I recently heard an opera recording that made me long to see a fully staged production. This luminous work was A Christmas Memory, with music and libretto by Samuel Jones, adapted from Truman Capote's beloved short story. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of Capote's classic, published in Mademoiselle in 1956 and later released by Modern Library in a three-story collection. So this might be the ideal time for a revival of Mr. Jones' opera whose sole production was in 1992 at the Deep Ellum Opera Theatre in Dallas. Directed by Gaitley Mathews, Jones' adaptation received glowing reviews, such as a rave in the Dallas Observer: "Jones captures in his music the lyricism of Capote's story, and illustrates with powerful imagery this relationship."
The "relationship" at the heart of A Christmas Memory is the love between Buddy, a young boy in Monroeville, Alabama, and his aging cousin, Sook Faulk, with whom he has many adventures. Rejected by his parents, Buddy, a stand-in for young Truman, lives with Sook and her preachy sisters until the latter two women wrench him from Sook's care and send him to a military school, a cruel blow from which Capote never recovered.
I had the privilege of chatting with Mississippi native, Samuel Jones, about his admiration for Capote's story and his determination to gain the author's permission for an operatic version. The eminent Mr. Jones, a well-known conductor and composer, was founding dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, and for fourteen years served as resident composer at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. He continues to live in Seattle with his wife Kristin. (His web site offers his full biography--see link below.)
What follows is an edited version of our freewheeling conversation.
When did you first read Capote's story and what made you believe it should be turned into an opera?
I was the conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic in the early 70s, and my very first composition student told me about the trilogy [A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor, and One Christmas], and when I read A Christmas Memory it had an effect on me at the end that nothing else I've ever read has had so deeply. I'm frequently touched by the ending of a good book...In A Christmas Memory, it's the overwhelming sense of poignancy and sadness. It rings so deeply true with the essence of life which is simultaneously joyous and also fragile, because we know that, at some point, it will not last.
You've said that some people are surprised by your love for Capote's 1956 story.
Yes, the funny thing is, the popular conception of Capote is deeply colored by In Cold Blood, so when you tell people who haven't heard of it about this story, they can hardly believe Capote could write something so sensitive. But A Christmas Memory is a classic; a masterpiece. I've been living with or working on this opera in one way or another for almost fifty years.
You've said you began writing the opera before you obtained the rights to the text.
Well, the opera just started coming, and I couldn't stop it. It just kept flowing, and I had to tell myself, 'Stop.' I'd had a bad experience earlier with "John Brown's Body" [the 1928 epic poem by Stephen Vincent Benet]. I'd composed an extended work for chorus and orchestra based on it and then couldn't get the rights. It was horrible.
When did you approach Mr. Capote?
I first approached Eleanor Perry who wrote the screenplay for the TV movie.
That first TV adaptation was directed by Frank Perry and ran on ABC in December of 1966. I still remember seeing that version with Geraldine Page as Sook. How did Eleanor Perry and her then-husband Frank secure the rights?
The Perrys wanted to do a TV production and had received an automatic 'No' from Capote's agents. He'd instructed everyone that it was too personal. And that's part of the miracle of Capote's story. He writes it in such a way that it transcends autobiography and doesn't get bogged down in the details of normal life. It's fiction and non-fiction together, so you might even say he started his career as a New Journalist right there, long before he wrote In Cold Blood. Anyway, from Eleanor's essay about their experience, I knew it took the Perrys two years to get the rights, and they finally engineered a meeting with Capote to discuss their deep feelings for the story.
Still, how did they persuade Capote?
What cinched it was Eleanor's decision to use a narrator. Lots of times this is frowned on in dramatic circles--'Show, don't tell'--but she knew the story was so personal and the words were so great, it would be so much more powerful if Capote himself were the narrator [doing a voiceover]. And this appealed to him very much, and he realized the Perrys would protect the beauty and integrity of the story and he'd be involved. So he said, 'Sure, let's do it,' and the rest is history.
Did the success of the TV show make it easier for you?
No. [Laughs]. I had a hard time setting up a meeting. He was a world traveler, moving in circles far different from mine. I was trying to plot how we could get together. By this point I was the dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, and I'd been thinking about the opera for ten years. One day I saw an item in the newspaper that Lynn Wyatt, a prominent socialite in Houston, had invited Capote to visit. I knew Lynn and her husband Oscar, so I called her and asked if she could arrange a meeting. She said she'd be happy to do it. The day arrived and when I got to the Wyatts' home, Lynn took me into the library to meet Capote. Lynn was very gracious, and after a few moments she excused herself. Well, one of the features of the library was a huge cart of spirits of all kinds, and as everyone knew Capote was a connoisseur of drink. So he offered me a scotch and it seemed de rigueur to accept. Then he reached down and removed a Diet Coke! Can you believe it? He said he was 'on the wagon for two weeks.' [Laughs] So we met for two-and-a-half hours--a really wonderful meeting--and he kept sipping Diet Coke and pouring me more scotch, and by the time we finished I could hardly talk without slurring my words, but by God I had those rights!
What did you and Capote discuss?
Well, we had a lot to talk about. He had just come to Houston from Jackson, Mississippi, which is my hometown, and had visited for two weeks with Eudora Welty. And I, of course, knew Eudora, having composed music based on her works, and that elicited lots of conversation. I still remember him rhapsodizing about 'her hands, those wonderful hands.' And we talked about how I felt about A Christmas Memory, and how I would proceed, and he just sensed, quite quickly, that I had a strong affinity for his story, and he came to trust me almost immediately
Did Capote express any ideas for the opera?
We started talking about how it could be set, and he got caught up in it. He said, 'The movie relied on visual detail--sets and props.' But I told him that in the opera I wanted the music to create the atmosphere. And he said, 'Yes, that's right,' and he got swept up in the idea that it could be a simple set, dominated by the warmth of the kitchen hearth. He got excited about imagining it as a piece for the stage. And we both felt it was essential that I use a narrator, whom I called The Author. It's a memory, after all, and it would be going against the nature of the story to ignore that. Near the end of the conversation he said, 'I suppose you want this in writing.' I said I did, and about two weeks later I got a postcard from Vancouver giving me permission to adapt his work. Sadly, he died before I finished the orchestration, so without that postcard I wouldn't have been able to move ahead.
How did operagoers respond to the 1992 Dallas engagement?
I had known that in the 13-performance run of the production in Dallas the audiences steadily grew. But the director, Gaitley Mathews, recently told me that in his experience he had never seen anything quite like this. He knew of people telling others about a play or musical and recommending that they attend, but in this case there were many instances of audience members coming back to subsequent performances with friends in tow because they wanted to see it more than once. As he put it, 'They knew something special was going on.'
Most composers don't write their own librettos. At what point did you discover your writing ability?
I have always been captivated by the word. I love putting words together in a way that gets the message through. And that's the same thing with writing music. I can't imagine just manipulating sounds. There's a great craft in both writing and composing.
What is your process? Word first, then music--or the reverse?
Oh, the words first. But in the process the very act of coining the words suggests musical ideas. And not only that, as I set words I pay close attention to the rhythm of the words and the inflection of how they should be said, or how they sometimes demand to be said. And that inflection suggests the melodic curve itself. Between the rhythm of the words and the shape of the inflection, the melody often springs into existence.
The poet Malcolm Glass recently wrote you an email, saying, 'I think your libretto is a wonderful distillation. Most operas are based on stories with a plot strongly driven by characters and conflict. Yet this is a story about relationships, love, and bonding...Your dramatic and theatrical sense serves you well by highlighting the conflicts and tensions already there.' Any thoughts?
The story is subtle. But I knew there were opportunities for dramatic scenes, mainly the conflict with their relatives, the aunts, and also when Buddy and Sook approach the bootlegger Ha-Ha Jones.
You wrote a lush, haunting piece called Reflections about the relationship between fathers and daughters, and you borrowed one musical theme from this work for a new revision of A Christmas Memory.
Yes, Reflections was commissioned by a group of wonderful people in Seattle who've supported several of my works, and when I played the piano version for them I was halfway apologizing to the mothers since it's a father-daughter piece. But then one of my dear friends said, 'Oh, but we've all been daughters, so don't worry.' I later decided to use one of its themes for A Christmas Memory in the fruitcake baking scene, so in a way the opera is constantly renewing itself.
A Christmas Memory is not your only foray into vocal music. You adapted Eudora Welty's The Shoe Bird for symphony, narrator, and chorus. Why were you attracted to Ms. Welty's work?
As you know, many consider Welty to be the greatest American short story writer, and she lived in Jackson, Mississippi, where I grew up. I met her when I was doing a commission from Millsaps College for the Millsaps Singers. I wrote to her to ask permission to use excerpts from her great collection, The Golden Apples. After I finished the piece, I met with her to let her see how I'd adapted her story, and as she read it she said delightedly, 'You've turned it into a poem!' And from that day on she and I became fast friends. She came to the premiere and a year later it was performed at Greensboro, North Carolina, and she made the trip to hear it and we had a wonderful two or three days. Later on came The Shoe Bird, and it broke my heart that she was too ill to hear what I'd done with it.
How long did you serve as composer in residence at the Seattle Symphony and did you enjoy this post?
Starting in 1997, I was composer in residence at the Seattle Symphony for 14 years, the longest such tenure of any composer with an American orchestra. Then I did a young composers' workshop for two more years, so 2013 was my last year there. I've frequently said I had the best composition job in the country for many reasons--wonderful musicians, staff, and community supporters. But chief among those reasons was working with Gerard Schwarz, a fantastic conductor, a great musician, and great supporter of contemporary music. In 14 years I wrote 12 premieres including three concertos for lower brass instruments--tuba, horn, and trombone--and a cello concerto in honor of Mr. Schwarz's last year as conductor.
A new violin concerto with the great violinist Anne Akiko Meyers is being premiered on PBS stations throughout the winter season, and I have just completed a string quartet. I'm now thinking ahead to the next piece, another concerto for a major artist.
Back to A Christmas Memory. Since next year will be the 60th anniversary of the story's debut, are you actively seeking production opportunities?
Yes, I would very much love to see it on the boards again. Also, the Dallas production was done with piano only, so I'd love to hear it done with full orchestral accompaniment. It would work as a fully staged opera, or a semi-staged concert production with an orchestra. It's about 70 minutes in length.
What advice do you have for young composers who might long to adapt famous literary works?
[Laughs] Get the rights first! And be sure you've fallen in love with the story and know it will work dramatically because so many opera libretti are based on flimsy plots.
For more information about Mr. Jones, please visit www.samueljones.net.