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Fort Worth Opera Presents Its First World Premiere

By Bill Zeeble, KERA reporter

Fort Worth, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter:
Fort Worth Opera director Darren Woods says he and the board wanted to shake up the local opera world, but not too much. Still present the favorites by Puccini and Wagner, but also create something fresh & different. Woods says everyone knew the risks - that audiences might not show.

Darren Woods, Fort Worth Opera Director: Because people are resistant to change.

Zeeble: So the six-year director, a former singer with the Santa Fe Opera, decided his company's first-ever commissioned work for its main stage should be accessible, not the kind of modern music that spurns people. He chose little-known but highly regarded Thomas Pasatieri, who spent the last 2 decades in Hollywood, orchestrating successful movie scores like Road to Perdition, American Beauty and some 4 dozen others.

Woods: We can say to people he's the one who orchestrated Finding Nemo and here he is again writing opera. There's a sense to people that they feel they know this guy.

Zeeble: Only thing is, the composer of 17 previous operas wrote his last one 21 years ago. He stopped to make money in movies, tired of pursuing his opera-composing passion only to get good reviews, a lone performance, and that gnawing need for another paycheck. All along, though, he still had that OTHER need - to write operas.

Thomas Pasatieri, composer: It's as natural to me as breathing. I could not be happier than when I'm writing an opera. As I started to write Frau Margot, those who know the libretto of La Boheme of Puccini, when Mimi enters in the last act, and says Cira Nache I'm reborn, I'm reborn, I feel life again, here. And that's just what I felt as I was writing. Opera. It is my nature, it's what I do.

Zeeble: He started doing it again after a trip to New York 5 years ago. Pasatieri was there for that a revived production of his most successful opera The Seagull, from 1974. In the theater, he saw an old colleague - celebrated stage director and librettist Frank Corsaro, who directed the original Seagull. This time he pitched him some new projects. The story for Frau Margot was based on a real tale related to him by Leonard Bernstein. Years earlier, Bernstein had visited the widow of 20th century master Alban Berg, who's death in 1935 left his last opera, Lulu, undone. Bernstein asked to finish it. Corsaro says the composer was given a tour of the residence.

Frank Corsaro, librettist: The house is a museum to the dead man, complete with death mask, music exactly as it lay when he left, his clothes in the closet, his shirts, washed once every week, washed and ironed, in glass cases, his music laying on his desk with a song he was working on. Lennie, dashingly looked at it and completed it. And she thought well, how wonderful, and he thought he was in.

Zeeble: But he wasn't. Berg's widow [Helene] told Bernstein he was actually number 40 or 41 who asked to complete it. She told him she'd consult her husband and get back to him. Figuring she arranged a s ance, Bernstein heard a few days later he'd been rejected. Corsaro took that seed of a strange story and grew a script. He added a mysterious murder of the widow's female assistant, and an appealing young male composer who's a love interest, to drive the drama. And he changed Berg's dissonant musical style to Pasatieri's tuneful, lush harmonies.

Corsaro: He's a romantic composer. We need it. Because music is essentially about a romance with some infinite place, a person, a thing. And when you hear most modern music, which is arithmetic, you suffer.

Zeeble: Pasatieri - who studied with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger says he's NEVER been that type of composer. This work's no exception. But his writing's more efficient & simpler, after decades of film work.

Pasatieri: And one of the things that happened in those 20 years. I got to see many of my operas performed on the stage, and I felt that there were certain elements that could be better. I felt there was too much percussion, & in some cases, I felt too much orchestra accompaniment, recitative, which was tiring for the audience. So all this experience with film, and just the passage of time, helped me into creating this opera.

Zeeble: But most important about opera composing, says Pasatieri, - and the reason he's forever in love with it - is that it's about the voice. And he's surprised other composers seem to miss that.

Pasatieri: The drama must be carried by the voice .That's what opera is. I'm not saying orchestra isn't important or that acting isn't important. But the drama is carried by the voice. By vocal means. And unless you have that inside you, the idea of doing it for the voice and it coming out of the voice, then it's not going to touch the audience in a way that only opera can.

Zeeble: Classical music critic for the Dallas Morning News, Scott Cantrell, says this opera does touch the audience.

Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News Classical Critic: I think I described it as cinematic, Anglo-Americana. It's stuff you could imagine Barber writing 50 years earlier, some English composers a bit of that, maybe a bit of Strauss. It's NOT a threatening idiom at all. The writing for voices seems to be very grateful. Some people will say it's old fashioned but its really beautifully written.

Zeeble: Cantrell says the piece has its flaws. Comic sequences in this otherwise serious story don't work well for him. And chord changes fall too frequently on downbeats. But he says Frau Margot's got legs, and deserves repeat productions. That's the expectation of music director and conductor Joe Illick, who says this work has everything.

Joe Illick, Music Director: It's going to be a much more approachable opera than a lot of new operas. It's a murder mystery. It's got sex, it's got jealousy, it's got great tunes, it's musically complex and yet an audience member hearing if for the first time will feel like they understood it, and maybe want to see it again.

Zeeble: Which he and opera director Darren Woods say is nearly all anyone can hope for. The Fort Worth Opera's main stage World Premiere of Frau Margot has 2 more performances, Friday and Sunday. For KERA 90.1 I'm Bill Zeeble.