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Performing Arts | CLASSICAL MUSIC / DANCE / OPERA

Three Sonnets in Search of a Setting

Tobias Picker originally wrote 'Tres sonetos de amor' for soprano and piano. Now it's something far grander.

September 29, 2002|CHRIS PASLES

Inspiration can come out of the blue, but if a composer is writing a piece for voice, very likely he or she will choose the sound of a particular singer to jump-start creativity.

That's what happened with Tobias Picker as he composed his "Tres sonetos de amor" (Three Love Sonnets) for rising-star baritone Nathan Gunn and the Pacific Symphony. The song cycle will kick off the orchestra's season Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"When I write an opera, I always audition all the singers before so that I know who I'm writing for and can conjure up the sound of their voices," Picker said from his upstate New York summer home. That's the process he's followed in the three operas he's written so far, including "Fantastic Mr. Fox" for Los Angeles Opera in 1998, and the process he's following as he's working on his fourth, "An American Tragedy," for the Met in 2004-05.

Picker heard Gunn, 31, sing Prince Andrei in Prokofiev's "War and Peace" in his 1999 debut at the Opera National de Paris. He was impressed, and subsequent hearings at the Met and the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis confirmed Picker's impressions.

"It's a particularly lyrical voice and very beautiful. He's a consummate musician, a consummate artist, and he's also a very good actor. Because of all that, he can put across a song emotionally very well. I plan to cast him in my future operas whenever possible."

Picker originally wrote "Tres sonetos," based on poems by 1971 Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, just for soprano and piano. Judith Bettina and James Goldsworthy gave the premiere in November 2002 in Minneapolis.

He drew the poems from a collection called "Cien sonetos de amor" (100 Love Sonnets). "These three I thought were the best. They spoke to me very deeply, and I felt that three was enough. They're quite emotional. They're all so different. It's easy to overdose on these sonnets. They're very, very rich. Each one is a very rich dessert."

The first time around, the composition process took two years, from 1998 to 2000.

"It was a difficult time in my life personally," Picker said, "and so I would work on them and then put them aside. Finally, when the summer of 2000 rolled around, I put them all together in a week. When I finally finished them, I was finished with that difficult time in my life, too. Writing them was cathartic."

The impulse to rework the piece started with a commission from the Pacific Symphony, but the change to different performing forces also pushed it into new sonic directions.

"I showed Nathan the songs, and he suggested that two of them would work better for his voice transposed down a whole step," Picker said. "So I made little adjustments, but that's a very common practice when you're writing for the voice. Everybody's voice was different."

The changes go beyond transpositions and little adjustments, however. Picker rearranged the order of the songs, and the shift from piano to full orchestra, in his view, means that he has essentially created a brand-new work.

"The piano is the king of instruments," he said. "But if the piano is the king, the orchestra is the god of instruments. The potential for color and shading and nuance that you can get from an orchestra, the possibilities are infinite.

"Actually, the orchestration took quite a long time. I really labor over my orchestration very meticulously and carefully. For me it's a compositional process. It's not simply a matter of arranging. It's another layer of composing."

Which version does he prefer?

"The orchestral version, at the moment, is my favorite."

The new order, which he characterizes as moving from the surprise to the pain to the obsession of love, works better, in his view. "The middle poem is like--how shall I say it without seeming too self-congratulatory?--the poem now in the middle is the gem, the jewel, and the two outer poems are the setting that the jewel sits in. Because of its intimacy, it didn't work to have it first. You have to get into the whole spirit of the work before you can deal with it."

The voice that inspired Picker had its own journey.

Gunn was born in South Bend, Ind., and began singing as boy. He entered the University of Illinois to pursue voice, but his first semester was a difficult one.

"I was frustrated because no matter how hard I tried I couldn't seem to progress technically," Dunn said from London, where he was singing Harlequin in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Royal Opera House.

"How does the body do this thing called singing in an efficient and natural way? I knew [a way] must exist because of my background in sports. There is a most efficient way of doing anything, a healthy way that involves coordination of movement. I was open to learn, but it wasn't being taught to me. This was a very frustrating time."

Through a complicated chain of events that began when he met his future wife, Julie, who was studying piano at the university, he was able to solve the problem.

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