When composer Daron Aric Hagen arrived at University of Houston's Moores School of Music, it wasn't just to witness the production-in-progress of his newest large-scale opera, Amelia — with libretto by Gardner McFall and story by Stephen Wadsworth. After an acclaimed premiere of his $3.6 million opera during which audiences "went berserk with wild applause" at the Seattle Opera in May 2010, the American composer decided — at the suggestion of colleagues — to craft a reduced score so it could be mounted by companies with smaller financials like the Moores Opera Center.
"Where this opera will get its legs is at the college level," Hagen tells CultureMap. "I didn't want producers to be weary about not using the same huge Seattle sets and a massive orchestra, as a result of budgets or availability. This smaller version, for better or worse, will be performed most often."
Moores Opera Center debuts its run of Amelia Friday night.
That's one of the differences between a student and a pro — knowing how far to go into fantasy while staying grounded in reality.
Hagen and Moores School of Music founder Buck Ross had met 11 years prior through the premiere of Bandanna at University of Texas at Austin. They served as panelists in Opera Vista's chamber opera competition in 2011 and Buck directed an Opera Vista production of Hagen's Vera of Las Vegas at Rich's that same year.
Yes, Hagen — exhibiting traits of a meticulous designer — is always making tweaks and adjustments to his music. As this new partiture was a re-orchestration overhaul — think more than 3,000 edits — he was eager to discern how it would come together.
But amid busy work with Ross and consultations with conductor Brett Mitchell, he convened with music students in a large rehearsal room, behind close doors, to dialogue on the trials and tribulations of professional opera life, the kind of stuff that isn't addressed in the open.
And for good reason. The music industry isn't forgiving.
"Joel, all this is off the record," Hagen said while sternly pointing a finger and smiling. That gesture, I understood.
As a music student, I was often required to attend these come-to-Jesus anything-goes chats. So being part of such a family, if only for an afternoon, was a sentimental reminder of the hopes, dreams and fears that lie in the zeitgeist of all artists-in-the-making.
How do I find work? How will I support myself? How does the business of the arts work?
"In weaving the onstage reality with the imaginary and mythological, such dissonance is the engine that drives the dramaturgy. Amelia lives in both worlds."
I gathered from the discourse that something had happened in rehearsal, a type of emotional meltdown brought on by being too personally connected with the themes. Such vulnerability is what makes performances transcendent, yet it can also send an artist spiraling out of control.
As this happened a week before opening night, there was plenty of time for this to fizzle out — the pain would not be so intense next time around. And that's one of the differences between a student and a pro — knowing how far to go into fantasy while staying grounded in reality and maintaining a hint of detachment.
Hagen masterminded Amelia to be deeply emotional.
"My value system is important to me, " he says. "I have come to understand what moves an audience. I have enjoyed indulging myself in non-linear story telling. In weaving the onstage reality with the imaginary and mythological, such dissonance is the engine that drives the dramaturgy. Amelia lives in both worlds."
Hagen has an intelligible structure before any note is committed to ink. He knows that if it takes 45 seconds to recite a strophe, that translates to two or three times longer to sing it. When precise communication matters, librettists have no room for extra fat in their verse.
That's where music composition meets careful engineering.
Such structure goes up on a wall where he draws with different colored pencils to show connections between characters, key centers, tonality, modulations, pedal points, all with specific timings, including parts that should be uninteresting or those that lead to a psychological reaction.
As he crafts a comprehensive architecture, several treatments of copy — where he suggests prose pace, rhythm and style — are drafted before a working libretto can be presented.
And that's where music composition meets careful engineering.
The story and back story
There's more than one "Amelia" in the work, which begins in 1966 and spans 30 years. As a young child, Amelia, the daughter of a Vietnam War pilot named Dodge, dreams of feeling the freedom of flight. As a pregnant woman, Amelia suffers from abandonment issues as a result of the loss of her father at war. Though Amelia Earhart is never referred to by name, there are inferences to her character by allusions to "The Flyer."
Where the opera takes on a personal meaning is in the intersection between the narrative of Amelia as imagined by Wadsworth and the true story of McFall, whose father, Dodge, was a pilot lost at sea in Vietnam.
But as Ivan Katz of The Huffington Post notes, "This is, after all, an opera, not a documentary."
Moores Opera Center presents Daron Hagen's Amelia at Moores Opera House. The production opens Friday and runs through Jan. 30. Tickets are $20; $10 for students and seniors.