doug Campbell, Michael Moriarty, Neville Marriner, Beverly Sills, Peter Pears and Janet Baker, who sang the song cycle that won him the 1974 Pulitzer Prize.

Reaching his upstairs studio, Argento — ever the schoolteacher — says, “You’re going to write, so go ahead and sit at the desk.” He chooses a creaky rocker for himself and instructs his visitor to speak up. “I’m half deaf.”

This new “Casanova” came about a couple of years ago when Kevin Smith, Minnesota Opera president, asked Argento to lunch. The company has committed itself to new work, which includes contemporary revivals.

The 1984 premiere drew the attention of Sills, who immediately wanted to take “Casanova” to City Opera. Argento was thrilled, until she mentioned surtitles. Since he had written in English, he thought surtitles “would be an admission that I don’t know how to set the language.”

Nonetheless, Sills won and “Casanova” was a hit. The sheer size of the piece (28 roles) however, has limited its utility since.

“Unless a company has a good young-artists program or a lot of local talent to draw from, this can be a very expensive piece,” said James Robinson of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which is co-producing this revival, with Robinson directing.

Robinson’s association goes deep with Argento (“Jim was a composition student of mine; I helped him become a conductor, not a composer”) and their bond was cemented in 2001 when Robinson helped his mentor redeem the painful 1977 flop “Miss Havisham’s Fire.”

“That show came about when Beverly Sills asked me to write her a work that would make her feel like a wrung-out rag by the time she was finished with it,” Argento said.

He produced two 80-minute acts in which Miss Havisham goes from a 16-year-old jilted bride to an 80-year-old harridan. The effect was lost when Sills had to withdraw for health reasons and Argento was resigned that it would never see the light of day again. Robinson, though, suggested a revival nine years ago and Argento reluctantly agreed, slimming the piece down. Critics loved the new version.

“He’s thrilled that Jim is staging ‘Casanova,’” said Brunelle. “He feels he’s in good hands.”

Argento feels opera must be written for the voice (“Give the singer something to sing”), which seems obvious but is often not the case. He began his career thinking he’d write for orchestras but “I fell in love with a soprano 51 years ago and wrote songs for her.”

That was his wife, Carolyn Bailey, who died in 2006 and inspired his “Evensong: Of Love and Angels,” sung this fall by Brunelle’s VocalEssence.

“He is one of the few composers who I have encountered equally at ease composing for voice and orchestra,” said Brunelle, who walked into Argento’s classroom in 1961. “For singers, it is a blend of contemporary and yet romantic.”

Argento believes operas have gotten thinner over the past 25 years, moving toward Broadway musicals or searching for name and story recognition in familiar titles, such as Andre Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire.”

“A libretto has to be written especially to be an opera, it can’t be an adaptation,” he said. “Adding music to ‘Streetcar’ is just asking for it.”

Asked about John Adam’s “Nixon in China,” Argento said he listened to “as much as I could stand. I guess I don’t get him but I do appreciate it as a serious effort to create a piece of art.” He walked out of “Sweeney Todd” when it was on Broadway because he felt it pretentious and tailored to be a commercial success.

“One doesn’t write opera to make money,” he said. “You do it to make a statement.”

Lastly, Argento responded to what is purported to be the latest trend in opera — singers who can act. Good acting has always been necessary, he said. Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade (whose recording of Argento’s “Casa Guidi” with the Minnesota Orchestra won a 2004 Grammy), Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw are all good actors, he said, because “they sing with their brains; you hear what’s going on in the head.”

Otherwise, there is great sound but no meaning.

Noting the scribbling of his visitor, Argento smiled.

“You know, they’re going to edit out half of that,” he said.

Yes, but the other half is worth the trouble.

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