Composer Jack Beeson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Proud of the fact that he was from middle America, Jack Beeson spent
his life composing and teaching and enriching the musical landscape
with a wide variety of works. Despite all of this, he is known as
an opera composer, a sobriquet that is completely justified.
While not being part of the standard repertoire, several of his operas
are known and recorded, and have a secure place in the general
knowledge of both performers and audiences. Their melodies are
singable, their harmonies are pleasing, and their subjects are pure
Americana. A bit more about these specific works can be found at
the end of this webpage.
In the summer of 1986, I arranged to speak with the composer on the
telephone. He had been having trouble with the service to his
retreat in the woods, so he had the phone company install, as he told
hundred fifty feet of new line through the woods.”
When we settled down for our conversation, I told him he was coming
through loud and clear, and he replied, “Well,
that’s fine. It’s the first time in a
year it’s been very good. I
told them I had
to be free by four, and that radio people were punctual.”
Here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . .
You’ve been at Columbia University now for a number of
BD: How had
the teaching of composition
changed in forty-one years?
JB: I rather
imagine that teaching composition
hasn’t changed very much, at least where I am. I learned a good
deal about how to go about it from Otto Luening, who I was assisting at
first, and who’s still very much alive and kicking and thinking.
Yes. I had a nice
interview with him a year or so back, and did a program. [See
my Interview with Otto
JB: Well, he
talks about those earlier days. I
started there in the fall of ‘45, actually, so this makes forty-one
years. My own thought about teaching composition is pretty
much that of my last teacher, Béla Bartók, with whom I
was able to work during his last
year off and on. He took me on, and as far as I know —
at least it is said — that I’m the
only American student of composition of his. It’s
probably true. I knew that he didn’t teach composition but had
always taught piano. That was why I wrote a short letter to
him in the summer of ’44, and told him that I understood that he didn’t
teach composition. I rather imagined that I understood why, but I
thought — and this is the sentence that apparently did it — that it
be possible for somebody to learn something from someone who thought he
couldn’t teach it! [Both laugh] That apparently intrigued
him and so we worked
that year. In fact I’m inclined to think that he had rather the
right idea, because people who are not talented you can’t do very much
with, except to show them some elements of the craft, which almost
anybody can learn, and lots of very intelligent people do. And
those who have a great deal of talent — or creative talent, as it’s
called, or ideas — can learn the craft and then will probably do pretty
much what they would do without anybody looking over the
shoulder. I’m inclined to believe that
it’s possible to show somebody where an abyss is that he’s headed for
— the abyss being some sort of compositional problem — but
that only the untalented won’t try the abyss; the talented ones
will fall in and find their own way out of it. I’m not quite sure
that teaching composition is like teaching French or physics or
writing a piece of music, where is the balance between inspiration and
JB: When we
at school at Eastman, a friend of mine said he was inclined to think
that anybody who composed
for a few years would find the technique which was
adequate, or more than adequate for what it was that he had to
express. So, I’m not quite sure that there is much difference
between the two.
BD: Do you
feel that the students who are coming
along, the ones you have had over these forty years, have sufficient
amount of inspiration?
JB: You mean
as a whole?
Collectively or individually.
JB: Oh, no,
certainly not. I suppose I’ve had
several hundred students of composition. We actually have about
sixty, and have had for the last few years in the graduate school in
the MA and the DMA, so I’ve run into an awful lot of them. Many
them have what you were calling technique, that is to say they can move
the notes around in some cogent fashion. But some of those who
move them around with a great deal of knowledge, don’t move them around
to very much effect. That’s what I meant by saying that a person
who has some intelligence and some ingenuity and who sticks to it, can
write music. There isn’t anything very mysterious about it.
What’s rather more mysterious is why it is that some pieces appeal to
somebody besides the composer. And by the way, there are some
write music whose music doesn’t appeal to them, either!
JB: Well, I
think that’s true. It’s one of the
reasons that many people give it up. Any
composer who looks back over a few or many years to the time when he
was a student, and finds out what it is that his once-upon-a-time
colleagues and peers are doing at the moment, will find that
most of them have dropped out of composing in any serious way. I
don’t find that terrible in the least if they find something else
which seems to them more fruitful.
the fact that so many drop out, are
there still too many young composers coming along?
JB: There are
some people who say that there
are. It depends on what you mean by too many. If one thinks
that composing is a happy thing to do — whether
they get many
performances or recordings or publications or not — then
probably sufficient for them. If one talks about the number of
outlets that there are for composers, then there are too many, or there
are too few outlets. But there always
have been too many composers for the number of outlets, I suppose.
BD: It seems
we’ve had almost an exponential
development in the number of composers.
been a very large number of them,
especially since the Second World War. I know of a couple of
distinguished composers who think there are too many and that they
should be stopped! [Both laugh] I don’t quite know how you
go about doing
that. People stop of their own volition, or against their own
volition, but at any rate, they do stop. There are some
people whose ambitions are such that a fairly large number of
performances, recordings, publications and acclaim of one sort or
another is what they’re after. So when they find that there
isn’t enough for them, then they decide to try something else where
their ambitions might succeed better.
BD: You seem
to be one of the few composers who is
also a major professor who is performed widely. Does that
surprise you at all?
JB: It would
surprise me if it’s true.
When one writes operas, the performances that one gets bring about a
good deal of fuss in newspapers, and talk and so forth, but the sheer
numbers of those is actually not very large. There are lots of
people who write chamber music pieces who are really
very widely performed, even when their music is not, let’s say, popular
or popular to very many people outside the composing field.
Composing opera, in a way, is a little bit like
playing very large slot machines, I’ve always said. You put in a
great deal of energy, time, and money and tears, and they don’t pay
off very often. But the pay-offs that do come are
large, in the sense of what I was speaking a moment ago. A
two-hour opera is something that doesn’t get performed that often, and
when it does, it might be because the company that does it is looking
for publicity, because it has a premiere, let’s say.
often thought that it’s not too
hard to get a first performance, but it’s very difficult to get a
second performance. Is that true?
absolutely right! You’re talking
JB: It’s absolutely
true, and it’s one of the sad
things about writing such pieces. There are
also a lot of operas that have been written that sit around in
somebody’s drawer — usually not in the
publisher’s, but that has also
happened — and that are not performed at
all. When there is a
performance it’s a first performance and as I say, the company is
interested in premieres. As a matter of fact, most companies are
not interested in anything but premieres. One might say that
most companies don’t want to do contemporary opera anyhow, for reasons
that are understandable. But at least if they do the world
premiere, the critics show up and there’s a big brouhaha in the press
— however it comes out — and then a
second performance doesn’t bring them
that big crowd. Kansas City is one of the few companies — perhaps
the only one — that for a couple of decades made a point of
doing second performances of works that received a good deal of acclaim
when they were first performed. Vanessa,
for example, was done at
the Met in two seasons, and then they took it to Salzburg. After
that it sat
around, and so far as I know it wasn’t performed by anybody in
the United States or anywhere else for quite some years until Kansas
City picked it up. Since that time there have been a few
performances, but that’s a rather spectacular example both of
the fuss that was made — including a Pulitzer
Prize when it was taken
the first time around — and then nobody picking
it up. One would
think that lots of people would, but as I say, the companies mostly
want the premieres and that can happen only once.
BD: Do you
consider yourself an opera composer?
JB: I do,
only because everybody else does and I’ve
caught the habit of thinking so. It’s actually not true, but
people who write a number of such pieces get to be known as opera
composers, and in fact the other pieces they may have written are
somehow not noticed, or they are forgotten about. Actually, I
about a hundred and eight works and eight of those are operas, so that
leaves a hundred of them that aren’t.
BD: Is this a
on the part of the public to lump all of your works into two
categories and give the wrong emphasis to the one category?
JB: I don’t
know; I’m not the one to say.
Perhaps people are correct and the others are less interesting to most
people. All I’d say is it’s not unlike what goes on in the
big world, in theater and the movies. Playwrights,
directors, actors, actresses are all type cast, and many of them find
themselves playing the same role which they became famous for, and
though they could do other things, they’re not given an opportunity.
BD: Do you
ever try to break out of that and say,
“Here is a symphony that I really want to get done,” and try and create
I have one, dating back to the
late fifties, and it doesn’t get done much. I don’t think anybody
pays much attention to the fact that it exists as it does. It’s
even published and recorded!
BD: What is
the ultimate purpose of music?
JB: I’m not
very good at answering questions of that
sort. Sometimes I think it’s less important, actually, than it’s
made out to be. That’s partly because the idea of
deciding what’s good and what’s bad is such a subjective thing, and
these days in particular, much of what gets done and much of what is
thought to be worthy of getting done is based on all kinds of other
things than the music itself. Obviously, its main purpose, I
suppose, is to give pleasure both to the writer and to the performer,
presumably to the listeners.
you’re writing a piece, do you write it
for all of those people, or just one segment?
also a difficult question to answer
because painters, writers, composers like to think that they
are doing it only for themselves, and in the long run
that’s not quite true. To speak of composers, they
write for listeners who are like themselves, and hope to find a great
many of them, and generally don’t find as many as they’d like.
But others then have to be considered. One doesn’t just write
down anything he feels like writing for
performers, because it might be that one felt like writing something
the performers can’t do either individually or in ensemble or under a
conductor. So there is a compromise, or rather it’s
not so much a compromise as doing what’s possible to do. It’s
also true that one has different audiences in mind. If one
writes a string quartet, for example, there need be only four people
besides the composer, who himself might be one of the performers, that
bring it to life. Whereas if one’s doing it for an opera house,
there will be an audience of anywhere from a thousand, perhaps a
few less, to three or four thousand. Most of those are not
musicians and have come for a theatrical
performance. So that music which might work for four people is
not going to work for four thousand, not to speak of the
difference in playing with string quartets and having an orchestra, a
conductor, and people on stage.
BD: Well what
do you expect of the
public that comes to hear the work of Jack Beeson?
JB: First of
all, I would expect that they’d come, and from then on it’s what
happens. [Both laugh] I don’t know that I expect anything,
particularly or specifically.
BD: Do you
feel that you and your
writings fit into a continuum of composers that goes back through the
centuries, and may continue forward through the centuries?
composers, willy-nilly, are part of a
continuum. There isn’t anybody who’s writing
music that isn’t indebted, whether consciously or unconsciously, to
some composers of the past, and I suppose a logician would say to all
composers of the past. The other part of the question, about the
future, has to do with whether he’s on some sort of mainline, which he
can’t know because the mainline continues in ways that one can’t
predict, or whether he’s on some sort of side road which maybe comes
to a dead end.
Dictionary says that your music has “enlightened
utilitarianism.” What is meant by that?
[Laughs] I’ve seen that several
times. The man who wrote that is greatly talented in finding a
few words to sum up his impressions of what a composer is, and I’ve
always rather enjoyed it. I suppose he’d be the one to ask what
meant, but — and this is my reading of
it, a subjective one, maybe an optimistic one — the utilitarianism has
do with the fact that I don’t see much point in doing things that don’t
have some effect. That’s a quick statement to the large point of
view, if you like. To revert to what I was saying earlier, I
don’t see the point to writing an opera which is conceived in musical
and dramatic terms that would be better suited to a string
quartet. There are some people who have written operas — I’m not
naming them — who write in such a complex fashion that the music would
better suited to a chamber music ensemble in which the players can make
use of all the nuance that the composer can think of, and the audience
can understand those nuances inside a small theater or a concert
hall. If a person does that for an opera house, he’s
lost. So it would be utilitarian, it seems to me, to write the
music so that it’s appropriate to the kind of larger scale
circumstances in which the performance takes place. As far as the
word ‘enlightened’ is concerned, maybe he thinks that I go out of my
way to be as careful
as I can in treating the materials and the instruments and the voices
inside this vaguely utilitarian circumstance. One might easily
say that it isn’t very utilitarian to write operas in the first place
these days, but that’s what I suppose he means.
BD: Do you
agree with his
yeah. I like it.
BD: Do you go
out of your way to be sure that
you write music that can be understood?
JB: I think I
do, but of course all kinds of
composers, including composers of the most complex music, are under
this impression, which is often a misapprehension. I think every
composer, whether he is a student or whether he’s a grown-up, discovers
sooner or later — preferably sooner — that what he
thinks he’s projecting is not necessarily being projected at all to
those who hear it. It happens all the time. Just as
one is supposed to know himself — “know thyself,”
as the Greeks put it — one
should know something about his music, and have some impression as to
what realistically he is likely to be able to project. But however one
thinks he knows himself, one constantly discovers that those things he
thinks are clear to everybody else are not, and that they sometimes
pick up what seem to be details and make a big fuss about them.
This is particularly true of music critics, I
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] What’s the role of the music critic?
JB: It is
simply to work on a
newspaper or a magazine for pay, to attend concerts and operatic
performances, and write down what took place. It’s in a sense
that simple, isn’t it?
BD: Is there
any difference between a critic and a
JB: Do you
mean by a reviewer somebody who writes in
a monthly magazine or a quarterly?
BD: This is
am asking, or is it just a difference in terms?
are sometimes not paid; let’s put it
that way. They will also work on a longer time scale, and
think about it longer. I was answering your first question as to
critics. There is a difference between the
two, to be sure.
reading in the Opera
Quarterly about the Lizzie
Borden, it said that you
wrote the opera without any hope of it being performed.
BD: Is this
really the way a composer should go about
writing things, without any hope of it ever seeing the light of day?
JB: Depending on
what you mean by ‘should’,
way lots of composers have done it in the past. It’s certainly a
much happier circumstance to know beforehand that there’s some purpose
to what it is that you’re doing, but I’ve often not had that
luxury. Lizzie was
written without a hope of performance, yes. The
first opera I wrote, Jonah,
was written that way, and has actually
never been performed. The second one, Hello Out There, was
written without a hope of performance, but it was written as a chamber
work and a more accessible piece, partly because I thought there might
be more chance of getting it performed in workshop circumstances, as I
was myself working in a workshop. It’s
been performed many, many, many times — lots of productions here and
BD: Does it
alter your compositional style, or your
thrust of composing, to know in advance that it’s going to be performed?
JB: I don’t
think it does, except in one practical
way. If one is writing a piece on commission for a
particular opera company, then one’s way of going about it is
different because he may very well have some idea about who might be
singing it. If that’s the case, then the part would be written —
tailor-made — for a particular singer or a particular size
house, or whatever. There’s only one piece that was
commissioned before I wrote it, for which I knew all the circumstances
and who might get to be singers, and that’s the Doctor Heidegger’s
Fountain of Youth, which is a very small piece. It was
written for a particular space. The
other pieces, even when I knew they might be performed by some
particular company later, I didn’t know who would perform them, and so
they were not tailor-made. In one instance, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines,
Sheldon and I started it without knowing
who would perform it, without a commission. The commission came
later. It was written actually with Beverly Sills in mind, and I
had some hope that City Opera might do it. But I didn’t have that
hope until well into the piece, and then it
looked as though she was going to do it. Had it worked out, it
would have been her final work in the City Opera, and she didn’t want
to do comedy for
that piece. Then I was asked by Julius Rudel if I would write an
opera without his telling me who would be doing it, on commission for
the City Opera. I turned him down because I didn’t think the
librettist and the subject were right for me, and besides I was busy
scoring Jinks at the
time. It was only later that I
discovered that it was a piece that he’d intended for Sills, and I
suppose it was her idea to ask me to do it. The subject he had in
mind had several mad scenes in it. Since she was very partial to Lizzie Borden,
which has one mad scene in it — well, maybe two — I’ve always supposed
this was not altogether coincidence. But, in fact, I didn’t write
Menotti wrote La Loca [The
Crazy One] which has lots of mad scenes in it, so
there’s some substance to my supposition. [See my Interviews with Gian
Carlo Menotti.] [Both laugh] To come back to your
question, though, I just
haven’t had that luxury. There was some talk for a year and a
half of doing the work that I’m just completing at an opera company, in
which I had some hope that there would be a particular singer doing it,
but that’s fallen through in the meantime. So the latest, the
eighth opera, is also not intended for anybody, and as a matter of
fact, is not yet commissioned. I’ll admit that this is not the
way of doing things, but I think if you don’t already know it, it might
be fair to suggest that opera composers are rather peculiar people, and
they keep on writing them for
some obscure, hidden reason, whether anybody urges them on to the
writing of one or not.
BD: Is that
almost a prerequisite for being an opera
composer, to have that internal spark?
inclined to think that definitely is
the case. Consider the number of one-opera composers. Take
two examples, Beethoven and
Debussy each wrote only one and then for some
reason never got around to writing another one, even though they wished
to. And if one considers
other composers who have written one opera that was not performed, then
one discovers that they are one-opera composers for that reason.
They haven’t wished to make the commitment of time and energy and money
to write a second one. Therefore, the people who keep at it have
it for some reason which is not altogether logical or even sensible.
BD: You were
talking a minute ago about tailoring the
writing of either parts or an entire opera for a particular
house. When it gets done later with different cast members or a
different house, is it good to make alterations or should they
try to conform to what you have written?
JB: I think
in that case, certainly any composer in
his right mind would tailor it to the performers. To be sure, the
first thing one would do would be to try to cast it in such a way that
the voices are able to do the kind of thing that he’s already written.
about after it’s been performed
with that cast and in that company and then taken to a second company
or a third or a fourth, where the circumstances are different?
the same way. Certainly
anybody in his senses would make some changes after having tried to
find the singers and the director who could come close to
what his original idea had been and what the first performance had
been. But the whole history of opera shows that when a
composer is caught up in the circumstance you mention, for the second
performance or a subsequent performance he will adapt to the voices
that he has — change keys, change notes, change
BD: So then
you yourself are quite flexible about
what you have written?
absolutely. I think performers are
always surprised to find that composers are much more amenable to
making changes than they suspect.
BD: But do
you approve of changes that are made by
others and not yourself?
JB: I might
approve or I might not,
but generally speaking they always ask, and then generally I approve
or find some other way of doing it. The difference is that the
composer is somebody who is accustomed to making things up and the
performers aren’t, so they are likely to change things in the
direction of what they’ve already heard, which is somebody else’s
music. Often it’s occurred that they’d ask me to consider making
some sort change, “What about so-and-so?” and I’d say, “Well,
sure. Let’s see what we can do,” and then fuss around with
their solution, use it, or find out something which seems to be more in
style with what I’m doing.
BD: Let me
take it one step father.
Suppose you come across an occasion where changes are made without your
knowledge or pre-approval?
JB: If it’s
without my knowledge, then I’m not
going to be asked for approval. I don’t know anything about
it, and I suppose I sometimes wouldn’t mind and sometimes would.
As you put it, if I don’t know anything about it, then it doesn’t make
any difference, I suppose.
[Laughs] Or if you don’t find out about it until
after it’s done?
JB: I haven’t
had that experience very
often. With the exception of cuts, these
days if the composer is alive, the performers — including
the conductor — are really not very likely to go
very far afield. As I was saying at first, I think they’d tend to
be much more protective of the composer and his wishes than the
composer himself may be. They’re afraid to do something of that
sort because this is a time when performers tend to think that the
composer’s ideas are always correct. Actually they’re not, but
they think so.
BD: This is
what I’m getting at — the
conductors who must adhere slavishly to every note and every
in the score.
exactly my point, and for that
reason, when we’re talking about operas, I don’t think they
make that many changes while the composer is around or might hear
about it. I really don’t. And these days, too, tapes are
made and the composer may very well hear it, so the performers are
likely to do what they’ve been trained to do, which is to be slavish
about singing it just as it’s written. The main trouble with
that is that they are too slavish. They think they’re not
allowed to do anything the composer hasn’t written down. This
for matters of phrasing and accentuation, diction, tone color, and so
forth. I find that until I get my hands on them — if
I get a
chance to — that the singers are much too
accurate and boring in the way
they do things. They don’t take as many liberties as they would
with a well-known score as far as the projection of the dramatic idea
concerned, which is a vocal thing.
BD: So then
you write your operas with the idea that
the performer is a collaborative artist?
Yeah. I certainly do.
BD: You don’t
want then just to parrot what
you have written down?
JB: My point
is that what I’ve written down — as is the case with almost everything
that anybody’s ever written
down — is only a part of what is to be done. For example,
the difference between an American singing Verdi and an Italian singing
Verdi is, at least in one way, that the Italian artist is
much freer with the phrasing and the accentuation and the sound than is
the American. This partly because the Italian is
working in his own language, and he acts musically in a way that is
freer and probably closer to what Verdi had in mind than the American
singer, whose Italian may be very good, but who is singing,
nevertheless, in a foreign language and tends to be somewhat more
slavish in his singing of it.
slavish or more careful, or both?
Both. One hears this very quickly in the performance of
something like Porgy and Bess,
where the singer may be ever so
accurate, but the accentuation, the tone color, the phrasing, the
differences in triplets and dotted notes, is really very different
because the singer knows that the vocal line is only an
approximation. My guess would be that if one turns this over to a
bunch of Europeans to sing in their own language rather than to sing in
English, it would come out very accurately and very dull and very
unstylistic. This is the reverse example of the Verdi that I
was just mentioning. And so it is that in an American opera, or
opera by an American composer sung by American singers, one expects a
point of view about singing of the vocal line which is true to the
character being depicted by the vocal line accompaniment. This
might be what an instrumental composer would consider
being an inaccurate performance, but what the opera composer would
consider to be accurate in the larger sense.
BD: Are you
generally pleased with the performances that you have seen of your
JB: Yes, I
am, actually. Well, maybe I’m rather
more tolerant than some.
whole outlook seems to be much more
tolerant than many composers either of the past or the present.
that may be. Maybe that’s the
enlightened utilitarianism that you were quoting at me. [Both
laugh] And what would be enlightened utilitarianism in
this case is that one might just as well be pleased with them.
What’s the point in going around and making a sour face about that
which many people have done their best to bring about? That is my
feeling, at least in the
productions that I’ve been involved with, and in the first performances
of all my operas I’ve been very much involved. I’ve coached
singers and I’ve often done the accompanying. For the Lizzie Borden first performance at
City Opera, I did practically
all the coaching and practically all the piano rehearsals.
BD: Have you
done any conducting at all?
Yes. I used to do quite a lot when I was
studying, or rather when I was first writing operas and working in the
workshop. I did a lot, and thought about going into it as a
career, but then decided that I didn’t want to.
often wondered, is the composer the ideal
interpreter of his own music?
JB: I think
probably not, unless he happens to be... is
that a general question?
JB: If one is
Chopin or Liszt
or Bach or maybe Brahms, and one is talking about piano music — or
keyboard music to include Bach — if he’s a
good keyboard artist, as all those people were, then I don’t see any
reason why he isn’t maybe the best interpreter, or at any rate as good
as anybody else. If one is talking about something with an
orchestra, and if one is not as good a conductor and not as experienced
a conductor as he is a composer, then I think probably he’s not the
best, simply because it’s a technical matter that he’s not altogether
competent with. I don’t think, for example, that Stravinsky was
the best interpreter of his own music, even though he could get the
tempi right, the way he wanted them. He didn’t seem to have a
very accurate ear, so he didn’t catch all the notes. I’m not
saying his ear was inaccurate, but as a conductor he seemed not to
catch the wrong notes, and he was rather hesitant sometimes,
BD: This has
nothing to do with
being tolerant, does it?
I just think he wasn’t as well equipped as a
conductor, technically, as were other conductors. One can hear it
immediately in the recording of The
Rake’s Progress, which he
did. Reiner did the performances and the rehearsals. I went
to lots of rehearsals and most of the
performances when it was first done at the Met. They were
very accurate. Right at the beginning of the opera, for example,
the winds on the recording are a bit sloppy. So, the answer to
your question is that sometimes
you might be, and sometimes you might not be. Leonard Bernstein
is certainly as good a
conductor of his own orchestral music as anybody alive — probably
better — but he is also a superbly equipped
BD: But he
expends most of his time in
the interpreting process, rather than the creating process.
right. So if he has an orchestral
piece, then who would be a better conductor to do his music?
nobody. Most composers are not in that class as conductors,
BD: Let’s go
back to opera just a little bit. I
was reading the article that you had written in Opera News in 1963, and you
that point about the interest in American opera being on the
ascendancy. Do you think it is still going
JB: It’s hard
to know. When was that?
Some twenty years ago?
BD: The date
on the original article was ‘63 and this is 1986, so that’s over twenty
JB: I’m not so sure
that it is. There have been
some things that have happened since that make one optimistic
— the whole Ford commissioning program, for example. The
number of opera
companies in this country out between the mountains has
increased. The number of performances of American works is much
larger according to the Opera News
summaries each year. But then the population
has increased, so the companies have increased. Whether the
percentage of American works has increased a great deal, or as much as
I thought it might back in those days, I’m not sure. One of the
things that changed is that the number of performances of American
works has increased, partly because the number of former Broadway shows
and operettas has increased within the percentages. So, it
depends a little bit on how one defines operas, I suppose. The
whole idea of opera that I was talking about then has been changed
insofar as the commissioning of the performance aids of the
NEA are now opera musical theater. I’m not against that, but I
would just suggest that the picture of musical theater has changed in
BD: Is it
wrong for the public to draw
an artificial line between operas and operettas and musical comedies to
keep them separate?
JB: No, I
don’t know that it is. One of the
things that’s happened, as I was trying to imply, is that the lines
have been smudged, and I think that’s a good thing. Though I’m
not sure that it’s right to say that the audience draws the
line between those or among those, because nobody’s drawing
the line. Why should we wish the audiences to do it?
Certainly the ones who are running opera companies don’t draw the
lines. A lot of the companies put on all
kinds of things which they would not have done in ’63. I’m
speaking of ex-Broadway shows and ex-operettas. They put them on
drawing any lines at all, and in fact European companies tend to draw
the line more distinctly. It’s always been true
that the opera companies — at least not the
largest opera companies — would several times
during the week do operettas. They were mostly old, but some new,
and at certain times of the week with
different singers all together. They made
that distinction in the casting and in the direction and the
conducting. Over here, we don’t really make those distinctions,
so I don’t think that the audience really does draw the line that you
were alluding to, as they would in Europe to a greater
extent. Many years
back, I remember sending a score to the conductor in Zurich, who then
over to those who ran the opera company. It was The Sweet Bye and Bye, which is
a peculiar piece in that it’s an opera, but it makes use of a good deal
of musical theater or even Broadway aspects. He sent it back
and said they really couldn’t consider doing it because
the story was of a serious enough nature, as was the difficulty of the
music or the style of the music, to make it an opera evening, but
certain other aspects of the piece, including certain aspects of
the story, were such that it would have to be done in the operetta
evening, and those singers wouldn’t be able to cope with the
difficulties of the music. Since it didn’t fit either as an
opera or as an operetta, from that point of view they couldn’t perform
it. So it was exactly this bifurcated aspect of the story, the
music and the musical style that had upset a lot of people, but it
would never have occurred to an opera company here in the U.S. that
they’d have to split casts to do it as it did in European theater.
BD: When you
were writing it, did you purposely write
it to blur the lines, or is this just simply the way it came out?
JB: I wasn’t
trying to blur any
lines; it just happened to be that the story was of such a nature that
it had two aspects to it, so naturally I followed that in my own way in
two directions. And I had a librettist who was very
knowledgeable about the Broadway theater — as in
fact I was — so it
had feet in two camps. It didn’t bother either of us that it did,
and we didn’t think of them exactly as two camps, but simply the
appropriate way to handle this bifurcated element in the piece.
It did irritate some people at the first
performance and perhaps subsequent to that. I don’t know
that it irritated them, really; it just seemed to them very peculiar
to do this. This is all related to what we were talking about
earlier, having to do with the fact that the lines between opera
and musical theater, that seemed rather more well defined in ’63, have
become much, much looser.
that one step farther, is opera for everybody?
JB: No, I
don’t think it is; I don’t think it
ever was. You can make the line
between opera and musical theater as loose as you want to, but it still
isn’t going to be for everybody. Music theater, Broadway, is not
for everybody either. There are some dyed-in-the-wool opera
addicts who wouldn’t be caught dead in a musical, and there are some
dyed-in-the-wool musical theater or Broadway types who wouldn’t be
caught dead at the Met or the City Opera. Occasionally some of
these people try something else in the opposite camp, mostly because it
is said that in the opposite camp there is something they might like,
but it still isn’t for everybody. After all, most people prefer
pop music, and wouldn’t go either to musical theater or Broadway or to
the Met or to any other opera house.
BD: Should we
in the concert field
try to encourage the people who go to pop concerts to come to concert
music at all?
JB: I don’t
see anything wrong with encouraging them
to do so. On the larger numbers there isn’t going to be much
effect, whether one tries to encourage them or not. It’s a big
country. There are lots of
people; there are lots of tastes. There wouldn’t be enough
Broadway shows or opera houses to take
care of the whole population. Showing people
there are other things than what they already know is fine to
encourage people to discover it, but in the long run I don’t think it
makes a great deal of difference. I’m all for people being
encouraged to try things they haven’t tried themselves, but I don’t get
terribly upset when it turns out that not everybody likes
everything. Neither you nor I nor the next person likes
opera belong on
television, and has that helped to encourage more experimentation on
the part of the public?
JB: That’s an
interesting question. I think
some operas work well on television, whether they belong there or not,
and some operas don’t. The manner in which they are put on
television seems to me to be important. In the last ten to
years, opera and television have taken a different turn, and in
sociological terms I think one can be pleased about it, but I’m not
altogether pleased about the way it’s gone. Back in the days when
NBC Opera was on with some regularity,
and subsequently on NET when NET Opera was on television, I was very
pleased about the fact the performances were intended for television,
whether or not the pieces were actually written for television.
Since the demise of NET Opera
back in the early seventies, what has been seen
on television — with some exceptions such as
those on local stations of local
productions — have been mostly “Live from the
Met” or “Live from” this
or that great opera house. However, I recognize immediately
that from the sociological point of view these are important because
vastly larger numbers of people can see those performances than can see
them in the houses, or could see them in the house where they
originate. What we are really seeing are, due in part to the fact
that not so much light has to be used with the new cameras, we’re
seeing long-distance operatic performances which aren’t really
intended for television, and that’s fine. Lots of people
can see them, so one can see Pavarotti or whomsoever, but I don’t
like them. I watch them and I get enjoyment out of them, but I
them nearly so well on the screen as I liked the NBC and the NET
performances, which were intended for the television screen.
BD: Would now
be a good time to do an entirely new
production, or even bring back the old production of My Heart’s in the
JB: There is
repertory of televised operas — some of them in black in white, some of
them in color — that ought to be brought back, but I don’t think
going to be brought back much, simply because everybody wants to see
the stars of the Met or San Francisco or Chicago or whatever.
They’d rather look at Pavarotti with his mouth wide open and see
whether his tonsils have been removed or not, than to find out whether
there is something dramatically viable about the music. Mostly I
think they’re not dramatically viable. A star on the stage in a
very large opera house can
perform for the audience in that house, or he can perform for the
camera, but he can’t do both. If he’s going to perform for the
audience in the
house, he’s got to make the gestures large and he’s got to make the
vocal effort very large, and neither of these things looks right or
credible on a TV screen in one’s bedroom or living room. On the
other hand, if he performs for the camera in that opera
house, cutting the size of the voice down, or the vocal effort down
and cutting down the gesture for the benefit of the TV viewer, then
he’s going to shortchange
the audience in the house. A friend of mine who’s been
responsible for televising most of the live opera performances from the
City Opera, has
pointed out to me that you can’t have it both ways. And it is
even worse if
half the cast does it one way and half the cast does it the
other. [Both laugh] That’s not to say that there isn’t a
this, and I’m not trying to shortchange the value of these performances
for the millions of people who watch. I’m just saying, since you
asked me the question, that there’s more to it than just pointing a
camera at somebody.
BD: Could the
stage director and the
television director get together and make a unified effort, so
that it’s one effort and not half one, half the other?
JB: It isn’t
that simple, because after
all, the opera house management’s thoughts are going to be ambiguous
about this. It’s very important for an opera house that its
productions be seen. What I think is too bad is that televised
opera that a lot of us knew is not what we’re getting now.
We’re getting a televised performance of a production in an opera
house. It’s not bad, but it’s not
exactly the same thing as what we had once, and I don’t think we’re
going to get back what we had once because there isn’t enough money to
do it. It would be
wonderful if they’d bring back some of these performances which were
remarkable. There’s a performance of Tosca, for example, with
Leontyne Price as a quite young woman. She was simply
fabulous. It was done back at the beginning of her career.
In a way, I’d rather see that than somebody’s recent Aïda, camera-ized
out of some big stage.
BD: Would you
then, perhaps, want to discourage an
opera house from doing one of your works if they wanted to cast it with
Pavarotti and the other big name draws?
that’s fine. That’s more
enlightened utilitarianism! Speaking
of my own pieces, I would like to see brought back the Lizzie that NET Opera did, and My Heart’s in the
Highlands, which they did wonderfully in color. As
a matter of fact, some of us are working to try to make it possible for
many of these performances that took place back in those days to be
available to those limited numbers of people who might still like to
watch such pieces.
on video cassette?
exactly. There are a number of
people interested in trying to make this possible. It’s for a
smaller audience, to be sure, but I think it’s too bad that
they’re lost somewhere in the catalogs of NET or other smaller
BD: But does
it please you that they are on
tape somewhere? They’re not lost, like the performances of the
Mozart operas conducted by Mozart are completely lost.
JB: I think
it’s wonderful that they’re around. They’re available,
theoretically at any rate. It would even be better if they were
rather than just theoretically, available.
BD: I asked
you earlier if you were pleased with
the performances of your work. Are you pleased
with the recordings of your work?
JB: On the whole,
yes. I’m not a great fan of
recordings actually, and I always have some doubts about whether the
pieces that are intended for the theater actually work in the
purely musical fashion, but after all, I’m no worse off, I suppose,
than other composers of operas which are intended to be seen.
Maybe it will become, in another context, that
operas ought to be seen and not heard. [Both laugh] But I’m
delighted that they’re recorded and available.
I’m mostly pleased with the recordings, some of which were done under
very much less than ideal circumstances. Almost no contemporary
operas, and certainly I would say no American operas, have been
done in circumstances even remotely comparable to the kind of
circumstances that bring out not-so-good works of the past. A
performance of any standard in the opera repertory of recordings
is done under optimum, luxurious circumstances, compared
to the manner in which operas by American composers get done.
another Rigoletto or Bohème is
going to get three times as many sessions?
JB: Oh, I’d
say maybe ten times as many sessions. It’s
true that there are some advantages to doing things in a quickie-like
fashion. It gets some more excitement than you do out of umpteen
sessions in which everything’s spliced together. I don’t know if
that’s rationalization or not, or just utilitarian to say that, but
it’s certainly true.
BD: Let me
broach the subject of translation.
If your operas are being done abroad, do you want them to be translated?
Yes. I certainly do, and they
are. As a matter of fact, it’s odd that composers generally
insist that their works be translated if they’re performed in foreign
countries. It’s the critics and other people who are overly
protective of the composer, who don’t want them translated. Hans
Helmberg and I used to argue about this all the time. He was
against translation and I was very much for it. I have nothing
against performing works of the past, or even the present maybe, in
their original tongues in a kind of museum circumstance, but the
problem is a very complicated one and it’s odd that most composers
want their works translated. Most composers of operas want them
translated into the language of the audience that’s going to hear them
and one would hope, into the language of the singers who are going to
BD: If you
were going to the Met, would you rather
see Bohème in English?
If I were going to the Met, I think I
would like to see the thing done as written. The Met’s a kind of
museum, after all. It’s only coincidence that we have two
Metropolitan Museums in New York — one
an opera house and one an art
museum. But the Met is a kind of museum, and there I would like
to hear the works on the whole performed in the language for which they
were written. But I might add that I would like to see them, or I
would like to hear them, performed by people who actually sing well in
the original language. On the whole, I don’t think that often
BD: Would you
rather your works be done at the Met or
at the Kansas City Opera?
JB: I like
operas partly because as a boy, teenager in MyHomeTown, USA, which
is actually Muncie, Indiana, the typical American city, I listened to
all the broadcasts. That’s how I got started with opera in the
first place. So I owe a great deal to the Met for getting me
into the subject, and I always had an ambition of having a work
performed at the Met, but I don’t think I probably will because they
don’t do very many American works. I don’t think they want to do
American works. I’m not sure that they will even do the two works
that they’ve commissioned. I hope they do, but yes, I would like
have a work performed there. But I’m very pleased to have things
done in Kansas City, too.
[Note: At this point I saw that we had been speaking
for an hour, and I mentioned that fact to the composer]
JB: Have we
really? I didn’t realize that.
that’s good! That means you’ve
Well, I have enjoyed it.
BD: Let me
thank you for
being a composer.
BD: It’s been
a great pleasure and I’ve
got a great deal of material now to work with. I’m looking
to putting this together. We can do a program of some
of your music very soon as a tribute to your sixty-fifth birthday,
which has only recently passed.
JB: I’m a
little allergic to these birthday
reasons for doing things, to tell you the truth. I would like
people to put on my music, or talk to me about my writing music simply
because they’re interested in it and not because it happens to be some
birthday. I get a feeling these days — it’s one of my pet
gripes — that people tend to look down lists of birthdays, and program
everything that way rather than for some more
intrinsically interesting reason.
BD: Then let
me assure you that my desire to contact you
originally was because I wanted to contact you, and the fact that it
just happened to be around your sixty-fifth birthday was coincidental.
that’s the reason I’ve enjoyed it so much.
BD: I wish
more years of composing! I hope that we get a lot more from your
hoping that you will. I thank you
very much for the opportunity to talk to you about these matters!
Beeson was born and received his early education in Muncie,
Indiana. He studied composition at the Eastman School, completing
Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Upon winning the Prix de Rome
Fulbright Fellowship Beeson lived in Rome from 1948 through 1950 where
he completed his first opera, Jonah, based on a play by Paul
Goodman. Beeson then adapted a work by the well-known American
playwright, William Saroyan, for Hello Out There, a one act
chamber opera produced by the Columbia Theater Associates in 1954.
The Sweet Bye and Bye,
with a libretto by Kenward Elmslie, was produced by the Juilliard Opera
Theater in 1957. It concerns the leader of a fundamentalist sect and
her conflict between duty and love. The central character, Sister Rose
Ora, resembles famous religious leader Aimee Semple MacPherson. The
score includes marching songs, hymns, chants, and dances, as well as
memorable arias and ensembles.
Beeson’s next opera, Lizzie Borden, again based on an
American subject, was commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the New
York City Opera. Lizzie Borden
tells the familiar story with less emphasis on the ax murders than on
"the psychological climate that made them inevitable", according to
critic Robert Sherman. In American Opera Librettos, Andrew H. Drummond
writes, "This opera has an obvious dramatic effectiveness in which a
clear and direct development with tightly drawn characterization leads
to a powerful climax." New York City Opera premiered Lizzie Borden
in 1965, and it was produced for television by the National Educational
Television Network in 1967 using the original cast. A new NYCO
production opened in March 1999 and was telecasted by PBS.
With 1975’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines,
Beeson found a gifted collaborator in Broadway lyricist (and also
composer and translator) Sheldon Harnick. Several years later, the two
hit on a possible subject, Clyde Fitch’s romantic comedy about a wager
on the virtue of a prima donna which leads to true love. Captain
Jinks of the Horse Marines
was premiered by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 1975, and featured
in the catalog accompanying Opera America’s Composer-Librettist
Showcase in Toronto.
The next Beeson-Harnick work, Dr. Heidegger’s Fountain of Youth,
a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was produced by the National Arts
Club in New York in 1978. Beeson and Harnick then collaborated on Cyrano,
"freely adapted" from the Rostand play, according to Beeson. Cyrano
was given its premiere in 1994 by Theater Hagen in Germany. Sorry
Wrong Number (based on the play by Louise Fletcher) and Practice
in the Art of Elocution
were premiered in New York in 1999, both with librettos by the
composer. In addition to these 10 operas, Beeson has composed 120
works in various media.
In addition to his work as a composer,
Beeson also had a distinguished career as a teacher at
University where he was the MacDowell Professor Emeritus of Music, a
chair previously held by Douglas Moore.
Jack Beeson's music is published exclusively by Boosey &
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 2,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1987, 1991, 1996 and 1999. An unedited copy
of the audio was placed in the Archive
of Contemporary Music at Northwestern
made and posted on this
website in 2012.
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
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.