“I’ve actually been lucky the past five or six years,” said Dominick Argento, reflecting on the upsurge of performances of his operas. “The Dallas Opera did ‘The Aspern Papers’ last year, a fabulous production, the work’s 25th anniversary. ‘Poe’ (“The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe”) is running in Germany right now, and ‘Postcard from Morocco’ gets produced somewhere every few months.
“So I don’t feel slighted or bitter.” He laughed. “I’ve lived almost as long as Verdi. What more could I want?” For the record: Argento is 86; Verdi died at 87.
One thing he wants is the premiere Saturday at the Ordway Center by Minnesota Opera of his revision of “The Dream of Valentino,” an operatic look at the rise and fall of Rudolph Valentino, one of the most popular stars of the silent-screen era.
Though the work received positive reviews in its premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1994, Argento thought the production ill-conceived. “It was staged by a lady from Sweden who knew nothing about Hollywood,” he said. The version to be seen here will be 40 minutes shorter, and the director this time around, Eric Simonson, an Oscar-winner for his documentary “A Note of Triumph,” knows Hollywood and lives there.
“I feel like I’m going to be seeing this for the first time,” Argento said.
Argento, born in York, Pa., and widely considered one of the most important opera composers of his time, has lived in Minneapolis since 1958, when he accepted a position teaching theory and composition at the University of Minnesota. The move to Minnesota, he thought at the time, would be “artistic suicide’: careers in music are made on the East Coast, not in the Midwest. He soon began getting commissions, however, from Twin Cities arts organizations, as well as from elsewhere, and within four years he and his wife, the former Carolyn Bailey, a soprano, decided to make this their home permanently.
“It had been my good fortune,” he reflected later in his book, “Catalogue Raisonne As Memoir,” “to have landed in a state, namely, Minnesota, in which the art I practice is widely viewed as an essential aspect of life, not merely an ornament or an embellishment.”
Creativity and renown blossomed here
Indeed, Argento’s creativity and renown blossomed here, and not only in opera. His choral works have been much in demand, and he almost single-handedly created a genre in the dramatic song cycle – “monodrama,” as he calls it – based in most cases on prose texts rather than poetry and often created for prominent singers, among them “Casa Guidi” for Frederica von Stade, the recording of which won a Grammy Award in 2004, and “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” for Janet Baker, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
In his early years here he co-founded Center Opera, which evolved into Minnesota Opera – a mostly sour memory for Argento – and for seven years he composed music for productions at the Guthrie Theater. In later years he was named composer laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, for whom he wrote several large-scale works. He retired from teaching in 1997, receiving the lifetime title of Regents Professor Emeritus.
Argento’s status in the opera world seems secure, even though a number of his works sit on the shelf gathering dust. Philip Brunelle, artistic director of Vocalessence, has commissioned several of Argento’s choral works while conducting the premieres here of “Postcard,” “Waterbird Talk,” “Miss Havisham’s Fire” and “Poe” (both the world premiere and the first European production in Sweden). In November, he will conduct “Postcard” at the Cape Town Opera in South Africa. Brunelle puts Argento in the top rank of opera composers. “He’s like Benjamin Britten in that he’s a great composer for the voice,” Brunelle said. “His music stays with you. It has real drawing power. But he’s never been a big promoter of himself the way a number of other composers are. He has always thought people would just discover his music. Well, some do and some don’t.”
Argento admits that the promotion of his work by his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, with whom he signed when he was still a student – a rare feat in one so young – doesn’t seem to be a high priority. “I’m old news to them,” he said. “The attitude at Boosey is to concentrate on whatever’s selling best. If it was once Britten, now it’s John Adams (“Nixon in China,” The Death of Klinghoffer,” “Doctor Atomic”). They must make more out of Adams in one year than they’ve made out of me in my entire lifetime. …”
A string of successful revivals
He’s encouraged, nonetheless, by the success of his revivals. First came “Casanova’s Homecoming,” which Minnesota Opera staged in 2009, after giving the premiere in 1985. Then came “The Aspern Papers,” based on the Henry James story, in Dallas last year. In 2012, the University of Maryland presented a retrospective, “The Art of Argento,” which included two of the monodramas and two operas, “Postcard” and Argento’s favorite, “Miss Havisham,” a retelling of Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”
“How many operas get revived after 25 years?” he said. “Look at these recent new operas like ‘Little Women’ or ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or the one they did here on World War I (‘Silent Night’). After a little enthusiasm, they all vanish, ultimately. This piece, ‘Valentino,’ which is 20 years old, probably sounds more modern than a lot of the newer things. Of recent operas’ composers he says, “They’ve learned that conservatism pays.” (Argento’s choice of the finest American opera: his teacher Hugo Weisgall’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” based on the Pirandello play.)
Argento’s style, an almost unique mix of warm-hearted lyricism with modernist, spiky touches of atonality and employing a wide range of period references, may seem learned – perhaps even dense – to audiences weaned on the minimalism of Philip Glass, the neo-minimalism of Adams and the cross-over creations of William Bolcom and Ricky Ian Gordon (“Grapes of Wrath,” premiered by Minnesota Opera in 2007).“Valentino” is a coat of many colors: ragtime, tango, 18th-century baroque, Victor Herbert-style operetta, a bustling fugue at one point, and, in the opera’s funeral scene, an allusion to the Latin Mass for the Dead – all shrewdly stitched together in an easy but dramatic flow. (After the initial premiere in Washington, Argento fashioned the work’s three seductive tangos into an orchestra piece, “Valentino Dances,” which the Minnesota Orchestra recorded with Eiji Oue conducting.)
Whatever the fate of “Valentino,” it will be, the composer assures us, his last opera. “I’m too old now to write any more operas,” he said.
For one thing, his hearing is impaired. It’s not the standard reduction of sound but damage to the auditory nerves of the inner ear, the cochlea, the result of which is that the music he hears is distorted. As he spoke over lunch at Minnesota Opera’s offices last week, he had come from an orchestral rehearsal, and it had been a frustrating experience.
“I’m sure I heard things this morning no one else heard,” he said. “It’s louder than I know they’re playing, and the chords come out different than what I wrote. I don’t know how to explain it. Earphones don’t help. So I don’t listen to music anymore.” The other reason is equally personal, the death of his wife, Carolyn, in 2006, which put him into a deep, almost paralyzing depression.
Argento had called her his muse. His constant companion, she had sung the premieres of many of his works and often made suggestions on the writing of them. The cause of death was undiagnosed and remains so today. Argento visited her in the hospital every day for – he recited the exact number – 280 days until she died. During this time, he was asked to write a large choral work for the Cathedral Choral Society at the National Cathedral in Washington for the group’s 100th anniversary.
“The director called me. I said ‘I’m out of the music business. I don’t write anymore. My wife is very ill, and the last thing I’m thinking about is writing music.’ They said, ‘Would you be interested in writing this if she gets better?’ I said, ‘The day I take her home and get the house fixed up to accommodate her with a wheelchair and an elevator and all that, I’ll think about it.’ When she died, they heard about it, and the conductor there, J. Reilly Lewis, said, ‘What about writing a piece in her honor?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ He said, ‘Would you think about it?’ I said, ‘All right, I’ll think about it,’ and the more I thought about it, I realized Carolyn would be happy if I did it – she had visited the National Cathedral many times as a child – and so I wrote it. It’s the last commission I’ve accepted.”
A striking work
The result, “Evensong: For Love and Angels,” a striking work for soprano, chorus and orchestra that opens with a poignant, ethereal wordless soprano solo, was recorded by the Choral Society. The chorus members were so taken with the work that they contributed half the recording costs. “I think the commission for “Evensong” brought Dom back to life,” said Pat Solstad, a long-time friend of Argento’s.
Since then, to amuse himself and, as he put it, to keep himself from going crazy, Argento has written two short sets of vocal pieces. One is a group of cabaret songs that was premiered in 2012 at the University of Maryland. “I did these,” he said, “because I used to play the accordion when I was a kid at my dad’s café, and I always loved Broadway show music by people like Kern and Gershwin.” The other is a set of choral pieces, “Seasons,” on poems by Solstad. Dale Warland, to whom the work is dedicated, will conduct the work’s premiere at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival at the Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels in Winona, Minn., July 12 and 13.
Working on “Valentino” has surely been of some therapeutic value as well. Dale Johnson, artistic director at Minnesota Opera, started the ball rolling on “Valentino” two years ago. He hadn’t seen the first production, but he had examined the score and he much admired the recording of “Valentino Dances.” In addition, a friend, Suzanne Murphy, had sung a major role in the Washington production and had said, “It’s a great piece.”
“When we did ‘Casanova,’ it struck me that, other than ‘Miss Havisham,’ this is the only major piece of Dominick’s that we hadn’t done,” Johnson said. “ And, after all, Dominick was there, at the foundation of Minnesota Opera. Our destinies are intertwined.”
More than 50 years later, this intertwining remains a sore point with Argento and a tale largely forgotten. He had hoped, after Center Opera’s successful inaugural season at the Guthrie Theater in 1964, for which he had written a one-act, “The Masque of Angels,” to model the young company along the lines of Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival in England, that is, partly as a platform for his own works. But the Walker had other ideas. When Argento returned from a year in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he found that the Walker had placed a man named John Ludwig in charge of the company. Ludwig had fired the stage director, John OIon-Scrymgeour, whom Argento admired, replacing him with H. Wesley Balk, then on the faculty of the theater department of the University of Minnesota. Argento left Center Opera at that point.
“I was on the outs with the company for about seven years after that,” he said. “They did trashy operas like ‘Good Soldier Schweik,’ in which they had a mass enema onstage – a huge rubber tire with tubes connected to the chorus members. I spent those years writing music for the Guthrie plays.”
He noted other incidents. He wrote the female lead in “Poe” for his wife. The director insisted on someone else. He was promised that “Casanova’s Homecoming” would open the Ordway Center in 1985. On short notice, the company pushed “Casanova” to later in the season, opening the hall instead with “Animalen” (“The Animal Congress”), a satire from Sweden that didn’t translate well and proved to be one of the biggest bombs in the company’s history.
“Valentino,” on the other hand, might earn favor. The score itself, set to a text by the late Charles Nolte, a colleague of Argento’s at the University of Minnesota, was widely praised. Peter G. Davis, critic of New York magazine, wrote, “What a pleasure to encounter a real opera composer, one who has studied and learned from his predecessors, loves the form, understands its conventions, has mastered them, and then lets his imagination take wing.”
The magnetic but troubled Valentino
Certainly it’s a compelling subject. Born in 1895 to middle-class parents in Castellaneta, a picturesque town in southern Italy, Valentino brought a smoldering sensuality to the screen in such key films as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and “The Shiek” (followed by “Son of the Shiek” in which Valentino played both father and son). His popularity was such that in 1931, five years after his death, Shiek-brand rubber condoms hit the market adorned with Valentino’s picture.
Said the producer Jesse Lasky, “Valentino had more animal magnetism than any actor before or since.” Troubled and unsure of himself, feeling manipulated by the studio heads – personified by the Mogul in the opera – and by most of the women around him – both his wives were lesbians – Valentino strove to gain control of both himself and his career. He was helped by his only real friend, the screenwriter June Mathis, who in the libretto tells him repeatedly, “Follow your dream, not theirs.” She failed. Valentino died at 31 of acute appendicitis and perforated gastric ulcers, after which some 30,000 mourners and curiosity-seekers jockeyed for space outside Campbell’s Funeral Church in New York City. A plate-glass window in front of the chapel was shattered, and 100 people were injured.
“Valentino was consumed by this overwhelming celebrity,” said Eric Simonson, who is staging the work. “The opera is about the wonders and dangers of the American dream.”
“He didn’t listen to the right people,” said James Valenti, the handsome 6-foot -4-inch tenor who is singing the title role. “He took off his make-up and lost who he was. He was the opposite of Pagliacci, who became himself when he took off the make-up. He wanted to be respected.”
Was Valentino gay? One biographer, David Bret, says yes, definitely, in his book “A Dream of Desire.” Another, Emily Leider, says in “Dark Lover” that there is no evidence for this. “Men have made affidavits about having an affair with him,” Argento said. “By now, it’s gone back and forth so many times, we’ll never know, and no eye witnesses are alive at this point.” Nolte’s libretto suggests that enough people in Hollywood thought they could manipulate Valentino over the question of sexuality and, if need be, endanger his career if he didn’t cooperate.
H.L. Mencken’s observation
Argento quotes H.L. Mencken as an epigraph to his score. Mencken had lunch with Valentino a week before he died and wrote his impressions of the actor. “In brief,” he concluded, “Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity, destructive alike to his peace and his dignity.”
Argento sees a persistent theme in his operas, the idea of self-discovery, and he finds it in “Valentino” as well. “When Valentino returns to New York from Europe he learns what they are all doing to him. They’re using him,” he said. “They’re putting him in crappy movies or they’re suing him and won’t let him work in Hollywood. He learns a lot. It’s the truth more than anything else that kills him. The truth isn’t about his sexuality. It’s about the meanness and malevolence of the world around him.”
“The Dream of Valentino,” a Minnesota Opera premiere, music by Dominick Argento, libretto by Charles Nolte. Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Sat., March 6 and 8, 7:30 p.m.; March 9, 2 p.m. $20-$200. 612-333-6669 or www.mnopera.org.
Michael Anthony, a former longtime music critic for the Star Tribune and the author of “Osmo Vänskä, Orchestra Builder,” writes about classical music and other arts topics for MinnPost.