Kevin Puts received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2011 opera Silent Night, which will be heard this season at Atlanta Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, and Opera San Jose. He followed that success with The Manchurian Candidate, which had its world premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2015. On November 12, his new vocal work, Letters from Georgia—as in O’Keeffe—will be heard at the Eastman Theater’s Kodak Hall in Rochester, New York. Neil Garon conducts the Eastman Philharmonia, with Renée Fleming as soloist. Two nights later, a second performance will be given in New York at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
BK: Can you remember the first time you encountered the work of Georgia O’Keeffe? What impact did it have on you?
KP: I can’t remember, because it’s been there my whole life. I always found it powerful, bold, and uncompromising. My aunt, Fleda Brown, is a poet [Fishing with Blood] who wrote some beautiful poems about Georgia O’Keeffe that I read when I was an early teenager, and I considered using them, interpreting those poems with O’Keeffe’s actual words. But then it would have become too confusing, and the piece would have had to be bigger.
When Renée and I started talking about this project—it was commissioned by Eastman School of Music, because Renée and I are both alumni—I had said it would need to be based on an important historical figure who was American and a woman. So I found a quote that was really beautiful, and it’s the first line of the piece. This is not in her letters, it’s part of an interview, I think: “My first memory is of light—the brightness of light—light all around.” I thought of the clarity of that, setting it musically, and having the orchestra becoming luminous behind Reneé. There is an enormous volume of letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz—thousands of poems up through 1933. It’s called My Faraway One, and I started reading through that book. There are also letters between Georgia and a young artist named Anita Politzer. For months I read those letters.
Renée was totally behind the idea. I think she still identifies with being an opera singer and thought, “Can I inhabit this character, rather than just sing these songs?” She’s really studied O’Keeffe. We’re planning a bigger piece with a baritone as Alfred Stieglitz for later on.
I was just trying to find a narrative through the letters. I used a combination of letters between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and O’Keeffe and Anita Politzer, and the piece has an imaginary chronology to it. The letters are not actually chronological, but there is some sense that she is moving to the end of her life.
BK: Have you spent a lot of time in New Mexico, where O’Keeffe drew so much of her inspiration?
KP: My first teaching job was in Austin, Texas. I didn’t travel a whole lot. I haven’t been out to the desert, really. That’s something I may do. I have a sense of it and I think that sense of it is in the music, the sense of space and simplicity and arid quality. She talks so much about the land in the letters. She said some beautiful things. Here’s a little of the last excerpt; “Tonight I walked into the sunset. . . .There was nothing but sky and flat prairie land, land that seems more like the ocean than anything I know.… It is absurd the way I love this country.”
BK: Beautiful. Especially since O’Keeffe was perceived by many people as having a kind of guardedness about her.
KP: Absolutely. If people know anything about Georgia O’Keeffe, they think of her as being aloof and kind of prickly and hard to get to. And of course these letters reveal so many other things—like self-deprecating humor. She talks about laboring all night trying to play the violin. She says, “Never in your wildest dreams can you imagine the noises I get out of it!” There’s that, and there’s tremendous sexual energy, and then her rhapsodic poetry about her surroundings, where she just doesn’t hold back. But the language has almost a kind of Hemingway simplicity, which I love. I respond to that in my music better than I think I would to a more florid kind of language. It’s clear and it’s direct, and that’s what I try to do with the music.
BK: Dealing with that prose style must also give you more room to breathe as a composer.
KP: Absolutely. It’s the same with writing opera. I’m learning that sometimes you don’t fill in all the emotions, even with the music. You can give the singer something to act.
BK: The idea of writing a letter—a real letter—is alien to so many people today. I still love getting a letter, but it’s become such a rare thing to receive one. As a biographer, I think about that a lot—will we be able to use emails, in the future, in the same way we quote letters when we’re writing biographies? Do you think it’s possible to have the same depth and breadth in an email that you can have in a letter, or does sending an email automatically indicate that you’re in too much of a hurry?
KP: I don’t know if we’re beyond the time when people took the time to craft a letter. It was an important thing in those days. You can tell that from reading O’Keeffe’s letters. Her handwriting is beautiful. She wrote every day, sometimes more than once a day. It’s just a different age now. I don’t know if people Tweeting and Messaging can ever take the time really to express something in a meaningful way. The words are so important—and you’re right. There is something really alluring about letters.
As a matter of fact, in both operas I’ve written, [librettist] Mark Campbell has found a way for someone to read a letter. It’s something that people love. I sometimes receive a letter from 100-year-old people who’ve heard a piece of mine in Europe! That’s about the only time I receive one!
BK: Are you working on a new opera now?
KP: A chamber opera, Elizabeth Cree, at Opera Philadelphia. I’m writing it with Mark Campbell, and it’s based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd. We’re having the second workshop this week. I’m going to write a piece for Houston Grand Opera. We have gone through about four properties that we cannot get the rights for, and it’s been very frustrating. But it’s been a nightmare trying to find a subject that will work. I’m kind of taking a break from thinking about it for the moment.
Mark and I are rewriting some of The Manchurian Candidate, because i think there’s a lot of potential. It was a tough piece to do. We just had an amazing time with Austin Opera, in a semi-staged version. So Fort Worth will do it in 2019, and we’re going to think of it as a relaunch of it. Mostly the first act, I think, will be a lot better. It was a tough project because it’s a thriller and it has to have a fast pace, yet I wanted it to sing better than Silent Night. The two things were kind of pulling at me from both sides, and I think I’ve figured it out. There’s a significant amount of work I’ll be putting into that.