Opera composers are always on the lookout for a good story.
Gregory Spears reached back to a story he’d read in college for his first opera, “Paul’s Case.” It’s based on a short story by Willa Cather and was called “astonishingly beautiful” by the New York Times.
“I’m a voracious reader and let serendipity guide me a bit,” Spears says. “I remember being kind of shocked by ‘Paul’s Case,’ and surprised it existed. I found it puzzling, as well — always a good reason to approach an opera topic. There’s no better way to learn about a character than to write an opera about him.”
Pittsburgh Opera will present a new production of Spear’s “Paul’s Case” at performances starting Feb. 22 at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters in the Strip District. The opera was first performed in March 2013.
Cather’s story is set in Pittsburgh in 1906. Paul is a high school student who is a dandy, into the arts and disdainful of middle-class values. After he’s expelled from school, his father forces him to give up being an usher at Carnegie Music Hall, which he loves, and get a paying job. He steals the company’s weekend deposit, takes a train to New York City and books himself into the ritzy Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
There’s nothing ambiguous about his shopping spree, but is there a gay tinge to a drunken evening with a Yale freshman? It doesn’t take long for his escape to come crashing down.
“What I have always liked about the piece is how Greg Spears has retained the ambiguity of the Willa Cather story,” says stage director George Cedarquist. “Something we tried to capture is the difference between ambiguity and (being) vague. Ambiguity is exciting and enthralling and inspiring. Vague is boring and confusing.”
Spears says unlike Paul he wasn’t a rebellious teen, but always admired and was intrigued by his friends who were. “One of the interesting things about this opera is that I find it almost impossible to judge him either way. He’s such an ambiguous character.”
Spears says he employs musical styles that energize the drama. He grew up with minimalism and retains interest in it.
“For me, the conflict in the musical dimension of the piece is between a sort of minimalist style and an older more baroque sensibility. A lot of my pieces deal with my attempt to bring these two things together,” he says. “In ‘Paul’s Case’ these two styles might attach to the paradox at the root of Paul’s personality, the interesting contradiction that makes him who he is.”
The contradiction is Paul’s love for art and beauty that for him stand in contrast to the world full of machines, work and middle-class values.
“As Willa Cather might say, those two things have to go together for an artist to be born,” Spears says. “Anyone who’s an artist or knows one, knows there’s an enormous amount of work. It’s very labor-intensive.”
Preparing the opera is certainly labor-intensive.
“It’s one of the great challenges for the singer not only to have to know your own part but also to know what other singers are doing,” says conductor Glenn Lewis. “I have found in the learning process of this piece the singers need to be in groups to learn how it’s constructed.”
“Certainly, trying to stage a piece before the music is absolutely rock-solid is always a challenge when doing Handel, Mozart, Strauss or Spears,” Cedarquist says. “This piece is quite complex rhythmically and, also, texturally. There’s a lot of characters repeating fragments of the same lines. Each of those repetitions have to be colored to have a clear intention behind it. I’ve tried to re-create the way we talk when we have an argument or try to talk on top of someone or convince them.”
Tenor Daniel Curran says the vocal range Spears employs for Paul is very challenging, nearly two octaves from middle C to high B flat, but he considers himself lucky because he has some really beautiful music, music with an arch.
“Paul is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn, yet, when things in ensemble click, it’s really quite enjoyable,” Curran says. “You’ve conquered something.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.