Richard, Barbara, and I saw this at the Met on 11/21. I have to preface it by telling you the story of the first time I saw this opera, at the Met in 1994, on my first visit to New York. THAT story takes place in the context of the story of the first opera I wrote, *Ladies’ Voices*.
WRITING THE OPERA
*Ladies’ Voices* premiered 20 years ago, on 11/19/94. In some ways, this was the piece that really got me going as the composer.
I’d always written a little bit a music, going back to writing the music for a Phoenix Middle School production of *Alice in Wonderland* (in which I also played the Mad Hatter). I wrote some sacred songs when I was in college, to perform in my hometown church, but that didn’t seem like that big a deal. I took a composition class in college, mostly just for fun.
The real turning point was in the summer of 1993, when my ex-boyfriend Alan asked me to write music for his production of *Woyzeck* at University Theatre. He needed tunes for the folkish songs that are in the play and also wanted some incidental music to be played by a violinist. I said I wasn’t really a composer, he should ask someone else. He gave me a copy of the script and said for me to take a look at it, see what I thought. Well, within a week I had written music for all eight of the songs and had lots of ideas for the incidental music. I thought, “Hm, maybe I really AM a composer.” The play was a huge success, and my music was just the thing for it.
I ran into Mimmi Fulmer at the Farmer’s Market one Saturday in July 1994. She’s one of the voice teachers at the School of Music, and had always been so supportive of me - - in some cases, even more supportive than my own teacher, the indomitable Miss Fisher. There was many a voice jury when I’d be on stage singing a Brahms song (Miss Fisher was big on Brahms, I’d rather have done Berg) and I’d look at Miss Fisher, who would be looking at her feet and shaking her head. Ilona Kombrink would look at her manicure. David Hottman would look kind in a rather abstract way. But Mimmi, God bless her, always looked right at me, and looked delighted to hear me sing. I learned to look at her, and ONLY at her, when I did my juries. Anyway, I ran into her at Farmer’s Market in July of 1994, and she said:
MIMMI: Chris, you know a lot about opera.
ME: Yes, I do.
MIMMI: We have almost nothing but women in Opera Workshop this coming semester, and we want to do a short opera with nothing but women in it. Do you know of one?
ME: I don’t. I think I should write one!
Her eyes widened, but she encouraged me and said for me to talk with my mentor, Karlos Moser, the Director of University Opera.
I called him up and he was delighted. He knew I was a Gertrude Stein fan, and told me to take a look at a short story called “Miss Furr and Miss Skene”. I had it in my *Collected Writings of Gertrude Stein*, which was a hand-me-down from John Merchant (I think giving me that book was the one generous thing he ever did for me, the wiener). I don’t think I even got past page three of that story - - it wasn’t at all interesting, and I have no IDEA what Karlos was thinking when he thought it would make a good opera. I paged through the book and came upon a two-page play called *Ladies’Voices*. It’s so short, it’s the front and back of a page. I loved it! And the title is perfect for an all-female opera. I brought it in to Karlos, and he was enthusiastic.
The interesting thing about the play is that it’s not arranged like your typical play script, because there are no characters. The dialogue is clearly dialogue, and it’s broken into a conversational pattern, but the “lines” aren’t attributed to specific characters. So my first task was to determine who the characters were and what they would sing. That was easy. Then I started writing the voice parts, just the vocal lines. I showed that to Karlos, and he encouraged me to continue. Next I wrote the harmonies under the voices, and then the instrumentation (I had decided on violin, clarinet, and piano). I wrote some music for a three-part women’s chorus, and an interlude for the clarinet and piano before the coloratura’s aria. I was especially happy with the finale, which involved everyone but the coloratura, who, like many coloraturas, had died. When it was all done I decided it needed an overture - - since the opera is relentlessly tonal, I decided on an atonal overture for the three instruments, with fiercely dotted rhythm, like a Baroque French overture. The last moments of the overture has the piano playing a big rippling lush chord, capped off by the female chorus singing an “oo”. I played it for Karlos.
ME: I’m a little concerned about that. It sounds like a cliché.
KARLOS: Christopher, there’s a reason it’s a cliché. It’s because it works.
And that was that. I had finished it. I think it took me about a month, maybe six weeks, from start to finish. I wasn’t concerned about its length, because it was supposed to be short, and I thought it would be about ten minutes long. It turned out to be eight minutes long, and I still don’t understand why I was so disappointed. I got over that, and ended up having a laugh about it - - the prelude to *Tristan und Isolde* is twelve minutes long, and the damn curtain hasn’t even gone up yet.
MY FIRST TRIP TO NEW YORK
I got my first real job in May of that year, at Telecommunications, home of the University Directory. I had been an operator there during my last years at college, and then was a sort of temp for a year and a half, and then was hired as a Program Assistant, a real State job, with good pay and benefits and everything. I had a six-month probation period, in which I couldn’t use any vacation, so I planned on a week off in November, right after I passed my probation. I decided to go to Boston to visit my Crazy Aunt Kathy and her family and take a weekend in New York in the middle, to visit Karen Miller, one of my best friends from college. I think it was Dan Sage who told me she lived in New York.
And wouldn’t you know that the week I chose was when my opera was being premiered! I was disappointed at first, because I had made all kinds of plans, bought my plane ticket and tickets for the Met (Shostakovich’s *Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk*), and couldn’t change my plans. But then I decided that I would, in true Chris Ryan fashion, turn my frown upside down - - it was GREAT that I wasn’t going to be in town, because it proved that I was a real composer. Everything I had written up to that point was more or less written for me, and I performed it. It was a new level, me writing a piece and not even having to be there when it was performed. And it seemed very jet setty - - “I can’t be at my own premiere, I’ll be in New Yawk that weekend, la dee da.”
I flew into Boston, spent a few days with Kathy and her fam, had a great time. Then I took a bus to New York, and it was the most extraordinary experience - - I stepped off the bus and was instantly bowled over by the energy of the city. It was tangible, it was overpowering, it was delicious (it was Times Square). By the end of that weekend I knew I wanted to live there one day.
I met Karen at the New York Public Library, where she was working at the time. We hadn’t seen each other in years, we had lost touch, and it was SO good to see her again. She’s since become one of my best friends in the world, and I don’t want to imagine my life without her. We went to her apartment (where she still lives, on 53rd and 9th) and I met her husband, Sean (he’s no longer in the picture). We had dinner at some Chinese place, and I was amazed that it wasn’t any more expensive from a Chinese restaurant in Madison. And it was good food. Then we went to the Met to see the Shostakovich, which was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. We went back to her place and I slept on the futon, where I would sleep many more times over the next six years. Her shower is, of course, sublime.
Sean took me on a walking tour of Manhattan the next day, and then I met up with Emily Gordon, a friend of a friend, and hung out with her. We talked on the phone before I left:
EMILY: If you’re coming to town for the first time, then we need to go out dancing in Greenwich Village.
ME: Then I need to take the A bus to West Towne and buy me some black lycra leggings at The Gap.
And I did indeed take the A bus (not knowing that a few years down the road I would be taking the A train) to West Towne and bought a pair of black lycra leggings. I wore them with a mustard mock turtleneck (this was 1994, after all) and I was the hottest guy at The Crow Bar that night.
At some point I had to use the bathroom, and got in line. After a while I became worried that I was in the line for the BACK room and not the BATH room. For those of you who aren’t familiar with a back room, it’s a place where gay men go to have anonymous sex with each other. Makes me think of a Dietrich song:
Just see what the boys in the back room order
And tell them I’m having the same
Just see what the boys in the back room order
And give them the poison they name
And when I die, don’t waste my money
On a coffin and my picture in a frame
Just see what the boys in the back room order
And tell them I sighed
And tell them I cried
And tell them I died of the same
Sends a shiver up your spine, doesn’t it? Anyway, back to The Crow Bar: the door to the back room was right next to the door to the bathroom, and the line was amorphous. I built up my nerve to ask the guy in front of me.
ME: Excuse me.
RANDOM GUY: Yes?
ME: Is this the line for the BATH room or for the BACK room?
RANDOM GUY: [with a slight smile] It’s the line for the BATH room.
ME: Thank you.
Whew. Of course I was curious about the back room, but I didn’t want to go in and look like a tourist.
Emily and I stayed out until 3 and got to bed at 4. I had never been out that late. And we slept until noon. I had never slept that late. I thought this was a New Yorker thing, but it turns out it was just an Emily thing. We grabbed some breakfast and went to a recital by Deborah Voigt and Warren Jones at Alice Tully Hall. This was her NY recital debut, and she’s since become a big star. She was amazing - - she sang Brahms, the Wesendonk Lieder, a Mascagni song cycle, and some Griffes songs. She sang “Dich teure Halle” as her last encore, and blew the roof off the joint.
Then Emily and her boyfriend and I (I don’t remember his name, and he’s no longer in the picture) met her dad for dinner at Saloon (which has since closed) and then went to see *Vanya at 42nd St* at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (where I had my Marlo Thomas sighting after I moved to NYC). GREAT movie. I called my parents from the restaurant - - my opera was done the night before, and I was eager to hear how it went. They said it went fine, and they were very proud.
I think it was my third meeting with Karlos, when I was writing the opera, when he said:
KARLOS: Christopher, I have some good news for you. I’m going to be able to pay you some money for this opera. I don’t know how much, or when, but from now on we can speak of this as a commission.
And he shook my hand in that slightly brusque (but completely lovable) manner of his. I was thrilled, and went home and said to my roommate Aska Kalina Jankowska:
ME: Good news! I’m going to be paid something for the opera I’m writing!
ASKA: How much?
ME: I don’t know, but I think it’ll be at least $50.
ASKA: Probably more like a THOUSAND!
Many of you have heard that story, and the two other Aska stories, countless times, but I had to include it. It turned out that I was paid $75, so I would have won on *The Price is Right*, and Aska would have failed miserably.
I didn’t know what to do with the money, and talked about it with my mom that night.
ME: It’s not a whole lot of money, but I want to buy something really special with it. I was thinking maybe a vest. [remember, this was 1994]
MY MOM: No, not a vest. What you should do is buy a ring and have it engraved with the name of the opera and the date of the premiere. And for the rest of your life, that’ll be a symbol of the first money you made as a composer.
Instant perfect idea, just add water and stir. Isn’t my mom the greatest? And that’s exactly what I did. I told my friends in Madison about this, and they all said:
MADISON FRIENDS: $75? There’s no way in the world you’ll be able to find a nice ring for $75, you’ll have to spend more than that.
OK, so I’d spend more than that, but still, the $75 would contribute to the ring, so I would conceptually be buying the ring with that money.
I saw Howard’s (and my) friend Christina Edland while I was in Boston, and asked her if she had any ideas of a place to buy a ring. She took me to some upscale mall that had lots of shops, and thought I might have luck there. Banana Republic had a small case with some little silver things, and they had a ring, in my size (9, for the record), for only $42! I was thrilled. I brought it up to the counter and the cashier had to go to the back room (no, not that back room) to get a big book full of UPC codes, since the ring didn’t have a UPC tag. He dug through the book for a while, found the code, blipped it into the register, and said:
CASHIER: Hm! I guess it’s on sale, it’s only $9.99.
I’m sure he actually blipped in the code for a key ring or something, but you’ve never seen me pay for something so fast in your life. I had the engraving done at Goodman’s Jewelers, next to the Orpheum Theater in Madison, and it only cost $10. I still have to spend the other $55. The inscription says:
LADIES’ VOICES 11-19-94
The neat thing is that the LADIES’ VOICES part is right next to the size of the ring, which is 9 - - there were nine women singing in the opera, the three leads and the six members of the chorus.
TWENTY YEARS LATER - - LADY M OF M AT THE MET
Richard and I saw it on Friday 11/21 with our friend Barbara. It was inevitable that it would be a bit of a let-down, right? It was still fantastic, it remains one of the greatest productions I’ve seen at the Met and one of the most powerful operas I’ve seen. That’s the great thing about this show, the opera itself is incredible, and the Met production is brilliant.
It’s not fair to compare this performance to the one I saw in 1994, but I will anyway. The 1994 had a few advantages - - I had never been to the Met and had no familiarity with the opera. Plus the Met didn’t have titles back then, and it was a different experience when I wasn’t following everything they were saying, I was sucked into the experience onstage in a deeper way.
Eva Maria Westbroeck had the leading role, and she did a great job, but it gets complicated when I compare her to the singer I saw in the role in 1994, Maria Ewing. Ewing’s voice wasn’t as beautiful as Westbroeck’s, not by a long shot, but she really made the most of what she had. Westbroeck is a powerful presence onstage, so it’s not that she was lacking in that regard, but Ewing delivered the whole package in a way that was more satisfying. Her vocal limitations were fully integrated in her performance.
I am crazy for this production - - it was the Met debut of English director Graham Vick. I later saw his production of *Lulu* at Glyndebourne, and two productions in Chicago, *Un Re in Ascolto* and *The Queen of Spades*, and I saw his *Moses and Aron* at the Met. All of these productions were astonishing, full of imagination. I wish I had seen his infamous *Trovatore* at the Met, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it.
Richard didn’t like the production, he thought it was too wacky. I don’t mind the wackiness. He napped a bit during the first act, as we all do - - I woke him up for one of the key interludes, because I’m sure he wouldn’t have believed me and Barbara when we told him that he slept through the scene where there were ten half-naked men showering onstage.