‘It seems something else’: turning The Hours into an opera the opera
Andn Tuesday night superstar soprano Renée Fleming returns to the Metropolitan Opera for a world premiere after five years. hours. As a packed auditorium of his fans wait with bated breath, he will put his magnificent voice into the delicate opening words: “platters”.
That’s right. dish In the opera adaptation of the 1998 novel and 2002 film The Hours, her character, Clarissa Vaughn, is preparing a party for her best friend Richard, who is dying of AIDS, and she needs, well, platters.
It’s a combination of star power and worldliness that tickles the new opera’s composer, Kevin Poots. “It’s kind of funny, that ‘Platters’ could be Rennie’s first big comeback at the Met,” he told the Guardian.
Not that he’s taking the opening night of The Hours remotely lightly. To find yourself on Meet With Fleming, raised in Alma, a town of 9,000 people in Michigan’s deepest countryside—is no platter.
“For an American composer, to do something at the Met is beyond your wildest dreams,” he says, genuinely a little surprised.
Fleming not only starred in The Hours, he was instrumental in its creation. He had been working with Poots in small parts, and they had developed such an affinity for each other’s work that it seemed a natural step for him to ask if he would join him when he wrote a new opera.
Singer was enthusiastic and suggested The Hours. “It seemed immediately interesting to me,” Puts said. “I knew the film and the book, and my first impression was that the atmosphere of the piece, its mystery, the connection of three women across three time periods, it spoke to a kind of musical vocabulary that would be exciting for me.”
The Hours as a story seems to lend itself to multiple art forms. It began life as Michael Cunningham’s riff on one of Virginia Woolf’s most revered novels, Mrs. Dalloway. In her novel, Cunningham traces a day in the lives of three women touched by Woolf’s great work – Woolf herself in 1923 when she wrote Mrs Dalloway in Purgatory, a suburb of Richmond, England; Laura Brown, who is reading the book in 1949, longs to be transported by her literary magic away from her life as a wife and mother in Los Angeles; and Clarissa Vaughn, a New Yorker haunted by her past in 1999.
Poots, 50, said he immediately saw the opera’s potential to take the story to places where literature and film would struggle to go — especially the interrelationships between characters across time and space. “I knew with opera that once you establish three stories, you can start to overlap them with duets, trios—music and harmony allow for things that other art forms don’t.”
Given how Poots and Fleming conceived the opera together, it’s no surprise that the composer wrote the music with her voice in mind. Early in the process, he told her, “I want to sing really well,” and she replied, “Yes, I can,” by which he meant that after working with her in the past, he knew that her compositional style matched her voice. was fitting and likewise his singing suited his music.
Fans of The Hours movie were mesmerized by its exceptional acting trio – Meryl Streep as Vaughn, Julianne Moore as Brown and Oscar winner Nicole Kidman as Wolff. The Met production meets the same extraordinarily high bar by bringing together three extraordinary female singers: Fleming as Streep, Broadway musical diva Kelly O’Hara as Moore; And replacing Kidman with another Met favorite, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
Poots said writing for Three Such Titans put “a lot of pressure” on him, which he dealt with by drawing on the musical muscle he’d built up over 25 years. He has been creating operas for more than a decade – his first, Silent Night, about the Christmas Eve truce in World War I, won the Pulitzer in 2011; The Hours is his fourth.
The more he learned about the nuances of each singer’s voice, the more he honed the score for him personally. In the opera, the three women are given their own sound world.
I asked Poots to describe those sonic bubbles, and though he protested that he finds it difficult to articulate his work without referencing other composers he doesn’t try to do, he took a decent stab at it.
“Clarissa’s sound world has an American quality, I think you can trace it back to Leonard Bernstein, even Aaron Copland, with the bright and rich texture blooming behind it. For Laura Brown, who’s living outside of Los Angeles right after World War II, I wanted to capture the music of that time and the feeling that she’s living a happy domestic life, in Pleasantville, but it’s not her world, it’s not her music. And for Wolff, his music is much more intimate and spare, with harmonies that close in on themselves and take turns you don’t expect, much like his writing with his stream of consciousness.”
The Hours is an evocative yet dark story. All three women are struggling with a life in which they are trapped, or about which they are in denial, and the other main character, Richard, is near death and in despair.
Poots said that once he immersed himself in Greg Pearce’s libretto, he found himself empathizing with the characters. “The piece is, for me, about a huge, very powerful theme: being forced to live in a way that’s inauthentic.”
It made him think about growing up in small-town Michigan and how it resonated with today’s expressions of intolerance with the recent abandonment of constitutional rights to abortion and fears of a possible similar attack on LGBTQ+ rights.
“Friends in high school were gay, and they couldn’t be gay, and they were hurt by it. I’ve witnessed the effects over time,” he said.
These thoughts went so deep into the composer when composing The Hours that he said it affected him personally in a way he had not experienced before. “A lot of composition for the piece was exhausting. I feel tired. I tried to understand why this was, because in general I like to compose. I think it was just the heaviness of those things and the connections I was making.”
The emotional toll, by all accounts, seems worth it. The Hours was first performed in March as part of a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra and local explorers. Work described as “instantly lovable, with a sultry orchestration that hits you in the solar plexus”.
Fleming said something memorable The New York Times About why he was drawn to Poots’ musical style. “Kevin’s not afraid to write something that’s moving and beautiful for the general public,” he said, adding that composers in his lifetime have struggled with that.
Does he agree with Fleming’s assessment? Is he willing to write for a wider audience than many classical composers?
“I’ve always felt that a composer’s specialty goes beyond a sort of responsibility to uphold the aesthetic ‘movements’ and trends of their time, although those should be considered,” he said. “I have the impression that composers feel a responsibility to other composers stylistically, which needs to be treated with respect within contemporary music culture. Given the nature of what I write, I know it’s probably impossible for me.”
So what audience does he write for?
“I know what moves me. I have no idea what the audience tastes like, I can only imagine myself as the audience and make my decisions based on that.”
All these swirling reflections on musical style, craft, beauty, sound worlds and the truth of life come to a climactic head at the end of The Hour. Bringing three women together on stage to sing together frees the opera’s freedom to cross boundaries.
As musical theater goes, it’s a showstopper. “Oh my god!” exclaimed Puts. “Three mega stars singing together on the same stage? I was very aware of its need.”
But this isn’t just a historic Met moment. It’s also the artistic mark of the piece, Puts’ chance to conclude the interplay of his sound worlds.
“It’s the end of the day, the end of the opera, the three stories come together, it feels like something else. We try to create some sense of hope, a sense of carrying, like you carry, I’m carrying, you know …”
And with that Kevin Poots drifts away, leaving us to wonder where, eventually, his musical imagination will take us.
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