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May 9, 2007

TT: Lend me your ears (and eyes)

I'm writing an opera.

To be exact, Santa Fe Opera, one of America's most admired opera companies, has commissioned me to write the libretto for a musical version of Somerset Maugham's "The Letter," a 1924 short story that Maugham turned into a play three years later. The score will be by my friend and neighbor Paul Moravec, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2004 and was recently appointed artist-in-residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. The commission was announced at a press conference held in Santa Fe earlier this hour.

"The Letter" has been filmed twice, the second time by William Wyler in 1940. If you don't know the plot in any of its various manifestations, take it from me, it's the stuff operas are made of. Lust, betrayal, murder, blackmail...what's not to like? I feel like singing already. Paul and I are shaping it into a very tight structure (ninety minutes, no intermission) that we hope will have the feel of a film noir and the punch of a verismo opera. Think Tosca or Carmen directed by Jacques Tourneur and you'll get the idea.

As for Paul's music, allow me to quote from my liner notes for the Trio Solisti's recording of two of his best pieces, Mood Swings and the Pulitzer-winning Tempest Fantasy:

Despite the considerable, at times formidable complexity of these tough-minded works, which are anything but "easy" in the way they translate experience and emotion into the realm of sound, their complexities are never gratuitous. To put it another way, they make sense. Their harmonies are lucid and logical, their melodies indelibly noble. They are, literally, eloquent, the painstakingly wrought, powerfully moving utterances of an artist who believes with all his heart in the possibility of beauty. I know no other music written today that moves me more.

The premiere of The Letter is set for the summer of 2009, but the production is already starting to take shape. Am I excited? You'd better believe it. Nervous, too, since this is the first time I've ever written anything for the stage (I tried to write a play a few years ago, but it wasn't any good). Fortunately, Paul is such a splendid composer and Maugham so solid a theatrical craftsman that I think The Letter has an excellent chance of hitting the bull's-eye. At any rate, it'll be interesting to see what it feels like to take a curtain call!

Much, much more to come....

UPDATE: From the Santa Fe Opera press release:

Paul Moravec, the Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, has been commissioned to write an opera for The Santa Fe Opera to be premiered in the 2009 season. Announcement of the commission was made today in Santa Fe by General Director Richard Gaddes. The commission is the first of two planned by the company.

Mr. Moravec has chosen the play entitled The Letter written in 1927 by W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). Considered a Maugham masterpiece, The Letter is set in the Far East, and tells the story of an adulterous affair that leads to murder, blackmail, and revenge. It was made into a film in 1940 starring Bette Davis which has become a classic. Terry Teachout, the eminent critic and writer, is the librettist.

In making the announcement Gaddes commented: "When I first heard music by Paul Moravec I was immediately captivated. The great thing about him is that he's found a musical language all on his own that is both pleasing to the ear and at the same time very contemporary. It is ground breaking and we are excited that this important American composer has agreed to write for The Santa Fe Opera. While Paul has written for voice, this is his first opera."

Henceforth I shall be known as His Eminence! (You need not kiss the ring, though.)

Posted May 9, 2007 1:30 PM

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