Taking Wing: Composing "Amelia"

08/12/2016 05:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2016
Gilda Lyons
Librettist Gardner McFall and Composer Daron Hagen. New York City, 2007.

This is the story of how Amelia, an opera commissioned by Seattle Opera about a first time mother-to-be named Amelia, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot-father in Vietnam, got written.

The opera tells the story of how she breaks free from anxiety to embrace healing and renewal for the sake of her husband and child. The original story unfolds over a 30-year period beginning in 1966. Amelia interweaves one woman’s emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, the mystery that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and elements of the Daedalus and Icarus myth to explore man’s fascination with flight and the dilemmas that arise when vehicles of flight are used for exploration, adventure, and war. With an intensely personal libretto by American poet Gardner McFall, whose father was a Navy pilot lost during Vietnam, the opera moves from loss to recuperation, paralysis to flight, as the protagonist, Amelia, ultimately embraces her life and the creative force of love and family.

As the old saying goes, “Life is short. Opera is long.” And grand operas are beautiful beasts that sometimes take a very long time to gestate. In another life and time, say, 1860-something, I might’ve met Speight Jenkins while squinting over a hand of poker in the saloon of a tumbleweed-infested ghost town—he, the editor of the local gazette and local magistrate; me an itinerant alcoholic Lutheran preacher making a forlorn show of shepherding a flock.

Instead, a hundred years later, Speight graduated UT, Columbia Law School, served in the U.S. Army, and later became a music critic and journalist, helming Opera News for seven years, and then writing about music for the New York Post for another seven before a guest lectureship about Wagner’s Ring brought him to the attention of Seattle Opera’s board of trustees such that they offered him the post of general director of the company in 1983. As it happens, we met for real by Email.

“I’m writing to you,” Speight’s 5 November 2003 message began, “to find out if A) you are interested in writing an opera for Seattle, and B) what your ideas for such an opera might be. My first interest is in the music; the crucial factor in any opera is the music.”

We began an 18-month epistolary working relationship, during which I pitched him no fewer than two-dozen potential scenarios. He chose the last, a sprawling, innig piece in which I explored my preoccupation with flight as metaphor for life, birth for letting go and linking with the past, and the fact that the dead are not lost to us. Characters included the Wright Brothers (two male sopranos), Icarus and Dædalus, Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Leonardo da Vinci, and a little boy (me) laying on the floor on his tummy watching the moon landing on television. Once sold on my idea, Speight green-lit the project, my attorney began billing, contracts were drawn up, and collaboration agreements sketched out.

The evening of 25 June 2004, pacing back and forth in the Pink Room (the room in which Katrina Trask spent her last years) in West House at Yaddo, the artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, I drained the battery in my cell phone talking for six hours with famed director Stephen Wadsworth about the treatment on which I’d sold Speight. His role, Stephen explained, was to “strengthen the through-story and transform my oratorio into a dramatic vehicle.” I proposed (before even asking her) that we use Gardner McFall’s life experiences to hold together the narrative and ask her to write it.

I’d met Gardner at Yaddo during summer 1984 and set one of her poems, “Sonnet After Oscar Wilde,” which closes the song cycle Love Songs. Most importantly, I loved her poetry. Secondly, Gardner’s flier father was lost at sea during the Vietnam conflict, triggering a lifelong poetic fascination with his unknown fate. Because I wasn’t interested in doing a “take down” of the military, but rather in exploring the human toll that military service extracts, Gardner’s self-contained dignity and complete identification not just with my heroine’s emotional state as an expectant mother (Gardner has a daughter) but also with her psychological makeup as a Navy junior guaranteed that the characters that she drew in the opera would personify the honorable rectitude that they do in real life.

The next day, Stephen sent me his first scenario draft of the first act, in which he had begun incorporating Gardner’s experiences (as I had related them), thereby anchoring the opera I had initially conceived in the events of Gardner’s personal narrative.

When I called her, later that day, explained what I had in mind, and invited her to write the libretto of Amelia, I took for granted that she would be willing to mine her past as I do mine, and to lay bare her most painful memories for the sake of telling our story. If I hadn’t intended to strip myself every bit as bare in the process, I would never have asked.

The following summer at Yaddo, a few weeks after David Diamond’s death, Gardner began tentatively committing to some words for the libretto of Amelia. Each afternoon we met—again, I was in the Pink Room, and Gardner was down the hall—and talked about Amelia and the sort of opera we wanted to make together.

“I wish,” I wrote to Speight on 8 July 2005, “I could express how excited Gardner and I both are by what we have come up with. When, at about two this morning, I slipped under her door (she has been lodged in the same house, down the hall) the tenth generation of revisions to the work we’ve done together here on Amelia before pouring myself a glass of wine and doing a little reading, I didn’t expect to hear from her before her departure. But this morning I discovered that Gardner had slipped a note under my door, which read, in part: ‘Daron—I feel the Amelia project is such a Blessing—truly—and about our work together in the coming months I can only say: CAVU: Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited!’”

“We did not begin in earnest until May 2006, again at Yaddo. By that time, we had contracts with Seattle Opera and a final, mutually agreeable scenario. … Each morning, I sat down at my computer in Yaddo’s High Studio to write, using the scenario as an outline but feeling free to invent key imagery to associate with the characters and to supply emotional motivation for their actions. When I completed a scene, I would share it with Daron, who processed the text by retyping it, sometimes making a deletion, or asking for an additional line or two. … By the time I left Yaddo in mid-June, I had finished the first two scenes of Act I.” - Gardner McFall, in the Afterward of Amelia, the Libretto

I began working out the opera’s musical ideas by setting a sheaf of Amelia Earhart’s public statements to music for treble chorus and string quartet. The Milwaukee Choral Artists and a string quartet made up of members of Present Music conducted by Sharon Hansen premiered the song cycle, called Flight Music, in November 2005 at the Cathedral of Saint John in Milwaukee. Most of the music of this cycle ultimately turned up somewhere in Amelia.

Over the course of the next year, Gardner, Stephen, and I met periodically at Gardner’s home on the Upper West Side to thrash through the libretto together. We were not cooks sharing a kitchen but, rather, dreamers sharing a vision, each asking tough questions of the others. For me, it was like a return to the summer months of 1992, when I played and sang through Shining Brow for Stephen at his apartment in the Village and I was compelled by a trustworthy collaborator to justify every dramatic beat.

It wasn’t until May 2007, fully two years later, that I sat at last at the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio at Yaddo, and began, with trepidation, writing the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

During April and May 2010, Seattle Opera rented a cozy house for me atop Queen Anne Hill. New commissions came, including one for a new opera based on Winsor McCay’s seminal surrealist Little Nemo comic strip for Sarasota Opera, based on a libretto by J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy. On my own for the first time since marrying Gilda, desperate for an escape from the pressures of production, I drank every night. I was sober for rehearsals, but I felt desperately over-exposed as a person. When Kate Lindsey, as Amelia, “saw” Icarus, Dædalus, and her dead relatives in the room, she was playing my reality. When Nathan Gunn cradled the newborn at the end of the opera, he was playing me.

After five weeks of staging rehearsals, production moved from the rehearsal hall to the opera house. My heart began to lift during the ritual introduction of the production team on the empty stage. The orchestra had rehearsed the score. The focus of production shifted to the realization of my larger compositional vision (including sets, lights, a mighty orchestra, and an audience) as the huge mechanism of the company came into play.

Technicians walked purposefully about, whispering. The lighting designer conferred with his assistant at the portable board set up in the orchestra. The enormous sets were assembled and struck, one after another, on the stage. I walked the darkened house for hours, memorized the sightlines, and gauged what would “speak” to what part of the audience.

Opening night of any opera is exhilarating as hell, but this was Amelia, in which I had invested so very much. The McCaw Hall curtain slid silently up to reveal the first scene. Jerry brought his baton down, and the Seattle Symphony began the first bars, intentionally redolent of Vere’s music from Billy Budd—a blessing, homage, and a curse on this opera’s characters. In the front yard of a suburban tract house lay a young girl on her back holding her father’s cap, on which could be clearly seen a commander’s insignia. Her mother folded laundry in her room. Her father sat in the kitchen, cutting himself a slice of pie.

An S.O.S. rhythmic tattoo began. It was this particular household’s—and the opera’s—stuttering heartbeat. (I chose it because Father was a radioman and because its underlying message was that, as in my childhood, anxiety underpinned the bourgeois family scene.) I knew that the audience wouldn’t entirely understand until the moment that the mother received the news from the Chaplain that her husband was lost in action what they had been intuiting: what they had thought was the present was the past; the happiness unfolding between father and daughter was a memory. Dodge was not there—he was singing in the past. Amelia’s mother Amanda sang a duet with that past.

I wondered that hay fever had struck this audience as hard as it did. “Those sniffles are not because of allergies, darling: they’re weeping,” Gilda whispered.

The first scene ended and the orchestra segued into the first interlude. A set of variations on the lullaby that Amelia’s father had sung her as a child, the interlude traced her evolution as a person from the age of nine (the point at which she learned of her father’s disappearance) to age 31 (the point at which we meet her in her third trimester of pregnancy).

The curtain rose. Amelia’s dream life counterpointed her waking life. On one side of the stage sat Icarus and Dædalus constructing their wings; on the other side, Amelia and her husband slept. At the end of the scene, her dream shifts to a memory of her mother giving her the news of her father’s disappearance. Amelia leaves, and in her absence, her dreams and memories intermingle. Icarus and Dædalus, prepare to take to the air. “Who invented flying? And why?” asked Amelia’s memory of her mother.

The orchestra joined her on this pitch, because it was in this dark, subconscious place that the second interlude would move and unfold. Then, the curtain, accompanied by a smear of polytonal string chords, rose to reveal Tom Lynch’s set. The Vietnamese couple recounted Dodge’s (final?) moments, which were enacted around them. The loss. As the characters spun out the long moment of discovery with which the scene ends and the orchestra quietly explored the moment, the house was absolutely still. It felt as though the opera house was collapsing in on itself.

“Did you hear that silence?” Speight asked, aglow with satisfaction, during the intermission. “I mean, did you read it? It was incredible.” He sped off to confer with his peers—the general directors of other companies considering productions of their own. Shell-shocked, Gilda and I did a walkabout arm-in-arm through the lobby. Several tearful Vietnam veterans approached, expressed thanks to me for addressing their experiences in the opera. “I’m honored by your reaction,” I responded, hoarsely. The air was earnest. People had been touched.

The second act began. The curtain slid up to reveal a painted sunset nearly identical to the one I had just seen during intermission. Amelia arrived. The action moved through Amelia’s breakdown—the most straightforward story telling in the opera, intended to reassure those theatergoers who had felt set a bit adrift during the first act.

The orchestral interlude exploring her relationship with her father and flight ended. The death of the boy unspooled, the reunion of Amelia and her dead father took place, along with her subsequent reawakening. Cue the interlude tracking Amelia’s labor towards its climax. The orchestra dropped out, the baby emerged, and the final unaccompanied nonette pealed forth. The wave of emotion that swept through the house was like an unexpected spring shower.

I thought of sitting at my mother’s feet as a child, watching her sculpt. I thought of the six things that she had taught me that every worthwhile piece of art required: hard work, love, dedication, discipline, craft, and the revealed secret. I had committed my life to the pursuit of the secret. I had learned that the secret was my Truth. The frog behind Amelia’s back? The final tableau was an exact portrait of the inside of my mind and heart the moment that my son Atticus was born. I had been given the opportunity to share my truth, and to know that for one instant I had gotten “it” exactly right.

Amelia held her baby. Paul held her. Helen wept for joy. Dodge and Amanda (having returned as a couple of middle-aged doctors) cuddled, and then kissed gently on the other side of the stage. The Flier squatted down center, gazed brightly into the night sky. Young Amelia (as a young resident) slept on a bench outside the delivery room. The Young Boy’s Father, holding the little cellophane bag containing the last of his dead son’s possessions, walked slowly toward the exit. Characters slowly exited; like mist rising from the sea, the set flew up and out. As each character parted, I felt as though another of my ghosts, one of my presences, departed. I felt lighter and lighter. By the time the Flier sang Mother’s final words, “I was never bored,” I felt suspended in midair like Icarus before the fall, weightless, a completely “chanceful” thing—.

Amelia (or was it my wife Gilda?) sang to her newborn, “Anything is possible.” That moment was for my elder son. I thought of his wonderful dignity—my son, who had allowed no assaults upon his integrity—had made no concessions of personality except those made through love to his parents. Those concessions remain the ones, solely, which in no way reduce or cheapen the giver. A child can concede through fear (through physical fear of punishment or emotional fear of rejection) and become at last a vicious rebel or a spiritless thing. That perhaps is truly dignity—inviolate integrity of personality that has made concessions only to beloved people, institutions, or principles.

I had not expected that, in summoning all of my spirits to form the finale of the opera as I had, I would also be waking them. I had come to understand that, in the future, they would no longer be available for me to sing for and about, to remember as and when I pleased. I had transformed my sorrow into joy, my Life into Art. I had also learned that telling one’s “truth” is not enough. Living it is what counts.

Amelia has received a number of revivals since its Seattle Opera premiere, notably by the University of Houston and the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. Learn more about the opera here.

 

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