Letting Narrative Take the Lead

EiO Co-founder, Aaron Siegel, has written a new short opera, The Wallet, as part of the upcoming Flash Operas at Symphony Space.  Coming off the recent workshop rehearsals on March 12 and 13, 2017, Aaron reflected on the challenges of adapting a short story for the stage.  Flash Operas are premiering on May 5 and 6, 2017 at Symphony Space.

Part of what has always attracted me to opera is the opportunity to use words to shape music.  All of my theater works to date are based on scripts or text that I have written and often devised specifically with sounds or textures in mind.  This process gives me the ultimate opportunity to create a musical language that speaks unencumbered by text or the intentions of any author other than myself.  I have worked this way for close to 10 years.  Until now.

For my new Flash Opera, I am working from a libretto based on a short story written by another author.  While I ultimately wrote the libretto and was able to shape it based on my musical instincts, I was intent on preserving the shape and, to the extent that I could, the language of the short story.  

The Wallet, by Andrew McCuaig, has been published in a range of collections and anthologies.  It is an unassuming tale, with a moralistic quandary embedded inside a straightforward narrative.  It’s a story that looks to connect with the readers as well as to manipulate them.  My challenges in translating the story to the stage were to preserve the simplicity and also to emphasize the drama.  

I was struck in the process of the obtuseness of theater.  It is very difficult to show subtlety onstage in a way that has meaning.  For example, there is a cup of Coca-Cola in the short story that we first see perspiring on a table.  When Elaine, the protagonist, finds the cup she places it upright in the trash can.  From this subtle detail we are to understand that Troy (who placed the cup on the table originally) is Brutish, boy-like and careless.  Elaine on the other hand is not cruel nor vindictive.  She doesn’t want to make a mess and gently places the cup upright in the trash.  This is the stuff of character and even as it is inconsequential, it gives texture and depth to the story, verisimilitude.  The whole description takes up two sentences and less than 15 seconds to read.

Excerpt from the score to ‘The Wallet’ by Aaron Siegel, based on a story by Andrew McQuaig.

We have no such luxury in opera.  It would take at least a minute to create the same level of detail onstage and even then could hardly be said to be worth it.  Especially in an opera that is intended to last under fifteen minutes to begin with.  As a result, we lose this level of intimacy and verisimilitude. The opera becomes a portrait painted in the broad strokes of archetypes.  Instead of being simply a careless man, Troy instead must be a cad-this character trait being much easier to convey through jaunty music with an insidious undertone.  

This is an example of how my intent to hue as closely to the story as possible lead me to write music that I would not have otherwise written.  The music serves the feeling and mood of the story and characters rather than the other way around.

Then there is the matter of a brief flashback wherein Elaine recalls a previous  encounter with Troy that hints at the theme of abuse that is later brought more fully to the forefront of the story.  Again,  time restrictions prevented me from having a character step out of the action to tell this important story.  Plus, I was intent on telling a straight story that avoided any narrative trickery.  So, I had to adjust the form of the story by starting with the flashback moved adjacent to the main action, still preserving the original timing but reordering the sequence of information.  This, too, had a musical impact, giving the opening of the opera an introductory quality before the main action starts.  Rather than embodying a richer fabric of memory, the flashback material is simpler and speaks without the luxury of any framing material.

Both of these examples of the short story impacting the music and shape of the opera were successful.  They made the piece better than what I could have come up with on my own.  The story, after all, was written by an accomplished writer with a strong sense of how to bring complex ideas alive on the page.  The process has given me a new appreciation for what it means to work with a source text.  The source material becomes a partner in the process, pulling the new work into the verifiable space of existing material while I push it into unknown areas of sound.