From June 15–18, BAM Fisher (Fishman Space) is the place to catch Three Way, a trio of one-act operas by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote. The three individual acts, “Safe Word,” “The Companion,” and “Masquerade,” explore sexual fetishes and role-playing in modern life. Co-produced by Nashville Opera and American Opera Projects, Three Way bowed at Nashville Opera in January. Cote is well known as the longtime theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York; in a “restructuring” decision that shattered his many admirers (I’m one of them), he was abruptly laid off in April. The orchestra for Three Way is American Modern Ensemble, which Paterson presides over as artistic director.
Recently, I had a, well, three-way phone chat with composer and librettist.
BK: I’m very excited about Three Way coming to BAM. I’m so happy that you decided to write an original opera instead of yet another adaptation. Tell me how it all came together.
DC: It came together pretty simply. There was no “Eureka!” moment. We were pursuing one project, which was tricky in terms of getting copyright. So we decided to come up with original material. It’s a risk, because almost everyone who is producing new opera insists on adapting a well-known book or movie.
BK: I know. And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of material to take from the times we’re living through.
DC: Right. So we were spitballing ideas. We wanted a scenario that would be dramatic and would sing, but also would be chamber-sized. We came up with [an idea for] “Dominatrix and Clients,” because it’s about role playing and heightened emotions. We thought this could be a one-act opera with some violence in it.
RP: We got into this program at American Opera Projects called Composers and the Voice. David was busy doing reviews for Time Out New York. We worked together, but I was the one who attended all the sessions. So, as part of that process, we were writing arias and scenes of an opera we were really imagining. We had practical considerations, too. We knew right out of the gate that we didn’t want to write an opera for a large pit. We thought if we did something with small instrumentation and a small number of singers, we might have a chance of getting individual acts linked with other people’s operas.
RP: There was an Opera America conference, and this was something everyone was talking about: how do you create operas with smaller instrumentation?
DC: And Brian, you’re part of the reason I’m doing opera at all. You assigned me articles for Opera News, like that profile of Julie Taymor. I had to immerse myself in Salome, which remains one of my favorite operas, and David Lang’s Difficulty of Crossing a Field. Through you, I got to know opera. I love musicals, where the music is often the worst element of the whole thing, after the 1970s! And when I think of grand opera, my takeaway more often than not is “Great music. Terrible theater.” So these questions kept coming up about complexity of character, complexity of narrative. I believe that what Rob and I are trying to do is create producible chamber opera, opera with an intimacy and intensity about it.
RP: I can jump in and say something about that. We are trying to place a premium on the other parts of the opera besides music. Some composers think about the drama a lot, and some seem to feel it’s secondary. I always wanted to make this feel as much as we can like a complete experience. I want people to leave feeling emotionally charged by the characters, not just the pyrotechnics of the singing. David has been so immersed in the theater world, in a way that I haven’t. And I have seen lots of operas where I thought, what stinky actors they are.
BK: Tell me how your specific ideas for the content of Three Way evolved.
DC: Dominatrixes—domination and submission—are in the culture. David Ives’s Venus in Fur played around with domination and submission. I just went to that place because it’s a naturally dramatic situation, charged with gender dynamics and power shifts. I knew that we didn’t want to make an opera about a beaten-down weasel of a male character. He had to be strong and aggressive. When you’re writing an opera, it’s fun to write a bombastic, aggressive character. I wanted our characters to be a confident male and a mysterious woman, and for those places to flip as the piece went on. Gender relationships in opera are very interesting. Victimization of women in classic opera—the ritual aspects of opera, with people dressing up and behaving in silly ways. I wanted to exploit that in a naturalistic setting.
RP: It started as a “top down” down process. We had to decide what would be a generally fun topic to tackle as an opera. Sex would be interesting—but not in a weird lecherous sense. There is so much drama in these three scenarios that seems to embody power struggles, wanting more. All of the characters in Three Way want something new, something to heighten their senses.
DC: The working title of the whole piece was Fetish. I was exploring how people are connected to themselves and their sexuality through objects and rituals. In “The Companion,” there’s a woman who has a synthetic lover—an android lover. And in the third act, “Masquerade,” there’s a key party.
RP: We were turning over a lot of different questions. In “The Companion,” is the woman looking for something that she isn’t getting from regular men? And you’ve got two straight guys writing these things. We were almost a little bit on the defensive, I think. We wanted to represent everything kind of equally.
BK: I’m so happy that you conceived of these as comic operas. There are so few of them. So many contemporary operas are so dreary—both the subject matter and the writing.
DC: Comic opera—that’s a tricky term. I feel there’s a stigma attached to new comic opera. It’s considered ephemeral. Falstaff and Mozart’s comedies will be here forever, but new comic opera is sometimes looked at askance as a bastard child of Broadway musicals or something. The comic energy of the opera came out of our sensibilities and that we weren’t trying to make a dour, dark opera that takes a strong stance against rape. We didn’t feel the need to do that. We wanted pro-sex operas with a little melancholy, a little menace, a little violence at times, and a little sadness. There’s a range of emotions across the operas that I think is a lot more varied and energetic than most new opera, which can get stuck in a pretentious, inert groove as far as emotional complexity goes. I would say comedy is a dominant feature of all three. But to call them comic operas? I’m not sure.
BK: So Così fan tutte could be a touchstone, in a way?
RP: Right. Come knowing you’re going to laugh, but once people are there, they will see that what we touch on in each of these operas is pretty serious.
DC: All three operas, I hope in a subtle way, are alluding to operas from the classical repertoire. “The Companion” gently gestures toward Act One of Tales of Hoffmann, with the Olympia scenario—only in this case, it ’s a woman who winds up with a mechanical boy. In “Safe Word,” there’s a reference to Tosca and femme fatales. And in “Masquerade,” the reference is A Masked Ball. Literally, people get into robes and masks for a sex party; it’s about loss of identity and mistaken identity. They are short operas, but they are classics in spirit. I think there’s a Mozartian spirit in them that’s deliberate.
RP: I remember sitting down and asking David, “What do we love about opera and what do we not like?” Especially modern operas—and what about modern operas vs. old operas? We sat there for an hour or two, and said, “Well I love this and I don’t like this.” We were almost deconstructing the modern processes and trying not to get too involved in the zeitgeist or the trends. We wanted arias to sound like arias. We also didn’t want it to be sung-through recit, or arioso. It was cool when Philip Glass did it, but it’s not cool anymore. It’s boring.
BK: It’s clear you both have a great deal to say in these one-acts about open relationships, about changing sexual boundaries. And all of that is changing in our society—I think in some very, very good ways. At the risk of being indelicate, how much research did you conduct?
RP: Well, we did our research. David interviewed a dominatrix. I felt like especially in writing the music for the third act, unless I had some knowledge of it beyond academic knowledge.… So I said to my wife, let’s do some research and go to a masquerade swinger party and try to get a sense of the emotions at play. We went to a party in Massachusetts and spent an evening there. It was fascinating, because all of these people had open relationships and there were all sorts of scenarios. To answer your question, there’s a lot more nuance with young people about how they view marriage and relationships and openness. I hope a lot of young people come to this, because I think a lot of this will resonate with them.
DC: Maybe I’m stuck in binary thinking, but it is amazing that young people are less prejudiced, or transphobic, or homophobic. They think nothing of using technology to hook up, and that’s a source of pleasure, and not guilt. If I were twenty-four, maybe I would be doing that too. On the one hand, I agree that of course it’s good and I do believe in progress and I think we are evolving socially away from strict gender rules and strict rules about orientation. But the thought that I go to immediately is who is in the White House right now: a serial molester, a caricature of a straight white male. And there are so many people who support him. And I think it does cause the people who support him to retrench themselves and vent their hate.
I always tell people that I grew up Catholic in New Hampshire. I know less than nothing about sex.
RP: I grew up with ex-beatnik hippie parents. My father makes erotic sculpture. I grew up thinking all of that was normal. But when I think about who is president, and the climate we are in right now, I think that technology has skewed things as well. Even though people say they want all this intimacy, they have all these apps, and I think they get buried in technology in a way that separates everybody. There’s an aria in our opera called “Broken Machines” about people being the broken machines. We’re trying to connect with these things because we ‘re not getting what we want in humans. I see it all the time: no one’s looking around on the subway. They’re all buried in their cellphones and texting. Look around you! Your future lover could be sitting right across from you.