‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’ based on Palin-Biden debate on CD

Brian Church as Joe Biden and Jennifer Ashe as Sarah Palin in Guerilla Opera’s 2009 production of “Say It Ain’t So, Joe.’’
Brian Church as Joe Biden and Jennifer Ashe as Sarah Palin in Guerilla Opera’s 2009 production of “Say It Ain’t So, Joe.’’ Karen Snyder Photography/file

When Curtis K. Hughes’s opera “Say It Ain’t So, Joe’’ premiered in September 2009, the composer noticed that some listeners who were initially resistant to the piece warmed to it on hearing further performances by Guerilla Opera, which had commissioned the work.

“I believed in the music enough that I wanted to give that chance to people to hear it multiple times and let it grow on them if there’s potential,’’ he said by phone from his Cambridge home. It would also give him the chance to improve on the first version. “I thought the musicians were excellent. But it was a rush, like so many premieres are. And I wanted to see if it could be better if we took the time to really polish it.’’


The opera, composed by Curtis K. Hughes, is now available in CD and download formats.
The opera, composed by Curtis K. Hughes, is now available in CD and download formats. Andrew Hurlbut

After that initial run - and guessing that a revival of the opera based on the 2008 Sarah Palin-Joe Biden vice presidential debate was not likely anytime soon - Hughes decided to make a professional recording.

“Say It Ain’t So, Joe’’ is now available in CD and download formats. It took longer to make and was more challenging than Hughes expected, and the process seems to encapsulate the precariousness of making classical recordings in the DIY era.

The first hurdle turned out to be one of the most significant: Finding a time when all the singers from the initial production and most of its instrumentalists could spend a week recording the 75-minute piece. “These are all superstars of contemporary music,’’ Hughes explained. “It’s kind of the downside of working with such great musicians, because they are so in demand.’’

The recording was finally scheduled for June 2011. Since budget was a major consideration, Hughes decided to move the sessions out of Boston. He has family in New Hampshire and through them found a church in Hebron that would let him record in its basement, and a nearby summer camp that wasn’t being used, where some of the musicians could stay.


It’s not the customary way of making classical recordings, which usually involves a bunch of sessions in a concert hall. In comparison, the recording of “Say It Ain’t So, Joe’’ seems more akin to the Rolling Stones making “Exile on Main St.’’ in the basement of Keith Richards’s villa in France.

That was exactly the vibe Hughes wanted. “I wanted to do this the way a rock band records an album. I wanted to get a feeling of camaraderie, get everybody in one place long enough that we weren’t thinking about any other project but really focused on this one.’’

True to that model, there were obstacles along the way, like the time the power went out on a day set aside for recording. Baritone Brian Church, who sang Biden’s role, missed many of the sessions when his second child was born, and had to overdub much of his part later.

Still, Hughes said, “it was an incredibly thrilling week for me. I felt like morale was really high.’’ Singers took canoes out on the campsite lake at night, “maybe when they should have been resting their voices.’’ On the day the power went out, people slept on the floor of the church, then woke up and started recording late at night when it was restored.

Hughes used the popular site Kickstarter to partially fund the recording, aiming to raise a little more than half the $20,000 budget he’d projected. He used his Facebook page and Twitter account to reach people, as well as his own mailing list and that of Guerilla Opera.


“The wonderful, seductive idea of Kickstarter is that total strangers who are willing to part with small quantities of money will cruise the site for things that catch their interest,’’ Hughes said.

Yet because of the large number of projects now on the site, and the fact that many fund-seekers hire public relations consultants to help market their projects, “that idea was one that turned out not to work so well.’’

In the end, Hughes hit his funding target, though the recording costs turned out to be significantly greater than he’d budgeted, and he has had to struggle to make up the shortfall.

Still, he now has a master recording and about 1,000 CDs - probably too many, as he expects many of the sales to come from downloads. A launch party is planned for March 25 at Boston Conservatory, where he teaches.

Hughes is somewhat unsettled by the fact that most people who listen to his music will likely hear “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,’’ which he believes is stylistically quite different from his other works.

Even so, he remembered considering sending out a rough recording of one of the live performances from 2009 and deciding that it didn’t represent the piece in its best light. “For lots of composers, not to have to apologize for your recording, to say no, this is how I meant it to be — that’s a big deal.’’


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column misstated the date of a launch party for a CD of the opera ‘‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe.’’ The party is March 25.