Composer Spotlight On: David Wolfson and his Faith Operas
Description of The Faith Operas (4 works) by David Wolfson
Maya's Ark (faith restored): A former drug addict (mezzo soprano) wants to build an ark in the parking lot of a church. The residing clergyman (baritone) opposes the crazy idea until he realizes the role of the ark/her dream is vital to her recovery and equates the work of building the ark and the spiritual work of faith. Running Time is 10 minutes. Forces include mezzo soprano, baritone, piano trio or 11-piece orchestration.
Rapture (faith shattered): An American woman (mezzo soprano) looks forward to being assumed bodily into Heaven in the Rapture. Her daughter (soprano), with her as the moment comes and goes, shares a range of differing emotions and the two realize that faith shattered is also a new beginning. Running time is 11 minutes. Forces include: soprano, mezzo soprano, piano trio. 6-piece, 11-piece, or 14-piece orchestration is also available.
A Fine Invention (faith tested): The 4-year old daughter of a Christian Scientist couple is very ill, resulting in a serious testing of faith. As their daughter's outcome is unknown, how will Michael (tenor) choose between his beliefs and his wife Donna’s (soprano) desire to seek medical treatment? A crisis of faith represents a crisis of identity. "Who are we if we don't believe?" Running time is 10 minutes. Forces include soprano, tenor, piano trio or 11-piece orchestration.
Heaven's Gate (faith distorted): A self-proclaimed messiah "Bo" asks those capable of achieving "Next Level Above Human" status (requirements include celibacy and disgruntlement with the current state of things) to prepare to be set free from the body and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Convinced that a sign in the form of a comet is announcing the moment, his followers decide to leave the world of personal shortcomings, corporate rule, war, hunger, strife, apathy, crime, fast food, bills and other evils and commit mass suicide. Running time is 45 minutes. Forces include soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor, baritone, and piano trio.
A Conversation with Composer, David Wolfson
SIO: Where are you from?
David Wolfson: I was born in Cincinnati. I consider myself a New Yorker who was born in the Midwest. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music and moved to New York after that.
SIO: Did you find yourself stepping into a life of a full-time composer?
DW: Oh Lord, no. I came to New York expecting to be a composer and work in musical theatre as a pianist and music director. To some extent I’ve had a quite varied freelance life. I have done both of those, have played in Broadway pits, done a lot of music prep – copying, orchestration, etc., played for cabaret acts, all the things that a musical theatre musician can do (and by and large we’re all expected to do all of them). In between all of that I have composed. My wife was a choreographer and dancer and at that time; we ran dance companies in the 90s and I wrote a lot of music for them. My output dropped precipitously when my son was born, then picked back up again. It has been very much a freelance life, and only in the last 7 years when I went back to school have I given my writing life more direction.
SIO: How would you describe yourself as a composer, as an artist?
DW: I don’t describe myself as a composer very much! But I could in two different ways depending on whether I’m writing instrumental or vocal music. When I’m writing instrumental music, I feel much like a kid playing with Legos… I have a bunch of techniques and can put the things I’ve mastered together in a million different ways to make something cool. If necessary, I can raid other people’s Lego boxes or in great extremity come up with a new Lego of my own. When writing for singers, my impulses (using the same tools) are more in the service of illuminating some portion of our existence as human beings––our maddening, idiotic nobility and contradictory nature.
SIO: Your faith-oriented works present specific belief scenarios. They also deal with universal questions and themes on what makes us who we are, and how belief informs not only our own behavior, but also our relationship with others. I found myself empathizing with the mother in Rapture who in the beginning, appeared condescending in manner. But in just 10 minutes, you covered so much ground!
Did you conceive the Faith Operas as a complete series or did you write them one by one and then group them together?
DW: The answer is yes, both. I wrote Maya’s Ark in 2010. At the time, I was working with the Remarkable Theatre Brigade, who would produce programs of short operas. I had written musicals for several years but had never dabbled in opera. Maya’s Ark is based on the true story of Kea Tawana who in the 80s became a cause celebré after building an ark in the parking lot of a church in Newark, New Jersey. I first attempted to write a musical about this woman but the concept ran aground because the villain in the piece was the city’s zoning board, and that element did not particularly excite me. Nevertheless, the story sat in my mind for 20 years. I finally chose to conceive a 10-minute opera with Kea’s pastor in the scene (who is never asked about in the news reports). The opera explores what a conversation between the two might be.
Shortly after the work was completed, Grethe Holby, who runs Ardea Arts and the Family Opera Initiative, arranged for a reading of it, and later produced a film version of the work.
Soon after this, Harold Camping’s ministry was proclaiming that the Rapture was coming (May 21, 2011). I was at a street fair in Manhattan and there were several people walking on the curb carrying signs declaring that the Rapture was coming in May. I remember thinking, “Oh to be a fly on the wall as that moment comes and goes.” It’s then I said to myself, ‘That’s my next opera!’ Thus, the piece happens in real-time (the minutes just before and after the false prediction fails to occur).
Having then written two operas on the subject of faith, I realized I had a theme going and decided it would be wonderful to make an evening of it. My wife Lynn was the first to conceive a third scenario that involves a Christian Scientist couple with an ill child, which I then developed into A Fine Invention–currently the most recent addition to my list of micro faith operas. This piece is not specific to any biographical story per se, but rather it’s a kind of composite story.
Once the three micro faith operas were completed, I felt that a longer piece (a true one-act) could serve to anchor a full evening performance. Because all the micro operas had been written for two people (each running between and were about 10-12 minutes in length), the idea would be for this new one-act, Heaven’s Gate, to use all the singers in those pieces and run at 45 minutes long to complete the evening’s second half. The running time for all four operas performed is 90 minutes.
Hartford Opera had premiered the short pieces between 2014-2016 on their “New in November” series. Liz Miller, artistic director of Hartford Opera Theatre agreed to produce it an evening of all Four Faith Operas in 2017. The four pieces can be described as “faith restored, faith shattered, faith tested and faith distorted.” I would love to do a theme of “faith born” or “faith beginning,” but for now these four works fit very nicely into one evening.
SIO: Is there any reason why you choose to write your own texts? Have you worked with other librettists or existing texts?
I started writing my own texts for song cycles in the 90s when I had a deadline to write something for a singer and had waited too long to get permission for some poems. Then the answer was “no” [from the poet], so there was no time to do anything else. So, I wrote my own text, and discovered, ‘Hey, I like writing my own Libretto! I’ve also written musicals off and on for 30 years, working with other lyricists and book writers. At times I’ve been just the composer, other times I’ve also been the lyricist but never the book writer. Writing the libretto for Maya’s Ark was a huge leap for me—to create a dramatic structure for the first time. Once I discovered that I could do that, I gained greater confidence. One of the things I try to do is to illuminate the human condition through the story-telling. We all have our own personal perspectives on aspects of the human experience. So…if you can think of writing your own libretto, why not take a chance and give it a shot?
SIO: What do you find to be the greatest differences when writing operas versus musicals?
DW: This is a subject of perennial discussion… The short answer for me is that operas are written for opera singers and musicals are written for musical theatre actors. It’s two cultures, two sets of practices and expectations about how the rehearsals, the staging and the music will be involved. I love them both… In opera, you have these astonishing voices for which you can write music that is more much more complex. I find that you also have the ability for the music to contribute to the drama in a way that is generally not always possible in musicals. Some musical theatre people feel challenged when told that the music is going to be doing the acting here… But in opera, this principal makes sense. So, in short, that is one of the things I enjoy about writing opera. There’s one project I’m mulling over right now, and I’m not yet sure whether it will surface as a musical or an opera. Another major difference between the cultures of opera and musical theatre is that no one expects opera to make money (chuckling).
SIO: Do you have a sense of audience feedback about these works?
DW: One audience member said after the Boston performance [of Rapture], “Wow, I’m a little verklempt” and then paused and said “actually, MORE than a little!” During the initial reading of Maya’s Ark there were people relating that it was a very moving experience.
SIO: Do you have any other faith-themed works?
DW: Adventures of the Mind Monkey for piano and percussion is about unsuccessful attempts to meditate.
My mother belongs to a Unitarian fellowship in Michigan. She talked her congregation into commissioning a set of songs for their congregational choir based on the Seven Principles of Unitarianism. So, after the first one came out well, the second piece was requested. They then decided to go ahead with all seven (chuckle). Their instructions were to keep it easy, as it’s a small group that doesn’t rehearse often. The first six are relatively easy and the seventh is a little more challenging and a little longer (about 4 minutes). Over the course of 3 years, they learned the pieces then performed the complete cycle last year. It was interesting to write something directly FOR worship, which was something I had not done before.
SIO: something not meant to be a dramatic piece…
DW: Yes, exactly. The texts [of the Seven Principles] themselves are not exactly singable. My first impression was “Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into…. How to get this to sing?” But it all worked, the congregation was very happy, and we’re working on getting the whole set published and widely available to the Unitarian community.
SIO: Do you have any desire to put any kind of personal faith journey into music?
DW: There’s nothing in my own journey that is remotely dramatic, for which I’m grateful! A large part of my personal or spiritual journey is my marriage (in its 32nd year), which has found its way into my musical writing, including a song cycle. One of the songs, When First I Loved You, will be included in a new music anthology for tenor that comes out soon.
SIO: What else are you working on now?
DW: Last year I had three new musical theatre/opera works premiered. I also finished my dissertation, a lot in one year! Now I’m working on a 30-minute monodrama for soprano, Sara Paar, for whom I’ve written many works. I’m recasting the legend of Daphne and Apollo for 2018… a current day mythology.
SIO: Tell us more about your dissertation work, “The Intelligibility of Classical Singers.”
DW: My dissertation focuses on what composers can do to maximize the chance of being understood by an audience. This is something that I’ve brought over from a lifetime in musical theater – the expectation that the words will be intelligible and can be used to tell the story. So hopefully future projects will even highlight this more. The Faith Operas were all written before the dissertation was complete (chuckle).
SIO: Where can people access your music or learn more about you?
DW: Email me at email@example.com or visit my website: www.davidwolfsonmusic.net
If anyone is interested in performing the work with a different instrumentation, I’m open to adapting the orchestrations for the Faith Operas.
About our Contributor
Dr. Casey Robards is a Pianist and Vocal Coach known for her artistry, versatility and sensitive musicality. She has given recitals with singers and instrumentalists throughout the United States, Europe, Central and South America and Asia. Her repertoire includes art song, opera, musical theatre, gospel, jazz, string, brass and wind. Dr. Robards is Head of the Collaborative Piano program at the Bay View Music Festival. Previous faculty appointments include positions with Indiana University, Oberlin Conservatory (postdoctoral) and Central Michigan University. Casey is interested in the intersection of music and social justice and has led benefit recitals for Musicambia, a non-profit that creates music conservatories in prisons. Casey attended the Tanglewood Music Festival (04, 05) and has degrees in Piano Performance, Piano Pedagogy and Vocal Coaching and Accompanying from the University of Illinois. Her dissertation was on the life and music of John Daniels Carter. www.caseyrobards.com
1. Video of this production is viewable on Mr. Wolfson’s personal website: davidwolfsonmusic.net.
2. Rapture has also been performed in New Orleans (Newfangled Opera), Boston (Boston Opera Collaborative and the Boston New Music Initiative) and by Four Corners Ensemble in Ann Arbor, MI.