Turning the Weirdest Poems of the 20th Century Into Opera
Composer Matthew Aucoin on adapting a three-volume epic verse about cute gay ghosts, and where he's going from there
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When the poet Jorie Graham heard Matthew Aucoin, then her student, intended to adapt James Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover into an opera, she told him that Merrill would haunt him the rest of his life. The 1982 work is Merrill’s unaccountable masterpiece, a 17,000-line poem of the afterlife, purportedly based on 20 years of nights spent transcribing messages from the dead. How Merrill, a poet whose ambitions had seemed to lie in technical mastery of meter and form, produced this bizarre, magnificent, supernatural work is one of American literature’s best mysteries.
Despite the warning, Aucoin mounted From Sandover with a group of fellow undergrads in the Horner Room at Harvard’s Agassiz Theater, a ballroom of dark wood moldings and pilasters, hanging chandeliers, and French doors. In the opera, Jim Merrill and his partner, David Jackson (“JM” and “DJ”) sing seated around the Ouija board; the spirits of their freshly dead friends, the poet W.H. Auden and Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki, are staged above them, in a clerestory balcony space, and a supertitles screen displays messages that JM and DJ work out on the Ouija board. “It may have been closer to theater of the absurd than I’d intended,” Aucoin admits. “I’m quite sure the audience had no clue what the fuck was going on.”
To be fair, that’s most people’s reaction to the poem. Over the course of Sandover’s three volumes and coda, JM and DJ are visited at the Ouija board by a flamboyant first-century Greek Jew named Ephraim; poets, pharaohs, and opera singers; four zesty archangels; a sweet, armless centaur from Atlantis; and bat-like demons of atomic radiation, one of whom turns into a peacock.
Then there are the gaudy, acrobatic puns, which can require multiple languages and maybe an open Wikipedia tab to untangle. “ST PETER’S QUAIS JINGLE AND BLAZE / WITH HER UNMELTING SNOWFLAKE POLONAISE”—here, the shade of JM’s friend Robert Morse, a composer, is speaking about winter in St. Petersburg’s harbor, but punning on Saint Peter’s keys to Heaven. “Who made that pretty couplet?” JM asks. “SHH IT BWOKE OFF”—Robert has a weird habit of baby speak—“WHEN TINY BOB WEACHED OUT TO TOUCH NABOKOV.”
Aucoin sums up the experience of adapting Sandover: “I learned a lot about what cannot be an opera.”
Since then, Aucoin has learned a thing or two about what does work. His third full opera, Eurydice, premiered at the L.A. Opera this February; it was the last opera I saw before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended live performances. Eurydice is a collaboration between three MacArthur Fellows—Aucoin, playwright Sarah Ruhl, and director Mary Zimmerman—and heads to the Metropolitan Opera in 2021, assuming. The libretto, which Ruhl wrote from her acclaimed play, adapts the same Orpheus myth familiar to the operatic repertory, but focuses on Eurydice in the underworld as she reunites with the shade of her father.
Aucoin and I talk across time zones, I quarantined in San Diego, he in a farmhouse in Vermont. The wireless there is too slow for Zoom; we talk by phone, with a third-party voice-recording app blooping in the background, our own feckless sonic ghost.
Theodore McCombs: Both The Changing Light at Sandover and Eurydice take place not just in the afterlife, but in a kind of transitional afterlife space: not yet in deep eternity, but touching life and death at once. Do you feel an attraction to those spaces, musically?
Matthew Aucoin: I guess it did attract me from the get-go. One thing Sandover has in common with Eurydice is that this liminal space allows people to say things to each other they could never say in “real” life. Merrill said something to this effect in an interview about Sandover, that sometimes, with your parents, say, it’s the easiest thing in the world to pick up the phone, but there can still be so much emotional distance, and baggage, and complexity that comes with the relationships you have while you’re alive. And then somehow, talking to beloved friends through the Ouija board, he felt like he was able to say things he couldn’t have said when they were alive. And the same thing happens in Eurydice. Sarah has said she wrote the play in order to have more conversations with her father, who died when she was in college. And the things Eurydice and the Father are able to say to each other because they are in the underworld are so beautiful.
Music is a dream language: it follows dream logic. It doesn’t follow the logic of everyday speech, and operas that act as if they were plays run the risk of being unintentionally funny. Pretending you can do that sort of standard domestic drama and have it feel as if everyone were speaking, it’s not going to happen. So, because music makes everything sound like dream-speech anyway, why not allow the setting to be a dreamlike one? It tends to feel truer to me. It’s a way of saying the things that you can’t say in real life. And that feels like music to me, too.
TM: Where did you first encounter Merrill? What drew you to his work?
MA: I encountered Merrill in Jorie Graham’s poetry workshop—both Merrill and his polar opposite, John Ashbery, and I fell in love with both of them. It struck me as curious that there was this sense that Ashbery was going into uncharted waters and Merrill was working within familiar metrical structures, playing with rhyme, being kind of effete and aesthetically backwards. But both poets were undertaking these extraordinary experiments.
With Merrill, it’s the magical quality that language has of making sense of its own accord. The sound of a word, even the shapes of letters seem to take on these uncanny meanings. As a musician, I love that: for Merrill, language has a kind of inherent meaningfulness, which places it very close to music for me. And also his playfulness and the range of tones and the psychotic ambition of writing Sandover made me think, who is this crazy motherfucker that he would write these cute little gay lyrics, and then all of a sudden he’s writing this cosmic sci-fi poetic drama. It’s the most bonkers—
TM: Which is also somehow cute and gay at the same time.
MA: It is also very cute and extremely gay. Yes. Those contradictions really attracted me.
TM: Do you see something like the opposition of Merrill and Ashbery in contemporary music, between the schools of, say, the process music of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman and the more—I don’t even know what you’d call it, is it an atonal school?
MA: Sure. In the latter half of the 20th century, I can think of three kind of obvious—and in a way, false—categories. One being, as you said, process music or minimalism; another being an atonal high modernism post-Arnold Schoenberg; and a more nostalgic neo-romanticism.
TM: When I listen to your music, it sounds like you’re moving in and out of those schools at will, pretty much.
MA: Pretty much. Yeah, I’m a gatherer. If you’re writing an opera, you realize quickly you need as many tools as possible, because you’re creating a whole world.
TM: And Merrill does that too, doesn’t he? He’s agile in moving in and out of his formal conventions. In Sandover, the meters appear and disappear at seeming random; free verse stumbles into couplets, and then sort of extracts itself; the sections set in Italy are in Dante’s terza rima.
MA: Early on, Merrill is a brilliant student of every verse form in the English language, and he’s very happy to live within these gilded cages of metrical forms. And then slowly but surely, he starts testing things. It’s thrilling, because he has such technical mastery that when he starts to break things down, you trust him.
But in his last collection, A Scattering of Salts—which Merrill wrote when he was dying of AIDS—there’s where you see language disintegrate in a heartbreaking way, because he felt it was happening to him. He felt his body breaking down. And he was also uncannily aware of climate change, in a way that the vast majority of people would not become for another decade. This thing that’s happening to his body, the thing that’s happening to the planet, and the thing that’s happening to the language all cohere, so that the language has this kind of devastating wounded quality.
TM: You set several of those poems for your Carnegie Hall commission, Merrill Songs, for solo voice and piano, and there’s something of the language’s wounded quality in what the piano’s doing. You’ve also adapted—not for voice, but for piano and violin—the poetry of Paul Celan, whose later poems are almost completely opaque, purely sonic experiences. How do you approach that kind of text, that is something more and less than language?
MA: For a long time there’s been an association between “tonal music” as being stable or soothing, and “atonal” music being a kind of sonic manifestation of chaos. And I’m just not interested in tonality as stability, and I’m not interested in mere depiction of chaos and non-connection. I am interested in looking honestly at the structures of meaning that we can build, and also honestly looking at how fragile they are. Having the vulnerability to say: Yes, I care about this meaning something, and I’m going to try and say it to you as directly as possible. And then, following that all the way through and seeing the thing disintegrate.
The last scene in Eurydice is the best example of this in what I’ve done so far, in that we get this solo scene for Eurydice, which is tender and vulnerable and lyrical. And then at the very end of the opera, we get four minutes of essentially, the river of forgetfulness, rushing. Nothing that we can hold on to in the music. It’s all been washed away.
I guess I have come to feel the aesthetic camps that existed in the second half of the 20th century were largely about saying music is this, music is that. And you end up denying so much. Maybe it’s a flaw of mine to want to have it both ways. But I want to be able to create something that’s sweet and lyrical and vulnerable and then a minute later to have it morph into total noise. It doesn’t feel like a contradiction to me.
TM: It feels like the world, right?
MA: It feels like the world.
TM: Do you find yourself returning to that fragility across compositions? Especially given the ongoing pandemic we’re in?
MA: You know, I think for a long time, human beings did not need to be reminded of the fragility of life. If you’ve ever wondered why music and art from certain periods seems fixated on depicting an ideal world, you have to remember that it was in juxtaposition to obvious extreme instability in human life. In the 20th century, that changed, or it did for those in the first world with access to life-saving, life-prolonging medicine. It became possible—and I think America is exhibit A, or at least was before March this year—it’s exhibit A of a culture that really tries to pretend death doesn’t exist and that it’s not among us. I think a lot of artists over the past half-century have felt called to make manifest the fragility or inevitability of loss that is still a part of life, because that loss was no longer super visible.
And it’s funny. I have no desire to make art that responds in a direct way to the pandemic we’re in. When I realized that, I also realized, oh, this is probably why, you know, Haydn didn’t feel the need to put the how terrible the pigsties at Esterházy smelled in the string quartets, because everybody knew you were surrounded by the smell of pig shit all the time. Music was something else. I guess it’s a long way of saying I have felt that giving voice to transience and instability has been important. But at this very moment, I don’t feel the desire to bang anybody over the head with the fragility of life.
TM: I want to go back to what you said earlier about Merrill’s interest in words, as objects as themselves—I think you called it “their inherent meaningfulness”—and how that brings his poetry very close to music. Could you elaborate on that?
MA: I think the best example is Merrill’s poem “b o d y,” where he looks at the word “body” and imagines the “o” of the word passing across a stage: first peeking from stage right (as part of the “b”), then at center, then at stage left (as part of the “d”), where “b” and “d” are, conveniently, birth and death. And that “o,” could be an open mouth, singing on the stage of life. Outside of birth and death is the “y”—the why, “unanswered, knock[ing] at the stage door,” as Merrill puts it. I don’t think the architect of the word “body” way back when put all this in deliberately and said, “I hope someone notices this,” but it’s Merrill staring at a word until it yields up unintended meanings.
TM: Merrill’s puns, too, are all about those structure of words, right? They’re all investigations into connection within these lexicographical accidents. That—that is a pun. And the fact that he focuses so much on them seems such an interesting investment in looking for meaning in that aspect of language.
MA: One way that you could define music is “language without signification.” We would never say it doesn’t have meaning or meanings. It just doesn’t have signification—the notes and chords are not tied to things outside themselves. I mean, unless you’re Wagner, in which case you’re spending all your time building these chains to tie a particular chord to particular things. But that’s not much fun, right?
And that was something I was obsessed with, especially as a student: What is the border? If you start stripping language of signification, at what point does it become music? And is it possible for music to kind of crystallize into language? A composer like Janáček—he makes use of these speech rhythms and musical gestures that are so direct, they risk being crude, but they can be breathtakingly powerful. It feels to me like Janáček’s music is straining towards the condition of language. It’s a porous border.
TM: There’s this concept in scholasticism of the flatus vocis, the “vocal wind” which is all that’s left of a concept if you deny it meaning; if it’s just a word, just a sound. All opera is, obviously, vocal wind—
MA: (a swift laugh—barely an exhale—)
TM: —but there are also these 20th-century operas that use untranslated language, like the Sanskrit in Glass’s Satyagraha, where the signification is deliberately withheld from the audience. And it seems Merrill is interested in that remainder too.
MA: I would say that it has to do not just with opera, but with music on the most fundamental level. I think what Merrill does again and again is, he strips language of meaning in order to see what meanings emerge. And that, to me, is—there’s a faith in music there. There is a faith that the music of the words, that the sound of them, the feel of them will yield up something meaningful.
In Eurydice, Aucoin doubles the role of Orpheus, so that his mortal nature is portrayed by a baritone, while his divine nature is sung by a countertenor. The baritone, a low, sturdy voice, is Orpheus’s body, his human significance. The countertenor is, in a way, his music: that something else, that something above, beyond, and after Orpheus. This staging emphasizes what makes Eurydice and Orpheus’s relationship so dissatisfying: there is a part of him Eurydice can never fully access. But when he enters the underworld, where his divine aspect can’t follow, she doesn’t recognize him. “Where’s his music?” Eurydice asks.
Perhaps this is the simplest explanation for Merrill’s transit from the metrical to the mystical in Sandover, from the corpus of letters to the spirits behind them: just a question, “Where is their music?”