An Interview with the Composer
What drew you to the characters and/or story of The Island of the Ugly Sisters?
I found each character intriguing for a variety of reasons, but something they all have in
common is the way each develops over the course of the opera. Emily created characters
that open up like the petals of a flower, each scene revealing something new and beautiful
about them. It was fun to get to know them as I wrote their music.
What do you consider the opera’s major themes?
The two main themes of this opera are the triumph of love over death and the age-old notion
of ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’ When I’m giving my elevator speech (the 15-second
New York idea pitch), I tell people this story is like Meet Joe Black meets Beauty and the
Beast. Obviously, it’s rather more subtle than that, but those references seem to get people’s
imaginations going. It’s unusual for an opera to have an ending which is simultaneously
tragic and happy, and that’s what we’ve tried to accomplish here.
Did themes guide the composition or did you ‘hear’ the voices of the characters?
I would say the themes guided me only insofar as they pointed the way to the proper ‘affect’
for the music. The text and dramatic situations were of primary musical importance (though
of course, from the librettist’s point of view, the two are perhaps inextricable). Maybe it’s a
chicken or egg situation.
How did you create mood and atmosphere?
Atmosphere is an elusive element in music and very related to tone color. My greatest challenge was to create a score that will work as well with the accompaniment of piano as with a chamber orchestra. Therefore, my melodies and harmonies had to be expressive and demonstrative of the dramatic situations and characters’ psyches.
Tempo changes often and quite dramatically throughout the opera. What was your intent?
My intent here is two-fold. One, I want to represent a realistic experience of fleeting emotions and thoughts. I have always found it strange that prolonging single musical ideas within a composition is considered a virtue, while in television, movies, and our own thoughts, ideas and points of view supplant one another rapidly. Also, while I’ve always been a lover of opera, I dislike traditional recitative (the quasi-sung, quasi-spoken, stylized method of moving through large amounts of text in order to advance the plot); I also dislike spoken dialogue in opera. Therefore, in my dramatic works, I have been experimenting with a new technique which fuses dialogue (conversational exchanges between characters) with arias, duets, and trios (closed numbers, which could be extracted as single songs and which focus on a specific character or group of characters and develop a specific moment, feeling, or dramatic situation). Just as conversations ebb and flow, so does my music. These are real people with real feelings, and I needed to create music which shows that.
Musically, what’s the highpoint of the opera?
Scene 7 is definitely the high point musically and dramatically. There is a mob scene, followed by critical confessions by several characters, and a major vocal ensemble. It is the only scene in the opera in which all four characters sing together and represents a confluence of musical and dramatic ideas. This was, also, not surprisingly, the last and most difficult scene to compose.
Give us a quick breakdown of how you worked.
This is an incredibly complicated question. First of all, there was my role in the shaping of the final libretto. I was brought on at a late stage, after Emily had created the basic shape of the libretto. Initially it was a two-act structure, which makes perfect cinematic sense. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to tell this story without a musical break from beginning to end, to heighten the dramatic impact, and my first question to Emily was whether it would be possible to re-cast the plot into one single, contiguous act. She graciously agreed, and then we had a dialogue going. It was important for me to have this collaborative spirit, since she had a strong sense of what was going to be effective in terms of dramatic pacing and I knew what was going to be necessary in terms of the musical elements. By the end, we had twenty-six drafts of the libretto.
My first compositional task was to create a musical identity for each of the characters. Emily had created ‘hooks’ for each one in the form of arias, extended solos, or bits of recurring text. I locked onto these and set them to music. The dramatic purpose of the text and rhythmic integrity of the words guided the creation of musical material, and before long I had developed distinct thematic and harmonic identities for each character. These subtly weave in and out of one another as characters develop and interact. On some levels, this will be readily recognizable to the audience, and on others, it will register more subconsciously. As a composer, I feel technique is the servant of intent, so while a skilled and careful listener may say, ‘Ah! How clever to morph Sophronia’s music into Luke’s!’ the effect of dramatic continuity will be the same regardless of the sophistication of the listener.
After creating identities for each character, there was the painstaking task of stitching together the disparate scenes. In such a large work, it was a matter of finding and creating musical relationships, tracking the pacing, and instilling variety and excitement into the score. The first twenty percent of the opera took four months, the last eighty percent two. Ultimately, in one seventeen-hour period I tied the remaining pieces together, a task I had estimated would take two weeks.
Throughout the process, I found my work to be joyful and the process of collaborating with Emily and finding the voice of each character to be fascinating and exhilarating.
Whose was the easiest voice to write? Whose was the most elusive?
Difficult question. Sophronia’s voice was easiest to find, probably because she had the most poetic role, and the rhythmic cadence of her speech lent itself easily to music. I knew the nature of Aunt Alice’s voice immediately as well, but her musical language is much more nuanced and complex, and I struggled to find the right harmonies. Luke also posed some difficulties, since the tenor who was to sing his role was brought on rather late, and I had to work for the first few months without a clear sound of his voice. Henry’s was the easiest, I think. Vincent Billier’s voice astounded me, and I knew immediately how I wanted to set his text. In fact, once I heard his voice, I realized his role needed to be expanded, and Emily created new passages for him.
Do you have a favorite passage?
Sophronia's first entrance during the Prologue. Throughout her opening passage she sings only one note, and the harmony becomes frozen beneath her. It’s a moment of complete stasis, frozen in time. We understand at once that there is something different about her, captivating, alluring, and quite mysterious.