The Road to ‘Romulus’ : Louis Karchin Talks About His New Chamber Opera

In May, American Opera Projects (—an internationally-recognized arts organization devoted to creating, developing and presenting new American opera—teamed with Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum ( to present a New York City-wide celebration of new music. One of the highlights was the world-premiere of Louis Karchin’s one-act opera, Romulus. Backed by the Washington Square Ensemble and an extraordinary cast, Karchin’s new chamber opera debuted to great success. At the reception following the performance, the prevalent question among opera fans and singers alike seemed to be: “Why aren’t there more opportunities to attend and sing chamber operas?”

Louis Karchin’s music—an acclaimed compositional portfolio of more than 60 works—has earned him numerous awards and honors, and has been performed throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. The Philadelphia-born composer, who studied at the Eastman School of Music and Harvard University, is now a professor of music in New York University’s Arts and Science faculty, teaching an advanced graduate program in composition. Karchin’s widely praised song cycles for voice-and-chamber ensembles, such as Songs of John Keats (soprano), American Visions (baritone), Songs of Distance and Light (soprano), A Way Separate (soprano), and Orpheus (baritone, with dancers) provide ample opportunities for singers to explore their dynamic ranges and interpretative powers.

Tell us about yourself. How did you get interested in music?

I started playing piano and composing when I was about 5-and-a-half years old. While in elementary school, I wrote little plays with music that I called operas. I’d never seen an opera, but these were my first compositional impulses. Throughout the time I was studying music and growing up, however, I was more focused on instrumental music. I played in school orchestras—violin, clarinet, and saxophone—and I played piano, but really did not pay much attention to things vocal. Only in graduate school did I become heavily immersed in opera study. In my early 20s I spent several years learning as many operas as I could, and it became a very serious love.

Did you sing as well?

I spent some time in choruses, but usually as the accompanist. By the time I began writing for voice, I had already written a lot of instrumental music—but one of the first of my song cycles, Songs of John Keats, turned out to be a very successful piece, and I felt I had an affinity for writing for voice. This work was for soprano and a chamber ensemble of six players—an instrumentation that is often called a “Pierrot ensemble” since it’s the ensemble of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. To this group, I added percussion.

After that, I continued writing both instrumental and vocal music, but with increasing emphasis on song cycles. After I received tenure at NYU, I thought: “This is a chance for me to work on a large-scale project.” That’s when I started Romulus. I wrote it off and on between 1987 and 1990. At the time of its completion, I was 39 years old. Romulus is in some ways a formative work, but when the Guggenheim performances became a reality, I did revise the opera quite a bit in 2005. I had learned a lot about writing for the voice in the meantime, so the opera feels now as if it’s a mature piece.

How do you approach writing for voice as opposed to writing for instruments?

I try to think as a singer would, but do not approach vocal writing from a single standpoint. During graduate school, I studied a lot of Wagner and [Richard] Strauss, and was impressed by the many ways in which vocal and instrumental lines could interrelate. There are situations where the voice can lead, and others where it forms a contrapuntal line within the instrumental fabric.

In Romulus, the voices were seamlessly coming out of the instrumental phrases and vice-versa.

I’m glad that came across. Of course, that probably made it harder for the singers to memorize.

How did the idea for the Romulus story come to you?

I had been looking for an opera subject for a long time. I had some “light,” very vivacious music in my head, so it was a matter of finding the right context for it. One day, I was in a drama bookstore on 47th Street and bought some plays. One of them was Romulus, and as soon as I read it, I knew that I had found the right subject. It seemed funny and lively, and I was already predisposed towards [Alexandre] Dumas [père], whose work I had known from a very young age.

The body language and the movements in the production seemed in sync with various musical ideas. Did you have physical comedy in mind when you composed the music?

Somewhat, but I think I was very lucky to have a terrific director, Peter Flynn, who brought a lot of physicality to the staging. At first, we spent about two hours going through every section of the piece. Peter wanted me to describe how the music was organized and how I envisioned it supporting the text. He then learned the score in an extraordinary way; he seemed to know every note from memory. This was all the more remarkable because Peter had not directed an opera before, although he has had vast experience in the theater and on Broadway.

Peter took some things farther than I could have imagined. For example, there’s a scene where the two main characters—both studious and wrapped up in their work—are trying to decide what to do with the mysterious baby that has just been dropped into their orderly household. Celestus, the astronomer, suddenly realizes that there are wonderful weather conditions forming for viewing the cosmos through his telescope, so he quickly passes the baby to Wolf, the philosopher. Peter had Celestus actually toss the baby in the air to Wolf, who had a very difficult note to sing as he caught it. In dress rehearsals, people kept asking me, “What happens if Wolf drops the baby?” I didn’t want to think about that, but told Steve [Ebel, who portrayed Wolf]: “If it’s a choice between getting the right note and catching the baby, then catch the baby.”

It turned out to be the funniest moment both nights, and from that point on, the audience seemed attuned to the smallest details of the story.

The theme of the astronomer sounded cosmic. Was that intentional?

The music was intended to be descriptive. Each character had certain themes that would periodically arise and underline their thoughts. About one-third [of the] way through the opera, I tried to give each character music which would more or less underscore their love for their respective areas of study, and for Celestus, I tried to evoke some sense of vast space and time. One of the reasons I was attracted to the play was that all of the principal characters, Wolf and Celestus—and Martha, too—are characters of substance: likable and dealing with serious issues.

During rehearsals, did you give any vocal indications to the singers, in terms of technique?

We spent a lot of time fine-tuning notes and rhythms. I like to remind people of this, because opera is very challenging, and if performers are perfectionists, as these singers were, they lay the groundwork for mining the work’s subtleties by establishing unfailing accuracy at the outset. Many times, I suggested an expression for a particular passage, but at least as often the singers seemed to intuit what I was striving for. I tried to accommodate the singers whenever the results allowed things to flow more naturally.

What advice would you give singers interested in working with a composer on a new opera?

I can tell you a little bit about the process of putting together Romulus. We started holding auditions about a year before the performance date. American Opera Projects proved to be an invaluable partner in this endeavor. They organized preliminary auditions, and after that, finals. In the preliminaries, the singers were able to sing works of their choice, and then in the final auditions, the finalists had to sing two excerpts from Romulus.

That was interesting. Some of the finalists had not worked with a composer very much and were quite puzzled by the fact that I was there, and even more puzzled that in some cases, I wanted to accompany them. Some wanted to take different tempos than I did. This is not a good idea in an audition. Even if you hate the tempo the composer wants, take it anyway. You can suggest other possibilities once you have the role. If you audition for a new opera, of course, don’t be surprised that the composer is there.

Any other food for thought for singers working with a composer?

Singers should never feel intimidated by composers, because composers love the experience of working closely with their interpreters. Singers should bear in mind that if the work is a premiere, the composer may also be hearing it for the first time. This means two things: first, that the composer himself may need time to fully assimilate the “real” sound of any given passage and may need to make slight adjustments as a result of this first hearing, and second, the singer should always feel free to make interpretive suggestions, because the composer will not have thought of all the performance possibilities in advance.

How would you name the style of Romulus? How would it be different from verismo, for example?

I would say it’s close to verismo. Although Romulus is a chamber opera for which you don’t need huge voices, it is dramatic. I needed voices with wide dynamic ranges and which could be angular when required. If you write in a style where the lines are not always smooth and comfortable, then it helps for the voices to have a little bit of an edge—but I also think that good singers adapt to different styles rather easily.

Once we had selected the singers for Romulus, I didn’t worry too much about vocal quality. We had picked the singers, in part, to match the sound qualities we had in mind. Afterwards, it was more a matter of taking maximum advantage of the wonderful interpretive possibilities that they were able to bring to the music.

Singers have more freedom with contemporary operas to do dramatic effects and not be “out of line” vocally. “Having an edge,” as you said, can actually be a good dramatic means.

Sure, and I think that the chamber opera medium is still evolving. There weren’t so many chamber operas written in the 19th century. More are being written today, and composers are experimenting with vocal effects of all kinds, aided by the intimate nature of the intended setting. But it is a difficult niche. Opera companies are usually geared towards doings things on a grand scale. Smaller new music ensembles are often quite small, so putting on something for 15 singers and instrumentalists is a challenge for them. It is difficult to find chamber opera companies specifically devoted to new works—in
fact, American Opera Projects may be the only one.

Wouldn’t chamber opera be a great option for singers looking for an alternative to grand opera? Is there anything being done to make this niche more widespread?

I think not enough. It’s an under-explored area and it certainly would be possible to spur on more operas this way, because the budget does not have to be huge, and the singers are definitely around and willing.

It’s also a way to bring in new audiences, those who may be intimidated by grand opera.

I would encourage composers to write chamber operas, but I would also encourage opera companies to look for possible ways to present these works. There’s certainly a 20th century tradition in English, with chamber operas by Benjamin Britten as a starting point—and there are many new works, but not many performing groups to do them.

What if, for example, instrumentalists and singers decide to put together a chamber opera ensemble?

That’s essentially what we did. We more or less created our own opera company for this production. The collaborative aspects of Romulus worked out very well. Part of the challenge is simply getting the world of instrumentalists and the world of singers to intersect. I knew the instrumental world very well—it was easy to assemble an orchestra for Romulus. But for the singers, we really needed the guidance of American Opera Projects, and their directors, Charles Jarden and Steven Osgood. Howard Stokar, music curator of Works and Process at the Guggenheim, and my close colleague, soprano Lucy Shelton, also lent invaluable assistance.

The fact is that the instrumental and vocal worlds should converge more often. Conservatories and other musical institutions could do more to bring singers, instrumentalists, and composers together—and maybe those who are enterprising enough would decide to put together a chamber opera ensemble.

It’s an open field, just waiting to be explored and further developed.

Louis Karchin’s music is available at on the Albany, New World, and CRI labels. His sheet music is published by C.F. Peters Corporation (718-416-7822).

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.