- Writing American Opera: William Bolcom on Music, Language, and Theater
Daniel Herwitz: Bill, you came at opera first through music theater, didn’t you? The initial pieces that you did in the 1960s with your longtime librettist, Arnold Weinstein, were music theater.
William Bolcom: Arnold Weinstein and I began that way. I never thought I was going to be doing grand opera for a major opera house; that’s another story . . . First, I was in Paris at the Conservatoire studying with Darius Milhaud, who would have his class with maybe six to ten people every week. He never did teach a one-on-one class. After one of the classes he mentioned that he had just gotten back from Florence. His son Daniel was there studying with the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Milhaud brought back a script of Danny’s friend Arnold Weinstein, who had put together this libretto called Comedy of Horrors. And would I be interested? I think Milhaud looked at it for himself and decided it was a bit too American for him and maybe it might be good for me. I took it home, came back the next week, and said that I’d love to do it. So Milhaud said, “Well, you have to get permission.” I wrote Arnold, and he replied with one of the very few letters I’ve ever gotten from him.
So I started working on it in 1960, and in 1961 the draft called me back to America in the middle of my Paris Conservatoire time. I was expelled from the conservatoire because of the draft, and I had some difficulty getting back in. I went back to New York and didn’t know what I was going to do. So I wrote Arnold and I said I’m coming. He never wrote back. So I took the boat, which was cheaper in those days than a plane. I was met at the boat by John Gruen, who was a sometime composer but more a photographer, who used to do theater and music criticing for the Herald-Tribune. And he said, “Well, we’re having a party in your honor,” and I was driven over to this place on 57th Street where Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and all the painters like Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Jane Freilicher—the whole crew was there. Morton Feldman was there and David Diamond and Lukas Foss; they all knew each other, and they were all friends of Arnold’s. They gave me this terrific party, and I fell asleep at it because of the “boat lag.” I woke up during the party, and my head was in Frank O’Hara’s lap.
I was about ten years younger than everybody else and was treated like a kid brother. I needed a place to be put up; people had spare rooms in New York at that time, so there I was in a borrowed room, waiting for the ax to fall. By that time I’d [End Page 521] already done the first sketch of Dynamite Tonite (still called Comedy of Horrors), had sent it to Arnold on reel-to-reel, and he’d played it for all his friends and they were all excited. Immediately, Arnold wanted to revise and fix it, so he started screwing around with it, and we got it to about three hours long. Then we had to bring it down again to about an hour, and, you know, we were just learning how to work together.
But in the meantime, I realized that Dynamite was not going to work for regular singers—I had wondered about who was going to do it. I just felt that the music that came out of the words that Arnold gave me didn’t generate something that would be done for the opera singer in that particular period, which was a strange kind of a bird when it came to English—particularly because English diction was being taught in music school in this very odd way. They would “Italianize” the vowels, and they would spit the consonants out so you end up with what Luciano Berio used to...