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Scarlet Fever

LORI LAITMAN'S opera The Scarlet Letter has traveled a long road to its professional premiere at OPERA COLORADO this month—but the composer never stopped believing it would happen.
by Matthew Sigman. 

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Set design by Erhard Rom for The Scarlet Letter at Opera Colorado
Courtesy Opera Colorado
“When I went to school, you weren’t allowed to write a melody.”
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Scarlet Letter costume designs by Terese Wadden
Courtesy Opera Colorado

WHEN LORI LAITMAN entered Yale at the age of sixteen, the ratio of men to women was five to one. The chauvinism she encountered, however, was less male than musical. “It wasn’t that I was a woman,” says Laitman, now sixty-one. “It was that when I went to school you weren’t allowed to write a melody. When they said, ‘Ah, she writes beautiful music,’ it wasn’t a compliment.”

The era of dry, cognitive dominance in composition has passed, but Laitman, the precocious, defiant student, has long since established herself as a distinguished composer of lyrical art songs. She now brings her melodic style to the stage with The Scarlet Letter, which will have its professional premiere at Opera Colorado in May, led by conductor Ari Pelto, with Laura Claycomb as Hester Prynne. Based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne classic, the work was originally commissioned by the University of Central Arkansas and presented there in 2008. 

Laitman credits Robert Holden, professor of voice and opera at UCA, for initiating the project, but the commission came with a catch: funding and scheduling required that she select a subject in a matter of days. “I ran to Barnes & Noble and picked out classics I knew I liked,” she says. In The Scarlet Letter, she immediately saw the musical possibilities in Hester Prynne, a female protagonist who survives puritan ostracism (in this case for adultery, not tonality), and the husband and lover who vie to control her.

The Scarlet Letter is not Laitman’s only foray into opera. In 2014, the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech gave the premiere of The Three Feathers, with a libretto by Dana Gioia. Her librettist for The Scarlet Letter is David Mason, former poet laureate of Colorado.

Born into a family with a passion for music, Laitman’s initial aspiration was to be an orchestral flutist, but at Yale she found herself drawn to composers. “It was peer pressure,” she says. (Among her composer friends was Bruce Rosenblum, her husband of forty years.) Her initial compositional forays were in film and theater, which came naturally. When, later in her career, she began writing for the voice, she found the biggest challenge was confidence. Writing for opera, she says, has been far less of a hurdle. “Characters make it easier,” she says. “I can write the vocal line and then shade the subtext with harmony.”

Bright-eyed and fair, Laitman arrives for an interview at the National Opera Center full of kinetic energy. The Scarlet Letter score she props on the piano sprouts a bouquet of Post-it notes, some to herself, others to her collaborators, and still others to the journalist with whom she has agreed to share excerpts. Alternating between the piano and sound files on her MacBook, she eagerly reveals the musical values to which she has set the story: roiling arpeggios evoke the churning sea; harsh chords hammer out the intolerance of the Boston elders; a plaintive motif represents Hester, and there are percussive, sinister sounds for her villainous husband, Chillingworth, and her cowardly lover, Dimmesdale.  

The town itself is also a character, a Greek chorus commenting on the story. “Hester’s strength at the end has transformed the community,” Laitman says. “The opera ends in a question mark—how will things be in the future? Hester, never revealing the father of her child, is a pillar of strength.”

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Librettist Mason and composer Laitman
Courtesy Lori Laitman

That Laitman might be attracted to a strong woman who defies convention and devotes her life to motherhood comes as no surprise. Laitman has defied the traditional conventions of a life in opera. During her twenties, when most composers devote their primary attention to hustling for performances, Laitman devoted her life to raising three children in suburban Washington, D.C. It was, she says, a conscientious plan: children before career, carpools before commissions.

The Opera Colorado production will be directed by Beth Greenberg, who served as resident stage director at New York City Opera and is now on the opera faculty of the University of Arizona at Tucson. What attracted Greenberg to The Scarlet Letter score was Laitman’s “extraordinary way of telling the story through character and voice. There is no separation between music and text.” Greenberg notes that lyricism and chromaticism are not mutually exclusive, and that Laitman has availed herself of the full palette to reveal “the sense of truth of the character in a situation.” 

In visualizing the story, Greenberg also blends tradition with modernity. Towering walls of American pine will alternately open up and compress the action. Though the story is set in the Puritan times of seventeenth-century Boston, Greenberg says audiences should not expect a “Thanksgiving tableau.”

And then there is the matter of what Laitman calls the “disappointment,” Greenberg calls the “bonus,” and Opera Colorado’s general director, Greg Carpenter, calls the “restructuring.” The commitment to presenting the work in Denver was made in May 2011 for a May 2013 premiere, but when several large gifts failed to materialize in 2012, the company was forced to drop TheScarlet Letter from that season. “We had to look at what we needed to do to get through that fiscal year,” Carpenter says. “The phone calls were not easy.”

“Postponement” is often a euphemism for death, but Carpenter says the company never wavered in its commitment to the work. “Initially there was skepticism whether we could truly put it back on the artistic track. We could not make a commitment to any specific dates, but we said the 2015–16 season. A huge fundraising campaign got us through 2013, and we were able to start plotting the future.” 

Laitman was understandably disappointed at the time, but she was confident in Carpenter’s commitment, and she used the time to her advantage. “They had to do what they had to do to keep the company in place. I think the piece is stronger as a result,” she says, “since I spent an entire year reorchestrating. It was a blessing in disguise.” spacer 

Matthew Sigman is editor of Opera America magazine and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 

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