New York-based Composer Daron Hagen and Connecticut-based Librettist J.D. McClatchy had never worked together before writing the opera “Little Nemo in Slumberland” as a commission for Sarasota Youth Opera.
The piece is an adaptation of a comic strip created by Winsor McCay that ran from 1905 to 1913 in the New York Herald and New York American. Nemo is a boy who has adventures in his dreams. He must rescue Slumberland from an evil emperor.
It’s the fifth commission in Sarasota Opera’s history. A hundred children ages 8 to 17 that will perform in it. McClatchy and Hagen will get to directly convey their ideas with the performers; an advantage the living duo have over productions written by old dead men.
The children have been rehearsing since June at Youth Opera Camp, and seriously since August with weekly rehearsals, and individual coaching.
Hagen has two children of his own, and took his eldest to his first opera recently. Connecticut-based librettist J.D. McClatchy teaches at Yale, but has a home on Palm Coast. He says he doesn’t particularly like children.
I sat down with the duo to discuss the writing process.
What comes first? The words or the music?
McClatchy: The words come first in almost all musical collaborations because the composer needs to know what note is going to hit on what stress, the sequence of things, and changes during the first composition ... They have a big role in shaping the music because of the way the words make a story and characters and so-fourth but opera is finally a musical experience and it’s the music that finally makes the drama, so the words are just kind of a setting for the music.
Have you ever taken a look at the words and said, “I don’t like this, will you redo it?”
Hagen: Well, this has been a very liberating project for me because this is the first time I didn’t co-write the treatment with my librettist and actually tell them how many lines I wanted and what was going to happen in each stanza. So this was a received libretto, I’ve written eight operas that were done in a completely different fashion. So, in that case, yes the words came first, but it was a collaboration to decide how many and what — which is not necessarily better, but it’s a different way to do things.
Did that give you more independence with the words that you wrote than typical?
McClatchy: No, I didn’t know he was going to complain, you know. I did it all ahead of time, but it was a great relief not to have a phone ring.
Hagen: I didn’t know I was going to complain either. I would assume that I would want oodles of changes, but I read it and I was so thrilled with it that it was a real testament to Sandy’s consonant professionalism that I was fine with it.
McClatchy: He’s spoiled me because it hasn’t happened before or since. Usually it happens a lot (that) there are complaining composers
How did the story of the comic strip inspire this work?
McClatchy: Well, the very format of it: the little boy goes to sleep in the beginning, the little boy wakes up at the end of the page is a sort of Act I and Act II format – It has a natural break….I think the material gave one a lot (of inspiration), because it is all dreams, this is not a setting or doing something like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” this is all naturalistic and this was all surreal and crazy. So it allowed one to play around with fantasy, and therefore with morality of a boy learning various lessons about his life and relationships while having extraordinary adventures.
The thing that appealed to me was there’s a long tradition of these magic operas that have been going on since the 18th century. And it seemed to me that at the heart of that, what interests children, was long adventures is perspective changing — maybe because they’re tiny and the rest of the world is tall. But things suddenly growing and diminishing events like you run through a mouse hole and suddenly you are a giant, so there was opportunity for the theatrical presentation. Why don’t we make this magical?
Hagen: This was a great opportunity for me to let go of stagecraft while writing because ordinarily when I’m composing, I’m thinking it’s going to take 30 seconds for so-and-so to move across the stage. In this libretto, when I received it, sandy called for beds to expand and cannons to go off and I just decided, I’m just going to transfer that into the vocal score, I’m not going to ask any questions. I’m just going to let the experts do what they are going to do and it was quite liberating.
Have you worked with creating something for children before?
Hagen: I’ve written things that have used children, but it’s a very difficult technical challenge to write complex, serious concert music for children. It has to be tuneful and memorable and it has to not be too technically hard to sing. And it is very, very difficult. I found it challenging.
It’s not typical that performers get to work with librettists and composers ...
Hagen: We’re usually dead ...
Right, so can you touch on how unique this opportunity is for this children and why it might be a special opportunity for them
Hagen: … I think that the children I have spoken to are very excited about this, because in today’s culture in the United states most children think that whoever is singing the song, wrote the song. And in many cases they are right, but to see a composer come to town that writes operas makes hat a possibility that there could be that kind of creature amongst us.
McClatchy: That’s what makes the Sarasota opera program so valuable and really unique throughout the country. To involve a whole community of kids, and get so many young people involved in a world they would never ordinarily experience — and many of whom will come to love opera — but to give them a chance to perform together, to be on stage and to know first hand how difficult it is, and how enjoyable it is at the same time — I think it’s a great program that Sarasota has set up and I can’t think of anything like it.
If You Go:
"Little Nemo in Slumberland"
When:5:30 Saturday, Nov. 10 and 12:30 Sunday, Nov. 11.
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple
Cost: $15 to $30