Friday, February 12, 2016

Who is Lee Hoiby?

Do you know who is Lee Hoiby? No? I didn't think so. Hoiby is an American composer of opera and song, who would be 90 years old this month (February 17) if he hadn't died in 2011. His most renowned work is Summer and Smoke, an opera based on Tenessee Williams's play. Hoiby's work has been described as romantic, lyric and conventional, suggesting a lack of courage and innovation on his part.

I met the soft-spoken composer and his librettist Mark Shulgasser in the summer of 2000 when they came to Washington to present excerpts from Hoiby's new opera Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare's immortal love story has inspired some of the world's greatest composers: Berlioz, Gounod, Prokofiev, to name a few. But Hoiby thought the theme is inexhaustible, that there are always new layers to be uncovered if you continue to dig, and he set out to create a new operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's work.  He told me the language of the story had always been his favorite and suited his artistic temperament.

Lee Hoiby
"Basically, it gives my lyrical impulse the most room to spread its wings," said Hoiby.

Shulgasser, Hoiby's longtime partner and collaborator, said he stayed as close as possible to the original text, but had to make cuts.

"In Romeo and Juliet, I've eliminated the character of Paris entirely. I have changed the character of the friar somewhat. I have conflated Mercutio and Benvolio into one chanracter and I would say that's about it, really," he said. The opera was completed in 2004, but has never been staged.

Romeo and Juliet was not Hoiby's first work based on Shakespeare.  In the 1980s he composed The Tempest, which premiered in Des Moines and had several revivals.  But after  British composer Thomas Adès presented his version of The Tempest in 2004 to a great acclaim, Hoiby's was all but pushed into oblivion.

It survives in a recording by Purchase College School of the Art.

Hoiby's most recognized work is the 1971 opera Summer and Smoke. As it happened, it was staged by Colorado's Central City Opera in the summer of 2002 when I was there on assignment. The charming Victorian theater was built by miners during the Colorado Gold Rush to show performances ranging from opera to circus to boxing matches. (Just shows how sophisticated those miners were). It was a perfect venue for an American opera and the tiny theater was filled to the last seat.  I can't say that Summer and Smoke left a profound impression, but I liked it well enough and had an enjoyable evening.  I am glad I saw it because even his most recognized opera is rarely performed.

Perhaps he should have chosen less popular themes for his compositions. But most of Hoiby's work is based on well known classical authors such as Turgenev, Tennessee Williams and of course Shakespeare - the authors he liked to read.

"I've always been a reader. I grew to love words very early in my life, I mean from my early teens. And so words meant a lot to me and that's what led me to writing for the voice," he said.

Hoiby had better luck with arts songs and choral music. Set to poems by Rilke, Donne, Walt Whitman and other great poets, his songs caught attention by operatic stars such as Federica von Stade and Leontyne Price.

The Serpentine, set to Theodore Roethke's poem, is one of the most successful.

The mid-20-th century intellectual prejudice against tonality, lyricism and, God forbid, sentimentality worked against the neo-Romantic composer's widespread recognition.  His music idols were Schubert, Strauss, Mahler and Barber and his music reflects that.  He acknowledged that he did not care for modernist, atonal, dissonant and alienating sound and he remained true to his style despite critics.  

By the late 20 century the attitudes have changed and some of Hoiby's operas have seen revivals, primarily in music schools.  The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater revived one of his earliest operas A Month in the Country  in 2004 and following a positive response, it revived Summer and Smoke in 2010.  Both were recorded and published by Albany Records.

So maybe there is yet hope for Hoiby's Romeo and Juliet.

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