On Friday and Saturday, BAM will host 21c Liederabend, op. 3, two programs of art songs featuring some of the biggest up-and-comers in New York contemporary classical: Nico Muhly, David T. Little, Mohammed Fairouz, Ted Hearne, Christopher Cerrone, Marie Incontrera, and many others. Tying them all together is Royce Vavrek, the series’ librettist-in-residence, who has worked with several of those composers. We spoke to him about what it’s like to be a librettist in a composer’s world, why so many young people in the classical world live in Brooklyn, and more.
What neighborhood do you live in?
I’ve been in Bushwick for over three years now and love it. I decided it was time for a move from Alphabet City, and I knew that I wanted to land in Brooklyn.
What about Brooklyn attracts so many young members of the classical community?
The affordability is definitely one advantage—though, is Brooklyn affordable anymore? And the sense of community is certainly felt. Missy Mazzoli lives only a 30-minute walk from me. Matt Marks, Paola Prestini, Joshua Schmidt and Lauren Worsham—the co-Artistic Director of my opera-theater company, The Coterie—all live short train rides away. It’s a shared landscape. It feels like home.
What made you to want to be a librettist rather than, say, a playwright?
I don’t know that I wanted to be a librettist, per se. I knew that I wanted to tell stories, and that manifested in different ways at different times of my life: I composed a pop operetta and song cycle as a young teenager, wrote plays in high school, made films in college and musical theater in grad school. Opera seemed like a medium that could utilize a lot of my different artistic experiences.
What unique challenges does a librettist face that others writers don’t?
The greatest challenge—which isn’t really a challenge, but an opportunity—is that librettists have a primary collaborator whose music we marry our text to. I have to be sensitive to the needs of another artist that will inform the structure, form and content of a libretto.
Historically, librettists have taken a backseat to composers. Is that relationship different nowadays?
I do feel that perception to be shifting. While opera is still considered to be a musical form, it’s also a piece of drama that has to be carefully crafted. A strong libretto is integral to the success of an opera, and I think that’s being recognized more and more.
What is it about you that draws so many composers to want to work with you?
I hope it’s that I’m curious, generous and genuinely excited about the work. I’ve been told that I’m fearless in what I’ll tackle: my two big libretto projects this year have been 27 with composer Ricky Ian Gordon for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and JFK (working title) with composer David T. Little for Fort Worth Opera Festival and American Lyric Theater. Growing up on a farm in Alberta, Canada, I can’t say that I knew much about either Gertrude Stein—the subject of 27—or John F. Kennedy, nor did it seem I had much in common with these singular personalities. But after burrowing my way into their lives through research and my imagination, they’ve become very real and very kindred to me.
This year has also seen lots of my projects come to life in world premieres, including “Strip Mall” with Matt Marks for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “The Hubble Cantata” with Paola Prestini for Bay Chamber Concerts and “Stoned Prince” with Hannah Lash for loadbang. Now I’m gearing up for the 21c Liederabend at BAM, where I’ll premiere work with Missy Mazzoli, Marie Incontrera and Paola Prestini, which is followed by “Angel’s Bone” with Du Yun as part of the Prototype Festival in January. My favorite thing about being a librettist has to be that I get to work with so many awesome, singular artists.