Kevin Puts: "I know who I am as a composer."Interview
This week American composer Kevin Puts, whose debut opera Silent Night earned him the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, will hear the premiere of his new song cycle Letters from Georgia, based on letters written by Georgia O’Keeffe to her eventual husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, and to artist and suffragette Anita Pollitzer.
We spoke with Puts about his new song cycle, the success of Silent Night, and why he never gets writer’s block.
Do you have a technique or process that’s specific to writing opera? Where do you begin?
I begin with the libretto and I try not to overthink things. If there is a particularly powerful moment a few scenes down the road in the libretto, I will spend very little time looking at it in advance. I want to experience a fresh excitement when I arrive there, because this will lead to more inspired music and will translate well to what the audience might feel. There really is no process. I move through the libretto in a linear fashion. I don’t write Scene 3 until Scene 2 is done.
When writing Letters from Georgia, what was it like to work with Renée Fleming? What were the qualities in her voice that you chose to bring out?
I simply wanted to give her space to do what she does. As we all know, there is an indescribable beauty to her voice, something at the core of it that you could hear all day. I reveled in giving her lyrical things to do, long lines, and in giving her space to shape things creatively.
How do you compose on days when your inspiration levels seem low? Do you ever experience “writer’s block”?
I don’t experience writer’s block. I think that it is the result of uncertainty in who you are, or what the nature of your output “should” be, and I know who I am as a composer. Life has gotten so busy that I relish the little time I have to compose, and I want to spend it composing rather than second-guessing! Composing is an enormous pleasure for me.
Can you describe what it’s like to hear your works sung and played for the first time by other people?
There is always a little shock; Copland said this too. You have to come to terms (sometimes quickly!) with the fact that is doesn’t sound exactly as it did in your head. So you allow for some degree of that, and at the same time respectfully work with the artist to move it to a realistic degree back toward your original vision.
Why do you think Silent Night has seen such success?
I am always asked that, and a little voice in me always wants to say “It’s the MUSIC, what are you, CRAZY!!??” Haha. I think it’s a lot things. Mark’s libretto is amazing, and there is wonderful humor which plays well against the potential sentimentality of the situation. It is just beautifully conceived and structured. And the story is amazing; Dale Johnson was brilliant in seeing its potential as an opera. We all feel at the mercy of our governments and their decisions to plunge us all into bloody conflicts with no end in sight. And we would all like to think, that when face to face with someone whom we have been indoctrinated to consider an enemy, none of that would make any sense. Silent Night celebrates this.
I just heard Tomer Zvulun’s beautiful new production of the piece by Atlanta Opera, and I thought about your question. I felt a tremendous excitement as I wrote it, and I think that is because I knew I was on to something which could really draw the audience into the story from the start. So I started writing the opera-within-the-opera which occurs right at the top of the opera, the Mozartean scene with Sprink and Anna. And I tried to make it totally engaging and beautiful and engrossing, studying wind writing in The Marriage of Figaro, etc., so I could do it exactly right. It’s kind of strange because the audience doesn’t know that they are hearing. “This sounds like an eighteenth-century opera, is the whole thing going to sound like this?!”, they are thinking! I remember loving that they didn’t know, and that the scene was so FAR from where the opera was headed, to the grim realities of trench warfare. That is really powerful dramatically, to begin so far away from where you are headed, and then gradually guide the audience toward the crux of the story.
I reveled in all of it though, writing the arias, the “Sleep” Chorus, even the battle music which is heavily covered with the explosions, etc. (oh well…). I loved every minute of composing it. I think when that is the case, it can only help the reception of the work, which as you said has been great. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to write it. It changed my life.
Are there any stories that interest you for potential future operas?
Well there are many, but often the rights are not available, which has been disappointing. I will let you know when the right thing finally works out!