Chilly Scenes of Winter

One of the most anticipated events of the current season is Florida Grand Opera's upcoming world premiere of Anna Karenina. ARLO McKINNON talks to Anna composer David Carlson, who collaborated with Colin Graham on this opera adaptation of Tolstoy's novel.

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Costume designs by Robert Perdziola for Anna Karenina at Florida Grand Opera
© Robert Perdziola/Florida Grand Opera 2007
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© Robert Perdziola/Florida Grand Opera 2007
David Carlson
The composer photographed at
home in San Francisco by Terrence
McCarthy

© Terrence McCarthy 2007
David Carlson came to major attention in 1996, with the world premiere of Dreamkeepers at Utah Opera. His newest opera - and his most ambitious to date - is Anna Karenina, which has its world premiere in April at Florida Grand Opera in Miami and will be reprised this summer at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. In all of Carlson's operas, one hears influences of the late works of Richard Strauss, yet Carlson's sound is tinged with a harmonic and melodic openness more characteristic of the American symphonists. Form is never an end in itself for this composer, as it sometimes can be in the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and especially Hindemith. In his first opera, The Midnight Angel (1993), for instance, Carlson begins a waltz but moves in other directions after merely implying the waltz. And just as he is not afraid to apply the techniques and colors of the avant-garde, he is perfectly at home with the grandly tonal gesture.

Carlson's Anna Karenina librettist, OTSL artistic director Colin Graham, has a long history with the subject. Originally, he prepared the outline of a libretto for Benjamin Britten, a few years before the composer's death. It was to be given its premiere at the Bolshoi Opera, but Britten withdrew from the project because of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Then, in the early 1980s, Graham directed British composer Iain Hamilton's Anna Karenina. These two collaborations helped Graham to refine his ideas about how best to present an operatic treatment of what many regard as Tolstoy's greatest novel.

OPERA NEWS: What motivated you to take on Anna Karenina as an opera topic?

DAVID CARLSON:
Well, it was in 1993. The Midnight Angel was being done at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Colin Graham had liked the music very much. He came up to me after the dress rehearsal and said that he was thinking of doing an Anna Karenina. He had some sketches of a libretto, just sort of a treatment, he wanted me to look at. Immediately I said, "Yes, of course - I mean, how wonderful!" Then, in about 2001, Florida Grand Opera was going to commission an opera for their new house and knew of this potential collaboration, and they signed us on. That's how that happened. It sort of chose me.

ON:
How long a process was it to compose this work?

DC:
Well, I thought about the music for many years, from 1993 until I was commissioned to write the opera. I always had it in the back of my mind, and I kept a few little sketches. When I found out it was going to be time to compose it, I really thought about it again for another year. That's when I went to Russia and just tried to imagine what is this music, what will it be? So, it ended up being just like the other two operas. I wrote the music [in my own voice] and then tinted it with Russian colors and melodic arches, melodic constructions and of course the nineteenth-century orchestra. For this story, it just seemed like I needed to go to nineteenth-century colors.

ON:
I was very curious to see how the libretto could be condensed from the novel, and I think Colin Graham did a very good job of leaving out the things that are really non-operatic, such as Levin's relationship with his workers.

DC:
Absolutely. You know, I've had people come to me saying things like, well, "Do you have Russian farm scenes?" and "Do you have an ice-skating scene?" and all these things that just aren't really essential to the plot. It's all the philosophizing about farming, really. So Colin got rid of that and got it down to the emotional. It's very emotional.

ON:
And I recognize specific lines from Tolstoy.

DC:
Yes. He did use actual lines, which, of course, gives it even more - I shouldn't say gravitas, but truth. Truth. It's just wonderful. And some of those lines set themselves to music rather well, because, although it's in English, the words are still poetic. Isn't the novel incredible?

ON:
It is indeed. One of the things I liked best about it was the fact that Tolstoy himself does not seem to take sides with the characters.

DC:
That's it! That's exactly what we were after. It's all presented from each character's point of view. And in the novel, do you remember the hunting scene where even the dog has a viewpoint? That took me aback when I first read it. I thought it was brilliant.

ON:
Let's talk a little about the music. I like the bleak, dismal sound of Karenin's music and the dreamy quality in Anna's music.

DC:
Yes, you got it right. And of course, the orchestration takes it a step further. With one exception, I have used a nineteenth-century orchestra, obviously on purpose. The one instrument that is not is the vibraphone, which occurs in her dream, where she keeps hearing the tapping coming back, that sound of tapping? She has seen the railway worker after that first scene where the guy's run over, and the vibraphone adds a dreamy tapping sound to it. But other than that, it's entirely something Tchaikovsky could have used. And that's just to help capture the sound world that I was after.

I went to Russia and stayed there for quite a while and wrote down how the bells sounded at the Kazan Cathedral, which is right near the train station. So that comes back at the end of the opera just before she's jumping, when she's going nutty and hearing all of the bells. It's a very specific kind of rhythm. And I've used Orthodox chant - not sung, but in the orchestra.

Are you familiar with the Tsar's Hymn? I've written my own little variation of it, and Tchaikovsky used it in the 1812 Overture. What I was trying to do was use that motif, the same way Tchaikovsky did in his Fourth Symphony - you know, the fate motif? Well, the way he used it, it comes back at what I consider pivotal points in a dramatic story that he's telling in music, in absolute music. It comes back in variation. So I used that idea. For me, it means fate, just as it did for Tchaikovsky.

ON:
In both Dreamkeepers and Midnight Angel, there is a touch of the magical world. I was wondering if your switch to a more verismo approach here was a product of the circumstance you found yourself in or a conscious choice, that you wanted to move specifically there.

DC:
Well, I sort of found myself there with the story when it all came together. But I didn't change my musical style. I mean, I was able to make magic out of emotions, I think. For example, when Anna has just told her husband of her affair with Vronsky, that fate motif, the Tsar's Hymn, comes back. But it's very high and tinkling and celestial. It's magical. For me, the way she must have felt at that moment was an ethereal lightness and having the weight of the world taken off her shoulders - an admission of guilt. So I used magical sounds to try to depict that.

ON:
Later on in the opera you use a technique from indeterminacy, what when I was in school we called "Berio boxes." [A technique in which the performer, rather than performing a set musical passage, is required to choose one of a number of musical possibilities from a box appearing on the page, this method first appeared in Luciano Berio's masterwork Circles.]

DC:
Aleatoric music. We called them Berio boxes, too. I used that to depict the laudanum. A little haze there! And they come back towards the end, the very end. You wouldn't know from the vocal score, but there are twenty music boxes wound up and playing at the same time. [You could say that this is], say, a morphia-induced touch. In the novel it's very obvious she's addicted to morphia. And Tolstoy just simply mentions it in passing - "She took her usual dose of laudanum or morphia and went to sleep." But actually she had taken quite a bit, a double dose before she goes to the train station the final time. So really, I believe, not to make too much of a point of it, but this is a component of her insanity, and it colors the music.

Tolstoy was so subtle in his mentioning of the morphia, you know? It was just here and there, but, as we all know, it was a problem in upper society in the late-nineteenth century. And I think he put it in there incredibly subtly, just because that's how he does things. It's just so delicately stated that you have to find it, you have to notice it. And I've never seen it portrayed in any of the treatments, ever.

ON:
Is there a character in Anna Karenina with whom you personally might identify?

DC:
Sadly, Anna herself. [Laughs.] I've battled depression most of my life. And my sister committed suicide, so I actually had an inside line on how Anna was feeling, if that makes any sense. I mean, I'm O.K., but I have an affinity for Anna. I really do.

ARLO MCKINNON is a composer, music consultant and music-preparation specialist.

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