& Inspiration
Interview with
Composer, Scott Wheeler
by Karren LaLonde Alenier


In two public performances, January 28 and 30, 2005, composer Scott Wheeler's
Democracy: An American Comedy will enjoy its world premiere by the Washington National Opera. Performed by members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, singers of The George Washington University Chamber Choir, and the debuting, multi-national Youth Orchestra of the Americas, this new opera will be staged at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium as WNO's first commissioned work in more than ten years. The libretto for Democracy, written by award-winning playwright Romulus Linney, is based on the novels Democracy and Esther by Henry Adams.

Commissioned and performed by the orchestras of Minnesota, Houston, Toledo and Indianapolis, Scott Wheeler's compositions have also been performed by such prestigious groups and singers as New York City Opera, soprano Renée Fleming, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. In 1989, Wheeler debuted his one-act opera The Construction of Boston. In 1982, he became the sole artistic director of the chamber ensemble Dinosaur Annex, which he co-founded in 1975. Scott Wheeler teaches in the music department of Emerson College in Boston.


When asked if he has a philosophy of composing, Scott Wheeler said without hesitation that he has "rules of thumb" for composing. He conjectured that Richard Wagner with his extensive theories about music and opera would fit better as a composer working with a philosophy of composition. Wheeler said he wants "to create an evening that engages the audience" and to give them an experience worthy of their time listening to his work.  

Wheeler characterizes the music of his new opera Democracy as straightforward and, in a sense, almost easy. Then he reconsidered what he said and offered an anecdote about the young performers who will premiere Democracy. In a rehearsal with Placido Domingo, the celebrated performer and current General Director of the now world-class Washington National Opera, the singers, who had just finished rehearsing Act I, were asked to practice and then sing the music of Act II. At the appointed time, the singers, having spent their energy preparing Act II, appeared before Domingo who told them to start with Act I and sing the entire work. After this command performance, the nervous singers told Wheeler that they were surprised how well they remembered the music of Act I. Wheeler attributes the singer's facility to remember their parts to something he learned from Virgil Thomson.


Having studied privately with Thomson, Wheeler said he was fascinated by the senior composer's facility with words. Wheeler maintains that all opera composers eagerly read poetry and are attracted to words but Thomson had an extraordinary gift with words. Wheeler's favorite operas are Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, the two groundbreaking operas that Thomson created with Gertrude Stein. Wheeler said there is and has been no other composer who can capture the balance that Thomson achieved with Gertrude Stein's words. Thomson was able to create some sort of logical flow between his composition and Stein's words that make both the music and text equally memorable.


Wheeler offered that his one-act opera The Construction of Boston with libretto by poet Kenneth Koch was Wheeler's Four Saints in Three Acts while Democracy, a more mature work, is his Mother of Us All. When asked about the failed collaboration between Koch and Thomson, Wheeler said he had looked at the libretto Koch wrote for Thomson and "agreed with Virgil that the libretto just wasn't workable." However, The Construction of Boston, which Wheeler dedicated to Thomson and which has been produced several times, still excites Wheeler, who would like to have the piece recorded.


With WNO's flawless production of Billy Budd still reverberating in this interviewer's ears, the next logical question for Wheeler was what influence has Benjamin Britten's work had on yours? Wheeler answered, "We [composers] are all in the shadow of Britten's first opera Peter Grimes. Britten was the greatest composer of the 20th Century." Interestingly, Wheeler characterizes Britten's operetta Paul Bunyan (written in 1940), with fabulist text by poet W. H. Auden, as Britten's Four Saints in Three Acts. Wheeler added that he [Wheeler] was also influenced by the music of Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weil, and many Broadway musicals, including the music theater work of Stephen Sondheim. "The music I mention isn't all equal," Wheeler explained, "but my work has benefited from a wide range of American musical sources."


Following instinct, Wheeler went to the library and read plays by Romulus Linney until he found Democracy and Esther, a play that was first produced in 1974. In many ways, this play—set in Washington, DC, and focused on early American politics—dovetails with Gertrude Stein's original suggestion to Virgil Thomson that their first opera collaboration center around George Washington, a suggestion that Thomson nixed saying eighteenth-century characters in wigs all looked alike. One of the characters in the opera Democracy is described in the libretto's introduction as "The frankly corrupt Bulgarian Ambassador Baron Jacobi, who sings directly to the audience as compère throughout the opera." In Four Saints in Three Acts, Thomson, drawing from a centuries old theatrical stock character often employed in more modern day Burlesque, created a compère and commère who spoke to the audience and provided all of Stein's stage directions. What Wheeler did not know about Linney until some time after they agreed to work with one another was that Linney knew Virgil Thomson. Although Wheeler did not say Linney was influenced by Thomson and Thomson' history with Stein, one feels the reverberations between these artists.

When asked what the process was like, working with Linney on the libretto, Wheeler said it was he, the composer, who initiated the work by cutting various passages. Then Linney would say what needed to be put back in and what other passages should be cut.


New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has described Wheeler's work as "tonally grounded, although polychordal harmonies and elements of modified serialism often run through his works. His writing is also characterized by strong rhythms and lucid textures." Concerning the music, the interviewer asked if Wheeler considered any aspect of Democracy experimental or breaking any of the standard practices of opera. To this, Wheeler replied no, that he considered the concept experimental to be in the same category as the composer's philosophy of music. Again, Wheeler felt his rules of thumb applied and what he, as a composer, wanted to achieve related to audience satisfaction. Another more rarefied music-related question the interviewer asked Wheeler concerned whether there were any strains of Bulgarian music in Democracy. Although Wheeler gave this question serious consideration, he said that the Bulgarian Baron Jacobi was more likely to have been oriented as a man of the world to Paris.

To date, Wheeler has worked on Democracy with student singers from the Boston Conservatory who performed with a veteran singer under the sponsorship of New York City's American Opera Projects, with New York City Opera's orchestra in the Vox  2000 program (Wheeler's work was selected by NYCO's composer-in-resident Deborah Drattell), and finally under commission with Washington National Opera after he was heard at Vox by Placido Domingo. What will happen for Democracy, regarding follow-on productions, remains unknown at this time, but the hope is that the world premiere by an opera company with a rising reputation will make a difference. In the meantime, Wheeler goes about his business with the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble promoting such composers as Judith Weir and Steven Hartke, while at Emerson College he teaches new crops of artists about musical theater. More importantly, Wheeler stands ready with antennae working for the right combination of inspiration, subject matter, and potential funding for his next opera.  

©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier, is an award-winning poet and
writes a monthly column for Scene4. For her latest column
in this issue, click here.
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