This is the third piece director Francesca Zamhello has commissioned from me. There was the Eugene O'Neill opera with Tony Kushner, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, and The Lion and Unicorn and Me, hased on the Jeanette Winterson's hook. For this one she just said, "I want a really political opera." She knew that my appetite was for complicated issues, and trying to find out what's dangling at the end of them. So librettist Tazewell Thompson and I started from nothing.
The piece is about a Black family whose father is a policeman. I read that making that character a cop was your idea. Why?
Yes. I was saying to Tazewell that I've not seen that story before, of an officer of the law who is also part of the community, and what happens to them when they're not in uniform. Tazewell at first had a very energetic reaction, "No." Because he will describe himself as a very dark-skinned African American man, and he's been stopped and frisked, harassed. But the next day he said, "It's very scary for me. And I want to do that."
A lot of artists say that fear is like an arrow telling them where to go. Does that guide your choices as well?
Everything I do scares me. Writing scares me. It's so much easier not to write, and wonder about what it would have been: It would have been so great! It would have just knocked everyone's socks off!
How do you get from the subject to the sound of a show?
I knew I was writing for a 47-piece orchestra. I wanted it to have some new music, but some of the style of--not a folk opera, exactly, but of real people, of what they sound like to me. What do men sound like in a sports bar? The world is operatic to me, in the way that you can hear counterpoint, and you can hear when something soars above it. Maybe it's the Sicilian roots--I feel like it's in my blood, my grandfather being a composer.
What kind of music did he write?
He wrote band music. He played the viola, which I forgive him for--I'm just kidding. I have his arrangements. We never met.
Okay, so it's in your blood. So you feel like opera...
Yeah, I feel a pull to the epic story, and to people I feel have maybe not gotten equal time downstage center. I'm really interested in that. This ended up being more Greek than I thought it would. Because I don't know that a Black man in this country doesn't have his fate somewhat sealed--it occurred to me how Greek that was.
Do you write at the piano or form ideas elsewhere?
I do both. I write a lot away from the piano now, so when I get to the piano, it's been swirling around.
And you're still working with an instrument, rather than with programs or things like that?
I do not work at all on the computer. I had my time with the computer. 1 was the MIDI generation; all through the mid-'80s and all through the '90s, I was doing everything MIDI. So if I see a keyboard now I literally recoil.
What are you listening to these days? Or do you not listen to music recreationally?
I never used to, and then I got my Bose noise-canceling headphones, and my playiist is so crazy. I go through stages where I deeply go in through the works of one person. So I went through a really big K-hole for Bob Dylan; I listened to "Positively 4th Street" about 30 times on repeat one day. I'm also in a big Michael Friedman phase. I've listened to Gone Missing incessantly. Then there are certain pieces that I've always really loved: I listen to Bartok a lot, and Stravinsky. I love Edie Brickell; I love people I feel a lot of strength from. Chrissie Hynde has always been big for me. Indigo Girls.
You started out conducting shows, often from the piano. What was your favorite show to conduct?
Tommy. I loved that show. I learned so much watching that come together. Conducting the first act of that show is an absolute lesson in the rhythm of a first act. It is what I love about being in the mail room of an orchestra, in a way: You learn from underneath how something is built. And then you eventually get out, but you never forget what it was like-to play it or conduct it.