I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking with Mr. Ned Rorem. As soon as I got word that we would be speaking, I very frantically began to devour any and every interview, article, program note, and Wikipedia article that I could find to learn what I could about him. The more I read, the more I gleaned of what I might expect when speaking to Ned. Ned comes off as a confident, honest, opinionated, and fiercely loyal man. In his repertoire are hundreds of songs, 7 operas (12 if you count each of the Fables individually), 3 symphonies, and a vast number of orchestral, chamber, and choral pieces. As someone who is just barely emerging as a professional musician, you can imagine how intimidated I was in preparing for this call.
The day of the interview arrived. I was a pile of nerves. I had a million doubts and worries; what if my questions weren’t good enough? What if he didn’t like me? What if I sounded stupid or uninformed? As the clock ticked closer to 5:15, when our call was scheduled, one of my coworkers offered me a beer. I gratefully accepted in hopes that it would help to calm my nerves. I cautiously dialed his number (I still can’t believe I have Ned Rorem’s phone number) and as we spoke, I realized I didn’t need anything to calm my nerves. Ned was so kind and earnest. As my anxiety melted away, I was left with a sense of wonder and awe of a man I have admired for many years. My questions are italicized, while Ned’s responses are in bold.
Our Town is a classic in the repertoire of American literature and plays. What drew you to this piece as material for your wildly successful opera?
Interestingly, it’s very attractive. I’m not the first person to want to do it. Aaron Copland did the music for the movie. I wouldn’t even have done it if I hadn’t gotten the rights. A lot of composers have wanted to do it. It’s such a well known play, whatever the music may be worth.
In an interview with J.D McClathy from 1999, you said that “music is the most abstract of the arts, painting the most concrete.” With this attitude, I wondered what your experience was in collaborating with McClatchy? What did you want to bring out most in the text?
I just wanted to clarify the text as I have. Any changes I made to the libretto were done long before. I wanted to write a listenable text, whatever the music may be worth.
You have written 7 operas, but you have said that song is your preferred medium in writing for the voice. Our Town is certainly a landmark for modern American opera (and one of the most beautiful, in my opinion). Why do you prefer song to opera? What has drawn you to both?
It used to be so. I’m the only person in America for years that was even writing song and in those days, there were still singers [performing song]. I can’t even think of one composer in present day that specializes in song. I also like writing in my own language. It’s very funny that Americans would take a text in any language but their own (God knows Americans are full of themselves). Virgil Thomson has written, in his native tongue, some pretty good operas.
You’ve given Boston Opera Collaborative your permission to change the role of the Stage Manager from a tenor to a soprano. Is there a reason for your flexibility? Do you view your work as evolving even still or do you feel it’s more concrete?
I’m not much against it. I think that music is music. I don’t see why Tosca can’t be done by a man. Once I’ve written a piece, I forget about it. I’m just pleased that my music is played.
You have said that you hope to be remembered for your piece, “Aftermath”. You held fast to your pacifist beliefs in the wake of 9/11. Are you writing anything in reaction to the current events? ISIS? Ferguson and now, Baltimore?
No, I’m not. I’m not writing anything. I’ve more or less said everything I’ve had to say. I don’t think that music necessarily politically influences the world. I’m trying to think of a piece that is very powerful and has influence on the world and I can’t. I don’t think that in times of war that you have to write about lilies of the valley. Right now, I’m not doing anything. I’m only writing right now on commissions.
I often have difficulty justifying my continued pursuit of music. As someone who has been wildly successful in this field, what advice would you give to an emerging artist/professional? What made you continue?
Money and performances. I think there’s something tragic about someone who just writes a piece for the the hell of it. I think you should have something in mind- a performance in mind. I think it’s insane to just write something. Nobody is writing songs any more. I can’t think of any singers who specialize in the singing of songs. Plus when American singers give recitals, they sing in every language but their own.
You have said that you feel like you may have said everything you have ever wanted to say, as an author and as a composer. Is there anything you wished you had written more of? Less of? Anything you would take back if you could?
No. I don’t. If I had a commission somehow, to write another piece, I would do it. But if I died right now, I would not be ashamed of what I leave. Americans are specialists but in France people do more than one thing. And even if they are only writers they do poetry and novels as well. I wrote for the same reason as anyone would. I wouldn’t do it unless I knew someone would read it.
I inquired into his writing of “The Paris Diary” asking how he felt about his publisher changing the order of some of his words- and commented that I felt he was courageous for being so open about his sexuality in a time when society was far more cruel to the gay community.
I wouldn’t have let it be published unless I was okay with it. I was very open about my sexuality… I didn’t think of it as courage. I just wrote what I wrote.
Are there any young composers that you are currently interested in or new works that you’ve been following?
I’m having a hard time thinking of anyone. [I listen] Less now than I used to because I’m getting older. I’m not interested in teaching any more. It takes so much out of me. But I try to keep up with who’s doing what.
When we hung up the phone, I was filled with such awe and joy; I was and still am so inspired by Ned’s confidence in the quality of his work and in himself. And now, I can live my life knowing that I have heard the voice of one of the greatest composers of modern opera and been able to share his voice with you all here. So, from all of us in Boston Opera Collaborative:
Thank you, Ned Rorem. You are an inspiration to all of us.