Donald Crockett’s ‘The Face’ opera adapts David St. John’s poetry

BOSTON — Donald Crockett is not the only composer partial to poetry, but his affinity runs especially deep. So much so that his first opera, “The Face,” which will have its premiere at the Aratani / Japan America Theatre on Saturday, uses poems as source material.

The poems in question are by David St. John, who like Crockett is a professor at USC. But the composer’s admiration for his colleague’s work transcends academic loyalty. “Music figures in David’s poetry, and he’s very attentive to relationships — particularly love,” Crockett said, sitting in a hotel lobby near the New England Conservatory of Music, where rehearsals for “The Face” were taking place last month. “And I find that very compelling.”

The journey of Crockett and St. John’s 80-minute chamber opera from page to stage has been a long one — some seven years — but their collaboration predates that. When the composer received a commission from the British a cappella group the Hilliard Ensemble in late 2002, he approached the poet about setting two of his poems. St. John consented, and the seeds for a bigger project were sown.


A Guggenheim fellowship allowed Crockett to take a year’s sabbatical from teaching in 2007. “I always wanted to do an opera in which the libretto was a poem,” he said. “So I approached David, and we talked about several ideas and agreed on using ‘The Face,’ which is a novella in verse. Colleagues had said to him, ‘You should make an opera with this book.’”

A loosely linked collection of 45 poems, “The Face” is a slim, enigmatic volume whose touchstones are love, grief and alienation. But the book cannot simply be overlaid with music and sung as cohesive drama.

“It doesn’t have a clear, sequential arc,” said St. John by phone from his L.A. home last week. “Its mobile-like aspects just wouldn’t work as an opera. So my first job was to create a sequence of scenes with a through-line drawn from those 45 parts.”

St. John culled till he had 11 scenes, though he knew they would have to be streamlined to function effectively as opera. He welcomed the new challenge. “For me, that was the excitement,” he said, “to convey both the sense of the book’s psychology and provide the audience with a clear but complicated narrative. Don also marked particular passages and phrases he wanted to set, and I made sure I included them in the libretto.”

The poet labels the opera “a classical Faustian story” and describes the action as the struggles of “a writer who has to choose between having his life put on film at presumed expense to his soul and the conflict that engenders with memories and values he prized more greatly at a younger stage.”

The protagonist, unidentified in the poems, is now called Raphael, after the Renaissance painter. His lost love — depicted in the opera in several filmed scenes directed by Anton Nadler — was to be named Maria, but Crockett feared setting that name to music would bring to mind “West Side Story,” and so St. John offered Marina instead. “She’s this ideal woman, this muse,” Crockett explained. “Her loss is the reason Raphael is struggling. She’s the dramatic center. That’s the love story.”

One of the opera’s more interesting conceits is its use of the same singer in the roles of Marina and Cybele, an ambitious actress who enchants Raphael and attempts to persuade him to allow the making of a movie about his life. The cast is rounded out by the filmmaker Infanta and an unscrupulous producer, Memphis (a play on the name Mephistopheles), a character created for the opera based on a reference in the novella.

Crockett says he wrote about half the opera during his 2007 sabbatical and then continued working on it over the two years that followed. “I let it sit for a bit, adjusted the instrumentation and then reworked it again. I added some instruments to beef up the sound a little, even though it’s chamber opera. So the completion date is 2011. My chief melodic instrument in this piece was, and remains, the cello, which I use in the high register.”

The composer is probably best known to L.A. audiences for his seven years as composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the 1990s. In total, he’s written five pieces for LACO, including “Roethke Preludes” (1994) and most recently “Fanfares & Laments” (2005). He has also been the conductor of the new-music ensemble Xtet for the last 25 years. In February, his viola concerto will be premiered in Boston, and a new chamber concerto for clarinet will have its debut inWashington, D.C., in April.

If Crockett found his literary inspiration for “The Face” close to home, he had to travel farther to connect with those who would make the opera come alive. None of the singers are local, and the players who make up the Firebird Ensemble hail from Boston, as does conductor Gil Rose. Director Paul Desveaux of the French theatrical troupe L’Heliotrope gets credit for the production’s concept, but Yano Iatrides, the company’s choreographer, created the actual staging.

“It was a challenge,” she confided in Boston, shortly before a rehearsal. “The poetry of David St. John is not always so easy to understand. I try to put more concrete ideas on contemporary works — keeping the original concept but trying to get audiences to feel it. Music is not just for the brain.”

Whether the opera will be staged after its premiere has to be determined, but Crockett has no misgivings about beginning the work’s theatrical life in L.A. He cites the recent success of the opera “Crescent City” by CalArts faculty members Anne LeBaron and Douglas Kearney — which, like “The Face,” was not presented by an established company.

“Because the audience for ‘Crescent City’ went far beyond usual operagoers,” Crockett said, “that makes me confident there’s interest in new theatrical experiences that are operatic. So it feels like L.A. is a good place to premiere new opera right now.”