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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Tobias Picker -- 'An American Tragedy'

American composer Tobias Picker (born 1954) has the unusual good fortune (for a living composer) of having received a number of commissions for full-scale operas, from some of the most important American opera companies. Although Picker has composed works in all forms, including three symphonies, three piano concerti, concerti for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and a number of songs and chamber music, he has recently focused his attention primarily on opera.

Beginning in 1996 with Emmeline (based on the novel by Judith Rossner) for the Santa Fe Opera, Picker burst onto the operatic scene as a composer with true dramatic flair and a real gift for the lyric theater. This initial opera was followed by Fantastic Mr Fox (based on the book by Roald Dahl) for the Los Angeles Opera. Next came Therese Raquin (based on the novel by Emile Zola), commissioned by the Dallas Opera. Both Emmeline and Therese Raquin are available on commercial CD releases.

Picker studied at the Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School, and Princeton University. He has been commissioned by most of the major American orchestras, many other orchestras worldwide, and has works represented on numerous CD releases. He served as composer-in-residence for the Houston Symphony Orchestra from 1985 through 1990.

His most recent operatic work is An American Tragedy (libretto by Gene Scheer, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York City, USA. James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, has long been a champion of Picker's music, and spearheaded the commissioning of this new work for the company.

Dreiser's novel was first published in 1925 and tells the 'dark side' of the classic 'American Dream'. It is the story of an ordinary man so overwhelmed by a desire for wealth and power that he allows it to supplant his moral compass. It is considered one of the most important works of 'American naturalism' in novel writing.

Picker's opera will première at the Metropolitan Opera under the musical direction of James Conlon. The stage director is Francesca Zambello, with sets by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Dunya Ramicova, lighting by James F Ingalls, and choreography by Doug Varone. The cast includes Patricia Racette, Susan Graham, Sondra Finchley, Nathan Gunn, Dolora Zajick, Jennifer Larmore, Kim Begley, William Burden and Richard Bernstein. The performances of this initial production will take place on 2, 5, 8, 12, 16, 21, 24, and 28 December 2005.

OneCarson Cooman: How did you come to choose An American Tragedy as the subject for your opera?

Tobias Picker: When I was just finishing my first opera Emmeline, and just before I went out to Santa Fe for the rehearsals in the Spring of 1996, I already knew that I would most likely have to come up with a subject for the Met. I knew that the Met's music director, James Levine, was looking at my work and thinking about commissioning a work for the company.

An American Tragedy was the very first thing that occurred to me. I had first read the book about twenty-five years ago and it made a lasting impression on me. I had also grown up with the derived film, A Place in the Sun, having seen that too as a child. Theodore Dreiser was my father's favorite author, and this book was my father's favorite novel. Thus, he exposed me to Dreiser's work at a very young age.

When thinking about what I would most like to write for the Met, I wanted to do something on a truly 'grand scale' for such a grand opera house. This book to me is a 'big story' -- of the operatic scope appropriate for the Met.

TwoCC: What are some of the most important things that you've learned about theater and the operatic process by having written a number of operas?

TP: I think to answer that question honestly, I'd have to write a book. Because with each opera I've written, I've learned so much about so many things.

There is so much to learn about opera. When you think about it, you have the orchestra which is a lifetime study in itself. Then you add voices on top of that -- each of which is different depending on which specific singer is performing. Then furthermore, you have staging and sets and costumes and lighting and props and everything else! There is this enormous field, and you can never know it all. I continue to learn with each project I undertake.

I think the most important that I've learned is that I will never stop learning more about opera.

ThreeCC: For the past few years, with Therese Raquin followed right away by An American Tragedy, you've focused your compositional efforts primarily on opera. Is there more opera ahead for you, or do you plan to take a break from it to work on other things?

TP: I do have plans for some other sorts of pieces, but there will also be new operas ahead. In fact, my very next project is another opera.

Copyright © 22 November 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA






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