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The Kaleidoscopic World of Royce Vavrek

His words give a bizarre lift to contemporary opera. This spring, librettist Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days comes to Fort Worth and L.A. HEIDI WALESON talks with one of opera’s freshest new voices.

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Red Spacer 1213 “Lucky Number” F. Paul Driscoll talks to the cast and creative team of “27 (June 2014)
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Librettist Vavrek

Librettist Royce Vavrek, thirty-two, lives in the gentrifying Bushwick section of Brooklyn, less than a block from where the elevated M train rattles above Broadway and its bustling, slightly seedy mix of sneaker emporiums, Mexican bakeries and organic grocery stores. One is tempted to observe that it’s a long way from the farm in western Alberta, Canada, where he grew up — but his childhood certainly doesn’t match any rural stereotype. Vavrek studied piano, voice and composition, made up his own Oscar awards and wrote seventeen plays. In twelfth grade, he once cut classes to spend the afternoon watching Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark on VHS. 

Now Vavrek has begun to shake up the opera world. In the past several years, his terse, poetic and thoroughly contemporary texts, collaborations with a stable of up-and-coming composers (and one veteran, so far), have made opera-lovers take notice. In 2012, the savage, post-apocalyptic Dog Days, written with composer David T. Little, landed on dozens of top-ten lists. It comes to Fort Worth Opera and L.A. Opera this spring. Even before Dog Days, Fort Worth had commissioned a new work from Vavrek and Little — JFK, which will have its premiere there in 2016. The team has also been signed to write a piece for the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program. At the same time, Vavrek is working with Missy Mazzoli on Breaking the Waves, inspired by the eponymous von Trier film, which will have its premiere at Opera Philadelphia in 2016. And his project with Gregory Spears, OColumbia, an exploration of the 2003 space-shuttle disaster for Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco, opens this fall. 

James Robinson, who directed the premiere of “27,” a playful yet profound opera about Gertrude Stein by Vavrek and Ricky Ian Gordon that was unveiled at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis last season, saw something exceptional in Vavrek. “There are composers and librettists who are writing new-old operas and those writing new-new operas,” says Robinson. “Royce is definitely in the second category. He understands that opera can be theatrical without being traditionally dramatic. And really good librettists seem to be able to create their own worlds.” Mazzoli, who first heard Vavrek’s work in a brief excerpt of what would eventually become Dog Days, remembers, “I was blown away. He created texts that said a bunch of different things at the same time. He could be funny, devastating and deeply disturbing, all in one line.”

Vavrek is so friendly and outgoing that he might seem an unlikely creator for stories such as Dog Days or Breaking the Waves, but he has always been drawn to dark tales. As a high-school student, steeped in independent film, he wrote what he called “a pop operetta” about a woman who wanted to have an abortion and a play about a nun who beats a midget to death. (The latter won multiple prizes at a province-wide festival.) “I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly — to weird, singular experiences,” Vavrek says. “What makes life kaleidoscopic? What are those colors, and how do you render them through drama or music or any medium?”

Comedy, happily, is a part of his kaleidoscope — even if it is a little warped sometimes. An opera triptych with composer Rachel Peters features a little girl who taxidermies prairie dogs and creates a surrogate family out of them, and who “embraces” her chicken pox, which are sung by a barbershop quartet. And Gordon says the fantasia-like libretto for “27” was “filled with light, joy and love. And it reaches really deep.” 

A music-loving family and several inspiring and encouraging teachers helped get Vavrek off the farm and set him on course for a degree in film and creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. But it was a trip to New York during his third year of college, when he saw his first Broadway shows — Avenue Q and Gypsy, the latter starring Bernadette Peters — that sealed his fate. “I knew I had to be here,” he says. 

The next step was the two-year Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU, which taught him the art of collaboration. “During the first year, I collaborated with most of my classmates on one- or two-week assignments,” he recalls. “I dealt with lots of different artistic temperaments. Some pieces were failures, some were transcendent. It taught not only how to compromise but how to stand up for what you thought was important — how to pick your battles and how to meld.” When American Lyric Theater announced the first cycle of its Composer–Librettist Development Program, Vavrek, who had experimented a bit with opera at NYU, applied and was accepted. The experience confirmed him in his calling. “I truly think that the best opera and music theater is that which is more than the sum of two — or however many collaborators there are — parts,” he says. “It’s alchemy. I want to write with a person who, when we come together, it will be something that only the two of us could have done together. It needs to be singular.”

David T. Little attended the CLDP showcase and was drawn to “something classic, almost gothic” in Vavrek’s words. So when Little was asked to write a scene for the Dawn Upshaw–Osvaldo Golijov workshop at Carnegie Hall, he got in touch with Vavrek. (“The meeting almost didn’t happen — Royce had lost his phone,” Little says.) The Carnegie project became Dog Days. The duo also wrote a short opera, Vinkensport, and an oratorio, Am I Born, among other projects, all of which gave them a chance to figure out their artistic relationship.

In His Own Words:
an excerpt from Vavrek’s Dog Days


Hello there, beautiful:
Ribs like an antique washboard
I rub my fingers
Down and up,
Up and down.
I’ve lost count of the ridges...
It’s happened, Lisa!
Ribs like corrugated cardboard,
The kind dad has piled up in the basement
Waiting to be burned
In the dead of winter
When nothing’s left but our shivers.

Little had written his own text for an earlier piece, Soldier Songs, and he knew that he would be very hands-on about words. Vavrek’s collaborative skills were ideal. “He’s flexible,” the composer says. “He has a point of view — he knows what he wants from characters and scenes — but he’s also very open to being convinced otherwise. When we were working on Dog Days, we met a lot with Robert Woodruff [the director], which was formative for both of us and expanded the potential of what we thought these moments could be. That openness is one of the things that make Royce such a great collaborator.”

Vavrek finds inspiration everywhere. He is steeped in movies, television and popular culture, and he is endlessly curious. Mazzoli describes their five-day trip through the Isle of Skye, doing research for Breaking the Waves, as a nonstop encounter with sheep, accents, stories, and people in pubs, all of whom talked happily to the gregarious Vavrek; both artists were deeply affected by the strangely violent, sexual landscape. Vavrek also draws powerfully from his collaborators and their unique musical languages. “I love how fearless David is,” Vavrek says. “In one of our initial conversations, he said, ‘I don’t want the words to be flowery. I want you to find the poetry in the everyday.’ I really responded to that. Greg [Spears]’s baroque-meets-new-music thing is so wild, and we are doing a piece that goes back 400 years and then forward into the future, so that the past and the future coexist.” Of Mazzoli, he says, “I find her music to be so emotionally vast. There’s beauty, angularity, sensuality. It also feels new. You feel her influences, but her voice is wholly her own.”

Paradoxically, part of Vavrek’s strength as a librettist is his relative unfamiliarity with the opera canon, which allows him to be new. Though he has a few favorite operas, his roots are in music theater, with Sondheim as his prophet, and he looks for common ground in the two forms. He works closely with the dramaturge Michael Cohen, an expert in structure with encyclopedic knowledge of music theater. “He’s able to call me out on all my infelicities,” Vavrek says. For the JFK libretto, Cohen helped Vavrek get past a conventional narrative into something more dreamlike by encouraging him to “riff” on the fact that the hotel room in which Jack and Jackie spent the night before the assassination was decorated with famous pictures from the Fort Worth art museums. “It was the same with Gertrude Stein,” Vavrek says. “You begin with this sense of responsibility, and then you slowly give yourself permission to imagine, to impose yourself on these characters in a very loving way — or to find yourself in them, and your way in.”

Vavrek’s goal is to draw the best possible music out of his collaborators. “Because libretti are the first stage of the composition process, I get to prescribe form and structure. But there are a thousand ways to tell a story. If a scene or a lyric isn’t working, let’s try the second, or the fiftieth option.” Both Little and Gordon say that working with him has opened them up to new expressive possibilities. Little’s acerbic, heavy-metal-inspired language has found a new lyricism in JFK. “When Royce gives me beautiful text, why not write beautiful music?” Little says. “I resisted that for fifteen years — in my training, it was old-fashioned to be beautiful. Now I see it as one of many options that should be embraced.”

Vavrek currently has about a dozen projects in different stages of completion. He likes it that way. “If I’m frustrated by the way something is coming out, it’s good to have another project, a change of pace,” he says. “Otherwise I would spend time watching television — which is O.K., too. I love TV. And it’s a golden age of TV right now.” 

There’s discussion of another piece with Little for the electrifying Lauren Worsham, Vavrek’s singer-muse and the star of Dog Days; she is also his partner in the Coterie, an opera-theater company based in New York. His musical with Joshua Schmidt, Midwestern Gothic, is slated for the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia; the opera Angel’s Bone, with Du Yun, will have its premiere at the Prototype Festival in 2016. Collaborations with Matt Marks, Paola Prestini and Ellen Reid are ongoing. And there are lots of ideas — an “episodic opera for television in the style of True Detective,” to say nothing of 100 potential subjects with Little. “It’s so funny how the ideas find us, how they settle into the collaborations,” Vavrek says. “It feels organic, the way they blossom. They feel like family.” spacer 

HEIDI WALESON is the opera critic of The Wall Street Journal. 

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