How did you get involved with commissioning a new opera?
PATRICK SUMMERS: I've been involved with Dead Man Walking since its commission, so my work with Jake has been ongoing for the last three years at least. I was present when he got the idea for the first themes of the score and when he played the first act through for the first time for anyone. It's been a very, very rewarding part of my process with this, which I've had with a number of new works. We work in a music field that is largely re-creative, and for me, that re-creative process is totally enhanced and changed by being involved in the creation of something. So I imagine and I hope that in the next 25 years of my career that the balance of what we do in classical music and in opera is going to shift toward creation, and not entirely, but if a larger percentage of our time was spent creating new works, the old works that we all love and that brought us all to this field would probably not come around so often. They in themselves would be events when they did come around, which is what they should be. If an audience and performers have worked on Boheme or Traviata once per decade instead of five times per year, you approach it differently. You approach that as an event.
What's your secret for collaborating with composers? How do you give feedback?
Sometimes you play devil's advocate a little bit. Is this what you want, are you sure this tempo is right for Susan Graham? It is through that dialogue that you discover a lot about a composer but they also learn a lot about their own music through that feedback. What does and doesn't work. Very often it's a linguistic problem. They've chosen a certain way of writing something down that isn't exactly what they want. It's the same of a writer of a novel. They're trying to get at a certain point but the choice of text or the certain direction isn't quite what they had in mind. So you talk about it with them and you give them some feedback and maybe they choose another direction or another way of saying the same thing that's more direct. And that's something that an outsider can do, a conductor and not someone who's created the piece. They can almost never look at it in that way. I suppose the analogy would be the editor to the writer.
Why an opera for Dead Man Walking? What does an opera do for a subject that other mediums can't?
One of the ways that Jake has brought the emotional issues into the music is through the use of ensembles. It's one of the things that opera and the stage can do, musical works can do, that a play cannot, in that you have many people speaking at the same time, all making different emotional points. And actually near the end of the first act of Dead Man Walking, Jake has brought all of the characters from the first act together in Sister Helen's mind, and they're all singing their particular themes. We hear them all at once. Eight or nine different themes going on at once, to signify the journey of Sister Helen and what she's going through and hearing all of these voices, as you do. You hear this person said this to you and it had a particular impact and you just keep repeating it. And that is what music can say that no other medium can say. A lot has been made of the fact that this was a film. Dead Man Walking was a film and a great film; this is a different experience. This is not a documentary on Sister Helen or on prison life or on the death penalty. This is a particular emotional statement on these people, told through music. We didn't put the film to music. There's no need to do that. This is a different experience. As was A Streetcar Named Desire. It is no coincidence that films are suddenly becoming the cultural reference for the arts in the United States. After a hundred years, the world is very serious about film now. Film's not a secondary medium anymore. It's one of the fine arts.
Why did you decide to take a chance with Jake Heggie, who had never scored an opera before?
Sometimes you like the very complex modern scores and you like 18th-century operas and Concerto Grossi of Handel and other times you find a modern composer that has a very unique, simple, direct voice. And that's what I found with Jake. I always admire composers who write honestly and are vehemently who they are, whether that is 12-tone complexity that requires 10 hearings to get it or whether that's Rogers and Hammerstein. Whoever it is, write from the heart. Don't write for someone else's expectations. And what I admire most about Jake, I always have, always will, is that he cannot write other than as himself. And that it's direct and honest makes it an incredible emotional impact on first hearing. It is tuneful. It's intellectual. It's the coming together of a lot of elements in modern music and that's what I admired and still admire about Jake. And I thought his songs at the piano, which is what he was very well-known for writing, were very operatic and very orchestral to my ear and I thought he should perhaps pursue the writing of an opera. We didn't know at that time that it was going to be one of the major world premieres of this new century.