May 25, 2023

"Fusco is a leader in the world of opera today"

The world of opera is a rapidly changing place. Yet, at the heart of operatic theater is a desire to say something, to share something that is close to the core of being human. Opera allows composers to synthesize local culture with classical traditions while simultaneously infusing opera with popular music, jazz, and extended techniques across the many centuries of musical development. Opera is great at bringing diverse kinds of people together as well.

One such example is the first chamber opera, “inSOMNIA,” by Italian-American composer Raphael Fusco. Originally from the United States, his international education, eclectic taste in music from his broad musical upbringing, and highly lauded musical aptitude eventually launched him into the world of opera. Currently a Senior Artist at the University of Graz, composer, and doctoral candidate, Fusco is a leader in the world of opera today.

In this interview, Fusco discusses his early experiences and the intricacies of his opera based on the Bavarian folklorist Franz Xaver Schönwerth. As the natural and supernatural blur, the composer asks us to question the nature of reality itself.

OperaWire: How did “inSOMNIA” come into being?

RF: The commission for a new chamber opera came in 2019 from Opernfestival Oberpfalz, a startup festival whose mission was to bring opera to the rural Oberpfalz region of southern Germany. The area is rich in folk traditions (and excellent beer), but doesn’t have much access to classical music and opera. The piece was originally supposed to be a mono-opera for mezzo-soprano Eva Maria Summerer with me accompanying on the piano, but one idea lead to another and before long we ended up with a 60-minute chamber opera for three singers, speaker and instrumental ensemble. We assembled a fantastic creative team including librettist Ruth Zapf and director Evi Eiberger, and within a matter of months the opera was finished.  It was scheduled to premiere in June 2020…but then the pandemic hit. We finally premiered inSOMNIA with four live performances in Amberg, Germany in July 2021.

OW: What were the first steps in creating the story?

RF: I knew I wanted to create a work related to the region, something in German with a  Bavarian flair to connect with the people, their culture and their identity.  I hoped to work with an original story which could engage an audience of all ages, a kind of fairy-tale chamber opera for children and adults. After some research I came across the 19th-century folklorist Franz Xaver Schönwerth, who happened to be born in Amberg. A close friend of the Brothers Grimm, Schönwerth traveled through Oberpfalz to meet with the local villagers and transcribe their legends and fairy-tales. Until that point these folk stories had only existed as part of an oral tradition. Librettist Ruth Zapf had the brilliant idea that the characters from Schönwerth’s fairy-tales would haunt him in his dreams and object to how he had portrayed them in his stories. Exhausted, he pleads with the audience to help keep him awake, because in his sleep he can find no peace. The story explores the  divide between myth and truth and unfolds in the space between dreams and reality, thus the title inSOMNIA. There are so many interesting characters in Schönwerth’s stories that it was tough to pick which ones would make the cut. We organized an online survey so the public could vote for the characters they wanted to appear. The winners were the Fiery Man and the Bilmeschneider, perhaps my two favorite characters in the opera whose arias turned out to be real show-stoppers.

OW: Tell me about the musical language of “inSOMNIA”

RF: The music is quite eclectic with a variety of influences.  Lyric melodies, colorful harmonies, and rhythmic grooves are an important part of my style and pervade the entire work. I tried to create a unique sound world for each character. For example, the Mermaid has gently flowing gestures and silvery arabesque lines and shimmering orchestral splashes. The Fiery Man, a pants role for dramatic mezzo-soprano, has dissonant, crackling harmonies, and a blazing, brassy vocal line which imitates the sirens of German firetrucks. The Bilmesschneider, a foreigner who struggles to assimilate to Bavarian culture, draws from Bavarian folk dances like the Zwiefacher and Ländler. There’s even a rap movement where the orchestra uses a variety of extended techniques to lay down the beat.  To see both older women in Dirndls tapping their feet to traditional dance rhythms and young kids rocking out to rap in the same piece was really cool!

In contrast to the colorful music of the singing fairy-tale characters, Schönwerth uses a sort of Sprechgesang. His role is portrayed by a speaking actor and accompanied by dryer textures and thorny harmonies in the piano. This helped create a divide between the fantasy world of the fairy-tales and Schönwerth’s sleep-deprived reality. Throughout the work these two worlds gradually intersect and by the end Schönwerth begins to sing as he falls asleep and crosses over into the fairy-tale world. I’m currently at work on a translation in English and would love to bring the piece to audiences outside of Germany.

OW: Let’s talk about composing. You use a pencil and paper.

RF: Yeah, perhaps I’m a bit “old school” that way. I started composing about 30 years ago when I was 8 years old, back before computers and notation software were the norm. I grew up writing by hand and it’s stuck with me since. I love the whole process: good quality staff paper and pencils, the smeared graphite across the side of my hand, the smell of pencil shavings and eraser rubbings; it’s like the smell of fresh cut grass for a baseball player. It’s very satisfying to let the ideas flow onto the page, sit back after a long writing session and watch the piece begin to emerge from the sketches.

Inspiration can strike at any time, but when I compose I usually start by sitting at the piano and improvise until I’ve come up with some promising musical material.  Maybe it’s a catchy melody, a juicy chord or a fascinating texture. I let it simmer in my mind and if after a few days I can still remember it I start to work out the idea on paper.  I’ll compose the majority of the piece by hand and finish it on the computer with Dorico software.

On a somewhat related note, there’s something I find beautiful and inspiring about traditional ways of making music. Especially today when every facet of our life is so dependent on technology, and we basically live in front of electronic devices, it’s refreshing to connect with people and make music without cables and screens in the way. The more technology seems to invade our lives the more I find myself resorting to more unplugged ways of making art.

OW: What and who are your influences as a composer?

RF: My musical background has been pretty diverse. I’ve worked extensively in early music, classical, jazz, rock, gospel and experimental music, and in my compositions I see many elements crossing over from different genres.  I love melody and have always been drawn to opera and art song. I’m also a professional vocal coach so I work a lot with traditional operatic repertoire which carries into my writing. The connection between language and music fascinates me, and the power of song to convey emotion and tell a story keeps me returning to vocal music. I’m a firm believer in the importance of craft and also find inspiration in my lineage of international teachers which goes back to Nadia Boulanger. There are so many sounds in my ears, but the counterpoint of J.S. Bach, text-setting of Handel and Mozart, soaring melodies of Puccini, rich harmonies and orchestrations of Ravel, earthy rhythms of Stravinsky and versatile genius of Leonard Bernstein all influence my approach to making music. I particularly enjoy mixing elements from different styles, epochs and genres to create something new and original.

OW: You have a new opera coming. What can we expect?

RF: The piece is called “La contesa canora” (The Singing Competition). It is a “favola in musica” co-commissioned by Opera Lucca and Classic Lyrics Arts on a libretto based on a 16th-century intermedio by Ottavio Rinuccini. Again I return to mythology as a subject, but this time the story comes from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” The piece is a dramatic reenactment of the legendary singing competition between the Muses and the arrogant Pieride sisters, narrated by Ovid himself. The size of the cast is flexible, but this version is for a whopping 21 singers and piano four-hands. The musical language brings this legend to life with opulent harmonies, rich vocal textures, lyric melodies, plenty of musical fireworks and concludes with a grand, foot-stomping fugue for the entire cast. It’s an action-packed 20 minute work perfect for summer festivals and music schools.  I can’t wait!