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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Moby Dick is Here to Stay

Set shot with mast and crew
Captain Ahab (Roger Honeywell) tells the Pequod’s crew that ‘the fire of St. Elmo’ which illuminated the ship in a storm ‘is good luck’

Here’s a fact. Keeping up a blog, even with the low threshold of three-four posts per month, is hard. I had a nice steady flow going in December and January, but it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted, and the guilt it awful. Perhaps I’ve been overthinking it. My intention–in general–is to do advance leg work and to post well enough in advance of an upcoming production driving distance from CLE (or Met in HD) to have a chance of influencing someone to give the opera a try. Well, I missed the boat with Pittsburgh Opera’s marvelous production of Moby Dick. That ship has sailed. (OK, enough seafaring puns.) The production wrapped up on Sunday, March 25, so it’s too late to encourage you to go see it this time around, but I’m telling you, this is an opera that’s going to have some staying power. This is a rare contemporary opera that I feel confident is going to become a fixture in the standard repertoire.

Eight things I loved about Pittsburgh’s Moby Dick:

  1.  The libretto is great.  Gene Scheer has managed to turn this behemoth of a novel into a crisp script that covers a lot of ground in just about two-and-a-half hours. He does this by choosing just four days from the many months out at sea, four days that get to the heart of the Pequod‘s doomed voyage, selected to set the scene, show the passage of time, the restlessness of the crew, and the mania of their captain. And to get us to the fateful day when the crew finally meets the whote whale—and its fate.
  2. The music is great, and–pleasant surprise–a lot more melodious than a lot of contemporary writing.  Jake Heggie, who also composed the opera version of Dead Man Walking, is the real deal.  With just two lulls, one in each act, Heggie’s score drives this intense sea journey inexorably to its tragic conclusion.
  3. The set was amazing. Check out the picture above.  The main mast dominates the stage, letting us know we’re on a ship and creating a whole new plane for action.  The mast is surrounded by a turntable that was able to be moved qucikly not only to suggest a variety of spaces but also to create a sense of fast action during whale chase scenes.  The surrounding map of the world and dynamically lit sky made for a truly captivating backdrop for the action.
  4. Key performers were excellent.  Lead tenor Roger Honeywell, whose brooding Ahab lumbers slowly along in Act I, picked this piece up and carried in on his back in Act II.  In a chilling depiction of how easily a charismatic leader can lead a mob toward his goals, Ahab (below left) whips his crew into a frenzied chant of “Kill Moby Dick.”  Baritone Michael Mayes (below right, top) was amazing as Starbuck.  For me, the heart of the show was Starbucks’s aria at the end of Act I–the moral heart of the piece, and the moment of greatest heartbreak–when he comes upon a sleeping Ahab and passes on the opportunity to save the crew by murdering the captain. If only he had been able to stop Ahab’s manic quest here.  Finally, the relationship between Greenhorn (whom readers know as Ishmael) and Queequeg was tenderly rendered by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana.
  5. Use of dancers was very cool, especially when dancers took “thrown” harpoons in hand and leapt across the stage with them to suggest the trajectory of the harpoons and the subsequent “sleigh ride.”
  6. A few more personal notes.  A personal highlight was taking my friend Mark to his first live opera and having him enjoy it.

    Mark and I in Pittsburgh
    No one would have guessed when we became friends 38 years ago that Mark Altstadt and I would celebrate our 50th birthdays at the opera.
  7. Sitting next to the lovely Ashley Fabian, a soprano and resident artist who will sing Gretel in the main stage production of Hansel & Gretel in the fall. We just by chance ended up seated next to her, and she was gracious enough to chat with us before the curtain rose and during intermission, offering us an insider’s insight.  I’m hopeful The Opera Evangelist’s readers will get to know Ashley (left) via a guest post this fall! AshleyFabianHeadshot_(002)
  8. Having attended the workshop for educators with the amazing Marilyn Egan (below right), I really knew what to expect going in. Advance preparation really does enhance the experience, and Marilyn does a great job.

    Marilyn Egan Teaches Moby Dick Workshop
    Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Education, Marilyn Egan, PhD, leads a workshop for educators on March 1.

Having attended four operas in Pittsburgh over the past few years, Pittsburgh Opera is starting to feel like a home away from home.  It’s an easy drive from Cleveland, and if you can get past all the Steelers garb, Pittsburgh’s a really fun city.  I recommend putting an upcoming production at Pittsburgh Opera on your calendar!

–All production photos David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera.

 

 

 

 

My words–beautifully sung!

5 Cool Things about Living in the N.O.W.

Not sure why, but I’ve not yet ever posted anything in this blog about my own participation in the creation of a new opera.  Well, today’s the day.  Tempting though it is to devote this week’s post to urging you to attend tomorrow’s Met in HD Encore of Tosca–you should!–or this weekend’s Aïda at Opera Columbus–can’t wait!–I need instead for today’s post to be a personal one.

Fourteen months ago, in November 2016, I approached then sophomore at Kent State University Scott Little about a possible collaboration on opera.  (I write words, not music, so if I wanted to play in this game, I was going to need to find a willing composer.)  The collaboration has been even more amazing than I’d hoped, and this past Saturday, we had the pleasure of hearing two wonderful professional singers sing a twelve-minute excerpt from the opera we’ve been working on.  It was awesome!  Slotted into the New Opera Forum session of Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works (N.O.W.) Festival, those twelve exquisite minutes were sandwiched between a panel discussion about the creation of new opera works and an audience talk-back about our opera in progress, The Story of an Hour, based on the Kate Chopin story of the same name.

Here are 5 things that were awesome about the experience:

Scott Little Directs NOW Rehearsal 2018-01-25
Composer Scott Little rehearses Tim Culver and Rachel Copeland at the Maltz Performing Arts Center.
  1.  Having family and close friends in the audience to hear words I’d written sung so beautifully.
  2. The stunning voices and gracious support of soprano Rachel Copeland and tenor Timothy Culver.
  3. Hearing such significant improvement in the Scott Little’s composition in the less than two months since we had a chance to hear five Kent State University vocal performance majors sing through the piece on December 1.
  4. Seeing Scott, who just turned 21 last month, blossom in the opportunity to direct rehearsals with professional singers for the first time in his young career.
  5. Coming away from the weekend more confident than ever that a) we will get a fully staged version of this one-act opera produced one day soon (don’t resist any temptation you might feel to send money to help with production costs) and b) that The Story of an Hour will not be the last opera for either me or Scott.  In fact, I hope it won’t be our last opera together.

Now, go find a movie theater near you presenting Puccini’s Tosca tomorrow night–you won’t regret it!