Musical Storytelling: Stephen Schwartz Conjures Up His First Opera

Classic Arts Features   Musical Storytelling: Stephen Schwartz Conjures Up His First Opera
Delving into the more rarefied realm of opera has been a back-of-the-mind ambition for acclaimed theatre composer Schwartz, one he finally realized with S_ance on a Wet Afternoon, which will receive its East Coast premiere at NY City Opera in April.


Few composers are able to rattle off a resume of popular success like Stephen Schwartz. The Long Island native wrote two Broadway hits before he was 25: 1971's Godspell and 1972's Pippin. More recently, he was composer-lyricist for the smash Wicked: which has played for some 3,000 performances on Broadway since 2003 and broke box-office records as a touring show. He has had a Midas touch in the movies, too, winning Academy Awards for his lyrical contributions to the animated film Pocahontas and his songs in The Prince of Egypt, not to mention getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Yet delving into the more rarefied realm of opera had been a back-of-the-mind ambition for Schwartz, one he finally realized with S_ance on a Wet Afternoon: which will receive its East Coast premiere at New York City Opera, from April 19 to May 1. "I had always been interested in opera, going back to my college days at Carnegie Mellon," he explains. "In my last year there, I even wrote a one-act opera, which was pretty terrible. I always thought that I wanted to do it right someday."

Schwartz wrote the score and libretto to S_ance on a Wet Afternoon, basing the story on a 1964 British film starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley (who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance). The opera tells a tale of a psychic who so hungers for recognition of her powers that the woman talks her husband into kidnapping a child, with the notion that she will reap fame and the ransom when she reveals the girl's whereabouts.

Schwartz had originally declined a proposal of S_ance on a Wet Afternoon as too dark for adapting into musical theater, but the material eventually "seemed more suitable once I envisioned it in the opera house," he says. "It's a psychological thriller, with the emphasis on psychological. Ultimately, it's about two people who have such a deep need for something that it leads to them making very bad decisions. So, the drama of emotional extremes felt operatic, as did the characters.

"But while the husband and wife of the story are extreme, there are aspects about what they want that I could identify with: I could get inside the characters," Schwartz adds. "In the medium's case, she has a strong yearning for recognition, which is something I think every artist feels. The husband, he loves this woman unconditionally and doesn't want her to be hurt or disappointed in any way; he would do anything to please her. And I think everyone can understand that sort of deep desire to make a loved one happy."

Excerpts of S_ance on a Wet Afternoon were presented as part at New York City Opera's VOX opera showcase in spring 2009, with the first full staging at California's Opera Santa Barbara in September that year. The City Opera production team features director Scott Schwartz (the composer's son) and designer Heidi Ettinger, who worked on the Santa Barbara premiere and are both making their City Opera debuts. City Opera music director George Manahan will conduct, while reprising their lead roles from Santa Barbara are soprano Lauren Flanigan (a long-time City Opera favorite) as the medium Myra Foster and baritone Kim Josephson, making his company debut, as her husband, Bill.

"Lauren and Kim are not only excellent singers," Schwartz says. "They are wonderful singing actors _ and the opera is really an acting piece as much as it is a singing piece. That said, the score is melodic and accessible, I hope, even if the structure is more complex than something from the musical theater. The score is built on motifs rather than individual songs, though there are some big set pieces sprinkled throughout, including some big arias I wrote with Lauren in mind."

Composing his first opera took Schwartz "to places as a professional I had never been," he says. "Musical theater tends to be word-driven, whereas opera gives you so much more scope for driving the story with the music. But the orchestration was a challenge, as I had never orchestrated anything on such a scale before. Bill Brohn, the orchestrator on Wicked and so many shows, was a mentor and guide for me in that department. And in some ways, I had to learn how to write for unamplified voices. The audience has to be able to hear the voices over the orchestra, but be able to understand what's being sung, too."

Schwartz lists opera composers from Mussorgsky and Puccini to Poulenc and Britten as inspirations, adding that he marveled over Puccini's Tosca again recently: "It wasn't just the melodies but how the plot really clips along, with not an ounce of fat." He also singles out a couple of contemporary works as inspirational: Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking ("amazing storytelling, with an excellent libretto by Terrance McNally") and John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles ("which is just so great, it's daunting").

As a young man, Schwartz collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on the English texts to Bernstein's stage piece Mass, and the great composer-conductor's influence was pervasive and lasting. "You couldn't help but absorb so much from a figure like Leonard Bernstein, not only working with him but just being someone who works in this field, period," Schwartz says. "But one thing that has always impressed me about Bernstein's music is that he brought this incredible rhythmic energy to it, whether his musical theater work, an opera, concert music, whatever. I think opera can get a little turgid at times, and a sense of rhythmic energy like that is very important."

With the aim of broadening their audiences, many opera houses have widened their doors in recent years, opening the way for composers and directors from outside the classical arena. Composers have come not only from musical theater but from the worlds of pop (such as Rufus Wainwright) and film music (Howard Shore). Schwartz says, "I don't know what draws these other composers to opera, but for me, it's just this incredibly rich medium for storytelling. And no matter what I'm writing, it always comes down to telling a story with music."


Bradley Bambarger writes on classical and popular music. He lives in New York City.

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