When Indianapolis Opera presents the world premiere of Happy Birthday, Wanda June—libretto by Kurt Vonnegut, music by Butler Professor of Music Richard Auldon Clark—it will be the culmination of a project that began in the early 1990s, came to an abrupt halt with Vonnegut’s death in 2007, and concluded on Valentine’s Day this year.
What happened in between was a collaboration that Clark said he will cherish forever.
“Kurt,” he said, “would leave me a message on my answering machine: ‘I think Col. Looseleaf Harper needs to be a bass. I think Harold Ryan should be a baritone. All the decent characters need to be in the high range, so Dr. Woodley must be a tenor.’ It was always on his mind. But he was always so casual about it, and I never thought we would lose him so early, in such a stupid, horrible manner.”
The end result of Clark’s work with Vonnegut can be seen September 16-18 at Butler’s Schrott Center for the Arts. (Tickets at www.indyopera.org.)
Clark said the production runs a little more than two hours. He’s especially proud that the music he wrote expresses exactly what’s being said and where the characters are.
“You just hear a couple of themes and you’ll understand Penelope,” he said. “You just need to hear that opening line Harold Ryan has and get it right away. You know: This guy is a narcissist, he’s a sexist and a racist and an egomaniac. The music conveys the characters so they don’t have to overact or be cartoonish. The music carries them.”
Here’s more of what he said.
Q: How did you know Kurt Vonnegut?
A: I knew him for about the last 15 years of his life. He met a composer on jury duty, and he asked that composer to write the music for the Requiem Mass, which Kurt rewrote. He didn’t like the text. As a humanist, he found it very offensive. This composer set it, but no groups were interested. A friend of mine was working for RCA/BMG, and the score came across her desk, and she knew what a Vonnegut fanatic I was. She called me and said, “Would you consider doing it with your group?” I jumped on it. She said, “Just so you know, every group has turned it down.” I said, “If I get to meet Vonnegut, I’m doing it.”
I got to meet Vonnegut. We had dinner, and he came to the performance—and, indeed, it was a bad performance—but the first half of the concert I did all American music by David Amram. Vonnegut had a previous association with Amram and was quite a fan of his. A few days after the concert, Kurt talked to me and said, “If I’d only heard the Requiem, I would have thought that you weren’t up to the task or your group was bad. But I heard how great the first half of the concert was, so I know something else is going on. Tell me.” I said, “I’m going to give it to you straight: I think it’s a terrible piece.”
He invited me to meet him at his brownstone—he lived a few blocks from the United Nations—and I became a frequent visitor there. We just hit it off. I brought composers to him to create projects. We did Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, “Ice-9 Ballads” from Cat’s Cradle. I brought him a composer (Seymour Barab) to redo the Requiem—it’s called the “Cosmos Cantata,” and we’ll be performing that September 10 (5:30 PM in the Basile Opera Center, 4011 North Pennsylvania Street) with Butler University students—and then he gave me his opera.
Q: Did he decide that Happy Birthday, Wanda June should be an opera?
A: It was his idea. I had never even thought about it. I reread the play, and I thought he would want one of the other composers I brought to him. I never pushed myself as a composer with him. But he said, “I think you should turn this into an opera.” I’d never written anything that big. I write chamber music. I said, “Would you help me adapt the play for an opera?” He said, “Absolutely.” He wasn’t going to write a brand new libretto, but he was in the driver’s seat for it and wound up writing a brand new ending. Otherwise, not a word of the play was changed. All we did was cut dialogue so a singer could have an aria.
Q: You knew him before you came to Butler. What did he say when you got the position here?
A: He was very fond of Butler, and he loved Indianapolis. He was thrilled that I was taking it. That’s when he said, “That’s where the opera should have its world premiere in Indianapolis, not in New York. And that blew me away. I never tried to pursue it in Indianapolis. I just always assumed I would do it with my New York group (the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra) and try to get singers and a director. But because of a series of wonderful connections, the stars aligned and it’s happening in Indianapolis—as it should be.
Q: He died in 2007. What happened after that?
A: I felt lost with the project when he died. I didn’t touch it again until 2014. The libretto was done, but not a note of music had been written. Every once in a while I would sing one or two lines of dialogue to him and he’d wheeze and say, “You’re no singer, Bub.” The only thing he really knew of the music was that the opening prologue was going to have a kind of late 1960s/early 1970s popish, light comedy theme like The Odd Couple or The Brady Bunch because I wanted to lure the audience in with the expectation that this is just a funny little story. She sings, “This is a simple-minded story about men who enjoy killing and those who don’t.” I wanted people to feel that this is accessible, familiar music. You’re going to have a nice time. Then musically, I can twist your guts like he does with the story.
I had the opening theme in my head for probably 10 years before I wrote a note of it. I wrote that first note—that G-sharp—January 1, 2014, when I began my sabbatical from Butler. But it had been percolating a long time. I finished it February 14, 2016.
Q: It has to be amazing for you to have something you’ve worked on for so long finally finished and ready to premiere.
A: It’s funny—I wondered how I’d feel when I finally finished the work, and it was such an emotional breakdown. When I wrote the last orchestrated note, I just lost it completely. It was unreal. I had such a connection with this man. He was my idol. I never thought I’d meet him, and then when I met him, we had this collegial relationship. Then it got friendly. And then it was like family. He was a mentor.
What I respected about him the most was here was one of the most famous authors in 20th century American literature talking to some kid. I guess I was 28 at the time. And he accepted me. He really didn’t like to be around people very much—he liked to be solitary—but he let me in because he loved music, and he loved talking about music with me, and he could tell that I loved books, and he loved talking about books.