In 2001, after the premiere of the opera Sara McKinnon in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I was introduced to the grandmother of one of the Hispanic members of the cast. She was a petite, charming woman, and this had been the first opera she had ever seen. When I asked her what she thought, she smiled and said, “Oh, that villain was so sexy!”
I loved her response. The “villain’s” lyrical, Latin-flavored music had helped a sociopathic killer also be seen as a machismo bad boy who could captivate a woman in her 70s. Baritone Patrick Mason’s inspired performance had played an essential part in doing that. (He’s seen in character in the header photo.)
Mason had mastered the role’s Latin-American rhythms so well that he played with the musical phrasing with extraordinary artistry. Using subtle rubato and well-timed portamento, he would subtly shift against the beat, and I found his interpretation enthralling. Just as great dancers sometimes dance just slightly off the beat, so great musicians sometimes subtly play with pulse and rhythm to achieve expressive results.
Yet one convincing interpretation of a piece never rules out the possibility of a different, equally convincing interpretation. It’s possible that some interpretations may strike us as ill-conceived, inept, or otherwise unconvincing. But the relative precision of music notation should never seduce performers into imagining that a mechanically precise performance of a score is the most desirable.
Different Performers, Different Meanings
When we hear different actors perform the role of Hamlet, we assume that each actor will interpret the role somewhat differently. Likewise, we expect each soprano who sings Violetta in La Traviata to perform the role somewhat differently. Although Verdi’s notated score does not change, the meaning of the music may subtly change, depending on how the soprano acts and sings her role. The set, the costumes, the stage direction, the musical direction, and the interaction between the singers as actors can all combine to change our sense of what the music and the opera mean in a particular production.
Although I notate my scores in considerable detail, I assume that different performers will realize them in subtly different ways. I feel my task as a composer is to create a blueprint—a plan of action—a notated score that gives performers, directors, designers, and conductors opportunities to use their artistic skills toward the goal of creating an imaginative, convincing performance.