Insider Interview with Tom Cipullo, composer
On Saturday, December 1 at 7:00 pm, Chelsea Opera presents the New York City premieres of two one-act operas Josephine and After Life at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church (120 W 69th St.). More info online at www.chelseaopera.org/season. In this Insider Interview, we spoke with with the composer of these new works, Tom Cipullo, about the upcoming premieres.
What draws you to opera as a genre?
There is nothing like opera - its challenges, its impact, the forces required, its duration, the amount of time it takes to create, the imagination required. And along with all these factors, there is also the incredible risk involved. There are a million ways for an opera to go wrong and only a few for it to completely right. With its risks and its tremendous emotional payoff, composing opera is the ultimate addiction.
A number of your operas focus on real-life stories, or at least real-life characters. What are the challenges and rewards of dealing with these subjects?
If the subject of the opera is famous, there is an added layer of audience expectation. Does it seem real that the character would say the words they have been given? Or, more difficult yet, would he or she sing them in a way that seems consistent with our knowledge of them? If the character was a real person and not well-known, it seems to me that there is added obligation to make sure I’m telling their story – their emotional story at least, if not every factual detail.
Both Josephine and After Life center around events of 1920’s Paris. What interests you about this era?
I wasn’t really interested in the era so much, though Paris is my favorite city in the world. My interest was more in the people, especially in the case of Josephine.
How did you come to collaborate with David Mason, the librettist for After Life? Talk about the process.
I was very fortunate that the Music of Remembrance organization in Seattle commissioned After Life. The artistic director of MOR, Mina Miller, sent me David’s brilliant libretto, and I jumped at the chance to compose music for it. With its beautiful language, variety, and deeply moving story, the libretto is wonderfully inspiring.
Both After Life and Josephine are scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Tell me about this choice of instrumentation.
This is me at my most practical. It’s a very standard instrumentation that works well as a group, and it makes sense financially also. When I was composing After Life, I originally wanted to add a harp, but since the premiere was scheduled for one performance in Seattle and another a few days later in San Francisco, the cartage just didn’t make economic sense. Since we composers don’t work for princes and dukes anymore, and since we don’t have the luxury of government support as they do in Europe, contemporary American composers need to be a very practical and flexible bunch – and that’s not a bad thing at all.
As you developed your style as a composer, which composers or works influenced your thought process and your work, in particular, your vocal works?
Among many others, I would cite especially Tchaikovsky, Schumann, David Del Tredici, Frank Loesser, and Aaron Copland. And especially for opera, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, and Britten. That’s a bit of an odd mix, isn’t it? But the names on that list add up to 9 – enough for a baseball team. (There are other influences, of course - opera composers are big on borrowing!)