Loving and Losing: Composing "Bandanna"

08/14/2016 05:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2016
Butler Opera Center, UT-Austin
In the final tableaux of "Bandanna," Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

Writing a prescription for Prozac in autumn 1997, my therapist at the time described my condition as “clinically depressed.” Years before, just after my mother’s death, I’d also been prescribed pills—even electro-shock therapy (which I had violently opposed) had been discussed. My family’s appetite for mood-altering substances, and my fear that medication would “blunt my compulsion to create” had kept me from filling the prescription.

I was all too aware that, as Julia Kristeva pointed out in Black Sun, “depression is the hidden face of Narcissus” and that Christian theology, in which I had been immersed since childhood, considered sadness a sin. Dante even consigned the melancholic to “the city of grief” in Inferno. “The loss of the mother,” wrote Kristeva, “is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to becoming autonomous. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine-qua-non condition of our individuation, provided that it takes place under optimal circumstances and can be eroticized.”

Came at this time a commission from the College Band Directors National Association (over a hundred colleges ultimately joined the consortium) for a full-length opera on a subject of my choosing (using a librettist of my choice) by way of a phone call from conductor Michael Haithcock.

I remember that I was staying at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia when I chose Othello as my subject matter in order to explore not just the feelings of betrayal and anger that I still felt towards my ex-wife (we had recently terminated a turbulent and nearly entirely disagreeable ten-year marriage) but also the guilt I still felt, and the incomplete mourning in which I felt caught like a fly in a web, as a result of having been called upon by my terminally-ill mother to euthanize her. In other words, I chose to fight my “battle with symbolic collapse” by creating an opera about it.

I decided to recast the Venetian tale of the Moor in a 1968 Texas-Mexico border town. The result was Bandanna, a two act grand opera. The commission stipulated only that I could not use strings (except for basses) in the pit. I asked Paul Muldoon to write the libretto based, as usual, on a detailed co-written treatment in which I stipulated the exact length of every section of every scene. As usual, I stipulated the structural underpinnings of every scene, aria, and ensemble.

I composed the prologue and most of the first scene of the first act at the MacDowell Colony during January 1998 in Chapman Studio, the most remote of the many cabins dotting the property—fully a mile away from Colony Hall. I would have completed the entire first act there but for the fact that there were 26 inches of snow on the ground. For nearly four hours each day, I slogged through the snow in a decidedly non-meditative frame of mind—the walk to and from the payphone, where I was jacking in to check E-mail and to send Muldoon requests for changes, took over an hour each way.

I wrote the balance of the vocal score at home in New York City. Composer Eli Marshall, a former student and friend, stayed with me for much of the time. My work routine consisted of rising at 7 AM, composing until 5 PM, dining at a nearby burrito joint where I spoke Spanish with the waitress, and copying out the fair score in the evening while drinking a bottle of Antinori Chianti. The vocal score was completed in just over four months.

When I co-wrote with Paul the treatment for the last scene of Bandanna I was entirely aware of the agonizing sequence of matricidal, fratricidal, uxoricidal, and suicidal acts that would be ritualistically enacted. Accordingly, in her concluding Willow Aria, the music that Mona sings is written from the point of view that she already knows that she is dead; the strings that accompany her are, throughout the opera, associated with death, inasmuch as they, unlike the wind instruments featured everywhere else in the score, do not breathe.

The transition from Mona’s aria to her murder features three violins, and it tracks Morales as he crosses the stage with excruciating slowness, to her hotel room door. He is Charon, and he is in no hurry. Morales is Orpheus to Mona’s Eurydice. In fact, both Mona and Morales already intuit what must happen and are now just going through the motions: once Morales opens the door, his deputy Cassidy appears. Morales executes his friend. He then turns, as though in a dream, to Mona. He strangles his wife, who does not struggle, with the opera’s eponymous bandanna. Then, without really pausing, except to muse, “Holy Mother of God,” he kills himself by placing his service revolver in his mouth and blowing himself away.

One critic complained later that “the final scene—the climactic murder-suicide—is anguished to a grotesque degree.” If I could have made it even more grotesque, more like a slow-motion nightmare, I would have, so focused was I on capturing my inner state. While composing it, I felt such an intense sense of closure that, at one point, I actually felt as though my mother was standing behind me at the piano, her hand resting on my shoulder. When the chorus crashes in, they sing “Dona nobis pacem” (pun intended: my ex’s name was Donna) to anything but comforting music. The trombones, in fact, are marked, “blaring like the horns of an approaching semi.”

In those days, I used to send a copy of the vocal score of whichever opera I had just finished to Jack Beeson, who would go through it and make marginal comments very lightly in pencil like “You buried a plot point here. This is an intrinsically slow word: why did you set it fast? Courageous! This is the Nieces from Britten’s Grimes! Watch the passaggio!”

Jack, exclusively published by Boosey and Hawkes and ensconced with tenure at Columbia University, was a major behind-the-scenes power broker during the years that I was coming up. I respected his opera Lizzie Borden and particularly liked Hello, Out There, a trenchant one act. Jack’s knack for setting American English in a way that was understandable across the footlights I admired. His operas rarely blossomed into full-fledged song—something I found as a colleague regrettable. Jack, like the many other powerful old guard colleagues I knew then, never did anything for me, and it never occurred to me to ask him to.

During spring 1998, Jack and I played and sang (and argued) our way through Bandanna one afternoon at his spacious Columbia University faculty apartment while his wife Nora kept the tea coming. “You’re going to take a pasting from amateurs for the male ranges,” he predicted. “The men are slung high. I get it: they are all being macho. I know you want them to sound that way. Moreover, I see you are saving up the sound of the female voice for the final scene. However, you are pushing the limits of verismo writing. Maybe too much.”

When Jack asked me a few years later to join him as a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera I asked him why. His answer was cheerfully truculent: “Because you’re not one of my former students, threatening to kill yourself if I do not throw a Pulitzer your way. Also, you are sane, you happen to write good operas that get produced and your expertise is required.”

I orchestrated the first act of Bandanna by hand at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts during June 1998. The second act I orchestrated mainly at Yaddo the following month, completing it in New York that July. It is the last of my operas whose full score is still in manuscript form. I switched to engraving all of my own music shortly after the farrago that correcting vocal score proofs of the vocal score for Carl Fischer became—an incompetent engraver whose work was so slipshod and inaccurate that I was forced to work through five sets of proofs had been engaged.

Bandanna’s first staging, which served as the centerpiece of the College Band Directors National Association’s national convention that February was a calamity. Upon arrival I learned that the University of Texas graduate students serving as lighting and set designers were unequal to their tasks. The student singers struggled with the roles. A few days into production, the poor fellow singing Kane simply stopped showing up. I watched, like impotent Madam Racquin, as tempos shifted wildly from rehearsal to rehearsal, student singers made up music as they went along.

I contacted Paul Kreider, with whom I had recently performed, along with Carolann Page, selections from Shining Brow at the Guggenheim Museum at the invitation of House Beautiful magazine. Paul had initiated the Vera of Las Vegas opera commission, written his doctoral dissertation on my songs. He was a fearless performer, and a trusted friend. If he couldn’t save this situation, it couldn’t be saved. Paul flew in, and learned the role of Kane in three days. With relief and gratitude, I paid his fee myself.

The premiere production did not represent the work I created. Its first performance (half a dozen players were for some reason absent from the pit for much of the first act) was greeted with what seemed to me to be defensive, uninformed distaste by most of the conventioneers.

Since the band and opera worlds are mutually contemptuous, the constituencies most inclined to produce Bandanna cancel one another out. As Tim Page wrote, “neither fish nor fowl—as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care, [Bandanna is] a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation.” Catherine Parsonage expands upon this assessment: “[it] is wholly convincing as a modern opera, ranging stylistically from the music theatre of Gershwin, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to traditional mariachi music and contemporary opera of Benjamin Britten. Hagen, who served his apprenticeship on Broadway, acknowledges that holistically the piece falls between opera and music theater. Hagen’s style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work.”

From the start there were also other colleagues who really got it, like Ukrainian-American composer, pianist, and conductor Virko Baley, who had for years conducted the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and was professor of composition at UNLV. A dynamic, thrilling pianist, tough-minded thinker, and musical swashbuckler, Virko and I had had some great adventures together. I admired him: he knew life, and he wasn’t afraid in his music to offend. He had entirely grasped the fact that Bandanna’s score meant to push people’s limits. “These characters are at the end of their shit,” he told me. “They’re in extremis. That’ll make people who like their opera tame uncomfortable. The whole damned score is unsettling. You got what you wanted, baby.”

A few months before the premiere, presenting the great conductor and promoter of the wind ensemble as a performing group Frederick Fennell with a copy of Bandanna, I asked him how he thought the piece would go over in the band world. Eyes twinkling, he told me that he felt that there were three kinds of band conductors: “First, you have what I call the Educators: they teach high school band and play simplified arrangements of pop songs and movie themes. Then there are the Spit and Polish Men: they play marches, and for them music history stalled around the time of Holst. Finally, there are the Maestros: they could have been orchestra conductors but chose to conduct bands because they love them. These men and women are hungry for new repertoire, and can have a better grasp of the symphonic repertoire than their colleagues can in the orchestra world. Almost none of them know anything about opera, my boy, so your opera is doomed.”

The music of Bandanna, to my mind, not only successfully evoked the morally bankrupt world in which it’s Touch of Evil-infused characters lived, but also gave voice to my own inner world at the time: I was an unhappy fellow at the end of his rope, in a dark place, and looking for a way out. Bandanna addressed and expressed what was then my “truth”—that Life was a shadowy, Conradian “horror” glimpsed during flashes of lurid Malcolm Lowry lightning over Cormack McCarthy landscapes. The music was aggressively at odds with the words that it carried much of the time, like a horse that will not be ridden. Even if I removed the band world from the equation by re-arranging it for orchestra in the pit, Bandanna will never find its niche, perhaps because people like categories and the music draws equally from jazz, musical, and operatic idioms.

Thanks to the efforts of Michael Hitchcock, Paul Kreider, Thomas Leslie, and (owner of my former exclusive publisher, E.C. Schirmer) Robert Schuneman, among others, I was able in 2006 to conduct a complete recording of Bandanna (available on the Albany label) that I felt invalidated the criticisms the score had received.

The reception accorded the staged premiere was counterbalanced by the recording’s accolades from major magazines like Opera News and industry experts like Henry Fogel, who understood what Muldoon and I were trying to achieve. “Bandanna,” Fogel wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “is a poignant, dramatic, and moving new opera, one that belongs in the repertoire not because it deals with the politically hot topic of illegal immigration, but because it is powerful music theater.”

Among my operas, Bandanna shall always have been for me that problem child—the one that was too much like me to get perspective on; the one I listen to even now, 20 years later, through rueful tears as it gallops off into its own, self-immolating sunset of love and loss.

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