Safe words & Masquerades: Nashville Opera presents Three WayInterview
What’s better than a double-bill? A triple-bill, clearly. This month, Nashville Opera continues its 2016⁄17 season with Three Way, three one-act operas by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote. The Companion, Safe Word, and Masquerade tell stories which are “sexy, funny, and a little bit naughty,” about swingers, sex robots, and a dominatrix named “Mistress Salomé”.
We spoke with Paterson and Cote about their triple-bill, and about telling stories of 21st-century sexuality without relying on shock value.
What can you tell us about The Companion, Safe Word, and Masquerade (without giving away any spoilers)?
Robert Paterson: All three acts are very distinct, yet somehow related, whether through overall themes or musical leitmotifs. David did a wonderful job of aligning each of these operas with a few traditional operas, whether subtly or even a little overtly at times. Each act is chock full of hopefully memorable arias, some witty and humorous, others dark and serious, while others, at least how we conceived them, are very lyrical and beautiful.
David Cote: Here’s my elevator pitch. Three Way is three one-act operas about: a woman having trouble with her biomorphic android lover; a dark and twisty session between a dominatrix and her client; and a comedy of manners at a “swinglife” party where identities get mixed up. Rob and I wanted to write three original short operas that were totally contemporary in terms of subject and mood, and somehow - somehow! — we gravitated toward sexuality, fetishes, sci-fi and post-monogamous subcultures. They’re stories about ordinary people who want more: more realism, more intensity, more danger, more alternatives. In the end, our characters want what we all want: connection. All three parts are also about people and their masks—real or otherwise. We live in a scary age of fake news, right? So why not explore false faces and make-pretend lovers?
Paterson: At their heart, these one-acts are extremely emotional, and almost like an operatic version of Sex in The City or Seinfeld meets The Twilight Zone. The inherent themes in each of these operas, craving and connection, power and sexuality, and always wanting to reach the next level, are really vehicles for the narrative stories and the emotions of the characters. It’s really all about the audience having their heart strings pulled in as many different directions as possible. These operas are really about so much more that what you see on the surface.
Are there any unique challenges in telling stories like these through opera? Are some vocabularies difficult to set to music?
Paterson: As the composer, the most difficult part of working on operas like these is having a refined sense of comedic timing. It’s pretty easy as a modern composer to hide behind seriousness, repetition or a wall of dissonance, but you’re definitely much more exposed when you have to take into account references and the minute timing issues and silences that constitute comic opera. Personally, I think writing humorous music is much, much more difficult than writing abstract music that exists purely for its own beauty or complexity.
Cote: Since the three pieces are essentially comic, it was always a challenge to figure our how subtle or broad we should go to get the laugh. I might write a pun or jokey allusion in the libretto that I think is hilarious, but Rob would point out that it won’t translate when sung. And of course, there are more than jokes or laughs, we go to some pretty dark places in Safe Word, and there are moments of melancholy or tenderness throughout.
Paterson: With this opera, the recitative is very conversational and the arias are very song-like. The challenge for the singers is that they really need to act, like movie actors, especially during the recitative sections. We didn’t make their lives easy, that’s for sure! Fortunately, the conversational parts are molded so closely to spoken text that they will hopefully be able to really embrace the theatric aspects of the roles without being overly obsessive with regard to refined details. When the arias occur, they can really let their hair down, so to speak, and the arias are really designed to let them shine vocally and have some fun.
Cote: In terms of emotional spectrum, we wanted to give the singers and audiences a wide range. The challenge in writing essentially realistic scenarios (in a highly un-realistic medium such as opera) is to create plausible characters or situations—even when we’re talking about robot lovers. If you are hooked by the narrative as much as Rob’s gorgeous, melodic music, then it’s working. Another challenge is to avoid prurience or shock for its own sake. We have very little swearing in the piece. Or explicit sexual language. Or nudity. Except for the stage crew. Buck nekkid, every last one.
So far, what sort of feedback have you received from workshop processes or rehearsals with the artists?
Cote: People who attended a semi-staged workshop of The Companion in Brooklyn said they wanted to see it again already. Which is amazing, because so much new opera is seen and then kind of disappears. I was sweating bullets next to Rob when that performance started, but the minute the rather large audience started cracking up, we looked at each other and did the silent, “YES!” thing. As Rob said, the singers are so supportive and I think they relish the chance to play characters who are not 17th-century mountain bandits or 19th-century syphilis-riddled courtesans. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) I think we created terrific acting, design and directing opportunities for anyone who works on Three Way.
Paterson: The feedback we’ve received has been tremendously positive. The singers practically gush when talking about singing our operas, and John Hoomes and the entire Nashville Opera team has been extremely excited about this production. Personally, as the composer, some of the best comments I received were regarding the melodies and lines, the arias, and even the recitative sections. I am obsessive about really working with singers as much as possible to create music that they’ll hopefully love to sing. I want to work with singers, not against them, so when singers tell me how much they love what we wrote, I am incredibly grateful.
Cote: I will say this, too: rehearsing a new opera with a company as brilliant and resourceful as Nashville Opera is such a privilege because you suddenly have two dozen people in a room trying to make the material as deep and smart and stylish as it possibly can be. So as the librettist I’m learning new things about my own work. That’s the beauty of collaboration.
Paterson: One of the primary pieces of feedback we’ve received was that many opera companies were a little hesitant to want to produce this opera because they were worried about the provocative themes. However, once they heard what we did and saw it with their own eyes, they completely relaxed, because it’s just so funny, so contemporary and so down-to-earth, you can’t help but fall for it. Of course, I’m a little biased (OK, maybe very biased!), but once you’re actually there in the hall, we think you’ll have a blast.
What do you hope Nashville audiences will take away from Three Way? Do you anticipate any shocked Puritans?
Cote: I love Puritans! They’re the most perverse! I honestly don’t think anyone will be shocked by the opera — unless you’re desperate to be outraged. I told a friend in Nashville who wanted to know if she could bring her mother, there’s nothing in it any more depraved than in Love, Actually. I’m sure audiences in Nashville and all over have read or seen stuff like 50 Shades of Gray, Her, Ex Machina, the TV show Polyamory and the like. It’s in the culture, it’s in the air we breathe. The difference is we give it a different shape and spin through beautiful, layered, complex music and (I hope) poetic language.
Paterson: What I hope for, most of all, is that audience members have a great time, pure and simple. Hopefully so much so that they’ll tell their friends to go see our opera. I also hope that people will realize that not all modern opera is confusing, depressing or academic. We want to connect with people in the here and now, not a hundred years from now.
Cote: I’d love audiences to have the realization that new opera can be as witty and memorable as a good Broadway musical. I also hope they see the light and dark sides of what we’re after — beyond the humor there’s sadness, strangeness. And the idea that sexuality and gender may be evolving through changing social attitudes and technology — that’s real, it’s here, and I think it should be celebrated.
Paterson: As for the subject matter, sure, there might be a few folks who are a little shocked by a few of the scenes, but we were really very careful to create a work that straddles the line between PG and R movie ratings. Besides: there’s a rich history in opera of embracing all kinds of provocative themes, from love affairs to sex, from wars, death and so on. The only difference with our opera is that it’s in English, so we really can’t hide behind a veil of translation. If you’re comfortable watching pretty much any sitcom or drama on TV, and you like plays and musicals, you should feel right at home with our opera.