Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: Gregory Spears
The composer’s new opera, FELLOW TRAVELERS, bows this month at Cincinnati Opera.
by F. Paul Driscoll.
Photograph by Dario Acosta
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
GREGORY SPEARS'S new opera, Fellow Travelers, which opens at Cincinnati Opera on June 17, is one of the most eagerly awaited events in the U.S. opera calendar this season. Educated at Eastman, Yale and Princeton, Spears was marked as a composer to watch in 2013, when his first opera, Paul’s Case, was given its world premiere in Virginia by UrbanArias. Based on Willa Cather’s tragicomic short story about a daydreaming Pittsburgh boy with ideas above his station, Paul’s Case was called “haunting” by Heidi Waleson of The Wall Street Journal, who also praised the composer’s “distinctive and pungent musical language.” In 2014, the opera became the breakout hit of the second annual Prototype Festival in Manhattan.
Fellow Travelers, an adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel about the “lavender scare” in 1950s Washington, “blends two issues,” says Spears. “The political world corrodes the relationship of the closeted central couple more than anything else. Having those issues collide in this piece is interesting.
“Writing opera is extraordinarily mysterious. It takes an enormous amount of technical knowledge—just simply notationally—to get it all to work. I like to start working with the text, so that I can look at the structural pieces with the librettist. You have to test things, just like a scientist—‘I don’t know, let’s see, does this work?’ You have to experience it as the listener as you are writing it. ‘If I flip this part out, substitute these words for those words, if we have a little section added there, does it still balance properly?’
“When I started composing music, the first piece I wrote was a little piano concerto for myself, in high school. I was really interested in instrumental and chamber music, mostly, through college—and then I started writing songs. I had always loved opera, but there’s something electrifying about having an actual person embodying the sounds of new music that builds a bridge to an audience. And it builds a bridge to a composer. It’s so inspiring to be able to write something and say to a singer, ‘My job is to make you sound incredible.’ That sentiment feels very selfless, but of course it’s not, right? Because if they sound good, you sound good—there’s a relationship there that is highly addictive. Once I had experienced that, I felt like I’d been bitten by the bug.”