I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with Kate Pullinger a well known Canadian-born writer, resident for many years in the UK, about her opera project. (For her sins, she supervised my De Montfort University’s [UK] master’s project. There were times when I wasn’t sure either of us was going to survive largely [but not solely] due to my computer’s meltdown at the worst possible moment.)
Here’s a bit more about Kate from the About page on her eponymous website,
Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms. In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. Her prize-winning digital fiction projects Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel have reached audiences around the world.
Kate Pullinger gives talks and readings frequently (look at the Events page for future events); she also offers private 1-1 mentoring for emerging writers in both print and new media. She is Professor of Creative Writing and New Media at Bath Spa University.
As well as The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger’s books include A Little Stranger, Weird Sister, The Last Time I Saw Jane, Where Does Kissing End?, and When the Monster Dies, as well as the short story collections, My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison and Tiny Lies. She co-wrote the novel of the film The Piano with director Jane Campion. In 2011, A Curious Dream: Collected Works, a selection of Pullinger’s short stories, was published in Canada.
Kate Pullinger is currently working on a new novel and an associated digital fiction that build on themes developed in her collaborative digital fiction project, Flight Paths: A Networked Novel.
Other current projects include a libretto based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, commissioned by the Slovak National Theatre in collaboration with the composer Lubica Cekovska. This work will be premiered in Bratislava in 2013. Recent projects include working with digital artist James Coupe on Surveillance Suite, a project that generates stories using facial recognition software.
Kate Pullinger was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and went to high school on Vancouver Island. She dropped out of McGill University, Montreal, after a year and a half of not studying philosophy and literature, then spent a year working in a copper mine in the Yukon, northern Canada, where she crushed rocks and saved money. She spent that money travelling and ended up in London, England, where she has been ever since. She is married and has two children.
You can read more about Kate and her academic work here on her faculty page on the Bath Spa University website.
As for Kate’s work as a librettist on the opera, Dorian Gray, based on the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, she worked with composer, Ľubica Čekovská for the opera, which was debuted on Nov. 8, 2013 in Bratislava, Slovakia as part of the World New Music Days festival, founded in 1922 and *held in Slovakia and Austria in 2013..
Here’s Kate’s interview:
- I am assuming you went to the premiere? How was it? And, if you didn’t attend, what do you imagine (or what were you told) happened?
I saw the last two full rehearsals, and then the first two performances. There are two casts in the Slovakian production – two of all the main roles – I’m not entirely sure why! It was so much fun, to hear the orchestra, and to see the production, and to hear the singers sing our work. Lubica had played me the opera many times using Sibelius, the software composers use, but that sounds like tinny computer music, so it was so pleasurable to hear her score played. And her score is really a wonderful work, very dense, clever, amusing, and tuneful.
- Can you tell me a little bit about the story and which elements you chose to emphasize and which elements you chose to de-emphasize or eliminate altogether? How does your Dorian Gray differ from the other Dorian Gray opera by American composer Lowell Liebermann,?
I guess the main difference between my adaptation and most others is that I decided to make Dorian and his journey to hell central to the work and to not focus on his relationship with Lord Henry. Adaptations of the novel often make it a kind of two-hander between Dorian and Lord Henry, but we felt that there wasn’t room for that in what we were doing.
I don’t know the Liebermann adaptation at all.
- I looked up definitions for librettist and it seems the word means whatever the librettist and the composer decide. Could you describe your role as librettist for this opera?
I structured the story by creating three acts and the scenes therein, and then wrote the text for the singers. Lubica and I had a lot of discussion before I created the structure, and then on-going discussions as I worked on the libretto and she embarked on the score. I finished the libretto, but then continued to make changes as Lubica found issues with it, or we had new ideas. It was a lot of fun and we would like to work together again.
- How did you two end up collaborating with each other? And what was the process like? e.g. It took about four years to bring this opera to life, yes? So, did the process change as the years moved on and as you got closer to the premiere? Did you learn any Slovak (language)?
The writing process, in total, took about 2.5 years really, the bulk of that Lubica’s time, as creating and scoring an entire opera for a full orchestra is an enormous task. After that, there is a lengthy publishing process, and then the production time. So for the last 1.5 years I did very little except wait for the occasional update. Lubica was much more involved with the opera house in finding the director, conductor, and casting – and then once rehearsals started she was very involved in that process. Both the director, Nicola Raab, and the conductor, Christopher Ward, said how unusual it was to work with a living composer and librettist!
- Did anything surprise you as you worked with the story or with the composer (Ľubica Čekovská)?
I learned a lot and there were many surprises.
At this point I’m interrupting the interview to excerpt part of a review in the New York Times, which I ask about in a question that follows the excerpt from A Music Festival Features Premiere of the Opera ‘Dorian Gray’ By GEORGE LOOMIS Published: November 13, 2013 in the New York Times,
The World New Music Days festival was first held in Salzburg in 1922 — around the time Arnold Schoenberg was perfecting his 12-note compositional system — and it remains a robust champion of new music. This year the 11-day program, sponsored by the International Society of Contemporary Music, was spread over three cities — Kosice and Bratislava in Slovakia, and Vienna — and included some 25 concerts, which were supplemented by many others thanks to partnerships with local organizations. A new opera was among the many works to receive their world premieres.
But the opera, as seen in Nicola Raab’s generally persuasive staging with sets by Anne Marie Legenstein and Alix Burgstaller that decadently depict Victorian drawing rooms, is marred by the decision to have the picture consist simply of an empty frame, an idea that perhaps seemed bold in concept but misfires in execution. [emphasis mine] Ms. Cekovska interestingly conveys the picture’s disfiguration musically through wordless boy-soprano melodies that recur increasingly distorted. [emphasis mine] But the melodies, to say nothing of the drama itself, need a visual analogue.
Now back to the interview,
- The one reviewer I’ve read, from the NY Times, expressed some disappointment with the choice to have an empty picture frame represent the ‘picture of Dorian Gray’ around which the entire story revolves. What was the thinking behind the decision and is there a chance that future productions (my understanding is that one isn’t permitted to make any substantive changes to a production once it has started its run) will feature a picture?
Well, that’s one critic’s opinion, and not one we agree with. Very early on in the process Lubica had the idea, which I think is genius, of representing the picture chorally – in early drafts there was a chorus on stage, and then this shifted to an electronic recorded chorus, where the music becomes gradually more and more distorted as the picture changes. With adaptations of Dorian Gray there is always a huge problem with how to represent the picture, which is so vivid and clear in our mind’s eye when we read Wilde’s original. Having an oil painting that gets older often just looks cheesy – it doesn’t look how you think it should look. So the empty picture frame, and the disintegrating chorus, in my opinion, is wonderful.
- Given that I write mostly about science and technology, are there any opera technology tidbits about this production that you can offer?
Ha! It was one of the most analogue experiences of my entire life!
- How was your recent trip to China? Was it related to the opera project or an entirely new one and what might that be?
I went to China as part of a UK university exchange programme, looking at setting up collaborations with Chinese universities. It was a very interesting trip, though somewhat dominated by the appalling air quality in all three of the cities we visited.
- Is there anything you’d like to add? (e.g. plans to bring the opera to Vancouver, Canada)
Opera productions don’t travel, so any future productions will have to be new productions, if you see what I mean – or co-productions. This is what the opera house hopes will happen. Ľubica Čekovská is a young composer with a steadily rising reputation, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are future productions of it. I think it is a wonderful piece of work, but I’m biased.
Thank you, Kate for your time and for illuminating a topic of some interest to me. I’ve wondered about opera and librettists especially since many well known writers like you and Margaret Atwood are now working in this media. (Margaret Atwood is librettist for the opera ‘Pauline’ [about poet Pauline Johnson] which will have its world première on May 23, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada.)
For the curious, there’s another interview with Kate (she discusses the then upcoming opera and other work) written up by Jeremy Hight in a Feb. 2011 article for the Leonardo Almanac and Ľubica Čekovská’s website is here. One final note, World New Music Days festival will be held in Vancouver, Canada in 2017, according to New York Times writer, George Loomis.
* I posted a little sooner that I should have. As of 10:30 am PST, I have added Kate Pullinger’s name to the heading, and added Austria and Slovakia as the sites for the 2013 World New Music Days festival.
ETA Dec. 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm PST: The opera, Dorian Gray, will be performed again in Bratislava at the National Slovak Theatre on 20 February, 5 April and 5 June 2014. More here.