Interview with Kevin Puts

Earlier this year, Met General Manager Peter Gelb sat down with composer Kevin Puts to discuss The Hours. They talk about the opera’s conception, as well as how Puts developed the music around the narrative and the performers. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

PETER GELB (PG): Kevin, why don’t you tell us a little bit about how this opera came to be?

KEVIN PUTS (KP): Renée [Fleming] called me up to ask me if I was interested in composing an opera based on The Hours. Of course, I said yes immediately. I thought it would be great to do something that takes place in different time periods all at the same time because you can do things like this on the operatic stage, which is not always the case elsewhere, like in a film or book.

PG: It’s hard to say “no” to Renée, especially because we wanted her back at the Met! How would you describe your score? I heard it when it was presented in its concert format in Philadelphia: it’s very lush, harmonic, and beautiful.

KP: When I first started drafting the piece, I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to approach it, especially how I wanted to establish the three different time periods. There is a music that we associate with Clarissa—the 1990s, New York, kind of an American urban vibe, I suppose.

Virginia Woolf has a much sparer, almost neo-Baroque, style of music. The harmony is always taking different turns and you’re never quite sure where it’s going. I was trying to figure out why that was, and I think maybe it’s alluding to the complexity of her mind, and her stream-of-consciousness writing style. You’re never sure where you’re going to end up. It’s circuitous.

And then I wrote the music of Laura Brown, who is living in the 1950s outside of Los Angeles after World War II—Kelli O’Hara’s character. I didn’t necessarily create her music, it was more about her environment, domestic bliss. It sounds orchestral like Henry Mancini, or Leave it to Beaver. There’s also a broader musical language, which I think has more to do with the magic of the novel and the inexplicable connections between these three stories. We’re not exactly sure how they’re connected: They’re connected through Mrs. Dalloway for sure, but is Virginia Woolf actually writing Clarissa’s story as we see it unfold? That stimulated me to write something magical, with an atmosphere of mystery, throughout the piece.

PG: What is it like to work with singers in the process of developing new opera?

KP: One of the great advantages of new opera and the collaborations between composers and singers is the fact that they are always accessible to each other. I’m constantly texting with Renée, it’s a wonderful thing. And the fact that we’ve worked on other projects together means that I know her quite well. It’s also not just a matter of writing for Renée Fleming—I could imagine Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, or several operas that she sings—but it’s a matter of combining her talent with what I want to do, meeting in the middle. I’ve never worked so closely with a performer on a piece from the very beginning. We continued to work on it at her house after the Philadelphia performances, making it fit like a glove for her, so that she’s happy with the shape of every phrase, every rhythm. When someone of her caliber is happy with the lines she’s singing, there’s really no substitute. It’s a magical thing for a composer to experience.

Kelli O’Hara’s approach is a bit different from Renée’s. She had a very straightforward approach to learning the opera. She was trained at first in operatic singing, but of course, she has enjoyed tremendous success on Broadway, and she’s sung at the Met twice before. Utilizing the talent and skills she picked up from musical theater, she learned her part quickly, I think in just a week. It was amazing. She went after the part with full effort. There’s really nothing she can’t do. I asked her if she wanted feedback from me, and she said she was happy to incorporate all the changes. It was interesting to work with two very talented, but quite different performers.