We’re like the Gibson – Sawyer period of Good Morning America here at the Sybaritic Singer. We drink our coffee. We report from unique locations. We chat it up with all the cool kids. That being said, you’re in luck, my little chickpeas, because this week we have one pretty cool guest, Melissa Dunphy, composer of The Gonzales Cantata.
American Opera Theater joined forces with Peabody Opera and Handel Choir of Baltimore this month to produce the world première staging of The Gonzales Cantata and I had the blessed fortune to interview Melissa about the production and her work. This stand-out performance is part of the final season of American Opera Theater and due to a completely sold-out first weekend of performances, they have added an extra night this weekend. Needless to say, get your tickets now!
Dunphy’s Gonzales Cantata sets the transcript from the Alberto Gonzales congressional hearing to music in the style of a Handel oratorio. All the fan-favorites from the hearing: Gonzales, Patrick Leahy, Diane Feinstein, Arlen Specter, Orrin Hatch, and Ben Cardin are featured. In a kind of “stick it to ’em” take on the overly male make-up of Washington politics, Dunphy reverses the sexes. In fact, the only male in the cast is the tenor that plays Diane Feinstein in an awesome Miss Hannigan meets Nancy Pelosi (if she were taller, of course) way. Dunphy takes an initial searing look at American politics and turns it into a touching moment of blind loyalty and misplaced ambitions. Dunphy, quoted in the Philly Fringe Festival blog regarding the piece, said, “There’s drama, the 19-character [Judiciary] Committee is the chorus, and Alberto Gonzales is the soloist.’ It reminded me of Orpheus facing the Furies in the Underworld, only in our version, Orpheus is corrupt, and the Furies consume him over the course of the show.” In its concert premier at the Philly Fringe Festival 2009, the work was featured on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and in the Wall Street Journal.
So, let’s get to it…
Originally The Gonzales Cantata was conceived to be performed oratorio fashion. How did you feel when Tim Nelson (American Opera Theater‘s Artistic Director) approached you about staging the work?
Surprised and delighted! I feel very honored whenever someone offers to perform one of my works, and the fact that this piece inspired someone as talented as Tim to stage it only adds to that. I know some composers feel that their work should always be performed exactly as conceived, but I’m not one of them. Maybe this is because I worked as a Shakespearean actor for many years: despite the fact that Shakespeare is widely held to be the greatest author in the English language, you will almost never see a live performance of one of his works that uses an unadulterated script or authentically historical costumes. Theatre companies are always trying to find fresh interpretations of his plays, which is one reason his work stays so vital and relevant to modern audiences.
How did you feel during/after seeing the new staging?
I was surprised and pleased to find that Tim’s staging made Gonzales even more sympathetic. One of the reasons I first decided to write the work was the unexpected empathy I found myself feeling for Gonzales during the hearings, despite how strongly I disagreed with his actions. It also makes dramatic sense; the show would be so flat and boring if the audience didn’t identify with Gonzales; the more we can see him as a human being, the greater the impact of the story.
What leads you to feel empathetic, but also unsympathetic, toward the character of Gonzales?
I recently realized that I have spent so much time with the character of Alberto Gonzales that I have built a whole mythology in my head around his personality and the psychology behind his actions. I am deeply aware that Alberto is no saint. He really did commit the crimes he is accused of in the Cantata, and he lied and obstructed so blatantly during the hearings that they became a series of comedies. He betrayed the American people he pledged to serve. But if you look beneath, there’s something heartbreakingly tragic about his tale. The most important line in the whole show, for me – the key to understanding the character of Gonzales – is “Even my worst days as Attorney General have been better than my father’s best days” from his resignation speech in “God Bless America.”
Three of Alberto’s grandparents were illegal Mexican immigrants; his parents were poor laborers. I had poor immigrant parents myself, and I know the importance they place on pushing the next generation to escape their class through hard work and education. Coming from that background, his was an astounding success story. Gonzales went to Harvard Law School and was one of the brightest up-and-coming legal stars early in his career. He helped break down barriers for Hispanics in the legal profession. Can you imagine how that must have felt for him and his family? When a group of neoconservatives nurtured his career until he became top White House counsel and ultimately Attorney General – the highest legal position in the country – it’s easy to see why he would develop an extreme loyalty towards them. At some point, the drive to achieve and maintain his success became so powerful that it skewed his moral compass. I absolutely understand how that could happen, which makes me think of him as far more than just a caricature or two-dimensional villain.
That said, it’s pretty alien to me to believe that spending your day trying to legalize torture is “better” than an honest day’s labor. Labor is back-breaking work, and I don’t pretend to know how difficult it is, but I assume that laborers can at least sleep at night.
I’ve read a few recent interviews of Gonzales, and I always come away from them with the impression he’s in a weird state of denial. I’m sure there’s a part of him that knows that what he did was wrong, and perhaps subconscious self-sabotage explains his pathetic performance during the hearings. He keeps that guilt locked up tight in a box in his head, and I think it would destroy him if he ever opened it. This is all wild conjecture, of course!
What particular musical methods do you use to develop personality in your characters?
I made some conceptual musical decisions – most obviously, Orrin Hatch’s words were set in the alto range because they were strangely consoling, and there’s something so beautiful and comforting about a low female voice. The best lullabies aren’t written for high sopranos.
Other than that, I’ve tried to use harmony or dissonance to highlight certain moments in the text, such as obviously scripted statements, or excerpts that are particularly disturbing when taken out of context. There is a musical language which all composers use to some degree to speak emotionally to an audience – for example, in the Western tradition, we are used to hearing extreme dissonance in moments of horror or anger, while tritones and augmented or diminished chords are associated with feelings of suspense or anxiety, and a major chord in root position often makes us feel grounded and relaxed – and I choose not to ignore that common language when I compose.
See what I mean, dear readers? I am so glad that Melissa has taken the time to answer these questions about The Gonzales Cantata. Understanding some of the story behind the work certainly makes the performances more emotional and thought-provoking. It is completely “heartbreaking” when you start to identify with Gonzales and the seemingly delusional state he was in during the hearings. Molly Young’s portrayal of Gonzales in those personal moments ferries the audience into a dichotomy of feelings about the man and the perception of him as Attorney General.
Tomorrow, Melissa and I delve into deeper topics around The Gonzales Cantata, politics in relation to art, and the role of the government regarding censorship of the fine arts. You won’t want to miss her thoughtful answers. Want to know what else you don’t want to miss? The show, of course! Click on over and get your tickets before this weekend sells out.