"Without people like her, we women wouldn't be doing what we are these days"
AOP SPOTLIGHT: JUNE 2013
Composer Sheila Silver
The composer of the Edna St. Vincent Millay songbook "Beauty Intolerable" discusses her musical connection to the legendary iconoclastic poet.
After all this time living in such close proximity to The Mount, what was it that brought you to pick up Millay’s work?
Sheila: It really had nothing to do with being around here. In the early 1980s, I was a young composer living in New York City. During that time, I was one of the panelists for the Millay Colony. Besides the Millay house and grounds there is another whole structure, modern and new. It’s a place where residents can have peace and quiet; an artist’s retreat. Anyway, I reviewed applications for 2 or 3 years. During all that time, the administrators kept saying, “When you’re ready, come up and stay.” But, I never did. It just never quite worked out. Little did I know that 20 years later I’d be buying a house in the area.
Anyway, I am a Professor of Music at SUNY Stony Brook. One semester a few years ago, I was working with a student who had decided to set one of Millay’s poems to music. But she was struggling. She was really too young to handle the power and sophistication of the poem which was one of Millay’s most famous, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” and it got me interested in Edna.
I picked up the two best known biographies – Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: the Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Daniel Mark Epstein, and by the times I’d finished reading I wanted to write an opera.
During this time, I ran into a friend and colleague, Gwen Gould. She happened to be with Peter Bergman, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. After being introduced, I mentioned that I’d been thinking of writing an opera about her. Peter invited me to visit him at Steepletop and thus began a series of visits and long conversations about Millay’s life and work.
Then, last February or March (2013) one of my colleagues, Elaine Bonazzi, a famous mezzo soprano, was planning on retiring. I decided to write a few songs in her honor and chose three of Edna’s most happy, light and playful poems to set to music. After the concert, several singers asked me for the music – including Deanne Meek and Risa Renae Harman, two of the three sopranos I ultimately wrote for in the Songbook.
It seems like there is a lot to say about Millay’s life – from her bisexuality to her Pulitzer to her wide-spread popularity due to her tours and broadcasts. That’s a pretty incredible “back story”.
Sheila: If I were to write an opera, I would address the back story. For this Songbook, I picked poems primarily about love – found love, lost love, historical love. She even wrote about Tristan and Isolde and Penelope and Odysseus. The Penelope piece is incredible! How can I pass that stuff up for opera singers?
I feel like when I work with her, I’m channeling her. The selections weren’t really premeditated. I read and read and read and then would open the book and see where my eye fell. If I didn’t like what I saw, I’d open the book again.
What worked against your original choice of doing an opera and instead, made the choice of a songbook the right one?
Sheila: I didn’t have an angle on how to present her life in an opera. I thought it was going to be hard to make her look really good. So I started by setting her poems to music to warm up and I was so delighted with the results that I thought I’d just bring her words to the public. I just didn’t need any more.
I’m not sure I’ll ever write an opera about her, but I was so satisfied by the poetry being set to music, I didn’t want to stop. If I had had another 6 months, I probably could have written another ten songs.
After Beauty Intolerable is up and running I’m leaving for India with my family. I’ll be studying Hindustani music under the tutelage of Deepak Raja and master vocalist Narayan Bodas in order to “color” my Western compositional voice. I’m going to write an opera based on Khaled Hosseini’s powerful novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. I’ll be in a completely different place, both physically and creatively.
When I’m done, if Edna is still lingering on the outskirts of my mind, then I’ll re-address the possibility of doing a complete opera.
Why three sopranos instead of one?
Sheila: There was just something about writing for several different kinds of voices. Each singer’s personality is different and I composed different sets for those different qualities –just like there being different kinds of love. I only have them singing together at the opening and again at the closing. Edna’s poem, First Fig begins, “My candle burns at both ends…” I wrote two different rounds for them. The different music epitomized Edna for me. She lived hard, but was playful – not always serious.
I know you toured Steepletop in order to get more of a sense of Millay. Can you tell me about any of the details that affected your writing? How did her sense of place influence your songs?
Shelia: I have had several powerful conversations with Peter Bergman where he delved into her life story. He gave me an intimate tour of the house and showed me photos that aren’t on display. I’ve seen her clothes, her private library adjacent to her bedroom and the darkness of her studio with a tiny table and a clock. She wrote there every day for four hours.
I don’t think I could have done this if I didn’t live 10 minutes from there. We’d get together and talk for three hours at a time. Peter’s stories and knowledge helped me go beyond…. He’s a very personable guy and our conversations allowed me to talk through her influences and her life. He was very engaging.
It seems as though much of your composing is influenced by far-off cultures. Yet, here is one that is so American; so “New England”. How does this work relate to your other pieces?
Sheila: Yes, I have composed a lot based in other cultures: Indian, Tibetan and classical Greek and Latin stories. But, I’ve written plenty of American or English based music, too. I have a song cycle called Transcending based on texts of Yates and Thoreau. And, even the more distant cultural works have American strands.
These songs are perhaps my most “American”. They are influenced by Jazz and the fact that I grew up on Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez. There’s also even some French cabaret music influence.
I don’t write in a lot of different styles. I don’t like to. But I have listened to a lot of different music and that assimilation makes my mind a giant prism. An idea goes in and when it comes out the other end, it sounds like “Sheila”. No matter the influences, this is my voice. And the older I get, the more my goal is to get simpler, more honest and more straightforward. There is purity in Edna’s poetry that is very appealing.
Honestly, I think Edna is out of vogue at the moment because she is a rhyming poet. It’s time to bring her back. She was one of the original feminists, too. Without people like her, we women wouldn’t be doing what we are these days. She was a visionary.
I can’t remember. Was Millay a musician herself? Does she reference any of her favorite works or musicians? Did her tastes influence you in the way you composed?
Sheila: Edna was an actress and a mezzo-soprano. She performed and wrote her own songs. She was involved in theater groups in Greenwich Village along with her sister and her Mother. She even wrote a libretto for the Metropolitan Opera. . But, I wouldn’t say her tastes in music influenced me.
This project was developed with the support of American Opera Projects, The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, ClaverackLanding and Symphony Space. Did you receive feedback from any of these groups?
Sheila: Thankfully, American Opera Projects extended themselves to this song cycle. It falls under “New American Works for Voice.” And Holly Peppe, the literary executor from The Millay Society has been working with me, supplying me with information, for the past year and a half. Gwen Gould was also responsible for keeping the project alive. She’d keep asking me “What’s happening with your songs?” Finally, I had a trip to India planned and she suggested that her organization, ClaverackLanding, present the world premiere before I leave. So, she became the first venue. That’s so fitting because she introduced me to Peter to begin with. Last, but not least, Symphony Space came on board with help from AOP who has been there throughout this journey. I thought the songbook was appropriate for Symphony Space. They are a progressive venue in New York City and, they will present the work immediately following the world premiere. In Hudson.
a conversation with Betsy Miller 05/22/2013
Beauty Intolerable will be performed on June 8 at First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, NY and on June 13 at Symphony Space with the composer in attendance. Event info: www.operaprojects.org/events