Dear Mr. Pickett,
I got to see the San Francisco Opera’s production of your new show, Delores Claiborne, last night. I bet lots of people have offered you their thoughts; here are mine.
First of all, I think you were entirely correct in thinking that Stephen King’s novel would make a good opera, and for all the reasons you talked about in the program. The characters had issues, big issues, and the ways they chose to work through those issues are no more ridiculous than Rigoletto or Lucia or Tosca.
My personal taste for opera is that it must be theatre first, to which the old argument about words and music must defer. I’d like to talk about all three, if you don’t mind, starting with your music.
It seemed to me that in the preshow lecture, when you were asked about Michael Daugherty‘s comments about your student work back at Julliard, you were a touch defensive about being influenced by Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen. I’m sure if they had been my teachers, I would have gone all 12-tone and atonal as well; after all, one has to make good grades, and all that midcentury nonsense was the fashion of the time.
However, I think you still resist your natural affinity for tonality, and to the detriment of your opera. To really break our hearts, you have to engage our emotions, and my experience has been that you can’t do that if you’re challenging our heads. I followed your patterns last night, but sometimes that just devolves into bean-counting, you know?
Some of your atonal work last night was effective and appropriate, but more often your better work was lyrical: “Six pins not four” and “Accidents can be a woman’s best friend,” for example. (Was that a Siegfried joke in Vera’s aria? If so, it was delicious.)
In general I disapprove of the modern fashion of writing vocal lines consisting of nothing but whole notes. It must be easier to sing, but it makes hash of the language and therefore of the character’s motivation. How many times did you have a character singing a preposition on a longer note than its object? It was silly. It also makes your work sound academic, and that is not a compliment.
Another aspect of the long note vocal lines may sound ridiculous to you, but if you picked up the pace of what your characters are saying, then you can pack a lot more in. The show was only two and a half hours long, and as I’ll discuss in a moment, it could have been longer, but you could have given us a lot more in that two and a half.
So let’s talk about the words. Sandy McClatchy had some effective work as well—I really liked the line “There should not be stars” in Selena’s aria during the eclipse—but on the whole I found the lyrics shallow and not up to the task of portraying the complex inner lives and motives of the characters.
I realize that audiences have a hard time accepting in English the kinds of over-the-top lyrics they regularly enjoy in Italian. But it is still possible to give us the fire and ice of a Tosca in words that make us thrill to the metaphors and poetry. Sandy’s libretto mostly failed at that.
Finally, let’s talk about the theatre.
I didn’t see a dramaturg listed in your creative team. You need one.
Let’s start with the biggest problem, the ending. We’ve been promised a “shocking revelation” from Vera on the night she died, but I’m here to tell you that there was no one in that audience who thought she actually had children. Her confessing to that lie was not shocking, it was sad. That one flaw completely deflated the denouement.
Nor are we given a reasonable explanation of why Delores harps on how much she hated Vera when we’ve just seen her behaving in a tender, if resigned, manner to the old woman. We were anticipating a big reveal in that scene which would have triggered some kind of anger/hatred in Delores. We didn’t get it.
So here’s your alternate ending, free of charge:
- Vera starts with her “I lied” lyrics, confesses that she had no children. Delores is not surprised. Just as Andy says that the whole island knew that Delores killed Joe, everyone knew that Vera invented adoring offspring. Not a shocker.
- Vera repeats, “I lied,” and we assume that she’s going to keep on about the kids, but no, she confesses that she never killed her husband, she just told Delores that to goad Delores into killing Joe. If you want to get really tawdry, Vera can have had an affair with Joe and needed to get rid of him. (Why does she keep seeing her husband in the corner? She’s delusional—it’s all ambiguous.)
- Either way, Delores now realizes that she might have had other options to rescue Selena and herself. Acrimony ensues. Vera’s confusion mounts. She flees to the stairs. Delores does not push her. She falls.
- She begs Delores for deliverance, but Delores taunts her: she wants Vera to suffer. Vera dies. Delores breaks down, cradles Vera’s body, sings a tortured farewell.
Screw Stephen King. Go with this version.
I will say that we were shocked that Delores’s final aria was so short. This should have been her “Mama Rose” moment. The current lyrics are an acceptable coda, but the body of the aria should have been a showstopper.
If you shortened your vocal lines and/or added 30 tight minutes to the show, you could show us more of the relationship between Vera and Delores, adding some truth to Selena’s complaint that her mother didn’t help as much as she thought she did. You could show us more of Delores and Selena’s inner lives.
By the way, were you aware that Selena was a name for the Roman moon goddess? There’s some metaphor in there. Poetry. Mythos.
This has been rather long and perhaps a little harsh. Let’s end with the good stuff.
The cast was very very good, weren’t they? I’m writing this on the road and don’t have my program with me, so forgive my failure to remember their names. You were fortunate to have such wonderful singers for whom to write, and their commitment to your music was obvious.
The staging was brilliant, beautiful, and impressive. I’ve never seen projections used so beautifully.
Act 2 was theatrically sound; your music was much more powerful and propelled the action much more effectively, up to the point where Vera failed at shocking us. But even then, that was the script’s fault, not yours.
And finally, at the end of the show, I found myself wanting more of Delores. Part of that was the failure of the scenario to dig deeper, but largely it was due to your ability to create interesting characters who engaged the audience. (I haven’t talked about Joe: great character, great actor/singer. Kudos all round.)
If you were preparing this show for Broadway, you’d find that you as the composer had a little more power over how it looked, but even moreso, you’d also have the support of a more powerful director and a dramaturg, and when audience surveys showed that the ending was flat, you could avail yourself of a show doctor to advise you. It is very unfortunate for Delores Claiborne that the world of opera does not afford you that power.