A dominatrix, an android companion, a swingers’ party – an opera? Three Way, a new opera by Robert Paterson with a libretto by David Cote, zeroes in on the now and the near future of power and sexuality. Actually a trio of chamber operas, it debuted in Nashville in January, and will premiere in New York at BAM June 15-18, presented by American Opera Projects and Nashville Opera.
Reviewing the Nashville production, The Tennessean wrote: “Cote has an obvious gift for humor, and yet there also are moments of genuine tenderness. And Paterson’s music is quite mesmerizing, beautifully supporting the story at hand.”
Described as “Sex and the City meets Black Mirror for the Tinder generation,” Three Way is directed by John Hoomes, CEO and Artistic Director of the Nashville Opera, with the singers from the Nashville production returning, and accompaniment by the composer’s chamber group the American Modern Ensemble.
Below, we present the exclusive premiere of the video excerpt “What Did I Do Today?” from Act I, “The Companion,” and my interview with composer Robert Paterson about creating Three Way, his approach to opera and concert music in general, and the joys and perils of life as a contemporary composer.
Three Way is billed as “a trio of comic operas about craving and connection.” The subject includes sexuality and plenty of humor. One story is about a woman whose lover is a biomorphic android, another is about a dominatrix. It’s original, not adapted from anything, so how did the idea, and the collaboration with librettist David Cote, come about?
Years ago in a residency in a program run by American Opera Projects called Composers & Voice, Dave was writing text for me for various arias and scenes. Because of the way the opera world is, if you’re not a known person, if you’re not Verdi or Puccini, what’s the best way of working our way in? We figured a chamber opera. So many opera companies are looking for smaller productions.
Which of course cost less money.
They’re all worried about that these days, even major opera companies. So we thought, why don’t we try a trio of chamber operas? It went through many iterations of name changes, subject changes, and then as far as the subject matter, having kind of an erotic or sexual theme running through the whole thing, we just kind of figured that it would be interesting to tackle a theme everybody might find provocative.
But our goal is never to use sex as a gimmick. It has that as a theme, but the whole opera is actually a lot deeper than that, we think. It’s only a theme that binds everything together, there’s no overt, no nudity or anything like that.
Talking about your chamber music group, the American Modern Ensemble, you stress writing music with “approachable themes” in order to help attract non-musician audiences – giving them a “gateway” to get in.
And I’m an inherently melodic composer anyway. I like melody. I mean I don’t shy away from memorable themes. I guess some composers make a point of trying not to [write melodically], they don’t view that as valid anymore. They want to compose music that’s more abstract or obtuse. And that’s fine, there’s room for it all and that’s OK.
But I don’t just do it because I’m thinking of what the audience’s reaction is going to be. I love it myself. I like that. That’s a distinction that is really important to me. I’m not trying to pander to the audience, I’m doing it because I believe in writing vocal works and frankly lots of other works where you remember the music once you leave the theater.
If you were pandering, it wouldn’t really come across as sincere.
Exactly, and I want to be 100% sincere. I mean, everything I create is because this is the way I think it should go. And I love trying to compose music that brings people in and carries them on a journey, and where they will leave humming the theme – which I guess has become almost like a novel effect at this point! – and where they actually say, “I remember that, I really liked the aria and I want to hear the opera again, I remember all these songs, these arias, that you put in the opera.” And I think there’s nothing wrong with that and I’d like to get back to that.
This is the first opera you’ve written that you could call full-length, is that right? Although it is three one-acts.
Yes, we view it as just kind of one giant opera.
There must be a whole other dimension to composing when you work with a libretto and a librettist. What was the creative process like, working together?
First of all, we have a really great relationship, we get along really well, we’re actually good friends. The process is, we’re very collaborate, there’s not a wall between us – that’s OK too, I’ve done that before with writers where the writer gives you [a text] and you just kind of set it and that’s it –
But that’s not how this worked.
No, not at all. We had a lot of discussions over coffee or drinks or dinner, just talking about what we wanted to do before we even did it. And then he would show me drafts of the text first, and then I would do the music, but it was definitely a back-and-forth. So he would show me some text, I’d chime in about how I felt about it and we’d talk about the structure, and maybe, OK, this is somewhere it makes sense to have an aria, should this all be recitative, is the recitative too long.
And we would talk about things like energy and flow and drama and climaxes and, OK, where’s the peak in this scene, what’s going on here in the whole opera for that matter. And we might make little changes as we go along…I would say, Oh, this word doesn’t sing well because I’m up in this register, can you change that, and he would. Or we’d figure out a workaround.
Or, I’d give him the music, he would come over and I’d play something for him on the piano or my synthesizer and say, Does this sound like what you were envisioning? Or, and this is actually kind of interesting, I’d ask him to “give me a temp track [a recording of an existing piece of music] that in your mind inspired you to write whatever you’re thinking,” especially during an aria – “what’s the energy you’re thinking of here? Is it kind of dark, or funny, or jazzy, or serious, or kind of really gnarly?…” And then I think I had a strong enough sense of myself to not be drawn in to whatever he gave me, so I think nothing that I composed sounds like [the temp track] he gave me, it sounds like me, but it has a sense of the energy he gave me. For instance, he’s not a musician so he wouldn’t know that the feel he was thinking was in the meter 3/4…because that’s the rhythm of [his] words. I could tell by the rhythm of the text, the scansions.
It debuted in Nashville to great acclaim. Is there something about seeing an opera you’ve composed come to life on stage that’s rewarding in a different way than when it’s a piece of orchestral or chamber or choral music?
Oh, yeah. I have definitely been bitten by the opera bug. I love writing operas. And the reason is, unlike orchestra pieces where you write the piece, the players learn it, the conductor conducts it and then, your know, it happens, with opera there’s all these collaborators, the stage director and everybody else, the singers have their way they act the parts. And seeing that all come together was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever experienced, because you just get the sense that it’s this giant team effort.
I love being part of a team like that, there’s just a lot of love around what happened in Nashville, everybody was into it, it went really well, everybody was really excited, and, you know, composers, you live off that energy, you want people to be excited about your music and new music in general.
How involved are you, as the composer, in the staging and the rehearsal process?
Funny enough, and I think people have misconceptions of all this, I wasn’t really involved. I mean, I would say something – and I still am saying things, for the New York premiere – about little things, like if there was something wrong, but in general, John Hoomes, the director in Nashville, did a fantastic job, so there wasn’t much for me to say.
And I also have a philosophy of being somewhat hands-off, as long as the production doesn’t veer off so far from the original intent that it’s nothing like what it is, you know? Which could happen someday, and that’s OK, I get that, we’ve all seen crazy productions, but John stayed pretty close to our original intent, and added his own little flourishes, which was lovely, and Dave and I were both pretty hands-off with both the singers and him.
And John even, because he’s worked with so many composers, said look, don’t take this the wrong way, guys, but if you guys can not show up to the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, that would be great, just so I can work closely with the singers without having a fear of the composer and librettist breathing down our necks. It was fine, he was kidding, but…
But you see his point.
Oh, totally. It’s a very delicate and intricate process of working with the singers. And for New York, it’s the same production, the same singers, just different musicians.
Three Way is described as “squarely within the opera tradition…foregrounding narrative, character, and conflict, not using avant-garde or deconstructive gimmicks.”
That sounds like something Dave would say! [laughs]
In terms of composition, it seems that it would apply to you as well.
It’s rare that someone takes the time to check out my entire catalogue, but my music’s pretty diverse, and if you listen to some of my chamber music or other things I’ve written, it’s not that I only do melodic stuff, it’s just that I try to capitalize on what works well within the genre I’m in and also what’s going to get the greatest effect for what I think is needed.
I just don’t find there’s a one-size-fits-all attitude…say, trying to jimmy-rig an opera into being a pointillistic, abstract-sounding theater piece. So I want to capitalize on what I love about singers, what they do when they sing beautifully in the right ranges and so on. And so…we’re trying to use what we think are the best parts of the operatic tradition for the operas that have really worked throughout history and that we also love ourselves, and then coupling that with hopefully our own contemporary sensibilities.
People get the impression that opera, along with classical music in general, is a pretty – if not dying, at least a moribund art form. But you see new operas debuting all the time. Do you perceive that there’s an ongoing demand from audiences for new operas, or is it more that writing an opera is a challenge that composers appreciate and want to set for themselves? I guess what I’m driving at is, what’s your take on the state of opera today?
There are some composers out there who I really do feel are writing to audiences, almost like they’re trying to fix a problem through their writing. That’s fine. I don’t think of myself in that way, because I think you have to start with what you love first, and do what you love, and then, as they say, hopefully audiences will follow. But also, if you’re lucky what you love will also be aligned with what other people love, and I like to think that that’s what’s going on with me and Dave.
I think the word “opera” itself is problematic, and I think a lot of composers who work in the opera genre realize that. If you say the word “opera” to a plumber walking down the street who doesn’t know classical music, what he might think of is “that’s pretentious,” because they don’t know any better or they have stereotypes of what opera is, which is a) usually in a foreign language and b) about maybe lofty subjects that have nothing to do with contemporary life.
And that’s OK, we all love some operas that are like that, but some people would rather have something that’s more contemporary, about the world they live in at the time, and also maybe in [their own] language, and not Italian opera from 200 years ago. So that’s an issue that we grapple with, trying to deal with the perceived pretension of it.
But I think what we’re trying to do is create operas that we want normal people to really fall for, not just our peers.
So the first thing you have to do is get them in the seats. That’s the hardest part because we’re living in a television or computer culture.
Also a lot of people when they think of the opera think of places like the Met, where “I can’t afford those tickets.”
And the irony too, and this is one of my favorite points to make, is that people don’t think twice about spending $250 for a Lady Gaga concert. And some of those Met productions are wicked expensive to mount…
So that’s what we’re dealing with, people’s perception. And even the word “classical,” I’ll just say it, is another one I always find fraught with problems. What does that even mean? I mean, Helmut Lachenmann from Germany is way different from Bach, or, you know, me, or Philip Glass – I could name all kinds of composers, we’re all totally different.
It’s a tough thing for editors and writers like myself, too, to classify and define genres. How do we fit articles or reviews together? At Blogcritics, for example, we have a genre “concert music” specifically so we don’t have to say “classical,” although I’ll usually check off both categories.
And with that term, somebody’ll say, “What are you implying, that that stuff’s not for concerts?” “No, you’re missing the point!”
You can’t win.
You can’t win. “Art music,” that’s another one that sounds pretentious, but you’re like, well, do you think jazz or pop isn’t art?
I listened to your interview on The Portfolio Composer podcast about marketing yourself, “being yourself and expanding on that,” using yourself as a way to sell your music – how the audience will be interested in your work, if they’re interested in you.
I try to put myself out there – not every detail, but you might want to know or enjoy finding out that I’m very environmentally active, very into trying to prevent climate change. I’m vegan, so that’s a little weird. Little facts like that that personalize me or humanize me. But the way I view it is, just ultimately be yourself, that’s what I tell younger composers, don’t try to be somebody you’re not, and be proud of who you are, if indeed you’re trying to be a good person. There’s really no other way of doing it but sincere. I just try to portray myself honestly as much as I can.
You’re very prolific.
I try to be. It gets hard when you have an 11-year-old.
Well, see, that’s interesting too.
Yeah, I have a kid, a lot of composers don’t have kids. I find having a child has definitely changed me, in a good way. Certain subjects I’m hesitant to tackle now in the way I might have. Like somebody once asked me, would you do an opera on a serial killer, and I said maybe, and now that I have a kid, I might still do it, but dark things like hurting children, I can’t do it, it’s really hard for me…because I’ve been so sensitized to the world around me in a way I wasn’t before.