Hidden Messages in Shining Brow
“The more you know, the more you get,” says composer Daron Hagen of his richly layered work Shining Brow, which opens Arizona Opera’s 2019/2020 season as part of the McDougall RED Series (Sep. 27-29 at Phoenix’s Herberger Theater; Oct. 5-6 at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art).
“I always assume there are people in the audience who are smarter than me, people who get my jokes, and then people who are there simply because their husbands made them come,” says Hagen. “All three of those types of people should be entertained.”
Shining Brow focuses on architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life between 1903-1914, including pivotal points in his relationships with his wife and his mistress, culminating in the devastating multiple murder and fire which destroyed Taliesin and ended Wright’s Prairie School period.
Hagen began composing at 15 and studied with David Diamond, Lukas Foss and Ned Rorem. He dedicated Shining Brow to the memory of another of his teachers, Leonard Bernstein.
“In my lessons Lenny would be talking about music on the easiest top level, but he’d also be gossiping with me about people we both knew on a deeper level. He’d be flirting with me, and he’d also be testing me with musical anagrams on a deeper level.”
“There’s a very specific impact that Bernstein had on Shining Brow, and that’s another layer of rhetoric,” he continues. “The relationship between Bernstein and his mentor, Marc Blitzstein, is the musical model for the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan [with whom FLW apprenticed in Chicago]...and Lenny knew that.”
“So when you hear conversations between Sullivan and Wright in this opera,” Hagen explains, “you’re also hearing allusions to certain works in their [Bernstein’s and Blitzstein’s] catalogues.” He adds, “There are quotations from Bernstein, famously taken by Lenny from Marc Blitzstein’s music...like the tune ‘Maria’ from West Side Story is based on the first-act intro music from Regina, and the ‘New York, New York’ theme from On the Town is drawn from an opera by Blitzstein called No for an Answer.”
Will we recognize those allusions? Hagen smiles. “Oh, you’ll hear it -- you’ll hear it. And since I told you, you’ll get it.”
Hagen, whose other works include concertos, chamber music, a dozen operas, symphonies and hundreds of arts songs, wrote Shining Brow in 1993 with poet Paul Muldoon. “We were both at the MacDowell Colony [a New Hampshire artists’ colony] when Madison Opera tracked me down to commission Shining Brow,” says Hagen, “and I looked out of the phone booth and saw Paul reading the newspaper. I said, ‘Hi, Paul! You want to write an opera?’ and he said, ‘Sure!’” The composer laughs. “We went on to write four more operas together because I adore Paul, and I think he’s the greatest living English-language poet.”
“The beauty and intelligence of Paul’s language has always inspired me to hear music,” Hagen adds.
The composer created a unique 24-musician incarnation of Shining Brow specifically for AZ Opera’s RED Series (he calls it “the Taliesin West version,” although the production remains set in Illinois and Wisconsin), condensing the performance length and removing the female voices from the chorus. “It was Chas’s idea,” says Hagen, referring to director Chas Rader-Shieber, who created Arizona Opera’s memorable Semele in 2006. “He was quite trepidatious because we didn’t know each other yet,” Hagen continues. “And I said, ‘Listen, take as many risks as you can -- take it as far as you can in this direction.’ So this could be the most interesting and exciting production yet.”
Rader-Shieber wanted to “heighten the male-dominated world of Frank Lloyd Wright by making the forces that act upon him, his wife, and his mistress all male,” explains the director. “There’s a different tone at work when there are only three women in the opera, and they struggle to find their way in this atmosphere of aggressive masculinity.”
“Daron’s got a very special musical language,” continues Rader-Shieber, “and he’s so clearly interested in the ‘theater’ in the lives of his characters. He makes my job much easier and more satisfying.”
“I truly love the intimacy of this story,” he says, describing the new Arizona Opera production, “and this version offers a careful sense of scale that goes along with this series of very private moments. Even the public scenes are interwoven with Wright’s private thoughts. It’s a poetic idea that he’s transformed into an appealing musical landscape.”
Rader-Shieber adds, “In many ways, this opera is about how ‘Wright the architect’ became ‘Wright the icon.’”
As they created Shining Brow, Hagen and Muldoon added symbolic weight to the role of the opera’s murderous chef -- “a manifestation of everything that is ‘wrong’ at Taliesin...a deus ex machina,” says the composer -- and made the persona of the maid a sort of Fury, a voice from the gods.
The work also features barbershop used as a dramaturgical device, along with a nod to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. “As a composer you have to make decisions about how to characterize people in music,” says Hagen. “Wright famously held a Christmas morning press conference at Taliesin, so I thought, ‘What kind of music would four reporters in the early 1900s -- who probably had hip flasks -- sing to stay warm? Barbershop quartet!’”
“It serves two functions,” Hagen explains. “I used the barbershop to make time go by, and they [the reporters] talk about current events...so it serves both as exposition and as a transition from the press conference to the party scene.” He continues, “It also serves a ‘hand of author’ purpose because I took a theme from Der Rosenkavalier and reverse-composed it...so when the cocktail party started, the reporters would still be singing their barbershop quartet, but the orchestra would be playing Der Rosenkavalier.” Hagen chuckles. “It’s an opera trick, you know? And it makes everybody go, ‘Oh, boy, that’s cool.’”
“That is how opera speaks truth to power, because it’s deeply subversive,” says the composer. “It crawls in there and says things that people aren’t expecting.”