From The New York Times: “Nico Muhly on the Drama of Bringing His New Opera to the Met”

New York Times

From The New York Times

Nico Muhly on rehearsing his new opera, “Marnie”: “I figure it’s only fair of me to be flexible.”CreditCreditDaniel Dorsa for The New York Times

Nico Muhly by Samantha West

Bedroom Community,Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Nadia Sirota, Sam Amidon, Daníel Bjarnason, Puzzle Muteson. by EuphemiaUCAS

Oct. 17, 2018
Nico Muhly

“Marnie,” my new opera, which has its American premiere on Friday at the Metropolitan Opera, is about a woman who lies, steals, gets caught and is forced to marry a man who sexually assaults her. It’s delicate material — to say the least — and deeply plot-driven, and the dramatic structure has to be airtight to allow room for expressive musicality.

The director, Michael Mayer, called me with the idea for a “Marnie” opera five years ago. The story is most famous from the Hitchcock film, but we found that the 1961 Winston Graham novel on which it’s based was a far richer source of psychological tension and freed us from any visual or musical entanglements with the movie. That first notion blossomed into a wonderful libretto by Nicholas Wright, which then turned into a giant stack of manuscript.

Now, in the days before opening, among the orchestra, the chorus, the principal singers, the stage crew, spot ops, dressers, wig-makers, etc., there are hundreds of people reacting to this document; it’s a huge, thrilling, anxiety-producing setup.

In the middle of rehearsal last week, Nick Wright, Michael and I had a sudden revelation: One of the arias, already endlessly fretted over, was seriously hindering the dramatic flow. The aria, in which Marnie tries to escape her husband but catches herself having second thoughts, was musically satisfying. I’d spent ages getting a kind of throbbing brass chorale to work; there was a clever interplay between the oboe and the voice; and Nick’s text gave us what we thought was a much-needed window into Marnie’s state of mind.

Marnie: TrailerCreditCreditVideo by Metropolitan Opera

But when Michael was staging the scenes that precede and follow this moment, it immediately became clear that the entire dramatic beat was unnecessary: We were “telling, not showing,” the classic drama-school no-no, and the aria took what should have felt like a satisfying gravitational pull toward the final scene and stalled it midair. (I was reminded of Boris Johnson’s humiliating zip-line ride, where he got stuck in the middle of it, bobbing helplessly over the park.)

What if we just — cut it? I rushed over to the full score, figured out a way to make the snip work musically — scooch the oboe’s entrance over a bar; get rid of some vestigial gongs — and we tried it out: It was so much better. It felt like we’d obeyed Coco Chanel’s advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” The conductor, Robert Spano, and I mourned the musical loss over a negroni but toasted to how much more successful the last 30 (now 26) minutes of the show would be without it.

With a piece of concert music, I can tell, more or less, if the structure holds together just by looking through the manuscript in my studio. With a piece of theater, however, I find that on paper and even in rehearsals, the overall soundness of the structure is always just slightly out of view. It’s when you see an opera on stage for the first time with an audience that it feels like shining a black light on a crime scene: Even if you thought you’d carefully wiped clean all of the strange incisions and seams of the compositional process, you’ve still missed a spot.

Isabel Leonard, center, as the title character in “Marnie” at the Metropolitan Opera.Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

None of this sort of work is, for me, fully possible to execute if I’m sitting at my desk at home. It requires being in the room with Michael; with Nick; with Isabel Leonard, who plays Marnie; with Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg; and seeing the scenes unfold in real time.

I want to know what Isabel thinks about a given transition: She is the one who has to communicate what I wrote, and if there’s anything I can do to help her do that with grace and power, I feel that’s my job as a composer. If I can change an E flat to an F to make the text clearer, I will do it; if we need a better word, Nick will come over, and we’ll confer about how to make it all sync up. When I write a piece of orchestral music, I can be as controlling as I want, but with a piece this big, I try to be the opposite of precious.

The practical process of mounting an opera is much more crabwise than one might suspect. For the first three weeks, the cast works in a subterranean rehearsal room with the actual floor of the set recreated; some of the real furniture and props are there, but, for example, the tall sliding panels in our full design are represented by shorter, temporary ones. There is a tag team of brilliant rehearsal pianists, the conductor, two assistant conductors, the director, two assistant directors, the stage manager, an assistant stage manager, the dramaturg — and me, in the corner with piles of scores and laptops and iPads and snacks.

The chorus, which has been rehearsing and memorizing this work since the summer, comes half a dozen times, but not necessarily to work in any particular order; we might find ourselves staging the ending with the chorus before staging the beginning with the cast. We see the orchestra, which is equally busy, in its rehearsal room once or twice without the singers, then twice with the singers — but never with the chorus.

Two weeks before we open, we start spending the mornings on the main stage with only the pianists. Visual elements creep in: lighting, projections, costumes, with all their attendant joys and problems. (The tracks in the floor seem to be of a thickness precisely designed to entrap the elegant high heels most of the women in this production wear.)

The week before we open, we have a morning per act with everything (chorus, orchestra, heels), a complete run-through with piano, a complete final dress rehearsal with everything — then opening. The wildest thing about this schedule is that it means that before opening night, there is only one opportunity to see the whole show as a complete piece of theater, which is oftentimes when some of the more deeply-hidden knots reveal themselves. On opening night of “Dark Sisters,” in 2011, I felt a small amount of air leave the theater when I suddenly realized that I’d boxed the show in with a clumsy transition between an indoor space and an abstract outdoor space; I hadn’t perceived this until then.

My inbox is, as I write this, filling up with requests to come to the dress rehearsal; in London, where “Marnie” had its premiere last year, it seems like a blood sport to go to the dress rather than to a show, and then make subdued but icy declarations of the opera’s wretchedness to anybody who will listen. I always liken the dress rehearsal to that moment in cooking for a group when the stew looks like grave slime (it needs that final 20 minutes to reduce), there are cardoons everywhere, and I’m in a sarong singing along to “Graceland.” It’s not ready yet! Go wait at a bar somewhere!

I’ve learned, after three operas, what sorts of things require my intervention and what will get better on their own. My role, as I understand it now, is to be an editor and custodian of the document Nick and I created, and to guide — but not prescribe — the various options the singers and musicians have in expounding it. Obviously, it’s anxiety provoking, but as it’s not going to be me onstage in a negligee singing a high B flat, or in the pit playing an exposed oboe solo after hundreds of bars’ rest, I figure it’s only fair of me to be flexible, and to allow the thousands of hours of experience and diligent preparation to let the piece live on its own.

Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” was performed by the Metropolitan Opera in 2013.

Friday through Nov. 10 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan;

See the full article here .


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