Features

A Gift of Song

BRIAN KELLOW chats with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, who this month curates a program of song for New York Festival of Song's "NYFOS Next" series.

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Put's Silent Night, as seen in director Eric Simonson's staging at Minnesota Opera
© Michal Daniel 2013
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Kevin Puts
© Gregory Downer 2013

From the beginning of his career, composer Kevin Puts has identified himself principally as an orchestral composer. When his first opera, Silent Night, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, was given its world premiere by Minnesota Opera in November 2011, perhaps even Puts was surprised at the acclaim it received — acclaim that culminated in his winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. (This month, Silent Night is heard at Opera Company of Philadelphia, in performances at the Academy of Music.) 

It's easy to understand why Puts seems almost apologetic about his  success as composer of vocal music; many of his contemporaries have been laboring for years without creating a work as rich and distinctive as Silent Night, which is set on World War I's Western Front on Christmas Eve, 1914. And Puts seems to think that Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively, of the popular salon concert series New York Festival of Song, were more than a little zany to ask him to curate the upcoming show, "NYFOS Next." The program bows on February 5 at New York City's Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Hell's Kitchen.

"I don't really know songs," Puts laughs. "Michael Barrett asked me to do this some time last spring. It's a very unfamiliar area for me. Curating this has been a matter of asking my favorite composers, many of whom are my friends or at least contemporaries, for songs. It's taken a lot of hours of listening, and it's a bigger deal than I thought when I got into it." 

Puts's "NYFOS Next" doesn't revolve around any central programming idea. Three arias from Silent Night are featured on the concert, and several of the songs were commissioned by Opera America's recently opened National Opera Center — including one of Puts's, "You Need Song," with a lyric by Mark Campbell. "Mark wrote this very clever and touching lyric about how we all need song in various moments in our lives," says Campbell, "and it brought to mind musical theater for me. The style of my song is very much in the musical-theater vein, which is a departure for me. Actually, in terms of writing songs, everything is a departure for me." Also included on the program are songs by Derek Bermel and Tarik O'Regan. 

Puts doesn't want "You Need Song" to mislead anyone; he does not consider himself one of the composers — Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel — whose work glides easily in and out of the restricting categories of opera and musical theater. The question of whether The Most Happy Fella, for example, is an opera or a Broadway musical, is one of the dullest and most pointless questions that commentators keep throwing out there, and Puts can't be bothered with such distinctions. "I'm not someone bound to ideology or tradition a whole lot," he says. "To me, if it's powerful and convincing, and I'm drawn in as a listener, then nothing else really bothers me. I may have been naïve about the genre when I wrote Silent Night, but I didn't really think about what opera was supposed to be, or any of these things. I did what felt natural to me. So I don't really know what the ramifications are of blurring those lines, how it affects the opera world or the world of musical theater. People like Ricky Gordon — that's what comes out of him. He has to write in that style. When it comes down to it, the opera I will write will probably not be confused with musical theater. I think my work will probably sound like it comes more from the classical tradition, from that canon of works. That's what I know the best. I wrote 'You Need Song,' but I couldn't do a whole show like that." 

Puts's next opera, recently announced by Minnesota Opera for season 2014–15, is The Manchurian Candidate — again with a libretto by Campbell. "We also have a chamber opera, which we are not supposed to announce. An orchestra piece you can write in four months or so, but opera is a huge commitment. I'm learning and developing the way I write for voice. One daunting thing in Silent Night was writing in French and German [for the characters of the French and German soldiers]. I did in some ways style the way I approached the voice. I couldn't do it in as free a way as I wanted, so I'm looking forward to writing in English, more intuitively. In Silent Night, writing for the different voice types was something I was a little fuzzy on — exactly what it is like in a certain part of the baritone's register — so I had to listen to opera with the scores. E above middle C feels far different for a baritone than for a tenor. I've been very melodic in the way I approach all the music. When I first got Mark's libretto, it was daunting, because it was so … silent. There were so few words. I initially told Mark, 'There isn't enough text here.' He and Eric Simonson, the director, said, 'I don't think a composer has ever asked for more text.' I didn't know what that meant until I sat down and started to play on the piano what I thought the music should be for the opening. I found that the words sort of rode along with the music. There are moments in Mozart opera where you feel like there's a kind of symphony going on, and the singers are riding along with the symphony, but there are other times when the singers are leading everything. In certain arias, it's clear that the voice is running the show here. The challenge for me was deciding what those moments were, and where. 

"The way I usually start a piece — a string quartet or symphony — I have nothing. Here, I was given so much. Act II, Scene 2 — Early Morning. The soldiers are gradually waking up from their bunkers. I heard that music! It gives me so much to start with. Act II was a bigger challenge, and I'm happy with the way it came out. There are a lot of plot strands that get tied up, and I thought, how I can make sure it has the same flow that Act I has? It was fun to figure that out. I established this simple ostinato — a short/long rhythm, and the illusion is that that rhythm never ceases throughout the entire fifth scene of the second act, where these different plot lines are tied up. That gives the idea that this is all part of one big story." spacer 

More information about Kevin Puts's "NYFOS Next" concert can be found at NYFOS.org.

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6