Behind the Scenes of a New/Old Opera

by Kate Soper, Michael Rau, and Josh Modney

July 7th, 2020



Kate Soper
[composer, librettist]

The Romance of the Rose the opera takes its title from a medieval French poem, and they start off pretty much the same way: a narrator warns us not to underestimate the significance of dreams. Here are the opening two minutes of the prologue, performed by Josh Modney and me (originally scored for violin and tenor):

"Prologue Part I” (excerpt), from The Romance of the Rose

From this point on, the source and my libretto diverge – as any adaptation of this unique poem must. Since its appearance in the 13th century, the poem, with its pan-philosophical digressions and bizarre sexual metaphors and improbable origin (it was written by two separate authors forty years apart) has been hailed as genius and denounced as gibberish. Whatever else it may be, at 21,000 lines it is indisputably long, and complex enough to provide fodder for a hundred different operas. Which one was I going to write, and how was I going to do it?

By casting a wide net. My research pile included Ovid and Augustine, but also the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1953 Yearbook, with its delightful chapter titles such as “The Many Ailments of Clover” and “The Smuts of Wheat.” I spent an amazing four days in Paris completely out of my depth at a conference on the poem’s intersections with 12th century scholasticism. I created a Word document called “Rose_THEMOVIE!!!,” which maps out inciting incidents, first-act-breaks, and other Hollywood-sanctioned plot points for a possible libretto.

Eventually, the opera grew into itself organically, through trial and error, through three separate workshops, and through conversations with dramaturg Annie Holt, director Michael Rau, and the many brilliant and creative singers, musicians, and designers who were pulled into orbit. Now there is a story, there are characters, there is action, plot, conflict – and hopefully, thrumming through it all, there is the resonance of the original alchemical source, the poem.

Alchemy was big in medieval Europe. And I’ve always been fascinated by that era’s music, by the occult sense that its messages are hidden even when its surface is transparent. Take the medieval formes fixes: strict musico-poetic forms in which the music, text, and structure triangulate to point at something otherwise invisible. In the opera, amidst post-tonality, extended techniques, pastiche, and a lot else, there are a handful of these sorts of forms scattered about: a virelai in Act I, a sestina in Act II, a villanelle in the first epilogue, and a rondeau.

Here is the form of a rondeau, where the letters indicate two different musical phrases (A and B), upper-case indicates a refrain (same music/text for all upper-case As and Bs), and lower-case indicates a verse (different text from A or B but the same music):

AB aA ab AB

And here’s how you articulate the form like a cheerleader (this joke kills with medievalists):

*shout and wave invisible pom-poms* A!  B!

*whisper quietly, pom-poms low* a.

*shout* A!

*whisper* a.  b.

*shout* A!  B!

Particularly intriguing are those three ‘A’s in a row, which indicate three identical musical phrases with three different texts, of which the middle one is the “refrain” text. This means that the music of A has to hinge both to B and to itself, and that the refrain text has to hinge to B and to both of the other lower-case A texts. It’s a lovely, strange, interlocking puzzle of a form. And the shorter the sections, the more insistent the repetition feels (check out Guillaume de Machaut’s Doulz Viaire Gracieus for a stunning example).

Here are Josh and I playing my rondeau “The Rose Once Blown” (arranged for soprano/violin from the original tenor/viola):

“Rondeau: The Rose Once Blown”, from The Romance of the Rose

Do these kinds of forms have meaning today, hundreds of years after they fell out of regular use? And when something composed in a 14th century style is sung in a 21st century opera, by a character who we are beginning to understand belongs more to our world than to the dream garden over which he presides, what is a song like this really about?

The exact nature of the relationship between the medieval poem and my contemporary opera is something of a mystery, even to me. In some ways, as I travelled further from the source, I found myself coming face to face with it again and again. After I thought I had restructured the plot beyond recognition, some ad hoc reshuffling created a new and undeniable mirroring between my two-act opera and the double-authored poem (both end their first parts in ambiguous courtly heartbreak: both have darker, weirder, unresolvable second parts). And while I scrapped an early notion to have the cast constantly switching roles, the act of stitching certain arcs back together left strong traces of the flickering nature of the poem’s ostensible first-person narrative. I eliminated entire characters only to find that they had survived as vestigial impulses within those that remained. But of everybody in the dramatis personae, the one who stayed most intact in the transfer from seven hundred-year-old book to contemporary stage is probably the one I fell in love with first: Lady Reason.

Lady Reason, or Raison, is one of the oldest characters in the poem, having a clear precedent in Boethius’ 5th century Lady Philosophy, as well as in ancient Greek and Latin depictions of Wisdom as a noble female entity. Yet she is also the most contemporary: in her self-aware comprehension of the chaotic effects of emotion, in her wikipedia-like breadth of knowledge, and in the way she scoffs at the narrator’s scandalized protest that it is unladylike to say the word “testicles.” (Why shouldn’t she use the word that means the thing that she’s referring to, just because it makes some guy uncomfortable? She invented words! Sadly, I wasn’t able to fit that particular exchange into my libretto.) Even as my own story took over, the presence of Lady Reason was a reminder of why I wanted to make this poem into an opera in the first place: because of the tantalizing world it portrays, in which allegorical characters who represent compartmentalized aspects of us may be no less susceptible than we are to outside forces. In fact, the only thing that is completely new for my Lady Reason, vs. the medieval Raison, is her take on music.

Maybe you’ve heard this one: two fish are swimming in a river. “Hey there, how’s the water?” says the one fish. Awkward pause. “…what’s water?” says the other. This joke, to me, points to something fundamentally baffling about the dramaturgy of opera: why is everybody singing all the time? Do they know that they’re singing? How does that intersect with our suspension of disbelief? Obviously, many superior composers have gotten over this paradox, but I find that I’m unable to write opera unless there’s an in-story reason for people to be singing – or at least, I’m unable to refrain from acknowledging the situation. Because she lives in an opera, Lady Reason uses music to communicate, but that doesn’t mean that she has to like music. “Rational” music, sure. The sturdiness of Enlightenment-era tonality, with its cadential logic and chess-like moves. Maybe the occasional twelve-tone row. But Lady Reason and I are both tormented by the fact that music is so good at manipulating emotion, and we can’t stop ourselves from going on and on about it, even while both of us are caught firmly between music’s jaws – me because I’m a composer, her because she’s a character in an opera.

Here I am performing a bit of Lady Reason’s first recitative, which in the opera is addressed to a character who has just been shot by cupid’s arrows and has fallen in love with a rose, and which here is addressed to you:

“Lady Reason’s First Try” (excerpt), from The Romance of the Rose

In this opera, live electronics function like personality traits: each main allegorical role is paired with character-appropriate vocal processing. Lady Reason? Precise, keyboard-oriented vocoding. The God of Love? Luscious, swimmy reverb. Shame? Microtonal sidebands and fuzzy distortion. Associating a specific effect to each character’s voice helps us to track their presence and influence throughout the opera, and clues us in on when they’re in flux or distress. These kinds of blunt tools can be useful when trying to tell a story using the slippery medium of music, where there are always multiple valid interpretations and it’s impossible to be literal. And for one particular moment, I turned to the bluntest tool of them all: the Singer-Songwriter Confessional.

For a stretch in my late teens and early twenties, I was most prolific as a piano-based singer-songwriter. That’s how I cut my teeth as a lyricist and storyteller, and how I first gained confidence as a performer. I started “Torch Song” at the tail end of any lingering interest in songwriting and the beginning of the realization that certain doors in my life were closing for good. One’s first encounter with irrevocable decisions can be heavy, even if they aren’t decisions that one particularly regrets. And so I dashed off a couple of verses, never finished the song, and forgot all about it.

Flash-forward a decade or so, and I found myself writing an opera that explores, in part, the frustrating tendency of our feelings to alter without our permission, and our inability to get a lock on our own identity, moods, and desires. All of a sudden, this half-written song dislodged itself from the bottom of my mind and swam up to the surface: a snapshot of a person I used to be, grasping to articulate the cruel paradox that the feeling of “I will always feel this way” both a) exists and b) doesn’t last. Over the rehearsal process, the scene in which this melodramatic, genre-specific song appears grew from a surreal mock-tragedy into the plinth on which the weight of the opera is balanced: the moment at which the characters begin uneasily to open up to each other and to the truth of love.

Here is a rendition of “Torch Song,” which in the opera is sung by two minor characters in a Bradley-Cooper-and-Lady-Gaga-at-the-Oscars sort of way, and which here is performed by myself on voice/keyboard and spectacularly multi-tracked by Josh on violin and viola:

“Torch Song”, from The Romance of the Rose

What I’ve loved most about the journey of creating this opera has been the sense of uncovering, of peeling off layer after layer to see something flickering away and drawing me still deeper. I’ve learned that by dialing up the surface intelligibility, you can increase the contrast, you can circle around things that you can’t look at directly. And that’s what I hope the audience experiences: something entertaining, that makes you laugh and cry, but that lingers, that slips in when you’re distracted by stripteases and battle scenes and woodwind multiphonics. A glimpse of something real, even hard, underneath a glittering surface. After all, that’s what we read poetry for, isn’t it?  And isn’t that why we go to the opera?



Michael Rau
[stage director]

As an opera director, I am always searching for intersections between the music, the staging, and the themes of the piece. By staging I mean an all-encompassing term for all of the visual elements of the performance.  This includes the movement of bodies onstage, the emotions and expressions of the performer, the architecture of the set, the costumes, the lights, etc. My best work happens when I bring together the staging and music to reinforce each other and highlight the themes of the opera.  For The Romance of the Rose, I wanted to share some lenses that I’m using to create these convergences. We can look at the “Torch Song” as an example.

“Torch Song” is performed by two minor comic characters, who sing a heartfelt torch song in Act 2. It is a wild tonal shift in an opera full of left turns, but it’s also a reflection of the original source material that zanily wanders between comedy and tragedy. These characters bursting into song shows a different side of them, a surprising and glorious moment of humanity. That sudden shift between a comedic character suddenly becoming tragic defines two thematic poles. These two comic characters move from extreme comedy to tragedy which resolves into a sort of tragicomedy. Musically, they trade verses, each sharing their own perspective, before resolving into a duet. Both musically, and thematically, Kate defines binaries using these characters, moving from comedy to tragedy, from one character singing to the next character, and then having those binaries revolve together, musically in a duet, and thematically with a moment that is both comedic and sad.

The opera expands on these dualities to create a mirror effect. A clear example of this happens in the “Torch Song” between our central protagonist (The Lover) and antagonist (The Dreamer) and the comic couple singing the torch song. Kate has woven this thematic idea of love and mirrors throughout her opera, and in this moment, these four characters enact a mirroring of each other. Two couples on either side of the stage, both hurting and struggling to communicate with their partners. Depending on how you view this moment, it can be seen as a funhouse mirror - one truth that appears distorted in the mirror of another. You can also look at it as a mirror through time - is this “Torch Song” a warning to our Lover and Dreamer from a wiser and heartbroken couple? Or is this a mirror that allows us to see the hurt that lies underneath all of us, that no one is ever truly satisfied in love? I’m loath to place one reading on it because it seems better to leave open these many possibilities.

A final lens to look at this moment is through the metatheatrical. This moment in the opera features a tiny performance within a performance. Kate’s opera plays with audience perceptions and the opera is conscious of the audience watching the show. Without spoiling anything, I’ll even go so far to say that the audience is part of the show, and is acknowledged and addressed several times throughout the piece. In this moment, a performance is put on for the characters in the opera. The Lover and Dreamer watch a tiny opera performance, at the same moment that we, the audience, are watching these characters watch an opera. In this way, all our behaviors as audience and performer are also being mirrored back at each other.

Moreover, this moment highlights (for me) the utility and importance of this artform. Neither words nor music alone can convey all the ideas and emotions that we feel about love. Instead, by combining those two art forms (poetry and music) to create a performance, we get a fuller picture of an incredibly complicated subject. The effectiveness of those combined artforms comes through in the reception of the audience during a live performance. We see how participating in a performance affects the Lover and Dreamer’s relationship. This operatic artform, which is so often maligned as dusty, elitist, and out of touch with our current concerns, demonstrates how it can change the course of a relationship. Kate’s opera underlines the power a performance has to enact change within her characters, and because of the mirroring in place throughout the narrative, it reminds the real audience that the performance they are watching has the power to change them too.



Josh Modney
[music director, violinist/violist]

There are a great many factors residing at the interface between composition and interpretation that influence how a new work will be realized. Some are straightforward enough: the instructions given to the performer, whether they be notes on the page or conversations in rehearsals, etc.; the history of collaboration between composer and interpreter; the established performance practices built up over time around a composer’s work. Others are more subtle: the way that fine threads in a composer’s language evolve and work their way through various projects, or the way that a conversation from six years ago about another piece might reveal something special about the present work. Even something as pragmatic as the manner in which a score is typeset has the power to recall past experiences in a potent way.

As I’ve spent time with the “Prologue” to The Romance of the Rose, and Kate’s opera in general, I’ve found myself considering these things a lot. When I look at “Prologue”, I can’t help but think of Kate’s Cipher for soprano and violin (2012), one of our formative and most consistent collaborations. The two staves, engraved just so; the fascination with dreams; the equality of the voice and instrumental parts (the violin is a character, expressing character-y things!); the contours of the violin writing and the particulars of the harmony; and so on… And there are other associations which are yet subtler. When I play the harmonic dyads in “Prologue” that accompany the text “artful lies”, I am transported into Iphigenia, the third movement from Kate’s monodrama Voices from the Killing Jar (2012). The pizzicatos with “nighttime recreation” recall Poetics, the first movement from her music theater work IPSA DIXIT (2016), while the arpeggios that follow bring me to Nadja (2015) for soprano and string quartet and back to Cipher again. These musical gestures function like sound objects that enrich my interpretation through their myriad associations, both directly as an accrued performance practice as well as in ways that could only have meaning to me (like how the character of a pizzicato might be influenced by the memory of an early spring snow shower before the Poetics premiere in Northampton). It’s a kind of layering of musics and experiences through time which I find enchanting and essential. In classical performance, these associations have to be either uncovered through musicological study, or whimsically devised as a sort of mnemonic device for musical character. The beauty of working with a contemporary artist over a long period over many projects is that these accumulated layers may be viewed and appreciated all at once.

Cipher (2012), for soprano and violin, performed by Soper and Modney

The way that layers of association and identity overlap and intermix in Kate’s opera is extraordinary, and furthermore, it is fascinating how the various frames through which we experience these layers - musical, narrative, and personal - form connections with each other. I’ve begun to see all of the little sound objects in my violin part with their many threads connecting to musical and personal history as an analogy for how music operates in The Romance of the Rose as a whole. Directly following the opening duo of “Prologue”, the band enters and the dramatis personae are introduced. We meet a collection of allegorical characters who are initially presented as sound objects themselves, with strongly distinct vocal identities, specific electronic treatments, and fixed instrumental pairings, like so:

Lady Reason, Soprano (“Classical” vocals, with vocoder and marimba)

Shame, Soprano (“New music” vocals, with distortion and electric guitar)

The God of Love, Baritone (“Romantic” vocals, with reverb and woodwinds)

Idleness & Pleasure, Soprano & Baritone (“Baroque” vocals with continuo)

For the first chunk of the opera, these allegorical roles are quite fixed and consistent, while the mysterious Dreamer and our heroine The Lover are a bit more difficult to categorize. Of course, things become much more complicated as the story unfolds. Kate’s score is beautifully mapped out to enable a vast number of permutations built upon a musical foundation of characters-as-sound-objects. The moment, say, Lady Reason’s timbral complex is heard, there is no mistaking that it is Lady Reason. This enables rapid, sharp cuts between material, and quickly establishes expectations which, as they are subverted in various ways throughout the opera, become layered, enriched, and ambiguated. Similar transformations are occurring simultaneously on a narrative level, a topic which I leave to Michael and Kate.

I’ve already mentioned a bit of my own personal relationship to this material as a violinist and chamber musician, and I relish the thought of all of the personal and artistic history that my colleagues bring to such a large-scale production as this. There are of course the musicians of the Wet Ink Ensemble, who have worked with Kate for over a decade. There are Gelsey Bell (“Shame”) and Brett Umlauf (“Lady Reason”), who, alongside Kate, comprised the original cast of her first opera, Here Be Sirens (2014), and bring that rich history of collaboration to our production. And the entire Rose cast and creative team, through many workshops and revisions over the past two years, have already established a beautiful performance practice around this work. I get the sense that we are all fanning out from these earlier, foundational artistic experiences, which allows for a big production like Rose to retain the intimacy and detail of chamber music. My mind keeps returning to a moment during staging rehearsals, the week before our production (and the entire arts world) was put on hold. The cast was on stage and I was conducting, Kate and Michael stationed in the front rows of the theater, all of us deeply invested in the music and dramaturgy of a complex scene, when I was struck with this feeling: “this is the same thing as performing Cipher.” In a curious and wonderful way, collaborating on this large, multifaceted opera project involving two dozen people feels fundamentally the same as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the composer performing an intricately virtuosic duo. While Kate’s creative practice has expanded to include librettist as well as composer and soprano, and mine now includes music directing and conducting as well as playing, it all feels essentially connected back to this root experience. Performing chamber music, at its best, feels like ascending to a great height while tethered together with your partners. One of the great rewards of working on this opera has been retaining that feeling of creative trust, just with a longer rope.

As music director of Rose, I’m finding it illuminating to think of the opera as a great intricate structure of blocks, which, depending on how you categorize them, allow the whole to be understood in different ways. To an extent this mode of thinking is baked into the score, that is, by the grouping of characters and instruments into sound objects. Also by stylistic grouping, which Kate has made much more overt in Rose than in her previous work, with hard edges between musics ranging from madrigals to Broadway showstoppers, medieval forms, torch songs, and new music gnar. And then there are the more ephemeral and personal groupings, unofficial “subsets” of the company from Wet Ink to the Sirens alumni, alongside artists with acclaimed careers in the classical opera world, on Broadway, and as contemporary music specialists, who each bring distinct identities and practices to the production. I’m also interested in how this idea of a performance practice accrued over many collaborations becomes embedded in a new work, even when that work might represent a departure from what’s come before. While The Romance of the Rose is Kate’s most ambitious project to date in terms of scale, it also represents a honing of her musical voice down to its essence, the most direct and pithy version of Kate’s music that I’ve heard yet. This compactness imbues each moment with a heightened sense of weight and purpose, which is supported in part by the performance practice that our company has developed through various past collaborations with Kate and Wet Ink. When the audience hears Ian Antonio’s marimba and Brett Umlauf’s “Lady Reason” with Sam Pluta’s electronics, all of the work and heart that went into IPSA DIXIT, Here Be Sirens, and Voices from the Killing Jar is shining through as well. 

Writer headshot

KATE SOPER is a composer, performer, and writer. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, she has been hailed by The Boston Globe as "a composer of trenchant, sometimes discomfiting, power" and by The New Yorker for her "limpid, exacting vocalism, impetuous theatricality, and mastery of modernist style." If she could be any allegorical character in the original Roman de la Rose, she might pick Nature, who lives in a forge and pulls all the strings, although most of the time she feels more like Fair Welcome, who keeps getting thrown into jail by unruly plot devices. Hopefully she’s not False Seeming, who shows up when it’s too late to turn back to tell you that he’s been lying the whole time and will continue to do so—but let’s face it, that basically describes the business of being a composer, performer, and writer in a nutshell. Recent and upcoming projects include a YouTube series called “Unwritten Operas” and a play for actors and string quartet.

Writer headshot

MICHAEL RAU is a live performance director specializing in new plays, opera, and digital media projects. He has created work in New York City at Lincoln Center, The Public Theater, PS122, and HERE Arts Center, as well as at the Ingenuity Festival in Cleveland OH, and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, and has worked internationally throughout Europe and the Americas. He has developed new plays at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, the Lark and the Kennedy Center, and is a recipient of fellowships from the Likhachev Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the National New Play Network. He has been a resident artist at the Orchard Project, E|MERGE, and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. He has been an associate director for Anne Bogart, Les Waters, Robert Woodruff, and Ivo Van Hove. He is a New York Theater Workshop Usual Suspect and a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. He is an assistant professor of directing at Stanford University and Artistic Director of the Theater and Performance Studies Department.

Writer headshot

JOSH MODNEY is a violinist and creative musician working at the nexus of composition, improvisation, and interpretation. A “new-music luminary” (The New York Times) hailed for “jaw-dropping technical skill…” and as “one of today’s most intrepid experimentalists” (Bandcamp Daily), Modney is a co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and the music director and violinist of The Romance of the Rose. Josh has had “Torch Song” in his head pretty much constantly since Rose production was suspended in March, and revisiting it here with Kate, along with Prologue and Rondeau, has been a joy and a balm. Of the Rose characters, Josh particularly empathizes with Lady Reason, and is delighted by the “Commander Data” side of her personality. Josh is based in NYC, and has recently been working on recording projects with Sam Pluta, Tristan Perich, and members of ICE, as well as his own compositions.