Interview with Scott Little, Composer of “The Story of an Hour”

Scott Little 1
Composer Scott Little rehearses professional singers for a presentation of two scenes at Cleveland Opera Theater’s N.O.W. Festival in January 2018.

Scott Little’s debut opera, “The Story of an Hour,” will receive it’s world premiere production on Saturday evening, November 17, at Kent State University. It’s appropriate that the opera will premiere at KSU because Scott is a junior Music Education major there. The one-act opera, for which I wrote the libretto, is based on a Kate Chopin short story with the same title. Scott and I met just two years ago, introduced by a mutual friend shortly after I had decided to look for a composer interested in a collaboration. We had a first coffee in December 2016, and what’s happened since has been amazing: by June 2017 we had a reading at my home of a complete draft of the libretto, a first sing-through at Kent in November 2017, and now here we are.

I interviewed Scott this week about his experience composing his first opera. Here’s what he had to say:

The Opera Evangelist: I remember clearly that when we first had coffee, I knew that you were someone with whom I wanted to collaborate for two reasons:  you asked good questions, and I could tell you were already thinking in terms of getting it up on stage somewhere.  I’m curious, what about meeting me made you think this might be a workable partnership?

Scott Little: I liked how passionate you were about the project!  I loved how you wanted to do something you hadn’t done before and wanted to expand your artistry.  I really value trying new things and being the least experienced person in the room, which is why I do so many different projects.  I saw those qualities in you, which let me know that working with you would work out!

OE: How would you describe what you’ve learned along the way?

SL: Oh gosh, I’ve learned loads.  I’ve learned how long staged works take to create and what kind of artists have to be involved; I’ve learned about writing for the human voice and how to tell a coherent story; I’ve learned what it means to hustle in order to get your work performed (mostly from watching you, by the way); and I’ve learned that I can do it.  There were many moments where I didn’t think I could finish the thing, and so I’m grateful for people like you and Professor [Marla] Berg who kept me going along the way.

OE: What has been the most difficult part of composing this opera?

SL: The most difficult part of writing an opera was holding myself accountable.  You may recall that I was late to turn in music on a couple occasions (see above).  Writing an opera is especially difficult because operas are long and they deal with a lot of emotional content.  In other projects, if I don’t know how to write music that invokes a particular effect/image (e.g., the chaos of a train crash), I don’t have to write it.  In the opera, I had to figure things out that I would have otherwise ignored.  If I were to do another opera, I would set up systems of accountability, such as more meetings with collaborators where I have to show my progress.

OE: What’s been the most awesome part?

SL: I have so enjoyed working with the opera students and faculty at Kent State.  These students have shocked me with how invested they are in the project!  They are super excited to be able to bring characters to life, and I’m learning a lot from watching their processes.

OE: I know you reached out to faculty at KSU early on and along the way.  How important have their help and support been? 

SL: Professors Marla Berg and Dr. Jay White have been wildly helpful!  As director of the opera program (and the director of the operas themselves), Professor Berg was the one who decided to program our work.  She took a chance on us, and she has worked very hard to gather musicians and crew members, to stage the work, to advertise the program, etc.  I’m currently taking voice lessons from Dr. White, so I see him coaching students on a variety of pieces—he spends a lot of time honing on in who a character is and what a song is saying below the surface.  Seeing him apply the same expertise to our work when coaching performers has been an awesome experience.

OE: Early on in our work together I told you that I saw the composer as the “boss” in the composer-librettist relationship, and you bristled at the idea.  Now that you’ve completed work on your first opera, do you still feel that way?  

SL: I’m still not sure about the composer/librettist balance, but I have learned a lot about the composer’s role in the creation of opera as a whole:  no one person, even the composer, is most important.  I’ve actually been very “hands off” with the rehearsal and staging process over this semester.  The actors, directors, conductors, and musicians have taken charge of the process—I’m just along for the ride!  I think now that the composer is just one cog in a big machine.  As audiences, we give the composer of a work too much clout and need to be more reverent of the people behind the scenes who are making that work a reality.

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Go see “Marnie” at Met in HD

I may be an opera blogger, but I was a fiction writer first, so for the purposes of this post, I have fabricated five well-intentioned but naïve followers of my blog, and engaged in a little Q&A with them. I’d be delighted to engage in dialogue with real followers of the blog. Please consider posting a response!

I’m dying to attend an a great opera, but I live in a rural area, and we don’t have an opera company here. Whatever can I do?  –Sally B., not too far from Topeka

I’m so glad you asked, Sally. The Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s great opera companies, has for more than ten years broadcast part of each season live in movie theaters all around the country and increasingly around the world. It’s simply amazing. The program, which has grown to include ten operas each year, has made opera widely accessible to such an unprecedented degree that I have to believe it’s cultivating a whole new wave of opera fans. As for me, the Met in HD experience has single-handedly fanned the flames of my love for opera from a very slow burn over a 25-year period to an inferno of passion over the past five. Check it out!

Sounds good.  I’m tired of watching all the shouting and bickering on my TV, and I’m going to need somewhere to go when 2020 hopefuls start invading my state.  What’s up next?   –@IKeepAmericaPurple, Ames, IA.

Hey there, Keep.  Thanks for your question.  Do you like Hitchcock films? You’re in for a treat! The prolific young American composer Nico Muhly has created a brand new opera based on Marnie, the story of a young woman who makes a living by  embezzling from her employers, moving on, and changing her identity (Wikipedia).  Though Marnie is best known based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film adaptation, Muhly based his opera not directly on the Hitchcock film but on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham. Nonetheless, the set and costuming sure have the feel of a classic film, and the actress who brought the character to the screen, Tippi Hedren, now 88, took a curtail call with her operatic counterpart on opening night on October 19.

Mulhy’s Marnie will be broadcast live on Saturday, November 10 and encored on Wednesday, November 14. 

Wait a minute. Puccini died in 1924. People aren’t really writing new operas, are they? –Roberto D., San Juan, PR

Oh, Roberto, don’t be silly. Of course they are! In fact, all of the major opera companies in the US have commissioned new works over the past few years (I attended the world premiere of Bel Canto, based on the novel by Ann Patchett,at Lyric in 2015). And festivals of new opera works abound, from the Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works Festival to the Prototype Festival in NYC, and beyond. This is actually Nico Muhly’s 2nd commission for the Met. His first Two Boys opened in 2013.

Isabel Leonard as Marnie
Isabelle Leonard in the title role.

What can I expect if you go to the Met in HD screening of Marnie?

–Hakim A., Pocatello, Idaho

Good question, Hakim. First of all, expect high quality performances both by world class singers and by arguably the best opera orchestra in the world. Expect close ups interesting camera angles, good sound quality, on screen subtitles just like in a foreign language film.

I haven’t seen this opera or heard this opera yet. Here are a few insights from Anthony Thomsasini’s October 21 review in the NYT:

  • “ With his keen ear for unusual harmonies and eerily alluring sonorities, Mr. Muhly painstakingly tries to use his imagination — and his proven skill at orchestration — to flesh out Marnie’s inner life.”
  • “Mr. Muhly opted, it would seem, to maintain mystery through whole stretches of the score, to suggest emotions rather than making everything explicit. He may have held back too much. The music sometimes seems like an accompaniment to the drama, rather than a realization of it.”
  • “The best scenes in ‘Marnie’ come when Mr. Muhly, in sync with Mr. Wright, takes creative chances. Rather than providing Marnie with any sort of tell-all aria, the opera gives her short transitional ‘links,’ as Mr. Muhly calls them, disoriented soliloquy-like passages where in broken bits of restless, leaping lines she voices bitter, confused ruminations.”

But wait, there’s more. One of the best things about the Met in HD experience is a lot of cool behind-the-scenes material during intermissions. While the crowd in New York is waiting in line for the restroom or the opportunity to pay top dollar for plastic cupful of rum and coke, the evening’s host will treat the cinema audience to backstage interviews with the prinicple singers and previews of upcoming productions.

Oh, and popcorn.

Are there any downsides to seeing an opera in a movie theater as opposed to live? –Michelle O., Washington, D.C.

Sure, Michelle. Consider the analogy to watching sports in person vs. on TV. On TV you get the benefit of replays, close ups, and commentary, but you’re beholden to the camera’s eye. Usually that means following the ball or puck. In person, you can look where you want to. The same holds true at the opera. On screen, you’re stuck looking at whatever the camera wants you to see. The folks at the Met have gotten more sophistocated over the years, so you’ll get a variety of camera angles, but there are still times I’d like to be able to look elsewhere or be able to scan the entire stage at once. That said, the view of the Met stage from the Cedar Lee Theater is a lot better than it would be without the Met in HD. That’s where I’ll be next Weds at 6:30. You?

See you the at the opera!

Tim