Robert Xavier Rodríguez on Opera
Interviewed by Abbie Betinis and Michael Ethen
As one of the most often-performed American composers of his generation, Robert Xavier Rodríguez has written music in all genres, but has been drawn most strongly in recent years to works for the stage. Staff writers Abbie Betinis and Michael Ethen caught up with Mr. Rodríguez at the American Music Research Center in Boulder, Colorado, where they questioned him specifically about writing opera.
CO: When writing operas, how do you find the “right” librettist?
RXR: Just instinct. It’s funny – I’ve worked with one person, Mary Medrick, for two of my operas, but before the first opera, Monkey See, Monkey Do, I had not known her writing. I asked her, “Do you know anything about opera?” She said, “No.” “Do you like opera?” “No.” So I said, “You’re hired.” I just knew she could do it, and she did a wonderful job. Monkey See, Monkey Do has now had 2,000 performances. She also wrote the libretto for The Old Majestic, which was recently done at the NYC Opera and at the University of Texas at Austin, and we're starting a third opera for Opera Colorado called La Curandera.
Of course, rather than slogging it out line by line, it is much easier working with a complete text that already exists. For instance, I worked with Norton Juster, who wrote The Phantom Toll Booth. I set a chapter of that book, and have just finished a second work, The Dot and the Line, based on his writing. But in those cases, since the text already had a life of its own without me, it was just a matter of my taking it and setting it.
CO: How did you get copyright clearance?
RXR: That’s a very nice story. Norton Juster was a famous author and I was a budding young composer. I just wrote to him and sent him some of my work, and he wrote back and said yes, I could use it. I was just brave enough and ignorant enough to do it!
CO: Did he charge a lot of money? May I ask you that?
RXR: He agreed to take a cut of future royalties and no payment up front. In a commissioning agreement there is normally a fee built in for the librettist, and the composer designates who will be the recipient of that fee. For instance, if I wanted to write my own libretto, I could simply pay the fee to myself. But I don’t normally do that, because I like to work with other people. I don't want to be limited by my own ideas. I find that other people's thoughts enrich mine.
CO: What if you find yourself in a difficult collaboration? If you feel stuck, are you able to re-work some of the words?
RXR: I’ve always been able to find partners who recognize that a composer must re-work some of the words. Sometimes, in a collaboration, the partners will agree to part company because it’s just not a good fit, but I have, fortunately, not had to endure a mid-project divorce. Often, everyone is writing so close to the deadline that the partners just have to stay committed. I was in one situation in which opening night was looming and I felt as if all of us on the writing team were like mountain climbers with a rope around us, linking us all together: if one of us went down we would all go down. So we simply had to persevere and find enough common ground to get us to the top. Everybody understood that we were just going to have to minimize our differences, maximize our degree of overlap, and get the job done as professionals. It’s best when everyone loves every part of the process, but sometimes friction can actually be energizing.
CO: Are there any particular subjects you look for in a libretto when you’re starting an opera?
RXR: Atmosphere is very important to me. I enjoy having a whole aura of a time and place to evoke. You know, so many operas of history have that element of a particular atmosphere. There’s something Egyptian about Aida, something Japanese about Madame Butterfly, and so on. My Frida is very Mexican, exploring the culture clash of Americans visiting Mexico and Mexicans visiting the U.S. The Old Majestic, is about Vaudeville and the American Vaudeville tradition. So it’s all about atmosphere: the time and place, and the setting of the opera are very important.
Once the time and place have been set, then of course there has to be conflict – two forces in a struggle, so you can tell which might win over another. All art is built upon conflict. And of course there has to be sex. Opera is full of sex. If not violence, at least lots of sex.
I like to look for chances for humor, too. Even if the opera has a very serious subject, I like to find layers of humor. I think it’s significant, for instance, that in Mozart’s comedies, we deal with some of the most serious issues: one class keeping another down, infidelity, jealousy . . . all kinds of deadly serious issues dealt with under the mask of comedy. I like to be able to layer seriousness and comedy in a single gesture.
CO: Would you name Mozart as one of your primary influences?
RXR: Of course! Mozart is the God of All Opera whom everyone in his right mind worships but can never equal. But we all have our minds on his impossible goal!
CO: Who else do you admire?
RXR: I admire Monteverdi also. Like Mozart, Monteverdi was able to combine seriousness and comedy – sometimes in quite abrupt juxtaposition. He also was one of the sexiest composers ever to have lived. His opera L’incoronazione di Poppea is practically pornographic. I love that. [laughs] His dramatic cantata, Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is full of dramatic juxtaposition and quite graphic representation of action. And I admire Stravinsky, with his vast range of styles and the elegance and clarity. Berg. Kurt Weil is another one of my great favorites because I love the fusion of popular elements with classical rigor, depth, and complexity: again, the humor and seriousness in a single gesture. Gershwin . . . Sondheim . . . Ligeti... Messiaen.
CO: Are there people who you think don’t write opera very well?
RXR: Well, there are some great composers who haven’t done opera very well. Nadia Boulanger used to say that the very fact that such great composers as Haydn, Schumann, and Schubert were not successful at opera, and someone such as Leoncavallo (who, as she put it, deserves nothing but contempt as a musician) was a success at opera, proves that there’s something beyond music to opera. Great music isn’t enough. There’s that sort of dramatic know-how. So, even works that don’t have great music will work as opera because there’s that stage savvy.
CO: Beyond the music and drama in the libretto, there’s the element of staging in the opera . . . how involved in the staging do you get in the premieres?
RXR: Stage directors like for the composer to nod nicely and say, “Yes, that’s it.” I’ve been lucky to work with stage directors who will listen to my ideas, plus offer ideas I haven’t thought of, and open up new possibilities. And if a work is good, it can take new possibilities. There is no one way to do anything. The more layers a work has, the more possibilities performers can find in it. I have conducted my own work; I have coached my own work. Performers often ask me whether I’m as good coaching standard repertoire as I am my own work. I always answer, “I’m much better at standard repertoire because I know it better. I’m just learning my own work.” So I’m glad to learn about my work from performers, stage directors included.
CO: How would you recommend preparing to write an opera for the first time? Can one “study” how to write opera?
RXR: I think there are two ways. One way is by learning the masterpieces – just listening and watching. I remember hearing Woody Allen talk about how he got to be a comedy writer. He said he took recordings of the comics he admired and took dictation. He transcribed their monologues so he could see their punctuation, and how much time they took between laughs. He studied the timing and the pacing of it. So, knowing the masterpieces, knowing what works, is an enormous part of learning to write opera.
The other way is the more practical side: finding the opportunity to hear your own work performed, and to see it come back at you. For that, I strongly recommend working for specific situations. It’s much better to write a ten-minute opera for two of your friends to put on in your kitchen, than to spend two years writing something for 100 voices and orchestra to put on the shelf. Find something practical and work with existing theatrical contacts. There are lots of churches around. Whether or not you happen to be religious, you might work with a choral director to put on a liturgical drama. There are always resources available at your command . . . working for schools, or getting people to put it on yourself. But it’s absolutely essential to see it come back at you, and to see it with an audience. There’s nothing like having your own work performed in front of an audience and seeing an audience get it – or, God forbid, not get it. One of the worst experiences of my life . . .
CO: Oh, no . . .
RXR: …I was seventeen and I was active in journalism. I had written some jokes that were published in the high school paper. A week or so after that particular issue of the school paper came out, someone at a school assembly decided to do some of my jokes. Now, a) she did them very badly and b) everyone had already heard them because they had just been published in the paper. So she died. And I was sitting there watching her die doing my material, and I vowed that would never happen to me again. [laughs] You want to time-test everything. Get it out there and see how it works.
CO: Have there been subsequent performances of your opera that you weren’t involved in, but that you saw or heard reviews about that failed – died, in your words?
RXR: You can save yourself from major failures by making little adjustments along the way. I’ve done plenty of revision of operas, and one reason they’ve gone well is that I’ve had opportunity to try them out a scene at a time. With Frida, we tried it out on the road night after night . . . in Philadelphia and in Boston . . . getting it ready for the New York opening. One scene I rewrote four times until we got it right. You have to be willing to rewrite when it doesn’t work.
CO: Were you ever working on operas when you were studying with Nadia Boulanger? Did she give you advice?
RXR: I wrote my first opera when I was studying with Boulanger. It’s not one of my greatest works. Everyone needs a place to be bad. [laughs] I started it and I learned a great deal from the experience. She was helpful and gave me especially good advice about orchestration. She told me not to have too many whole-notes in the orchestra. It’s very tempting to have whole-notes because they fill out the harmony very nicely; but instrumentalists have a tendency to crescendo through whole-notes, and crescendos will just eat up a singer. If you look at Mozart’s accompaniment figures, you will find a lot of short notes and varied note values. So there are plenty of rests for the voices to come through. All of those little mechanical things were very important for me to learn early on.
She was also helpful in getting me in touch with my comic side. I was a very serious young man in those days, writing very angst-ridden, questioning music. She said not to write the first bar of Tristan and Isolde too many times. She said that in ten years I would learn to write comedy and that I would only be half a composer until I did.
CO: Was that true?
RXR: She was absolutely right. At the time I couldn’t imagine how I could deal with comedy because it was very far from my orientation at the time. I was writing such dark, serious music. But she knew that I, as a person, enjoyed jokes. A good composer has to show what it’s like to be himself or herself, and I wasn’t showing all of what it’s like to be Robert Xavier Rodríguez.
CO: What are your main inspirations for composition? Nature? Visual art?
RXR: [leaning into the microphone] Commissions!
RXR: I love writing music and I love the experience of hearing it come back at me and I’m not going to write anything that I’m not going to hear come back at me. The whole performance situation: knowing who the performers are going to be, knowing what other pieces will be on the program with the premiere, knowing what use that piece will have in performances following the premiere, what life I can envision for that piece as a new member of the repertoire . . . all that is very important to me, not just sitting at home dreaming dreams. If I had my choice I would write only operas, but people want me to do all kinds of things, and I enjoy the variety.
CO: Thanks so much for talking with us.
RXR: You’re fun to talk to.