In October I noticed (thanks to a Twitter post celebrating National Opera Week) that Opera Omaha (@operaomaha) is developing a work based on the life of Blake. Stranger from Paradise (the working title) will premiere in May 2017. The librettist and director, Kevin Lawler, very kindly agreed to answer my questions about his inspiration and the production.
Where did the idea of your opera about Blake originate? How long does the process of writing the libretto and the music take?
The idea came as I was in discussions with Opera Omaha’s General Director, Roger Weitz, about the production and dissemination practices of opera in the US. These methods often include massive, very costly productions that are prohibitive to many simply by virtue of their ticket price. Productions also typically take place in extremely large theatres or concert halls which distance the audience from the performers in multiple ways. I had been lucky enough to experience the form as a director, up close in the rehearsal hall with no sets or costumes, and it moved me in a way that it never had in the large halls. I proposed an experiment to Opera Omaha – to create an opera that would be developed with alternative methods and be produced in a way that was accessible to people who might not normally be able to attend. (The production in 2017 will be free to the public and take place in a non-theater space that seats around 200 people as opposed to 2000.) At that time I was reading and looking through Blake’s work as I do whenever I need a surge of strength and inspiration. When Opera Omaha asked me what I would like to make it was a synchronistic moment as the prophetic and epic scope of Blake’s work and life seemed wonderfully appropriate material for an opera.
I have been working on the libretto for a little over two years now. Nevada Jones began the compositions about a year and a half ago and is still writing the main body of the opera.
What did you use as your source material?
Sources came from a wide range of Blake’s work as well as several of the main texts listed below.
We worked from Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake and his Blake: Prophet against Empire, David Bindman’s William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, and G. E. Bentley Jr.’s The Stranger from Paradise.
Can you provide a brief synopsis of the opera? Which characters and events are historical and which not?
The opera begins in the final moments of Blake’s death as his life and various parts of his cosmology flash before his eyes. In this instant we see key moments from his life as a young man and throughout his marriage to Catherine interspersed with moments taken directly from (or inspired from) his writing and visual works.
I quickly realized that it would be a futile endeavor to try to encompass the whole of Blake’s life or work in a single opera because of the sheer expanse of experience and vision that they contain. The opera is an imaginative response to his life and work which includes real people, events and pieces of his texts mixed in with moments of our contemporary lives that resonate heavily with the work. Catherine and his brother Robert both play a large part with a special emphasis on Catherine’s contribution and sacrifice to help make Blake’s immense body of work.
Will you be incorporating his artwork into the production?
It would seem like Blake’s artwork would need to be a part of the production. In the libretto I have hinted at the possibility of living tableaus and some form of puppetry to create some of the epic characters, but we will begin work in earnest on the design this February when Obie award winning designer Justin Townsend joins the creative team.
Many thanks to Kevin and to Dimitri Kontos of Opera Omaha for making the Q&A possible. Other operas/musical productions based on Blake’s life and works are Bethlehem Hospital, 20/20 Blake, Thel, Tiriel (see Bentley, Blake Books Supplement p. 641), The Bard’s Song, and An Island in the Moon.