Can we imagine Beethoven struggling with the demands of 21st century media? The question is on John Adams’ mind as he catches up on a backlog of interviews after a winter storm delayed his concert last week in Cleveland. “He had little patience to deal with anyone”, notes the American composer of his irascible grandfather, “even the counts and princes who were the source of his income”. Adams, on the other hand, seems relaxed even though his interviews have gone over.
One of the reasons for all this interest is the announcement of the San Francisco Opera’s program for its centennial season. After a gala concert, the opening night in September will be the premiere of Adams’ new opera, Antony and Cleopatra. Based on Shakespeare, with help from Virgil and Plutarch, it promises to be a big event and marks the opening of new ground for its composer, a California resident.
Before that, there is the little question of a milestone birthday. On February 15, Adams turns 75. As hard as it is to believe, given his bright personality and youthful outlook on the world, the young composer who rose to prominence in the late 1970s in the wake of minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass is now a veteran statesman of American music.
As an artist, he has traveled farther than most. After a young brush with modernism, Adams quickly saw the new simplicity of the minimalists’ musical style as the way forward. At first he tweaked it, then increasingly allowed richer music to develop, and over the past two decades has blossomed into a different kind of composer. How does his music sound now? “It’s John Adams!” is the only correct answer.
“I’ve always found it difficult,” he says. “I just met some students and I said to them, ‘The hardest thing about composing is starting a piece. And I have to tell you, it never gets easier. Some composers write so much, always another symphony, another concerto, and I wonder if they have any self-criticism. I would rather experience the pain of doubt and have to live with it. It’s one thing to give the public what they want, but calling me that has never appealed to me. Creating music is about self-discovery, as pretentious as that sounds.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the last half century has seen an explosion of cultural activity on the West Coast. In 1971, when Adams moved to California, the Los Angeles and San Francisco orchestras had distinguished histories and two of the “greats” of the 20th century – Stravinsky and Schoenberg – had lived there, but there were no sign of the source of creativity that reigned there. is now.
“It’s been slow work,” says Adams, “but I’m a proud Californian and deeply involved in the music there. California has a liberal political climate and a wealthy population, including Hispanics, Southeast Asians, and a large black community. I have written several plays [about California] — Dharma in Big Sur, Black City and the opera Girls of the Golden West — and I would be happy if people would say in years to come, “Adams is to California what Dvorak is to the Czechs, or Bartok to Hungary.”
“The only thing that upsets me enormously is what happens to the landscape because of climate change. I have a place in the country where I compose [what Adams calls his ‘Mahler hut’ is deep in the forest three hours from Berkeley] and from July to November it became a dangerous place.
The premiere of Antony and Cleopatra will fall in the middle of this period. It will mark a big shift for Adams, who sparked a generational trend for American operas about modern political leaders and events, first with Nixon in Chinathen, controversially, a Palestinian hijacking in Klinghofer’s death and, more recently, the testing of the first atomic bomb by J Robert Oppenheimer in Atomic Doctor.
He says he found experience directing short scenes from Shakespeare in his previous opera, Girls of the Golden West, so inspiring that he wanted to do more. In particular, he was keen to try his hand at what he calls “direct drama”, where the characters, rather than soliloquizing, interact instantaneously.
“Here are two lovers who are not Romeo and Juliet,” he said. “They both have pasts and over the course of the play they do terrible things to each other. This speaks to me as an older person. I am drawn to Antony, a man with a heroic past as a soldier who now wants to enjoy life as if he had retired to Hawaii or Las Vegas. Then he meets young Octavius Caesar, who reminds me of young masters of the universe, like those in Silicon Valley.
“Cleopatra is also an extraordinary person. People seem to expect my Cleopatra to be out of the grand opera tradition, but my vision of her is much more whimsical, sexy, conceited, much like the main character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I wrote to Julia Bullock [who will sing the role at the premiere] and said I hope you kept the summer free because I wrote for you such a great role as Isolde.
Adams students are fortunate to have a mentor who has led a life of constant artistic evolution. Not standing still has served him well and given us a body of work in which, as you might expect, no two are alike. Does he have any advice for young composers today?
“One thing makes me very optimistic,” he says. “When I was in school in the late 1960s, it was what I call the bad old days of modernism, when [you were judged on] what style you wrote. Now composers are much more concerned with communication and the social message of their music.
By all accounts, this will have no direct impact on the new opera. While it might have been tempting to see larger-than-life political figures such as Antony and Octavius Caesar through a 21st-century lens, he says opera will keep them in Roman times, not move them to Washington DC.
“I don’t agree with people who say a composer can create political change. Think Joe Manchin [Democratic senator from West Virginia] — his single vote could make Biden’s agenda a reality. I tell students, you may think that by writing articles with great political sentiment you will create change, but you still won’t change Manchin’s mind. Music and art do something different. Everyone needs music and I strongly believe it should be part of our lives.
The premiere of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ will be given by the San Francisco Opera on September 10; sfopera.com
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