The writer, composer, and performer Paul Pinto is well known among admirers of experimental music theater in New York City and beyond, for his work in cutting-edge collectives like thingNY and Varispeed and for his collaboration with Robert Ashley, culminating in that operatic maverick’s final completed work, Crash. But Pinto likely also is familiar to a far broader audience for his portrayal of Balaga and other roles in Dave Malloy’s ingenious musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, in which Pinto appeared from tiny theaters all the way to a heralded Broadway run starring Josh Groban.
Now, Pinto is appearing in the premiere run of an opera of his own creation, Thomas Paine in Violence, which runs through Nov. 18 at HERE Art Space in downtown Manhattan. By telephone, Pinto talked about why he conceived the work, how he expanded it, and what he learned on the Great White Way.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Tell me how this all began…
PAUL PINTO: It was written for Experiments in Opera, who commissioned me to do a short radio opera as part of their series at Abrons Arts Center. I think they had talked to me maybe in August or June of 2013, and I think it was for a performance in March 2014. Around then, I was really cutting my teeth with Robert Ashley stuff, and I got to know Joan La Barbara, and we became friends. I decided to ask her, would you want to do something with me? I have this idea for an opera about Thomas Paine for the radio, and I want you to play Thomas Paine. She was like, that’s weird, but that’s fine. We had a Skype session while she was in Italy working on her own opera, and we were just like, great, let’s do it. So we had some phone conversations, and then I went away to a little retreat in September of that year and started drafting something, and when I came back really worked on it. I started working on that with Joan, and then Miguel Frasconi, who’s another member of Ne(x)tworks, he was doing live processing, I was doing sampling, and Joan was the performer. That’s how it started, this little segment. Originally the idea for the entire opera, I originally wanted to do like a bio-pic, and immediately got rid of that idea for this idea that Paine would be in a radio station. That just seemed to suit the radio-opera aesthetic much better.
What is the distinction, “radio opera”? Does that mean a de-emphasis on the visual component?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. The original commission was for a live performance, yes, but more importantly that it would be recorded and broadcast on WNYC Q2 Radio. The entire idea was to make it an opera in radio format, and so other composers on that bill did stuff with foley… it was a nice hodge-podge of stuff. It was specifically an audio medium. And when Kim [Whitener] and Kristin [Marting] approached me to join the HERE arts residency program and develop it into a full work, one of the first discussions was, is there going to be any live component at all? In my head, it was possible that this would be broadcast on pirate radio, or an album-only thing, or an installation. It was not a given that it would be a live performance at all. And so, through the first year of development in the residency, which began in March of 2014, was deciding that, yes, that’s what it should be, that’s the medium.
Why Thomas Paine?
Like any kind of subject that I get excited about, it’s just something I was reading at the time. I’d been an admirer of Paine’s writing for a while. I got kind of into the myth of Paine that year, and I even bought into it. The elevator pitch is, he’s one of the Founding Fathers, he never held elected office, he wasn’t born in America. And after he completed writing, basically reporting at the war front during the Revolutionary War, and writing “Common Sense” and advocating for independence, and advocating for reforms in government and the Pennsylvania Constitution, he then was like, now I’m going to go back to England and I’m going to write about why hereditary hierarchy is a problem, and defend the French Revolution, which a lot of people were opposing in England. So he went there, and he basically was involved in the revolution there. And then, after that, he went to France and took part in the revolution. So he was an active revolutionary and philosopher. And at every point, his country – or countries – held him up as a hero, and then some faction of it betrayed him, or marginalized him, or made him a pariah. He was in jail in France, he was outlawed and banned in England, and he was denied his citizenship and right to vote when he was in America.
So this idea of this slated Founding Father who was really bitter at the world was really appealing to me. That was my starting idea. Who is the modern-day slated political activist? And it was like, oh, these radio shock jocks. These bitter Rush Limbaugh types, that was my equivalent – not in message, but in character. That was my starting point. I found this character really fascinating. But I found out, through the course of studying this and through the Thomas Paine Book Club up in New Rochelle, that a lot of it was bullshit. His first biography was written by somebody who hated him. The Thomas Paine Cottage, his house museum up in New Rochelle, the curator of that place hates him. I talked to him and he’s like, I hate this guy, I don’t believe in his philosophy, I don’t believe the world is fundamentally good, I don’t believe that you should remake governments, I think that everything’s incremental. And it was like, wow: people who didn’t like you were in charge of your legacy.
What a peculiar career choice.
Right? It’s so incredible. It’s so strange, what happened. And a lot of it stems from him advocating against the Federalist faction, which was Washington and Adams. A lot of it stems from his writing of “The Age of Reason,” which basically got disseminated into sound bites calling him an atheist, which he wasn’t; he was just advocating that organized religion was problematic. When you get diluted to sound bites, you get clipped and put in the news, and that’s the thing that people remember. “Thomas Paine, oh, he died penniless” – not exactly true. “He died with no one attending his funeral” – true, but there’s a nuance to it. It wasn’t because he was unpopular. All these myths that decorated his life were so interesting to me. So the equivalence between him and a modern-day political tweeter or a radio [personality] was so interesting to me.
There are so many rich resonances and tangents available in your work, and there are a few I want to explore. First, having started from a biographical basis, you took the work in this very meta- kind of direction with the chorus and the quotations from other operas. I recognized three of the quotations in the libretto from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, Robert Ashley’s Dust, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Where did the fourth quotation come from?
The fourth one is from thingNY’s opera, ADDDDDDDDD.
What led you to adopt that approach, with the chorus and its back talk, the jumping out into citing other operas, or Joan La Barbara saying, “Hi, I’m Joan La Barbara”?
The “Hi, I’m Joan La Barbara” thing, things like that were there from the beginning, the idea of this radio announcer. The thing that was interesting for me was spinning this idea that Joan-slash-Thomas Paine’s spirit is there doing her work, which is broadcasting a message into the ether, not knowing if someone is responding. I mean, radio itself is in some ways voyeuristic; this person is performing, and doesn’t know who is there, listening to them. I wanted to make that present in the performer’s mind, in Joan’s mind: she’s Joan at some points, and then she’s Thomas Paine at some points. She doesn’t know exactly where she is, or what time she’s on air or off air. And I decided to use the idea of sampling to kind of create this jarring world of dynamic changes. Sampling became a huge part of the piece from the beginning. When it was a radio opera, it was samples of Joan’s and my processed voice that were made to sound like little radio sound banks, like what Z100 would use for the Morning Zoo.
The addition of the Man Chorus, these kind of storytellers-slash-impish instigators, they became sort of the live samplers, who would like hype her up, back her up, instigate her, ask questions. They always speak in little chunks – loud samples, essentially. When she asks a question, they provide 25 different possible answers really quickly. When she says something of note, they throw into the ether a very loud question, which either questions her thinking or instigates her to go further with this.
Listening to recorded bits and reading the libretto, I’m thinking about churchy call-and-response, Greek choruses, and Flavor Flav, all at the same time.
Yes. You’ve listed my influences. [Laughs] It’s true, rhetoric and sermon are huge. And they’re in Joan’s performance. Her voice is a sermon, every time I hear her voice, it’s a sermon. That’s a huge influence, and that’s why I wanted to work with her. There’s no doubt that the hype man aspect is one of my favorite kind of textures in the world. This idea of some back-up singer just amping the lead singer or the lead speaker, that’s huge, one of my favorite things to listen to in the world.
I have to ask, too, about the impact and influence of Robert Ashley, because – please correct me if I’m wrong – wasn’t your portion of Varispeed’s Perfect Lives sort of designed along this sort of incantatory sermon delivery style? Am I remembering that accurately?
Probably? [Laughs] I don’t remember which version you saw, whether I was doing the “Supermarket” version or the “Church” version, or if I was doing “The Bar.” Those are the three episodes that I’ve been the lead on. I know the one you came to, I was doing “The Supermarket.”
So let’s scratch my speculation and go back to Bob.
Yeah, I can’t deny it: Bob’s a huge influence to me. When I discovered his music in grad school, I didn’t know anyone was writing like this, and it made me excited about this. Bob is that type of composer for composers and artists who are just like, “I was looking for this, and I didn’t know that I was looking for it until I heard it.” Listening to Perfect Lives when I was in college, or maybe I came across it once when I was in high school, I dismissed it: ehh, this is not my thing. But then I got into Improvement and Atalanta, and all of a sudden, all the work made sense, and I was obsessed with every piece. I’m now really listening to Improvement quite a bit now…
Well, sure, you’ll be performing it sometime soon, correct?
Yes. And it definitely feels, especially in Crash, I feel like a lot of the threads that were always there in a lot of the other pieces become obvious.
So, you were given the initiative to expand your initial radio play into a full-length piece. What were the steps involved, both in literally expanding the work itself and in assembling the cast and crew involved?
The first big thing was this addition of the Man Chorus. I didn’t know how many there were going to be, I didn’t know how they were going to be used through the whole thing, but I started writing some text and it became clear that this was not Paine speaking – or it was Paine speaking, but it wouldn’t be Joan speaking. So I started just hanging out with people that I liked to work with; the first guy was Ryan Krause, and he and I read through text together and shot a little video: let’s see what happens when the texture of this is very fast-talking baritones. And this kind of assembled into… again, I didn’t know how many there were going to be, but something about Joan’s psyche being represented by some disenfranchised group.
I had used myself as a performer in ways to talk about being brown in America, and I decided, well, this is the culmination of that. I can perform in it, I can get people that share some of that experience of being brown in America, and we can dress the same, and we can be represented as an identical minority in some way. And so I approached Rick Burkhardt with this idea. Rick is the director, and was originally helping me with the libretto – I would say co-wrote the libretto. I approached him with this idea and was like, what do you think about this idea about this Man Chorus being in Joan’s head, and she’s the only one who can see them and hear them? And if there are more characters – maybe there aren’t more characters, but if there are, no one else acknowledges the Man Chorus but her. And he was like, Oh, I guess that’s an interesting idea, so he just kept running with it.
And then we added more characters, and those characters are the instrumentalists, and they are the actual people working in this space radio station with Joan. They are the four instrumentalists – violinist, harp, piano, and cello – and they sing and speak, and they have characters. So the final scene that I wrote, the way the opera ends, it has Joan preparing to go on-air. She knows she’s been here before. Arguing with her friends in the radio station, her coworkers in the radio station, and the Man Chorus is busying themselves around her, responding to her and responding to them, but she’s the only one who can see them. The building-up of more voices than just Joan was the way that the piece expanded. It was originally going to be just a solo-voice piece with electronics; musically, I just wanted more voices, so I found a way to make more voices work in this abstract-y opera. And I was very happy with that. I have a cast that’s so exciting to work with, both in terms of their physical dynamism and also their delivery and their singing. They’re great singers.
Were you involved in selecting the technical crew for this new version?
I selected my team. I got some recommendations – there’ve been a lot of artists who’ve gone through there, a wide array of people. The other way my team assembled was people I liked to work with, regardless of what their skills were. Levy Lorenzo, who is an incredible sound designer and technician and performer, ran sound at the very first Experiments in Opera radio live performance. He ran sound, ran the cables, and made sure our mikes were working. I knew him before that, and I thought, I really like Levy – maybe I’ll make him one of my Brown Men in the next iteration. He was like, well, I’ve never acted before, and I was like, that’s all right, I like you and I think you’re good, so let’s just do it together and be the Brown Chorus.
I think that’s how it worked: Rick was writing text and I was like, well, Rick, you also direct. Why don’t you direct the piece? Miguel Frasconi was doing electronics; he wasn’t available for one of them, so I got the group Ne(x)tworks to come in. The pianist for Ne(x)tworks was unavailable, so I said, Miguel, you play piano, right? Why don’t you just be the pianist? I think the whole team assembled that way – I think that’s kind of the way thingNY works, and so when thingNY became the band for Thomas Paine, then it was a no-brainer… “I don’t have a pianist, but Erin [Rogers], you play piano, right? Okay, play piano and sing and act!”
Did your outlook on your art change in any way after your experience of doing Natasha, Pierre… on Broadway?
You know, what it did… as you know, besides being in the Broadway version, I was with this piece from its first production. And that was actually my first theater experience, my first time knowing what a stage manager did, my first time knowing that there’s a build schedule and there’s a tech week. So being in Comet has influenced me so much in terms of I really got to admire and believe how much theater is a collaborative art, in a way that I was kind of doing without knowledge. I was getting together with friends and making theater. But assigned roles, assigned specialties, proper schedules, making a budget: all these things were foreign to me – the way the brainchild of a few people and the work of 50 would result a thing that maybe people really supported and loved. And Comet became a really big influence just in the fact that you can make theater with people that you really like, and rely on them in some way, either as a designer or as a performer.
And in terms of Broadway, I think the big thing that happened for me is I got to know a lot more musical-theater actors, and that was not a world I knew anything about. In my brain, I was like, I do experimental music; that is the music. Everything else, you know, you’re a singer-songwriter, you’re a musical-theater actor, that’s fine, but that’s not my world. And then I just discovered, these performers that are doing this type of music that I didn’t really care about for most of my life are some of the best performers – and performers as in grand scale: acting, singing, thinking, creating. Just overall incredible, incredible artists. And that changed my perspective on musicals. So working on Thomas Paine, originally I was like, well, I’ll just get experimental people to do it, because they’ll understand the work. And then being on Broadway, being in commercial theater, made me realize that, no, actually, experimental music does not need experimental performers who specialize in that in some obscure way; you can get performers who are good and teach them the performance practice, and if they’re open and willing and creative and exciting, they’re going to make it great. So get talent; get people who are good at their body and knowing what they do. So for me, the huge thing of being in commercial theater is that genre doesn’t really matter. There’s no genre to a performer; you either perform or you don’t, and you get your skill set and you work on it. So I’m very happy to have in my Man Chorus three musical theater performers – died-in-the-wool musical-theater performers. I’m very happy about it. They’re excellent.
And if Joan ever becomes indisposed, you’ve got [Josh] Groban in your Rolodex now.
I’m just imagining Josh Groban saying, “Hi, I’m Joan La Barbara.”
I mean, originally when I performed the radio-edit thing, the line is just, like, “Hi, I’m Paul Pinto. You may remember me from such operas as…” the obscure shit that I’ve done. I just feel like Joan’s Thomas Paine is the Thomas Paine that I’m working with. That’s Thomas Paine for me, from the moment I conceived the work. In some far-off universe where this gets performed after everyone’s dead, there’s going to be some guy in the 23rd century who’ll be like, “Hi, I’m Cletus Van Damme, and I grew up on Mars, and this is my work. I’m playing the role of Thomas Paine.” Whoever is going to perform the role is going to be themselves and the role.
Finally, we no longer live in the world we all inhabited in 2013. Has the change in our socio-political climate altered your outlook on your work, and on the ramifications of Thomas Paine himself?
Yeah. I think Paine was writing about tyrants, and was writing about abuses of power, and unfortunately, I don’t think Trumpism is very new. My outlook has changed like everyone’s outlook has changed. The fact that facts are not facts, that truth can be different things to different people, that we can idolize and give the highest office to someone who does not value reason or education… I think the scariest thing about our political climate now is that you can’t reason. Reason doesn’t really have a place. And I feel like Paine was writing about this. It’s not a new struggle; generations struggle with this tyrant that comes to power. And people have got to live, and they will keep going, buying groceries, and existing. I feel like the one thing it has done is made me question what political art actually does. I write political art to get my emotions out, not to necessarily facilitate change. If I want to facilitate change, I’ll go volunteer. I’ll donate. It’s not questioning the importance of political art; it’s solidified for me what it does, for me. All the emotion and struggle that I feel and my friends feel for our current state of affairs – I get to get those out. I get to get those out in sound form and text form… it’s like artisan venting, which is valuable.
Well, it’s not necessarily the function of political art to persuade. Great if it does, but I have a feeling that in some sense, political art is also meant to remind the affected and afflicted that in fact we’re not alone. We’re not isolated. Other people feel this, and we can all have this communal experience and be reinforced in our conviction that we’re right to feel the way we do.
Yeah, exactly. Preaching to the choir is not always a bad thing; sometimes we just like to listen. And it’s interesting: Paine himself was used on the right and the left all the time. Reagan quoted Paine for his own purposes. Paine’s always used because he’s a radical, because he’s a good writer, because he’s a good rhetorician. I don’t think you can look at his work, like his proposal for a universal basic income and for small military and for equal rights… I don’t think you can read these things and think that serves a conservative function at all, but that’s what sound bites do. You can rip off one quote and say, “See, this calls for limited government.” No, it doesn’t call for limited government – read the rest of it.
Thomas Paine in Violence runs through Nov. 18 at HERE; here.org
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.