: Kamran Ince’s New Opera, With Help From Present Music
As I wrote in an earlier
review of his music, “Despite thorough conservatory training in Turkey and in the United States (Oberlin, the Eastman School of Music), Kamran Ince (b.1960) composes not like an academic, but like someone who wants to make an immediate and non-condescending connection with his listeners.” His music has made such connections in many places, but especially in Turkey (where he was raised) and in the United States (where he was born). Currently, he teaches composition at the University of Memphis, and is co-director of the Center for Advanced Research in Music at the Istanbul Technical University. Milwaukee has been another lucky locale for him, largely through his continuing relationship with Present Music, a new-music ensemble founded in 1982 by Kevin Stalheim. Present Music has commissioned, premiered, and performed a number of Ince’s works, and has recorded several of them for the Naxos and Innova labels. Reviews of the most recent releases on each of those labels follow this article. The reason for this article, however, is Ince’s most ambitious project yet: a full-length opera titled
Judgment of Midas
. It will be premiered, in a semi-staged version, on April 12, 2013, in a co-production by Present Music and Milwaukee Opera Theatre.
Ince talks about the opera’s origins. “Over time, I had become good friends with Crawford Greenewalt Jr., the same patron who commissioned my Fourth Symphony, “Sardis.” We would meet a couple times a year over dinner, and during one of our conversations, I told him that I would really like to write an opera. For a composer, it’s the ultimate experience, because it brings so many elements together. I wasn’t really pitching it to him at that time, but then, three or four years later—this would have been about 12 years ago—he brought it up again and asked me if I still wanted to do it. Because he was an archeologist, who had spent many years heading the excavations at the Lydian ruins at Sardis, he had a particular subject in mind. He suggested an opera based on the musical contest, as described in Ovid, between Pan and Apollo, because legend has it that the contest had taken place at that site, near Mount Tmolos. King Midas, after the episode in which he is cursed and his touch turns everything into gold, goes there and witnesses this contest. What interested me most about this subject was the contrast, or even clash, between what you might call popular or ‘street’ music, represented by Pan, and serious and spiritual music, represented by Apollo. The question of which is better probably will go on forever! (Of course there is no correct answer, because both of them can be great, in their own way. Classical musicians sometimes put down popular music, but it is extremely difficult to write a good pop song.) Other aspects of this story that interested me included the fact that it took place in the Anatolian region of Turkey, and that it gave me an opportunity to use ethnic instruments associated with the region.
“Before I could go any further, I had to consider the libretto. You can’t just look in the phone book and find a librettist! I was at a concert in Philadelphia, where a work of mine was being performed. As luck would have it, at the cocktail reception following the concert, I met the poet Miriam Seidel, who recently had finished writing the libretto for an opera about Nikola Tesla. I told her about my opera, and I felt a connection, a sort of electricity, as I was talking with her. I sensed a flexibility and an openness that I found attractive, so I approached Crawford about having Miriam write the libretto for the opera, and he agreed. Crawford passed away last May, but he was able to hear an early draft of the opera in New York, in January 2011. It is sad that he will not be at the premiere, but I like to think that, although life ends, opera goes on.
“The libretto started to take shape. Initially, it was just a mythological story of the contest between Pan and Apollo, judged by Tmolos, the mountain god, and witnessed by Midas. It was great, but it was kind of frozen in time. Something big was missing. I wanted a modern element in the story. As a composer, I am interested in the past, but I also am interested in the present. This being an opera, I suggested to Miriam that maybe we could add a modern love story, and also address the clash between traditional Turkish and American cultures. What if we added a present day composer of serious music, who has a pop diva girlfriend? Like every couple, they don’t agree on everything, and they are envious of each other, in different ways. They understand each other, but not fully. They could be tourists. What if they go to Turkey, and visit the mosaics at Sardis depicting the contest between Pan and Apollo? Theo, the composer, has a commission to complete, and he is there trying to find ideas for his next piece. His pop diva girlfriend, whose name is Annie, is more spontaneous, and she wants him to experience the site from her perspective. The present and the legendary past intersect; Annie gets lost and finds herself in the middle of the contest between the two gods. We added the character of a Turkish guide, who turns out to be Midas. This is the direction in which the libretto went.
“It starts out with Pan boasting about what a terrific musician he is. His boasting wakes up Tmolos, who proposes the idea of a contest between Pan and Apollo. Apollo is just as sure of himself as Pan. At first, the two of them are so cocky that they don’t try very hard, but they keep on going. Annie is drawn more to Pan, and Theo favors Apollo. The contest escalates, and you can imagine what an opportunity this is for me as a composer! Eventually, all hell breaks loose—pandemonium ensues, so to speak—and everyone loses themselves in a sort of voodoo ceremonial trance. Apollo restores order and sanity. As I was writing this opera, I kept going back and forth as to whether the kind of music represented by Pan or by Apollo was more effective. Ultimately, I found a balance between the two. Tmolos, however, finally declares Apollo the winner. Midas becomes angry, and thinks the mountain god has made the wrong choice. Remember that Midas, as a mortal, is not completely within the gods’ consciousness, but he gets Apollo’s attention, and Apollo is incredulous that Midas thinks that Pan is superior to Apollo. And so, Apollo gives Midas the ears of an ass out of spite. At first, Midas is embarrassed by these ears, but he quickly realizes that, with them, he can hear amazing things he has never heard before, such as the turning of the earth, the electricity in the air, and so on. He starts to hear like a god, and again, this gives me great opportunities as a composer. Theo and Annie experience all this turmoil, and through it, they examine their feelings about music, and about each other. Through Midas’s discovery, they realize that what matters is not what you listen to, but how you listen to it. Having learned open-mindedness, their love for each other is reaffirmed, and there is a happy ending!”
The story might be ambitious, but Ince did not want his first opera to become impractical to perform. The forces required actually are quite modest: six singers, an eight-member choir (SSAATTBB), and two dozen instrumentalists. Ince laughs, “I can make 25 instruments sound really big!” Among the latter, four musicians play Turkish instruments: ney, kemenche, kanun, and saz. Still, Ince doesn’t consider
Judgment of Midas
to be a chamber opera. “Originally, the opera was to have been 70 minutes long. However, as the story started to take on a life of its own, 70 minutes became 90, then 100, then 105. That was its length when we did the piano-vocal presentation of the score in New York. At that point, it still was in one act. We realized that we needed to split the opera into two acts, and when we did that, it was clear that there were places where we could add new material . . . a first act finale, and so on. Now it’s 120 minutes long, in two acts.
“I was a total rookie coming into this project. Although I had written vocal music before, I did not have much experience setting a text to music. For example, in my Fifth Symphony, “Galatasaray,” the music actually came before the text; I adjusted the music to the text later. It wasn’t until 2006, when I wrote a work,
for the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, that I had a significant experience with setting a text—in that case, a poem by Jelaleddin Rumi. I was really lost when it came time to start composing, but with assistance from my publisher and from American Opera Project, I was able to stage the libretto before writing a single note of music. That helped me to see my way forward. I wanted to have about 10 set-pieces—arias, duets, and so on—that one could sing after the opera was over. Not everyone approaches opera that way anymore, but that was the approach I wanted to take. By the way, there are a lot of male singers in the opera, but you should know that the role of Pan is assigned to a coloratura soprano!”
Ince quickly decided that it would be impractical to have ethnic singing in his new opera, although initially he considered it. “Once I realized the depth and richness of operatic singing, I was OK with leaving ethnic voices out. I learned so many things as I composed this opera. For example, in instrumental music, a very abstract melodic line might not sound good, but with voice, it can work very well. The synergy between the music and the text and the fullness of an operatic voice opens doors, and brings the music into a new dimension. I’ve always thought that the human voice is the ultimate musical instrument. I sing when I compose, even though I don’t have a good voice!”
It was Crawford Greenewalt, then, who got
Judgment of Midas
out of the starting gate. “He was so generous every step of the way. He didn’t know what he was getting into with this project any more than I did!” That was only the beginning, however. “Getting an operatic commission is just the start; an opera also needs an opera company. Crawford and I went into the project naïvely, but we learned fast.” Although opera is as new to them as it was to Ince, Present Music has been instrumental in bringing
Judgment of Midas
to its first performance. “Initially, the opera was to have been a co-production of the Florentine Opera Company and Present Music, both based in Milwaukee. Over time, though, it has become a Present Music project, in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre.” Will Ince conduct it? “Maybe. I’m told it’s better for the composer to be a little bit on the outside, but we’ll see. The compactness of the instrumental ensemble makes Present Music’s involvement possible; they can easily expand from their core group. A few years ago, to commemorate their 25th anniversary, they commissioned
Hammers and Whistlers
from me, which is a fairly large work. They brought in the Milwaukee Choral Artists, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, and the strings of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony, so they have the ability to pull in other performers from all around the community. Since 1991, I have had an amazing relationship with them. They, or members of their regular audience, have commissioned something like a dozen works from me, and I have a great relationship with [Present Music founder and artistic director] Kevin Stalheim. Present Music knows and understands my music very well. In some places, the stars align, and for me as a composer, Milwaukee is one of those places.”
Stalheim takes up the story from here. “Present Music has been performing Ince’s works since the early 1990s. I was introduced to his music by [American composer] Michael Torke, and I liked it right away. Through what today is known as Meet The Composer, we commissioned
from him, and premiered it in 1992. It’s been a strong relationship . . . you might say he’s been a
composer-in-residence with us. We’ve also played many works of his that weren’t commissioned by or for us. We’ve even been to Turkey several times to play his music. Although he and I don’t live close to each other, he’s become a good friend of mine; we’ve even gone canoeing together!
“His music comes out of him in a very natural way. He gets spontaneous ideas, sometimes so crazy and beautiful, and then he has fun with them. Some composers can be very one-dimensional, meaning that they skew either to the more emotional or the more intellectual ends of the spectrum. I don’t have a problem with that; I like working with those composers. However, Kamran’s music is adventurous and full of contrasts. He has scope—his vision of what is possible is huge. His writing can be gorgeous, and then a minute later it can be really in your face with tension and gritty dissonance. His changes can be sudden, but his music makes sense. It always feels right to me.”
Has it felt right to audiences in the Milwaukee area? “A lot of the commissions for his music have come from our audiences. When someone approaches me with an idea for a commission, Kamran’s name is consistently at the top of the list. We are known for our ability to attract large audiences to our concerts. Kamran’s music appeals to our audiences because they tend to have broad tastes, and they like to be taken on a surprising ride. The variety of his writing mirrors the variety of our programs in general. For example, on a typical program, we might do a piece by Steve Reich and a piece by Charles Wuorinen. Both of those composers are quite focused, in my opinion, in how they think and how they write music. Kamran’s music is more diverse. He’s one of the few composers whose music would work in a single-composer program because of the variety in his writing, within and between pieces. Our audiences like that. They’re not the typical new-music nerds. It’s a diverse group, not generally from a specialist background.
“Once, Present Music did a concert with the Milwaukee Symphony, and Kamran wrote a concertante work for the occasion. We played it in several places, including in Milwaukee, where symphony audiences are not known for being particularly adventurous. It was a challenging piece, with some moments that were odd, as well as moments that were beautiful. At the end, when Kamran went onstage to take his bow, he was cheered like a rock star. It was not the kind of applause you normally hear after a new work is premiered. This was different; it felt spontaneous.”
Once the music has been composed and is passed on to the performers, how deeply does Ince get involved? Is he a “laissez faire” composer, or does he want to continue exerting an influence? “He is a little of both, actually. He’s really passionate about his ideas, and how they come out in his music. At the same time, if a performer suggests, in rehearsal, an idea of his own, Kamran is very open to it. He likes to remain involved with his music. He doesn’t want to just sit on the sidelines and say, “Yeah, that was great,” and leave it at that. I find him a lot of fun to work with. Sometimes composers come on a little strong. The musicians in Present Music are into that, generally. We like strong personalities. We are excited when the composer is there, and working to bring his vision to life.”
Stalheim’s word to describe the history of Present Music’s involvement in
Judgment of Midas
is “epic”—it’s been a long time in the making, after all. “Sometimes I wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into, because we’re not an opera company. Even so, I know Kamran, and I know his music, and this is something which is within our reach. In this case, with Crawford Greenewalt commissioning this opera, and not even commissioning it specifically for us, we didn’t come in on the ground floor, as we usually do. As the opera was getting closer to completion, I’d ask Kamran who was going to perform it. There were a lot of ideas, but nothing definite, and finally I told him that Present Music would do it. I laid it on the line, even though I didn’t know where the financial backing would come from. Even with the assumption that we would present it in a semi-staged version, it was pretty daunting for a chamber ensemble like us, particularly when we started thinking about things like lighting and costumes and staging. Even now, we’re not exactly sure how it’s going to work.
“Kamran’s been talking to me about recording the opera immediately after the premiere. I think it would be absurd if we don’t, but at this point, we don’t have the money to do it. The premiere is in less than seven months, and in the meantime, I hope we can raise the needed funds so we can pitch the idea to Naxos or Innova, the labels who released our earlier discs of Kamran’s music. In general, recording is not our number one priority. We don’t record every single commission or premiere, but we try to do it as much as we can. It all comes down to money. Sadly, not a lot of people want CDs of the kind of music that we perform. You have to be a John Adams to create the kind of interest among potential buyers that sells CDs, and even then, the volume is not exactly huge. Still, I feel great about the recordings that we have released, and it’s really cool that people all over the world are able to listen to them. When someone in a university in Germany hears one of our discs, and writes about it on a blog, or something like that, that’s terrific.”
For listeners looking for more information about Kamran Ince, his website is kamranince.com. Present Music’s website is presentmusic.org.
Flight Box. MKG Variations. In White. In Memoriam 8/17/99. Turquoise
INNOVA 600 (66:45)
Hammers and Whistlers.
Kevin Stalheim, cond; Present Music;
Milwaukee Children’s Ch;
Milwaukee Choral Artists;
Hadass Pal-Yarden (ethnic voice);
Neva Özgen (kemenche);
Ali Çabuk (bouzouki)
NAXOS 9.70011 (68:13)