Claire

Opera in Two Acts

Libretto by Leven Dawson

1979

90 minutes

For solo voices, chorus, and orchestra

[Withdrawn, not available for performance]

Composer Notes: Poet Leven Dawson’s story for this opera was set in 19th-century New Orleans. The libretto revolved around a tradition in which wealthy French-American men kept mixed-race mistresses. In his story two women were involved with the same man—Honoré Marot—one as his wife and the other as his mistress. What none of them realized was that his wife and mistress were half-sisters—both were daughters of Honoré’s father (one by marriage and the other born without his knowledge to a former mistress). These relationships became known only after the wife learned her husband had a mistress, and then arranged to have her killed.

Leven and I were both living in New Orleans when we started working on this opera. After I read his finished libretto, I tried to point out some potential dramatic and staging issues, but the story and words had just “come to” Leven, and he was not used to revising. He professed he had no idea how to revise the plot relative to my concerns.

At this point a wiser, more experienced composer would probably have abandoned the project—as I perhaps should have. However, Leven’s language in the libretto was remarkably beautiful—sometimes elevated and sometimes vernacular—and the essence of the plot was intriguing. Seduced by these elements, I started composing music and soon finished a first draft of the opera. I suppose I imagined that we could then somehow address the pragmatic theatrical problems in a second draft.

That never happened. Leven continued to find revision impossible, and I accepted a position at Arizona State University. A few long-distance efforts to make changes quickly fizzled. Sadly, Leven was killed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina obliterated much of the town of Waveland, Mississippi. For me, his death closed the door on this project.

In retrospect I decided I had come close to making a crucial stylistic mistake while drafting the music for this opera. Reflecting on this pushed me to make a fundamental stylistic commitment that I have benefitted from ever since. (See Laughter and Tonality.)