Long before his enormous success with “Wicked” and “Godspell,” composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz studied classical music in college and wrote what he now describes as a “very bad one-act opera.”
Yet even as he moved into popular music and won every major award in that field, Schwartz remained an opera fan, patron and aficionado. In the back of his mind, he hoped one day he might have the temerity to try his hand again at the classical genre.
After “Wicked” smashed box office records in 2003, Schwartz did, in fact, write his first professional opera, “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” — inspired by the 1964 British film thriller of the same name. “Séance” will have its world premiere at The Granada in Santa Barbara on Sept. 26, presented by Opera Santa Barbara.
The work’s eerie, ethereal music underscores the story of an unstable medium, Myra (New York City Opera soprano Lauren Flanigan), her husband, Bill (baritone Kim Josephson), and the spirit of her deceased 11-year-old son, Arthur, who speaks to Myra and is the conduit for her séances in a dreary Victorian house.
Because the psychic has never received the recognition she feels her gifts merit, she plots with her husband to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy industrialist — and to become famous when she claims to have a “vision” that leads to the recovery of the girl. But the abductee’s presence in the house evokes unexpected psychological responses from the family, and Myra’s sanity begins to deteriorate. In one heartbreaking, ghostly duet, she tells her son that the girl “won’t be here for long. It’s still your bed; it will always be your bed. Don’t be jealous.” But devastating circumstances ensue.
Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Schwartz said he had admired the film version of “Séance” since his student days at Carnegie Melon University: “It’s one of those movies with a sustained creepy mood, so it stayed with me,” he explained. Yet when an agent once suggested he write a musical based on the film, he declined. “I felt it didn’t have the right energy for musical theater,” Schwartz said. “It’s very dark, which isn’t by itself a problem, since there have obviously been dark musicals, like ‘Sweeney Todd.’ But it felt moodier than musical theater, and the characters didn’t feel to me like musical-theater characters in terms of how they would sing.”
When Opera Santa Barbara approached Schwartz with the offer of a commission several years ago, however, “Séance” immediately came to mind. “You can use music to create mood more in opera,” he said. “The music tells the subtextual story much more, so the characters are saying one thing, and the music is telling you something else. And ‘Séance’ has lots of subtext.”
In a New York City Opera VOX Showcase video documenting his creative process, Schwartz said the characters also struck him as operatic. Myra’s “intense neediness,” for example, “seemed very worthy of being sung, but at the same time, she is covering a lot of what’s really going on inside her with the veneer of calm and pleasantness.”
Schwartz illustrated this contradiction musically by envisioning Myra as a coloratura lyric soprano whose voice might float above the lower notes of the orchestra.
“I am often attracted to write about characters who feel themselves alienated or have difficulty fitting in with their societies,” he told The Journal in 2005. The medium, Myra, fits in with this pantheon of outsiders — which also includes the maligned witch in Schwartz’s revisionist “Wizard of Oz” musical, “Wicked.”
Schwartz traces his affinity for such characters, in part, to his Jewish childhood in New York. “It’s possible that being a Jewish kid in a school and community that was overwhelmingly Christian — although I never felt any overt prejudice or exclusion — contributed to my sense of ‘otherness,’” he said.
The 61-year-old Schwartz’s prodigious musical talent was apparent early. He took classes at New York’s Juilliard School of Music while still in high school, but eventually switched his major to drama while at Carnegie Mellon. A few years after graduation in 1968, he wrote the music and new lyrics for “Godspell” — at one point, his “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “The Magic Show” were all running simultaneously on Broadway. Eventually Schwartz segued into films, writing music for productions such as “The Prince of Egypt” (1998), an animated film about the biblical Moses.
Having spent his career working for Broadway and Hollywood, Schwartz found opera posed new and distinct challenges.
Because operas are not performed with amplification, he explained, “You have to compose differently for the voice to be heard above the orchestration. In theater or pop music, you have the music going on and people sing above it, and if you can’t hear them you turn up the microphone.”
In addition, doing the orchestration was challenging, because, he said, “theater writers don’t orchestrate their own work — the closest would be Leonard Bernstein. I’m not talking about a pop score like ‘Godspell’ or ‘Spring Awakening’ where you’re dealing with a small group of pop musicians. This is a 46-piece orchestra, and learning how to write for that has been an enormous learning curve for me.”
He switched the film’s setting of London to San Francisco, still evoking the sense of gloomy Victorian-gothic architecture and imagery on a rainy, misty afternoon. Like the movie, which is based on a novel by Mark McShane, the opera is set in the early 1960s, and offers an otherworldliness — the sense that anything, perhaps something dangerous, can happen.
The composer’s son, Scott Schwartz, an accomplished theater director, is directing the production, Scott’s first opera, as well. It is also the first time father and son have collaborated professionally. A Harvard graduate, the younger Schwartz is best known for directing “Golda’s Balcony,” the one-woman show about Golda Meir starring Tovah Feldshuh, which became the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
“Working with my father on ‘Séance’ has been a thrilling experience,” Scott Schwartz said in an e-mail. “To collaborate with him on the story and to develop a visual language to complement his music and philosophical ideas has been a joy, and always deeply inspiring. He, of course, is known for his work in the musical theater, but he has stretched himself into new styles of music and musical storytelling and, I think, deepened his scope as an artist.”
In the VOX video, Schwartz described “Séance” as “basically a mood piece. You should hear the piece and ‘get’ what’s going on, even if you don’t speak English.”
“Séance on a Wet Afternoon” will play Sept. 26, Oct. 2 and 4 (matinee) at The Granada, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara. For information about the opera, visit seancetheopera.com or operasb.com. Tickets may be purchased at The Granada box office or by phone at (805) 899-2222.