Tobias Picker has been composing significant pieces of classical music for more than thirty years. A marvelous pianist, he has written three piano concertos as well as a great deal of music for other instruments. However, he may be best known for four operas, which have been seen in opera houses from California to New York to Eastern Europe. On September 18, 2013, San Francisco Opera will stage the world premiere of his fifth opera, Dolores Claiborne, which is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
MN: When did you know you wanted to be a composer?
TP: When I was eight years old I wrote a letter to Giancarlo Menotti telling him how much I admired his work and that I, too, was an opera composer! I had seen some of his operas on network television because in those days opera on TV was not that uncommon. Receiving a letter from him was the most exciting thing that happened to me that year. He told me that one of the reasons he responded to me was because of his fondness for the character Toby in The Medium. I had signed my letter Toby Picker because as a child I went by Toby, not Tobias. He offered to meet me at some point, but I did not follow through on that. I did meet him when I was fifteen and it galvanized my ambition to become a serious composer. I remember he said, “You don’t become a composer. You are either born a composer or you are not. If you are, you know it.” I got very busy after that!
MN: Where did you study music?
TP: I entered the Juilliard School’s Preparatory Division when I was nine or ten and studied there for quite a few years. I did my undergraduate work at the Manhattan School of Music and have graduate degrees from Juilliard and Princeton.
MN: Was Emmeline your first opera?
TP: No, because I had made some attempts at operatic music as a child. At that age I tried to write an opera on the life of Franz Schubert. I was very moved by his music and was disturbed to learn of his early death. That opera has never seen the light of day
nor will it! Emmeline did have a few precursors. In 1983, the Albany Symphony Orchestra played the premiere of The Encantadas, which combines spoken narration with original music. The text was drawn from Herman Melville's vivid and poetic descriptions of the Galapagos Islands. Sir John Gielgud, Will Quadflieg, and Mariko Miyagi have all recorded the work in English, German, and Japanese. It’s a theatrical piece, a melodrama, but it isn’t an opera. Since the words are spoken, it’s not a monodrama, either. When I narrate, the words have a certain kind of rhythm, but when others do it, they have a free hand in some ways about the rhythm.
My second symphony from 1986 concludes with a setting of a poem by Goethe for soprano or mezzo and orchestra, so it, too, is a non-operatic precursor. That final movement was my first experience writing for a singer with orchestra. Right before Emmeline I wrote a piece for Carol Wincenc and Barbara Hendricks called The Rain in the Trees, a setting of poems by W. S. Merwin.
MN: How do you go about finding a librettist and selecting a story to set to music?
TP: I have to write about subjects that I know and understand. I’ve worked with three librettists so far. My first was the distinguished poet J. D. McClatchy whom I met and whose work I read when I was thinking about writing Emmeline. He had just written one or two librettos, but I thought he would be great for me, not only because I liked his poetry, but especially because of his knowledge of the operatic repertoire. He had been going to the opera since he was very young and was familiar with much more of the canon than I was. I thought that was a great advantage.
That collaboration made for a very good marriage of words and music, so I also asked him to write Dolores Claiborne, our second opera together. I also wrote two operas with Gene Scheer: Thèrese Raquin based on the novel by Emile Zola and An American Tragedy, based on the book by Theodore Dreiser. Before choosing Scheer, I read his work, including some samples he wrote especially for me. As soon as we started working together, his writing inspired me to set it to music. A songwriter and a performer, he is very much a creature of the stage. Donald Sturrock, with whom I wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox, found me. That would probably never happen again, but he sent me a libretto and I fell in love with it because it was so clever and charming. It also came with a commission from Los Angeles Opera and that definitely did not hurt! In 1996, Sturrock had attended the premiere of Emmeline at Santa Fe Opera. He approached me with the libretto a month or two later. The premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox took place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in December 1998. Since then it has been produced in several other cities and throughout the United Kingdom.
MN: Was it difficult to get the rights to make the opera from novelist Stephen King?
TP: It was not at all hard at that time, but now it might well be a different story. With the help of Andrew Welch, a London theatrical producer who had adapted several of King’s works for the stage, including this one, I got the rights to both Dolores Claiborne and Misery. King kept the right to approve the scenarios and the librettos for any operas made from the novels. He was happy to approve our work on Claiborne and we have his blessing to go forward.
MN: How did you and J.D. McClatchy select the scenes to be staged in Dolores Claiborne?
TP: First, we filtered out all the scenes that were not absolutely crucial to the plot. You can spend days reading a book, but an opera has to get its story across to the audience in a couple of hours. We only wanted to use elements of the story that moved the plot forward and would hold the attention of the audience. Because we were working in a different medium, we created our new structure using the scenes from the novel that revealed the most about the characters. Since the opera takes place as Dolores tells her story to the police, she walks in and out of the interrogation room as she tells of her past life. When she is out of the room, instead of reading her words we see the part of the story she is telling. Both the movie and the opera dramatize some of King’s most visual scenes, but the opera is most definitely based on the book. Since the words of the opera are sung, more has to be portrayed with far fewer words and only the most important material can be used.
MN: Since soprano Patricia Racette will be singing the role of Dolores instead of the previously announced Dolora Zajick, I take it there is a soprano version of the role.
TP: There isn’t a soprano version of the role. There’s a Patricia Racette version of the role. There wasn’t a mezzo version of the role, there was a Dolora Zajick version of the role. When voice ranges are so close it is just a matter of tailoring adjustments to make the role fit on one and another at the same time. I went through the score with Racette and we discussed a few adjustments that flatter her voice while they enhance the role. She is unique and uniquely special to me because I wrote Emmeline for her as well as the role of Roberta in An American Tragedy. She is one of our great actress singers. Not only does she have a beautiful voice with a big range, but when she sings you understand every word she’s singing.
MN: What are some of the musical differences between the Zajick and the Racette versions of the role?
TP: There are very few differences. Here and there something is lower or higher. That is about it. Whenever I have a new opera in production, there are changes and adjustments to be made in the last minute. This is also true of every other aspect of the show, but none of these are changes the public could possibly notice.
MN: How much control do you have over the creative team that stages one of your operas?
TP: I get to approve the stage director and the conductor. Once I approve the director my fate is in his or her hands, so I have to have faith in their choices. The conductor in San Francisco will be George Manahan who conducted the Santa Fe and New York premieres of Emmeline. Besides the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne, he will lead the premiere of the revised version of An American Tragedy in Glimmerglass. He has conducted three of my five operas.
MN: Is anyone performing your other operas these days?
TP: Glimmerglass in upstate New York is doing An American Tragedy next summer as I celebrate my sixtieth birthday. At that time they will premiere a new version of the work. Before that, The Microscopic Opera Company of Pittsburgh is doing a new production of Thèrese Raquin at the same time that San Francisco Opera does Dolores Claiborne. Actually, Thèrese Raquin has had the most productions of any of my operas. One of the best was in San Diego with Kirstin Chavez in the title role. Right now she is in Strassbourg recording my Cuatro Sonetos de Amor, the text of which is poetry by Pablo Neruda.
MN: Has there been much interest in Dolores Claiborne outside of San Francisco?
TP: Many general and artistic directors of opera companies are attending the premiere. That includes myself because I am the artistic director of The Opera San Antonio and I’m considering producing it there. Beginning in the fall of 2014, The Opera San Antonio will be performing at The Tobin Center, a brand new performing arts complex on the River Walk. We may want to stage Dolores Claiborne there, but I want to see it on stage before making that decision. It could be that I would prefer to do another of my operas first in San Antonio. Stephen King is one of America’s finest storytellers and Dolores Claiborne is a wonderful original story. Many people who have not previously been interested in opera want to see that story onstage, so it may bring new people to opera. Thus, I think the opera will find a home with a number of other companies. Like the book, it has quite a bit of R-rated language. If the opera is broadcast on National Public Radio or Public Television, the broadcasters will have to bleep out some words.