Composer Michael Gordon is one of two composers being performed by Long Beach Opera in a show opening this weekend. Gordon is the creator of Van Gogh, a chamber opera based on the letters between the master artist and his brother, Theo. Based in New York, he is a co-founder of Bang on a Can and graciously gave us some time this week for a chat by phone, offering some insight into how Van Gogh came about:
Both of the operas in this LBO production are based in the literary, and language is the root of Gordon’s inspiration: “The letters are so without filter… it’s amazing writing.” Gordon had always been a fan of Van Gogh’s work (“Who isn’t?”), but when he started reading the letters between the tortured artist and his brother Theo, he found himself captivated by their intensity and their raw power. “His letters and his life were so miserable — he really suffered in an extreme way, and the letters are inspiring.”
“Van Gogh was living a totally failed life… he couldn’t get along with the way things were. He didn’t adjust or compromise, and so he’s not evasive about it — he sees what’s going on, and is so honest.” The brutal honesty of this suffering, and the achievements made in spite of it, made the artist’s life and work an abiding passion for the composer, and in 1989 he started to write an opera based on that correspondence. It was a project that would span many years, first crafting the libretto directly from the letters, making them the heart of the text and trying to maintain the source’s integrity.
The original intention was that Gordon would sing through the parts himself, to see how it all fit together, so he wrote one movement for one voice and five instruments, and it grew from there, working with small groups and eventually adding more voices and amping up the ensemble. The resulting work has been recorded by the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, performed in concert presentations (including the performance in Los Angeles last year by What’s Next? Ensemble), and another production is being developed in Europe, but the LBO production is the first full staging of the work.
It’s clear that Michael Gordon’s output is both diverse and prolific, keeping him plenty busy as he juggles multiple projects such as Timber (a recent percussion ensemble project) and an intriguing array of stage works, including Acquanetta, based on the true story of a B-movie star with an identity crisis (to say the least); and What to Wear, a collaboration with director Richard Foreman, which received several performances at REDCAT a few years ago. When he’s not composing, Gordon is a family man, and can probably be found doing homework with his kids.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Stewart Copeland and Van Gogh by Michael Gordon will be performed as a double bill by Long Beach Opera on May 11 (8pm – Sold out), May 18 (2pm and 8pm) and May 19 (7pm) at the Expo Arts Center in Long Beach.
Tickets are $29-160: check availability here.
We also spoke with Stewart Copeland this week — click here.
Van Gogh is available on CD in this 2008 recording by Alarm Will Sound. Click here or click the image at left for information from Amazon.