When he was about 13 years old, Lowell Liebermann read “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s famous novel of a young man who makes a Faustian pact guaranteeing that while a portrait of him will bear the scars of age and experience, he himself will remain young and guiltless. Liebermann was smitten with the book, and it cast so strong a spell that he resolved to make it into an opera. He had already, at that age, decided to become a composer, and one of his high school classmates was going to write the libretto. And although he began making sketches, “it just got nowhere,” Liebermann said during a recent phone conversation from his New Jersey home.
Years later, in the early 1990s, Liebermann returned to “Dorian Gray.” By then he understood the book’s multifaceted nature — part horror story, part philosophical treatise, part morality tale about the dangers of a double life — and saw even more clearly how well suited it was for operatic treatment. “Without any prospect of a performance, I decided that I would start getting a libretto together, just in case there was a possibility of doing an opera somewhere,” he recalled. Serendipity intervened when, after finishing the first draft, he was approached by Monte Carlo Opera about the commission of a new work.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” became Liebermann’s first opera. Premiered in May 1996, it is set to have its first New England performance in a semi-staged production on Nov. 18, a joint production of Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. It is the first entry in Odyssey’s “Wilde Opera Nights,” a season-long focus on the Irish-born writer that also includes works by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Zemlinsky, and Gilbert and Sullivan.
What he created from the novel is a two-hour through-composed opera — meaning that it isn’t divided up into individual numbers — in which Liebermann’s gift for melody is evident throughout. Though he has a reputation as a neo-Romantic composer of tonal music, he insists that his musical language is varied, mixing tonality, atonality, serialism — “whatever elements a piece needs,” he said.
“Dorian Gray” shows the diversity of his toolkit. The entire opera is based on a 12-tone row that is heard at the beginning of the opera in the cellos and basses. It represents both Dorian and his picture. Yet rather than use the row as a serial composer would, Liebermann uses it in a tonal frame: Each of the opera’s 12 scenes is written in a key corresponding to the successive notes in that row.
For Liebermann there was a deeper meaning to this structure of building tonal music atop an atonal foundation. “It became a metaphor of the whole idea of appearances versus reality that is at the core of the book,” he explained. “[Dorian is] this person with a beautiful exterior but a corrupt interior. The whole thing is very organized, but I did not necessarily mean this to be audible or uppermost in a listener’s mind.” What’s likely to be more evident to the audience is that the opera “starts out all very sunny, and I wanted a way of musically representing the encroaching darkness and the corruption of the picture of Dorian as it disintegrates. And that’s all done musically. So it starts a certain way and gradually shifts into a darker and more astringent kind of thing.”
Gil Rose, artistic director of both Odyssey and BMOP, praised Liebermann’s skills: “He can write a vocal line, he understands drama and energy, he’s got an innate sense of theatricality.” And, he added, “it’s very splashy. I think sometimes we overlook that as a really good element or a successful, something that’s showy. In the end, opera is a show.”
You would think that hearing such a large-scale piece in performance would be an immensely pleasurable experience for a composer. But though he admitted that the fact of the production was itself “thrilling and gratifying,” Liebermann said he has never particularly enjoyed hearing a performance of his own music. “It’s a bit like standing in front of the mirror naked and staring at yourself,” he said with a laugh. “It can be fun for a few moments, and then it kind of starts wearing off.
“I think enjoying one’s own artistic creations is for amateurs,” he continued. “You’re constantly evaluating and you’re constantly criticizing yourself. Let alone the whole aspect of how it’s being performed. And I’ve been very lucky with performances having terrific performers, and I know I’ll be in very good hands with this performance. But it’s never a totally enjoyable experience. It’s a very mixed, strange experience.
“Often it’s a weird dissociative feeling, listening to your own music,” he concluded. “It’s like, did I write that?”
Stave Sessions returns
Stave Sessions, the mini festival of contemporary music with an indie bent that Celebrity Series of Boston introduced in 2015, will be back for a third iteration in March. Concerts will take place at the Berklee College of Music’s 160 Mass Ave building. The lineup of performers includes the classical-pop sextet yMusic (March 21), tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and her trio (March 22), jazz composer Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (March 23), the percussion trio TIGUE and Moroccan ensemble Innov Gnawa (March 24), and the alt-rock band Blonde Redhead with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) (March 25). Further information is available at www.celebrityseries.org/stavesessions
The Picture of Dorian Grayglobeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.