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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First Impressions: First-time Opera-goer Rachel Elson

On Saturday, February 24, I had the pleasure of taking Rachel Elson, a family friend, to her first opera.  We attended the live Met in HD presentation of Puccini’s La Bohème, featuring the amazing Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi.  Afterward, I asked Rachel to share some of her impressions.

Rachel Elson NYC Photo
Rachel Elson, mere blocks from the Met, in September 2017.

The Opera Evangelist:  This was your first experience of opera. What did you think?

RE:  What a cool art form!

I was fascinated by how intimate and emotional the performances were. Every scene was packed with intense feeling, positive or negative, in a way that radiated from the screen and through their voices. Because people express and perform emotions differently, I couldn’t help but feel that each actor was bringing their own unique qualities and interpretations to the role. This makes me think that it would be awesome to see the same operas performed with different singers or produced differently.

OE:  Many people don’t realize that operas today feature supertitles (or in the case of the cinema presentations, subtitles) offering simultaneous translation. Some people find subtitles off-putting. Did you have any difficulties following the story or getting used to the subtitles?

RE:  I occasionally ignored the English captions in order to construct meaning solely from the singing, body language, and facial expressions. This proved to be a surprisingly reliable way to follow the narrative, and it helped immerse me in the story, because I was able to create the story for myself as it progressed.

OE:  That’s really cool. I’m glad you gave yourself that opportunity. I like to do that sometimes, too. I wonder if that aspect of the experience was even more satisfying during the live HD broadcast, because camera work allows you to get a closer up view than at the opera house.

RE:  It was definitely worth seeing the Live Met in HD broadcast! I was surprised to discover how intimate the Met in HD experience was. I’m accustomed to the in-your-face nature of live, in-person theater performances, and I assumed that seeing a broadcast performance (although live) simply wouldn’t be the same. However, I felt no sense of disconnection between myself and the characters and narrative of La Bohème while I sat in the Cedar Lee Theater. With the screen occupying almost my whole field of vision, I felt deeply embedded in every scene and touched by the intense emotions of the opera; the impressive sound quality placed me right in the front row at the Met.

The incredible behind-the-scenes features during the intermissions of the live broadcast were another unexpected treat. Rather than removing me from Puccini’s Parisian landscape, the interviews and set backstage explorations brought me so much closer to the work as a whole. I gained insight into the process of production and added a huge amount of depth to my appreciation of the narrative itself. Much like reading about the plot and history of the opera in advance to its showing strengthened my understanding, these features were enlightening in a way I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

OE:  Was there anything you didn’t like? Were there aspects of the production that seemed weird or old-fashioned?

RE:  The pacing of the production seemed so strange. The first act was heavy on exposition, and accordingly very lengthy. The second act, however, I feel like nothing much happened and it was over very quickly (although I did really enjoy the vast set and chorus). Same as well with the third act. These were very, very dramatic scenes but it seemed like the story didn’t progress very much! In summary—much ado about nothing.

I felt that the opera was awash in “grand” feelings and lacking in complexity. I think that this might be the nature of opera itself (very grand, awesome), and for me it’s both a good and bad thing. I wanted more nuance to the narrative and feelings, as this would’ve brought the production more into the present, which would make it easier to relate to, but maybe that’s a difficult balance to strike when the narrative is full of such strong emotions (happiness, love, despair, jealousy).

OE:  These observations, I think, may be particular to La Bohème, which is structured more as a collection of scenes rather than along the lines of a traditional plot. (In fact, the novel on which Puccini drew inspiration for the opera, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, is comprised of a series of vignettes of the artistic life in 1830s Paris.”  I don’t think you’d have that feeling with every opera, especially most operas written after the height of the bel canto era in the early 19th Century.

So, will you come back?

RE:  Definitely. Overall I really, really enjoyed it.

OE:  What would you tell someone who’s never been to an opera to encourage her to attend?

RE:  Opera is a worthwhile challenge. It feels unusual in the powerful intensity of the emotions being performed on stage, and this moving quality is a huge draw that is hard to achieve in film or theater. Whether you see it live on stage or on the screen, the artistry, craftsmanship of the set, and strong narratives create a completely immersive experience and ease the introduction to a new kind of art. Most of all, it’s rewarding to see a relationships develop and a story slowly emerge from such beautiful music.

Lost Homeland: an Interview with Composer Dawn Sonntag

Scene from premiere at Hiram College of Verlorene Heimat
Jason Bud, center, in the premiere of “Verlorene Heimat” at Hiram College, will also appear in the Cleveland Opera Theater production.

The Opera Evangelist had the pleasure of chatting with Hiram College professor, vocalist, pianist, and composer Dawn Sonntag, whose opera Verlorene Heimat (Lost Homeland) will be performed on Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 P.M. and Sunday, January 28 at 3 P.M. at the Maltz Performing Arts Center in University Circle. The performances are part of Cleveland Opera Theater’s N.O.W. festival. The opera, which depicts the experiences of an “East Prussian refugee family and the Jewish-Ukranian girl they sheltered,” is based on a true story told to Sonntag by her mother-in-law.

Opera Evangelist: You’ve shared with me that you started thinking about composing an opera in 2009.  What made you decide that you wanted to try that form.  Are you a passionate opera fan?

Dawn Sonntag: As a child, I used to create “musical shows,” forcing my younger siblings to rehearse and perform, creating sets with my bedroom furniture, and dragging my parents to my room to see our shows, and I sang in musicals in elementary and high school.  I did not have opportunities to see opera as a child, but my father has a beautiful singing voice and used to listen to the Met broadcasts that were aired Sunday afternoons, and my parents had a friend who was an opera singer, so the idea of opera was not completely foreign to me as a child.  At the same time, I had always loved theater and creative writing.  My doctorate from the University of Minnesota is in both voice and composition, and I have performed opera as a singer and worked as a vocal coach/accompanist with singers in the U.S. and in Germany, where I was a substitute repetiteur for the Heidelberg Opera Theater.  So opera seems like a natural fit for me as a composer; the idea of composing opera had always been there for me, but I did not want to commit the time to composing opera without knowing when and where it would be performed; it is a large time commitment. When I started teaching at Hiram College in 2008 and took over the opera workshop program, I decided the time had come to realize this idea and to compose something that students could perform.

OE: After casting about for a libretto for a while,  you decided to write your own.  What were the challenges of finding a libretto?  Did you consider and reject several, or was it more a matter of finding a librettist?

DS: I looked at a few librettos that writers had submitted to the American Composers’ Forum opportunities listings, but I could not connect to the topics and themes I found. A good friend of mine, Gracia Grindal, a writer and now professor emerita of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, had written a moving and dramatic libretto based on historical novels about Norwegian immigrants, but the copyright owners would not give her rights to the story, so I could not set that.  And I think because I like to write myself, I realized that maybe I could write my own libretto .

Dawn Sonntag Portrait
Composer Dawn Sonntag

OE: You were discouraged by some from writing an opera that offers a sympathetic portrayal of ethic Germans during World War II.  Why did you feel that this was a story that needed to be told?

DS: I thought it was important to show how private citizens who had been deceived by Hitler’s promises to “make Germany great again”—and Hitler uses that phrase in his speeches—withdrew their support for the Nazis and became resistors, even risking their lives to do what was right, once they realized that Hitler was a dangerous and destructive fraud. I also wanted to show how an entire culture was destroyed because of its initial support for this demagogue and how even small villages were divided because of politics.  The Germans in East Prussia had their own beautiful, rural culture, and not only did they lose it because of the war, but more than 300,000 of them died in that winter of 1945 as they tried to escape. The story of the Germans living in Eastern Europe who were trapped between the Nazis and Russians and either forced to flee to western Germany or trapped in what is now Poland or Russia is not widely known, even though there are actually many of these former refugees living in Cleveland now, especially in the Tremont area.  I also saw such strength in Elise, who refused to bow to small-town social pressure to support the Nazis and who not only had the composure to secretly prepare for the evacuation, risking her life to do so, but also refused to treat Hedwig like a slave although she was a forced laborer and kept her Jewish heritage a secret, which was also very risky considering that Elise had already been threatened with being sent to a labor camp.   The weight of war that women carry is often overlooked. My mother-in-law was very upset about the increasing neo-Nazi activity in Germany, and she was afraid that once her generation had passed on, this activity would increase as the memories of World War II were forgotten.

OE: You took this opera from it’s first few bars to full student production in a very short period of time.  Tell us about that.

DS: Between 2009, when my mother-in-law told me the story, and September 2013, when I actually started writing the music and libretto, I had mulled over the idea, but I also had several other commissions for chamber music and choral pieces during that time and a heavy teaching load, so I had written neither a libretto nor a note of music. And I had attempted to start writing the libretto, but it felt stilted and I kept discarding what I wrote. Part of the problem was lack of time to think and concentrate.   But in the fall of 2013, I was approved for a 12-week pre-tenure sabbatical from Hiram College. The following spring, I was scheduled to teach the opera workshop course. I  decided to dedicate my sabbatical to composing this opera, and I set a goal of having a workable score printed and ready to distribute to students by the start of the spring semester in January.   During the summer of 2013, just before my sabbatical started, I read Roger McKee’s book entitled Story, which is about screenwriting, and came up with an order of scenes and what was happening in each scene. In late August and early September, I spent three weeks in Visby, Sweden, which is on the Island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, at a composer residency as part of the residency program at the International Centre for Composers that is sponsored by the Swedish government. This gave me three weeks of uninterrupted work time, as well as time to talk walks along the Baltic Sea.  While I was there, I completed the initial draft of the duet between Elise and August and came up with basis for the musical material for the rest of the opera.  When I got home, I made a goal of completing one scene a week, and it flowed well. Getting started is always the hard part.

Getting started is always the hard part.

OE: What were the challenges of composing an opera?  How was it different from other composing experiences you’ve had?  What was the biggest challenge?

DS: Composing an hour of continuous music seemed daunting, but once I started, it flowed naturally and became less and less scary.  In fact, I found that immersing myself in the story and characters as I was writing the music was freeing.  And since I wrote the libretto, I was free to create a text that worked well musically and vocally.  The biggest challenge is time, I think.  My best work happens mid-day, after my mind has warmed up but before I am tired, and I am usually teaching during that time. And then on the weekends one has to deal with the other obligations of life and catch up on rest.   Committing to composing an opera also means saying no to other smaller compositional opportunities—chamber music, choral pieces, etc.   So one has to set priorities and try to create a schedule that allows one to compose when one feels fresh and creative.

OE: For your next opera, what are you looking for in a libretto?  Do you feel that there are stories that lend themselves better to opera than to other forms?  Why?

DS: I am especially drawn to librettos that make history come alive and help the audience connect with the past in a personal way.  I could imagine that some stories might be better told without music, as theater works rather than opera, just as I feel that music can get in the way of some poetry, but whether a story lends itself to opera really depends on the composer’s personality and imagination.  And flow and beauty of the language—the vowels and consonants—are important to me when setting a text to music. This past summer, I attended a program in Halifax, Nova Scotia entitled “Opera from Scratch,” in which six composers create one-act, ten-minute operas for a solo singer, who is paired with the composer.  The composers and singers then spend a week together rehearsing and performing the new works. All of the composers at last year’s festival composed their own librettos, and it was fascinating to see the wide variety of subject matters and settings. This is what I love about opera—it is such a diverse art form, full of creative possibility.

OE: Opera seems to be undergoing a revival in the US.  New opera festivals have been emerging over the past several years, and many of the major opera houses have commissioned or are featuring new opera works.  How hopeful are you for the future of the art form?

DS: I am excited to see opera blossoming in the U.S and optimistic about its future.  Opera is and can be so much more than many people realize.  I am glad to see it becoming more accessible to audiences of all ages and socio-economic levels through the efforts of directors of new, small opera companies and through education programs of larger companies.

OE: What are you listening to these days?

DS: I still practice and perform regularly as a pianist and singer and conductor, and I am always studying and playing scores that I use in teaching music theory, composition, and voice as well, so all of that is part of my “listening” experience.  And when I study an opera score, I do it at the piano, playing through it.  I do not sit and listen to music much without a score; and I can’t listen while I am driving or cooking – I can’t “see” and listen to music at the same time, and I forget where I am and what I am doing. Last fall I accompanied rehearsals the Bach B-Minor Mass for a semi-professional choir, Kantorei, in Spokane, and I will be singing with that choir this spring, so am learning rep for that, for example, Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs.  I love early music and want to put together an ensemble to perform Leonhard Lechner’s Passion, so I have been listening to recordings of that with a score I have.  The other day, a friend reminded me about Fauré’s nocturnes for piano, so I decided to find those and play through a few of them, and earlier last fall I played through Scriabin’s preludes and made my way through his piano sonatas. I also listen to a lot of new works by composer friends of mine and to works by composers whose music is new to me, like Robert Kyr, whose name I have known for a long time but whose music I only discovered a few months ago. In the past year I have heard new operas by about twelve different composers at festivals in Hartford, Halifax, and Cleveland.  Recently I listened to Margaret Brouwer’s opera about Lake Erie, Voice of the Lake—such an evocative and moving work.  I’ve also been listening to new, energetic chamber music written and performed by ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and avante-garde music by composers like Amy Beth Kirsten. So although I feel that opera composing is where I would like to concentrate my efforts as a composer, I listen to and perform a wide variety of music.