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 me, “Eight
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 years.
BD: How has
the teaching of composition changed in forty-one years?
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, whom I was
assisting at first, and who’s still very much alive and kicking and thinking.
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 might 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 whatever.
BD: When you’re
writing a piece of music, where is the balance between inspiration and technique?
JB: When we
were 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?
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 of 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 people who write music whose music doesn’t
appeal to them, either!
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
the fact that so many drop out, are there still too many young composers
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 that’s 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
* * *
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,
BD: I’ve 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? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Hunter Johnson,
and Robert Palmer.]
JB: You’re absolutely
right! You’re talking about operas?
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 those 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 have written 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 mistake 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 the hoopla?
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, and presumably
to the listeners.
BD: When you’re
writing a piece, do you write it for all of those people, or just one segment?
JB: That’s 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
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?
JB: All 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.
BD: Baker’s Dictionary says that your music has
“enlightened utilitarianism.” What is meant by that? [See my
interview with Nicolas
Slonimsky, Editor of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians.]
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 he meant, but — and this is my reading of it, a subjective one, maybe
an optimistic one — the utilitarianism has to 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 terms 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 be 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 assessment?
JB: Oh, 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 think.
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 reviewer?
JB: Do you mean
by a reviewer somebody who writes in a monthly magazine or a quarterly?
BD: This is
what I 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.
* * *
I understand that you wrote the opera without any
hope of it being performed.
JB: That’s right.
BD: Is this
really the way a composer should go about writing things, without any hope
of it ever seeing the light of day?
on what you mean by ‘should’,
that’s the 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, with lots of productions here
and abroad. [Note the German CD re-issue of the original LP shown
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 that
this was not altogether coincidence. But, in fact, I didn’t write the
wrote La Loca [The Crazy One] which
has lots of mad scenes in it, so there’s some substance to my supposition.
[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 characteristic 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
JB: I’m 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 kept at 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: 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.
BD: What 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
JB: That’s 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 words, whatever.
BD: So then
you yourself are quite flexible about what you have written?
JB: Yes, 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? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Leo Kraft, Meyer Kupferman, Ezra Laderman, and Igor Kipnis.]
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.
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 instruction in the score.
JB: That’s 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 goes 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 is concerned, which is a vocal
BD: So then
you write your operas with the idea that the performer is a collaborative
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.
BD: More slavish
or more careful, or 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 in an 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 works?
JB: Yes, I am,
actually. Well, maybe I’m rather more tolerant than some.
Your whole outlook seems to be much more tolerant than many composers either
of the past or the present.
JB: Well, 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
BD: Have you
done any conducting at all?
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.
BD: I’ve 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, rhythmically.
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 conductor.
BD: But he expends
most of his time in the interpreting process, rather than the creating process.
JB: That’s right.
So if he has an orchestral piece, then who would be a better conductor to
do his music? Well, nobody. Most composers are not in that class
as conductors, surely.
* * *
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
mentioned at that point about the interest in American opera being on the
ascendancy. Do you think it is still going up?
JB: It’s hard to know.
When was that? Some twenty years ago?
The date on the original article was 1963, and this is 1986, so that’s over
twenty years ago.
Vis-à-vis the photo at right, six opera composers
were honored at the 1998 National Opera Association Convention
in Washington D.C., with Lifetime Achievement Awards. From left in
the photo are Opera Music Theater
International's General Director, and Chairman of the Convention James
K. McCully, Jr., with composers Robert
Ward, Kirke Mechem,
Jack Beeson, Seymour Barab
(partially hidden), and Carlisle
who received the award but did not attend the ceremony were Ruby Mercer, Rudolph Fellner,
Ruth Martin, Mary
Elaine Wallace, and Robert
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 that time.
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 without 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 turned it 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.
BD: Taking 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 everything.
BD: Does 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 fifteen 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 don’t like them nearly so well on the
screen as I liked the NBC and the NET performances, which were intended for
the television screen.
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
quite a 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 they’re
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 MET and 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 value in 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?
JB: No, 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?
JB: Yeah, 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 television companies.
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
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 practically, 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.
BD: So 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?
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 sing them.
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
BD: Would you
rather your works be done at the Met or at the Kansas City Opera?
JB: I like writing
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 to 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.
BD: Well that’s
good! That means you’ve enjoyed it.
JB: Yes. I have
BD: Let me thank
you for being a composer.
JB: Well, thank
BD: It’s been
a great pleasure and I’ve got a great deal of material now to work with.
I’m looking forward 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 little 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
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.
JB: Well, that’s
the reason I’ve enjoyed it so much.
BD: I wish you
lots more years of composing! I hope that we get a lot more from your
JB: I’m 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 and a 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 Columbia 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 & Hawkes.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 2, 1986.
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 University. This transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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.
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.