Composer  Alva  Henderson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Alva Henderson (b. 1940) entered San Francisco State College as a Drama major, but after several years changed to a major in Composition with voice as his principal instrument. He studied composition with Wayne Peterson (SF State) and Robert Sheldon (SF Conservatory). Before leaving the college in 1966 to pursue a career in music, he presented a complete recital of original works.

During the following four years he completed his first opera Medea while supporting himself by singing in the San Francisco Opera Chorus. The 1972 production of Medea by the San Diego Opera with Metropolitan Opera star Irene Dalis in the title role brought him to national attention.

A commission from Opera Delaware to create an opera for the American Bicentennial and for the gala reopening of the restored Grand Opera House in Wilmington followed, and The Last of the Mohicans was premiered there in 1976. The production was met with much critical success, acclaimed by Opera News for its “a pulsing sense of melody and stirring emotional commitment.” The following year the work was produced by the Lake George Opera Festival, and broadcast throughout the country on National Public Radio.

Among his other compositions are the operas West of Washington Square, premiered by Opera San José in 1988, Achilles (unproduced), the cantata The Ancient Ones, premiered by the Schola Cantorum in 1983, and a dramatic musical, Far From the Madding Crowd.

In June of 1998, Henderson was composer-in-residence at the Western Slope Summer Music Festival. One hour of excerpts from his opera Nosferatu were performed (with full orchestra conducted by Imre Pallo) to great acclaim.

In June of 2004, Schola Cantorum, a San Francisco Bay area chorus of 140 voices gave the premiere of Winter Requiem, with poems by Dana Gioia. The work was performed at St. Joseph’s Church in San José, and in San Francisco at St. Ignatius Church.

Also in 2004, Henderson’s opera Nosferatu, with libretto by Dana Gioia (after the film by F. W. Murnau) was given its world premiere first at by the Rimrock Opera in Billings, Montana, followed by performances in by Opera Boise in Boise, Idaho.

Henderson has written many songs, song cycles, and choruses, as well as incidental music for Twelfth Night and The House of Bernarda Alba and Much Ado About Nothing.

Recitals of his music have been performed at the Kaiser Center in Oakland, California, the Burlingame Music School, The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, The Renee Weiler Concert Hall in New York City, and Mercer University in Macon Georgia. In celebration of his 70th birthday, a recital of 26 of his art songs was performed at the Tateuchi Recital Hall in Mountain View in April 2010.

Mr. Henderson has been a Fellow at Yaddo, and The Djerassi Foundation, and Distinguished Artist in Residence at San José State University.

He makes his home in Mountain View, California with his spouse, Bear Capron

–Alva Henderson (Christie Finn, ed.)  

We spoke on the phone in April of 1987...

Bruce Duffie:   Let’s just jump right in.  In the Baker’s Dictionary, Slonimsky calls you an American opera composer.  Do you feel that is what you want to be known as, or limited to?

Alva Henderson:   Not necessarily.  I’ve certainly tended to concentrate on the larger projects mainly because of a matter of temperament.  I’m very well suited to those things, and seeing large-scale projects through to completion.  They’re so much more interesting.  I’ve certainly worked in lots of smaller forms, but people tend not to know things like song cycles and smaller pieces, because they don’t see the same publicity that the large-scale pieces receive.
BD:   Yet so many composers I have talked to stay away from the larger forms because they’re almost impossible to get produced.

Henderson:   Yes, that’s certainly a major factor.  I’ve had more than my share of luck in getting things done, but it seems like no matter how much you’ve gotten done, you always start over again, and the process is very much the same.
BD:   [Surprised]  Really??? Each time you’re reinventing the wheel?

Henderson:   That’s right.  For one thing, it takes me so long to get a new one out, that whatever momentum I might have built up is considerably diminished.  For instance, I haven’t had a major premiere of a large-scale piece since The Last of the Mohicans, and for very good reason.  I’ve been working so long on Achilles.

BD:   How long ago was the Mohicans?
Henderson:   Mohicans was premiered for the Bicentennial in 1976, and then there was the performance at Lake George that followed.  Most people know the recording of that shorter version which has been broadcast from that performance on National Public Radio three times.  In the meantime, I’ve been working on Achilles, and then I took time off in the midst of writing that to do some smaller commissions.  I did two one-act operas for San José State University.  Actually, since they transmuted themselves into Opera San José, they are a much bigger operation.  I was just looking at a video tape, as a matter of fact, of The Last Leaf, which we did out at Montalvo, which is an estate out here in a very pretty outdoor setting.  That was where we premiered the opera in 1979.  I wrote it at Yaddo in ’78, and it was very nice to see it again.  There’s a local video producer that’s putting together a documentary on me, and we wanted to use some takes from that if possible.  It’s very hard to find something where the music and the visual all come together in one of those one-camera deals, where they’re just doing a documentation of the performance rather than a real production.  The Last Leaf has had four or five performances around the country in various places.  They did some of it up at Lake George, and they did a full production at New York University.  Then Cleveland did it in their apprentice program a couple of years ago during the summer, so it’s had more exposure than just about anything.  No one has ever done my version of The Tempest, and no one has ever done the companion piece that I wrote for The Last Leaf, called Mulberry Street, which is very charming.  Everybody who hears the tape loves it, except that I don’t get anybody to answer the letters about it when I send it out.  So either it goes unheard or unappreciated.

BD:   Would those two small pieces make a nice evening?

Henderson:   That was the idea, that they would go together.  They would utilize about the same size cast, tied together by Mrs. O’Gara, the landlady.  They would be two little vignettes, both in Greenwich Village, and both in this same apartment building, the Villa Vallombrosa.  It was great fun to see one of them done in Greenwich Village, and to walk around the streets so long after I’d written it.

BD:   Are those two pieces then inseparably linked?

Henderson:   No, of course not, because people have continued to do The Last Leaf without ever having done Mulberry Street.  They’re both independent pieces, and completely developed within themselves.  But like any two one-act operas, they can be done on the same program.  They’re meant to contrast each other.  Mulberry Street is much lighter and more humorous, and The Last Leaf is kind of neurotic.

BD:   Looking at it through the eyes of the opera producer, or the general manager, would it not be better to pair one of those with a well-known work like Pagliacci?

Henderson:   I don’t think, so because you can’t get the two one-acts too far away from each other.  That’s why Cav and Pag go so well together, because they’re both of the verismo school.  Though they’re by different composers, they’re stylistically very close.  You have to have things that are stylistically close, and yet provide the audience with enough variety.  That was the idea of my two pieces
to write them for the same size orchestra, and have them stylistically similar to each other.  But one is darker and one is lighter, so you could program the lighter one second and have an upbeat end to the evening.  In fact, Irene Dalis had the idea that I’d do them, and she wanted three.  I think she’s always been disappointed that I haven’t come up with a third one.  I’ve toyed with some other ideas, and in time I may add a third opera.

BD:   Similar to the Puccini Trittico?

Henderson:   That’s what she has in mind, but they’d all be O’Henry stories.  [After retiring from the Met in 1976, Irene Dalis (1925-2014) returned to her hometown in California, where San José State University offered her the position of Professor of Music.  There she developed the Opera Workshop program, which began turning out so many career-level graduate singers that she decided to form the Opera San José in 1984, a professional company which hires young singers on a multi-year contract basis, allowing them to perform principal roles in the company's four annual productions.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you expect of the public that comes to see an opera of Alva Henderson?

Henderson:   I expect them to cry.  I want them to be deeply moved in one way or another.  The thing that opera can do better than any other entertainment is to plumb a certain depth in the people that come to hear it.  Hopefully it will give them an experience of being human, and allow them to have feelings that perhaps they didn’t realize they could feel, and have feelings that they couldn’t reach through to within themselves in any other way.  I remember hearing Dave Garroway [(1913-1982), radio and TV personality, and founding host of Today on NBC] talk about the first time he heard Kirsten Flagstad.  He said he got up, and left his gloves and his umbrella and top coat on his seat, and walked about 10 blocks in the wrong direction.  That sort of thing is what I’m hoping for; that people will be deeply and wondrously moved.  Of course, one doesn’t always achieve that, but the audience has always been extremely appreciative.  I don’t remember an audience not standing at the end of one of my operas.  I want them to have some kind of extraordinarily special experience.  I received one letter after the premiere of The Ancient Ones, which is a cantata I wrote with Janet Lewis, and was premiered here in the Flint Center at Cupertino by the Schola Cantorum in 1983.  This woman said, 
Dear Mr. Henderson, I want to thank you for one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.  That sort of thing is what I’m hoping each member of the audience will have, but of course, you can’t reach everyone, and not everyone is willing to be drawn in and feel things as deeply as some others.

BD:   When you’re writing a score, do you try to write this kind of emotion into it, or is it just part of the way you write?

Henderson:   It just comes automatically.  It’s so much a part of who I am.  It’s a kind of emotional intensity that’s built into me as a person that really doesn’t come out in any other way except in the writing.  I remember a friend of mine talking to another friend, and he said, 
When you meet Alva, he’s so nice and kind and gentle and quiet, and then you hear his music.  [Laughs]

BD:   Is it very difficult to listen to?

Henderson:   Oh, no, no, no, I don’t think it’s difficult to listen to, unless you’re not willing to be drawn in, and are not willing to give yourself over to having some kind of emotional experience.  Most people who go to a concert are willing, but it’s not difficult music to listen to.  It’s just that it is intense and passionate.

BD:   In looking over a review, the critic from the Peninsula Times Tribune mentions that your music is,
“Rather atypical for contemporary work in that it has smoothly flowing lines.  It’s rather romantic, with a limited use of dissonance, traditional rhythm and harmonic progressions.  Is this something that you strive for, or is this just who you are, and it’s coming out on the paper and then in the performance?

Henderson:   I should say that this reviewer is speaking of one particular piece, The Last Leaf, and that’s certainly very true of that particular piece.  Things are not necessarily that smooth, nor gentle for a different kind of subject, like Medea.  But for a kind of sentimental valentine like The Last Leaf, it seemed stylistically that this was appropriate to the material.  Vocal music is the foundation of what I do, and I do tend to think vocally.  I was trained as a singer, and I tend to think and feel in vocal melodies.  It would be dishonest not to write in the way that I truly think and feel.

BD:   You started out earning a living being part of the chorus, and then yet you left for other work?
Henderson:   Oh, yes.  I had to take a job.  I didn’t get a degree when I was in college, and I did that on purpose.  I didn’t want to get into the prestige game.  I started rather late, and I had to acquire a lot of skill in my early twenties.  I knew I had a gift, but I had to acquire the skill to support the gift, and not just ride on the gift for melody and emotional intensity that I had.  So I had to spend my time buckling down and acquiring knowledge, and really working things out in the practice room, and not moving toward getting a degree.  So when I left college, I wanted to find some way to settle down to write right away.  Even if I had prepared myself with a degree, and could have gone and taught somewhere, it wasn’t what I wanted to do.  I wanted to write, so I struggled with this for about a year before I found this job singing in the San Francisco Opera Chorus.  That seemed ideal for me at the time.  Mostly we rehearsed in the evenings all year long then, and then the difficult time was the fall performance season.  But most of the time, I could work during the morning and early afternoon, and run the ordinary errands of life, and go to rehearsal in the evening.  So I got quite a lot of work done in that four years.  I got the first opera, Medea, written.  It was very slow-going, trying to write the first opera, but after it was premiered, I didn’t want to ever go back to the chorus again, because it was terribly hard work.  I felt that I had to move on, and that I didn’t want to get trapped there.  When I first sat down for a chorus rehearsal one evening, I turned to the gentleman sitting next to me, who was perhaps in his sixties, and I said, My, these seats are hard.  He said, Yes, they sure are, and I’ve been sitting on them for thirty years.  [Laughs]  I thought that I did not want that to happen to me.  So after I had the premiere of the Medea, I said that was it.  I was going to live on my work however I could, but I was not going to end up an aging chorister.

BD:   How are you supporting yourself now?  Is it through commissions and performances?

Henderson:   It’s through a combination of commissions and some private support.  There is now a group of businessmen who have a club.  There are about ten of them, and they decided to adopt an artist.  I went and spoke with them about the Achilles project, and played them some of my music.  So they have been helping me on a regular basis for the past three years with a certain amount of money.  Then, of course, I’ve had commissions for The Last Leaf and for Mulberry Street and for The Ancient Ones, and The Last of the Mohicans.  Then occasionally I get royalties, and it’s a sweetly solemn thought that one hopes the royalties will somehow increase over time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you get a commission, how do you decide whether you will accept it or decline it?

Henderson:   There’s a certain art in getting to write what you want to write, and somehow convincing the people who approach you about the commission.  I have so many things stored up in my mind that I would like to work on someday, but I am often waiting for the right event, or the right commissioning body.  For instance, the Wilmington Opera Society came to me.  They call themselves Opera Delaware now, and they’re doing very well, and they wanted a Bicentennial Opera.  They had an idea about an operatic version of how the Constitution was written, like that musical 1776.  I thought that sounded terrible.  However, for about three years I’d been very, very interested in writing an opera version of The Last of the Mohicans.  I’d even sketched a few things, though not very extensively.  So I wrote them a long letter telling them about how the formation of America started long before the signing of the Constitution, and we had the opportunity to deal with this wonderful subject by a major American author.  Robert Darling, who directed and designed the production, and I went to Wilmington and spent a lot of time talking with them and with their Bicentennial Commission and the State Arts Council.  Eventually, they began to see things our way.  In another case, the Schola Cantorum approached me, and wanted something very specific, but didn’t know what.  They were going to do the very reduced orchestration of Carmina Burana, with just percussion and two pianos.  They knew they were going to have three soloists, and adult chorus, and children’s chorus, and percussion, so they wanted to commission a piece for that ensemble.  Well, I’d long wanted to work on Janet Lewis’s poems of the Southwest called The Ancient Ones, and that seemed about the right kind of ensemble.  I could see how we could work the children in, so once again, I approached them with something that I already wanted to do.  That’s really the trick of it.

BD:   So it’s selling your ideas?

Henderson:   [Smiles]  Well, it’s convincing.  It’s more a matter of sharing your excitement with people, and then they become excited about it too.  I don’t like the concept of selling, exactly.

BD:   But once you get it written, don
t you have to go through the process of convincing other people to produce it?

Henderson:   It depends...  If they’ve already commissioned it, they usually go right ahead and do it.  It’s much, much harder, of course, when you do it as I did Medea, with no commission and being totally unknown.  It was really something to get that done.

BD:   But even with something that’s commissioned, won’t you go and try and convince people to do a second or third production?

Henderson:   I’m afraid I’m really not very good at that.  I wish I had someone working on that for me, because my interest always tends to be looking forward on what I’m actually working on.  It takes so much energy to concentrate on what I’m working on and thinking ahead, that once I’ve completed a piece and seen it through to a first production, I tend to lose interest in it.  I could spend my entire life writing letters, trying to promote the pieces that I’ve already written, and never write anything again.  I just don’t feel I should be doing that with my time.  I should be writing.

BD:   The next thing would be to hire a publicist.

Henderson:   Yes, if you’re a wealthy person, which I’m not at this point.

BD:   But you’re making a comfortable living off of all these?

Henderson:   I’m making what I call a
survival.  I have enough.  I’m not a starving artist.  I live reasonably well, not extravagantly, and I’m doing the work that I love.

BD:   That sounds like the best of all possible worlds.

Henderson:   Yes.  Into every life a little rain must fall, but I’m basically very happy with my life.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where’s opera going today?

Henderson:   [Laughs]  Oh, I can’t answer a question like that, for heaven’s sake.  All I know is what I’m working on now, and hopefully what I’m going to be working on next.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  Are you not conscious of what is going on around you?

Henderson:   I don’t see that that does any good.  After all, you have to work with the talent that you have, and you have to work from your deepest personal resources.  If you pay attention and are extremely or deeply connected with your inner self, how can what happens around you, or what other people are doing, affect that?  I assume you’re speaking of what’s happening in the world of music.

BD:   Yes.

Henderson:   I don’t see that being aware of what other people are doing is really very important.

BD:   Do you like the music of other composers, or do you just never listen to it?

Henderson:   I like the music of other composers.  I listen to a lot of other composers, but not necessarily very much contemporary music, I’m afraid.  I’m very wary of being trendy, and doing anything that is in line with jumping on a bandwagon.  I really want to go very quietly my own way, and create works that come from deep inside, and hopefully that are going to have some kind of lasting value.  I have stayed away from New York on purpose.  I didn’t go there because I didn’t want to be caught up in a kind of competitive world, and be drawn into a style.

BD:   Then who are the major influences on your life, and on your composing style?

Henderson:   First of all, you have to realize that I had a very thorough training in classical art song.  I studied and performed Schubert and Brahms and Mahler and Strauss, and in the opera workshop there were Verdi and Puccini, and anyone else you can think of.  So I have that very thorough grounding.  I patterned myself early on, but the conscious model was the Samuel Barber of Vanessa, not the early Samuel Barber, and Benjamin Britten.  Out of that has evolved a more personal style as I’ve grown, and worked, and found how to do things in my own way.

BD:   Thinking of Samuel Barber, you made a setting of Dover Beach.

Henderson:   Yes.  [Laughs]  I was very irritated with him at the time.  I was in my early twenties, and full of stuff, and I thought I could do that better than he did.  So I did it.

BD:   Did you do it better than he did?

Henderson:   I don’t know, but I sure did it differently.  His is so cultivated and almost excessively polished for the work of such a young man.  I hate to use the word, but it’s a little
constipated in a way.  It’s so restrained and held in.  Mine is much more overtly emotional and large scale, and maybe too much so.

BD:   How long does it run?

Henderson:   Gosh, I don’t know.  I think it’s about eight to ten minutes.  By
large scale, I meant in approach, not in length.

BD:   Should yours be done on the same program as the Barber?

Henderson:   Mine is for orchestra, though it’s never been done in its orchestral version.  It’s been done with piano a number of times.  To tell the truth, I hardly ever think about it anymore.  It’s just another example of a piece that I did, and that I saw performed, and then moved on to something else.

BD:   [A bit concerned]  You don’t disown your old pieces, do you???

Henderson:   No, I don’t think it’s that.  It’s just that my interest tends to get absorbed forward to the next idea.  No, it’s a beautiful piece, and I don’t disown it at all.  I’m very proud of it to this day.  It was the first major piece that I wrote, and I think it’s extremely good.

BD:   The way you move on to something new and don’t want to come back to it, can I assume there are no revisions to your older scores?

Henderson:   There are a number of revisions in The Last of the Mohicans.  I work things over so much before I show them to people, or let them be performed.  Occasionally there’s a revision that I’ll do in rehearsal, or when I work through it and sing through it myself and work with an accompanist just to get my hands off of it to see how it feels internally as we go through it.  I sometimes will give a little more space here, or a little more buildup to the climax there, but I generally tend not to do a lot of revisions.  There are people who get stuck writing the same piece over and over again, and I didn’t want to do that.

BD:   Looking at it from the eyes of the historian, I just wondered if there are any ur-texts lurking around that you might not want to have performed.

Henderson:   No, I don’t have anything that I’ve admitted to that I wouldn’t want to have done.  Once I put it on my resume, I own up to it.  [Pauses a moment]  No, that’s not quite true.  I’ve been thinking of taking the Joan ballet off because it’s not really a finished piece.  Michael Smuin and I worked on it.  I thought he liked it, and he sounded enthusiastic about the tape that I delivered to him.  Then, in fact, they never did it at the San Francisco Ballet.  I’m really not sure how I feel about that particular piece any more.  There are some awfully good movements in it, but it certainly probably needs some revision if it’s ever to be done.


Michael Smuin (October 13, 1938 – April 23, 2007) was an American ballet dancer, choreographer and theater director.  He was co-founder and director of his own dance company, the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco.  Born in Missoula, Montana, Smuin was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet, for which he served as co-artistic director from 1973 through 1985.  There he produced over 25 ballets, including Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and A Song for Dead Warriors, all of which were featured on the PBS series Great Performances - Dance in America.  

On Broadway, he directed Sophisticated Ladies, and made his television directing debut with Suites by Michael Smuin (excerpts from his To The Beatles, Stravinsky Piano Pieces, and Songs of Mahler), as well as Lew Christensens Jinx, which were taped in the KQED-TV studios in May of 1984.

In 1994 he founded Smuin Ballet.  He also choreographed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Washington Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Milwaukee Ballet.

BD:   Is it a good thing to be able to send around tapes of your works?

Henderson:   It seems convenient, and certainly it was the way that I got the San Diego Opera interested in Medea.  But what really convinced them was when I went down there.  I sent Walter Herbert a seven-minute tape of the big finale toward the end of the second act, and he wrote back and said, 
I think it’s very beautiful.  Would you like to come and play the rest of it for us?  So Lloyd Carroll [coach at the San Francisco Opera] and I went together, and I sang through the whole thing for them.  That was much, much more effective than sending a tape... though you can’t just travel around the country to everywhere that you want to go.  So I’ve had to send a lot of tapes.


Walter Herbert (February 18, 1898 – September 14, 1975) was an American conductor and impresario of German birth, and also a world champion at contract bridge.

He was born Walter Seligmann in Frankfurt, and studied composition under Arnold Schönberg in Vienna. He gained experience as conductor in Germany and Switzerland, and was later appointed chief conductor at the Vienna Volksoper (1931–38). His operatic debut was with Carmen, at the Stadttheater Bern in 1925. Shortly before the 1938 Anschluss (annexation of Austria into the German Reich), Herbert visited Japan to introduce modern western classical music to that country. From there he migrated to the United States, and became an American citizen in 1944.

Herbert was director of Opera in English (San Francisco, 1940–43); and in 1943 was appointed the first general director of the New Orleans Opera Association, which post he held until 1954. He founded the Houston Grand Opera in 1955, where he remained as both general director and conductor until 1972; and was music director of Opera/South (founded by Sister M. Elise Sisson, SBS) in Jackson, Mississippi. He founded the San Diego Opera in 1965, and was its general director and conductor from 1969 until his death.

BD:   Do you feel that opera works well on recordings?  Not necessarily just your own, but the operas of Verdi and Puccini also?

Henderson:   I think they do, yes.

BD:   Even though they’re lacking completely in the visual element?

Henderson:   The visual element is wonderful, but when you think about Verdi, my word, there’s so much in the music!  Then when you think about Wagner, it’s just so incredible.  The drama takes place in the music.  When I was a kid, I had a profound experience listening to the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth with Maria Callas singing.  It was a moment of recognition for me.  I had never been that terrific in music.  I was the kid that wrote plays.  I made a movie in my back yard, and wanted to be a movie director.  But I had done some music.  I’d done some singing, and I’d played the violin, but I was certainly not exceptional.  However, I could hear how her mind was shifting in this sleepwalking scene, and how the drama was there in the music and in the voice.  That was what moved me.  Certainly, it’s wonderful to see a beautifully staged production, but the real drama takes place in the music.

BD:   Then let me ask the
capriccio question.  Where is the balance between the music and the drama?

Henderson:   Hopefully, they’re conceived together and go together.  The reason that I wrote The Last Leaf was as an experiment to see what it would be like to conceive the words and the music exactly in the same moment, and as nearly as possible write them down at the same time.  Now I’ve worked with two librettists.  I’ve been fortunate to work at the same desk with Janet Lewis, and with Richard Freis on Achilles.  It’s very much to my advantage to work with people who have a genuine poetic gift, which certainly I do not.  Richard Freis and I developed a companionship, a trust in each other, a way of working that was a little like leapfrog.  You don
t decide about a word or note specifically, but what the moment is going to be about.  Andromache should have a moment that feels like this.  She’s longing for Hector to return.  So Freis will start working on an approach in words, and I will start working on an approach in music.  Then we’ll sit down and go over what each of us has done.  He will modify, and I will modify, and we will somehow arrive at a version where the words and the music seem to go together.  So I can’t say that one comes first.  In Medea, I had the wonderful text of Robinson Jeffers, but I cut and rearranged it pretty freely to suit the musical shapes that I had in mind.  It was not that I changed set speeches, but I often moved things around to put them in an order that would build up and lead to a climax that I wanted.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?
Henderson:   It’s an art that entertains, but primarily it’s an art.  That’s one of the reasons I have trouble with these workshop concepts, where people take a piece and slap it around, and fix it up, and trim this and shove that around.  I’m just very much against that sort of thing because it really is destructive to the integrity of the piece.  That’s the sort of thing that you can do with hack work.  You’d never find somebody doing that with a canvas painting, for instance, or with a poem.  Once it’s gotten beyond a certain point, a good teacher can help a poet perhaps, but I’m very much bothered by this idea that somehow by fixing the externals, you can take care of something that’s missing internally.

BD:   You say a teacher can help a poet.  Can a teacher help a composer?

Henderson:   I had a teacher that helped me very much.  Robert Sheldon still criticizes me on pretty much the same points that he found to criticize twenty-five years ago.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Does that mean he could look you in the eye and say you haven’t learned a damn thing???

Henderson:   [Laughs]  No, no.  It’s just that he feels that I have certain weaknesses.  I do feel I have certain weaknesses, and I work very hard to try and overcome them.  Being an artist is to try and overcome your limitations.  Olivier has always felt his voice was too high, and he worked very hard to try and deal with that.

BD:   When you’re writing a score, are you ever surprised where the music leads you?

Henderson:   Sure, quite often.  You can have a very clear idea, but then suddenly something wonderful will start to happen and you just follow it.  That’s some kind of power speaking through you.

BD:   Do you ever feel you’re a slave to it?

Henderson:   Oh, no, no, no.

BD:   Are you guiding it, or is it guiding you?

Henderson:   We’re just kind of rolling along together.  It’s a wonderful feeling that when something really starts to go.  It’s a tremendously free feeling.  You’re sometimes afraid that you’re not going to be able to stay up with it, or that you cannot get it down quickly enough.  But it isn’t a feeling of being the slave of anything.  It’s a free experience like something wonderful flowing through you and coming out.  It’s not like you’re doing it yourself.

BD:   Do the interpreters of your work ever find things in it that you didn’t know were there?

Henderson:   Oh, yes.  In terms of an inflection, or a different phrasing, that happens quite often.

BD:   Do you ever tailor a part to a specific performer?

Henderson:   Yes, I have.  I wanted to know what the strengths and best tessitura were for the soprano soloist in The Ancient Ones.  Her name is Wendy Hartman-Carr, and she came and sang quite a lot for me so that I could get to know her voice.  I went over scales with her on the piano to find out where her breaks were, and how she managed them.  I also tried to tailor a song cycle for James Schwabacher.  He told me certain areas of his voice he wanted to avoid, saying to stay away from the passaggio.  He’s never performed that piece, so I guess I didn’t do too well.  [sighs]  I can’t say I really tailor-made the part of Medea for Irene Dalis, but I knew I wanted to write it for a dramatic mezzo, and when I heard her in Jenủfa, I knew that she was the right kind of voice.  She complained that there was too much of the middle voice, and didn’t have enough extension on the top, but another mezzo soprano who looked at it felt that it had too much on the top and said, 
Dalis will do this very well with that soprano like top of hers.

BD:   I assume she did it very well.

Henderson:   Yes, she gave a tremendous performance in the role.

BD:   You’re continuing to write operas, so you must obviously believe that opera is still a viable art form.

Henderson:   [Pauses a moment]  Here I am spending my entire life sitting here at a drafting table working away on these operas, so I guess I think it’s a viable art form.  [Laughs]  Yes, your assumption is very well-said.  The public certainly finds it a viable art form... at least they keep trooping into the opera house and listening to it.

BD:   But is the public finding it a viable art form as far as new works go, or just for the older works?

Henderson:   It takes the public a long time to catch up with some things.  The premiere of Jenủfa was in 1904, and it received its first San Francisco opera performance in 1969.  It’s only really moved into the world repertory in the last ten years, so it takes the public a while to catch up with how wonderful some of these things are.

BD:   It never used to be that way.  In the days of Verdi, they looked forward to all of the premieres.

Henderson:   Yes. Wasn’t that wonderful?

BD:   How can we get the public to get back into that frame of mind?

Henderson:   By not shutting them out.  That is, by using a musical language that is accessible to them.  There is a famous essay, Who Cares If You Listen, and I care very much.  It’s like making love.  It’s like reaching out to somebody, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything pandering about it.  If you’re making love to someone, you bring the very best that you have, and you do it with honesty and sincerity, and hold nothing back.  That’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m certainly not the only one.  Conrad Susa is working in a language different than mine, but it is a language which I believe is very accessible to the public, and is written from a very honest viewpoint.  However, I’m no expert on the current scene, and how could I be?  So few new works are published or on recording.  It’s very, very hard to have access to other people’s work.

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BD:   Let
s bring up the idea of translation.  If your works are done in foreign countries, do you demand that they be translated?

Henderson:   Yes.  They haven’t been yet, but absolutely I would want them to be done in the language of the country.

BD:   Is it a mistake to do Verdi in Italian in San Francisco?

Henderson:   Not as far as I’m concerned, but it would certainly be wonderful to hear something like Don Carlo done in English, because it has such subtleties of character and intricacies of plot.  When I saw my opera done at Lake George, they did everything in English, and Carmen is an absolutely wonderful show in English.  It was so marvelous to see the immediacy, and the way the audience could follow everything.  The theater is not that large, and the artists were very skillful at putting the text across.  It was a wonderful theatrical experience.

Lake George Opera, now Opera Saratoga, began with a production of Die Fledermaus at the Diamond Point Theatre on July 5, 1962, playing to an audience of 230 people. The company now calls Saratoga Springs home and performs for more than 25,000 people annually. To date, the company has performed 90 different fully staged works by 52 different composers, including 33 works by American composers and 10 premiere productions. Throughout its history, the company's continued success has been shaped by visionary leaders, talented artists, and critically acclaimed productions.

Fred Patrick, with his wife soprano Jeanette Scovotti, established the company in Lake George, seeking a permanent seasonal repertory company that presented opera in English and showcased young, talented American singers. An ambitious first season included 46 performances in eight weeks, fully staged, with two pianists providing accompaniment.

Growing audiences and performances with orchestra quickly followed, and in 1965, the Opera moved to the newly completed auditorium at the Queensbury High School in Glens Falls. That year also saw the formation of the company's first Board of Directors and the loss of Fred Patrick to cancer at just 37 years old. Then current artistic director, David Lloyd was appointed general director, a post he held until 1980. During Lloyd's tenure, the company gave its first contemporary and American operas, Menotti's The Telephone in 1965 and Robert Ward's The Crucible in 1966, and four world-premiere productions: David Amram's Twelfth Night and Robert Baksa's Aria da Capo, both in 1968, The Child by José Bernardo in 1974, and Alva Henderson's The Last of the Mohicans in 1977. He formed the Contemporary American Opera Studio in 1980 and introduced Opera-on-the-Lake in 1972. [Other American operas presented include works by Dominick Argento, Michael Ching, Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Lee Hoiby, Kirk Mechem, William Schuman, and Virgil Thomson.]

From 1981 through 1985, Paulette Haupt-Nolen served as artistic director, initiating collaborations with the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center to workshop new operas and Proctor's Theatre for a production of Man of La Mancha. She produced the company's first opera at the Spa Little Theater in Saratoga Springs, the world premiere of The Adventures of Friar Tuck by Glenn Paxton, and introduced the traveling Opera-On-Wheels Program in 1985.

The late 1980s welcomed artistic directors Brian Lingham (1986-87) and John Balme (1988-91), inaugurated the Opera-to-Go education program in 1986, and saw the world premiere of Mark Houston's Hazel Kirke, an opera set in the Hudson River Valley in the 1840s. The 1989 and 1990 seasons were performed at Adirondack Community College, while the Queensbury High School Auditorium underwent renovations.

Well-known singers who performed with the company early in their careers include Catherine Malfitano, Diana Soviero, Eric Halfvarson, and Jerry Hadley.

In 1991, Susan T. Danis was appointed to the newly established post of managing director and the company returned to Queensbury. 1993 was a transitional year, with David Lloyd returning as interim artistic director, and during which the Opera featured many alumni in three gala concerts, but performing no fully staged productions.

Joseph Illick became artistic director for the next five summers, programming a variety of works that included Rossini's La Donna del Lago, Massenet's Cendrillon, Jorge Martin's Tobermory, Richard Wargo's The Music Shop, and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the latter featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem as the Spirits in the Forest.

1998 brought major changes for Lake George Opera. Due to renovations at the Queensbury High School, the Company performed its summer season in the Spa Little Theater on the grounds of Spa State Park in Saratoga Springs. The 500-seat theater proved a perfect venue for intimate opera, and though the move was initially intended to be temporary, it has remained the company's main performance space since then. In 1998, the company also began performing operas in their original languages with projected supertitles.

In 1999, the company hired conductor Daniel Beckwith and stage director Marc Verzatt as co-artistic directors. Shortly thereafter, William Florescu joined the company as artistic director. The new team established a brand of intimate opera theater that would characterize the company’s productions going forward. Important projects during this period included notable productions of Ariadne auf Naxos in the Spa Little Theater, Madama Butterfly in partnership with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in SPAC's outdoor amphitheater, and the initiation in 2000 of a five-year Opera-to-Go education tour cycle of operas by John Davies.

In 2002, William Florescu assumed both executive and administrative leadership responsibilities. During the next three years, he reintroduced American operas into the repertory, showcased Apprentice Artists in concert programs with orchestra, initiated the Lake George Opera Summer Camp, and, along with event Chairs Ted and Carol Newlin, initiated the company's annual Opera Ball.

In 2005, Florescu moved to the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee, and Curtis Tucker became the company's eighth artistic director. In 2006, Tucker guided an expanded summer season that included the professional premiere of Ned Rorem's Our Town and a semi-staged Apprentice Artist performance of Menotti's The Medium. Tucker served in leadership roles for the company for nine seasons, overseeing the 50th season in 2011, and the formal name change to Opera Saratoga that same season. Among the successes of Tucker’s tenure were many critically acclaimed performances of works by Gilbert and Sullivan.

In 2014, the Board of Directors appointed Lawrence Edelson as the new artistic and general director. Highlights of Edelson’s tenure included the world premieres of Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann’s The Long Walk and Ricky Ian Gordon and Frank Bidart’s Ellen West; the company’s first baroque opera (Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in a site-specific production at The National Museum of Dance); the company’s first opera in Spanish (Daniel Catán’s Il Postino); the American premiere of Philip Glass and Beni Montresor’s opera-ballet, The Witches of Venice; and the 80th Anniversary production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, which utilized the composer’s original orchestration for the first time anywhere in the world in over 50 years, and was recorded for commercial release – marking Opera Saratoga’s first professional recording.

In 2020, Opera Saratoga was forced to cancel the Summer Festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company adapted its programming to include the launch of a virtual education program for elementary school students, and a live streamed concert series – America Sings – to amplify the voices of BIPOC singers who have been historically underrepresented on the concert stage. In 2021, the company resumed live performances with a modified season that included Man of La Mancha, its first large scale musical in partnership with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The 2022 season built upon this partnership by joining with multiple venues across the region to present a region-wide festival of opera, musical theater and concerts.

At the conclusion of the 2022 Summer Festival, Edelson stepped down as artistic and general director to join the University of Houston as interim Artistic Director of the Moores Opera Center, before joining Chicago Opera Theater as General Director in 2023. The company conducted a national search for Edelson’s successor and named Mary Birnbaum as the next artistic and general director in February of 2023.

==  (Mostly) from their official website  

It’s marvelous for the major houses to do things in the original language, with the exception of some things... I don’t think there’s any point in doing Jenủfa in Czech, for instance.  As it happened, the first time I saw it I was in it at the San Francisco Opera, when Irene Dalis did it.  It was in English and it was an unforgettable experience.  The audience simply stood and applauded after the end of the third act.  It was such a moving, immediate experience for them following the drama stroke by stroke and moment by moment as it went along.

BD:   Do you feel that this new gimmick of the supertitles is bridging the gap?

Henderson:   No, I don’t.  I find it very hard to concentrate on them.  I can watch the supertitles, or I can watch the stage, but I can’t seem to do both, and sooner or later the stage wins.  When following somebody who’s singing and breathing, pretty soon no matter how much you want to watch the darn supertitles, you start being up there with the person.  Mozart, for instance, ought to be done in English.  I know from experience that it plays beautifully in English.  The vowel sounds are the same, so what’s the difference?  I’ve heard all the other arguments, so anyone who feels like writing can spare me!  [Laughs]  After all, I want to communicate to people, and it seems much too much of a barrier.  There are so many people that we could have.  We just don’t enroll enough people because we get so snooty about doing things in the original language.  It’s so wonderful when you know what the scene is about, and you can follow it word by word.  We wouldn’t dream of sending people to the theater to see Sophocles in Greek, and expect them to follow it and understand what’s going on.  Admittedly, opera is working on many other levels, and a great deal of the emotional communication is being carried by the music.  But still, when people find out I
m an opera composer, the common complaint is that they don’t know very much about opera.  They’ve never been able to get into it because they can’t understand what the singers are saying, and I think that’s just dreadful.

BD:   You want to bring it to more and more people?

Henderson:   Yes.  There are so many more people that can appreciate it.  There are some very good recordings available in English, and when I play them for people, suddenly their eyes light up.  They understand it for the first time.  They never made the connection that it’s a play that people are singing, and suddenly there it is.  They can hear it and experience it.

BD:   Do you feel that having opera on the television helps this?

Henderson:   Oh, sure.  It sure helped me as a kid.  I remember seeing an NBC opera production of Fidelio (1959) when I knew from nothing.  I was so moved by it in a way that I could not articulate.  I was very puzzled and upset for days and days afterward.  I just didn’t understand what I’d seen, and why it affected me so deeply, but I certainly would have clicked it right off if it hadn’t been in English.

BD:   Do you feel that opera should be upsetting and disturbing?

Henderson:   No, not necessarily, but it should be moving on some level.  I’m just talking about my experience at that time, because I was so unprepared by anything in my background for what I saw at that time.

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BD:   In composition, yours or others, where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

Henderson:   You have to have inspiration, and you have to have talent, but you can’t do much without technique.  This is why I’ve worked so hard on my technique, because I felt that I had an easy kind of natural gift, and that I had to develop as much technique as possible to support it.  There’s a certain art in developing enough technique where you can write without calling attention to that technique.  It takes a tremendous amount of skill.  I’m afraid to write without the technique showing, so that people aren’t sitting there thinking what a clever fellow I am, which is disastrous.  I want them to be deeply moved and not know quite how.  They should just know that the music is surging forward in a wonderful, natural way, and carrying them to different heights.  That
s when the technique isn’t showing.  You’re reaching through to people’s feelings, and they’re empathizing with the people on the stage.  For instance, in the great tower scene where Andromache looks down and sees her husband being dragged behind Achilles’ chariot, if they are really feeling with her, then they’re not thinking about the technique that you’ve used to make that happen.  It’s hard to do, but you want to make it appear to be easy, or rather inevitable and natural.
BD:   What advice do you have for a young composer coming along?

Henderson:   Lock yourself up somewhere and write.  Try to go your own way as much as possible.  Listen and get to know your inner self.  There’s a lot of noise out there, and a lot of racket.  We’re bombarded from all sides by all different kinds of music, so get quiet and listen.  Go someplace to just be at peace, and listen to what’s coming out of you.

BD:   It’s a wonderful experience if you can achieve it.

Henderson:   Yes.  If you can’t achieve it, you’re just going to be imitating other people, and staying under the influence of a lot of styles without even knowing where they’re coming from.

BD:   Is Achilles finished?

Henderson:   In a sense it’s finished, but I still have a lot of work to do on it.  The composition is finished, and the first and third acts are complete in the piano-vocal score in ink.  Right now I’m doing the piano-vocal score of the second act in the ink copy, and then I have to orchestrate.  So yes, it’s finished and no, it isn’t finished.  [Laughs]  The major creative work on it is completed, and now I have to make the fair copy of the second act, and the orchestration of the whole.  But the orchestration is already created in a sense, so it’s not like trying to find the material and shape it and put it together.

BD:   If you come upon some great idea while doing the orchestration, would you have to go back and change the piano score?

Henderson:   Yes, and I did that in The Last of the Mohicans, but most of the time I’m so clear about how it’s going.  I’m thinking about the orchestra as I go along all the time.

BD:   Do you put little indications for yourself in the score?

Henderson:   I just know in my mind what I’m going to do, such as what doublings I’m going to use.  I write in a certain way as I go to take advantage of ideas.  For example, if I have a choice of doing something this way or that way, I’m going to put it in a key that’s grateful for the horns at that particular point.  I’m writing a piano-vocal score, but I know moment-by-moment what I’m going to do, and how I’m going to orchestrate it.  I write in such a way that it can be accommodated on the instruments that I have in mind, but I don’t make a lot of indications of the score.  Occasionally I’ll indicate an oboe solo or something like that.

BD:   Have you got another project in mind beyond Achilles, or is the next thing just to get this work mounted, and then worry about the next project?

Henderson:   I don’t have anything specific in mind.  As I said, I have lots of subjects, maybe four or five, sort of a periphery of awareness right now.  It’s been such a hard time bringing this project to completion.  I’ve been working on it over eight years now.  It really was a case of 'fools rush in'.  What kind of idiot would try and make an opera out of The Iliad???  [Laughs]  But I think, in fact, we’ve made a very good one.

BD:   It’s good that you come toward the end of the project and still feel really positive about it.

Henderson:   Oh yes.  I don
t think I could keep going unless I thought it would come out well.  I really wouldn’t see it through to the end if I thought it was not good.  In fact, I think it’s a wonderful piece, and it’s going to be a deeply moving piece on a tremendously heroic scale.  The scene I was talking about is where Andromache is waiting in the chamber for her husband to return, not knowing he’s already been killed.  She hears voices of lamentation coming from the tower, and runs there and looks down and sees Achilles dragging her husband’s body behind his chariot.  There’s a great crescendo of lamentation and wailing, first by Andromache and then by Hecuba, the mother of Hector, and Priam, Hector’s father.  Then that’s taken up by the chorus.  Priam decides in that moment that if it costs him his life, he’s still going to go into the Greek camp and ask Achilles to return the body of his son.  He says, “Let me hold him in my arms once more.  Let me ease my grief and hold his body in my arms once more.”  [Pauses a moment]  It’s a large-scale piece, it’s going to be very very difficult to get it done, but I’m excited and alive about the idea of trying.

BD:   I appreciate your spending the time with me this evening.

Henderson:   It’s mighty nice talking to you Mr. Duffie.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 22, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

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.