Composer  Mark  Adamo

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


A native of Willingboro Township, New Jersey, Mark Adamo (born August 1, 1962) attended Holy Cross High School in Delran Township, New Jersey. He attended New York University, where he received the Paulette Goddard Remarque Scholarship for outstanding undergraduate achievement in playwriting. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Music cum laude in composition in 1990 from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he was awarded the Theodore Presser prize for outstanding undergraduate achievement in composition.

At New York City Opera, he curated the contemporary opera workshop series VOX: Showcasing American Composers. Adamo served as master artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in May 2003. He has directed productions of his Little Women in Cleveland and Milwaukee, both of which were cited as among the best classical-music events of the year by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, respectively; and he has annotated programs for Stagebill, the Freer Gallery of Art, and most recently for BMG Classics. His criticism and interviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Stagebill, Opera News, The Star-Ledger, and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The journal on his self-titled website was named among the Best Music Blogs by Arts Journal in January 2008.

While he has composed the symphonic cantata "Late Victorians," "Four Angels: Concerto for Harp and Orchestra," and six substantial choral works, the composer's principal work has been for the opera house, as the composer and librettist of the highly regarded Little Women. He served as composer-in-residence for New York City Opera from 2001 to 2006, and the company gave the East Coast premiere of his new opera, Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess, in March to April 2006. Lysistrata, hailed as "a sumptuous love story, poised between comedy and heartbreak" by Alex Ross of The New Yorker, was David Gockley's last commission for the Houston Grand Opera, which gave the world premiere on March 4, 2005. Since its 1998 premiere by Houston Grand Opera, "Little Women" has been heard in over sixty-five international engagements, including a telecast over the PBS series "Great Performances" in August 2001. The opera was given its Asian premiere in May 2005, when New York City Opera's production of the piece was chosen as the U.S. exhibit for the World Expo in Tokyo and Nagoya. State Opera of South Australia gave the Australian premiere at the Adelaide Festival in May 2007, the International Vocal Arts Institute gave the Israeli premiere in Tel Aviv in July 2008, and Calgary Opera gave the Canadian premiere in January, 2010.

In January 2009, San Francisco Opera announced that it had commissioned Adamo to compose both the score and libretto for an opera entitled The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which, in the composers' words, "will draw on the Canonical Gospels, the Gnostic Gospels, and fifty years of scholarship to reimagine the New Testament through the eyes of its lone substantial female character." The company premiered the work on June 19, 2013, with Michael Christie conducting.

Adamo has lived with his husband, the composer John Corigliano, in New York City. The two were married in California by the conductor Marin Alsop in August 2008 (prior to the enactment of Proposition 8).

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In May of 2004, Mark Adamo was at Northwestern University for a production of his best-known work, Little Women.  He was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with me to discuss this opera, as well as his other activities.

Part of our conversation was aired on WNUR a couple of days later to promote the performances, and now I am pleased to present the entire chat.

Bruce Duffie:   You’ve mentioned that your life at the moment is going at a frenetic pace.

Mark Adamo:   That it is!
BD:   Are you able to keep all of the lines of the fugue separate and playing?

Adamo:   So far...  [Laughs]  Let’s hope that it continues in this way.  It’s an embarrassment of riches in many ways, because all of them are terrific things to be happening to a composer.  I’m returning to directing with Lyric Opera, Cleveland, doing a new production of Little Women there.  We also do a festival of new operas at City Opera every year called VOX, in which we do readings of new or unproduced operas, or pieces of music theater with the young singers and the orchestra of the company.  This year we’re actually combining with four other groups, and taking the whole festival up-town to Symphony Space, which is rather glamorous.  Then I must finish the vocal score of Lysistrata, which is my new piece for Houston and New York, and I found out yesterday that Opera Columbus is coming in as the third partner.  I’m also producing a recording of that as a cassette study tape, so the whole design team and the principals will have learned it well before they go into rehearsal.  So, any one of these things individually is the sort of thing you’d be grateful to do.  It’s the simultaneity I’m a little more ambivalent about, but there you are!  [Laughter]

BD:   Does this combination impact on your own original creativity?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, the world premiere in Dallas, in 2015, was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume.]

Adamo:   Yes, in ways good and ill.  ‘Ill’ is a strong word, but there is the problem when you are doing very public things that use a very different part of your brain and your emotions, than when you were sitting in a room and trying to conceive something.  The thing that makes running a festival really wonderful is not the thing that immediately makes it possible for you to sit at home and write something.  So, if I were in the midst of trying to compose this piece, I would probably be rather less cheerful.  There would be an undertone of panic in everything I’m saying.  But the nice thing now is that that period is more or less concluded, because even the orchestration of this piece is largely sketched out, and that is somewhat less conceptually demanding than making the whole shape of the opera... or at least it has been for me.

BD:   Sure.  You have the melody lines and the harmonies, and you have probably sketched out what instrumentation you want.

Adamo:   I orchestrated the first act first, and then did the piano vocal score.  I’m not completely content with that, and so I am revising the first act orchestration.  But that is the basis, the tonal palette for the second act.  So, the good news is that it’s not so
‘ill’ that way, and it does remind you of the actual context in which these things that we do exist.  So often, if there’s a moral flaw which isn’t what I want, there’s a temperamental flaw in composers as a tribe, and that is is that we do get so involved in the conception and the pace of the music that never gets outside our own ears.  So, we might not always be as sensitive as we could be to the demands of the directors and the designers and the singers, who would like to have the score earlier than just two weeks before you go up.  Number one is that it is satisfying personally because I like people, and number two, it helps keep you centered when you take those memories back to the desk and start writing again.  You remember that you are not only sketching something that has its own identity, but also needs to be learned by a lyric soprano in five weeks!  She cannot come in on her high B-flat if she’s been singing for three hours!

BD:   How far away from your conceptual ideal can you make the music so that it is will conform to the practicality of the theater?

Adamo:   So far, I have not had that problem because I started in the theater, so I learned those skills really before I went to a conservatory.  Up until the time I went to the conservatory, I thought that my career would follow much more the model of a Sondheim or a Bernstein than, say, a Menotti, or a Barber.  I always loved music, but I thought that you could not really claim the title of
composer unless you had a narrow but vivid catalogue of piano sonatas that were completed by the time you were nine.  I didn’t have a piano until I was sixteen, so I was writing plays and lyrics to songs.  When I got the piano, and was obsessively teaching myself to play, I still really thought about myself as a writer heading towards the music theater, and the goal was to become as much of a musician as to be a song-writer.  I thought maybe in the misty future I could do something like Candide.  Even when I went to music school, where I trained as a composer and did everything that a composer does, I still put that word ‘composer’ in mental quotes in my head.  I thought of myself as a song-writer with orchestral skills.  Then, even as I started writing more music and was being taken more seriously by musicians in Washington, it was really my collaborators there who said I was a composer!  At that point in my life, people were offering me orchestral commissions, and I wasn’t saying yes because I thought they were kidding.

BD:   Now you accept them?

Adamo:   Now I accept them, yes, yes!  Now I use the word ‘composer’ with gratitude!  But to come back to your question, my trajectory was much the theatrical, including the sense of the practical, and what really expanded was the musical means, and how I can make this a theatrical shape.  I also wanted to make it more usual, and incorporate materials that I wouldn’t have used before.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’ve used two terms, and I want to get you to talk a little bit about their similarities and differencesopera, and musical theater.
Adamo:   Oh, gosh!  How much tape do you have?  [Both laugh]  To start, for a librettist I don’t think that there should be any substantial differences at all.  Sometimes you hear a certain orientalism about the opera libretto.  The best opera librettos are those which make us laugh, and when we see them written down they don’t make sense.  That is really naïve, because if you had to read a play-script from nineteenth century Italy or Germany, we would laugh at those too, because the conventions have changed.  The reason we’d look at those librettos and think they are preposterous is not because opera demands the preposterous, but because our theatrical tastes in general have changed.  The real model for the opera libretto does need to be identical to the theater libretto, because the playwrights who have really mastered that have found ways to make important theatrical material available to music, which is what the skill is.  So, in that way, John Weidman, librettist of Assassins [the musical by Sondheim], is like Boito [librettist of Verdis final two operas, Otello and Falstaff].  There’s no difference there at all.  The primary difference for a composer is a sensitivity to the differences between the way amplified and acoustic performers perform, and the relative level of musical and dramatic skills that are inculcated culturally in the training of those performers.  An actress who does musical comedy will probably do television, whereas an actress who does opera will do recitals.  They’re both music dramaone from the point of view of music, and one from the point of view of drama, but ideally they fit in the middle.

BD:   Do you want to keep this divide?

Adamo:   Oh, no.  Hell no!  The idea of orientalizing opera as this kind of artistic, historical, unintelligible, prestige item is one of the things that has given the form as little help as has been for the past fifteen years.  The twin premieres of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles [1983] and John Adams’s Nixon in China [1987] within a few years of each other were both conspicuous pieces in very different worlds.  The whole idea was that the new pieces were the heart of the repertory, which is how new operas were always thought to be until recently.  In a biography of Verdi, the author was describing a season where there was a world premiere, and one or two of his recent pieces.  There were a bunch of other contemporary pieces, but all the talk that year was Norma, a piece from forty years previous.  The novelty of that was because it was a contemporary theater.

BD:   And Verdi was looking for the newest work?

Adamo:   Right.  In the past fifteen years, composers have embraced again the idea of an intelligent general audience, so it’s not supposed to be a private communication by public means, about which the less said, the better.  You have the composers doing this; you have supertitles; you have companies who are realizing that, in a certain way, the goal to be the most traditional is to be the most contemporary.

BD:   Is it part of your responsibility as the composer, and often the librettist too, to push this forward and to bring the opera back into the mainstream?

Adamo:   I feel very self-conscious about that, because we’re not repertory-driven in the same way.  An opera company can produce standard masterpieces for the rest of its natural life, and as long as audiences have the habit of accepting them, it’s fine.  But we are at a moment historically where people don’t want new operas, so as a composer I feel it
s my job is to do something that is so exciting, and so immediate, and so vital, and so directly involved with the way we hear now, that when you go back to Mozart, you think he was good, too, I guess!  [Both laugh]  I believe that, I do, I do.

BD:   Do you want to abolish the standard repertory???

Adamo:   I don’t want to abolish it, but I want to put it in an appropriate context.

BD:   In a changed perspective?
Adamo:   Yes!  The Marriage of Figaro is a great piece, but it is an old piece.  There are things that carry through which are timeless, but most of it isn’t timeless.  What we are so much more accustomed to is a broader range of tone color than the modest dissonances in that eighteenth century paradigm.  They do not strike us in the same way that it struck those ears, and that’s appropriate.  We’re not living in the eighteenth century.  Yes, we respect Mozart.  We marvel at something this remote that can still speak to us, but we don’t pretend that it’s immediate.  The mistake is pretending The Marriage of Figaro is a contemporary piece, and that somehow it
s going to speak to us like a new composer would.

BD:   Does this put any special responsibility on you to make your pieces last, or are you expecting to be eclipsed in fifty or a hundred years?

Adamo:   That’s an interesting question, because on the one hand you want to make your pieces as good as they possibly can be.  So to the extent that this will imply that they can endure, sure!  The problem is that you don’t want to get caught in the posterity syndrome, because that can all too often lead to excusing yourself from the artistic criteria of your time with the idea that, “Well, they don’t get it yet, the poor dears, but they will in a hundred years.”  I don’t play that card.  My feeling is that it has to speak now to my community, and wouldn’t it be lovely if it were done in fifty years?  I won’t be here, and if it’s not being done in fifty years, and you found another composer who’s writing better opera, great!  Do him instead of me!

BD:   Then should they pull your CDs off the shelf once in a while?

Adamo:   If they want to!  [Laughs]  I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but opera is really alone among the art forms.  The idea that the old pieces should speak to us doesn
t hold because there is not a comparable stress on the new as there is in the theater and in film.  Imagine if in Hollywood there were six films that kept being remade, and the talk was about Martin Scorsese’s Gone with the Wind.  It’s the biggest burning of Atlanta scene ever, and it has nothing on Franco Zeffirelli’s version.  And next he’s doing Camille, and Cameron Diaz is doing her first Camille.  The natural stress would be on what these film-makers are doing next.  Even in the theater, where the aesthetics of revival is creeping in and calcifying the music theater, there is still always more energy at the opening night of a new piece, and in new plays.  We want to know what Tom Stoppard and David Mamet are coming up with.  Only in opera is that not true, and somehow that’s supposed to be appropriate.  That’s why I exaggerate this point.  Ideally, we might have a repertory structured even in thirds, with one part the new or contemporary pieces, one third works like Chabriers Étoile, or whatever Handel opera is still awaiting a twentieth century premiere, and then a third for the standard repertory.  There is an extent to which an opera house has to assume a curatorial role.  When people say that opera is a museum, yes, that’s part of its honorable function, but it’s also got to be a contemporary theater.  I don’t think we’re ever really going to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, or La Traviata on their own terms unless we have a contemporary operatic practice through which to compare.  Giving the edge to go to The Ghosts of Versailles because we’re heard Figaro, it would serve La Bohème as well.  Bohème is the equivalent of a staple, like butter, eggs, or cheese that you keep in your larder.  When it comes back, you remember why it’s still there.

BD:   You
re looking for more of a balance?

Adamo:   Yes, but that could be done in programming.  You don’t do Bohème all the time, even if a producer would say that people only come to Bohème.  The problem is that we have had the better part of the century of a repertory paradigm, and the audience likes what’s being done.  But that audience is shrinking, and I have to say this, although it’s going to sound so aggrandizing, but Little Women is being done hither and yon, and in some seasons it will be outsell Bohème!  [Both laugh]  But it’s not just my piece.  Jake Heggie’s pieces have gotten a revival.  William Bolcom
s A View from the Bridge is getting around a bit.  In a certain way, the revival spell has been broken, because it needs so many times for a piece to be done.  Ironically, if it fails, you never hear it again, but if it succeeds, you also never hear it again.  The whole idea is that the second production is the important production, and I have gotten very lucky with mine.  Little Women was revived almost as soon as the last chord sounded at the premiere.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When Little Women comes up again, do you tinker with it at all, or is it completely set?  [Incidentally, the UK premiere of Little Women in 2022, in Holland Park, on the Western edge of central London, was conducted by Sian Edwards.]

Adamo:   It’s set only because I tinker so much up front.  One of the things that producers wish I would do, either differently or less, is outlining.  I tend to spend a long time thinking about the structure of the piece before I write it.  I do not have the mistaken belief that structure is where a piece lives or dies, but if there is something unstable at the core of the piece, the most ravishing flute obligato at the top of the second act is not going to save it.  Before I get going, I wonder what’s the big potential of the message of this piece?  Why do we need this piece now?  What does Little Women have to say to us in 1998?  I wrote a big pretentious twenty-page essay just to clarify my own thinking.  Why do we keep coming back to these women?  What is it that we don’t get anywhere else, and then how can I write that down in terms of playable dramatic terms?  Then I did an outline that shows me in as minute detail as possible, how that will play without language, just in terms of plotting stage actions on which a cast of actors and directors can build a performance.  Then before going to the libretto, I asked myself how I could express in symphonic terms this design of acting gestures to make that point because it’s not going to be in the language.  How can I come up with a motific mirror of this process?  Putting all those ideas through various drafts, I came up with a libretto which contained within it the first structural draft of the score.  So, by the time I actually get to words and music, it almost feels like orchestration.  So, when the score arrived for rehearsal, I think I cut ten bars, and between the premiere and the revival, which was when it was published, I cut another ten bars, and that was it.  But that’s because I had rewritten it endlessly up front, on the assumption that I would much rather go back over and over the same ten pages than to have a 500-page vocal score where act two doesn’t work, and that seems to be echoing itself in the new piece.  It just took forever to come up with the first draft, but when I show it to people, no one has said they want it to be different.

BD:   Do you have any expectations on the part of the audience that they will have read the Alcott book Little Women?
Adamo:   I tried to make the piece intelligible to someone who had never heard of it.  That is incumbent on a composer if they’re adapting anything, quite frankly.  In terms of adaptation, your familiarity or an audience’s familiarity can be as much of a hindrance as a help.  If you’re adapting a terrific novel or play, either the structure of the play or the novel, or our own memories of its greatness are going to help you, and the reverse is also true.  If you’re going to apply a language, one of the things that you need to know is that as soon as you put a projected voice and the acoustic orchestra under it, the first thing you’re going to lose is the language of the original source.  If you’re loving the original work from the sound of the sentences, that will not be there.  You have to look at it structurally.

BD:   Your next project is Lysistrata, which is the old play.

Adamo:   Yes.

BD:   Are you ever going to do something that is completely original?

Adamo:   [Laughs]  If you saw the libretto of this, Aristophenes would be on the phone to us because it is entirely too original for his tastes.  Surely, I kind of excavated it.  It’s superficially radical, because the cuts are rather different from its history of adaptation.  My theme is her theme.  It was there, and I just brought it up.  I essentially took the premise and the title of three scenes, and I wrote a new play into which I inserted both.  In many ways, the original, which is very strong, is a political propaganda piece, and is a one-sided piece in the form of a sexual vaudeville.  Yet we remember it as more in the tradition of The Taming of the Shrew than Arms and the Man.  We remember the erotic conflict and the civic discord as a metaphor for the auto-conflict, not the other way round.  In the original play, the question of the value of war is never entertained.  We all know it’s a terrible idea, which makes it strong as propaganda but weak as drama.  So what I did was fillet 60% of it.  I kept those three things and changed all the characters.  I made up a new set of male characters, and came up with something rather different!  To answer your question, I would love to do something entirely original, but to go back to this adaptation, everything has to be entirely original in a certain way, and you have to feel strongly about it as if it were original.  You have to write it as if I made it up, because the characters wouldn’t have helped me here unless I had decided that I agree with that premise, and would have written them myself.  I wanted to do something like this, so I looked at the play, and thought no, this is not what I want.  But I kept coming back to it, and I thought that if I cut most of it and build a new piece around it, then I could do it before I depart this mortal coil.

BD:   Now you’re working on Lysistrata, and you’ve got Little Women coming back again, and again, and again.  Are you thinking in terms of the one which will follow?

Adamo:   People keep asking me that, and wondering if I can top this.  Virtually every good thing that could happen to a piece has happened to Little Women.  

BD:   I just wondered if you would want to stop and write a string quartet.

Adamo:   [Laughs]  Oh, boy, wouldn’t that be something!  There is something to the notion of the sheer bigness of all of this.  You’re solving the problem of hundreds of people, and there’s a part of you that wonders if it wouldn
t be easier if I were writing a twenty-minute piano piece.  [Laughs]  It would only be on two staves!  Actually, I’m doing my first piece for the National Symphony, which is a concerto for harp and orchestra.  It’s a twenty-five-minute piece, so the idea is that it’s a substantial piece in orchestral terms.  One of the things that is lovely about opera is also the thing that takes it out of the realm of pure music.  Its a mix of drama and music, so you don’t want it to be pure.  You want it to be complete.  In orchestral music, there is the idea that can you make structure simply out of timbre, and color, and pitch, and rhythm.

BD:   Is your harp concerto going to be a wordless opera?

Adamo:   No, I really didn’t want to do that.  Initially I thought I could make this sort of a dramatic symphony.  It really does use a different side of your brain, and that was part of the point, because everything I do is so blended most of the time.  For the concerto, I thought I’d just work purely musically to give the illusion of an argument without ever specifying its terms.  You want it to have a kind of sense that you can’t identify, but you can believe.  There are so many things I want to do, and I’m getting to do most of them.

BD:   Then how do you decide which offers you will select, and which offers you will turn aside?

Adamo:   The harp concerto was my first orchestral commission without words, so of course I did that.

BD:   But I assume your mailbox is stuffed with offers.  How do you select from them?

Adamo:   I am saying no a lot more than I thought, just because I have to.  You want to say yes to everyone who is elegant enough to offer you an opportunity, but you really can’t.  One of the things that takes care of it is that an opera takes a long time.  Even though I work relatively quickly, compared to other people, it will still take me a couple of years of a steady work to put something together that’s really ready to go.  Little Women was about a year on the outlining, and then nine months in the composition.  [Laughs]  It would have been a little better if it had been ten months... the joke I tell is that I wrote this piece in nine months, and I’ve spent five years correcting the orchestral errors!  But when you tell people you’d love to do a work for them if they could wait four years, that doesn’t always happen.  But I must say that whatever else I do, the opera house is my place.  It is my home.  It uses more of what I do, and I just feel completely energized by engaging those challenges.  The bad news is that it will go through my brain twenty-four hours a day, and sometimes I will have no idea how to solve a problem.  But I am never oppressed by that.  I never feel like I wish I had a different problem.  This is the problem I want to have.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When this work, or another of your works, is taken to Europe, should it be done with English with supertitles, or should it be translated?

Adamo:   Gosh, that’s another interesting question!  My initial response would be to use supertitles, only because they do seem to be ubiquitous of late.  The reason I like that rather than the translation issue, which does raise its own headaches, is that it does leave the option up to the audience.  We have supertitles even when we do something in English for an American audience.  People ask if I really want them, or if I feel it’s a perversion of the communicative gesture, but as a composer I want the audience never to have to look.  My goal is in setting the words, and in the orchestration, because a lot of the intelligibility is not totally due to the singers’ diction.  A singer can have diction that will take your side-burns off at a hundred feet, and if I have mis-accented the word, or put the vowel in a register where that vowel can’t be pure, you won’t hear the word, and it won’t be her fault.  So, it is incumbent on me to solve that problem.  But having said that, even in the spoken theater there’s always something you miss, particularly if you’re in the back seats of the theater.  At the same time, though, what that question raises is the fact that only in this country in the past hundred years was the tradition of using the original language observed.  A hundred years ago, if you heard Carmen in Italy, you heard it in Italian, and if you heard it in Germany, you heard it in German.  This goes back to our earlier point that it’s supposed to be a contemporary theatrical experience.  It is not this ethnic-cultural art effect, attendance at which confirms your socio-economic status, which all too often was how opera was first presented here in the US.  It was imported as a gilded age luxury.  It was imported by robber barons to show that they have culture!  I respect that historically, but that’s not a recipe for the health of the form.

BD:   Do you want your audience to be the modern-day robber barons, or modern-day ordinary folk, or both?
Adamo:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s also an interesting question, because when you think about it, the form really began as a salon entertainment for the aristocracy.  Then, in the nineteenth century it became a middle-class thing.  The one good thing about opera being put in the high-art folder rather than the show-business folder is that it is expected to speak seriously about serious issues.  I enjoy Hairspray [originally a 1988 film by John Waters, later made into a 2002 musical, which won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical], but it doesn’t have a whole lot to tell us other than Harvey Fierstein looks fabulous in a blue wig!  [Both laugh]  There is a place for that, and I’m not trying to dismiss it, but the great thing about operatic theater, as in the serious theater of Gershwin and Bernstein, is that when Gershwin wants to talk about real issues, he goes to the opera house for Porgy and Bess.

BD:   So, you want to make sure that there is a place for the opera, as well as the place for Hairspray?

Adamo:   Yes absolutely!  A world without Hairspray would be a terrible thing, but I don’t use Hairspray’s criteria to oppress mine.  Let me be clear about this...  Hairspray has suffered less from the presence of the opera, than opera has suffered from the presence of Hairspray.  If you go back to the
20s and 30s, the whole Frankfurt school decided that entertainment which reached a mass audience was, alas, a tool of the over-lords, merely propaganda films.  It was all just top-down stuff dedicated to make you dumb.  There was high-art that spoke to the human condition, of course, but it was unintelligible.  That was how you knew it was true.  [Both laugh]  John says that in Wagner’s career there was the moment where the artists stopped speaking for God or to God, and started speaking as God, and from that kind of hyper-romanticismwhich was so intelligible, but was also curdled into its own kind of cultthat you got the reaction of modernism, which wanted to maintain that prestige by putting as much distance from that rhetoric as possible.  Then came the Second Viennese School, which was all tyranny of that kind of thinking.  We continued to get to this cycle of action-and-reaction ever since, because the other thing that came in was mass culture.  All of a sudden, film and television became the home entertainment system.  In the nineteenth century it was the piano, and now it’s something that you plug in.  So we’ve lost an audience that was accustomed to the idea of live performance, including people who played just for their own entertainment.

BD:   You’re not going to write an interactive opera, are you???

Adamo:   Ask me again in five years!  [More laughter]  Who knows?  But because opera was part of that high-culture category, the idea of intelligibility became suspect.  Again, there are different criteria than a solo piano recital, especially if it’s in a theater with 300 or 1,000 seats.  That goes back to the Greeks, where there was high-artistic merit in speaking of something that is germane to your community, even a community for that night which was assembled for these discussions.  So it’s a very important idea.  It’s one of the oldest and most beautiful ideas in western culture, and opera, in a certain way, is the direct descendant of that.  Opera is our Greek theater, and the idea that through one or another historically intelligible but intellectually understandable heart-breaking reasons, the whole opportunity of this kind of commune was thrown out the window for a hundred years.  That’s why I think that opera has got to reach out to a mass audience.  Not to pander, not to be show-business in the cheap diverting way, but to say that you can have all of it.  You can have something that reaches you in an entertaining way, and yet is giving you something that you are presumably coming to us for when you’re tired of shining entertainments that are just there to take you from after work and before dinner.  There’s a place for that, but not this.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Adamo:   I am, yes!  [Bursts out laughing]  I would be, wouldn’t I?  There are many things that have been happening to me, particularly when I get out of New York and go around the country.  Both in colleges and in small companies, the model is beginning to shift.  There’s always been less resistance.  The idea of new music versus old music has always been less politicized outside of New York, because New York is very self-conscious about being a taste-maker.  But more and more around the country, you will see exactly this kind of model season
the new piece, the unusual piece, and the standard repertory piece.  Supertitles have really restored the theatrical immediacy to the experience.  It is as little remote from you as if you were seeing a foreign film subtitled, which is not terrible.  It’s a lot closer than reading a synopsis and knowing what everything is going to be, which really makes it into this ‘art’ effect where you’re not supposed to be engaged.  You’re supposed to trust that it was engaging if it were in Italian and you didn’t know what was happening next.  The other thing that is grossly underserved is the idea that the singers who are coming out of conservatories and training programs are better than singers have ever been in terms of musicianship, intelligence, and both dramatic and musical adventurousness.  You’re getting a whole class of performers who can do the standard repertory exquisitely, but have got the skills and the sense of adventure so you can go someplace new.  So, composers are not working in a vacuum anymore.  Look at the careers of people like Renée Fleming and Susan Graham, or Flicka [Frederica von Stade].  Twenty years ago, when there was a new-music singer, the assumption was that she’s doing new music because she can’t sing La Bohème!  Fleming is singing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire [André Previn], and she commissioned and premiered a big song cycle [Valentines] of Aaron Jay Kernis.  For the first time in a long time, the new-music singer and the leading operatic diva are the same person.  Dawn Upshaw is in that category as well, though she’s more in the classic new-music vein.  Thats just because its her interest.  It’s not a hard-and-fast division.  So yes, I am very optimistic, actually.  There’s one hurdle we have to get over at some point, which is the role of amplification.  We need to figure that out because right now we have the argument with the acoustic fundamentalists, who say we can’t possibly let a microphone near the opera house.  The whole thing will implode!  [Both have a huge laugh]  That’s really not true, because arguably amplification or electronics are just the latest technological innovation.  The Bayreuth opera house is a sound-design system.  Bringing the trombone into the opera house orchestra was a sound design system, and historically composers have always been at the forefront of that.  At the same time, I don’t think the idea of sound-design or electronic components is yet an art.  Our system at the opera is there to correct acoustic problems, but we’re not really using it as a color.  You don’t want it just to be synthesizers and people whispering.  But that’s the last thing, because once it’s there, there’s nothing to keep it from being an absolutely high-octane contemporary theater that powers the best of the past forward, and yet is as available to us as cinema.

BD:   I assume you’re pleased with where you are at this moment of your career?

Adamo:   Oh, I’m having a fabulous time, I must say.  I would like to sleep this weekend!  [Both laugh]  A conductor told me that if you’re working on a piece and it’s going through your head all the time, the Italians say you have earworms.  So, I love my life except for the occasional case of the earworms!  Apart from that, I’m as happy as I need to be.

BD:   I look forward to watching your career as it develops and continues along.

Adamo:   I do too!

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today.

Adamo:   Thank you, Bruce.  It was fun.

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© 2004 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on May 14, 2004.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR two days later.  An un-edited copy of the audio was given to the Northwestern University Opera Department.  This transcription was made in 2024, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.