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From Stage to Sing

Composer Damon Ferrante Coaxes Baltimore Writer Daniel Mark Epstein To Transform His Play Into An Opera

Sam Holden
WORDS AND MUSIC: (from left) Daniel Mark Epstein and Damon Ferrante operatically tackle the possibilities if Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Jefferson had met.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/16/2005

Jefferson and Poe runs Nov. 17-20 at the Theatre Project.

“I’d always been interested in Poe as a fellow Baltimore poet,” Daniel Mark Epstein explains. “When I read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Jefferson, I looked at the dates and realized that Jefferson was up on the hill at Monticello at the same time Poe was a student at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. I couldn’t help asking myself, ‘What if they had met? What would have happened if Poe had stumbled into Jefferson’s ménage? What if there had been a beautiful daughter who was an octoroon?’”

That train of speculation led Epstein to write a play in the late 1980s about Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Jefferson, a play that had several workshops but not a full production. Now that play has been reborn as a chamber opera, Jefferson and Poe, which has its world premiere at Theatre Project Nov. 17-20 before heading to New York. While Epstein has published some 17 books of poetry, plays, translations, essays, and biography, this is his first opera.

“Writing an opera was unlike anything I’d ever done before, but I found I loved it,” he says. “Writing the arias was pure pleasure, because you can let the characters speak right from the heart. With an opera, you have a license to cut loose and go for the emotion without all the irony that’s expected of writers today.”

The 57-year-old writer leans back in his Hampden studio, surrounded by the books he has written and by the books he is reading for his next project, a look at Abraham Lincoln’s family life. Sitting a few feet away is Damon Ferrante, the 33-year-old Baltimore composer who pursued Epstein and pulled him into the foreign world of arias and recitatives.

Not only do they come from different fields and different generations but they also have different temperaments. Epstein, with his salt-and-pepper hair and rimless glasses, picks his words carefully, while the round-faced, wavy-haired Ferrante interjects ideas impulsively. Together they transformed Epstein’s play into an opera.

As a result, Poe doesn’t barge into Monticello talking, as he does in the play—he barges in singing. He delivers a series of musical insults to the old man he takes for the gatekeeper. When he discovers that the old man is in fact the former president, Poe croons his apologies. And when the haughty young bohemian still has the nerve to ask Jefferson for a $300 loan, he sings that, too. The old man refuses, and Poe launches into an aria bewailing the dreary reality of adulthood compared to the dizzying dreams of youth.

For one like me, one whose heart is such a chaos of passion, sadness and dreams, dreams, dreams, if only youth were a dream and dreams might never end, who would ever hope for a higher heaven?

Baritone Ryan Ebright sings Epstein’s words as they climb and descend the melodic staircases that Ferrante has constructed for them. If the tune has the elegance of traditional opera, the harmonization is very modern, with broken piano chords and slashing strings subverting the aria in much the same way that financial realities can subvert youthful adventures.

Little does Poe know that Jefferson himself is so deep in debt that he plans to raffle off Monticello in a public lottery. To do that, he has to keep the Virginia Legislature happy; to keep it happy he must hide his love affair with his black slave Sarah. And to hide that affair he must renege on his promise to free Sarah and Catherine, the light-skinned woman who has no idea she is their daughter and, thus, legally a slave. As Jefferson and Sarah argue, Poe overhears and decides to blackmail Jefferson into a loan. Then the young poet meets Catherine and falls head over heels in love.

“Damon suggested a while ago that we write an opera together, and I said, ‘I don’t know—I’ve never written anything like that,’” Epstein recalls. “Other people had asked me to write operas, and I’d tried but I couldn’t come up with anything I liked. But Damon kept after me, and I remembered my old play, Jefferson and Poe. It had just the right structure for an opera—an old-fashioned beginning, middle, and end with young lovers and disapproving parents. I showed him the script and said, ‘What about this?’”

Ferrante loved it. He liked the surface melodrama, which was very operatic. He liked that beneath that surface was the philosophical theme of Poe’s romantic nature opposed to the rational enlightenment of Jefferson. He liked that the story lent itself to the form of traditional European opera but was thoroughly American in its characters and settings.

“I soon learned why libretto is the Italian word for ‘little book,’” Epstein says. “I had to cut a tremendous amount of material from the play. The restrictions of the form are so severe—I knew I had to provide at least one aria for each of the major singers, I knew I wanted fireworks at various points where everyone’s singing at once, and I knew I had to keep the basic plot moving even as I cut the dialogue to the bone and added rhyme. I ended up with one-seventh as many words as I had in the play.”

“Unlike some composers,” Ferrante adds, “I draw the music from the text. The process I go through is to read the text hundreds of times, and to live with it until it becomes part of my unconscious, and the music develops from there. The tone color can be produced by certain vowels. Sometimes a rhyme or a sound can act as a thread, linking ideas in the piece. Tunes start emerging; then certain melodies and motifs start to haunt me and suggest larger themes.”

Although it is grounded in the same kind of library research that enabled Epstein to write last year’s nonfiction book, Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, Jefferson and Poe has all the juicy melodrama that traditional opera demands. And the story is told through the conventional operatic devices of plot-advancing recitatives, heart-baring arias, and overlapping duos and trios.”

“Jefferson himself was an amateur violinist,” Ferrante says. “So I researched the kind of music he might have played—both the European art pieces he might have played in his drawing room but also the drinking songs he might have heard at the tavern or the work songs he might have heard in the fields. Though there’s no direct quotation, I wanted my music to reflect that period. I wanted Jefferson’s music to be very refined, and I wanted Poe’s music to be hyper-romantic, almost Dionysian.”

Ferrante came to Baltimore in 2002 as a graduate student in composition at the Peabody Institute. The school encourages opera singers and composers to work together, and that led Ferrante to write his first opera, Super Double Lite, the story of a modern woman who decides to clone herself and faces the consequences in karaoke bars, offtrack betting parlors, and discount department stores. The opera was good enough to get a 2003 production at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, and that encouraged Ferrante to write another one. All he needed was the right text.

After graduating in 2004, he decided to stay in town, finding it less expensive and more nurturing than New York. Besides, he had grown up in Silver Spring and was comfortable in Maryland. Moreover, he was already collaborating with Epstein.

Three years ago, on the fourth floor of the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ferrante stumbled across Epstein’s 2002 book of poetry, The Traveler’s Calendar. He was so impressed that he kept reading till he found Epstein’s first book, 1973’s No Vacancies in Hell, which included a section called “Mountain and Tidewater Songs.” Though these “songs” were written in free verse, they had a lyricism that Ferrante thought might work with music.

He approached Epstein, whom he had never met, and asked if he might set the poems to music. It wasn’t a foreign concept to the poet, for in his twenties Epstein had written and performed Dylanesque folk songs and had composed some art songs with a young composer named Robert Beaser, who is now chairman of the composition department at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Ferrante turned “Mountain and Tidewater Songs” into a song cycle for baritone, violin, cello and piano, and Epstein was so pleased with the results that he finally said yes to Ferrante’s repeated pleas to work on an opera.

“When I started cutting thousands of words out of the play, I had to trust that their meaning would survive, translated into music,” Epstein says. “And that’s just what happened. Damon is a musical storyteller. He has a narrative gene that allows him to write music like a novelist. In all that cutting, I feel nothing got lost.”

“I love working with writers, because it forces you to understand a subject from a different perspective, and that can be very broadening,” Ferrante adds. “Opera is the ultimate collaborative experience, because it brings together writers, composers, singers, instrumentalists, directors, and designers. Everyone brings a slightly different perspective to the project, and each perspective is important. If you can integrate them all, you have some of the greatest art anywhere.”

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