Dominick Argento: A career filled with high notes

The composer’s goal was to create the longest mad scene ever written for the greatest living American soprano. The resulting opera was, he says, his favorite out of his 14 — and his biggest flop. When it was revived in 2001, it was hailed as the hit of the season. Judge for yourself: It’s coming to the University of Maryland on Saturday night.

The composer, Dominick Argento, was long accounted one of the leading opera composers in the United States. The opera, “Miss Havisham’s Fire,” was written for the legendary Beverly Sills. Sills died in 2007, but Argento, very much alive at 84, has slipped into an odd obscurity: Aficionados praise his works, but they are not often performed.

The University of Maryland is setting out to redress this. “The Art of Argento,” which starts Friday and runs through April 29, will present two staged operas, the composer’s favorite (“Miss Havisham’s Fire”) and his most-performed (“Postcards From Morocco”). It also offers some of his signature monodramas, such as “A Water Bird Talk,” in which a lecturer begins revealing all kinds of personal things, and “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” a song cycle that won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1975. Then there’s “Miss Manners on Music,” composed for the 60th birthday of Judith Martin, author of the syndicated “Miss Manners” column.

In fact, “The Art of Argento” is a cross-section of more than six decades of composing, up to and including the world premiere of a set of cabaret songs Sunday afternoon.

“It’s like a drowning man,” the composer said by phone last week from his Minnesota home, “having your whole life flash in front of you.”

Argento occupies a funny middle ground in the amorphous terrain of American opera. When he was a student at Peabody, he dreamed of writing symphonies. “Songs were little accidents that happened,” he says, and most serious composers regarded opera as un-serious. A romantic involvement helped shift his focus. “I did what Mozart and Verdi did,” he says. “I married a soprano.” Carolyn Bailey, whom he met at Peabody, became an active muse to her husband. “When I would go out, my sketch would be sitting on the piano. When I got back in the evening, I would find anonymous notes scribbled in the margin: ‘Too high!’ ”

Today, opera is all the rage. And as mainstream American opera and the Broadway musical grow ever closer in their idioms, Argento’s music, which seemed tuneful and approachable in the 1970s, now sounds substantial and perhaps even jarring, with veins of atonality.

Argento’s scores are rich, powerfully expressive, finely attuned to the nuances of text and thick with references to past composers, so much so that he has been called a master of pastiche. It’s hard to pin down his work. “Postcard From Morocco” is a theater-of-the-absurd-style piece about a group of anonymous characters in a train station. The historically based “Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe,” written for the U.S. bicentennial, has been called the great American opera.

“I’m more interested in character than I am in story,” Argento says. “To me, that’s the real marvel of music in opera or a song cycle. You can deal with a character.

“The challenge has been to write music that lets you feel something about what it’s like to be Edgar Allen Poe or an anonymous character in ‘Postcard From Morocco.’”

Heard now, Argento’s music exudes a kind of wholesomeness. Its American-ness may have been enhanced by the fact that the composer has spent most of his career in Minnesota, a move he initially viewed with trepidation. “I really thought it was going to be cultural suicide,” he says. Now, he says he thinks being away from major urban centers gave him room to develop at his own pace: “I think I would be more unknown than I am if I’d decided to try my luck in New York.”

The question is why such a good composer is unknown at all. Part of the answer lies in the mores of the opera world, in which companies are more interested in brand-new works than reviving past premieres.

But if Argento should be remembered anywhere, it’s in Washington. In 1979, the Washington Opera mounted a production of “Postcard From Morocco” that Francis Rizzo, then the company’s dramaturg, called “one of the most perfect things we put on.” In 1993, the company presented the world premiere of “The Dream of Valentino.” And in 2008, the Cathedral Choral Society gave another Argento world premiere, “Evensong: Of Love and Angels,” written in memory of Argento’s wife, who died in 2006.

Washington also presented a co-production of “The Aspern Papers,” an adaptation of the Henry James story, in 1990, which The Washington Post gave “probably the best review I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Argento says. “It began with the audience at intermission saying, ‘It’s better than “La Traviata.”’ It’s always predisposed me to love Washington.”

“The Art of Argento”

begins Friday night with “Postcard from Morocco,” and continues with “Miss Havisham’s Fire” on Saturday night, with additional performances of both operas, and other works, through April 29. www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu/2010/
c/engage09/dominick-argento/events
.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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