Opera’s life of Lorca
Polymath David Henry Hwang is the librettist of Osvaldo Golijov’s hit contemporary opera Ainadamar, having its UK staged premiere from Scottish Opera. He talks to KEITH BRUCE.
There are few artists in any field anywhere in the world with quite the diverse, and conspicuously successful, CV of David Henry Hwang. As a creator of original works of his own he is primarily a playwright, but his global fame rests as much on his role as a librettist in the world of opera and musicals.
Scottish audiences were introduced to him in 1989, when his first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, visited Glasgow’s Mayfest in the run up to the city’s profile-changing year as European City of Culture. Fresh from its premier performances in a Vienna aircraft hangar and a Berlin ice-rink, it received mixed reviews, but impressed enough folk to have a local revival by Paragon Ensemble at the Tron Theatre in 2003.
That same year Hwang was working with Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov on a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer residency. Created in just a few months, Ainadamar explored the life and work of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, as remembered by his muse, Catalan performer Margarita Zirgu.
It was only after considerable reworking, and the input of director Peter Sellars for a Sante Fe Opera production two years later, that Ainadamar found its finished form and became a success.
“One of the differences between the Boston production and the Santa Fe production was learning more about Lorca’s life,” Hwang remembers now. He also credits the composer with being adaptable in a way that he recognised from the world of theatre but encounters less often in opera.
“On Broadway there may be six weeks of previews during which you can make changes, but that is not the opera composer’s way of working. Osvaldo was very comfortable making changes – we are both very flexible people and made an unusual team.”
The score the Argentinian created was, the librettist contends, years ahead of its time.
“We did get on well, but that doesn’t always mean that a composer’s music speaks to me the way Osvaldo’s does. He was breaking boundaries and doing things that hadn’t been done before.
“Osvaldo integrates other voices seamlessly, drawing from different musical styles and using electronic sounds. At that point it was not something that people were generally doing in opera.
“It’s beautiful and fun to listen to. The arias and the trio at the end are gorgeous and you can kinda dance to it! I still enjoy listening to Ainadamar.”
It is also true that the story chimed with a direction that Hwang’s own work had already embarked on in plays and would go on to explore more thoroughly. His background as an Asian American runs through early work F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), his breakthrough play M Butterfly, which deconstructed Puccini and has had a new incarnation as an opera at Santa Fe this year, and more recent Broadway hits Yellow Face and Soft Power, which mined his own life and included characters called “DHH”.
“There is a parallel in that I have brought different cultural voices into my plays. With Osvaldo I got to play in this other sandbox, with Spanish and Moorish influences and duende and Roma voices, and it was a great world to be in.
“When we first met, we started by kicking around different subjects because we had to create the thing really quickly. One of the things that attracted me, when Osvaldo pitched the Lorca story, was that Lorca to some extent predicted his own demise. As artists you sometimes reach into yourself and pull something out and that thing ends up manifesting itself in your life.
“Writers generally write autobiographical characters, they just don’t often name them after themselves. Ultimately you have to do the thing that you are interested in and believe in and let the chips fall where they may. In general I have had more success with things that are personal and idiosyncratic.”
Hwang is speaking particularly of his own work, and he draws a careful distinction between that and his work with composers.
“I work in a lot of genres, and in each there is someone who is the primary artistic voice driving the project forward and the other artists are supporting that vision.
“If I write a play, I am the primary artist, but in opera it is the composer because the work will rise and fall on how the music is perceived and evaluated. That isn’t to say that the libretto isn’t important, because it affects the perception of the music, but fundamentally it is about the music.
“I am also very economical with words, and that is the discipline for the librettist. There have been a couple of times when I have adapted my plays into operas and you have to lose about 50 to 60 per cents of the words in a play to make an opera.”
The new opera of M Butterfly has music by Huang Ruo, but David Henry Hwang’s most regular composing partner has continued to be Glass, including the New York Metropolitan Opera commission The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice, based on two of Hwang’s plays, and most recently Circus Days and Nights, using the poems of Robert Lax, for Malmo Opera.
“Philip is very easy to work with,” says Hwang. “We come up with an idea together, and I’ll write a story outline – although in the case of The Voyage at the Met the outline was Philip’s – and then he assumes that the librettist’s job is to write the words and his is to write the music.”
An impressive list of other composers clearly find Hwang an agreeable collaborator too. They range from Unsuk Chin (2007’s Alice in Wonderland) and Howard Shore (2008’s The Fly, based on the film by David Cronenberg, who made a movie of M Butterfly) to Elton John, Phil Collins and Prince – Hwang co-wrote the least salacious song on the late funk musician’s 1994 album, Come.
He still proudly lists that last surprise on his comprehensive and varied CV.
“I’m pretty eclectic and I don’t really make a distinction between high culture and writing a Disney musical,” he says. “The primary distinction is always whether I am in charge or am I helping someone else realise their vision.
“When I was a kid, the two pop stars that meant the most to me were Prince and David Bowie, so the fact that I got to write a song with Prince and it ended up on an album is just the coolest thing!”
Ainadamar has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal from Saturday October 29 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from November 8. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk