Issue 1: Royce Vavrek: Writing Opera In Extremis
By Daniel J. Kushner
Within the brief span of four years, the Canadian-born librettist has been the common denominator in numerous new operas of tremendous depth, subversion, and vitality—from Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt biopic Song from the Uproar to Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone (about two angels fallen from heaven and forced into prostitution) to David T. Little’s Dog Days, a critically acclaimed tragedy about a starving family in a post-apocalyptic America.
His most recent collaborations included the April premieres of composer Hannah Lash’s Eight Songs for a Stoned Prince, and the L.A. Phil co-commission of Strip Mall, composed by Matt Marks. Future engagements include two productions with Fort Worth Opera: a 2015 production of Dog Days, and the 2016 world premiere of the opera JFK, also co-written by Little. In a recent discussion, Vavrek spoke about the importance of intimacy in opera, writing a play featuring a prostitute pig for his Catholic high school, and his reasons for creating an opera company with soprano Lauren Worsham called The Coterie.
Do you think opera has gotten sterilized, antiseptic, and somehow distanced from real human experience? If so, how do you combat that?
I don't know if I would go as far as to say that theater and opera have become antiseptic. I would say that that I think there is a general excitement around amplifying what makes opera and theater special, which is the intimacy of being in a room with these people. And I think that to a certain extent, going to the Met and seeing these huge productions when you're two miles away up in the Family Circle, it certainly removes that intimacy in many ways. I was just at the Gotham Chamber Opera production of Eliogabalo (Francesco Cavalli) and it was done at the Box, at this burlesque house. It was super-crowded and people were up on the balconies hanging over, and the standing room was in another room in the back. And there was something really, really cool about this lack of space, how everybody was just sort of crammed in this box—literally the Box—and it just gave for a whole new way of experiencing this Baroque opera that was written hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And that again, is entirely valid: we should be seeing operas like that.
Your characters often dialogue with themselves in an internal struggle to contextualize meaning and to reconcile their emotions with the world at large. They endure horrific episodes. They are fully aware of the harsh reality of their existences and still pull from that something that redeems them. There is a specific aria in Dog Days, sung by Lauren Worsham as Lisa, which seems emblematic of this central thematic aesthetic:
“Pain is beauty they say;
Hunger is beauty,
Hunger builds beauty,
Hunger made me…
But my hair has lost its color, its shine.
My skin is dry.
My freckles fade away...
But I’m beautiful”
I'm attracted to really singular stories that are often harrowing. They’re people in extremis, and they're people who are dealing with things that are problematic... and then allowing these people to maintain their humanity in these situations is sort of the name of the game for me. I love that.
And Lisa is experiencing massive hunger pangs, and she's wasting away. Her family is becoming more and more distant, and they’re also starving to death. Letting her have this moment where there is some happiness, there is that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and yet this shit is going on.
So the arias can be active, but they also offer us opportunities to explore vertical moments, and to really dig deep and have people reflect. And I think that that's when people are desperate to find, to excavate the humanity that's still left in them—in these moments of extreme pain, or anger or frustration, or hunger.
How does Stoned Prince fit into the notion of characters who face extreme obstacles and still retain their humanity?
Prince Harry's obstacles are very singular, as it's the navigation of his station while wanting to lead a relatively normal life. Here's a man who's really just looking to have fun, and by virtue of him being a Prince, has a pretty extreme life. My goal was to really humanize him... consider the lyrics to the song "To My Mum":
She visits my dreams.
I'm the size of a newborn,
Held in her arms With this face,
A whole life lived
Mum... she smiles.
I've been crying.
'I'm just trying to have fun.'
She kisses my forehead,
As I begin to breastfeed.
This moment occurs after he has smoked pot, enjoyed oral sex, and debuted his Nazi Halloween costume. It's a vulnerable moment for him.
I want to talk about your compatibility with composer Matt Marks. Aesthetically, you just seem to have an intuitive dialogue with him.
He's one of my absolute favorite people, and I feel a kinship with the kind of stories—he is very fearless as well in the way that he will attack things. My general attraction to Matt is that I think that he is a marvelous music theater dramatist. The way that he can dramatize through music is really cool and I think that is something very special to his voice. And he loves really wacky stories, and I love going on those adventures with him. So I think that we're very simpatico in that way.
Was there a moment that you can recall when you knew you wanted to write stories for the stage?
Well as a kid, I would stage Christmas concerts in my grandmother’s basement with all of my cousins, and I would write plays as a youngster. When I was in high school, I had this unbelievable drama teacher named Paulette Long. I grew up in a school situation that didn’t have tons of money but all the money that they had they spent on sports teams, so the volleyball team got a lot of money, the basketball team—of course, because we were in northern Alberta, Canada.
We had like $300 or $400 to mount our plays, and we would go around and do the festival circuit and stuff. And [Long] said, "You know, I don’t have very much money but I will give you everything I have, and you will have all of my support." So in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades I just wrote. I wrote a lot of plays—I wrote 17 one-acts I believe—and staged most of them. And I was just given this forum where I could hone, and I had every amount of support and all that $300 could provide. The play that I performed in was called Motherless Pig, about a pig from the farm who hitchhikes to New York City and resorts to prostitution when she can’t make it in the theater. She ends up nibbling a hole in one of the john’s condoms to impregnate [herself], and she has these hybrid pig-human babies that are stillborn and then pleads with the audience to butcher her. And I was writing this at 12th grade, and it was being endorsed by my Catholic high school, which is outrageous and awesome.
That was 17 year-old Royce. To be honest, my teacher wasn't in love with that play. But that was my first professional—I sent it in to this contest, it was seen in Edmonton, Alberta, and it managed to get a professional production that was nominated for a Sterling Award. So at 18, I was given these super awesome opportunities. I wasn't going to New York and getting Tony awards, but they gave me the indication that I was doing something right and that my creativity was valued in some way.
Can you talk about The Coterie—how you came to form it with soprano Lauren Worsham, and what its goals are?
I remember coming back from the New Music Bake Sale a couple years ago, and I said, "Why aren't we creating an opera company?" All these kids [Little, Mazzoli, Greenstein] are creating ensembles and I am an opera writer, or a music theater writer, and why don’t we create a company that can foster that? Lauren is so amazing. A lot of my work is not necessarily inspired by her, but I certainly am attracted to the precocious young girl character. I think that there’s something about that character that I love exploring.
At least 50% of the work that I do, there’s a Lauren character, or a Lauren role. And I thought, well that’s the woman that I need to create a company with. We can exemplify and amplify and give a forum to this youthful spirit, and we have a place at the table for everybody—from Lauren’s husband [Kyle Jarrow], who is more of a pop/rock theater composer, to Hannah Lash. But all of these composers, it’s like a family thing. And providing a forum where we as a family can throw that pasta up against the wall and see what sticks is a hugely valuable thing.
Photography by Axel Dupeux for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine.
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