We Call It All Opera Today : Composer Matthew Peterson

photo by Frode Wendelbo

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wedish/American composer Matthew Peterson is an independent, vital voice in the new opera world. He studied at Gotland School of Music Composition, Indiana University School of Music, and St. Olaf College. As his varied education, the music of this composer, too, defies categorization and reaches many different genres. His dynamic, socially relevant true-crime opera Voir Dire (French – to speak the truth) was in the making for many years and went through a series of rejections and rewrites due to it’s straightforward portrayal of today’s justice system, unequipped to account for the human element. The opera is based on real court cases, witnessed by lyricist Jason Zencka. Voir Dire drills into the real tragedies of ordinary people, presenting a bitter critique of the situation. Themes of drug abuse, fractured families, economic precarity, and sexual violence are openly explored onstage, causing mild and diverse reactions from the public. Therefore opera is raising the major societal debates of present day. After many years, in 2020, opera once again changes its skin as an audio recording of it is being made and released publicly. In this interview, opera’s composer Matthew Peterson discusses public reactions and challenges  to the Voir Dire as well as creative opportunities while fitting opera into an audio recording format.

What is it important to tastefully combine several music genres in one piece? 

I think it’s important for it to grow naturally out of the dramatic requirements of the piece, out of the setting, the conflicts, and the characters. I composed most of Voir Dire in 2008-2009 at age 24-25, and part of the reason it ended up being such an eclectic work is that’s where I was at creatively then. But it was also a conscious dramaturgical choice. There had to be the courtroom of reality and the courtroom of the dream sequence and the music needed to differentiate those settings. So the courtroom reality is rhythmic, disjunct, angular, a  malfunctioning legal machine. The music for the dream sequence is more, well, dreamy, with its atmospheric orchestration, floating ostinatos, instruments uncoordinated in time.  And then there were the individual characters to represent, from Alycia Simpson’s direct, heart-on-her-sleeve ballad, a melody with chord changes, to Professor Milton, who is hiding from himself in the most complex harmonies of the opera. There was also the channel-changing nature of the form, and the music is telling us when we’re in a different case, a different world.

For you, does the main importance go to music or words in opera? How did you use this dynamic while composing this opera?

Music. It has to be music. If it’s not, it’s not a very good or memorable opera and I think Voir Dire is both. Of course, that was one of the reasons that Jason and I fought. Jason saw no reason that the text couldn’t stand on equal footing, but no one goes to the opera to listen to a libretto. But it’s partly thanks to Jason’s text that the music of Voir Dire is so strong. From August 2008 until August 2009, Jason emailed me the libretto piecemeal as he completed it. I have most of those emails still saved on my computer. I particularly remember one email from September. It was an aria to follow the bond hearing scene, typed in verse in the body of the email. As I read the song, a sort of jailhouse ballad, I was taken in from the first slant-rhyming triplet: “I’ve never been so cold before / as in this jailhouse corridor / remember I’m from Florida” I can’t overstate the importance of that particular aria, Alycia Simpson’s aria, in my development as a composer. It gave me the courage to write melodically in a new and very direct way.

How was the idea to record the opera was born? What determined that the release of the recording happened only now?

Usually opera companies will decide to record a new opera immediately following the premiere. We had a very successful production, but general director Darren Woods, the opera’s champion, was fired during the rehearsal period, so a recording was not in the works. Music director and conductor Viswa Subbaraman and I knew that the best chance to get the opera recorded was to do it independently and as soon as possible, and with the original cast. After managing to raise just enough to cover initial recording costs, we were able to record during two very intense days in June 2018 at Minnesota Public Radio Studios. The release took longer than planned thanks to the rough cut taking a very long time – a year – getting from St Paul, MN to me in Sweden, thanks to, among other things, the recording engineer having his computer stolen when his car was broken into. Per Egland and I spent every other Wednesday evening from fall 2019 to spring 2020 mixing and mastering the recording, often working until well after midnight. Our initial plan was to release worldwide on May 9, 2020 with a huge release party in Stockholm, but then the pandemic struck.

photo by Frode Wendelbo

What main thing did you take away from the experience writing and now recording this opera? 

The value of perseverance and believing in myself and my music. I could have compromised with the first ensemble and cut the Kalcek Trial like the soprano wanted, and the opera would have been performed in 2010 after all. But I knew that they were wrong about the trial scene, and to cut it was wrong. I didn’t back down, I chose to wait for another opportunity, and then to revise, and those were the right decisions. And the Kalcek Trial scene was truly a highlight of the opera, that scene more or less completely unchanged from when I composed it in 2008.

Thank you for the conversation!

Ona Jarmalaviciute

A Lithuanian musicologist and author, writing for music magazines such as Classical Music Daily, Opera Wire, and Mica-Music Austria, Ona has interviewed contemporary musicians, including Polina Osetinskaya, Klaus Ager, Alastair MIles, etc. She is currently a bachelor student at the Lithuanian Music and Theater Academy. A scholarship from Rotary International has enabled her to participate in student exchange programs at University Mozarteum Salzburg and the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna. Ona Jarmalavičiūtė is interested in the topics of pre-composition and compositional process, as well as the creative work of contemporary composers.