In early 2016, LA Opera’s CEO Christopher Koelsch announced that Matthew Aucoin was to be appointed Artist in Residence for a three year term, starting in October of that year. The announcement was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, the scope of Aucoin’s duties was to be exceptionally broad: composing operas, conducting both classic and contemporary works on LA Opera’s main stage as well as its smaller venues, engaging in educational and community engagement projects as well as leading whole new initiatives. But what really raised eyebrows was Aucoin’s age: just 25 years old.

Matthew Aucoin © Steven Laxton
Matthew Aucoin
© Steven Laxton

Koelsch had been tipped off about Aucoin’s work when Boston’s American Repertory Theater commissioned his opera Crossing, an exploration of the poet Walt Whitman, one of the giants in the American literary canon. Koelsch flew to Boston to hear the piece, and was bowled over: “I knew instantaneously that this was the kind of artist that needed to be part of the LA Opera family and that he represented a perspective that we didn't currently have inside our glittering and substantial masthead”.

Not only was Koelsch deeply emotionally moved by the piece, but he was convinced that what he had in front of him was an authentically unique voice. “Aesthetically, his set of influences was clear, but his variations on those themes, where he might be going as an artist, the exploration of variations on those influences was very clear, so it wasn't derivative and yet you knew that he understood the foundation elements of operatic composition. And I thought as storytelling went, it was a very idiosyncratic and interesting take on a familiar figure that was to my mind sui generis. This was the perspective of an artist that was not represented in any other artist that I knew as working in the world today.”

Faced with that response, Aucoin’s youth was an irrelevance. The subsequent negotiations proceeded remarkably smoothly, as did Koelsch’s discussions with LA Opera’s artistic leaders Plácido Domingo and James Conlon. A year into the residency, Koelsch views the appointment as “a perfect marriage, which continues to pay off for both parties”. Aucoin agrees, describing the role as “a tailor-made suit” and himself as “a kid in a candy shop”. He spoke to me from his California home.

DK: Given that you’re all of a composer, conductor, poet, pianist, educator, that’s an awful lot of things to combine. What does a working day look like?

MA: I think of myself as a composer head and shoulders above all of the other things, so for most of the year, the typical working day is just that I wake up and stare at an empty page until eventually something happens. But for specified periods of the year, for example during a production I'm conducting, it's a nine to five rehearsal schedule. What's interesting is the in-between periods when I'm in town but not conducting a main stage production, when I will work with the young artists on a much more flexible basis. For example, the After Hours series has allowed me to dream up programs that show off the company's young artists in repertoire that really suits them.

With the young artists and members of the LA Opera Orchestra, we also did a tour of Los Angeles County – which is massive, there are something like 87 cities – to all kinds of venues and communities that don't normally see opera. We did a program that spanned Mozart's creative life through the lens of his operas, trying to chip away at the notion that he burst out of the womb fully formed. So we looked at the development of his emotional and psychological maturity and acuity through a kind of guided tour of his operas from Lucio Silla all the way through to Clemenza. So my work takes lots of forms, but the reality is that 8 out of the 12 months of the year, I'm just writing.

Walt Whitman, photographed by George Cox in 1887 © Wikipedia: restoration by Adam Buerden
Walt Whitman, photographed by George Cox in 1887
© Wikipedia: restoration by Adam Buerden

Let’s talk about your opera Crossing, and its source. Our non-American readers won’t necessarily be aware of the position that Whitman, and Leaves of Grass in particular, occupies in the American literary canon – can you give them a thumbnail of why it’s such an important work, and why it needed this opera to be written?

I would just start with the distinction that the opera is based on Whitman himself as a person and as a spirit, rather than the massive composite poem that is Leaves of Grass. Why is his work so central? Basically, until Whitman, most American poets were doing these very polite imitations of poets from your side of the pond. They were very diligently copying the verse structures and the general prosody of English romantic poetry, and often it was not the wildest and weirdest and most Byronic corners of English poetry but it was a kind of domesticated thing, Longfellow and his ilk. Then Whitman comes along and much of his early work and late work is bad, but he has this shining moment of clarity and courageousness in the 1850s when he basically says why should our poetry, of any form, do anything other than embody what America is doing, flinging itself Westward and expanding and doing things that a human population had not done in recent civilised memory.

As a result, his poems that are collected in Leaves of Grass are like a raging waterfall, like this river that is just spilling over the sides of the page. He basically invented free verse, which was a prerequisite for modernism. And he was courageous not just formally or rhythmically but also in his celebration of physical love. He wouldn't have identified himself as a gay man – the term didn't exist in the sense that we know it today – but he was intimate with a lot of men and we know from his diaries, written when he worked as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, that he felt a powerful and overwhelming attraction to the soldiers he was tending to. His poems celebrate love under the guise of universal brotherhood, he can't call it by its name and so he imagines almost in a 1960s way “I am connected to all of you”, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, and I do see it as this mysterious transformation of his own erotic needs.

So far, all the performances of Crossing have been, to use the Civil War term, in a very Yankee environment. What's it going to be like bringing it to the West Coast? Is the LA audience different?

 I think the LA audience is actually more open to new work, not less, than many audiences on the East Coast. While it's true that the setting of Crossing is a war hospital somewhere in DC, this is at heart a psychological drama and quite a dream-like piece, not a Civil War pageant. The hospital is in a way a kind of limbo or purgatory – everybody who's there is stuck there, no one knows if they're going to get out alive, you're not quite in our world and you're not in the next world either. One of the things that emerges is that Whitman, who thinks of himself as being this kind of benevolent healer, ultimately realises that he is as stuck there as anybody else.

One of the reasons that I came to LA Opera in the first place is that I already had experience with the LA scene, serving as cover conductor to Gustavo Dudamel and having written an orchestral piece for the LA Chamber Orchestra. What stood out to me is this hunger for new music in LA, it's actually cool to support new music. The piece that I wrote for the Chamber Orchestra was supported by 100 individual donors. It was very sort of Bernie Sanders, and I found myself thinking that in most cities, I'm not sure I could *find* 100 people and get them in one room to support a single new piece of orchestral music by a composer who was at that point not known in the city at all. So it’s an audience that shows itself open to many things.

Your opera writing seems unashamedly melodic. Can you comment on your compositional style?

I can only say that it's in perpetual evolution. I'm certainly not going to avoid an element as essential to music as melody, but I'm also not aiming for the kind of middle-of-the-road conservative side of the audience kind of operatic writing that I think has become actually more common in America. It's true that everybody's notion of contemporary orchestral and operatic music is sort of the Schoenberg lineage, but I'm not convinced that this actually holds sway in America. There's a whole school of composers active in America with whom I don't particularly align myself, who are writing almost a kind of mixture of Broadway and 19th-century opera and that's actually not what I'm going for. If anything, I think that my music emerges out of the openness of early John Adams mixed with some of the rhythmic waywardness or intricacy of Thomas Adès.

I would say of Adès and others that a lot of new opera is very eclectic, pulling from a lot of different styles and sometimes at the expense of coherence…

It's funny. I do think we, being composers alive today, are so aware of the richness and variety of music out there: in a way, that richness is the tradition that we were born into. Whereas at many moments in the past, you would be born into a tradition where your sense of what was possible and what the rules were would have been much narrower. And now, for better or worse, I do agree that the risk is that you end up not making a single piece cohere, but the upside of that is that we're not operating with any kind of fear or any kind of sense that “oh no, that's just not allowed”. Conversely, we also feel quite willing to go into a wild and noise-based place if the spirit moves us.

Can you tell us about your upcoming co-commission between LA Opera and the Met?

I am working with the playwright Sarah Ruhl to adapt her early play Eurydice. I've got the same Orpheus obsession that most composers in history have had and a piece of my own that I've kept coming back to, The Orphic Moment, is a kind of expansion of what's going through Orpheus' mind in the few seconds before he turns around.

I think Orpheus is quite a narcissistic guy, he's really a jerk on some level, and my understanding is that the turn happens because he knows it's more fruitful for music: he knows it's more artistically productive to suffer the second loss and to be able to mourn. It occurred to me that if you look at any Orpheus opera, the structure of the piece is basically "She dies the first time. He gets to sing all this great music about it. She dies the second time. He gets to sing even more beautiful music about it." It's almost like the death is an excuse for the music, which of course, every death in opera is, on some level.

So I knew that I wanted to delve deeper into Orpheus, and at this point. André Bishop, the head of Lincoln Center Theater, who the Met are partnered with for their commissioning program, connected me with Sarah Ruhl, who has this early play which tells the story from the other side of the camera, which imagines a whole other simultaneously occurring plot line with Eurydice down in the underworld, dead, waiting for Orpheus. So it deepens and enlightens the other figure in the myth, who is so often a kind of faceless stand-in.

We're adapting Sarah's play and it'll come to LA first. The exact dates haven't been announced, but it’s very much safe to say that this project is what I'm working on now.

Let’s move on to conducting. Christopher Koelsch is very keen that you should not be pigeonholed as the young guy who only does contemporary, so Rigoletto is coming up in May. How do you approach conducting an opera when a lot of people in the audience will know every note?

Well hopefully I know every note too! This actually is not a novelty or some kind of random digression for me. My training musically actually has really steeped me in the standard repertory, throughout college, at Spoleto Festival in Italy, Berliner Staatsoper and then, right after college, at the Met. So along the way, I really immersed myself in the standard operatic repertory and Verdi really feels like mother's milk to me, even though the music I write doesn't sound anything like Verdi.

I do think that it's useful for a performer to have the composer's perspective in mind. Naturally, the way I approach any score is "What inspired this note? What is the impulse that led the composer to put this note after that one?” And to me, that can result in a kind of dynamism and flexibility in performance.

Can you give me an example of that, from Rigoletto? Any particular passage where you think you've really found something?

I'm not the first person to be fascinated by the dramatic structure of the “Cortigiani” aria, but the miracle of that scene for me is that at the exact same moment that Rigoletto says "Oh my god, this isn't working, I have to try something else, and so I have to cry, I have to bare my soul", at that exact moment, Verdi also says, "This isn't working, I have to try something new". It’s the moment when he breaks with the bel canto tradition of aria structure and integrates three distinct miniature pieces into one aria without the usual interruption by a minor character between a cantabile and a cabaletta. Things like that are so compelling, when the exigency of the dramatic situation precipitates a major evolution in the music. And so how does it translate into performance? Ironically, you can't just let it flow seamlessly one into the other, you have to create a sense of slamming on the brakes and trying a completely different tack, of changing the colour, the gestural language. It's thrilling and I think I can see some of the process that I can imagine leading to the piece that's before me on the page.


Aucoin conducts Rigoletto for LA Opera from 12th May. Crossing is being performed on 26th May.
This article was sponsored by LA Opera.