A conversation with composer Dominick Argento is an experienced to be savored. The Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award honoree speaks in a measured manner, without animation, making you feel that you have his full attention and interest. It's like after-dinner conversation with a learned colleague, as opposed to pre-dinner cocktail chatter at a fundraiser. In both situations common interests are a given, but with Argento, you need to be prepared to travel down roads of thought that are unrevealed at the start of the journey. A random comment, more tangentially related that you realized, might inspire a whole new train of thought.
In short, it was a delightful experience.
Music with a text figures large in Argento's oeuvre: operas, songs, choral music, song cycles, monodramas, and orchestral suites based on music from his stage works. One of his operas, The Aspern Papers, will be presented by the Dallas Opera on April 12, 14, 17, 20, and 28. This production is a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opera's première, which happened right here in Dallas. The Dallas Opera commissioned the piece, and the great mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade sang the leading role.
The singer for this production is also a great mezzo, the fabulous Susan Graham in her eagerly anticipated Dallas Opera debut. "She sang it once before, years ago at the Kennedy Center," said Argento in a recent phone interview. "That was before she was Susan Graham, of course."
Rounding out the cast will be soprano Alexandra Deshorties, baritone Nathan Gunn and tenor Joseph Kaiser. Music Director Graeme Jenkins will conduct and Tim Albery will direct.
Von Stade was very much in the composer’s mind when he was writing the opera. "I wrote a song cycle for her and I was so impressed with her performance. I told her at the time that if I ever get a chance to write an opera, I would want to write it for her," Argento said. "So I heard her voice the whole way."
When the commission from the Dallas Opera came in, Argento asked Von Stade whom she would like to sing with, and she mentioned Elisabeth Sönderström. "At the time, I didn't know her, but Flicka (von Stade’s nickname) said, 'here is her phone number, call her.' I did and she was wonderful."
"I have been very lucky," he said. "I have been able to write for the greatest singers of our time."
When he asked von Stade about a male singer, she suggested Richard Sitwell, so the cast was set early on. Thus, Argento had specific singers in mind as he wrote The Aspern Papers. However, he didn’t need a vocal advisor to help with technical details, like Brahms with violinist Joseph Joachim, who was kept always at hand as Brahms wrote his violin concerto.
"My wife was a singer," he told me. "I always left my working score lying out so that I could come right back to it. When I went to University to teach, I would come back and find little notes on the score. 'Too High. Where does she breathe? Too low.' I had a ghost helping me write."
Argento strives to make his music different in each new work without sacrificing his individual voice. "I admire Richard Strauss so very much," he said. "All of his operas are completely different, yet you can still recognize that he wrote them. Not so much with Puccini. I love his operas but they all blend together. When I hear one on the radio I have to stop and think about which one it is."
That eclectic approach comes from Argento's training. He studied with a wide range of composers, among them Howard Hanson, Alan Hovhaness and Luigi Dallapiccola. "I've gone from the most conservative, Hanson, to the avant-garde, Dallapiccola," he said. "In the end, I was more influenced by their music than any one thing they told me. Actually, I think, that Hovhaness was the more revolutionary. He created orchestral thunder and volcano eruptions."
There are no such events in the game of cat and mouse that takes place in the libretto Argento crafted out of Henry James' slim novella.
A writer, here a musicologist, is seeking some papers, here an opera, supposedly written by the now-dead famous poet, here a composer, Jeffrey Aspern. He thinks that Aspern's mistress, now in advanced age, might be hiding the opera/document. Disguised, he arrives at the creaky old house she occupies with her spinster niece, seeking to rent a room but secretly determined to find out – one way or the other – if the work still exists.
None of it turns out well.
But The Aspern Papers is still a romantic opera. "I wanted to write a romantic opera for Flicka and this is my most romantic score," Argento said. "I changed poet things around so that it was about music – a composer instead of a poet. Besides, I think that a missing opera is much more important than just some papers."
That is an opera composer talking, for sure. But, having heard the score, we have to agree, and are very glad that the score to The Aspern Papers isn’t missing or hidden in some old lady's closet.