of an Icon

In Music, Words, Drama,
      and 3D-Video Projection

IU Jacobs School of Music commemorates
its own beginnings with a bold new work,
the portrait of one of the most revered and
celebrated artists of all time—Vincent van Gogh.

by Elizabeth Rosdeitcher

“Included herewith” wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1888 about a sketch he was sending of a new painting— “The starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the fields are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky, the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight.”

Dramatic contrasts and intensities of light and color—these are the hallmarks of the paintings that, since Van Gogh’s death, have become, like the constellations he painted, instantly recognizable across the globe.

But dramatic contrasts are also the hallmarks of Van Gogh’s life. And now, of a new opera about that life, lighting up the Musical Arts Center this April: Vincent, by composer Bernard Rands and librettist J. D. McClatchy.

As Rands and McClatchy describe it, the contrasts in Van Gogh’s life unfold in a cascade of bitter ironies. The intensity of his vision, for example, made him impossible to live with, perhaps even made it impossible for him to live, yet that vision now draws hordes of viewers to his paintings, which have since become immortalized. Though he only sold a single painting in his lifetime, “Now,” as Rands puts it, “if you have $45 million to spare, you might get a third-rate painting by him.”

Likewise, McClatchy observes, “On the surface, it’s a fairly melodramatic story—the spiraling despair of a tortured, brilliant man. And yet, at the same time, even as he sinks lower and lower, the art becomes more and more luminous, the paintings you see become more grand and strange and extraordinary. So it’s a kind of a double helix rather than just a downward spiral.”

As Van Gogh once explained in his letters, “Even though I’m often in a mess, inside me there’s still a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge.”

To illuminate that music—and the mess—is the score of the first full-length opera by one of the foremost 21st-century composers and the libretto of a world-renowned contemporary poet, librettist, and translator. Bringing the music and text to life on stage are IU Opera Theater stage director Vincent Liotta, Jacobs conductor Arthur Fagen, and the innovative production design of Barry Steele, who is deploying powerful new technologies to create 3D video-projected stage sets and scenery.

“It’s going to be something of an adventure,” says Liotta. “Nothing like it has ever been seen on the IU stage.”

Or any stage, according to McClatchy. And the result is a high-profile production, attracting opera professionals from around the country. Opera America has even offered grants for people to attend the production.

Vincent, you could say, had its origins at another commemorative moment, the 1973 opening of the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, memorializing the Dutch-born painter who lived his short, troubled, but intensely creative life in the 37 years between 1853 and 1890.

On the day that the doors of the museum opened to the public, Rands was among those to enter. To move through the museum that houses the largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the world is to move through the phases of Van Gogh’s life and the influences around him: from Theo’s collection as an art dealer on the downstairs floor to the paintings in the main gallery, which “you only have to look, and you know exactly who it is ,” to rooms on the second floor exhibiting the original Japanese prints Van Gogh had used as models for his own work.

But it was at the top floor that the idea for an opera first hit Rands. Here were “hundreds of dark drawings—in pencil, crayon, charcoal, gouache. They were so impressive and very moving.

At that moment,’ says Rands, “I thought to myself that someday, I don’t know when, I will try to capture what this man was about in a theater work, namely opera, based on all of these characters and images I’ve observed for the first time. It has taken 40-odd years for that to come to fruition, but it’s finally coming to fruition in Indiana.”

Since that time, Rands has been researching and reading material by and about Van Gogh and sketching out thoughts and plans for an opera, whose viewers, not unlike the museum-goers in Amsterdam, will become immersed in the world of this artist.

Even though I’m often in a mess,
inside me there’s still a calm, pure
harmony and music.

“For two hours,’ says Rands, “I want the audience to be in the world of Vincent. Every aspect of the production—the costumes, the lighting, the painting, the colors, the music, the text, the poetry—should pull toward depicting this man and his relationship to his art.”

Rands has sought out a librettist at various times over the years, at one time approaching the novelist Anthony Burgess. Then, in 2007, Rands was invited by Jacobs Dean Gwyn Richards to make a presentation for a new opera that would commemorate the school’s 100th anniversary.

“He had heard that I had this opera in mind and that it was something I was passionate about for a long time. He had many choices, ranging from the very conservative to where I am near the edge of the experimental view of things. But Gwyn and his colleagues had the courage to say, ‘Yes, go ahead. We’ll do this.'”

For Richards, the project evolved quite naturally out of the school’s first-hand knowledge of Rands and his music.

Earlier that year, Rands had visited the Jacobs School to work with the New Music Ensemble on one of his song cycles. During this time, faculty and staff learned of his lifelong fascination with Van Gogh and invited him to give a presentation. Rands had already written an orchestral suite based on several Van Gogh paintings and drawings.

“He played some of that piece and talked about how he would approach the project. The ideas he had for this opera were so rich and so compelling, and we thought the subject would have a wide public appeal. Bernard is known worldwide as a beautiful, lyrical composer of vocal music and an outstanding orchestrator.”

Music director Arthur Fagen elaborates, “He is one of the most sophisticated and advanced orchestrators I’ve ever encountered among modern composers. He takes conventional, instrumental techniques to the limits without overstepping those limits. He’s really quite unique among the contemporary composers I’ve conducted, though he is completely grounded in the entire tradition of Western music.”

The Jacobs School of Music commission added a new urgency to the search for a librettist and led Rands to J. D. McClatchy. As it happened, the two of them, already acquainted as members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, also shared a lawyer, distinguished copyright expert James M. Kendrick. Kendrick knew of Rands’ commission and brought them together on this project.

For Rands, who considers McClatchy “the foremost poetic, scholarly, and creative librettist of our time and thus the most qualified person for the task,” the collaboration has been an extremely happy and fortuitous one. “I gave him the sheaf of notes I had collected over the years and said, ‘Make what you can.’ I wanted him to come at it from a very fresh angle and not be in any way constrained. The whole point of collaboration is to be surprised by somebody and something that you would not otherwise have thought of. And I did not want to miss out on what a person of his stature and creative mind could bring to the project.”

“As you know, the history of opera is littered with disagreements between composers and librettists. But we didn’t have anything of the kind. It’s turned out wonderfully, not only professionally but in real, loving friendship. He is an extraordinary intellect and a very warm human being.”

The opera, as its authors see it, is essentially biographical, representing Van Gogh’s life and the particular intensity—emotional, intellectual, artistic, and religious—with which he lived it.

Beginning, in fact, with a letter to Theo and the darkness of another starry night.

And with music, as Fagen explains, which “indicates the instability of Vincent’s psyche—a figure, a kind of leitmotif, which starts in the bass clarinet and recurs throughout.” Swirls in the woodwinds echo the swirling brushstrokes of the “Starry Night” as the painting takes shape in the theater.

“When I feel the terrible need for religion,” sings Vincent, “I go out and paint the stars.” The line casts its shadow on all that follows, on Vincent’s earlier life and the series of disappointments, failures, and struggles that accompanied his evolution as an artist—his work as an art dealer in his uncle’s gallery; scenes in the Borinage coal-mining region in Belgium, where he hoped to become a missionary; complex relationships with key figures in his life; life as a painter in the south of France; his descent into madness; the cutting of his ear; his eventual suicide.

“What interested me,” McClatchy explains, “and I hadn’t realized this before—is that Van Gogh was so religiously driven. Painting was almost incidental to his passion to get to God. Van Gogh was driven by an intense passion for what you could call God or you could call transcendence. And it made him look at the world from an almost other-worldly perspective.”

Bernard Rands

Bernard Rands is a major figure in contemporary music and is the 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner. His numerous works have been performed and recorded worldwide under conductors ranging from Barenboim, Boulez, and Berio to Maazel, Mehta, Ozawa, Salonen, and Dohnanyi. His Canti d’Amor, recorded by Chanticleer, won a Grammy Award in 2000. He has been honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which inducted him in 2004. Many major orchestras, ensembles, and festivals around the globe have commissioned his works. He won the 1986 Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for his Tambourin Suites, which are based on several Van Gogh paintings and drawings and served as a sketch for the music of Vincent.

J. D. McClatchy

J. D. McClatchy is a highly acclaimed poet, librettist, and translator. He has written six volumes of poetry and 13 librettos as well as a recent translation of seven Mozart librettos. Among his recent librettos are Lorin Maazel’s 1984, co-written with Thomas Meehan; Lowell Liebermann’s Miss Lonelyhearts; Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, co-written with Julie Taymor; Ned Rorem’s Our Town (premiered in 2006 at Indiana University); and the upcoming Giorgio Battistelli’s, An Inconvenient Truth. Among his many honors, he was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1996, was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998, and elected in 1999 to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he became president in 2009. He has taught at Princeton, Yale, Columbia, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, and other universities. Currently, he is a professor of English at Yale, where he is
editor of The Yale Review.

Fagen explains the way Rands skillfully explores these facets of Vincent’s life through a subtle use of recurring themes and chordal structures. Like the sense of looming madness in the music at the outset or in the way Vincent’s father, a strict Calvinist minister, is evoked through “a pompous chorale type of music, which comes back in different guises when there is any allusion to him.”

Or in the way the music, like Vincent himself, invests the starry night quite literally with religious overtones by drawing on a history of equating the “music of the celestial spheres,” attributed to God, with the harmonics of a vibrating string: “Whenever God is mentioned,” says Fagen, “Rands uses the notes of the harmonic progressions. In all of its details, the score is very, very well thought out.”

The visual aspects of the production are likewise, as Liotta explains, “based on the world as Van Gogh saw it, so that the world that surrounds him looks like the world as he sees it, not the world we would see if we were taking a photograph of it.”

“To see the world in his mind, this is why a man paints,” Vincent sings. As Liotta describes it, “We’ve reversed that out, and we’re going to use the images he made to recreate the world in his mind.”

Drawing on hundreds of electronic images of Van Gogh’s drawings, sketches, letters, and paintings, as well as some by his contemporaries, the entire stage will become a three-dimensional surface on which to project them. “There will be no physical scenery,” says Liotta. “There will be a few props but no physical scenery.”

As Barry Steele, the designer of this visual spectacle, explains, the stage becomes “an image of the darkness in his troubled mind, where ideas he had about the world develop.” It offers “shifting panoramas of his imagination and creativity.”

Steele, who has never made use of this technology on this scale, is also careful to add, “Of course, we hope it is not just high-tech wizardry. It will be a spectacle, I think, but hopefully not gratuitous.”

“Gratuitous,” however, is hardly a claim to be leveled at the team for this project. To Rands, for instance, it is what he specifically defines himself against when he distinguishes his own aesthetic from that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opera.

His vocal composition, he explains, “follows the stresses and the contours of the language itself. It doesn’t say, ‘Here is a wonderful soprano or baritone, therefore she or he should have all these flourishes.’ That may be very beautiful in its own right, but it has nothing to do with the drama in many instances. And it’s not what I think I should be doing in the twenty-first century.”

For Liotta, Rands’ music so faithfully adheres to the drama and emotion of the text that when the cast began its rehearsals, they approached the work like a play and sought out the emotional intensity in the words and dialogue before integrating them with the music.

Vincent, suggests Liotta, engages you “to explore a new way of finding emotion. It is no less musical, no less emotional, but it is music written from a different point of view than Verdi or Wagner or Strauss might have written it.”

And the result, as McClatchy sees it, “is going to be a lot different than La Bohéme. It will not sound like Puccini. It won’t drift off into pretty melodies or romantic arias. But it’s going to be a very intense ride, and, I think, an absolutely thrilling and moving one.”

In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh mused, “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.”

Viewers of Vincent will see more than a little smoke. They will see a roaring fire. In McClatchy’s words, they will find Vincent “emblazoned on the MAC stage with whole new technologies—and underscored, as it were, by extraordinary music, both vocal and orchestral, to bring the painter and his work to life.”

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The Making of Vincent

From left to right: Composer Bernard Rands in the Musical Arts Center lobby; some of Rands' production notebooks; artistic team members Bernard Rands, J. D. McClatchy, Barry Steele, Vincent Liotta, Linda Pisano, and Arthur Fagen.