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Gesamtkunstwerk (with ghouls)

I mentioned this Spring about working on an opera during my residency at the MacDowell Colony; today I officially posted the score and information for our completed excerpts. These represent the first three scenes—more or less the first 25 minutes of the piece—sans a brief orchestral prologue which still sits on my desk in sketch-form.

A couple of years ago when we were initially looking for material, my collaborator—playwright, cult movie aficionado, and now librettist Gary Winter—presented me with a list of half a dozen films to look over. Films like Cat People. And the unsurprisingly less good The Curse of the Cat People. When I sat down to watch Carnival of Souls, a particular string went zing in my heart, and I knew without a doubt that this was our opera.

You can watch Herk Harvey’s brilliant film on a two-disc Criterion DVD with tons of really terrific bonus material; Netflix not only has that in stock, but also available for instant streaming viewing. More dubiously, you can view the film on Hulu, as well as on some completely shady site called the “Internet Archive“, where the film is listed as public domain. Which it isn’t. (Our sincere thanks to copyright owners Peter Soby, Jr. and Matthew Irvine for the license to make the opera.)

One of the things I love about the film is how in spite of the obvious camp, it’s actually a very beautiful movie–the photography is simply gorgeous. I actually took a lot from this, and tried very hard to mirror that sensibility in the music. In these three scenes, inside the shell of humor and dippiness in the horror-movie characters, I attempted to carry through a core of beauty and real feeling.

There’s a famous still of the actress Candace Hilligoss as “Mary Henry” emerging from the river after the accident. That’s where our opera begins, and Gary wrote a beautiful aria where Mary sings about the drag race and tragic accident of which she is the only survivor. This is where I began work (I had to choose somewhere), and about a year, maybe a year and half later, we have a complete libretto, and the first three scenes composed in piano/vocal score—the first scene of which is fully orchestrated. Along with the understanding and (really, quite crazy) support of Better Half, this was all accomplished by stealing time between other (paying) projects. Which was quite difficult, because most of the time I’m physically awake, I would actually like to be working on this piece.

There does exist a not-safe-for-internet MIDI-mockup of the excerpts, but until actual singers workshop/record some of it, we’ll all have to make do with the score. But if you’re near a piano with me, maybe I’ll sing some of it for you. I do an excellent ghoul.

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