Royce Vavrek is a librettist who collaborates with some of the most exciting composers working today. He’s written about JFK, Gertrude Stein, and the Hubble Telescope. His latest opera, with composer Missy Mazzoli, is an adaptation of the Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves, and has just been premiered to rave reviews. He chats with leoemercer about storytelling and collaborations.
How do you make your operas feel so contemporary?
For me, that’s a story thing. I want to tell stories that will ignite the imagination of a contemporary audience. I want people to be excited to come and see my shows. That can mean telling a story set in the early 20th century in Paris (as my Gertrude Stein opera, 27, with composer Ricky Ian Gordon), or telling a story that takes place in Houston Texas today (as O Columbia, with composer Gregory Spears). Both stories feel like they are in dialogue with our contemporary life in their own special way.
I also think that opera needs to be really, really theatrical. A stereotype of traditional opera is more than 3 hours of music being delivered to the audience by a singer in a costume standing downstage left. We have movies and TV shows (we are living in a golden age of television) that are amazing and (often) free – and we need to compete for people’s time. We need to give compelling reasons to leave the house and see an opera, a play, a concert, when Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are encouraging us to stay glued to our couches.
A lot of people tell contemporary stories. It feels like there’s something more to your work?
I have aligned myself with composers whose languages are informed by more popular musical ideas. David T. Little, for instance is really influenced by heavy metal music. I just had breakfast with Missy and we were listening to the new Vince Staples EP (I’m obsessed) and the most recent Rihanna album. This summer when I was doing JFK it was all about Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I feel like even though I make my home in the classical music sphere, I’m always listening to musical and lyrical ideas of artists in all genres. So my work feels truly in a greater dialogue with the world at large.
It sounds like you’ve made a conscious effort to work with a certain sort of composer?
I’d say it was fate that I found the people I collaborate with. I’m always excited about new collaborations, so I in no way mean that to be exclusive. But the people I work with, we talk endlessly about what kind of work we want to put out into the world, and I do think that collaborations that exist over many projects allow the relationships to become much, much richer. There’s something magical about working with a composer for the first time, and negotiating how your voices are going to marry. But there’s something really special about speaking the same language as a collaborator and growing with them.
I absolutely LOVE that in order to carve out a niche in the classical music world as a composer, you have to be really honest about your voice, and be as singular as possible. That’s perhaps what I love about all of my collaborators. We’re all creating work in the 21st century, and it’s all wildly different and specific to our particular combination of voices.
What’s the most overt nonclassical influence in pieces you’ve done?
My opera Angel’s Bone (with Du Yun) premiered in New York in January. It contains a punk aria where an angel is being sexually assaulted. My MFA was in musical theatre writing, so a lot of my work borrows from the lyrical immediacy of that medium. My work with Matt Marks includes a lot of pop references, especially in his music, but has the shape and profile of an extended art song/aria. Breaking the Waves uses electric guitar, which feels very contemporary (and very 1970s – Elton John, Deep Purple, etc) evoking the soundtrack of the original film, and I think that contributes in a beautiful way to the modern feel of the worlds we create. I was once asked to choose a poet whose work has informed mine, and I chose a Canadian singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards whose song “Sure as Shit” unlocked something very powerful for me in that she used near-rhyme (and near lack of rhyme) in a pop song, and finds a beauty in this quotidian language – that really blew my mind.
Do you think some people write badly for the 21st century?
I don’t really know what it means to be writing “badly,” so I don’t want to imply that. There are certainly people who are writing in styles that don’t push the form as much (which I’m excited about), but it seems like we live in a time when there all musical styles are appreciated. Back a few decades (or more) ago, at least in America, the music that was getting funded belonged to a particular modern school of thought, it seems… so some musical languages and ideas were getting frozen out.
Now people can choose to write in pretty much any style, and there is hopefully an audience that will gobble that up. Of course there are composers whose music speaks to me in a more visceral and immediate way. Same with pop music, same with filmmakers and their movies. Opera’s audience is getting older (at least when you go to the Met). And I wonder if the reason that we are losing that audience is that we aren’t cultivating young opera-goers in the right way, and they are ultimately feeling disconnected from the work of Mozart and Puccini. I have a hard time getting excited about seeing a lot of the standard rep – it sometimes feels like eating your veggies. The work that I create, ideally I want people like my brother (an environmental scientist) to feel like he wants to spend his money on a ticket to see. Maybe that’s Mozart – but I think something like Dog Days would more ignite his imagination.
Is there a sort of central vision about the nature of opera driving your own work?
For me, growing up in rural western Canada, opera was this elite art form. It was the furthest thing from the fields of wheat that I could imagine. And to a certain extent I think that’s what opera represents to a lot of people – it’s this thing that is expensive and elaborate.
With the help of visionary producers like Beth Morrison, and the commitment to new work that companies like Opera Philadelphia, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Fort Worth Opera and Washington National Opera are investing in, I think that opera is hopefully becoming an artform that a larger population feels like they have access to. Most people don’t listen to Mozart on their way to work (I don’t)… and so we have to expose them to classical music, and our more progressive ideas of what classical music is and can be, and make them feel welcome in our theatres and opera houses.
It’s weird, because I feel like we are doing really provocative work (Dog Days, Angel’s Bone and Breaking the Waves are particularly bold, I hope)… but opera has always been a place for the provocative. Think of Salome for instance. Think of all the sex and blood that has been in operas over the past centuries. We are just using a contemporary lens with which to tell (hopefully) timeless stories, in hopes that in 100 years the form has continued to evolve and even more progressive ideas are being explored on the operatic canvas. Hopefully the blood and sex continue to flourish!
What makes a Royce Vavrek libretto?
I think I am first and foremost a man of the theatre, so I think there is a really strong theatricality to my work. I also think each libretto I write is totally different, and I love to experiment and try new things while still understanding that there are things about opera that work because they work! I’m extremely collaborative, and always remind myself that there are a million different ways that a moment can be rendered, so I try not to be too precious with my words.
I think that I am such a product of the art that I grew up with, so my voice is one that has been influenced mainly by world cinema, and I think there is an awareness of that, and a boldness to choices that comes from self-education – seeing movies by Lars von Trier, Larry Clark, Mike Leigh, Wong Kar-Wai and Catherine Breillat while still a teenager. I really do believe that I carry their narrative ideas with me everywhere and with everything I write. I don’t want to imply that I steal from them, but they were my teachers indirectly, and I truly feel aligned with them.
Can you give some examples?
The most overt example is this adaptation of Breaking the Waves, a film I first saw when I was 14. I didn’t know then that I’d make it into an opera, but the movie felt like a portal into a whole different world that felt at once foreign and familiar. I was trying to understand my own perspective on religion and sexuality, and here comes this movie that was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was probably one of the first pieces of “art cinema” that I had come across, and it felt overwhelmingly big (for lack of a better word) in its ideas. It explored goodness, and what it means to be good in a world that seems to actively try to thwart one’s goodness in the name of goodness (convoluted, I know). Cinema suggested that there were stories out there, beyond the blockbusters that were being screened at my local cinema, that contained exciting, singular ideas.
Another example is Catherine Breillat’s A Very Young Girl – it was so shocking and compelling when I saw it at 18… I have a musical that will premiere at Signature theatre in Arlington Virginia next year that feels like a mash up of Breillat’s emotional landscape with that of Martin McDonagh or Sam Shepard‘s theatricality.
We don’t create art in a bubble, so it’s almost like I’ve identified these storytellers who speak directly to my heart, and I begin to have a lifelong discussion with them through the work that I’m creating. The nature of art is about reflecting the world we live in, and so when you identify a reflection that feels dynamic and important to you, you stand arrested by what you see for as long as possible and examine why that is so important, why that clicks with you.
Do you write your libretti as if they’re poetry, prose, or some sort of vernacular speech?
That depends. For Breaking the Waves Missy and I wanted to root the story on the Isle of Skye, and had the amazing opportunity to go on a 10-day Scottish adventure. So Bess and Dodo’s Mother and the minister sound as rooted as possible to the Hebridean landscape, while Jan, Terry and Dodo sound more “international”. Matt Marks likes me to write in prose, so I’ll literally write a paragraph and send that to him. For Hubble Cantata, the words were more lyrical. Each piece dictates the language. Dog Days is extremely vernacular, with lots of fucks and shits littered throughout (I love curse words, in general – maybe that’s what makes a Royce Vavrek libretto!). Breaking the Waves has a fuck and a few pricks… it’s all about being honest about the characters and the situations they are in.
Operatically I love the Barber/Menotti collaboration on Vanessa – perhaps my favorite opera. I also learned a lot about form from the musical theatre… I absolutely love 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens. I grew up taking voice, piano, choir, and musical theatre lessons, so that influence feels very much a part of my chemistry. And I love all music, though there are some genres I’m not as familiar with. David T. Little has yet to really educate me on the art of heavy metal, for instance, but I love the way words work in rap music, and the way stories are told in country songs. Pop music often provides examples and the freedom to be more direct, to not get totally caught up in the lofty poetry (or to find poetry in the everyday, which is how I see it) that I think opera (especially older works) is often thought to utilize.
What pips of advice would you give to others who also want to go into writing libretti?
I understand that I am very lucky to be doing something I love, that encompasses a huge portion of my life. For me, it was sort of out of necessity. I went to school at NYU and then, based on my Visa, I had to find things to do (i.e. make money) exclusively in my artistic field. This meant that right after my studies I worked in musical theatre development at The Public Theater.
Having that job for three years was a huge gift, in many ways. I was able to meet all of these amazing composers, as I was being sent out as a sort of scout to see an insane amount of work around town. That’s how I met Joshua Schmidt, my collaborator on Midwestern Gothic, and my Wild Beast of the Bungalow collaborator Rachel Peters. I was really unapologetic about asking people to write something with me… usually just a single song, to see if there was a spark, and that’s how lots of my projects began.
There was a comment somebody made on Facebook a while back that read (paraphrasing here): “I have come to believe that Royce Vavrek writes EVERY new opera libretto” and to which somebody replied: “Sometimes it feels that way”. First of all, that is totally false… In America we have my colleagues Mark Campbell, Gene Scheer, J.D. McClatchy, Stephanie Fleischmann, and others doing lots and lots of amazing work… But that particular post was not about operas that I had been commissioned to write by big companies, but about smaller pieces that began across dinner tables with collaborators that had humble beginnings without institutional support… just me and the composer dreaming up an idea and planting the seed and hoping that it would grow. We worked extremely hard to grow those projects. I have a childhood mentor, Kathy Harper, from the community theatre in Grande Prairie, Alberta. She told me at a very young age that if I wanted to be a writer I had to write and write and write and write and write. The only way to get better at anything is to practice and do it.
I’m very proud of my early work, but there is quite a bit of it that isn’t as good as the work I’m doing now (and it shouldn’t be) because I am constantly learning. I hope I’m becoming a more empathetic artist and person, and so much of my work is crawling into the brains of the characters you’re creating. That’s also why going to Scotland was so incredible, to understand the landscape of Skye was to understand the location of the characters’ psychology in many ways.
And who would you most like to work with that you’ve never yet worked with?
I would love to work with Mark Adamo, Michael John LaChiusa, Thomas Adès, Mark-Anthony Turnage, George Benjamin, John Adams – and I’d also love to work with non-classical composers in telling stories (whether opera or music theatre). I’d love to work with Thom Yorke on a project, and Canadian singer-songwriters Martha Wainwright, Jann Arden and Sarah Slean. And Dolly Parton. Björk would be a dream, as would Kendrick Lamar. One of the most amazing compliments I’ve received was when, after sitting in rehearsal for JFK, the son of soprano Talise Trevigne said that it sounded like the “Kendrick Lamar of opera”. Kendrick, wanna write an opera with me??