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Composing an opera

September 28, 2012

I have been working on composing an opera since late in 2009, when I dashed off a synopsis when I was a tutor at Boricua College and had a lot of down time. It is the third opera that I have begun, and the only one with which I have gotten very far. My first attempt was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inspired by Michael Nyman’s Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs, a setting to an abridged version of The Tempest. I still have the manuscript. I saw it in my manuscript box when I was packing to leave for Florida. It’s buried in a storage unit right now, but it is extant. I completed very little, however. I set only part of the first scene, and part of Polonius’s advice to Laertes before I gave up on it. I felt I wasn’t up to the task, and I saw a lot of bad reviews of Nyman’s opera, brilliant as I think it is. I also learned of the Arne Thomas Hamlet opera, although it’s in French and the libretto is heavily adapted rather than simply abridged, as Nyman did.

Some time later, I started an opera called Elmhurst, based closely on L. Frank Baum’s 1906 novel, Aunt Jane’s Nieces, which I started hearing as an opera in my head as I was reading it. I attempted to compose it and learn Finale at the same time, and got only about 50 bars in, although it has most of the orchestrations because I tried to do that at the same time, learning the hell it is writing for brass instruments because they transpose. I never really figured out Finale. It’s a very user-unfriendly program. The computers here at Brooklyn College have Sibelius, but I don’t like it any better. David Friedman recommends Overture, but I’d need to try it, in addition to being back in my own place using my own computer, so this third opera is being written the old fashioned way, with a notebook (actually, I’m on the fourth notebook) full of staff paper.

The opera is based on Marvel Comics’ The Man-Thing, hardly a likely prospect for the opera. Until recent issues of Jeff Parker’s Thunderbolts/Dark Avengers, Man-Thing was mute for most of his existence. I have made three attempts to get permission form Marvel to do this, but they’ve all been ignored. I’ve had the idea since 2001, when I viewed Indiana University’s production of Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa, which in turn was based on a story by Luther Long that David Belasco had turned into a play. Nearly all famous operas are adaptations of novels or plays, except those of Richard Wagner and Gian Carlo Menotti, and Sergei Prokofiev’s A Love for Three Oranges, all of which have libretti by the composer. I hadn’t read everything at that point. Now I’ve read every Man-Thing appearance that I know of from various databases, with one exception, Superhero Squad #10, which is non-continuity, anyway (I’ve never seen an actual copy). I was actively communicating with Steve Gerber at that point. He was opposed to the idea for two main reasons. The first was that he loathes adaptation, but any comparison between his works and Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s adaptation of Howard the Duck (186) and Hans Rodionoff and Brett Leonard’s adaptation of Man-Thing (2004, in which a racist security guard is named Steve Gerber) should make it obvious why. He considered rewriting an insult, but I told him I had no plans to rewrite his material, just cut it, which he thought didn’t sound nearly as bad, but his other big concern was that Marvel would never pay him for the re-use of his writing. Steve passed on February 10, 2008, but he is survived by a daughter named Samantha, whom I would certainly want to see benefit if the opera generated any proceeds.

The title of the opera is actually Song of the Man-Thing, which John Marc DeMatteis titled his story in Peter Parker Spider Man Annual ’99, in which he wrapped up the story from his run on Man-Thing (vol. 3), on which I base my opera’s finale. Much of his material is the basis of the third act, although I felt it necessary to eliminate all the guest stars he used–Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, and Spider-Man. I thought, particularly as a stage work, that characters from earlier in the story would fit better structurally. I sent him a copy of the opening chorus of Act III, based on the first few pages of his first issue. I haven’t gotten his feedback, although I do have his blessing, even though it’s not his to give. The libretto also contains text by Len Wein, Tony Isabella, and Mike Friedrich. Wein seemed bemused when I told him. I didn’t hear from Isabella, and I never found a way to contact Friedrich. Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway wrote the orignal story, and some of their text is also contained. I don’t know how to contact Thomas, but Conway thought it was a great idea, but said he had too little knowledge of the medium to put in any input. I’m not going to go into detail about what the opera contains, although it’s a lengthy three act work, with the first two acts mostly based on Gerber, and the third based on a mixture of DeMatteis, Gerber, and original material. Of course, by not rewriting a text not written in verse, I made things particularly difficult for myself and for the performing artists because the time signatures change constantly. I have Leonard Bernstein to thank for introducing me to that technique. Before examining his scores, I had no idea that 1-4 was considered a valid time signature. Nyman at least had the advantage of text that was predominantly in verse. While researching Menotti, Menotti complained that many of his critics referred to his music as “background music.” One of his works premiered at the same time as Ned Rorem’s Miss Julie, which he described as a straightforward setting of August Strindberg’s prose text. The libretto is credited to Edward Elmslie, but is apparently simply an English translation of the text, much as Richard Strauss set a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé by Hedwig Lachmann. Rorem’s Miss Julie met with a critical success that Menotti’s opera at the same festival did not. He posited that as evidence that his musing is not background music, because Strindberg’s play is a highly regarded classic that did not seem to work as music drama. More recently, Rorem composed an opera based on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with which I understand he did the same thing, although the libretto is credited to J.D. McClatchy, so that may not be the case. It premiered at Indiana University in 2006, after I had left the area, or I probably would have seen its original production. While I’m not totally unfamiliar with Rorem, I don’t know either of these operas, and probably won’t listen to them until I’m back in my own place and can listen to them on CD.

On June 21, 2007, Steve Gerber put this on his blog:

The Most Painful Thing about Lung Disease (So Far)

I can’t sing anymore.

My voice cracks. I can’t stay on key. I can’t carry a tune. I can’t sustain a note.

I was never what you (or anyone else) would call a great singer. Even “good” would probably have been a stretch. On the right song, though, there was a time when I could have been described as a reasonably convincing singer.

I hate not having that ability anymore. (Source:

One thing I will tell you is that I made Steve a role in the opera, which is not a shock, giveaway, or trade secret if you’ve read the original material. He sounded baritone in what little audio material I’ve heard from him (my contact with him was limited to e-mail), which is really ideal for a narrational figure to begin with, although I gave him a heroic death to contrast with his real-life wasting away from pulmonary fibrosis, brought on, much as he denied it, having quit some time before, to a long history of smoking. When he died, I made him the dedicatee of my 2004 play, Misused Minds: Curse of the Educated Youth, in which his work was invoked more than once. If it is ever published, I’d like to use Steve’s blog post as an epigraph, as I have the utmost respect for Steve’s work, which should have brought respect to the comics medium some twenty years before it started to receive it.

That brings me to a major facet of this message, the list of composers that influence on this work. Sometimes I would even mention in the score if I was thinking of a particular composer’s work, although there are few places where I was outright intentionally copying, and those are noted below, usually in a context where that would be anything but a secret. This list will be added to as I remember others and continue to compose.

  • Angelo Badalamenti
  • Béla Bartók
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Leonard Bernstein
  • David Bowie (particularly for Eugene “The Star” Spangler)
  • Frederick Fox
  • Cristoph Willibald Gluck
  • Jerry Goldsmith (particularly in Steve’s aria, “In the world called Therea”)
  • Jan Hammer (I probably need to change how much I copped from “Seeds of Life” in Brian Lazarus’s aria, “Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man.”)
  • Trevor Jones (Hideaway in particular has had a definite effect on certain chord progressions)
  • George Frideric Handel (the Act III introduction contains an overt reference, primarily in terms of rhythm, to the finale of Messiah*)
  • George Harrison (In Richard’s aria, “Come on out,” he mentions playing “The Art of Dying” on the air to make fun of the Foolkiller. While it may be pedestrian, I had him sing the title exactly as it is sung in the song (and I had to do this by ear, since I couldn’t find sheet music), setting it differently would make me look like the English teacher who doesn’t know if his students’ poetry is taken from pop lyrics.)
  • Mary Howe
  • Robert Moran (especially in some of the demon choruses, there is strong influence from The Dracula Diary)
  • Ennio Morricone (stylistically, “Come un madrigale” from 4 Mosche di velluto grigio was a huge influence on a scene with a road accident, although melodically not so much)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the opening scene in Ted’s lab has a lot of influence from Le Nozze di Figaro, parodying comic opera and preparing for a major tonal shift–much of this section has not been written down musically, however, because I’m still tinkering with the libretto here, hybridizing material from three distinct stories)
  • Michael Nyman
  • Henry Purcell
  • Krzysztof Penderecki
  • Leonard Rosenman (Eugene “the Star” Spangler’s groupies’ music takes strong influence from the hymns in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.)
  • Rush (again for Star Spangler)
  • Seymour Shifrin
  • Paul Simon (In “Come on out,” I make overt reference to “Richard Cory,” since Steve Gerber admitted the influence of the song on the character of Richard Rory. In this case, I had sheet music, and I used it.)
  • Harvey Sollberger
  • Richard Strauss
  • Pete Townshend (In particular, the line “calling me a new messiah,” in Foolkiller’s aria, “I’m home, Mike,” which I intentionally copied musically from a line in “Sally Simpson” to emphasize that Foolkiller is listening to music that he claims is evil, as demonstrated by his knowledge that Richard had played the song on the radio.)
  • Edgard Varèse
  • Antonio Vivaldi (Two instrumental passages in particular had me thinking of Vivaldi for the feel.)
  • Richard Wagner
  • Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

So far, I’ve taken little overt influence from bel canto or verismo, although I particularly adore the work of Giuseppe Verdi, not so much Giacomo Puccini, but the opera has a long way to go. There are portions of the libretto (usually those in which I’m combining episodes) that remain unfinished, and I’m only partway through a fourth notebook. Even at that, much of what is written has only the vocal line, although there are over 30 pages of fully-composed music. One person has compared Foolkiller’s aria to John Adams, but I definitely had Michael Nyman’s music in mind while I was composing it. For the record, I like Adams (although I’ve found some of his statements about other composers to be self-aggrandizing and ill-put), but he definitely writes to please critics, and they respond in kind.

While I do include some musical humor, this piece is more about shock and social commentary than it is a parody in any sense (and hence I’m not safe under parody law if Marvel says no, which they still haven’t–after all, the text is essentially plagiarized (except the few portions that I wrote) until permission is indeed granted). Granted, Gerber and DeMatteis are both definitely known for their senses of humor (although I prefer DeMatteis when he is serious, since his humor tends to be juvenile), and that’s not omitted. Dakimh the Enchanter, for example, is a parody of comic book death before “comic book death” became a concept to be parodied. By using him to replace Doctor Strange in Act III after he had already died in the middle of Act II (and comes back at the end), I take the joke even further, although I don’t try to make anyone laugh at it. That comes later, when Steve comes back from the dead in the finale that includes everyone but core villain Thog, which will make sense in the context of the opera, no matter its casualties.

FAQ answers:

  • No, I am not translating the text into Italian. Why would I do that? John Adams writes to English language libretti by Alice Goodman. Michael Nyman writes operas to English libretti by people like Christopher Rawlence, Victoria Hardie and Michael Hastings. Henry Purcell wrote operas to English libretti by John Dryden. Most of Philip Glass’s operas are in English, except for Satyagraha and THE civil warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, in both cases for specific reasons. Here the source is in English and needs no changes.
  • Although this opera could be placed in the horror genre, there is not a high female body count, and those who do meet their deaths at the hands of men, not the ostensible monster in the piece. The rare times that the monster kills, the deceased are men, and in every case, they provoked him.*Contrary to popular belief, “Hallelujah” is not the finale of Messiah. In fact, it comes close to the end of the second act (of three), right after one of Fred Phelps’s favorite Bible verses…
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