Hailed by audiences and the press (the present writer included) during its premiere run in 2012, produced by Peak Performances at Montclair and Beth Morrison Projects, the opera Dog Days – created by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, and based on a post-apocalyptic short story by Judy Budnitz – has gone on to enjoy a widespread success unusual for contemporary opera. After runs in Los Angeles, Fort Worth, and New York City, as well as two productions in Germany, the work has been documented in a recording featuring the original cast and ensemble, issued digitally in September and on CD in October. During a recent interview, Little and Vavrek looked back on the formation of their creative partnership, the process leading up to the premiere staging, and lessons learned along the way.
You recorded Dog Days live during the run hosted by Los Angeles Opera. How did you go about capturing the recording?
DAVID T. LITTLE: Garth [MacAleavey] was the sound engineer, and the sound designer for the show, so he did all the live sound. Nick Tipp took his board feed, plus about 40 additional mikes that he his around the space. And then Andrew McKenna Lee edited and mixed it.
Did you record a series of performances?
LITTLE: It was five performances, a dress rehearsal, and a patch session. But it’s interesting, we used very little of the patch session. It made me really glad we didn’t do the studio thing, because the energy in the patch session was totally wrong – it was in the morning, people were trying to put themselves into this particular scene, we were doing all these spots and a lot of it wasn’t really usable to match the live [recording], because the energy was so much lower.
That’s an interesting point. Not so long ago, you’d read lamentations that there’s really not much studio-recorded opera anymore. But studio recordings of opera always had singers standing in a studio, usually standing behind an orchestra, trying to recreate a dramatic moment. It seems that if you can actually capture that dramatic moment, with all the sweat and buzz and tension involved, you’re going to come away with a better document of what the piece actually is.
LITTLE: I’ve been thinking about that with recording in general, and listening to older recordings that are not perfect; I feel like it was a Chicago recording I was listening to, where it was like, That is just out of tune, those horns are out of tune – and they sound phenomenal! That is the perfect sound, that out of tune-ness, that rawness of that moment is what’s exciting about it, not the sort of pristine intonation that you would have done another take to get in the environment now, where everything is adjustable, or you would have tuned it afterward. Having done the Third Coast [Percussion] record, that was all done sort of in chunks, but in a live space. It was done on the stage of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame, where they were in residence. We just set up a bunch of Gobos and mikes and did it in sections. And for that, I was just amazed by the sound quality, which was so much better than I had been able to get in a studio setting, because you had this beautiful hall that was made to make things sound great, and mikes 200 feet out in the house capturing just the right amount of ambiance that in a studio you would try to recreate with digital effects. There are pieces that would still make more sense in a studio-recording context, but for this, I think live was the right move.
VAVREK: The only big effect that I was immediately aware of was the stage noise, and when we were publishing the libretto, we had to add in little stage directions that clarified what sort of crunchy things were happening on the floor and stuff like that. I think that because they were wearing body mikes every vocal moment was captured fully. For Dog Days this was the ideal, phenomenal thing.
LITTLE: I think this is a really abnormal way of recording opera. And we had the advantage, because it was already an amplified piece, that the apparatus was already there and the infrastructure was already there, whereas it would be a big addition to an acoustic show. We’re trying to figure out recordings of some other pieces that are acoustic pieces, and I think this is the way to do it: You mike everything, and you put some mikes out in the house, and you make a live recording that is controllable in the mix and editable in the mix, but doesn’t have that sort of sterility of a studio – not that studio recording can’t be great.
Way back in the beginning, did you ever imagine Dog Days would come this far and achieve this much?
LITTLE: I don’t think I did. I mean, when we were writing it I felt really good; I felt, just in terms of my own technique, anything I was trying to do I was able to do. And this was really the first time for me, developing as a composer, that that had happened. That was really exciting, because I felt like I had studied really hard and it worked.
Are there specific instances that you could cite?
LITTLE: Not necessarily. It just felt kind of easy, in a new way. And even collaboratively, because there were a lot of changes that were happening on the fly – like the “Dead Deer” aria [“The Fresh-dead Deer”] and “I Can’t Move” were added. I would write up to them and then say, I think we need a moment here that does this… something with Mother not able to get into bed, because bed is death, or whatever. We would talk about it, and then I would say, I’m going to go get dinner, send me a draft. [Laughs]
VAVREK: “You have 20 minutes!” [Laughs]
LITTLE: And 30 minutes later, there would be a draft. Even between us, it was a very fluid process. It felt like we knew instinctively where things needed to go, and we were able to make it go there.
Was this the first time the two of you had worked together so extensively?
LITTLE: Yes and no. It was the first piece we…
LITTLE: …started. But we wrote other pieces before we finished it.
VAVREK: That’s the weird thing of opera and the general landscape.
LITTLE: Vinkensport was written in 2010. The first bits of this were performed at Zankel Hall in 2009.
The Carnegie Hall workshop with Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov.
LITTLE: Yeah. And it’s funny how that happened, because we were assigned singers and needed to find a story that fit. So knowing that we had five singers, but we could make a case for a Dog character that just wasn’t onstage because it would be a silent role, so five singers worked. We were able to make the story work with the complement of singers we had on hand.
Who brought the story in?
LITTLE: There’s a film version of the story, made by Ellie Lee – we’re actually screening it at the CD release show as background projections – starring Spencer Beglarian, the late brother of [composer] Eve Beglarian, as Prince. I saw this probably in 2002 or 2003, when I was a student at the University of Michigan. In the mornings, I would get up and get my head into writing with the previous night’s Daily Show and Colbert, and then I would sort of crossfade that into writing. And I would usually turn the sound off and start composing, and have the IFC Channel on in the background, across the room as some sort of distraction. I was writing and looked up, and saw this strange-looking black-and-white film with this man in a dog costume – O.K., what’s this? So I turned the sound on, and was just really sucked in by it, found it really fascinating.
A year later, I moved to Boston, where I discovered the filmmaker, Ellie Lee, also lived. I tracked down her email address and just wrote her an email, saying, Hey, I really love this film – it would be great to get together for coffee or something. And I think by this time I had already written “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” which is a song that we’ll hear to open the CD-release show. That was written in 2004 for soprano, violin, and clarinet, and this will be with piano here. It explores the feeling of the film, and the sort of landscape of the apocalypse. So I’d written that, and I told her about that, and she said, “Oh, you should meet [author] Judy [Budnitz] – I’ll put you in touch.” She put us in touch with Judy, and then we were able to get permission from Judy when this Carnegie Hall thing came up. I had bought her book Flying Leap in the mean time.
VAVREK: And it was published in [The New York] Times.
LITTLE: Our first meeting was sort of funny. You should tell that story.
VAVREK: Oh, lord. It was the day after Hair opened in [Central] Park, and I was working at the Public Theatre, and it was a rather rambunctious night where I lost my cell phone. But I believe that was the night I saw Lauren Worsham – randomly, she was there; I’d known her since grad school at NYU, and I was like [emphatically] “Lauren, we have to work together!” We just had this crazy bonding night. [to David] And then the next day I was supposed to meet you, and I was checking my messages on my work phone; it was, Oh my goodness, David T. Little is going to come, and we’re going to be two ships passing in the night.
LITTLE: I think it got to a point where I was just [indignant] O.K., I’m just going to go. I think I started to leave and then you showed up, or you called me, something. So we almost totally didn’t happen.
VAVREK: But I had known your work from [New York City Opera program] VOX; I had seen Soldier Songs at VOX, and you had seen a little one-act piano-vocal thing that I had done with American Lyric Theater. So we were both sort of aware of each other’s work. He knew that he had to write some sort of scena, some sort of dramatic thing, and we went back and forth sending a whole bunch of ideas. And finally you were just like, “You should read this story and see if it connects,” and I remember reading it and sending you an email: “YES! LET’S DO IT!”
VAVREK: And then 2008 we started working on it. You had your first Bard [College] workshop in October of 2008.
LITTLE: That was with Osvaldo Golijov and Dawn Upshaw, both of whom were really helpful in sort of getting my head on straight in terms of writing for voices, thinking about dramatic pacing, and things like that.
VAVREK: In May 2009 we premiered the work, and then sort of immediately afterward Alan Pierson got excited…
LITTLE: He had conducted the premiere at Carnegie.
VAVREK: And he took it to Montclair, to Jed [Wheeler]. And Jed was like, Let’s get [director] Robert Woodruff on board.
LITTLE: Jed said he wanted to commission the completion of the work, and he thought Robert should direct it. I had just read something in Time Out, David Cote’s article on Chair, the Edward Bond [play], which Robert had directed. I remember reading this maybe a year prior and thinking, I’ve got to work with this guy. And then there we were, working together.
VAVREK: I have these vivid memories of sitting in my office at the Public, it was very small, and Robert pacing back and forth – which, you know, was three steps – and just struggling, struggling, really wrestling with the material.
LITTLE: Royce was bringing in libretto drafts and reading them, and then we were discussing them.
VAVREK: The first was a treatment, and then we started bringing in drafts of librettos. And he was like, “just cut these two lines, I can accomplish that with my staging,” “this can go,” “you should consider expanding and extrapolating on this idea.” He was a very vigorous dramaturge, and dramaturges have been such a huge part of my process. We had a very robust meeting of the minds with Dog Days. And then finally it got to a compositional draft, and you went away and started composing – although we did write “Mirror, Mirror” sort of immediately after the Carnegie workshop, we had an opportunity to do a concert with Opera on Tap and AOP [American Opera Projects] at Galapagos. That was the first time we brought in Lauren, who became the heart and soul of the piece in the performance arena, at least, and she became our muse to a great extent. Her part was really tailored to her particular thing.
LITTLE: The singers who did it at Carnegie were not the singers who ultimately premiered the full piece, partially because they were so young. They’re great singers, we’re still in touch with them, but casting-wise they all seemed too young… James Bobick looked much more like Howard. And originally Pat was a mezzo, because we had a mezzo and I could kind of make that work as a pants role – which was quickly changed. We were mostly cast by the time I was writing, so then it became a case of kind of retro-fitting previously written material for the new cast members, including one voice type that kept changing from mezzo-soprano to countertenor to tenor as I wrote. Ultimately the cast who premiered it, and is on the recording, I tried to make it fit as well for their instruments as possible. And I think once we got into the room in rehearsals, they were very open about what changes might be helpful, and in some cases I was like, sure! But in other cases I’d say, if do that, then we lose this other thing, so can we try to make it work? I feel like Jim got a lot of those – Howard’s a really difficult role. It sits very high and also goes very low, so it’s very difficult.
VAVREK: It’s interesting thinking about all of this, because we’ve worked so hand in hand with performers, at least up until this point. But it also seems like we are really excited about the chemistry that’s involved in the performer, the words, the writing, the music, and coming together to make something really special. So it’s interesting that if you look at Abby [Fischer] in Song from the Uproar and Daniella [Mack] in JFK and Kiera [Duffy] in Breaking the Waves and Lauren in “Mirror, Mirror,” these are all roles that they were all on board from very early on, and they really do bring a spirit to the role that just transcends a sort of standard writing of the piece. David, you’re magnificent and your imagination is so huge, but I can only imagine that knowing Lauren and Daniela were singing these parts really and truly informed the magic of those parts in particular.
LITTLE: I think in some cases those characters were pushing them in directions they didn’t know they could go. I think it’s fun to challenge people.
VAVREK: You have a lot of conversations with singers: “Tell us about your voice, where’s your sweet spot?” And sometimes, singers don’t really understand their instruments, because they’ll never hear themselves in the house. So it’s interesting to hear what a singer suggests feels comfortable to them, and then how best to use that, how to push them. And a lot of it is by impulse, I would imagine.
LITTLE: Oh, yeah, it’s all impulse. It’s a lot of well-planned impulse, but in the moment, it’s all impulsive. When you ask those questions of a singer, you’re trusting that they know themselves well and can communicate those details to you, which is not always the case. And that’s true in anything; if you ask some composers to describe their music, it would not necessarily match your own perception of it. Or a writer, or anybody – there’s a communication issue there that’s fun to navigate.