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January 6, 2016

Dog Days at the Prototype Festival

New opera takes over New York City this week as the Prototype Festival, the annual festival of opera and music theater, begins today in various locations. This year’s program includes work from Enda Walsh (Tony winner for Once), Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange), and the prolific librettist Royce Vavrek, who has two pieces, Dog Days and Angel’s Bone, featured. Dog Days is told from the perspective of 13-year-old Lisa, who, after her family survives an apocalyptic event, befriends a man trying to survive by becoming a dog. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Vavrek and David T. Little, composer of Dog Days, about their experience in the festival, their collaboration, and writing for a dog-man.

Photo by James Matthew Daniel

Culturadar: When did you first read the short story “Dog Days” by Judy Budnitz, and why did you decide to adapt it? 

David T. Little: I first encountered Judy's story through a film by Ellie Lee, which I saw in 2001 or 2002 on IFC. At first I was just drawn to the weird beauty of it. It's a beautifully shot film, and the idea of a man in a homemade dog costume begging outside the home of a family in decline was really captivating for me at the time. The more I watched, and the more I reflected on Ellie's film afterward, the deeper I realized it was. I saw that in the bones of this story were deep ideas about humanity, compassion, gender, civilization, identity, loneliness, escape, and so much more. What first may have seemed like a strange story for an opera soon became the only story I could imagine telling in that form.

Royce Vavrek: I read the story, which was published in The New York Times, at David’s insistence, and I knew immediately that it would make for a dynamic work of music theater.

CR: What musical ideas did you want to work with when you first started?

DL: I knew that I wanted to write a dramatically exciting piece that found something poetic in the everyday--using song form, vernacular styles, ordinary speech rather than poetic--while telling a compelling and deep story. I also knew that I wanted to try to create characters real enough that we could see ourselves in them, characters in three dimensions.

CR: What challenges did having a dog-like character on stage bring to the piece?

DL: We knew that we didn't want the dog-man to sing, so I had to find musical ways to convey his character without the use of words or sung melody. This meant, since he doesn't have any lines, that I had to infuse the work with a kind of emotional landscape in which the performer--in this case, the astonishing John Kelly--could find and portray the character through movement. In a way it felt almost like writing for dance. 

RV: I don’t think that writing Prince [the dog-man] was any harder or different than writing the other characters in this piece. He was actually a great tool to have, as he listens to Lisa pour her heart out, particularly in her first act aria. We learn so much about Lisa, and her initial impressions of the dog-man, through that one-sided conversation.

CR: Royce, you've worked a lot with Lauren Worsham, who plays Lisa. Was this role written for her?

RV: Lauren is my favorite person to write for, and I did imagine her as Lisa as I was writing the libretto. The aria “Mirror, Mirror” was written for her to premiere at an American Opera Projects/Opera on Tap concert in 2009, and she has been at the heart of our show ever since.

Lauren Worsham | Photo by Lisa Hoebermann

CR: As a composer, what do you consider when you write for singers?

DL: I'm very concerned with writing well for the voice and with enabling singers to perform and sound their best. I'm equally concerned with conveying believable and compelling characters, which is also often accomplished through the vocal writing. To do this, I will often set small character rules for myself: ways each character behaves musically. In Dog Days, for example, Mother's lines are typically longer and more lyrical, whereas Lisa's lines are more staccato and skittish. 

David T. Little | Photo by Merri Cyr

CR: Did you write for these singers specifically?

DL: [The piece] had such a long gestation period at the start, [so] this wasn't entirely possible. But once the show was cast, the roles were definitely catered to each individual singer during the rehearsal process. So, without question, this amazing and fearless cast has put their mark on the score.

CR: Royce, you have another opera in the festival, Angel's Bone. Where did the idea for that piece come from?

RV: [Composer] Du Yun and I met as participants in New York City Opera’s VOX in 2010, and I fell in love with her creative energy immediately. We started talking about writing a show together. She said she wanted to write about prostitution, and I was interested in angels, and soon the desire to be in dialogue with the contemporary issue of human trafficking emerged.

Royce Vavrek | Photo by Ricardo Beas

CR: Has writing Angel’s Bone illuminated more to you about human trafficking?

RV: To understand the extent of human trafficking in our own city and across America was eye-opening. This is not a foreign issue by any stretch of the imagination. We wanted to create an opera that tackled this provocative theme through abstraction, so in our story it’s a pair of angels that are found in a garden somewhere in a Middle America that has been hit hard by a recession. Mr. and Mrs. X.E. are a middle class couple who feel entitled to a better life, a life that seemed to be promised to them. It shows how quickly we sell out, how quickly humans can turn selfish, greedy. We are only one step away from pimping out the weak and needy. It was important that we showed that human trafficking could be happening through the window of the house next door.

CR: How do you collaborate? Do you discuss the music before writing?

RV: My work is generally done first with an entire libretto being written, when possible, before a composer writes any of the music. I like to send the composer into their writing phase with a solid dramatic roadmap. We don’t so much discuss the music before writing as we do talk about the emotional content of each particular moment of a show. I’m essentially “on-call” during the compositional process, making little, and sometimes big, adjustments to the text as the musical necessities are revealed.

DL: Royce and I don't really discuss specific music, but we might discuss general sound or mood or dramatic energy. During the libretto writing stage, for example, I might say something to him like, "This scene is cool, but know that I will most likely interpret it this way, musically, which might have ramifications for other moments in the show, or the pacing you're imagining." So the music is always in the room, on some level.

CR: What have Royce's words brought out in your music?

DL: I think Royce's words brought out a playfulness in my music that for some reason I had previously been keeping hidden away. But now I think, when given playful text, why not write playful music? If it's the right thing for the drama, then it is the right thing, period. 

CR: And what does each composer's music bring to the librettos?

RV: I’m most excited by composers who can conjure worlds through their music. Both David and Du Yun have created singular landscapes in Dog Days and Angel’s Bone that feel as though they belong to the characters in the operas but also to their particular compositional voices. Each composer is in charge of building the primary environment for an opera, seen through their particular musical prism. It’s the closest thing to magic, perhaps.

CR: What does it mean to you for these pieces to be in the Prototype Festival?

RV: It’s beyond exciting. The opportunity to bring Dog Days home to New York after our runs at Peaks Performances in Montclair, New Jersey, Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, feels like the end of a chapter in the life of the show, and we do hope that many more chapters remain to be written. Angel’s Bone will take its first steps as part of this year’s festival, receiving its world premiere. 

DL: Prototype has become such an important place to experience new works each January. The three forces of nature behind it--Beth Morrison, Kim Whitener and Kristin Marting--had a vision of what new opera, opera-theatre, music theater could be, and they created a space where it could be realized. We're lucky to have it.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.

Posted at 11:53 AM

< West Side Story, a Second Time | Main | Ending the Silence: MotherStruck at the Culture Project >

Great article.
Posted by Eugene Woznicki
On Wednesday January 6, 2016