Stefan Weisman and David Cote Discuss Making The Scarlet Ibis
We sat down with composer Stefan Weisman and librettist David Cote to learn more about how they collaborate and the process for creating The Scarlet Ibis
Stefan Weisman, composer
David Cote, librettist
BOC: This isn't your first time working together. How do you collaborate?
David Cote: Stefan I have known each other since we were freshmen together at Bard College. I studied theater and literature, he went into music composition. He actually turned me on to some of the composers I still love: Gershwin, Shostakovich, Schnittke.
Stefan Weisman: And I remember, after American Opera Projects did my opera, Darkling, in 2007, you approached me about collaborating. I said sure, we could do something, but without a commission or support from a company, it’s hard to get anything off the ground. Then a few days later, I got an email from a London opera company called Second Movement. They wanted to commission a 20-minute piece to go on a bill with Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, so we wrote Fade. We enjoyed working together and continued.
DC: I’d say we collaborate pretty organically. We give each other space to create, we share our work and give feedback, we try to talk as much as possible in advance—but also try to let the work lead us.
What is special about this opera?
SW: It’s one of the very few pieces that is aimed at both adults and younger audiences. But it’s not really designed for young kids. I think there are quite a number of plays and musicals, and maybe even a few operas that are intended for small kids, eight and younger. We always talked about this opera as something that could be enjoyed by adults and younger people.
DC: Even though the protagonists are relatively young children, you could bring a teenager to the opera. They would appreciate its darkness, the theme of bullying, the pressure to be “normal,” the tragic ending. I think The Scarlet Ibis doesn’t insult a younger audience’s intelligence. I always like to brag: At the world premiere in New York, we had both kids and adults crying at the end. Success!
SW: Another thing that’s unique is: the two leads are a countertenor and mezzo-soprano, both high voices for male characters. And they are two different genders. And the weaker of the two is a male singer, and the stronger is a female singer. We’re playing around with traditional notions of gender and power.
How and why did you decide that Doodle would be a puppet?
SW: In the early stages, it never occurred to me that Doodle would be embodied by a puppet, and voiced by a countertenor. But the director of the world premiere, Mallory Catlett, made a strong case for it. I mean, I always assumed the ibis and other animals would be puppets, but not necessarily Doodle. And I remember at first feeling kind of resistant, because I’d never seen an opera in which a main character was a puppet.
DC: Although opera is not a realistic medium, I always thought having adult actors play kids of six or eight was going to be hard. Despite the inevitable suspension of disbelief, and the beauty of Stefan’s music, I think it made sense having Doodle played by a puppet. It makes him more otherworldly, sets him apart from his family. And it’s neat, thematically, because Doodle and the scarlet ibis have a bond in that they’re both puppets. Also, Doodle talks about how his body is broken and he’s bullied/manipulated by his brother.
What comes first, music or libretto?
SW: Story. If you don’t have a solid story and characters to care about, I think you will never have clarity in the writing process.
DC: And it won’t be clear for audiences, either. I mean, it’s tricky. Opera is by nature abstract and it unfolds in “opera time,” which is not the same as straight-play time, or movie time, or even Broadway-musical time. And I think a lot of opera people believe the quality of the libretto isn’t actually important, since the music drives the drama. But if the opera doesn’t have “good bones,” I think it’s in danger of seeming inert and inaccessible.
SW: First thing that comes is the story, next is the libretto, or at least a scene or two. And then the music comes after the libretto has been more or less set.
DC: If we’re having a story meeting, discussing a particular scene, Stefan might say something, a tossed-off line or an idea that sparks an aria or a piece of dialogue. I love being inspired like that, grabbing a random remark and spinning it into song.
SW: Once you send me a draft, I offer suggestions for editing. To fine-tune the libretto. And if we’re working with a director who’s also a dramaturg, that person is key to developing the piece. Before I set anything, if possible, it’s also really helpful to have a “libretto reading” to hear the words performed out loud—not with singers, but with actors. To hear how it works as drama. And of course when I set it to music, at that stage, small changes or cuts will usually happen.
How much of the libretto is straight from James Hurst's short story?
SW: A libretto is essentially dialogue and monologues, like a play. Most of the James Hurst’s original short story is description in the past tense, so you could say that David pretty much reinvented the language in our adaptation of The Scarlet Ibis, but the themes and plot come from the story.
DC: I definitely lifted whatever dialogue I could get from Hurst’s text, like in “Learning to Walk.” But yeah, when you adapt, you crack open the story so that you can dramatize events that are only alluded to. You make everything present and active, with conflict and momentum. A big difference between Hurst’s story and the libretto is that in the short story an older man narrates his memories of Doodle. We could have created a framing device, an old man looking back. But we decided to filter everything in the opera through Brother’s POV: the birth, Doodle’s disability, the scarlet ibis, everything. The opera is from a child’s perspective. Which means that cruelty and bullying happen without us moralizing about it.
How much did James Hurst's style inform the libretto?
DC: The story is very much in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, even William Faulkner. The language is lush and flowery, the emotions run high and the ending is both beautiful and tragic. Like Williams’s Blanche DuBois, Doodle is an ethereal creature, too fragile for this cruel world. I’m not a Southerner. I grew up in small-town New Hampshire. But I did draw on memories of living near a lake and playing in the woods to create the sense of nature and wonder in the opera. I also tried to balance his rhapsodic-genteel quality with emotional sharpness, which comes from my Yankee roots. Part of what inspired Hurst’s story, he told me when I spoke to him, was feeling like he didn’t belong in his family. He particularly didn’t get along with his brother, who called him a “sissy.” I think we tried to bring out a deeper layer of the story, one about the wise, strange child who feels apart from the family, who wants to fly away, but who is also doomed.
What is your approach to the music?
SW: Soon after David and I discussed adapting The Scarlet Ibis, I got a commission to compose a piece for soprano Dawn Upshaw’s studio at the Bard College Conservatory, so I took the opportunity to create one scene—a scene from the middle of the opera, “Learning to Walk.” This helped me get a handle on the main characters, Brother and Doodle. After this scene was performed at Bard and the Morgan Museum Library in Manhattan, David and I were accepted as resident artists at HERE, which committed to premiering the opera in the Prototype opera festival. We had a luxurious development process with many opportunities for workshops of the words and music, so we were able to slowly create the opera from scene one to the end. David’s libretto was very inspiring, and it suggested moments for hymns, lullabies, patter song, complex ensembles, etc., and I just worked hard to be sure that the music and words would seem all of one fabric. I focused on creating sharply drawn personalities that would be as clear as possible to an audience. Brother’s music would be impatient and disjunct, while Doodle’s was typically lush and emotive. Mother’s music was also emotional like Doodle’s, but less dreamy and contemplative. Father’s music, like Brother’s, was straightforward and stoic. Auntie has some of my favorite music in the opera. She is superstitious and protective, which led to some powerful, earthy arias.