A month has gone by since I last reported on the progress of The Letter, the musical version of Somerset Maugham’s play that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera. During that time Paul paid his first visit to Santa Fe, and came back mightily impressed by the company and its staff. “It’s like an American Bayreuth,” he said, referring to the theater in Germany where the operas of Richard Wagner are performed each summer. He was told that The Letter is already the subject of considerable buzz, both in Santa Fe and in New York, and that the company now expects that tickets for the opera’s first performances, which will take place in August of 2009, will be a hot commodity. He also brought back a copy of this season’s souvenir program, in which a full page is devoted to The Letter. Whew!
In other news, five of the six principal roles in The Letter have been cast. For the moment I can’t be any more specific, but I can say that our number-one-with-a-bullet choice for the starring role of Leslie Crosbie–the part played by Bette Davis in the 1940 film version–has signed on with enthusiasm, and that all the other singers lined up by Santa Fe to date look and sound eerily like what Paul and I had in mind going in. With Jonathan Kent in the director’s chair, I’d say we’ve got ourselves a damned impressive roster.
On Thursday Paul and I will be sitting down for the latest of our face-to-face work sessions. He’ll play me the music he’s composed since our last get-together, then we’ll go through it bar by bar, putting words and music through the critical wringer and making changes on the spot as needed. Each time we do this, I find myself freshly amazed–as well as humbled–to think that the two of us should be writing an opera for a major company. It’s sort of like the way I feel about living in New York: I’m used to it, but I still have to pinch myself every once in a while.
Paul has now written the first three scenes of the opera, plus an aria from Scene 6. That’s the one for which I knocked out a dummy lyric back in July. Since then I’ve finished the real thing, a nineteen-line haiku-style pastiche modeled after the translations included in Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. This is the first thing I’ve ever written that can properly be called a poem. It even rhymes!
The singer of the aria in question is a Chinese woman whose lover has been shot to death by the Bette Davis character. (That’s how the opera starts.) I usually write the words first, but this time Paul beat me to the punch, meaning that I had to fit my text to his melodic line syllable by syllable. Here’s how the aria ends:
Hear the chime of the clock:
A land beyond the horizon:
The stars above.
Morning will come again–
Needless to say, I’m no Keats, but I think the results came out sounding more or less plausible, or at least singable.
* * *
So what does The Letter sound like so far? I don’t want to be too specific about a work that’s still very much in progress, but perhaps it will help if I tell you that I sent Paul a quote from George Bernard Shaw the other day. Shaw started out as a music critic, and the quote is from a piece he wrote abut Verdi’s Il Trovatore:
It has tragic power, poignant melancholy, impetuous vigour, and a sweet and intense pathos that never loses its dignity. It is swift in action, and perfectly homogenous in atmosphere and feeling. It is absolutely void of intellectual interest: the appeal is to the instincts and the senses all through.
To which Paul succinctly replied, “Yeah, that’s about right.” And that, if I may make so bold as to say, is what his music for the first three scenes sounds like. The Letter is in no way an opera for eggheads, even though the two of us are both fairly chrome-domed.
As I’ve said before, we’re trying to write a cross between a verismo opera like Tosca and a film noir like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. We don’t want The Letter to sound old-fashioned–Paul’s musical language is in no way derivative of Verdi or Puccini–but we do want it to move fast and hit hard. Ida Lupino once directed a movie called Hard, Fast and Beautiful. O.K. by me!
In the immortal words of Raymond Chandler:
She reached a quick arm around my neck and started to pull. So I kissed her. It was either that or slug her.
That’s about right, too.