INTERVIEW: Daniel Neer

 When We Dream We are Figuring Out
the Riddles of the Day

Librettist and Singer Daniel Neer approached his work on the forthcoming opera And Here We Are with a rigorous inventiveness.  A combination of history, memoir and fiction, the opera explores the psychology of war, imprisonment and identity, all the while giving us a thrilling story about a man’s fight for survival.  Daniel talked with EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady about what made this project different and exciting for him.

JASON CADY: Can you first tell us what And Here We Are is about?

DANIEL NEER: The story is about Edgar Kneedler* and his family, who were in Manila in the Philippines running a series of hotels. America became involved in the war, and the Japanese took over the Philippines. That was MacArthur’s famous “I’ll be back,” where he left the Philippines. And every westerner was incarcerated.

Edgar remained behind as manager of the hotel, which was housing Japanese soldiers. So at the beginning of the opera, Edgar arrives at the camp as one of the last westerners.

It was tricky writing a plot for something historical because everyone knows the ending. But we get to see through Edgar’s eyes a situation that was supposed to be temporary, which ended up being several years, and much more serious. These were people who were running businesses. They were not soldiers; they were civilians, and completely not prepared for what was happening to them in this camp. They were allowed to take one suitcase, which was, of course, confiscated. The clothes they wore on their back they wore the entire time in the camp.

One story follows Edgar’s experience of witnessing what’s happening around him in the years in this camp. But the other story is a more personal story of Edgar’s, which is that we know from his diaries that he was searching. He had a passion for music and opera, and some voice training. So in the second storyline, we see this awakening of Edgar, as he is forced in this concentration camp to rectify to himself what is important and to get serious and realize that every day is precious and he should not just sit on a dream. He should act on it. By the end of the experience he is changed in that way.

CADY: You said writing historical fiction is hard since everyone knows the ending, but one of the things I love about this story is that I knew nothing about what happened in the Philippines despite World War II being such a significant historical event in the minds of most Americans.

NEER: And that’s what’s powerful about this story. Edgar’s diaries gave an interesting focus into this. In one of the early paragraphs of the memoir, he says, “I’m not going to write about the horrible things that happened in the camp, because there are plenty of people that will write about those things.”

Not only did I run out to find those books, but it also gave me an insight into Edgar’s psyche. That this is somebody who decided right away, “I’m making the best of the situation, and what I choose to write about and remember are the uncanny, weird, funny things.”

I found those books and they are full of atrocities, and Edgar is featured in most of them. And we’re talking about thousands of people, but he was somebody they all knew and remembered.

He was kind of a joker. He was trying to help people and he was a positive influence in the camp. And that helped shape his character and the whole libretto for the opera.

CADY: I imagine Matt Welch being in such a predicament and standing out in his own way.

NEER: And to be clear, some of the things that he found funny to tell in his memoirs were horrifying. I mean, not funny at all to me. There was a line in the libretto in which he says, “It’s interesting what one finds funny when you’re locked up in a camp.” Matt and I talked a lot about that. About not only the mental effect of being in a camp and having to adjust yourself to selective seeing as a form of survival, but also this notion that year by year that compass shifts and what you find funny is nothing like your previous life at all.

Peppered in with this is the fact that most of these people had beriberi, a disease caused by lack of protein. One of the symptoms of beriberi is hallucinations and paranoia. So Matt and I tried to take the things that were comic to him and blow them up and as time went on they become even more heightened and psychedelic as an imprint on Edgar’s mind.

CADY: Since you did so much research I wonder how much pure fiction is in the story?

NEER: I call it selective fiction. For instance, the villain in the story is the guard, Abiko, who was a real person. The stories in the libretto and the anecdotes for him are actually his, but also a few other guards thrown in.

Abiko was shot by Americans who entered the camp. So the biggest departure from reality was we gave Edgar a chance to approach Abiko’s ghost and say he’s not afraid, and he is ready for this next chapter in his life.

CADY: Could you tell us about some of the other characters?

NEER: At the time Edgar was in the camp, he had a wife with a toddler, who were sequestered in a different building. And he was given conjugal rights. She actually conceived and had a son while they were in the camp.

And it was evident from the memoir that women figure prominently in Edgar’s life. His wife, his mother, women from his past, like his first piano teacher. There’s an aria devoted to her. These are people who are clarion. They keep coming back to him as mentors in his mind.

In the throes of beriberi and hallucinating, we even brought a female character from his future to visit him, which was a voice teacher that he established himself with when he moved to New York City after the war. And that became another structural device of a mother earth type figure helping him solve these problems in his mind.

A lot of scenes happen during sleep, with the notion that when we dream, we are figuring out the riddles of the day. And so Matt and I were interested in these female characters who help him figure out this life’s riddle of what he’s supposed to do and become, and what meaning can life have after this hellish place he has been in.

CADY: Being a singer and librettist seems like such a natural fit, but I can’t think of any other singer/librettists, could you tell me more about that?

NEER: I’m a trained singer, and I’ve been a performer for about 30 years now, both on stage and in concert. I like to keep things shaken up so around the early 2000s, I started having ideas for libretti or song cycle texts, and writing them on little pieces of paper and thinking somebody would get a lot of use out of these. And then a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try writing them?” And I started working on it.

My first piece was produced in 2006. It was called “Mercury Falling” for tenor, dancer, and chamber orchestra.

CADY: Who was the composer?

NEER: Chandler Carter. It was a different way of expressing myself that is now balanced 50/50 with my singing career. I felt when I started that the challenge would be that I had no experience writing but actually my experience was the variety of material I’ve performed. I write from the perspective of imagining it being performed as a stage piece so I have a built-in economy in the way I write.

CADY: What’s it like performing in operas that you collaborated on?

NEER: I approach the score as if it’s a brand-new piece. The words have totally changed. When they’re set to music, I recognize that I wrote it, but it’s very different.

I had a workshop with students at a university in Ohio and I compared it to being Michael Phelps or Greg Louganis. You’re either an Olympic swimmer or you’re an Olympic diver. They’re two different sports, but the pool is the same.

My collaboration with Matt and Experiments in Opera is so meaningful to me because it forced me to think about libretto writing in a different way, because of Matt’s approach to music and how he sees the musical message and structure of the piece.

CADY: How did the collaboration of And Here We Are come about?

NEER:  Matt approached me and this topic was completely new to me. So And Here We Are was a different trajectory for me as a writer, but I knew what the structure of the piece was, and that there was a protagonist. The memoirs of Edgar were a valuable piece of real estate.

The historical aspect is actually my favorite part. I love delving in and finding out as much as I can about something I previously had no knowledge of. And after I did a lot of research the piece was actually written quickly.

One of the road blocks for me from the beginning was how we would produce this piece. I was so impressed by an Experiments in Opera production of Sisyphus because of the economy of the cast. And I said to Matt, “I don’t know how to tell this story with just a few singers.”

Fast forward being in Paris on a singing gig and I went to the Guimet Museum, the Asian arts museum. A hall had shadow puppetry of all Asian backgrounds and origins. It immediately dawned on me that would be a great way to tell the story because you could go to town with these hallucinations and not have to worry about special effects. But also you could still have an economy of singers, three or four singers, but have them sing multiple roles. And you could bring in this Filipino-Javanese influence into the story.

So I emailed Matt and said, “I have a great idea. I can’t wait to talk to you about it.” I was scared it would scare him off, but he said he had been thinking a lot about trying to do something with puppetry. So once that was established and he made contact by reaching out to Jeanette Yew, we were off to the races.

The shadow puppetry gives us a storytelling device separate from the music, with expressing these fantastical words and scenes. Jeanette brings that to life for the audience using a completely different device than people standing on stage and singing.

CADY: That’s funny. I had assumed the puppet idea was Matt’s, because it’s the kind of thing he would do.

NEER: Well, we may argue over this a little bit. I don’t know. He might fight me for bragging rights.

CADY: [laugh] Well, fortunately this is your interview, not his. So what about the origin of the title for And Here We Are?

NEER: Edgar had an affinity for Matthew Arnold. His poem, “Dover Beach,” is typed out in the preface page of his memoirs. The poem is a look into nationalities of peoples who clash, and the futility of clashing, and if it’s perhaps human nature.

So when Matt brought this to me it resonated because I know the poem very well, because it was set by Samuel Barber. We deconstructed the poem and wove it throughout the piece. So there will be a bookend or a preface into a new scene where we hear a stanza of that poem. And the final stanza comes at the very end where Edgar is leaving with his family to start a new life.


*Great uncle of the composer, Matthew Welch