When the Metropolitan Opera decided to commission a new opera for its centenary, it went big — or at least its composer, John Corigliano, did.
Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” took 12 years to write — it wasn’t even premiered until 1991, a full eight years after the centenary season — and it called for, in its original form, two orchestras, a huge cast and a full chorus. It also was funny, engaging and appealing, embracing a wide range of musical styles and successfully blending operatic tradition — it takes off from Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” — with a contemporary musical idiom. It was a rare new opera and a huge hit with both critics and audiences. The Met, which hadn’t presented a new opera since 1967, had one of its biggest successes ever.
Then: silence. The opera was revived once at the Met, in 1994-1995, and came to the Chicago Lyric — a co-commissioner — in 1995-1996. But then it didn’t get another full-scale staging for almost 20 years. (The Los Angeles Opera mounted it, finally, this season.) This week, it will be presented in the Washington area — at the diminutive Wolf Trap Barns.
The long neglect of “Ghosts,” gradually being redressed, is one of the great indictments of the American operatic scene. Few new operas have had such a big success, and yet the work’s scale put off potential producers. “Ghosts of Versailles,” Corigliano pointed out last month by phone from his home in upstate New York, is “not bigger than Strauss, or [other] things [opera companies] do all the time. But [producers] look at a modern opera and say, ‘We want [a cast of] seven people and an orchestra of 48.’ ”
“They’re just scared,” he added. “They think that if they put a ‘Tosca’ on or a ‘Bohème’ or a ‘Traviata,’ that’s guaranteed ticket sales. I don’t think it is anymore. People come to hear something new.”
Size, alas, does matter. One reason “Ghosts” is being performed more often these days, and certainly the reason the Wolf Trap Opera Company can take it on, is that a 2008 commission from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Ireland’s Wexford Festival yielded a reduced version of the score.
“The music is un-reducible,” Corigliano said. “You have to make a different version that sounds like it. We made three versions before we put this one out.” But, he added, “my thought was that if they do it in St. Louis with the smallest stage imaginable, it will show everybody that this opera is doable with a smaller stage and cast.”
Sure enough, several other smaller companies have picked up the reduced version since St. Louis brought it to the stage.
The reduction wasn’t done by Corigliano; he put it in the hands of composer John David Earnest, who assisted him with the score for the 1980 film “Altered States” and knew his methods well. Corigliano did approve every page. “It’s lucky we had a synthesizer in the big orchestral version,” he said. “I built very often string clusters, where each string would come in individually and then drop out. What we were able to do was have the synthesizer take over those notes and hold them, so you had the cluster, but the beginning of each note was in the strings. It’s a good way of making that sound with fewer strings.”
Corigliano, 77, is ready for his own second act. When “Ghosts” was written, he was arguably America’s leading composer. The year it premiered, he also won his first of five Grammy Awards, as well as the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, for his Symphony No. 1, dedicated to AIDS victims (recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra). Corigliano later won a Pulitzer Prize for his second symphony and an Oscar for his score for “The Red Violin,” which remains, to many, his best-known work.
But in recent years, Corigliano’s output has dwindled, and he has said at least once in the past few years that he had stopped composing altogether. In fact, he is back at work — on another opera, no less. “Stupid, stupid me,” he said. “I’d have learned my lesson, but it was so long ago, I kind of forgot.”
The librettist is Mark Adamo, Corigliano’s husband and a well-known composer in his own right (“Little Women”) who is working on a new opera of his own, “Becoming Santa Claus,” which will open at the Dallas Opera in December. Corigliano can’t yet reveal where his own work will be performed.
“It’s a very busy house here,” Corigliano said. “He has a computer; I write with a 9mm pencil. . . . I see rolls of paper coming out of the computer, and then I write three eighth notes and have to erase them.” Self-critical though he is, Corigliano said he has grown fond of “Ghosts,” his first opera.
“When you first do something,” he said, “you’re so nervous about everything going wrong that you really don’t appreciate it. But when something has come back, you’ve had time to relax with it, you can enjoy it.”
Corigliano attributes his nervousness to growing up with his father, John Corigliano Sr., long the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. When his father played a concerto with the orchestra, Corigliano said, “I used to sit in the green room [backstage] and listen on speakers. I knew every note, but I couldn’t sit in the audience. I was too nervous. For many years, I couldn’t sit in the audience for my own pieces. When the ‘Pied Piper Fantasy’ [his 1982 flute concerto] had its premiere in Los Angeles with Jimmy Galway, I sat in the bathroom of Jimmy’s dressing room. It was the only place that had a speaker.
“But now, I sit in the hall. I’m grown up.”
The Ghosts of Versailles By John Corigliano. Conducted by Eric Melear and directed by Louisa Muller. Friday, July 10 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 12 at 3 p.m., Wednesday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m. and July 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna, Va. Tickets: $32-$88. Call 703-255-1900 or visit www.wolftrap.org.