In 1962, when Tobias Picker was eight years old, he started writing his first opera. He also began a correspondence with the Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who encouraged the precocious young Picker's pursuits. Forty-three years later, Picker's fourth opera, An American Tragedy, is receiving its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera.
"Being taken to lunch by James Levine," Picker recalls, "and being asked if I'd 'consider' writing an opera for the Met ... my mind was blown. I was aware that this wasn't an everyday occurrence. There just aren't that many people who have been asked by him to write an opera for the Met. And so I had to have some self-possession, and contain myself."
As far as Picker was concerned, there was nothing to consider‹not even his choice of subject matter. "I knew I wanted to do it," says the native New Yorker, "and the first thing that came to mind was An American Tragedy. I grew up with it. It was my father's favorite book; Dreiser was his favorite author. He had an autographed copy of the first edition in his library, which I read. And it had the scope, and the bigness of drama and message that I thought was appropriate for this most august of opera houses."
Levine approved Picker's choice‹but Dreiser's estate did not. An American Tragedy had already been optioned for a musical, and Picker couldn't get the rights to the work. So he began to consider other subjects. "I went through several of them," he says, and there was one that Levine especially liked‹but it wasn't an American book, it wasn't an American author, it wasn't an American story. And in the end I rejected it, and went back and looked at American stories, which I felt closer to." Picker eventually settled on another Dreiser novel, Sister Carrie; but through the intervention of Dreiser's nephew, he was finally able to get the rights to do An American Tragedy as an opera.
"We had already chosen a cast for Sister Carrie," Picker says, "but I abandoned it as an idea as soon as I was able to get the rights to An American Tragedy, since that is what I wanted to do in the first place. I was offered the commission in 1997, but I didn't have the rights until about three years later."
Although the musical adaptation of An American Tragedy was never made, Dreiser's modernist masterpiece about a poor young man who plots to kill his pregnant lover so he can woo a society girl had already proven its dramatic merit several times over: first as a successful Broadway play in the late 1920s and early 1930s and twice for the silver screen. (The 1931 Paramount film, An American Tragedy, was followed in 1951 with a updated remake by that same studio, which resulted in the Academy Award-winning A Place in the Sun.)
While the overt drama of An American Tragedy makes it an appealing subject for the operatic stage, it was the powerful humanism at the story's core that first attracted Picker to the work. "I've always been drawn to naturalist, humanist works," says the composer, whose other operas include Emmeline, Thérèse Raquin, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Emmeline is the story of a modern day Oedipus as seen through Jocasta's eyes and, like An American Tragedy, it is based on a true story. Thérèse Raquin is about an adulterous affair that leads to murder, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is a modern fable about good versus evil and the complex relationships between animals and humans. "I'm interested in what lies under the surface, and what motivates us to make the choices we make, and end up where we end up‹what role destiny and fate play, what role coincidence, what role human will, and what the human will is able to negotiate with fate."
The psychological and sociological struggles inherent in such realist tales, Picker says, lend them a universality and timelessness that are essential for an artistic work to have lasting value and continued success.
"You don't have to drown your lover or mistress in order to identify with Clyde," he says of An American Tragedy. "Nathan Gunn [who plays Clyde in the opera] said that any time you're given the wrong amount of change in your favor when you buy something, and you put it in your pocket and walk away, there's a little bit of Clyde in you. Clyde wants so much to have everything that America can give him. He's so deprived of everything, and when he sees something, his eyes are so big‹it's with such a passion that he wants these things. These passionate needs and desires and cravings are operatic‹and of course they're exaggerated. But I'll bet you that every person in the audience can relate to it.
"An American Tragedy tells us about ourselves," he adds." It gives us insight into who we are, if we allow ourselves the journey."
While Picker could have easily updated An American Tragedy to a more contemporary setting, he chose instead to step back in time even earlier than Dreiser's novel, to its real-life source: the famous Chester Gillette murder case. "Dreiser set his story in 1922, in his own time. And the movie A Place in the Sun is set in its own time, about 1951. But I wanted to go back and set it in Chester Gillette's time, around 1906 or 1907, where it started, because it's a period of American history that we have the least associations with: the first ten years of the century. And the fact that one of the first media trials, ever, took place at that time, in a little town called Herkimer in upstate New York, interested me very much."
In addition to working from Dreiser's novel‹which, clocking in at about 900 pages, is a daunting task in and of itself‹Picker's librettist, Gene Scheer, also did extensive research on the real-life story and subsequent trial, culling information as he could from newspaper accounts, letters, and trial transcripts. After numerous treatments and libretto drafts over the course of four years, Scheer succeeded in turning this mountain of material into a tight two-act, two-and-a-half hour libretto.
Picker began writing the music after the libretto's second or third draft. "It's Gene's words in the libretto that bring the music forth," he says. "They're the water and the earth and sun that make the flower grow." As the libretto evolved through the years, so, too, did the score. "There are demands that the musical structures make on the text, and demands that the text and the structure of the text make on the music, that have to be worked out so that the whole thing is architecturally and musically and emotionally satisfying."
Along with the words of the libretto, Picker needed to understand the complex psychology and motivations of each of the opera's characters in order to create their music. "I let the characters lead me," he explains. "I crossed over into their lives, and relied on them to tell me what their music was. I've been every character I've ever written, in one sense or another."
While each character in An American Tragedy has his or her own distinct musical voice‹for example, Sondra's seductive, sophisticated sound contrasts sharply with Elvira's mournful religiosity‹there is a common, stylistic thread that runs through much of the opera's score. "I think that there's an American flavor to the musical language in this piece," says Picker, who has included an actual hymn from the 1880s (" 'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus") as well as one of his own composition in the big church scene in Act 2. "I hope there is a directness to the music and a simplicity‹when it needs to be simple the music is not afraid to be so. When the situation or the emotional moment requires complexity, the music is more dense. My music has a straight forwardness about it. It is clear and direct, like most Americans are."
When asked if it seems anomalous to be writing operas in the 21st century, Picker offers a very clear and direct response. "I think it's a very appropriate thing to be doing in the 21st century. We don't even know what the 21st century is yet. So we have an opportunity to make it something musically and culturally what we want it to be."
Musically, Picker plans to fill the 21st century with more American operas. In addition to upcoming European premieres in the U.K. of Thérèse Raquin and Fantastic Mr. Fox, the composer has another important world premiere in the works, and, he says, "I have at least three other operas in mind that I want to do‹that I need to do. I'll keep writing them as long as people want them."
For the moment, however, Picker is still getting accustomed to the idea of having a world premiere at America's most esteemed opera house.
"Sometimes, I must admit, I stop to think, and I step back and say, 'I have an opera opening at the Met.' It took me a long time before I could walk into the theater and not feel intimidated," he admits. "And it's still thrilling to walk into the Metropolitan Opera House‹that never goes away. But at some point I had to get over the Met, and get over myself, and write the best piece I could for the occasion. And I hope I've delivered something to the Met of value, of lasting value, which we can all be proud of, and that will bring honor to this house."