Saturday, July 22, 2006


Looking Back

Stephen Hartke: Composer

Having now been through the experience of writing and rehearsing this opera, there is little that I would change, musically speaking. It turned out pretty much how I expected it to. At some moments it turned out even better than I thought it would. This is such a big piece and has so many facets to it. There are a few things that I could beat myself up about if I wanted to, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s just not worth it to do that. That is why it took me a long time to write the piece. I had to be sure it was at a place where I could live with it.

The gratifying part of the process has been watching the faces of the singers as they shape the characters to themselves. There are some scenes that are so much more powerful than I predicted. This is a great cast, and their involvement in these characters is incredible. There is a scene where Boule sings about her illegitimate child while the others are playing cards. The range of displeasure that they show towards her makes the scene very chilling. That kind of detail makes moments in this opera more than I could ever have imagined.

Writing this opera has been like being the father of the bride. I’ve nurtured this score for a long time and now it has to go out into the world. I can’t hold its hand any more. I have to let the score go off with the people who have come for her and trust that they will treat her well. I didn’t really have fear or trepidation going into this process, but there is a very emotional response when you hand over that score. Your kid goes off to get married and you have to trust that it will work. You can do nothing other than make sure that you’ve raised a good kid. The piece is completely independent of me now. There’s a kind of emptynest syndrome that sets in. It isn’t my piece anymore.

Every piece I write changes me. It doesn’t just change my music, it changes me. Whenever I finish a piece I get very excited and think, “Now I know how to compose!” Then I begin the next piece and feel like I have to figure it out all over again. I’m starting a piece for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra right now, and I’m a bit distracted at the moment. I’ve been sitting in the orchestra rehearsals for this opera and thinking, “Maybe I should do more of that.” This new piece is for the same orchestral makeup as Bach’s first Brandenburg Concerto. I do find myself listening to what I’ve done with the oboes in this opera and trying to think about what other things I might do in this next piece. I really enjoy hearing the oboes in this orchestra. They have a wonderful sound.

One thing I definitely learned with this piece, somehow, was how to write music quickly. I don’t know if that lesson is going to last or not. I had to get the piece done somehow, so I did. I wrote the second act in seven months. I don’t really know how I did that. A lot of this is because much of the material in the second act is developing things already heard in the first. Still, there were places where I really didn’t know what I was going to do. The old nun’s aria was one of those spots. I had an idea of what it was going to be, but not completely. It ended up taking me around two weeks to finish. That was a big hunk of music to get done in that amount of time. Learning not to beat myself up so much was a lot of the process. As you get older and accumulate more pieces you relax a little more. You realize that not everything hinges on one piece. When you’re young you have only a few works. You get nervous and think, “I hope this is the piece that makes my career!” No single piece makes your career. It is the body of work that does it.

photos (from left to right):
1. David Schweitzer (director) and Stephen Hartke (composer) look over their scores during an early staging rehearsal.
2. Stephen Hartke (composer) talks with Seth Keeton (Cornudet) during a break from rehearsing the aria accompanied by “clanging bowls.”

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