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Tales of Hoffman

MARTIN CASELLA sits down with playwright/librettist William M. Hoffman to discuss his latest project, Morning Star, the first world premiere for Cincinnati Opera in more than half a century.

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Photo by Gregory Downer
© Gregory Downer 2015

According to conventional wisdom in Broadway theater circles, if a musical is a success, it’s because it has a great score; if a musical is a failure, it’s because of its disappointing text. To William M. Hoffman, librettist of the boundary-shattering Ghosts of Versailles, opera-world paradigms are not quite so apocryphal as the ones in musical theater. But there are many other similarities I discovered when he and I recently discussed his collaboration with composer Ricky Ian Gordon on the upcoming opera Morning Star, which bows at Cincinnati Opera on June 30 for a seven-performance run. It is the company’s first world premiere in more than fifty years. 

When he’s asked about the difference between writing for opera and writing for musical theater, Hoffman practically growls his answer: “The lines between musical theater and opera are faint. I believe it’s arbitrary what we call a musical and what we call opera. People shouldn’t worry about it. They should just do their work.”

Hoffman knows about doing his work. A native New Yorker, he began his career as an off-off-Broadway playwright during the 1960s. Most of his many plays were produced in small, experimental theaters. During this period he also worked as an editor at the publishing house of Hill and Wang, where he supported emerging young gay playwrights such as Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen and Joe Orton. By 1980, Hoffman’s writing had expanded into the world of opera. That year, he and composer John Corigliano received a commission — the first by the Metropolitan Opera in more than thirty years — to write The Ghosts of Versailles. The opera, commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Met, in 1983, did not have its world premiere there until 1991. In the meantime, Hoffman kept writing.

In 1985, his off-Broadway play As Is, one of the first mainstream dramas about the lives of gay men during the AIDS crisis, was so successful that it transferred to Broadway. For As Is, he received Obie and Drama Desk awards, as well as Tony and Pulitzer nominations. Since then, he’s spent time as a professor of theater at CUNY’s Lehman College and as an Emmy-nominated writer on ABC’s One Life To Live and has collaborated on a number of operas, including Morning Star and Cows of Apollo, or The Invention of Music, the latter (on view at Aspen Music Festival this summer) with composer Chris Theofanidis. 

The business of writing a libretto usually involves finding a piece of preexisting material (in the case of Morning Star, it’s the 1940 Broadway play of the same name by Sylvia Regan), then adapting it into a brand-new opera or musical. The librettist is responsible not only for restructuring and reshaping the story but for creating new dialogue and lyrics and adding or eliminating scenes and characters. During a process that often stretches out for years, many things can go wrong. You realize you dislike the material. You hate your collaborator. The story doesn’t “sing.” Backers die. You fight over song placement. Theaters cancel shows. Hoffman knew these things when he began writing librettos.

Morning Star, play and opera, revolves around a Jewish widow and her extended family, all of whom live on New York City’s Lower East Side from 1910 to 1931. Much in the vein of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! or Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, the story is about working-class people whose lives play out against a backdrop of life-changing events, including World War I and the Great Depression. 

Chief among the incidents moving the story forward is the horrifying 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 workers died after having been locked in a sweatshop on a high upper floor of a New York City factory. Many of the dead were young immigrants, teenage girls from Russia, Eastern Europe and Italy. This national tragedy was, in a startling way, the impetus for turning Morning Star into an opera.

Ricky Ian Gordon had a busy 2014, with two major world premieres — A Coffin in Egypt, at Houston Grand Opera, and “27, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. But Morning Star has been in development for a long time. In the late 1990s, Lyric Opera of Chicago wanted to commission Gordon to write a piece about his family. A close friend, who’d recently seen the Steppenwolf Theater’s revival of Sylvia Regan’s play, suggested that Gordon write an operatic version of it. While reading the play, Gordon found himself responding deeply to certain elements in the story — a large family of Jewish immigrants, a boy with three sisters, New York City, the terrible tragedy of the factory fire. As it happened, his grandmother worked at the Triangle sweatshop; she did not perish in the fire, because she was home sick that day.

Gordon called Hoffman, whose work he admired, to see if he’d be interested in writing the libretto for Morning Star. “There are very few people who write operas. It’s a specific task. I wanted Bill. Bill resisted — he wanted to do an adaptation of God of Vengeance,a popular piece from the Yiddish Theater,” says Gordon. 

Hoffman, a lover of Gordon’s music, eventually relented. He had also come from Jewish immigrants, Yiddish-speakers who had started over in New York. Asked if he wanted to honor his relatives with Morning Star, he replies, “Yes. It’s in the libretto. The words. It’s connected to the Yiddish music, the language.”

Hoffman acknowledges that he returns to certain themes time and again. “Grief and tragedy,” he says quietly. “The inevitability of death and suffering. It’s a grand operatic theme. Ghosts of Versailles is a tragedy — so is Cows of Apollo.”

Hoffman says Morning Star is now his favorite composition of Gordon’s. “We loved working together. We’re never at a loss with Ricky around. This score is radically different — not like anything he’s ever written. People will be shocked.” Gordon feels Morning Star’s music is “different” because his mother inspired it. “She was a singer and taught me many classic songs by early-twentieth-century composers — Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, music-hall songs such as ‘After the Ball’ and ‘What’ll I Do?’” Yiddish songs also informed the score. “It was as if I were a composer who came from Russia or Poland, writing about an American immigrant experience.”

According to Hoffman, working on the original draft of the libretto was easy. When any libretto is first finished, he says, “You think you’ve composed the perfect opera with the perfect libretto.” There were readings and workshops held at Lyric Opera, where, he says, “Everyone loved it, and God was protecting us.” Morning Star’sofficial Lyric premiere was to have been directed by Robert Falls, as part of a Goodman Theatre/LOC collaboration. Following a workshop performance in June 2002, the project was canceled for financial reasons. “Something went awry between the theaters,” Gordon says, “and the casualty was Morning Star.” Other opera companies did readings, but the project kept stalling out.

With all operas and musicals, this developmental stage of a new work can feel endless and enervating. Hoffman recalls joking with Gordon when they started to write Morning Star that “working on my operas might kill you” and about “how it had taken eleven years for the premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles to happen.”

In the end, Morning Star took longer. Living through this ongoing process with the material was challenging. “Morning Star,” Hoffman says, “drove me up a wall. We kept changing things so radically. It really threw me for a loop. But I accepted it and went on.” He sighs loudly. “It is a different libretto from when we started. Which is a good thing.” When asked if he enjoyed himself during the extended work period, he laughs: “In retrospect.” When asked about the changes, Gordon says, “Instead of being a direct adaptation of the play, the first draft was more a meditation or fantasia. The play had a strong skeleton. We needed a third party — to help us adhere to that.”

During this period, Hoffman turned his focus to other projects, taught writing and produced a series of TV interviews with theater artists for the CUNY system. Then, in 2011, that “third party” appeared to help rescue Morning Star. Robin Guarino, a friend of Gordon’s and the co-artistic director of Opera Fusion: New Works (a collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music), offered Gordon a residency for a new opera. Gordon suggested a piece that “had been sitting on my desk for ten years.” Morning Star was, at that point, “an orphan,” says Marcus Küchle, co-artistic director of Opera Fusion. Opera Fusion did a residency workshop of the show in 2012 with director Ron Daniels, along with two public performances. “The relevance of the story really struck us,” says Küchle. “We decided to invest in a second workshop with Ron Daniels. What Ron offered was a stage director’s point of view. That’s how the workshop succeeded.” The second workshop succeeded so well that Morning Star, which a year earlier had seemed to Küchle “almost lost,” was put on Cincinnati Opera’s schedule for the 2015 season. The long-awaited opening night of Hoffman’s “new” opera — reworked libretto and all — was finally in sight.

Gordon feels that despite all the delays, Hoffman’s work on Morning Star is some of his best. “Bill trusted Ron Daniels. Ron had a way of exciting you. A new language has come out of this that is stunning — fresh,” he says. “By breaking down structure and format, Bill was liberated. It allowed him to imagine new things. I often had no idea what he was going to write. Bill has a tilted way of looking at the world. He comes at it sideways. That’s what this opera needed.” spacer 

MARTIN CASELLA is the librettist of Paper Moon, Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll, Play It Cool, Happy Holidays, DOO-DAH!, Saint Heaven and Mary Modern. He also wrote the award-winning plays The Irish Curse, Scituate and Directions for Restoring the Apparently Dead 

 

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