Hailed by audiences and the press (the present writer included) during its premiere run in 2012, produced by Peak Performances at Montclair and Beth Morrison Projects, the opera Dog Days – created by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, and based on a post-apocalyptic short story by Judy Budnitz – has gone on to enjoy a widespread success unusual for contemporary opera. After runs in Los Angeles, Fort Worth, and New York City, as well as two productions in Germany, the work has been documented in a recording featuring the original cast and ensemble, issued digitally in September and on CD in October. During a recent interview, Little and Vavrek looked back on the formation of their creative partnership, the process leading up to the premiere staging, and lessons learned along the way.
You recorded Dog Days live during the run hosted by Los Angeles Opera. How did you go about capturing the recording? DAVID T. LITTLE: Garth [MacAleavey] was the sound engineer, and the sound designer for the show, so he did all the live sound. Nick Tipp took his board feed, plus about 40 additional mikes that he his around the space. And then Andrew McKenna Lee edited and mixed it.
Did you record a series of performances? LITTLE: It was five performances, a dress rehearsal, and a patch session. But it’s interesting, we used very little of the patch session. It made me really glad we didn’t do the studio thing, because the energy in the patch session was totally wrong – it was in the morning, people were trying to put themselves into this particular scene, we were doing all these spots and a lot of it wasn’t really usable to match the live [recording], because the energy was so much lower.
That’s an interesting point. Not so long ago, you’d read lamentations that there’s really not much studio-recorded opera anymore. But studio recordings of opera always had singers standing in a studio, usually standing behind an orchestra, trying to recreate a dramatic moment. It seems that if you can actually capture that dramatic moment, with all the sweat and buzz and tension involved, you’re going to come away with a better document of what the piece actually is. LITTLE: I’ve been thinking about that with recording in general, and listening to older recordings that are not perfect; I feel like it was a Chicago recording I was listening to, where it was like, That is just out of tune, those horns are out of tune – and they sound phenomenal! That is the perfect sound, that out of tune-ness, that rawness of that moment is what’s exciting about it, not the sort of pristine intonation that you would have done another take to get in the environment now, where everything is adjustable, or you would have tuned it afterward. Having done the Third Coast [Percussion] record, that was all done sort of in chunks, but in a live space. It was done on the stage of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame, where they were in residence. We just set up a bunch of Gobos and mikes and did it in sections. And for that, I was just amazed by the sound quality, which was so much better than I had been able to get in a studio setting, because you had this beautiful hall that was made to make things sound great, and mikes 200 feet out in the house capturing just the right amount of ambiance that in a studio you would try to recreate with digital effects. There are pieces that would still make more sense in a studio-recording context, but for this, I think live was the right move.
VAVREK: The only big effect that I was immediately aware of was the stage noise, and when we were publishing the libretto, we had to add in little stage directions that clarified what sort of crunchy things were happening on the floor and stuff like that. I think that because they were wearing body mikes every vocal moment was captured fully. For Dog Days this was the ideal, phenomenal thing.
LITTLE: I think this is a really abnormal way of recording opera. And we had the advantage, because it was already an amplified piece, that the apparatus was already there and the infrastructure was already there, whereas it would be a big addition to an acoustic show. We’re trying to figure out recordings of some other pieces that are acoustic pieces, and I think this is the way to do it: You mike everything, and you put some mikes out in the house, and you make a live recording that is controllable in the mix and editable in the mix, but doesn’t have that sort of sterility of a studio – not that studio recording can’t be great.
Way back in the beginning, did you ever imagine Dog Days would come this far and achieve this much? LITTLE: I don’t think I did. I mean, when we were writing it I felt really good; I felt, just in terms of my own technique, anything I was trying to do I was able to do. And this was really the first time for me, developing as a composer, that that had happened. That was really exciting, because I felt like I had studied really hard and it worked.
Are there specific instances that you could cite? LITTLE: Not necessarily. It just felt kind of easy, in a new way. And even collaboratively, because there were a lot of changes that were happening on the fly – like the “Dead Deer” aria [“The Fresh-dead Deer”] and “I Can’t Move” were added. I would write up to them and then say, I think we need a moment here that does this… something with Mother not able to get into bed, because bed is death, or whatever. We would talk about it, and then I would say, I’m going to go get dinner, send me a draft. [Laughs]
VAVREK: “You have 20 minutes!” [Laughs]
LITTLE: And 30 minutes later, there would be a draft. Even between us, it was a very fluid process. It felt like we knew instinctively where things needed to go, and we were able to make it go there.
Was this the first time the two of you had worked together so extensively? LITTLE: Yes and no. It was the first piece we…
LITTLE: …started. But we wrote other pieces before we finished it.
VAVREK: That’s the weird thing of opera and the general landscape.
LITTLE: Vinkensport was written in 2010. The first bits of this were performed at Zankel Hall in 2009.
The Carnegie Hall workshop with Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. LITTLE: Yeah. And it’s funny how that happened, because we were assigned singers and needed to find a story that fit. So knowing that we had five singers, but we could make a case for a Dog character that just wasn’t onstage because it would be a silent role, so five singers worked. We were able to make the story work with the complement of singers we had on hand.
Who brought the story in?
LITTLE: There’s a film version of the story, made by Ellie Lee – we’re actually screening it at the CD release show as background projections – starring Spencer Beglarian, the late brother of [composer] Eve Beglarian, as Prince. I saw this probably in 2002 or 2003, when I was a student at the University of Michigan. In the mornings, I would get up and get my head into writing with the previous night’s Daily Show and Colbert, and then I would sort of crossfade that into writing. And I would usually turn the sound off and start composing, and have the IFC Channel on in the background, across the room as some sort of distraction. I was writing and looked up, and saw this strange-looking black-and-white film with this man in a dog costume – O.K., what’s this? So I turned the sound on, and was just really sucked in by it, found it really fascinating.
A year later, I moved to Boston, where I discovered the filmmaker, Ellie Lee, also lived. I tracked down her email address and just wrote her an email, saying, Hey, I really love this film – it would be great to get together for coffee or something. And I think by this time I had already written “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” which is a song that we’ll hear to open the CD-release show. That was written in 2004 for soprano, violin, and clarinet, and this will be with piano here. It explores the feeling of the film, and the sort of landscape of the apocalypse. So I’d written that, and I told her about that, and she said, “Oh, you should meet [author] Judy [Budnitz] – I’ll put you in touch.” She put us in touch with Judy, and then we were able to get permission from Judy when this Carnegie Hall thing came up. I had bought her book Flying Leap in the mean time.
VAVREK: And it was published in [The New York] Times.
LITTLE: Our first meeting was sort of funny. You should tell that story.
VAVREK: Oh, lord. It was the day after Hair opened in [Central] Park, and I was working at the Public Theatre, and it was a rather rambunctious night where I lost my cell phone. But I believe that was the night I saw Lauren Worsham – randomly, she was there; I’d known her since grad school at NYU, and I was like [emphatically] “Lauren, we have to work together!” We just had this crazy bonding night. [to David] And then the next day I was supposed to meet you, and I was checking my messages on my work phone; it was, Oh my goodness, David T. Little is going to come, and we’re going to be two ships passing in the night.
LITTLE: I think it got to a point where I was just [indignant] O.K., I’m just going to go. I think I started to leave and then you showed up, or you called me, something. So we almost totally didn’t happen.
VAVREK: But I had known your work from [New York City Opera program] VOX; I had seen Soldier Songs at VOX, and you had seen a little one-act piano-vocal thing that I had done with American Lyric Theater. So we were both sort of aware of each other’s work. He knew that he had to write some sort of scena, some sort of dramatic thing, and we went back and forth sending a whole bunch of ideas. And finally you were just like, “You should read this story and see if it connects,” and I remember reading it and sending you an email: “YES! LET’S DO IT!”
VAVREK: And then 2008 we started working on it. You had your first Bard [College] workshop in October of 2008.
LITTLE: That was with Osvaldo Golijov and Dawn Upshaw, both of whom were really helpful in sort of getting my head on straight in terms of writing for voices, thinking about dramatic pacing, and things like that.
VAVREK: In May 2009 we premiered the work, and then sort of immediately afterward Alan Pierson got excited…
LITTLE: He had conducted the premiere at Carnegie.
VAVREK: And he took it to Montclair, to Jed [Wheeler]. And Jed was like, Let’s get [director] Robert Woodruff on board.
LITTLE: Jed said he wanted to commission the completion of the work, and he thought Robert should direct it. I had just read something in Time Out, David Cote’s article on Chair, the Edward Bond [play], which Robert had directed. I remember reading this maybe a year prior and thinking, I’ve got to work with this guy. And then there we were, working together.
VAVREK: I have these vivid memories of sitting in my office at the Public, it was very small, and Robert pacing back and forth – which, you know, was three steps – and just struggling, struggling, really wrestling with the material.
LITTLE: Royce was bringing in libretto drafts and reading them, and then we were discussing them.
VAVREK: The first was a treatment, and then we started bringing in drafts of librettos. And he was like, “just cut these two lines, I can accomplish that with my staging,” “this can go,” “you should consider expanding and extrapolating on this idea.” He was a very vigorous dramaturge, and dramaturges have been such a huge part of my process. We had a very robust meeting of the minds with Dog Days. And then finally it got to a compositional draft, and you went away and started composing – although we did write “Mirror, Mirror” sort of immediately after the Carnegie workshop, we had an opportunity to do a concert with Opera on Tap and AOP [American Opera Projects] at Galapagos. That was the first time we brought in Lauren, who became the heart and soul of the piece in the performance arena, at least, and she became our muse to a great extent. Her part was really tailored to her particular thing.
LITTLE: The singers who did it at Carnegie were not the singers who ultimately premiered the full piece, partially because they were so young. They’re great singers, we’re still in touch with them, but casting-wise they all seemed too young… James Bobick looked much more like Howard. And originally Pat was a mezzo, because we had a mezzo and I could kind of make that work as a pants role – which was quickly changed. We were mostly cast by the time I was writing, so then it became a case of kind of retro-fitting previously written material for the new cast members, including one voice type that kept changing from mezzo-soprano to countertenor to tenor as I wrote. Ultimately the cast who premiered it, and is on the recording, I tried to make it fit as well for their instruments as possible. And I think once we got into the room in rehearsals, they were very open about what changes might be helpful, and in some cases I was like, sure! But in other cases I’d say, if do that, then we lose this other thing, so can we try to make it work? I feel like Jim got a lot of those – Howard’s a really difficult role. It sits very high and also goes very low, so it’s very difficult.
VAVREK: It’s interesting thinking about all of this, because we’ve worked so hand in hand with performers, at least up until this point. But it also seems like we are really excited about the chemistry that’s involved in the performer, the words, the writing, the music, and coming together to make something really special. So it’s interesting that if you look at Abby [Fischer] in Song from the Uproar and Daniella [Mack] in JFK and Kiera [Duffy] in Breaking the Waves and Lauren in “Mirror, Mirror,” these are all roles that they were all on board from very early on, and they really do bring a spirit to the role that just transcends a sort of standard writing of the piece. David, you’re magnificent and your imagination is so huge, but I can only imagine that knowing Lauren and Daniela were singing these parts really and truly informed the magic of those parts in particular.
LITTLE: I think in some cases those characters were pushing them in directions they didn’t know they could go. I think it’s fun to challenge people.
VAVREK: You have a lot of conversations with singers: “Tell us about your voice, where’s your sweet spot?” And sometimes, singers don’t really understand their instruments, because they’ll never hear themselves in the house. So it’s interesting to hear what a singer suggests feels comfortable to them, and then how best to use that, how to push them. And a lot of it is by impulse, I would imagine.
LITTLE: Oh, yeah, it’s all impulse. It’s a lot of well-planned impulse, but in the moment, it’s all impulsive. When you ask those questions of a singer, you’re trusting that they know themselves well and can communicate those details to you, which is not always the case. And that’s true in anything; if you ask some composers to describe their music, it would not necessarily match your own perception of it. Or a writer, or anybody – there’s a communication issue there that’s fun to navigate.
How much of what actually transpired on the stage was information that you derived from the story and provided to the director, and how much of it was the director’s interpretation and invention? VAVREK: I write a lot of stage directions. Mark Adamo taught me, in the American Lyric Theater Composer Librettist Development Program, that you need to have a directed version in your brain to know that it’s stageable, and then you just forget about it. You hire the director you think is going to best match the sensibilities of the work, and then they put designers on it. And there’s never been an instance in my career thus far where I’ve been disappointed. It’s always been a transcendent experience; it just transcends my very limited idea of staging. It’s more that you have to make sure that it lives, that it’s actable, and then you hire people that are smarter than you to make it look and feel and sound better than you could ever have hoped. I never have any melodies associated with my text, I think rhythmically to a certain extent, and I really love words and the way that I choose words, but it’s like Christmas getting new music in my inbox from David. Dog Days, I think most of the important directions were there. I tend to think you give as many ideas as possible, and if a director takes ten percent of them, great; if they take 50 percent of them, even better. Or sometimes not; sometimes you don’t need those ideas. And you never know what’s going to inspire a director further down the line; those stage directions are there to take or leave in 200 years.
LITTLE: But they are sort of encoded in the score. For example, the beginning of Act Two, there’s a lot of action where Mother is going to the mailbox, Mother is checking to see that the flag works. It was very specific action that you wrote in the libretto, which is actually not in Robert’s staging, not all of it. But there’s a pretty significant instrumental section that I think is dictating that something has to happen here that is staging-related, because there is no text. I guess it could be an overture, in theory. So it’s interesting how these blocks of stage directions, they’re still there even if they’re not being explicitly interpreted.
VAVREK: And this final gesture: when we were in the room, we talked about wanting it to be this act of ablution. There was a picture that you brought, or Robert brought, of lions eating with blood down their faces.
LITTLE: Oh, I don’t remember that; there was a Times article that I sent about ablution rituals.
VAVREK: Yeah, and then Robert was talking about lions and the blood coming down their faces. So that was very dramaturgically correct in that moment, and then that direction changed a little bit – there was nothing about the urination, there was nothing necessarily about the naked body. It was a little bit more poetic, in that Lisa washes her mother’s body and then walks.
LITTLE: Wasn’t it originally melted snow?
VAVREK: Which is totally a beautiful image, but in Robert’s staging there was no water at all. The world was just devoid of all that.
LITTLE: If there was snow, they would still be able to survive. And we were past that.
VAVREK: And a lot of that was generated by Robert, so we wanted to sort of peel back and make it so that it wasn’t a script thing, so that we could see different directorial ideas of what that act of ablution was. Or just strip it away from the act of ablution: In Germany, in Bielefeld, they had a beautiful solution to it that involved nothing of the sort.
LITTLE: Yeah, the director Klaus Hemmerle in Bielefeld for the European premiere constructed this whole kind of meta-narrative, where after Prince is killed, the Soldier – who in the end of her arias says, “I’ll come back for them” – in fact does come back, takes away the boys, arrests Howard, puts both Prince and Mother in body bags, and takes them away. So it’s the Captain and 20 soldiers, and then they start cleaning the house. And as they’re cleaning the house, the Captain exits and enters with a new family as Lisa puts on Prince’s dog costume and becomes the new dog to the new family. And you get the sense that, oh my god, this is just a cycle that’s been going on for however long. It was kind of cool! And it raises interesting questions about what is the text and what is the score and what is the piece, and that’s been really interesting preparing the final, finished score – what do we think is important to have in the ending? So I do think that in a way, as cool as I thought that was, it did fundamentally change things in a way that I don’t know that I would want, going forward. But it was a very smart solution.
Has the original cast remained intact for all of the American iterations of Dog Days since Montclair? LITTLE: Yes.
What a remarkable luxury. VAVREK: David, you’ve said you want to write about this: There’s something really important about us understanding our work with the same family, the way that the work deepens and becomes richer. So we’ve been extremely lucky, and it’s become extremely apparent to us with Dog Days, that keeping the complement together just has to happen as much as possible. Really, it allows us to understand the art that we’ve made, in a way. And because we know that we will not necessarily have control over casting and directors and stuff like that going forward – like Dog Days now, with these two German productions, has graduated.
Those evolutions are going to take place with any successful piece of art. How do you set your child free? VAVREK. It’s hard… it’s not hard, it’s weird.
LITTLE: But it’s also exciting when it happens. It was exciting to see in the German productions, especially in Bielefeld – Schwerin, we weren’t able to be as involved in that production – to see the things that were the same with different performers, what instincts were being informed by the texts that were leading them to make similar choices, which I’m very interested in as we go forward and write more pieces. How can we be as specific as possible, without being controlling? Not that we didn’t know the piece when it was in Montclair, or even before it was done, but there is a depth of performance that you get to see by the 25th performance over three years or whatever that is something new music doesn’t get very often. There’s a depth that performers bring to Beethoven because they’ve lived with Beethoven their entire lives that living composers don’t often get to experience – and audiences don’t often get to experience performers having that deep relationship with the material.
VAVREK: There’s also Beth – this wouldn’t be the case were it not for [producer] Beth Morrison. She’s also a big proponent of the complement staying the same, and also bringing us along – we’ve traveled with our shows, which is also not normal. It is common practice to open the show and then send the creative team away, and it’s weird, because you get to see the evolution, you get to see the strange infelicities that happen that are magical, and you get to understand the sort of nitty-gritty of the performance world. And we were very lucky, as well, that Dog Days was recorded in L.A., because that was the third stop on our little mini-American tour, so the performances had really become much more settled than they were in Montclair.
LITTLE: And more personal, in an interesting way, for the singers. Even just coming back to it in Fort Worth, there was less of a concern with getting the notes right, because that was fine, that was covered, and then the cast could focus on…like with Jim, thinking about, “Who is Howard?” and asking that question in a very deep way, beyond just trying to nail that high G. And the performance kind of… “mellowed” is the wrong word, but it got less angry.
VAVREK: It got more nuanced.
LITTLE: And I think all the performances got more nuanced as they progressed.
VAVREK: But he took some really big risks, and they paid off in major ways. The “Dead Deer” aria became so quiet, which was such an amazing thing. During that first run, you’re just trying to do everything that Robert has said, what you’ve put in the score, and you’re trying to embody this character. And then all of a sudden, he was totally able to make some really, really dynamic choices. It was really cool. And I’m really glad that we didn’t record earlier – not that we weren’t so proud of the Montclair run, but it really allowed for a more nuanced presentation and a more nuanced recording.
LITTLE: And for the band, too: I think the band played very well in Montclair, but by the time we got to L.A. it had an almost second-nature quality.
Certainly there’s a confidence that comes in having an ensemble that’s deeply immersed in and comfortable with your idiom. LITTLE: That’s a big new-music issue, where you don’t have players who’ve encountered a composer’s language or sound world before, and so there’s that whole first step of figuring it out. Working with consistent players for many years, you definitely have that advantage.
VAVREK: I do think that we’ve found our community. We’ve cultivated librettists and composers and performers that all are learning each other’s languages in a major way, and internalizing them. And I can’t imagine what we’re going to be doing in 20 years.
Interview was condensed and edited. Dog Days, by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, is available now on VIA Records. Little and Vavrek host a record-release concert at National Sawdust on Oct. 16 at 7pm. Steve Smith can be reached at email@example.com.