Last month, the Met presented what The New York Times declared “New York City’s opera event of the fall”: the world-premiere production of Kevin Puts’ The Hours, which continues its run through December 15. Based on Michael Cunningham’s landmark novel and the Oscar-winning film it inspired, the powerful new adaptation brings together three of opera’s most exceptional artists to portray
a trio of women from different generations united by their shared struggles with sexuality, mortality, and regret: mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Virginia Woolf, in the midst of writing Mrs. Dalloway; Tony Award–winner Kelli O’Hara as Laura Brown, a 1940s housewife reading Woolf’s novel and yearning for more from life; and the great Renée Fleming as Clarissa Vaughan, a New York City literary editor whose lifelong friend is dying of AIDS at the end of the 20th century. Before the curtain went up, Puts discussed his approach to bringing the opera’s three distinct storylines into harmony on the Met stage.
I’ve heard that one of the opera’s stars actually gave you the idea to adapt The Hours. How did that come about?
Kevin Putts: Yes, Renée Fleming and I are both alumni of the Eastman School of Music, and they
commissioned me to write a piece for her. So I composed an orchestral song cycle called The Brightness of Light, based on the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. We both really enjoyed that collaboration, so I asked if she might be interested in working on an opera together. We discussed a few
potential ideas, and then she suggested that it would great to do something that takes place in different time periods simultaneously, like The Hours. Right away, I thought it was an amazing idea.
Why did it strike you as being so well-suited to the operatic form?
I had read the book and seen the movie, so I started thinking about what could be done in music that can’t be done in writing or in a film. If I first established these three different women living in their different time periods, then, in a way that is only possible on the operatic stage, I could gradually blur the
lines between them. Their worlds could come together and apart, and I could create duets and trios that essentially transcend time and space.
When Philip Glass famously composed the score for the film version of The Hours, he chose to frame all three stories with the same musical language, but it sounds like you took a different approach.
Initially, I wasn’t sure how overtly I wanted to establish the three different time periods, but it ended up happening naturally.
Virginia’s music has a very spare, almost Baroque quality, with the harmony always subverting itself in ways that you don’t expect. I wanted a sense of instability in her music to reflect the complexity of her mind and the unpredictable paths she takes in her writing. Then for Clarissa, who’s in New York in the ’90s, the music has an urban vibe, perhaps with roots in some of the post-minimalist American composers I love. But for Laura, who feels trapped in a life which is not authentic, I instead wanted to depict an environment—this supposed suburban domestic bliss—which feels alien to her. So it has a glossiness inspired by music from that time, composers like Henry Mancini, Clive Richardson, Lawrence Welk, and so on.
Over time, the three begin to sing together, culminating in a climactic final trio in which they finally discover each other outside of reality.
Tell me about the process of collaborating with the opera’s librettist, Greg Pierce.
Fortunately, Greg and I got along very well from the beginning. He really understands music and how his words might translate to music. For instance, I remember him texting me and saying, “I’m thinking of starting the piece in Virginia Woolf’s head, with the chorus singing these fragmented lines that
eventually coalesce into the first line of Mrs. Dalloway.” And when he sent me a page, I looked at it, and it immediately felt like music. I could imagine the chorus singing, their lines overlapping each other and gradually becoming a full choral sound.
With three extraordinary artists portraying your heroines, did you have their voices in mind while composing?
Absolutely. When I heard whom the Met had in mind for the casting, I practically fell off the couch! It’s inspiring to write for them—it makes me do my best work. What’s interesting about the voice is how individual each artist is. When you write for the bassoon, you know that the low B flat will sound a
certain way, and the F above middle C will sound a certain way. But every person’s voice is different, so it helps to have a close collaboration where I can really understand every nuance of the singer’s approach and technique—and then combine that with my own voice. I had worked with Renée on other projects, and I knew Joyce’s voice very well from hearing her in performance, but I didn’t know what to expect from Kelli. I wondered if she would be most comfortable in a kind of musical-theatre register, but she sings beautifully above the staff—way above the staff, actually. There’s really nothing she can’t do. This whole process has been very gratifying. When you’re working with artists of this caliber and it feel like their parts fit them like a glove, it’s a magical thing for a composer