Edith Wharton in the News: The Age of Innocence Opera and Lectures in NYC on 11.17.2013

Selected scenes from The Age of Innocence will be performed on Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 3pm at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th Street in New York City. Admission is free. For more information on the opera and this performance, please visit: http://davidowencarpenter.com/the-age-of-innocence/


From David Carpenter:
The Age of Innocence: A Composer’s View on Adapting the Novel for the Operatic Stage

I first became acquainted with The Age of Innocence in the mid-1990s, when I saw the wonderful film adaptation of the novel by Martin Scorsese. Soon after that, I read the novel and was completely captivated by this story of suppressed emotion and thwarted love. At that time, I had been composing music for about nine years (having begun when I was fourteen), and even then I thought of what a wonderful opera the novel would make. I knew, however, that it would take several years before I had the experience as a composer to tackle the daunting task of adapting Wharton’s masterpiece into an opera. It was in 2009, when I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies in music composition at Temple University in Philadelphia, that I had to decide on a subject for my dissertation—for someone getting a degree in music composition, this would be a major musical work. For me, it had to be Age.

There is the question of what makes Age—or any story, for that matter—a suitable subject for an opera. We must remember that the whole idea of opera is, on the surface, fairly ridiculous: we do not generally sing our thoughts to others or to ourselves in our daily lives, yet somehow this is meant to be plausible when singers do this onstage. The apparent implausibility, I think, comes from the music. True, the conventions of the theater—particularly the invisible fourth wall that allows us to observe the characters onstage—are themselves implausible elements that we, the audience, must accept. But otherwise, a stage play, with characters talking to each other or themselves, depicts events that could be part of our daily lives. It is when someone bursts into song (think of the song “Tomorrow” in Annie) that we’re reminded that this is a piece of theater—i.e., that doesn’t happen in real life. Music has a mysterious effect on us, however, and it seems to find a way to unlock emotions in ourselves that perhaps no other art form can (that all cultures have some form of music is, I believe, testament to its universal relevance to human emotion). In the context of the theater, then, music has the potential to underline the emotions of the characters onstage, and in doing so, provide the audience with a heightened emotional experience and identification with a character’s state of mind. This process of emotional underlining goes beyond merely reinforcing the factual meaning of words the characters sing. For instance, in Puccini’s La Bohème, in her first aria, Mimì sings, “Mi chiamano Mimì, il perchè non so” (at 1:50 in the video below):


On the surface, she is simply saying that people call her “Mimì,” though she doesn’t know why (since her real name is Lucia). But the wistful musical phrase to which Puccini sets these words is in the same lyrical style as the rest of her aria, when she tells us that, though she lives a solitary and happy life, she also dreams of spring and love. This suggests that she wishes to experience something that she has never known before—something that will make her understand why people call her Mimì. It is of course when Rodolfo calls her name, and she falls in love with him, that she understands this appellation. Puccini draws our attention to this seemingly superficial thought through his music; and by revealing to us so much about her character, the implausibility of someone singing her thoughts is suspended—the moment therefore becomes more real for us than any spoken version of these words.

Where does Age fit into all of this, then, and what makes Wharton’s novel so suitable for the operatic stage? I believe it has to do with the profound psychological depth with which Wharton endows her characters—so much of this depth conveyed through the narration, not the dialogue. One of my favorite examples of this kind of narration occurs in chapter 30, when Archer, deeply in love with Ellen while caught in his listless marriage to May, opens the window to his drawing room to get some fresh air on a winter night:

After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few minutes he heard her say: “Newland! Do shut the window. You’ll catch your death.”

He pulled the sash down and turned back. “Catch my death!” he echoed; and he felt like adding: “But I’ve caught it already. I am dead—I’ve been dead for months and months.”

And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wild suggestion. What if it were she who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar room, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, was so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its enormity did not immediately strike him. He simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free.

The psychological intensity of this moment is certainly arresting; and for me, as a composer, this was a moment where I wanted the music to underscore the intensity. Since I was also the librettist for the opera, I took some of Wharton’s narration and put it in Archer’s mouth, when he sings (to himself): “But I am dead—I’ve been dead for months and months. But what if she were dead! Young people, healthy people do die. She might die—and set me free!” Yet it is the music in the orchestra surrounding Archer’s words that conveys the emotion behind his thoughts—and for this, I wrote very slow music; something that might convey a sense of time dragging on endlessly, as Archer contemplates his years of marriage to May (what you’ll hear below is a piano version of this music):


Once this music has become part of Archer’s psyche, it must be exploited in other ways later in the opera. Wharton herself recalls this moment of Archer’s “sick soul” clinging to the hope of May’s dying, and, with the bitterest irony, seals Archer’s fate. In chapter 33, just as Archer announces his need to “get away from everything” and travel to “India—or Japan,” May responds:

“As far as that? But I’m afraid you can’t, dear …” she said in an unsteady voice. “Not unless you’ll take me with you.” And then, as he was silent, she went on, in tones so clear and evenly-pitched that each separate syllable tapped like a little hammer on his brain: “That is, if the doctors will let me go … but I’m afraid they won’t. For you see, Newland, I’ve been sure since this morning of something I’ve been so longing and hoping for—”

He looked up at her with a sick stare, and she sank down, all dew and roses, and hid her face against his knee.

Again, Wharton employs the word “sick”—here used to describe the expression on Archer’s face, but also recalling the description of his soul. To underscore this moment, I employed the music quoted above, just as May tells him this news that will separate him forever from Ellen: he must finally accept the choice he made in marrying May, even after she offered him his freedom, when she suspected he might love someone else. This is Archer’s moment of real maturation, when he must resign himself to following the conventions of a society that he never had the courage to reject.

I would like to cite one more example from my opera that demonstrates the music’s role in capturing the characters’ psychology. For the text of Archer’s principal aria, I chose a poem from The House of Life by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a collection of poems mentioned in chapter 15, when Archer discovers it in his monthly shipment of books from London:

[H]e lit on a small volume of verse which he had ordered because the name had attracted him: The House of Life. He took it up, and found himself plunged in an atmosphere unlike any he had ever breathed in books; so warm, so rich, and yet so ineffably tender, that it gave a new and haunting beauty to the most elementary of human passions. All through the night he pursued through those enchanted pages the vision of a woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska.

The poem I chose from the book is entitled “Love’s Testament”:

O thou who at Love’s hour ecstatically

Unto my heart dost evermore present,

Clothed with his fire, thy heart his testament;

Whom I have neared and felt thy breath to be

The inmost incense of his sanctuary;

Who without speech hast owned him, and, intent

Upon his will, thy life with mine has blent,

And murmured, “I am thine, thou art one with me!”

O what from thee the grace, to me the prize,

And what to Love the glory,—when the whole

Of the deep stair that thou tread’st to the dim shoal

And weary water of the place of sighs,

And there dost work deliverance, as thine eyes

Draw up my prisoned spirit to thy soul!


[Credits for the recording above: Michael Lienhard, tenor; Donna Gill, piano]

In setting this poem, I contrived a moment that would suggest the ultimate fate of Archer’s love for Ellen: at the words, “I am thine, thou art one with me!” the word “one” is sung on a G; while the words “with me” are sung on a C-sharp. This juxtaposition of two such tones is called a tritone, known in Renaissance and earlier times as the “devil in music.” It has an eerie, unsettled sound that composers have exploited for centuries (think of the song “Maria” in West Side Story: the distance between the note for “Ma” and the note for “ri” is a tritone). This evokes a certain irony in the words, as “one with me” would seem to dictate a more “settled” sound for the notes—indeed, all three words could have been set to the same pitch.  But even before Archer falls in love with Ellen, Wharton’s narration dictates that pressures from his family and society will surely exile any person who comes between him and his betrothed, and any dramatic rendering of this story must reflect these inexorable forces that separate Archer and Ellen.

These are but two examples of how music, in a dramatic setting, has, I believe, the ability to convey the psychology of Wharton’s writing better than any spoken play or movie—indeed by rendering the characters’ hidden thoughts and emotions, music supersedes its own apparent implausibility, making a given moment resonate so strongly with our own emotions. I realize I run the risk here of sounding more that a bit arrogant: I do not mean to imply that I have necessarily succeeded in my attempt to accomplish all of this in my music—that is a judgment that must be left to an audience. But even if I have not succeeded, I still believe that opera is the only possible dramatic medium that comes closest to replicating what Wharton does in her narration. In this sense, I am paying respect to a long tradition of great opera composers, including Puccini, Wagner, Britten, and most especially Mozart, who have created characters with whom we identify, and make us want to return to the theater to witness the ostensibly implausible become more real than we could have possibly imagined. I believe that composers are just discovering the immense operatic potential of Wharton’s fiction, revealing Wharton to be not only a great novelist, but a great dramatist, as well.