Composer  Daron  Aric  Hagen

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie

[With guest participation of
Composer / Pianist Benjamin Milstein
in the first conversation]

[photo by Karen Pearson]

Daron Aric Hagen was born November 4, 1961 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and grew up in New Berlin, a suburb west of Milwaukee. He began composing prolifically in 1974, when his older brother Kevin gave him a recording and score of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. Two years later, at the age of fifteen, he conducted the premiere of his first orchestral work, a recording and score of which came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein [shown at left in the photo below], who enthusiastically urged Hagen to attend Juilliard to study with David Diamond. He studied piano with Adam Klescewski, and composition, piano, and conducting at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (where his teachers included Duane Dishaw and Judy Kramer) while attending Brookfield Central High School.

After two years at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where his teachers included Catherine Comet (conducting), Jeanette Ross (piano), and Les Thimmig and Homer Lambrecht (composition), he was invited to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia by Ned Rorem (with whom he developed a lifelong friendship). While a student of Rorem's at Curtis, he studied piano with Marion Zarzeczna and also studied privately with Lukas Foss. Hagen moved to New York City in 1984 to complete his formal education as a student at Juilliard, studying first for two years with Diamond, then for a semester each with Joseph Schwantner and Bernard Rands. After graduating, Hagen was a Tanglewood composition fellow before briefly living abroad, first at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and then at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, where he has twice been a guest. Between 1985 and 1998 Hagen was also a frequent guest at the MacDowell Colony. When he returned to the United States, Hagen studied privately with Bernstein, whose guidance during the composition of Hagen's Shining Brow (1992) — the opera that launched Hagen's career internationally — prompted him to dedicate the score to Bernstein's memory.


A stint as composer in residence at the Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts led to an invitation to join the artist faculty there in 2017 "in a multi-disciplinary position created for him that enables him to share his skills as a stage director, dramaturge, composer, and social activist with students from throughout the Roosevelt University community as they shadow him and collaborate in the development of a new Hagen opera each year." He has served as the Franz Lehár Composer in Residence at the University of Pittsburgh (2007), twice as composer in residence for the Princeton University Atelier (1998, 2004–5); as artist in residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (2000–2002); Sigma Chi-William P. Huffman Composer in Residence at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (1999–2000); artist in residence at Baylor University, Waco, Texas (1998–1999); on the musical studies faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music (1996–1998); as an associate professor at Bard College (1988–1997); as a visiting professor at the City College of New York (1997, 1993–1994); and as a lecturer in music at New York University (1988–1990).

As artistic director of the Perpetuum Mobile Concerts (1982–87) he premiered compositions by over a hundred American composers on concerts produced in Philadelphia and New York. Hagen served as president of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation (2004–07) in New York City, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging the performance and creation of opera and art song; from 2000 to 2018 he served as a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera, and was elected a lifetime member of the Corporation of Yaddo in 2006. He is the founding artistic director of the New Mercury Collective, "a laboratory for artistic exploration, creative risk-taking, and performance in which its members can collaborate on the creation and performance of post-genre works combining theater, music, and emerging technology for audiences of all types." Hagen has been a featured composer at the Tanglewood, Mostly Modern, Ravinia, Wintergreen, and Aspen music festivals, and has served as artistic director and head of faculty for the Seasons Fall Music Festival in Yakima, Washington (2008–2012). He has served as co-chair of Composition for the Wintergreen Summer Music Academy in Virginia since 2015.

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

In July of 1997, Daron Hagen presented his revised orchestration of Shining Brow with the Chicago Opera Theater.  We met for our first interview at that time, and portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 to promote the production.  Then in November of 2002 we met again to discuss Vera of Las Vegas, as well as other topics from his wide-ranging career.  Both conversations are presented on this webpage.

Having a big interest in opera all my life, it felt obligatory to begin with this first question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Does it bother you being named after a Wagnerian villain?

Daron Aric Hagen:   No, not at all!  Actually, it was brought very much to home for me in 1984 when I was a fellowship composer at Tanglewood.  Leonard Bernstein came, as he did every summer.  I had met him a few years previously, and eventually spent sixteen years with him.  All of the fellowship composers lived at Seranak, which was Koussevitzky’s house on the Tanglewood grounds.  Lenny had flown in from Vienna, and was jet-lagged and terribly tired.  He walked into the composers’ kitchen where we were all sitting having a beer.  It was about four in the afternoon, and Lenny said,
So, you’re the composers? and we said yes, and jumped to our feet.  He said, I want to hear all of your pieces.  Bring some Scotch, and we’re going to have a marathon.  So he went back to his bungalow and had his dinner, and at seven o’clock we all met in the front room at Seranak.  We all had our analogue cassette tapes, and our scores.  He had purchased a big bottle of Ballantine’s, which was his preferred Scotch, and some Seltzer, and we were ready to meet the great man.  He listened to all of our tapes.  It took about ten hours in total, until five o’clock the next morning.  It was quite an experience because he listened to every piece with great care, and gave profound and deeply connected responses to every work.  At about four o’clock in the morning it came to be my turn, and I had a little piano trio that I had written [recording shown at right].  I was a student of David Diamond at Juilliard at the time, so it was a very serious piece.  It had a very carefully spun passacaglia, and when we got to the end of it, he said, Daron, you’re going to write a hit tune that everyone will sing!  I was dazzled, and then he said, Hagen, was tatest du?  [Hagen, what have you done?  This is the line in Götterdämmerung sung by Gunter after Hagen has stabbed Siegfried in the back.]  [Both laugh]  I was just sober enough to say, It’s okay.  I won’t stab you in the back!  He started laughing, and over the next seven or eight years, I had the very, very good fortune of being able to show him my work every once in a while.  He was a great man!  That’s my Hagen story.

BD:   Then has this instilled in you the idea that you must pass on what you have to the next generation?

Hagen:   Fervently so!

BD:   This is why you’ve included your assistant here in this interview?

Hagen:   Yes, Benjamin Milstein.  I think ‘assistant’ is a somewhat demeaning title.  He’s my noble colleague.  That’s what we concluded before we came out to Chicago.  Ben studied with me at Bard College, and he had a scholarship to Oberlin before that.

BD:   I can’t imagine someone being a colleague without a little pile of experience.

Hagen:   You’d be surprised!  [All three laugh]  Ben has earned his wings.  I went through the same sort of thing.  There’s a Günter Grass short story about a man living in China who tells his employers that, in fact, he can do the job of building a grass bridge across the gorge that everyone will have to walk over.  The poor SOB doesn’t know how to build grass bridges, so he has to learn really fast.  He builds the grass bridge, and everyone gets over safely.  The employers say they’re so glad they hired him.  The subtext is that he had learned how to build grass bridges while building that grass bridge.  That’s what it’s like to be the assistant of another composer, because that other composer just opens a door for you, and you walk in.  Then it’s up to you to hit the mark.  You’re the one who has to come up with the goods.

BD:   Does that put too much pressure on a composer, that every composition has to hit the mark, and perhaps really hit it solidly?

Hagen:   [Thinks a moment]  Brain surgeons have to do their job correctly, and I don’t think it’s unfair to expect that of an artist.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  There’s a similarity between art and science?

Hagen:   I think so, absolutely.  The economics of music have become so taut that you cannot fail anymore.  You must have your ducks in a row, or you’re in trouble.

BD:   Does this in any way change the notes that go on the paper, or the expression marks that are around them?

Hagen:   It makes you cut to the chase.

BD:   That’s just efficiency.

Hagen:   Every good artist is efficient.  Ben and I have just come from a performance of Don Giovanni.  Who’s more efficient than Mozart?

BD:   Didn
t he rhapsodize a lot?

Hagen:   Yes, but he bought himself the time.  The wonderful thing about Mozart is that he only took time that he knew he had bought with a great dramatic gesture.  He was a terrific technician.  The theater is a very honest place because a composer of theater music cannot afford the self-indulgent pretension of ugly music for the sake of being perceived as serious.  Ugly music in the concert hall is one thing, but in the theater, people just guess that the person’s really upset.  Then, if the person is telling a joke while the music is really ugly, they don’t get it.  At that point, the theater composer has just broken the cardinal rule and pissed-off his audience.  He’s made them all feel stupid!  That’s a really bad way to spend an evening.

BD:   You’re both a theater composer and a concert music composer.  Do you then use concert music, maybe unintentionally or intentionally, to piss people off?

Hagen:   [Sighs]  There was a time in my life where I managed fairly consistently to shoot myself in the foot with my concert pieces by being overly complex.

BD:   That wasn’t how you felt at the time?

Hagen:   I certainly must have had a very profound need to shoot myself in the foot!  [All laugh]  Seriously, I’m not in any way against theater music.  It’s just as sincere and profound as any other music, but I have been less successful at concert music than theater music.

BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

Hagen:   [Matter of factly]  There are no sorrows.

BD:   None at all?  Not even the temperament of singers?

Hagen:   The temperament of singers is a joy.  No, singers are a pleasure and a joy.  To work with singers is to step into a Fellini film, and I love Fellini films, so I’m safe.  There’s no downside to working with singers.  Singers are the most exquisite musicians, because if they have a cold, they’re dead.  The human body is such a fickle thing, and they live in such a state of chance that no matter how good their instrument is, if they get a cold, they’re screwed.  If a great violinist gets a cold, they still own a Strad, and they still can hear.  So, they’ll give a pretty interesting, though perhaps feverish performance.  If a singer gets a cold, they’ve got to cancel.  Their body can betray them.
BD:   So you like working with singers.

Hagen:   I adore it.

BD:   Do singers like working with you?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Robert Orth.]

Hagen:   I’ve had very, very good fortune with that.  I’m a supportive accompanist.  I adore the infinite variety of colors that are available in the human voice.  I love coaching.  Some of my most profound musical relationships are with singers, and I will always center on vocal music because the prime ordeal utterance is Der Urschrei [The Primal Scream], and that comes from the human voice.

BD:   When you get the piece all written, do you expect the singer to contribute to it, or just simply give you what you’ve put on the page?

Hagen:   Ben is the accompanist for this production of Shining Brow.  He is the keeper of the notes, and he’s very hard on the singers to make them sing the right notes.  It’s a very hard thing in a theater because there are two kinds of singers.  There are singers who take the text and hit every note, and have attempted to produce every articulation, and then create out of that a dramatic performance.  Then there’s another kind of very wonderful singer who looks at the text, and feel that while they’re on stage in the middle of a drama they may change notes and articulations.  It will be wonderful, but it’s not what I wrote.

BD:   Do you want it to be exactly as you wrote it?

Hagen:   Since I’m not dead, of course I do!  [All roar laughing]  That’s why Ben is here.  He’s my bad cop, and makes them sing all the right notes.

BD:   This is what I’m trying to get at.  Would you maybe change something for a specific singer?

Hagen:   For a premiere, yes, absolutely.  For the premiere of Shining Brow, I altered the roles for the singers that I was privy to the casting.

BD:   But this time, no?

Hagen:   No.  No changes whatsoever.  This is a revival of the work, and by all rights I shouldn’t be here.  Composers should go away.

BD:   Is it not like nurturing a child that’s already been born?

Hagen:   That is one way to look at it.  Verdi looked upon it as a person carefully harboring the work through a sequence of revivals so that the work could earn sufficient esteem and income.  I’m still trying to figure out whether I will be willing to participate in any further revivals of Shining Brow.  I’m very eager and very happy to participate in this, the first revival, in what is the most important city in America to revive Shining Brow.  Chicago is Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Louis Sullivan’s architectural domain.  It’s a dream come true to have it done in this city.  If it were being done in Los Angeles, for example, and unless the work were being radically reconsidered and revised, I would have to think very carefully about participating.

BD:   You would just show up for the performance, and that’s it?

Hagen:   If that!  I’ve got to look at what Verdi and Puccini did.  They were very possessive, and they had their favorite singers and conductors.  They were real pains in the neck to opera companies.  But times have changed, and it may be better to stay out of the way of the companies.

BD:   But then we’ve got the other side of the coin.  The opera company that does it next will have a tape of the previous performance.

Hagen:   Yes, and the Chicago Opera Theater has an archival tape of the Madison Opera premiere.  I asked for some of the same singers to come back, including Barry Busse, Kitt Reuter Foss, and Bradley Garvin, who are all from the Met and who sang the premiere.  They agreed to come back
at a significant loss of incometo reprise the roles because they believe in the work, and wanted to have another experience with Ken Cazan, the director. 

BD:   Then let me ask the easy question.  What’s the purpose of opera?

Hagen:   Number one is vulgar entertainment!  [All laugh]  Number two is exulted transcendental art!  Number three is commerce, and number four is community.  The cast and the composer and the conductor get to spend four exquisite weeks making a new work of art and sharing it with an audience.  To me those are the four things that opera is most about.

BD:   [Turning to Ben]  As the assistant, is it your job to make sure that all of these ideas come to the fore, and are not mangled or misshapen?

Benjamin Milstein:   The majority of my work is not so much to make sure that all the ideas are brought to the front.  That’s more the job of the conductor and director.  It’s my job to support their decisions musically, and to follow their decisions, and at times I’m able to contribute my own ideas to the process.

BD:   Do you also help to see that everybody else is supportive of the right things?

Milstein:   Yes, and everybody pretty much is, which is really wonderful.

BD:   That makes your job easier.

Milstein:   Hopefully, I help make everybody’s job easier, so we can have good days.  [All laugh]

Hagen:   We haven’t had any really bad days.

Milstein:   No, we haven’t.

Hagen:   This is a fantastic production.
Milstein:   Basically I try and stay out of everybody’s way.  As the rehearsal accompanist, I just support the singers as best I can to help them have the best performance possible.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   This is an opera about a real person.  Have you written other works about fictional characters?

Hagen:   I’ve written four operas.  The first was based on an Edward Albee one-act play called The Sandbox.  It was for Texas Opera Theater.  They toured with it for a while, and Mr. Albee would not release the rights for publication of my little opera.  I basically set Mr. Albee’s play to music, and that was an interesting experience.  It was for a little chamber orchestra, and Texas Opera Theater did a great job.  The next one was Shining Brow, and then the next one after that was a children’s opera called The Elephant’s Tale, which I wrote for the King’s Singers, a wonderful band of men.  I wrote the libretto myself, and it
s perhaps the last time I’ll ever attempt that.  [Laughs]  I know that there are composers out there who can do it, but I can’t.  I believe that the composer who writes his own libretto has a fool for a librettist [citing the old saying that the person who is his own attorney has a fool for a client].  It’s based on a Kipling story from The Jungle Book about how elephants got their trunks.  It’s charming, and a little bit weird, as befits something that I might cook up.  Then I have another opera called Vera of Las Vegas, which is about an African-American transvestite lap-dancer named Vera.

BD:   Is she a real person, or someone that you made up?

Hagen:   It
s someone that Paul Muldoon and I made up.  It’s a sixty-five-minute one-act opera that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas premiered last year.  [There is much more about this work in the second of our two interviews below.]

BD:   My point in asking the question is to find out if it harder to deal with a real life that is chronicled in the newspaper, as opposed to a fictional life that you can manipulate yourself?

Hagen:   Once it comes into the workshop, you must make a very simple decision.  Either you are going to be true to yourself, or you’re going to be true to history, and, of course, as an artist, you must be true to yourself.  That initial decision was easy.  There’s truth and then there’s truth.  Opera, in my opinion, is about whatever you say it’s about.  The opera may be about Daffy Duck, but if you say it’s about art versus life, then that’s what it’s about.  Really, the text is irrelevant.  It is the subtext and the context in our time, because all listeners are TV watchers.  They watch the media.  We’re all very much aware of the text, but what we’re all educated to look for at the end of the twentieth century is the subtext or the context.  So, no matter what any opera I might write would purportedly be about, it’s really about whatever I’m going through at that time as an artist.  I think I’m honest enough to admit that.

BD:   Everything is autobiographical?

Hagen:   Of course, because that’s the only thing I really know.  Not because I think I know anything, but because it’s the only thing I honestly really know anything about.

BD:   Do you really like bearing your soul every night?

Hagen:   It’s a job, and it’s better than working at Starbucks!  [All laugh]  But seriously, I can’t think of anything better.  I was sitting in the empty theater looking at the sets.  The designer was bringing them down to show us what they looked like.  The theater was dark and no one was in it except myself, the stage director, the designer, and the house manager.  Every time I either conducted a show, or wrote a show, or had the great joy to see one of my pieces produced, I have thought,
“My God, there’s nothing better than this!  This is my chapel.  What a state of grace!

BD:   Now you get offers for various things.  How do you decide yes, you will tackle it, or no, you will set it aside?

Hagen:   It must be very similar to the way a person decides whether to say yes or no to a date.  If you’re sitting in a bar, and some beautiful young thing comes up to you
male or femaleand asks to buy you a drink, you check what your innards say to you, and you leap or you don’t.  I have always worked very hard to read a lot, and spend my time with people who have taught me a lot, but ultimately I trust my guts.  When it comes to a new project, I am completely beholden to my gut because if I have to live with an opera for two or three years, your gut better agree with your brain, or you’re going to have some health problems.

BD:   A date might last a few hours, but a decision about writing an opera is going to take a couple of years out of your life.

Hagen:   Yes, so you take some leaps.  I’ve made some pretty drastic leaps in my life, but when it comes to art, it’s deadly serious business in that regard.  I don’t want to curse it by saying anything that I can’t back up, but I’ve had a pretty good batting average for going after things that I was able to twist into something that expressed what I was going through, and that I thought might be viable for other people.

BD:   Once you have accepted the idea, and you work with it, and you’re starting to put notes down on the paper, are you creating all of this, or are you discovering all of this?

Hagen:   It’s fun, and whatever it is, there’s nothing more joyous.  It’s like going to church, but only better because you don’t feel guilty.  [Much laughter]  I’ve probably had the conversation about what the creative process is like with 1,000 fellow artists over the last ten years, and every single time it comes back to feeling alive.  As living creatures who have brains, we try to look for situations where we feel the most alive.  When I’m writing a piece of music, I feel completely alive, and when I’m writing an opera, I feel hyper alive.  So, I would have to be a pretty stupid guy not to go after opera.

BD:   Then, is it right to say that the next step when the opera is being performed, is that the audience should feel alive?

Hagen:   Yes, of course, and if they don’t, then I’m not hitting my mark.  St. Thomas Aquinas tells us why should we seek peace.  He says we were only meant to work.  This idea happens to intersect with Colette, who said you shouldn’t expect to be happy.  Just get your work done!  So, Colette agrees with St. Thomas Aquinas, and I agree with both of them!  [Much laughter]  I only want to work.  I don’t have any interest in sitting around.  I only want opportunities to come to bat.
BD:   Can we assume it gives you satisfaction when a piece of yours is being performed?

Hagen:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t quite know what to do with myself when a piece is being performed.  I don’t feel quite relevant.  My job was writing it, and rehearsing it, and then I feel irrelevant when it’s being done.  I used to feel really hung up, and angry, or frustrated, or impotent.  I wanted to jump up and say,
No, that’s a B-flat not a B-natural, or some such nonsense.  But a couple of years ago I started detaching, and now I feel there’s no reason for me to be there.  For me to be physically there is irrelevant.  So, a year ago, I decided if I’m irrelevant, I’m just going to enjoy myself.  Now I go to a performance of one of my pieces, and have a ball.  I’m just grateful to be alive.  I’m so happy to have such a magnificent opportunity to connect with other people.  Some things always go wrong, but that’s life.

BD:   But you want as much to go right as possible?

Hagen:   Once the performance starts, I don’t really care.  I’m just so happy that it’s happening, and it’s going to take whatever shape that it needs to take.  My job was done many months previously, or, in Shining Brow’s case, years previously!  I wrote this piece five years ago, and I’ve revised it, but who wants to go back?  I look at the performers, and I’m very involved the way that somebody who hadn’t written it, and who really loves opera might be involved.  Occasionally I think that the composer really lost an opportunity to write a really good moment...

BD:   Then do you go back and write it to be a good moment?

Hagen:   Nah!  Why go back?

BD:   Do you remember it for the next piece?

Hagen:   You want to have another chance, you bet!  My attitude about composing has evolved over the last fifteen years.  It’s very much like baseball, because every time the composer comes to bat, it’s a performance, and every at-bat you want to hit a home run.  You want to write the greatest piece of music ever written.  I wrote a piece for my youth orchestra when I was a teenager, and I think I hit a double.  My mom and dad were in the stands, and the parents of the other kids in the orchestra were there, and that was it.  As I got a little older, I got to Curtis and wrote a piece that got picked by the Philadelphia Orchestra, God bless them, and that was the majors.  I got advanced from the minors, and I hit what I think was at least triple.  I still love that piece, but to hit a triple in the majors, everyone asks who this guy is, and he must have a lot of promise.  I was sent down to the minors again because I didn’t really have the background to follow up on that triple.  I got back to the majors a number of years ago, and I wrote pieces which hit home runs.  When we did Shining Brow the first time around, the company worked very hard, and I worked very hard to fill the stands, because it was starting to dawn on us that we really had a home run, and my whole heart was there.  I knew the gruel was there and the home run was going to happen.  Paul Muldoon [the librettist] and I knew that we had something good going.  We filled the stands as much as we could, and we did hit a home run.  A lot of people in the national and international press said it was a home run.  A home run is a home run, but two years go by and you must learn how to hit a home run consistently.  You must earn a reputation for consistent home runs, whether you are in triple A, or the majors, or in sandlot.  Every time you come to bat, people have to know that guy always hits home runs.  As an artist, you must expect that of yourself, but my way of relating to working with other people is that you are part of a team, so you should hit a home run.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience that’s going to be in the stands when you’re writing the piece?

Hagen:   Yes.  It’s a dialogue.  I don’t understand composers who don’t admit that there are partaking of a very intimate dialogue with their listeners in the middle of the hall.  I don’t just understand that kind of relation to creating art.  I respect it, but I just don’t understand it.  I am my worst enemy, so a clone of me is out in the audience listening to the piece, and I’m going to have to deal with this.  That’s who I’m writing for.  I’m writing for me as a mythological audience member.

BD:   [Here we paused for a moment, and I noted that he was thrity-six years old]  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Hagen:   [Thinks a moment]  No, never.  I’ve taken some interesting side journeys, but I believe I’m in exactly in the point in my career where I ought to be.  There is no master plan, but based on the detours that I have needed to take in order to educate me as a person and as an artist, I think I’ve accomplished just about what I deserve to have accomplished, and I show just about as much potential as I deserve to show.

BD:   What advice do you have for younger composers coming along?

Hagen:   Work really hard.  Work harder than everyone you ever met in your life.  Work harder than you think anyone ever worked in the history of mankind, and don’t feel entitled to anything.  Honestly show your soul, and your aspirations, and your talent to great people who are wise enough to see the verity of your aspirations and your talent.  They will help you, and if they don’t help you in a way that you understand, they may help you by hurting you.  But talent will always win out as long as you’re completely faithful to its expression.

BD:   Thank you for bringing this opera to Chicago.

Hagen:   Thank you for this absolutely wonderful tête-à-tête!

BD:   My pleasure!  [To Ben]  Thank you for sitting in.

Milstein:   Oh, thank you very much.

About five and a half years later, in mid-November 2002, we met again for further discussion

BD:   Let
s talk about the new piece.

Hagen:   The new/old piece!  This is actually a perfect example of the way things are.  This is a piece called Vera of Las Vegas, which is an opera in one act.  It’s called a
nightmare cabaret opera, and the libretto is by my old friend, Paul Muldoon, with whom I wrote Shining Brow and Bandanna.  If I had to describe it, I would say that music and the words are half Hunter S. Thompsons Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and half W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety.
BD:   [Laughs]  What a combination!

Hagen:   It’s a fun piece to listen to, but it isn’t particularly consoling in nature.

BD:   Did you pick it because of that?

Hagen:   It was commissioned by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and they wanted a piece that had something to do with Las Vegas.  I’d been there a number of times because of residencies at the University, and I wanted to use Las Vegas as a template, and as a way to talk about American culture just the way Thompson did for Rolling Stone, and the way Auden used New York City.  We were given a free hand, and they gave us the use of their chorus and orchestra.

BD:   Did they ask for a one-act piece?

Hagen:   They asked for a sixty-minute piece, and they told us that we could hire national figures for the major roles.  So that meant I could write a piece as difficult as it needed to be, while keeping the chorus parts as simple as chorus parts generally are for operas.  But for the text they didn’t say anything, and so what we gave them was a pretty savage meditation on the death of the idea of love, a critique of American culture as optimized in Vegas, because Vegas is as low as it gets.  However, there are things about Las Vegas which are pretty amazing, because it plays upon the whole idea of hope, not about having less.  It’s about the hoping for more, and that’s a pretty American concept.  The idea is that not only can you hope for more, but you could possibly even get it.  So we wrote the piece in 1995 and 1996, and it was arranged to do a non-staged public set of performances that were open recording sessions.  That was the ultimate result, and we had Caroline Page, who’s a Broadway and opera star as one of the characters.  She created the role of Pat Nixon in Nixon in China by John Adams.  We also had Paul Kreider, who sang Frank Lloyd Wright for me at one point, and tenor Patrick Jones, who had been in several productions of Shining Brow, and a fabulous male soprano named Charles Maxwell.  Male sopranos exist, as you remember from the movie about Farinelli.  Charles had been introduced to me by William Weaver, whom I knew from the faculty at Bard College.  Bill is a great opera lover, and had done music criticism for many years.

BD:   I met him at the Verdi Congress here in Chicago almost thirty years ago [1974].

Hagen:   Yes, he’s a Verdi scholar, and wrote a Puccini book which is now ten years old!  That speaks to what we’re talking about.  Six years is a blink of an eye in our world.  So, we had several hours of Vera of Las Vegas on twenty-four tracks unmixed in the can, and there it sat for four years.

BD:   Why wouldn’t you even work with it a little bit to have it ready to go?

Hagen:   Because it’s like going to a yard sale and buying everything.  You put it all in your garage, and say to yourself that one day we’ll go through all this furniture and throw out that which is not acceptable.  But everything is so interesting that it’s hard not to at least have a look at it.  My in-laws have a basement like that, and these tapes nearly ended up in that basement.

BD:   When you’re a composer, is it not your responsibility to make sure that some of your ‘children’ don’t get lost?

Hagen:   Yes, absolutely.  You have to watch out for them, because no one else will.  This piece was written out of love and out of need.  It was commissioned, but it was a piece that was guaranteed to offend just about everybody.  When I first wrote the piece seven years ago, I was still published by E. C. Schirmer in Boston.  They heard the master-tape, and not only wouldn’t they publish it, they weren’t interested in recording it on their label either.  I told them that was pretty terrible, and it sat for another year partly because of that.  Finally, as I was about to leave the faculty of Bard College, my protégé and assistant and I went into the studio, and with real-time editing analogue-style we decided what was going to move down the labyrinth.  It was a pretty amazing process.

BD:   Did you come up with one good master-tape?

Hagen:   We took those six hours and mixed them down from twenty-four tracks to stereo.  Then there was about a week of post-production with over-dubs, bass tracks, synthesizer tracks, and some subliminal vocals.  The piece itself was very much about production, and vulgarity, and technicolor.  The mix you’ll hear is not the normal glossy mix you usually hear.  It was very well mastered in New York, and we paid a lot of money to have it done right.  The music changes style from atonal, to concert music, to Ocean
s Eleven-style swing, to 70s folk rock, to a Dido and Aeneas-style duet.

BD:   Is this all because of the dictates of the text?

Hagen:   Because of the dictates of the characters and the text.  It’s post-modern by nature.  The rhetoric is post-modern, so the style-shifts entertain in almost a spastic way.  These are people who are entertaining themselves to death.

BD:   Do they entertain the audience as well?
Hagen:   It all entertains too much!  [Laughs]  It’s ingratiating and kind of fun, but as you go through the course of the piece, it becomes like being slapped around, and that was completely intentional.  The story is about two IRA provisionals who have been living illegally in New York City.  One is named Taco Bell, and he drives a cab.  His best friend is Dumdum Devine, and he’s a bartender.  The two of them are on their way west to be on Wheel of Fortune.  They get drunk on the plane, and start hitting on a stewardess named Doll.  She happens to be an Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] agent, who has been assigned to bring them to justice.

BD:   It sounds more like an episode of Perry Mason.
Hagen:   [Laughs]  There’s a little bit of everything in there!  It’s like ratatouille!  Doll calls ahead to her friend, Vera, which means truth.  Las Vegas is a lie, so its the truth and a lie.  It’s about mutability and change.  Doll tell Vera about these two Irish locals who have a lay-over at Las Vagas.  She arranges to set them up and roll them.  Vera is an African-American transvestite lap dancer, with shades of the crime game.  When they land in Vegas, through an extraordinary and a completely nonsensical sequence of events they find themselves in stripper bars, and casinos, and finally a drive-through wedding chapel where Taco marriesor seems to marryVera, and Dumdum seems to marry Doll.  This is all framed by flash-back.  The opera actually begins with the sounds of a beating heart, and the noises of young women saying, “Anti-up, double-down, stay guys, stick, and no more bets.  We hear the airplane landing, it accompanies the onstage action, which is Taco being interrogated and beaten quite brutally by two non-speaking characters, Trench and Trilby, who wear trench coats and trilbies.  The whole opera takes place as Taco slips into unconsciousness, and at the end of the opera, it’s very clear that he delivers his confession about an assassination.

BD:   Do you expect people to go to this opera knowing all of this, or is it all made clear in the text and music?

Hagen:   I’d say you’d get about eighty percent of it.  The thing was written to make sense in the theater, but it was written primarily for the recording.  We’ve grown up now listening to operas and close listening to pop music, and one of the things I’ve really benefited from as a listener and music-lover, is repeated listening’s of pieces.  As I listen more closely, more and more truths about those pieces became evident.  When we spoke together a few years ago during the Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Shining Brow, we talked about how the music theater tradition is for opera is in the Strauss tradition.  One has to have a high surface preferred so that you can at least be entertained, and if you’re paying close attention or you are an aficionado, the more you know the more you give back.  It’s like one of those wonderfully pleasant people who work very hard to put you at your ease and be just folks, but if you listen carefully to what they’re actually saying, they’re really much more brilliant than you would give them credit for, because they’re not playing to themselves and saying clever things.  The whole aesthetic basis of Vera of Las Vegas is that if you pay very close attention, these people are in fact ‘clevering’ themselves to death.

BD:   Now are you hoping that this work will get more performances?

Hagen:    CRI just released the cast album, and the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City is doing a staged premiere in June.  They’re doing it on Broadway at Symphony Space in the renovated Thalia theater, which they turned into a cabaret space.  It
s now called the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, and I’m actually excited to have my name associated somehow with Leonard Nimoy.  It will be given four performances in June in a cabaret setting, so the chorus are all lap dancers and waitresses.  It’s very Brechtian as they go into the audience.  We’re making a few little changes for comprehensibility’s sake.  That’s the glory of working with stage directors and people in the theater.

BD:   Then is this an opera, or is it a theater piece, or a cabaret, or an amalgam?

Hagen:   We’re still trying to figure out exactly.  When it’s on record, I’m completely content to have it that way.  Its media format is a compact disc, but [being a bit nostalgic] I still expect to see it as an LP.  That would be very satisfactory...

BD:   [Smiles]  The cover-art would be better.

Hagen:   [Wistfully]  Ah, wouldn’t it?  We have to go to museums to see great cover-art.  [Returning to the present practicalities]  Now that it’s on stage, we’re going to re-think the last fifteen minutes of the show, to simplify the language to be a little more direct, so that people don’t have to work quite as hard to figure out what’s going on.  On the other hand, as a person living now, I’ve made my aesthetic decisions plain.  I use Muldoon and his poetry, which is complicated and indirect.  If I had wanted a direct, simple, relatively unpolitical libretto, I’d ask Sandy McClatchy, but that’s not what I’m interested in.  So, a piece like Vera in Las Vegas, like most contemporary operas with complicated librettos, the recordings will prepare the audiences.

BD:   Are you going to also make a video?

Hagen:   Not this time.  This time I want privacy.  I want to be able to get the kinks out of the show.  It’s the first time I’ve ever written an opera that I really want to futz with.  I want to go through the process of a stage director trying to make people understand what we were doing, even if they just can’t do it.  They might demand that we give them more direct lines, and we may or may not be able to do it.  That’s a long answer to a short question, but it’s a meaningful question because theater is directed by nature.  Opera is indirectly directed.

BD:   You’re tying to straddle the fence, and at the same time play both sides of that fence.

Hagen:   Yes.  My old publisher wouldn’t touch it because, as he said,
“It’s neither an opera nor a musical.  Therefore, you fall between both stools.  Your supporters in the opera world won’t support this piece because it’s musical theater, and vice versa.

BD:   So, instead of trying to fall between two stools, you stand erect on top, and use both stools as support?

Hagen:   Interesting metaphor.  [Both have a huge laugh]  The reason Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim and Alfred Wheeler and Lillian Hellman futzed with Candide for so many years, is because it tried to do the same thing.  There’s an opera house version of Candide, which is recorded, and there is the musical theater version of it which Caroline Page was in and which Harold Prince supervised.  The way they solved the problem of going between stools, was to make one version of the piece to sit on one stool, and one version sit on the other stool.  Any progressive, sophisticated composer who loves American music theater
which is truly an indigenous formand who also loves American operabe it Porgy & Bess [Gershwin], or The Ghosts of Versailles [Corigliano]knows that there is a kind of opera that can straddle the two.  That’s the future of American opera.

BD:   I was just going ask if that is where opera is going.

Hagen:   It’s what I have believed since I was a teenager growing up, playing in pits for shows here in the Midwest, and going to the opera once I got to the east coast.  What I’ve passionately believed is what Bernstein believed when I worked with him.  He tried all of his adult life to do that, and he got pretty close with West Side Story, and certainly with Candide.  People are still catching up, and maybe are ready for it, but it explains why certain composers who are writing accessible soporific music have great success with opera right now.  They’re very watered-down Stephen Sondheim, and the librettos are simple to understand.

BD:   That’s just not you?

Hagen:   That’s not me.  

BD:   Does this work have spoken dialogue?

Hagen:   A little bit... maybe twenty-five or thirty lines.

BD:   So it’s not a show then.  It is an opera?

Hagen:   Oh, it’s a real opera, and that’s one of the problems when people go to a show like this.  They think it
s a cabaret, but a cabaret opera???  Everybody’s disappointed, and they feel a little cheated.  They didn’t expect to have to work that hard.  [Laughs]


BD:   Do you expect a lot out of your audience?

Hagen:   Yes.  Fortunately, the hall is very small for the premiere production.  It only seats 120, so I won’t have to expect much from very many!  [Both laugh]  I can fail small instead of big!  [Both continue to laugh]  But I’ve now gotten to the point where I would really love for it to be a success.  But if it’s not, I don’t really care.

BD:   Is this the kind of thing that could be taken up by smaller theaters around the country, or maybe even college music schools?

Hagen:   There’s a certain amount of profanity in the libretto.  The text is also complex, and the female chorus of nine women play strippers and lap dancers.  It’s a very angry and very exclusionary piece, and I don’t imagine that it’s going to have huge likes.  It is Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti without pulling punches.

BD:   Do you want it done as a double-bill with that work?

Hagen:   That would be a great double-bill.  That is how it was conceived, and the same singers could do Diane and Doll, and Sam and Dumdum.

BD:   That would make a long evening for them.

Hagen:   Yes, but they’d be grateful for the work.  It’s great double-casting, and would be something that will inform both shows.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You say this was a few years ago.  You’re now on to other pieces?

Hagen:   Yes.  Paul and I wrote another opera, Bandanna, which was set in the Texas-Mexican border in the summer of 1968.  It was a re-telling of Othello, and it’s a show about morality and betrayal.  Our Othello is named Morales.  His wife is named Mona (Desdemona), one of his Lieutenants is named Jake (Iago), and his other Lieutenant is named Cassidy (Cassio).  It takes place on the Day of the Dead, and is about race relations during 1968.  [The action centers on the wedding of Jake and Emily (Emilia), the unfortunate planting of Mona's bandanna by Jake in Cassidy's (Cassio) pocket, and the subsequent murder of Mona by her husband.]

BD:   How long is the work?

Hagen:   It’s two and a half hours.

BD:   So, it’s a full evening.


See my interviews with Henry Fogel, and Robert Carl

Hagen:   Yes.  It’s another big monster, and it has wind orchestra in the pit.  It’s also got an on-stage Mariachi band, and a twenty-five-member chorus, and about eight comprimarios.  It’s like Shining Brow in that we have managed to cast our way out of three-quarters of the companies in the country.  [Laughs]  But you can’t write just for practicality all the time.

BD:   Do you write for practicality some of the time?

Hagen:   If somebody tells me it’s got to be six minutes long, I’ll make it six minutes long.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But haven’t people told you that if you write a two-and-a-half-hour work that people will like, and can be done without too much strain on the budget or facilities, they’ll do it?

Hagen:   Every single time they wish they could do Shining Brow, but it’s too big, they ask me to please make a chamber version.  That’s why we made the chamber version for Chicago, and it has enabled half a dozen productions over the last year, and the last five years, and the next five years.

BD:   Is this, perhaps, the direction that your music is going to go?  You’ll write the complex thing that you want, and then make other versions of it to introduce people to it, so they can get back to what you really want?

Hagen:   Yes, but everybody’s always done that.  Mozart did it.  Anybody who’s in the theater either does it themselves, or they hire arrangers and orchestrators to do that.

BD:   But you do it consciously, rather than after the fact.
Hagen:   Thats because I like to have my cake and eat it, too.  That’s all.  [Laughs]  I did it for a number of years because I couldn’t get access to really terrific performing groups.  So I would write a really, really tough version of the piece, and then a college version.  But the nice thing is that now the work is coming back into currency with the majors, and I’ve having very good fortune with Gary Graffman, and in Buffalo and Puerto Rico and New Mexico, and things like that.  The irony is that since I grew up in public as a composer, I had to get the stuffing kicked out of me.  My very difficult and very ambitious works that weren’t really quite there artistically, were as every bit as demanding as pieces that were there artistically.  But the demanding part was that they had to accept them because of what was being said.  Now I’ve grown up as an artist a lot, and what I have to say and the way that I say it are a little bit more in tune with one another.  I’m not saying that my concert music is easy to play, but it’s a lot more practical than it was ten years ago.  I’m only alive when I’m in production for one of my operas.  I love stage writing.  I have found that I’m saying no to most instrumental commissions.  I’m only doing about one and a half instrumental works a year, and only because I have a very specific agenda.

BD:   The rest of your time is devoted to creating operas?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Paul Sperry, Libby Larsen, and Paul Moravec.]

Hagen:   Opera, music theater, in-depth work for future works, and a lot of background work.  I spend two or three years on research because there’s so much at stake, and because I have less time on this Earth statistically than I have had.  So, if I’m going to invest myself and my time, and take that away from my wife and my family, I had better believe in it, and for me that’s what I have to do.  The one thing I can tell you about future ideas is that I’m working on a trilogy of orchestral pieces that are faith-orientated.  It’s a set of three concertos.  The first one I wrote last year for the New Mexico Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic for Gary Graffman called Seven Last Words, which I have a great affection for.  It’s a meditation on the rapture.  I needed to write that piece a lot.  It was actually written before 9/11, but was premiered after 9/11.  It was quite cathartic for the audiences, and for me.  Gary has been brilliant with the piece.  The second of the trilogy is a double concerto for cellist Sharon Robinson and violinist Jamie Laredo, and it’s called Pietà.  That is for Puerto Rico and Buffalo, and that one I’m writing right now.  Then next year I’m going to write the third of the three pieces, and that’s called Tromba.  It’s for the bass trombone player from the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It’s about the apocalypse, because remember, in the Bible, it’s a trombone not a trumpet.  The other trombones in the Philadelphia Orchestra are arrayed around the conductor, and in the last movement they become the horsemen of the apocalypse.  These are pieces I want to direct for many years, and have finally been given the tools that I needed, which are the orchestras and the great soloists.

BD:   I wish you luck with all of those.

Hagen:   Thank you very much.  We do a lot of things first in order to be able do what we really want to do, and that
’s why it takes years.  It’s why Vera was in the can in 1996, and took until now [2002] to do it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you doing some teaching, or just the composing?

Hagen:   Just the composing. When I last spoke with you, I had just stopped teaching, and I went on an orgy of composing.  I had been teaching on Mondays at Princeton, and on Tuesday and Wednesday I was at Bard, and on Thursday I was at Curtis.  I realized that I was starting to believe my own stuff, and I just needed to stop doing that.

BD:   I’m surprised that you stopped it all, though.  Could you not have eliminated most of it, but left one?

Hagen:   I have some private students, and Princeton was a one-semester gig.  I enjoyed teaching at Curtis a lot, but I wasn’t teaching composition majors.  I was teaching composition to non-composition majors, and I was told by the Dean that people who taught non-majors would never get a major studio, which has since been proven incorrect.  But I walked away because I realized it wasn’t who I was.  I needed to go home and listen to music, and think about growing up, and not be telling young composers how to find themselves.

BD:   Have you found out who you are?

Hagen:   I kind of backed into it because I got tired of making believe I was something else.  That’s an inevitable part of growing up.  I also went through a terrible divorce, and all sorts of things.

BD:   Are you pleased with who you found was there when you uncovered everything?

Hagen:   Well, he’s familiar!  I recognize him, but I’m neither pleased nor displeased.  I accept what’s there, and I’m aware of the limited time that I have left to make something of the raw material I was granted.  [Laughs]  I never took myself very seriously in my own mind.

BD:   But I assume that you take your work seriously.

Hagen:   I take my work very seriously, but I do realize there’s a peculiar sort of madness in continuing to do this.  
Its the only thing I really am interesting in doing.  The most important thing is the human element.  Even before I really understood what I was thinking, I found the reason that the music theater works are so important to me was that there’s a communion involved between audience and performer and composer.  Simply creating objects of art that sit in a drawer is not enough.  As a listener, you’re never as emotionally committed or moved in any way, and I had to come to the conclusion that this was neither good nor bad, but it wasn’t for me.  What I thrive on as a human being is a sense of connectedness to the listener.  I don’t pander, but I want to communicate strongly, and I want feedback.  I want the audience to come up to me afterwards and be weeping.  I want them to be moved.  I want them to thank me for writing the piece, and encourage me to write another.  Not only do I not agree with Milton Babbitt, who doesnt care if you listen, I care passionately if people listen, and I find the whole argument specious.

BD:   [Gently protesting again]  Yet you write things that are difficult to comprehend, and put barriers in their way at the same time.

Hagen:   Yes.  I want to go out with you, but I’m not going to be too easy to get!  [Both laugh]  Who wants to go out with somebody who writes film scores?

BD:   Some people want a sure thing.

Hagen:   [Hesitates]  Yes...  Sure things you want once.  It’s not that I have an eye on posterity, or history, or anything like that, but it means a lot to me to have my pieces engraved and available in libraries.  It means a lot to me to have the recording there, because that’s how I learned about music.  I still treasure those LPs of Britten conducting Billy Budd, those FFRRs [Full Frequency Range Recordings] on London Records.  I remember where the records change, and I still remember being really mad that I had to turn the record over.  Those documents are meaningful, and I probably listened to that piece two or three thousand times in my life because it means that much to me.  That’s the kind of music I want to write.
BD:   Are you going to be surprisedor horrified!when someone says they’ve listened to Vera of Las Vegas a thousand times?

Hagen:   [Laughs]  I’m sure after a thousand times I’d have to question their sanity, because I haven’t been alive long enough for somebody to listen to a piece of my music that often.  But I’m getting emails from people.  I have a very modest piece called Dear Youth for soprano, flute, and piano [recording shown at right].  It’s settings of letters from mothers and wives to their sons and husbands during the Civil War.  Half of the letters are from southerners, and half are from northerners.  It’s getting done between now and Christmas somewhere in the country at least once a week.  I’m getting a lot of emails from people who say they’ve liked my music in the past, and they just came upon this piece.  It’s been in print for about twelve years.  That’s another thing about it.  You have to wait.  These things need time to settle in.

BD:   Is it recorded yet?

Hagen:   Yes.  It was recorded about eight years ago on Arsis, and that’s important, too because there’s a certain unearned and unfair legitimacy that recording and publishing gives a piece.  It is perceived as being better than it is.  But it’s a good piece.  A lot of people are saying they’ve been aware of my music, and that I’m another composer who writes tonal music.  It’s attractive and everything, but right now, especially with our political climate, they wanted it to make some sort of statement about the war.  I always email back that this is not an anti-War piece, but rather it is a pro-human piece.  I get a lot of those emails now, and I think part of it is the internet makes it easier for people at four o’clock in the morning to just send me an email.

BD:   Isn’t this a good thing to make the composer more accessible?

Hagen:   Yes, and it makes me feel I am part of the working world, and that makes me feel very useful.  It makes me feel like a citizen.  My old friend, Ned Rorem has a piece called War Scenes, which is getting a lot of play right now, and Ned is encountering the same thing with that piece.  He wrote it because of Vietnam, and unfortunately there will always be a Vietnam for us.  I wrote my piece because I’m a big Civil War buff.  We were in the Gulf War, and I wanted to respond to that conflict.  It was a commission from some people who were going to premiere it at a naval base, and these peoples’ husbands and wives were going off to fight.  It was one of the most cathartic events I’ve ever encountered
.  The people were a mess, but it spoke to what they were going through.  I’m terribly pleased the piece has legs.  On the other hand, it is a very direct piece.  You have to work to get in, and I’m not sure people are very interested in hearing a critical appraisal, and a rather nasty appraisal of American culture right now.

BD:   Maybe the recording will just sit there for a while, and then eventually take off.

Hagen:   Maybe... another ten years from now.  As an example, whoever thought that Tommy would get staged! [Both laugh]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Did you mean to say WHO would have thought?

Hagen:   [Enjoying the pun]  Who???  Yes!  [Both laugh]  I remember as a kid in grade school when the LP of Jesus Christ Superstar came out.  It was written to go to LP, and in an interview years ago with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he said they couldn’t get a stage production, so they did the LP, hoping somebody would pick it up as a stage show.  Ultimately when they wrote Evita, it was written also as an album before it was ever staged.  I never really liked the American staging very much, but I always have loved the European version.  I thought it was very sophisticated.  The American version somehow trashed it up, and after that I was not so interested.  But that was very much in my thinking when we wrote Vera.  We knew it would be a CD first.  CRI has really done an amazing thing, making contemporary music available so inexpensively.

BD:   That’s their mission.

Hagen:   Yes.  Not everyone’s ready to hear a
70s baroque rock aria sung by an African American transvestite lap dancer!

BD:   What is next for you?

Hagen:   We’re going to Milwaukee to hear the premiere of a piece called We’re all Here for chorus, sung by the Present Music ensemble, a marvelous contemporary group there.  It’s settings of three poems, and is dedicated to the victims of the AIDS epidemic between 1980 and now.  The first AIDS cases starting emerging in the press in San Francisco in 1980, and I’ve lost so many people in the last twenty years that were good friends of mine.  So it was time for me to write about it.  The work was commissioned by my high school from where I matriculated in 1979.  The chorus teacher e-mailed me and asked how much money they could pay me to write some pieces for them.  They wanted to do them with Present Music, with whom they knew I’d worked.  I realized that if they gave me professional players, I could make the orchestra part as hard as I want.  So I said yes because it spoke very much to my community.  It gave me the ability to go back to my home town and work at my high school, and make them think about certain issues.  That made me feel very turned-on, and I said he should choose the poetry with his students.  I was astonished at the marvelous poems that they chose.  They chose Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robert Frost, which I kind of expected, and then they also chose James Fenimore Cooper.  He wrote some very nice poetry, and one was the frontispiece to his book Wyandotté, called We’re all Here.  It’s a picture of a family gathering from the holidays, and it’s going to be premiered around Thanksgiving!  It says,
“Mother, father, sister, brother, we’re all here.  It’s all very sentimental, and embracing, and accepting, and the poem ends with, We’re all here!  That’s an amazing phrase because you could put the emphasis anywhere.  Once I started doing that, I realized that you can expand the meaning of the poem to be not just the people who are there, but everyone you’ve ever known who has passed away.  It could be family members, or people you’ve known who’ve died of AIDS.  The last four minutes of the piece is a repetition of the phrase ‘We’re all here’ gathering momentum.  This is a dangerous thing because when I listen to it, I’m quite moved.  I’m really hoping other people will react as strongly as I do, because I’m going to be a mess at the end of the piece.  I really hope that they come along for the ride.

BD:   How long is the performance?

Hagen:   It’s about twenty minutes.

BD:   I hope they do it justice to what you want.


See my interviews with Lee Hoiby, and André Previn

Hagen:   I used to get upset about that kind of stuff.  They’re going to do the best they can, and the Present Music group will be fantastic.  They are crack players.  They’re real class, and I remember my old high school having a pretty good chorus.  I’m enough of a professional to write parts that even if they don’t sing quite what is written, it’s just going to work just fine.  But I also have a lot of faith in them.  People really rally when they’re interested.

BD:   Yes, if you challenge them in the right way.  Plus, they have participated in the creation of this by selecting the poems.

Hagen:   They’re empowered, and I’ve heard that the kids are a little bit ticked that the piece is quite as difficult as it is.  [Laughs]  Part of me goes,
“Well, tough.  Suck it up!

BD:   Hopefully they’ll feel rewarded when it’s done.

Hagen:   Right, but then I always think back to my vocal music courses.  When I was in college I would think,
“Is this piece giving back as much as you’re having to put into it to make it happen?

BD:   I do hope it works.

Hagen:   That’s the paradigm.

BD:   [Noting that we were running out of tape, I wanted to come back to a remark made before we started recording our conversation]  What were you talking to Alexander Platt about?  [Note that Alexander Platt is the brother of the writer Russell Platt, who is cited in the photo at the beginning of this second interview.  Alexander spent twelve seasons as Resident Conductor and Music Advisor for the Chicago Opera Theater.]

Hagen:   Oh, Alex loves Vera.  We almost slipped it in this year, but there are comprehensibility problems in the last fifteen minutes.

BD:   Are you still thinking about it for another year?

Hagen:   Yes.  I want to come to terms with those last fifteen minutes.  When I was teaching a lot of composition students, a young composer would come in and bring something that wasn’t comprehensible.  Then he would say that he wanted it that way!  I would encourage him to make it comprehensible by trying something new.  When we were working on Vera, we wanted it to become increasingly surreal, and not to become counterintuitive, but we looked for ways to have dream logic.  Dream logic is fine in a dream, and it’s fine in a movie, but onstage, especially if you’ve been working pretty hard as an audience member to figure out what Paul Muldoon is saying for the first forty-five minutes, if the last fifteen minutes goes off the deep end, then they become angry with the author because they
re not getting it.  That’s how I got sucked in by stage directors to make changes, and actually I agree with them.

BD:   I look forward to it whenever it gets done.

Hagen:   I do, too.  [Laughs]  Thank you for being patient.

A few candid photos from the composer
s collection


Hagen (right) with composer David Del Tredici

Hagen (left, wearing glasses) with soprano Phyllis Curtin

Hagen (left) with conductor Michael Morgan


Hagen (left) with composer/conductor  Morton Gould

[The two upper-row photos on the wall are conductors
Leopold Stokowski, and Arturo Toscanini]



© 1997 & 2002 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on July 11, 1997, and November 16, 2002.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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