Interview with Richard Einhorn about his new opera The Origin

The Origin, Richard Einhorn’s new critically-acclaimed opera/oratorio in celebration of Charles Darwin, will be broadcast and streamed over the internet in its entirety on WCNY-FM (wcny.org) from 6:00-8:00PM on May 16, 2009. Prior to this broadcast I wanted to know more about the piece, so I spent some time with Richard over the internet. His responses to my questions not only piqued my interest in the performance this Saturday, but rekindled an interest in the main character in his opera, Charles Darwin.

Most Opera's have a narrative, but the source material "The Origin of Species" isn't really a narrative. How did you approach this project in terms of "story"?

On the contrary! If ever there was a narrative, it is "The Origin of Species!!!" It is, to reuse a movie title, the greatest story ever told, ie, the amazing story of how species are created, change, evolve, and morph into completely new forms of life. It is the most complex of narratives but in some ways...well, Darwin says it best: From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful, and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved. In short, The Origin of Species is in a very real sense the most basic narrative we have. For all its branching, it is the ultimate linear narrative.

Using that as a starting point, the music and texts for my piece, The Origin, "evolve" from a simple, chaotic beginning into a multiplicity of ever-changing forms. Some of the forms appear to be simple, but in fact, the music never repeats; it is constantly varied. That created the challenge of how to unify the piece, to keep it from flying off into outer space, sort of.

Essentially, and in the loosest sense, The Origin tells the tale of the making of Darwin's Origin of Species. It utilizes, more or less, three types of texts, all taken from the voluminous Darwin writings. There are numerous excerpts from "The Origin of Species," some of them very famous - such as the "endless forms" quote - some of them quite obscure. These are sung primarily by the chorus. I also used the notebooks Darwin kept for nearly twenty years to provide a sense of the protracted struggle Darwin went through in formulating what has been described "the single best idea anyone has ever had." (It's a remarkably simple idea: living things vary; those with advantageous variations survive long enough to breed descendants; eventually those descendants gather enough variations from the original species that a new species is created.) These sketchbooks are typically sung by the soprano and baritone soloists. Finally, I use the autobiographical writings to provide a sense of the Darwin as a person. Those are sung exclusively by the Balkan female choir.

What effect did that have on the music?

There are a lot of potential issues at play when using texts with music. I did want the texts to be comprehensible, and I also wanted to emphasize the beauty of the science. This modulated, to a considerable extent, the application of any formal musical scheme. So, while I used numerous variation techniques, including some I developed specifically for the piece, I was always ready to cut corners to set the text in the way I wanted it to be heard and understood. Essentially, however, you can look at The Origin as a huge, freely-imagined, set of variations off the ideas of the opening movement. That, of course, is in keeping with both the spirit and letter of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

For my own part, I found this comment by Richard fascinating - the concept of taking a set of ideas (themes or motives) and creating a set of variations that "evolve" into the rest of the work. That screams of Schoenberg's concepts of motivic development and yet takes it even further to tie the music with the concepts of the text. Very cool!
Wagner had leitmotive, Strauss and Puccini had soaring melodies. What role do you feel music plays in your operas and in particular "The Origin?"

Music, in most of my vocal pieces, serves to deepen, and support the text; without text, the music would be completely different! All of this is in the service of some kind of drama, but not necessarily drama in the traditional "operatic" sense. Sometimes, I'll play games, such as a breath/stutter game in Voyage of the Beagle, where one Balkan singer is required to repeat a simple two note nonsense phrase over and over, the game being how long she can repeat it until she runs out of breath. When she does, the rest of the group chimes in to complete the word. For example, one singer sings, "Valpa, valpa, valpa, valpa" until she can't, then the rest of the group sings "Valparaiso" and the seemingly random syllables become recognizable as the beginning of a place name. The drama is one of musical technique, not, say, interpersonal conflict. Elsewhere, texts are dramatized in more "literary" a fashion, as when the soprano sings, "Be careful," or when the baritone sings the word "mice," with horror.

And that brings up humor. The biggest shock to me about working with Darwin's texts was the enormous amount of humor and wit there is in them, something rarely remarked, Darwin, like many supremely great geniuses, was a deeply, profoundly, silly person. A seemingly absurd investigation, say, classifying barnacles or raising pigeons, becomes an opportunity to uncover fundamental truths about the way life works. Darwin seemed to be in a constant state of delight over such activities (well, maybe not ALL the barnacle classifying!). He found them amusing things to do, and he found the insights he gleaned incredibly delightful. That joy and humor was something I didn't expect, but once I realized that was going on, it became an important part of my piece.

Musically "The Origin" is described as elements of world music with exotic vocals. Is there an aspect of primalism you are trying to achieve, or something more modern and still wholly universal?

I use a female Balkan ensemble to portray the character "Darwin." While, on occasion, I make reference to Balkan traditions - it's fun and I love the music - to the best of my knowledge, I wasn't writing "world" music. Partly this is due to ignorance; I only know my own tradition (more or less) well, namely western concert music, rocknroll, jazz, folk. Partly it is an aesthetic choice. Despite music being such a temporal art form, I love music that, paradoxically floats outside of time, either by refusing to be pinned down to a specific genre or by messing with our perception of time's passage. In those senses, I think of what I'm trying to do as seeking a kind of "universality."

I don't worry too much about being "primalist" or sophisticated. I'm far more focused on the task of bringing the elements I'm playing with - musically, verbally - to life, in some sense. In the case of The Origin, I wasn't seeking a primitive sound by using Kitka to portray Darwin. Instead, I was seeking an unusual sound, something that subverts our very false notion of Darwin as the frail old man with the white beard. I wanted to portray Darwin as alive, passionate, humorous, filled with joy and energy. A female Balkan ensemble seemed strangely perfect for that. And given the enthusiasm and pleasure with which Kitka sings my music, I really think a sense of Darwin as an intensely curious person - in all senses - comes across.

This ties in really well with the concept of Darwin being humorous. We don't think of our scholars as human (much less humorous), so by highlighting the sense of humor and then giving his "voice" a different sound Darwin breaks the mold and forces us to re-examine our impressions of him. Well Done!
You spoke about Darwin's sketchbooks as being the final piece of the puzzle. Yet, you also describe the piece to be performed on three levels, Darwin's autobiographical writings, 2 soloists singing excerpts from his notesbooks and letters and the chorus as the theory fully realized. Were you imagining the two choruses initially and then added the soloists, or was the Kitka chorus singing Darwin's autobiographical writings the last piece conceptualized? - How did this piece evolve in your own mind?

It evolved slowly, all too fitting for Darwin's theory, which requires an unimaginable span of time to create new species of life. I wanted to do a piece about science, which focused on the ideas, not the lives of the scientist(s). After a good deal of thought, I chose Darwin and The Origin of Species. Once I saw his notebooks at the American Museum of Natural History, the final piece came into place, that the piece would be about "the origin of The Origin." The layers of texts, and the performing ensemble came quickly together after that.

Were there parts you wanted to include but just couldn't because of time and scope of the project?

There aren't enough petabytes on the Internet to hold how much I wanted to include but couldn't! To the best of my knowledge, I've altered nothing essential. Hopefully, the science is represented accurately: I consulted with several scientists about it. But of course, there are omissions. The Beagle voyage by itself deserves its own opera, and I mean an opera with sets and dramatic staging. I also left out Darwin's physical troubles, which impacted his psychology to a considerable extent. There are also a host of other things, including class issues, imperialism (Darwin emphatically wasn't, an imperialist partly because he accepted so many of the assumptions of British imperialism as givens), racism (it is a canard that Darwin was racist, just the opposite), and so on. All of these are germane to the story of the making of The Origin, but are not the nub of the matter. I think the science is, and a few life events - the voyage, his marriage, the death of his daughter, the priority dispute) are the main events and it is on those I concentrated.

Clearly, The Origin "celebrates" Darwin and clearly I admire him. But I am not trying to sell Darwin's theories; for one thing, they hardly need the help of a musician in order to persuade! What I'm trying to do, rather, is to create a musical/dramatic space in which you can feel and think about Darwin in order to come to your own conclusions. That, I think, is the major difference between something we call "art" and something else we call "entertainment." Art doesn't tell you how to feel, but it invites you to feel. And art doesn't tell you what to think, but rather encourages you to think. Of course, in reality, there can be no great art that isn't also entertaining, and even in the crassest junk, one can extract some art.

In other words, in a very real sense, what others say about The Origin is as "valid" and as "definitive" as anything I have to say about it. Although I feel incredibly lucky, in so many different ways, to have had the opportunity to write the piece, I am in no way a privileged listener to the piece: I'm just one more member of the audience. I am struck by the amount of humor in The Origin, someone else might notice the science, or the strange - to their ears - sound of the Balkan choir or a classically-trained vocal soloist. All of that, together, is part of the piece, and all of it is important.

Certainly, I hope people enjoy The Origin and appreciate Darwin as the amazing person he was. But just as certainly, I know everyone will listen differently, appreciate Darwin differently, if at all, and that is more than ok. In fact, that's the point of my music. Not to answer, but to pose questions.

The Origin: An Oratorio Tribute to Charles Darwin WCNY Productions presents excerpts from Richard Einhorn’s choral piece unveiling the achievements, thoughts and life of Charles Darwin in a musical tapestry like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Features the SUNY Oswego College Choir, Oswego College-Community Orchestra and Oswego Festival Chorus.

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