Saturday, December 3, 2022 Dec 3, 2022
52° F Dallas, TX


When a brilliant composer falls in love with a songbird soprano, an opera is born. And Dallas plays the part of the proud midwife.
By Patsy Swank |

The Overture to Dallas’s First Operatic World Premiere, brings up the curtain. At Rise:discover The Composer,Dominick Argento, declaring his love for The Mezzo-Soprano, Frederica von Stade. “Without you, ” he is saying, “I would not have dared this.”

It is a given that every opera company wants to commission new work; every Company wants to be midwife to its own “Aida.” And now, in the thirty-first season of its life. The Dallas Opera is busily producing its first full-length commissioned work.

“The Aspern Papers,”1 by the distinguished American composer Dominick Argento, will have its world premiere on November 19 at the Music Hall at Fair Park with three additional performances to follow. Argento is among the top contemporary opera composers in the world, and this promises to be a significant addition both to his own impressive string of operas and to the repertory in general.

Plato Karayanis had Dominick Argento in mind even in 1977, his first season as general director of The Dallas Opera. He had seen Argento’s “The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe” in Baltimore, and considered it on a par with Benjamin Britten’s great “Peter Grimes.’1 With his artistic director Nicola Rescigno, Karayanis even planned a production of “The Voyage” for the company’s spring season of 1985. But it proved impossible to stage here; Argento would have had to reorchestrate in order to fit the Majestic Theatre pit.

So the Dallas-Argento union was postponed for a few years. Then there were rumbles of a new Argento work, and Karayanis and Rescigno got busy trying to land it for Dallas. They were not sure what The Dallas Opera’s chances would be. Argento had broken all the rules about going to the big coastal music centers and had stayed comfortably put at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he had taken his first job after he got his doctorate at Eastman School of Music in 1957. Argento spent seven years as composer-in-residence to Sir Tyrone Guthrie at the Guthrie Theater. He is also Regent’s Professor of Music at the university and husband of thirty years to singer Carolyn Bailey, which must have something to do with his prevailing desire to write for singers, and his ability to do it so well. He says Mrs. Argento serves as his first critic and editor.

As for Argento, he says that he writes as one more means of knowing himself.

“Each new work is like a piece of a puzzle. Someday I’ll know. It’s one long exercise in self-discovery.” He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and slowly but surely, the world was coming to him; four companies, at the least, would want first chance at anything he composed.

In the face of such competition, what did Dallas have that no other company had to lure Argento’s new opera here for its premiere? Frederica von Stade, one of the hottest musical properties in the world. Von Stade just happened to be under contract with the Dallas Opera for a 1988 production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon.”

The American mezzo-soprano, coming to the peak of a brilliant career, is a woman of beauty and magnetism, a sensitive actress and a careful and conscientious musician. In her, Argento had found his ideal singer.

“I fell in love with Frederica von Stade, and I have permission from my wife to say so,” Argento declares. “I would not have written this opera if von Stade had not been available.”

She almost was not. Argento chose a Henry James story, “The Aspem Papers,” and asked if she would be interested. When von Stade said yes, he seni her a libretto. She was singing at the time at La Scala in Milan, and though she wrote at once that she wanted to do “The Aspern Papers,” the letter must not have survived the Italian post. It never got to Argento.

These two, however, could not fail to get together; the next problem was to get them with an opera company. It did not take long. Dallas wanted an Argento opera and had von Stade; Argento was writing an opera he wanted only von Stade to sing. So by 1986, it was a done deal: “The Aspern Papers” would come to Dallas in 1988.

The two-act opera, with libretto as well as music composed by Argento, is a modified version of James’s intriguing novella. Set in late 19th-century Venice, it’s the story of an American editor hunting for the letters and papers of a famous poet, Jeffrey Aspern. Suspecting they may be in the possession of the poet’s former mistress, who lives with her spinster niece in a crumbling villa, he becomes a lodger and the involuntary suitor of the niece. The results are dramatic and disastrous. Argento kept the form of the story, changed the setting from Venice to Lake Como, made the mistress a retired opera singer and the poet a composer. The papers and letters of poet Aspern became the score of a lost opera, on the theme of Medea, by composer Aspern.

Like Argento’s twelve previous operas, “The Aspern Papers” is about self-realization-the situations or circumstances that nudge or jolt people into seeing themselves as they are. Juliana Bordereau in “The Aspern Papers” is, in fact, the Medea of Greek myth, who loved desperately, raged at rejection, and took revenge by destroying the children of that love. While Juliana may not recognize herself as Medea, the realization of self that comes to her niece. Tina, provides the powerful climax of the opera.

IN THESE PRESSING ECONOMIC CLImates, arts advocates often tout arts events as quasi-municipal investments. In terms of cold cash, “The Aspern Papers” should do very well for Dallas. The opera expects 500 to 600 out-of-town visitors for the four performances, not a compelling figure when compared to blockbuster visual art or popular music events, but at $67.50 a top ticket, not exactly modest. The average return per entertainment dollar expended is $3.35, according to a Peat Marwick Main report in 1984. Given the economic changes in four years, and given that opera audiences tend to be in higher-than-average income groups, that ratio might now be as high as six to one. The $1.3-million budget for The Dallas Opera’s “The Aspern Papers” might then be expected to yield $7.8 million. Of that sum, about 80 percent stays in the community.

In addition, although promotion, good will, and good word are hard to quantify, “The Aspern Papers” should produce all three. Operas from New York City, San Diego, Chicago, and Washington, as well as the Royal Opera of Sweden, have all made inquiries about renting the Dallas production.

A whole cluster of special events will sur round the premiere. Kirk Browning, the dean of television opera directors, will come to Dallas for the production that KERA/TV, in collaboration with WNET/TV in New York City, will do for the PBS “Great Per formances” series. And The Dallas Opera, in cooperation with SMU, will present a symposium called “From Text to Perform ance: Bringing Literature to the Public” November 18-20. The distinguished com poser Thea Musgrave will join Argento, the cast members, major music critics, scholars, and film people to talk about what is in volved in moving from page to stage. Taken together, “The Aspern Papers” and its at- tendant events should make Dallas a bright star in the operatic firmament.

Related Articles


The Dallas Dozen

We salute the city's most important players in 2011. They made a difference and inspired others to do the same.
By Jeanne Prejean

Souvenir of Dallas

"The Mighty, Mighty Hands of Mayor Tom Leppert"