When the Steiny Road Poet began her collaboration with William Banfield on Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, Bill suggested that the Poet listen to Anthony Davis's X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. The score has a rich palette of swing, scat, modal jazz, and rap while adhering to traditional operatic formats. On March 24, 2010 at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, DC, the Poet had an opportunity to talk with Davis and his first comment to her was a compliment regarding Bill Banfield's work. Davis, who was invited to the Ellington high school to help music students of composer-professor Janet Peachey work on a contemporary rewrite of Porgy and Bess, is a man generous with his time.
On May 1, excerpts from his new opera Revolution of Forms will be presented at New York City Opera's VOX showcase. Topping the publicity list of the ten new works that will be presented at VOX is Revolution of Forms. Not only has Davis been consistently composing opera—1986: X (librettist Thulani Davis), 1989: Under the Double Moon (Deborah Atherton), 1992: Tania (Michael John La Chiusa), 1997: Amistad (Thulani Davis), 2007: Wakonda's Dream (Yusef Komunyakaa), 2009: Lilith (Allan Havis), but also the premier of X was developed and presented on the main stage of New York City Opera.
Based on the book Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schoolsby John A. Loomis, the subject of Davis' new opera concerns idealistic architects who attempt to build an arts complex on the grounds of the Havana Country Club. The idea for the arts school comes from a 1961 golf game on the site by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The main character is architect Ricardo Porro, who dreams of sensuous and daringly designed buildings. The problem is the revolutionary Cuban government under the influence of Soviet communism falls fast into economic hardship and so the beautiful buildings are never completed.
What is particularly unusual about Revolution of Forms is a large creative team, something Gertrude Stein, who had trouble collaborating with Virgil Thomson on their opera Four Saints in Three Acts, could have never imagined or participated in. While Davis has never collaborated with another composer before, he says working with Dafnis Prieto is going well.
"We found out that we work really well together. Initially I had written a lot of the piano vocal score. He has conceived a lot of the percussion parts. There are seven percussionists in the opera, playing such instruments as bongos, congas, cha cha bells.
"The conflict scene, which will be shown at VOX, we worked on independently. Wouldn't you know it, we both started on the same note. We both wrote a rhythmic part and they worked together. I loved what he did with this theme. It was like Cuban music meets Bartok. It was a motoric thing. It was so great. I said I could write a fugue on that and I did. I took his theme and later in the opera it became a fugue."
Other members of the creative team for Revolution of Forms are librettist and producer Charles Koppleman (he brought the idea for this opera to Davis), writer Alma Guillermoprieto, and director Robert Wilson. Davis summarized how the opera got its start as follows:
"Koppleman was interested in using this school as a metaphor for the Cuban revolution itself. The buildings are considered a Post-modern masterpiece of architecture. It was never completed. The head architect Ricardo Porro had to go into exile.
"The buildings have an interesting esthetic and what it means to be Cuban. What is Cuban's relationship to the European and the African? What makes Cuban art Cuban? What is a Cuban aesthetic?
"Joe Manila, Brooklyn Academy of Music, recommended me for the project. Then I thought about Bob [Wilson] because he is so visual."
Another important biographical aspect of Dafnis Prieto and Alma Guillermoprieto is that Prieto, a Cuban, attended this school for music and Guillermoprieto, a Mexican, taught in this school of dance (Havana's Escuela de Danza Moderna). Therefore, Prieto brings the complex percussive rhythms of Cuba to this opera while Guillermoprieto who is author of Dancing with Cuba (her story about how a dancer becomes a writer) brings her knowledge of dance in Cuba.
Davis said that dance is "an integral part of this opera. More like a French form in that way." Of course, Robert Wilson emphasizes movement in the work he does.
Davis explained, "There are five buildings and five acts but the play is divided into knee plays and acts. [Knee plays are mini plays invented by Robert Wilson for Einstein on the Beach and they serve to knit together the larger parts of the stage work.] We did two workshops at watermill. I worked with a Dutch dramaturg. She helped put the libretto into a form Wilson could work with. The back story of each building helps us in the storytelling. The opera begins on the grounds of the Havana Country Club where Fidel and Che are in their battle fatigues playing golf. We always return to the golf course over the course of the opera. It's a magical place. The opening scene is done in slow motion. A child (Elegua a.k.a. 'Holy Child of Atocha') circles the revolutionaries with a Santeria plate."
When the Steiny Road Poet asked what language the opera was written in, Davis said, "The opera is mostly in Spanish but has an Italian intro. The other two architects were Italian and so they have a small part in the opera." Davis speaks Italian so he was thrilled to be able to set the Italian. With excitement, Davis said, "All of sudden I could write melismatic music."
When asked which composers influenced him, Davis rattled off a long list that included, Puccini, Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky, Mingus, Coltrane, Monk.
And what does this prolific composer of opera have waiting in the wings? Two music theatre pieces: Shimmer which is set in the McCarthy Era and Tupelo, a work that started in collaboration with the late librettist Arnold Weinstein on the subject of Elvis Presley and his shady manager Colonel Parker.
The Steiny Road Poet thinks based on her hour with Anthony Davis that he is not only a modern day Renaissance man but that he would be an ideal person with whom to collaborate.