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The Making of an Opera

Monty at table

Monty Joynes

The writing of the lyric poetry that is the libretto of an opera is a major work of artistic endeavor.  The libretto tells a dramatic story that will be sung by vocal artists in arias, duets, quartets, and choruses accompanied by a symphony orchestra in a setting that challenges the decorative staging arts. The librettist can only imagine the performance of his operatic creation, but unless a gifted composer is attracted to the work, it will never soar off the page. If an opera libretto takes a year to write before a composer is engaged, what is the scope of the collaboration as the music takes shape as a score?  Here’s my story of the making of an opera.

 

My entry into classical music as a librettist began with the lyric poetry of an oratorio titled The Awakening of Humanity based on the metaphysical journey of American Indians in my five Booker Series novels. Composer Edmund Barton “Bart” Bullock, after reading my novels, suggested our collaboration and began the oratorio score in 2008. Its first two movements were performed three times in 2015 in France where he lives and works as a composer and concert pianist. The world premiere of the completed work is being planned for 2019. The Awakening of Humanity has gone through four revisions that required me to rewrite lyrics to better serve the music.  These revisions required Bart to make annual trips from France to my home in North Carolina where we collaborated side by side.

07 With composer Edmund Barton Bullock (2016)

 

When I realized that I could write for classical music and work in this challenging medium, I set out to write an opera libretto adapted from Save the Good Seed, the third novel in my Booker Series.  The drama of the novel concerned the forced adoption of a Pueblo Indian child by an Anglo couple and his return as an adult to his New Mexico birth tribe to seek his true identity. It took a full year to learn the structural form of opera and to write the lyric poetry of the three-act libretto.  The composer of my oratorio liked the opera libretto, but he was years away from completing our project and other commissions to consider composing it.  And so the Save the Good Seed libretto remained on the shelf as I went on to write and publish books. Save the Good Seed cover 2

I had established a friendship with Dawn Bailiff during annual reunions staged by our mutual publisher Bob Friedman (Hampton Roads Publishing) at his home in Faber, Virginia. I knew that Dawn had been a concert pianist prodigy who had made a world performance tour at the age of eighteen. She had performed with the world’s most renowned conductors and symphony orchestras. Unknown to me at the time, her composer credits included the libretto and score for an opera in German that was staged in the major German opera houses. Dawn’s heritage is German-Japanese, and she is fluent in five languages. (She is a great conversationalist!)  Tragically, at the height of her amazing classical music career, Dawn was struck down by Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

 

When Dawn was seated next to me at our annual luncheon at the historic Michie Tavern near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, I mentioned the recent completion of my opera libretto. She asked to read it, and I sent it to her the following week. I was amazed by her response when she asked me to assign it to her for composition. In my respect and affection for Dawn, I agreed; but as her struggle with MS was too often critical, I realized that I could not pressure her in our collaboration.

piano clip art

There was also the problem of Dawn not having access to the computers and software used by contemporary composers. The investment would cost thousands of dollars that neither of us could afford. Dawn supported herself in those days by teaching advanced piano students. Later she would become an Adjunct Professor of London’s Royal Conservatory of Music. The RCM holds summer workshops in cities across the United States for gifted young talent.

Somewhere around mid-2015, Dawn advised me that she had acquired the electronic tools for composing . She was too busy to elaborate. She has never been chatty in her infrequent emails, so I sent congratulations and hoped for progress on our opera. Two years later, in May 2017, Dawn sent me a shocking email after I had requested an “annual” update.Sunroom and Smoke

After months of silence she wrote, “I have completed the music for Seed and copyrighted it so please don’t bring in another composer on that opera. It is already written. Just waiting for an opportunity to record.”  There was a catch. She did not want me to hear the score until we could hear it together. She would travel to Boone, North Carolina, my home, as soon as her RCM workshop season was over.

Watch for updates on this blog as Save the Good Seed, the opera, progresses on the road to performance. To understand the great honor of having Dawn Bailiff compose my opera libretto, take a look at her resume.

Dawn BailiffDawn Bailiff was hailed by Leonard Bernstein for the “veracity . . . and sublimity of her artistry,” when she was just ten years old.  Formerly a world-class concert pianist, Bailiff has become a translator, professor, inspirational speaker, disability advocate, and author (Notes from a Minor Key—a Memoir of Music, Love, and Healing) since her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.

For more than a decade, Bailiff soloed with most of the major symphonies and philharmonics on five continents, including Berlin, Vienna, Prague, London, Tokyo, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with such notable maestros as Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini, Eugene Ormandy, and Sir Georg Solti.

As a composer, her works have received numerous performances by: Austin Symphony, Minnesota Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Internationale Junge Orchestra Akademie  (Bayreuth), Wroclaw Chamber Orchestra (SW Poland on the Oder River), Quintessence Chamber Ensemble  (Phoenix, AZ), and Cimarron Circuit Opera Company (Norman, OK).

Her opera, Anblicke des Himmels und der Hölle (for which she wrote the libretto in German) was performed as a collaborative effort between major opera companies in Berlin, Dresden, and Stuttgart.

At the age of eighteen, Bailiff toured thirty-two cities in six months, playing in such exotic locations as Bayreuth, Wurzburg, Wroclaw, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

Both she and her music have been featured on North German Radio (NDR) in Hamburg, Czech-Slovak Radio (CSR) in Bratislava, BBC World Service Radio, CBC Radio Canada, CTV (Canada), YTV (Canada), Good Morning Canada, A.M.Philadelphia, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio (WHYY).

Fluent in five languages and competent in several others, Dawn Bailiff has worked as both a translator and Internet marketing consultant for Fortune 500 companies, as well as an academic translator of Rudolph Steiner, G.W. F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger. She has also been a successful journalist, technical writer, banking officer, college professor, and small business owner. Bailiff holds an undergraduate degree in music from the esteemed Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as graduate degrees from the University of Vienna, Austria. She is also the author of Using Music to Teach Math, Foreign Language, and Technical Skills—Incorporating the Anthroposophic Principles of Rudoph Steiner (written in German).  Bailiff ’s most recent translation credit is Cosmic Ordering: The Next Adventure by Barbel Mohr.

 

 

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Bob Dylan, Rejected

bob_dylan_-_bob_dylanIt was a Sunday afternoon at a University of Virginia fraternity house located in a cluster of frat houses that overlooked an intramural field depression known as “Mad Bowl” when I met Bob Dylan and witnessed him rejected as a folk singer and song writer.

The year was 1961, and Dylan had been brought to the fraternity house by folk singer, folklorist, and mentor Paul Clayton who had friends there. Clayton was a UVA grad with a master’s degree in folklore. Since the mid-1950s, Clayton had traveled the Southern Appalachian Highlands in search of traditional folksongs that were in danger of extinction. As a scholar and archivist, he recorded these treasures on site and then sang many of them himself on 21 albums released between 1954 and 1965. In folk music circles from New York City to Los Angeles, Paul Clayton was a prominent figure in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

paul-claytonClayton’s purpose on that Sunday afternoon was to have newcomer Bob Dylan and recorded folk singer Carolyn Hester sing a few songs as a measure of their live performance abilities. It was easy to pull the frat boys away from the ball game on television once they got an introduction to Carolyn Hester. She was 24 years old at the time and Hollywood gorgeous. Hester had already released two albums and was being compared to folk music star Joan Baez. Clayton was helping her with her live performance guitar playing, which was weak at the time. Hester stood against the living room wall and performed two unremembered songs. Her singing was strong and beautiful, but she missed some chords in the accompaniment.

Clayton then encouraged the shy, downcast, tousle headed, disheveled 20-year-old Bob Dylan to uncase his guitar and sing a couple of his original songs. Perhaps in over 50 years of retrospect it is wishful thinking, but I swear that one of the songs that he performed was “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  Although Dylan would become “the voice of his generation,” his singing voice has been described as, “raw, seemingly untrained, and frankly a nasal voice” by Joyce Carol Oates among others. Dylan was also accused of imitating Woody Guthrie’s earthy vocal mannerisms which were also termed “iconoclastic baying.”

156-madisonbowl

Mad Bowl, UVA

The frat boys that Sunday found Dylan’s singing to be both incomprehensible and downright irritating.  Someone turned the television set back on to the ball game, and there were insincere smiles and gestures that communicated to the performers that their leave taking was in order. Clayton’s fraternity friend made an awkward apology as the three folk singers exited the scene of their embarrassment.

Soon after the fraternity house debacle, Carolyn Hestercarolyn-hester invited Bob Dylan to play harmonica on sessions for her third album at Columbia Records.  At a rehearsal session, Dylan met celebrated record producer John Hammond who signed him to a recording contract. Dylan’s first album on Columbia Records was released on March 19, 1962. The album made a great impression in the folk music community, but it was not commercially successful.

the-freewheelin-bob-dylan

Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963, however, featured “Blowin’ in the Wind” as its first cut. If Dylan could not make his songs famous, then cover groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, The Hollies, and many others could. The Beatles themselves reported listening to the Freewheelin’ album until they wore it out.

Since being rejected by the UVA frat boys in 1961, Bob Dylan has sold more than 100 million records. No songwriter, past or present, has received so many awards and honors.  A partial list includes The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991), The Kennedy Center Honor (1997), an Academy Award Oscar for Best Song (2001), the Pulitzer Prize (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), and the Nobel Prize for Literature (2016).

There are perhaps a dozen men now into their 70s who may remember Bob Dylan from their fraternity house encounter in 1961. Fortunately, their rejection of the young artist did not kill his creative spirit. What if they had encouraged him? No telling to what heights he might have risen then.

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Super Night at the Super Bowl

Joe Namath

Joe Namath

The National Football League’s Super Bowl is the most famous annual event in the United States.  Forget the game itself. If you were not a player, coach, or owner, it is the party that you will remember most if you were there.  Mostly, it’s the rich and the famous who enjoy the prime events outside the stadium, but during Super Bowl XII, I know somebody from the working class who can relate the inside story of its glamour and excitement.

In January 1978 my beautiful future wife Pat was the Administrative

New Orleans Hilton in the late 70s

New Orleans Hilton in the late 70s

Assistant to the General Manager of the New Orleans Hilton, and she personally handled arrangements for VIPs who visited the hotel.  Barron Hilton, the head of the Hilton Hotels chain, was famous for hosting Super Bowl parties in the game host cities.  For Pat and her New Orleans Hilton colleagues, it was a particularly exciting time to host their boss and his friends, and she stayed extremely busy seeing to the details of their transportation and accommodation needs.  Her rewards for a job well done were an invitation to attend Barron Hilton’s private dinner party in the Hilton Ballroom and to be given tickets to that night’s CBS live televised entertainment gala “Super Night at the Super Bowl” at the New Orleans Theatre of Performing Arts.

John Denver

John Denver

Pat’s seats for the “Super Night at the Super Bowl” television special were first-row mezzanine with just about five seats in her row.  Much to her surprise, when the lights dimmed, she saw John Denver and his entourage of four men enter the mezzanine as they walked past her and sat two rows behind.  For some reason the small row of seats behind her was empty, so she knew that Denver was sitting directly behind her.  She has always been, and still is, an avid John Denver fan, and so it took a great deal of restraint to concentrate on the show instead of her music idol.

Andy Williams album coverThe gala show hosts were Joe Namath, Andy Williams, and Paul Williams.  More than a dozen guest stars appearing on the program included Peter Falk, Pete Fountain, Vicki Lawrence, Henry Mancini, and comedians Foster Brooks, Norm Crosby, Minnie Pearl, Mel Tillis and Stiller & Meara.  It was a great show with appeal to the widest possible television audience.

The program from Super Night at the Super Bowl  1978

The program from Super Night at the Super Bowl 1978

Barron Hilton’s guest list for his after-show Super Bowl party included celebrities from movies, television, and sports, and so there was a gaggle of press photographers and onlookers at the entrance to the Hilton Ballroom to capture their entrances.  That night Pat had her blonde hair done up in great style, and she was wearing a silver fox evening jacket over a long formal dress.  I will mention here that after becoming an advocate for animal rights, she now refuses to wear it.  But that night when the photographers saw her approach, and people in the corridor began applauding, they immediately assumed that such a beautiful woman had to be a movie star, and they rushed her as if she had been Elizabeth Taylor.  It was a memorable moment for a working class gal.

Monty and Pat a few years later in 1983

Monty and Pat a few years later in 1983

Inside the ballroom, Pat and her escort sat at a reserved table that had a real NFL football ornamented as a centerpiece along with Denver Bronco favors.  Before the evening was over, a man representing John Denver, who sat at a nearby table, told her that the star would like to have her table’s centerpiece.  A bit flustered, Pat assented only to regret later that she had not insisted on personally delivering the football to Denver.  He and his entourage soon departed the party. That same night Billy Carter, brother to President Jimmy Carter, autographed a can of Billy Beer for Pat.  She still has it for the little that it is now worth.Billy Beer

The next day the actual Super Bowl game was played in the Louisiana Superdome.  The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Denver Broncos by the score of 27 to 10.  Pat didn’t see the game; she was too busy at the hotel serving the needs of the VIPs.

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Richard Pryor: His Stand-Up Comeback

Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983)When Richard Pryor came to New Orleans in August 1983 to record his comedy special Here and Now at the Saenger Theatre, he stayed in the New Orleans Hilton where my wife Pat, as administrative assistant to the hotel’s general manager, handled all VIP guest details.  Pat’s working contact with Pryor was with his agent and show producer David Banks, but Pat and I both got to meet Richard as he prepared for two tapings of his final official stand-up comedy show.

The 1983 stage performances were a comeback to show business after a horrendous event in 1980 when Richard had set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.  He had third-degree burns over more than half his body, and survival itself was in the balance.

Although Richard Pryor as a stand-up comedian exhibited a profane Silver Streak movie posterirreverent style that was unsuitable for children, our three teenaged daughters knew him well from his hit movies: Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980) both with Gene Wilder. The fact that Richard had won several Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Recording and television Emmys for Best Writing in Comedy for specials starring Lily Tomlin (1973) may have been lost on our young girls, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Pryor was one of the most recognized entertainers in the world.

Richard Pryor’s comedic legacy for bringing highly charged racial and social issues into sharp perspective paved the way for comedians like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and opened a venue for the general public to address their prejudices.

The New Orleans Hilton in 1983

The New Orleans Hilton in 1983

In my brief encounters with Richard Pryor in Pat’s office, he seemed both gentle and humble, although he obviously felt the pressure of the scheduled performances.  He was still refining his material for the show when David Banks asked Pat to type the head notes for Richard’s individual sketches onto index cards.  The cards would be placed on an on-stage stool where Richard could refer to them as the show progressed.  The show was performed on two separate days at the Saenger and then edited for the broadcast and DVD versions. Pat and I were given prime seats for the first show, and if you see the show recording, you may notice Richard deftly referring to Pat’s index cards as he moves from one subject area to another.

Monty and Pat in New Orleans in 1983

Monty and Pat at the Hilton in 1983

One day while Richard was in the hotel, I was walking through the Hilton lobby with our three daughters trailing behind when we crossed paths with the star and his lady. We then stopped to greet each other. I had recommended some New Orleans restaurants to Richard, and we had some brief words on that subject before he moved on.  There had been no opportunity to formally introduce the girls, but suddenly they were pulling at my shirt.

Daughters Pam, Danielle, and Annalisa

Daughters Pam, Danielle, and Annalisa

“Dad, that was Richard Pryor!” one of them exclaimed. “He acted like he knew you!”

I guess when the girls saw Richard in Superman III (1983) with Christopher Reeve, they might have tried to impress their friends by saying, “Yeah, my Mom and Dad know him.”

Richard Pryor photoIn 1998, Richard Pryor was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center.  It is the highest award a nation can bestow on a humorist. Considering his abusive childhood and his struggle for racial equality, Richard Pryor’s triumphs are profoundly important in articulating the American experience.  I’m glad to salute Richard Pryor by this remembrance.

 

 

 

 

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