I remember reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” long before I could have had an understanding for the work. Only after later re-readings and gaining some life experience did I come to appreciate the power of ‘story told through subtext’ or Hemingway’s “Iceberg theory.” Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon, ““If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”¹ When I found out that composer David Dies had recently written a chamber opera adapted from the short story, I had to know more. We had a chance to sit down (via the internet) and talk about “Hills Like White Elephants”, his other current work, and more.
In the Fall of 2013, several of David Dies’s works were featured in Anaphora’s performance on “Live on WFMT” in Chicago, including excerpts from his chamber opera, Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. His bassoon chamber concerto, edifis, was commissioned by eight renowned bassoonists throughout America and Australia, including Marc Vallon, Jeffery Lyman, Benjamin Coehlo, William Ludwig and Richard Stocktigt, and will be performed by each of them between 2012-2015. His music has been performed on three continents, notably in London, New York, Chicago, Lima, Peru, Lenox, Mass., Oberlin, OH, by nationally and internationally recognized performers, including those who performed on agevolmente, as well as soprano Catherine Verrilli, and guitarist Lynn McGrath.
American Record Guide observed that Dies has a “sensitivity to subtle shades of timbre, exploitation of spare textures…and predilection for a certain ceremonial austerity that evokes ancient, remote, or hieratic ritual” in a review of his 2011 Albany Records CD. The album features “excellent performances (ARG)” by pianist Christopher Taylor, sopranos Mimmi Fulmer and Judith Kellock, bassoonist Marc Vallon and cellist Jakub Omsky.
Upcoming performances include mezzosoprano Consuelo Sañudo singing excerpts from Hills Like White Elephants in Santa Fe, NM, and Trio Lorca’s performance of an arrangement for flute, percussion and soprano of his Reference (Collection): On Books & Libraries. Dies is also delighted to be working with the young musicians of Logan High School in LaCrosse, WI, this fall as they prepare his Sketches for String Orchestra.
David Dies is a composer, music theorist and educator currently living in Minnesota.
Congratulations on having excerpts of your chamber opera performed live on Chicago’s WFMT radio station recently. Your work “Hills Like White Elephants” is adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Tell us more about it. What inspired you about Hemingway’s writing?
I was drawn to Hemingway’s story for a variety of reasons. In some ways, the nature of the story sits in opposition to opera’s values: opera glories in grand expressions of a character’s emotion and motives, and often hinges on intricate plots and surprise twists (The Marriage of Figaro, all of The Ring, Rosenkavalier…) Hemingway’s story is famous or infamous for the action being carried almost entirely in the subtext and for being almost inscrutable–many readers aren’t exactly sure what happened in the story when they finish it. This leaves it open to multiple interpretations, which is a quality also rarely encountered in opera. Part of why opera works for its audience is that it signals specific responses and thus specific interpretations, even so far as people standing on cue when the Good Friday music is played in Parsifal.
But as I worked with the story, the similarities, or its suitableness for adaptation, to opera started to become apparent. The characters are nameless–man, girl, woman–and I think this anonymity makes them archetypes. Even the plot is archetypal, in its way: It’s a conversation that’s been had countless times throughout the history of humanity. And archetypes have been central to opera since its founding. Further, the kind of focus Hemingway’s prose demands of a reader, where every word can feel deeply significant, isn’t that different from the weight given to even a pedestrian sentence in conventional opera. So while Hemingway’s text can be read as “every day speech,” his use of language isn’t all that far from what opera does best.
Exactly — “Hills Like White Elephants” is an extraordinary lesson in Hemingway’s use of the theory of omission – the way the message of the story is presented through subtext and never laid plain. Tell us more about what that was like to compose with that in mind? Were there any specific operatic conventions that were in conflict with how you wanted to tell the story?
Yes, as I described, I chose the text for these very reasons. When I was composing it, there were a few things from the story I wanted to convey. First, I wanted to make it very clear that something was not being said. So, to compose that into the music, I left long spans of instrumental music between the man and girls’ lines, typically about 3-4 measures. Second, I wanted to give a sense of a deep ‘undertow’ to the music, both to help give the music direction and to bring across the sense that the plot was happening in on some unspoken level. So, I carefully controlled the amount of time between each of those utterances, being sure that the gap between them got a little shorter every time, to propel the action in an almost subliminal way. I also hinged the piece on a cycle of key centers, so that motion forward is articulated in fairly conventional shift of keys “forward.” Finally, to help communicate the sense of the unspoken, after the climactic line ‘I’ll scream’ from the girl, I gave the mezzo-soprano a vocalise, but the vocalise is a setting of a poem which I then removed. The orchestral accompaniment is written to align with the emotions of the unheard poem, which helps further articulate that there is something unavailable to the audience churning under the surface.
I didn’t find any opera conventions directly in conflict with my goals. Both the man and girl, in fact, have arias. The man’s first aria is a kind of toe-tapper, which is when he finally breaches (or re-breaches, more likely) the subject of the story: ‘It’s really an awfully simple operation….’ So it’s a kind of sales pitch, which seemed to call for an appealing, ‘catchy’ tune. The girl’s aria aligns with her desire for the situation to be different, ‘And we could have all this…’ which is another kind of classic aria. Both of their arias are broken up by dialog, which I found a little tricky, but the breaks in someway recall the long instrumental ‘pauses’ I had started the opera with. If anything there’s no ‘big finish,’ but that convention has been rendered optional by Pelleas and by the minimalist operas, so I didn’t feel pressured to include it.
One of the conventions you wanted to use was the concept of a Greek chorus. In this case, the female bartender in the story was conceived as a “wordless Greek chorus.” Had you thought about making that character more involved? In Hemingway’s story, Jig’s inability to speak Spanish with the bartender helps to further isolate her. How would you approach the Greek chorus concept without a shared language?
This question raises so many different aspects of the adaptation. First, the girl’s inability to speak Spanish, which really does isolate her further. In the opera, I wanted to “mark” the passages that were in English, but standing in for Spanish. I lit upon the idea of imitating ‘la voz afilla’—the rough singing style associated with flamenco. Rather than asking the singers to learn this challenging vocal style, I double the tenor (MAN) and the mezzo (WOMAN) at pitch with English horn which turned out to be a pretty good timbral match.
I did think about expanding her role, but I felt any alteration I might make could undermine the qualities that drew me to the Hemingway story. My approach to the adaptation was “first do no harm.” I translated one paragraph that involved describing a transaction between the man and the barmaid into a two-line exchange. The rest of the dialog is taken directly from the Hemingway.
As for the “wordless Greek chorus,” it actually occurred to me after I had finished the opera that that’s what I had done with the barmaid’s character. My sense of a classical Greek chorus have several roles in a play. They are often the vehicle for the emotional response to the action as often as they are commenting or moralizing about the actions of the characters. So the wordlessness of my barmaid aligns her more with the emotional role than the moralistic one, and therefore a shared language is unnecessary—the emotion she expresses/evokes is more for the audience than for the couple. It also occurs to me that one of the qualities I liked about the story was its ambiguity: not only does the action happen in the subtext, it’s also unclear what the outcome is. This ambiguity is translated into having a third of the opera have no words.
You started working with Chicago-based classical ensemble Anaphora last year, how did you all come to find each other? Was it specifically your chamber opera that drew you together? What other projects are you working on with the ensemble?
As Cory Tiffin, the artistic director of Anaphora, and I were becoming friends, he saw that I had adapted Hemingway’s story to a chamber opera. He was very excited, and told me that it was his favorite Hemingway story. So, the friendship came first and the collaboration second.
Because Anaphora was only able to do the excerpts from the opera this fall, we do have plans to do a concert version of the whole opera sometime in the future, with some discussion of it happening as early as next fall. We’ve also talked about me developing some instrumental-only work with them, specifically focusing on using instruments to ‘filter’ and distort the timbres of other instruments. This would build on some of the effects I’ve used in my recent bassoon chamber concerto, edifis, which will be performed this year at the University of Michigan by Jeffrey Lyman.
Yes, in fact, there is a consortium that is currently touring your chamber bassoon concerto. Can you tell us more about that process? What were some of the interesting elements of working with a consortium of high-level musicians?
The consortium is actually a group of different high-level bassoonists who will independently present the chamber concerto with their own ensembles. It was premiered last November by Marc Vallon in Madison, WI. Marc was responsible for putting together the consortium, in which each player chipped in a very affordable fee and agreed to perform the work. Once the performers were in place, I wrote it, consulting mainly with Marc on specific extended techniques and other technical issues for bassoon.
The best part of working with musicians of that calibre is that it really freed me up to ‘dream big.’ The first movement for instance is a unison movement with the four strings playing mostly rapid melismas made up of ‘suppressed’ contrapuntal lines as well as the main melody, which is always played by the bassoon. This ultimately stretched my notational ability, as the melismas are unmeasured, but have to happen within a fixed duration. (So they’re somewhere between grace notes and tuplets.) The second movement was the first time I’ve been able to realize a long-standing idea of mine: a collection of miniatures that can be scattered, in any order, throughout the rest of the concert, or played (in any order) together as a central movement. I think of it as an exploded idea of “betweenness.” And without the ability and intelligence of these players, I wouldn’t have been able to realize these concepts.
Finally, how did your new arrangement of Ravel’s “Deux Mélodies Hébraïques” for specific instruments including: flute, oboe, clarinet, viola, cello and mezzo-soprano come to pass? Where did you start with such a well-known work?
This was an arrangement done specifically for Anaphora and Julia Bentley. We really were looking for something to tie everyone together and I thought it would be easiest to arrange something from Julia’s repertoire. She had just performed the Ravel, and it really stood out to both me and Cory as the best candidate for an arrangement.
Because Ravel’s orchestration is so rich, the method of arranging it was largely driven by practicality: how do I translate it for so lean an ensemble? And when not everything from the Ravel could be carried over, what could possibly be dropped? So, I started with Ravel’s piano reduction, which gave me a clear sense of what he felt was essential, where he saw ‘give’ in the orchestration, etc. So, for instance, the marvelous harp runs halfway through the Kaddish are just 32nd notes that strictly ascend, but in the piano part, Ravel often makes them dectuplets that change directions in an overall movement upward. So, the gesture for Ravel seems to be about “ring” and “ascent,” not a specific, rigidly defined line. And with our association of klezmer with Jewish culture, it seemed natural to move these lines into the clarinet, until they drop the octave and move into the cello. Similarly, in the middle of “The Eternal Enigma,” there are some dissonant lines very quietly added by the cellos which I translated into some viola double stops, very subtly shading the second line of the quatrain ‘And one might answer, Tra-la-la-la….’
Wow, a huge thank you to David Dies for sharing his time and thoughts with us! I hope you will all check out his website – singers, do not miss out on his vocal/chamber music. Have a question about his interview? Leave us a comment below or share your thoughts on twitter (@mezzoihnen – #6QsRE) or on our Sybaritic Singer Facebook page.