Notes from the Composer

Notes from the Composer

by Paula Fowler

A year after the January 1970 premiere of his opera Of Mice and Men at Seattle Opera, composer Carlisle Floyd wrote at length about its creation for The Opera Journal. Though much of what he shared in that article applied principally to that premiere production, a great deal of it is also, of course, illuminating for subsequent productions. Utah Opera’s production in May 2012 will mark our company’s second presentation of this contemporary American opera. John Steinbeck’s short novel Of Mice and Men, published in 1937, portrays a period in the lives of two itinerant ranchhands, George Milton and Lennie Small, who traverse California during the Great Depression. The two men search for work, food and shelter—and they dream of buying their own farm, of having a real home. Progress toward fulfilling this goal is stymied time and again: large, slow-witted Lennie has a knack for getting himself in trouble, because he loves to pet soft things and doesn’t know his own strength. It’s up to George to continually rescue him and keep them in motion toward their goal. Carlisle Floyd wrote about his initial impulse to consider this story as the basis for an opera:

I re-read the novel back in the fall of 1963 with an eye to its suitability for operatic treatment, and this, I am reasonably sure, was prompted by a rather light-hearted discussion with two friends of mine….I was struck by its play-like qualities in addition to its memorable characters and marvelously theatrical scenes. Not knowing at the time that Steinbeck had very successfully dramatized his book for the stage shortly after its publication, I thought I detected act-endings and scenes that built to curtains. I do remember that I frequently experienced that particular excitement reserved for books, plays, or whatever, that seem ideal for conversion into operas.

Floyd was interested in the idea but didn’t get into action on the project until he was offered a Ford Foundation commission, which requested that he consider using a Steinbeck work for a new opera.

The early stages of starting the opera progressed smoothly: the Ford Foundation approved his selection, so he didn’t have to propose a variety of libretto subjects; and he found Steinbeck, who was still alive, “most cooperative.” Floyd got to work, and wrote an entire version of the opera with which he ended up feeling discontented. In this first version of the opera, Floyd worked hard to stay true to Steinbeck’s original story, referring to the text as he wrote the libretto. He did allow himself a few liberties, however: he boldly deleted one of Steinbeck’s scenes—one that takes place in the black groom’s quarters— because it seemed redundant and dated despite its possibly timeless social commentary. Equally boldly, he added a scene in a brothel for George that would illustrate how George saves every penny for his farm. But once the time for staging rehearsals for this scene drew close, Floyd and the artistic staff concluded that this scene too was “unnecessary to tell the story.” Moreover, the brothel scene created characterization problems for George, and it added many additional women into the story. Floyd decided that the brothel women (much as the Seattle chorus women liked the challenge of “impersonating prostitutes”) destroyed the “dramatic equation of a single woman in the midst of a group of men.” Floyd excerpted arias for Slim and George, found a place for them early in Act Two, and put aside the rest of the scene.

All of the libretto and two of the three acts of music for the first version of this opera were complete by summer 1966, so Floyd sent the work to people whose opinions he valued for feedback. He suspected that the work was already too long, and he has revealed that his chosen reviewers found it dull. He concluded that he needed to either give it up forever or start all over, and he elected to rethink the entire work. One friend put his finger on the real problem, which was in the libretto: Floyd needed to give up all loyalty to Steinbeck and make his own version of the story. So the composer stopped referring altogether to Steinbeck’s book, or his play. He resolved “to turn Steinbeck’s novel into an opera, regardless of the consequences to his book.” The central story line, once exposed, was…a very simple one: the pathetic, fierce pursuit of a simple, if ultimately doomed, dream by two itinerant ranch workers, one of whom inadvertently obstructs the dream’s fulfillment. In my notes to myself, I wrote: “George to realize their dream, has the impossible task of keeping Lennie out of trouble.” Viewed from this angle, George therefore becomes the propelling force in the drama, the active character…. The real antagonist in the drama is Curley’s Wife, and, to a less obvious degree, Lennie, himself. The drama…is a study of human attachment in an environment of harsh personal isolation and despair, and I feel that what Steinbeck is saying throughout is that even George’s unsatisfactory, but nevertheless tender, relationship with a slow-witted man-child is preferable to the loneliness and rootlessness of his fellow ranch hands.

Once Floyd gave himself permission to write his own Of Mice and Men, he felt more free to invent scenes of his own that would develop what he had decided was the central story line. Floyd added an opening scene of the two men escaping from the police, as well as a second scene between Curley and his wife that shows the “angry and volatile environment” that George and Lennie enter. Additionally, Floyd is happy about having added a newspaper want-ad at the top of Act Two – it develops the idea of a dream, and gives George a great prop. The ad “also supplies an occasion for some buoyancy and high spirits which, otherwise, are in short supply” in the opera. Once he had completed this new, freer libretto, Floyd had to make decisions about the “kind of music…[that] the subject matter, locale, and characters required.” Floyd contemplated an overall musical style for this American story, and also determined individual musical characterizations for his characters: Lennie …would be characterized primarily as a child: a physical giant with the self image… of a small, and rather helpless mouse. I wanted to de-emphasize the emptyeyed, slack-jawed conception of Lennie which is where some actors begin and end their portrayal of the role, and I felt that I had Steinbeck in my corner since he has George frequently refer to Lennie as being “just a kid.” Approaching Lennie as a child…makes the character more interesting dramatically since it permits a much greater emotional range for the actor (and especially the composer) to exploit. Also, to be perfectly honest, the prospect of writing music to characterize an idiot in a major role in a full length opera stunned my imagination: what on earth would one do musically with almost total emotional and mental vacuity? An important antagonist in the story is Curley’s Wife, who has no proper first name in this men’s world. George and Lennie meet her when they finally score a job at a ranch. …the role for Curley’s Wife would be written for a lyric-coloratura soprano, or preferably a dramatic coloratura. The coloratura element was to be used to heighten the excessively coy, false aspects of the character. On the other hand, when she is being emotionally honest, as in her confrontation with George in the second act, or in the third act duet with Lennie, her vocal line would be entirely without decoration. The way this musical approach to the role worked out in actual practice pleased me especially.

Floyd felt the challenge as a composer to write music that would help depict the main characters, and also communicate the intense drama of the story. For the characters, in general, he wanted something direct, almost folk-like, but the music underlying dramatic scenes such as the murder of Curley’s Wife would need to be more sophisticated to support the burden of the scene. Floyd studied other operas that wove music with folk elements into a tonal fabric that also incorporated great complexity. He benefited especially from his study of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. He  admired that in Britten’s score.…there is no compromise of musical values: no purely “effect writing,” no aimless passages of orchestral punctuation, no setting of dialogue only one step removed from actual speech (the easy way out), no overly facile accompaniments for the vocal line. In other words, there is no evasion of their responsibilities as composers, no slackening of musical discipline: at all times one is aware of distinguished craftsmanship.

Floyd completed the entire score in the spring of 1968, and took another six months to revise and edit further before scoring it for orchestra. Meanwhile, Seattle Opera created its visual design and singers learned their roles for the premiere on January 22, 1970. The title of Steinbeck’s novel comes from a Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse,” which includes the lines: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley (Often go awry).” That is the truth of experience for the characters of Of Mice and Men in novel, drama, and opera. Carlisle Floyd might have said the same about his first attempt at a libretto based on this story. He wrote, “I have never before invested what seemed at times the endless amount of labor required to complete the opera.” But fortunately, he could choose to make a second attempt, and this one did not go awry. Floyd has reported that “no other opera gave me as much pleasure once it was finished.”

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