Ten Questions for Mark Shulgasser

Mark Shulgasser is a librettist especially known for his collaborations with composer Lee Hoiby.  They created several operas together, until Hoiby’s passing in 2011.  One might call Shulgasser a champion for Hoiby’s work, except that I believe Shulgasser is still adjusting to the double trauma of losing his beloved life partner & his great artistic collaborator. Considering how recent his loss, I feel very privileged that he’s able to talk at all.

I was intrigued that although produced by Des Moines Metro Opera, Dallas Opera & Pacific Opera in Victoria BC, it wasn’t the Hoiby/Shulgasser adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that was produced at the Metropolitan Opera, but a newer one by Thomas Adès.

Here’s a performance of the aria “Be not afear’d”, an aria called “the finest tenor aria of the last 50 years” by the Opera News critic on the occasion of the Dallas Opera production in 1996.

As you can hear, Hoiby’s voice is tonal, in the tradition of composers such as Gian-Carlo Menotti & Samuel Barber, and has been championed by such artists as Leontyne Price.

Hoiby has a substantial body of work, including several collaborations with Shulgasser.  Some are full-length adaptations, such as The Tempest or Romeo and Juliet, their last work together.  Others are short monodramas, such as The Italian Lesson or Bon Appetit.

On the occasion of Diva Lounge Productions remount of The Italian Lesson at the University of Western Ontario starring Sonja Gustafson next week, I ask Mark Shulgasser ten questions: five about himself and five more about collaborating on The Italian Lesson.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Physically I see both of them, a touch more my mother, I suppose. Temperamentally I’m more my mother, and I felt closer to her, but then my father was rather aloof (tho gregarious, a seeming contradiction.) shulgasser

Once in my twenties when I was in San Francisco, separated from Mother by a continent, at dawn following a harrowing night, I saw her tear-streaked face look back at me in the mirror. I was in love with one of the Cockettes, a San Fransicso drag collective; he was preoccupied with a heroin addict named Daniel. So I rang Mother up and woke her from a dream. She had entered a church (a holocaust survivor, when awake she had an aversion to churches). The church was full of naked men whose bodies were covered with boils. One of them turned around. It was me. She lit a candle and left the church.

I try not to think about her too much. She had a great sensitivity to music and art, but she didn’t find them important. She had a propensity to lateness which I share and  many times together we slipped into concert seats at the last second, with practiced poise: Emil Gilels in Carnegie Hall (Mozart, Chopin, Liszt), Carlo Bergonzi at the Four Arts in Palm Beach, with Lee in tow, incredulous). Sometimes the artist would acknowledge us before beginning to play. She had been seriously scared as a child at her first opera, Faust.  Once we drove behind an ambulance to Lincoln Center. Once in Paris an international flight was held for us.

Did I mention that she was terribly well-dressed? And frankly stunning as you can see from the picture, in Europe often taken for Anouk Aimee.  Also, she had real style as an interior decorator and was a regular client of Herman Miller and the Eames,  both in our home furnishings and for friends, and she even had her own clients. Until she realized that she knew nothing about business. That’s another way I resemble her, and became briefly a clueless gallerist.

She could have been a handful; unfortunately she came up against an assortment of chronic illnesses. Nor did she ever say goodby to Paris, where she & my father lived from 1945-47. (I was conceived in Nice.) So thru Mums I grew up Francophile. Don’t get me started on my mother’s childhood. She had a nurse named Juzefa. Bialystock, on the Lithuanian border, the most jewish city in Europe, population 100,000 one half Jews imagining themselves to be Polish, even Franco/Polish,. She lived among crystal rosebowls on mahogany tables, oriental carpets, and periodic trips to spas in German and France all the while being mildly kosher. The family, with a branch in Czechoslovakia traded in lightbulbs and glass fixtures. Her father was handsome, of somewhat mysterious origin, and unfaithful.

Dad, on the other hand  He relished a jewish Lithuanian shtetl identity with its rabbinical depth, as well as Russian culture, and he had no trouble maintaining his identification with the best of German culture in spite of the war. (Mums on the other hand, hated to hear the language). His mother was literary and twice a year he would accompany her to the Deutschesbuchhandler, who received her privately in someone’s salon and brought out the newest arrivals that might interest her.  Dad had 13 years on Mums, the decade of the thirties spent traveling Europe commercially. A natural linguist, he became cosmopolitan.

He gave me the bible, Goethe, Thomas Mann, and the example that reading continually is a proper activity. He especially read modern European history as if researching his own past, and he told me often, admiringly, that his family had supported numerous scholars who had no responsibility but to study torah, including most of his own male relatives. (That seemed to me to be a nice alternative to many of the behavioral models of the time.) My mother designed a beautiful library den for him.

He was completely tone deaf with absolutely no interest in music of any kind (tho he liked Doris Day). We had a baby grand piano and my mother and I both took lessons, first from a Mrs. Bay, who was the sister of Emanuel Bay, Heifetz’s longtime accompanist. Mother got to the point of playing those annoying Clementi sonatinas and then gave it up; I perservered to not much greater attainment, instructed by a magical woman, a hunchbacked dwarf with a red bouffant hairdo, who at lessons rarely touched the keyboard, but, just on occasion, she would play a simple scale with one hand and it was an aria.

And one day Father sat down at the keyboard and played a few licks with such style, nuance, charm and tone I couldn’t believe my ears. He grinned sheepishly and refused to ever do it again!

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a librettist ?

What IS a librettist? It sounds like a little figurine on a glass shelf.

Ideally, or classically, an original librettist is a poet for whom the writing of material to be set to music is a sideline at best. He may also be a writer of prose and plays. He was often the dominant member of the partnership, but unless lucky enough to hook up with a composer who lasted, his opera have been forgotten.

Most often, however, a libretto is merely an adaptation, requiring no more than an editorial hand, so many good libretti come from the stage-struck, including producers, directors, conductors, dramaturgs and patrons. (Rarely from critics, however; Andrew Porter’s dreadful Tempest, for instance.) Of course adaptations can be quite plain, or free and imaginative, and here the most evanescent of arts, the genius of theater, comes into play. In fact, if ideally the librettist is a poet, usually he is any sort of ‘homme de theatre’or ‘boulevardier’.  Many a lighting designer and props person has a stab at a libretto in a drawer somewhere.

Myself as a librettist – well I’ve only ever made adaptations, and only for Lee Hoiby, so I hardly have a well-rounded experience of the terrain. For me the personal relationship with the composer was the principal experience, shared enthusiasms, explorations, readings of wonderful literary properties.

[Leslie, this leads to so many thoughts, for later . . .]

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I make a selection of what I like to listen to on my radio show “Music of the Spheres” which broadcasts live from noon to two on WJFF Radio Catskill.  It streams at WJFFradio.org. Chamber music and piano music have always been primo for me, more so than opera. This week I’ll be highlighting Jeremy Denk, as he’s playing a recital locally on Sunday.

But my other side, you might call it, is my passionate interest in the Zodiac. I’ve always kept up my astrology. So often one hears that astrology is misconstrued unless one goes beyond the simple sun-sign stuff, but it’s really only the sun-signs that interest me. I’m a cultural sun-sign spotter. I collect some observations on an intermittent blog: astrodreamer.squarespace.com.

Check it out.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I played the piano better & could accompany singers. I wish I had more earth in my chart.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Reading, of course.

My library is unusual in being, to the extent possible, organized by the astrological sign of the author or subject.

I have polymathic leanings, and was as a child very much torn between scientific and artistic interests. That developed into a fascination with astrology, as a practicum of the continual contest between imaginative and scientific creation. I compulsively embellish my experience with astrological observations, but have learned to keep quiet about them, as they tend to make the impression of ostentatious jewelry or heavy perfume. I’ve been digitizing fragments of my collection of disturbing astrological coincidences at http://astrodreamer.squarespace.com. It’s fallen behind as another astrological writing project is in the works.


Five more about being the librettist of Lee Hoiby’s The Italian Lesson.

1) Please talk a bit about your process writing a libretto, and how you approach it.

I don’t claim to be the librettist of “The Italian Lesson”.  [Leslie at this point admits he may have made an error..? perhaps because the libretto adapts someone else’s words? but nevermind!]

Composer Lee Hoiby and his partner/collaborator Mark Shulgasser at The Falls, Long Eddy, New York.

At times Lee allowed that I was, which surprised me. It was a slight move of his I think to get me blanket credit for all literary and drama-turgical aspects of his work. So at your invitation I will just ramble on with anecdotes librettistical.

I helped out that way, dramaturgically, for instance, when a version of Summer and Smoke had to be created for the Chicago Opera Theater. It had to play half an hour shorter to be videocast. Lee  threw up his hands at the task. The opera had a considerable history of reshaping throughout its development and Lee didn’t want to go back to it.

I had no trouble doing this – and 20 of the cut 30 minutes were decided to be improvements and were incorporated into the published score. (The original version still exists in the full orchestration, and was recently performed, but the published vocal score corresponds with the reduced orchestration, which Lee came to prefer for the intimacy.)

Oddly enough, much that I judged excessive turned out to be material that Lee had added at the request of the director of the premiere, Frank Corsaro. For instance a rather overblown funeral procession with black umbrellas. Lee admitted he never really liked that music, but “Frank said it needed it.” I was not too happy when Lee told me that, because I was already embarrassed about having dropped Corsaro’s HB Studio opera-direction class after one session, without a word of apology.

If I could influence a subsequent production of Summer and Smoke I would jettison the Prologue as well. Beginning with a flashback of amplified, recorded children’s voices, for me that’s really like chalk squeaking across a blackboard. The play itself is a problem play in Williams’ output; he wrote three versions, one titled. Eccentricities of a Nightingale”. None really works. Williams offered Lee any play he wanted to set – he chose S&S and was often asked why on earth? Basically Lee would rather write about a nightingale than a man in a wife-beater yelling “Stella!”.

I also got Lee to add a scene which, to my knowledge has never been performed except in the production I directed at USC years and years ago. It’s a telephone conversation between a giddy Alma and a monosyllabic, hung-over John, accompanied only by a piano trio, onstage (using the piano in Alma’s parlor, where she gives a voice lesson later – it works.)

I’d like to see Summer and Smoke set in the 30s. There’s no reason why not, and I hate all that southern gingerbread. I think when the opera is properly done it transcends the deficiencies of the play through music and holds its own. Of all of Williams’ anatomies of female humiliation, Alma’s is the least squalid, Alma is the most dignified, her long decline the most musical and controlled, and in fact this is really the soprano’s opera. The role requires the combined heft and delicacy of a Butterfly, but Lee said Pelleas was his strongest influence. (Pelleas and Figaro being his opera ultimates.)

But I digress. Back to Frank Corsaro. Of course Lee was often asked why he didn’t choose The Glass Menagerie. I myself made a stab at an adaptation, but Lee turned it down. He flatly refused to devote two years or more of musical abilities to making the humiliation of a weak-minded, crippled girl as excruciating as possible. After The Tempest he often said from now on I only want to set Shakespeare.

Plus, we believed that the rights to The Glass Menagerie were unobtainable, having been so informed when Lee wanted to make a setting of Amanda’s “Jonquil” speech for soprano, saxophone and piano. So we were surprised when Frank Corsaro called one day to say that he could obtain the rights to the Menagerie, and would Lee write the music to Frank’s libretto? A substantial commission would be involved, no doubt, and much attention. I think this would have been for Juilliard. Not the sort of thing that comes one’s way very often.

I didn’t actually hear the conversation between Frank and Lee, but it must have included “not really attracted to the play”, and “Mark’s already done a libretto . . .” but the upshot was Frank sputtering, “You know, Lee, you could be doing great things, but you have this reLAYtionship . . .”

I have only one more Frank Corsaro anecdote: we obtained a room at Juilliard in order to drive down to town and play The Italian Lesson for Frank. I was page-turner. Frank was in obvious pain, in the midst of a lower back crisis. He walked with a wince, and squirmed continuously in the metal folding chair, as Lee sang and played. Frank was writhing about, leaning the chair backward on two legs or one leg; I couldn’t have possibly enjoyed listening to a new work or any work in that shape, but Frank is a trouper.

At a certain point in The Italian Lesson, Mrs. Clancy is speaking to her ineffably boring husband on the phone, repeating by rote certain tedious instructions he’s giving her to be conveyed to the chauffeur about golf things and suddenly she exclaims “Look out! Billy! Get off that chair! Look out, darling, you’ll fall!” And there was a crash and Frank and his folding metal chair went over in a tangle!

Lee owed a great deal to Frank Corsaro. First, Frank’s revivification of La Traviata at NYCO with Patricia Brooks won Lee over to Verdi.  Then Frank put much of himself into Summer and Smoke, and directing it first in St. Paul before bringing it to NYCO. But a triumvirate of Williams Corsaro and Hoiby was not to be. My fault, apparently.

Ruth Draper’s performance of The Italian Lesson was recorded (along with much of her work) in 1954 when she was 72 (she died 2 years later). It was generally considered her masterpiece, and one reason to set it to music was to preserve the work of a remarkable and unique artist, and to expand the circle of her dwindling coterie.

The late recordings have been released on CD and I quote from the website where they can be obtained, & which is full of info about her :  http://www.drapermonologues.com/

“Fans of her original “monodramas” included European royalty and U.S. presidents, and such stage legends as Sarah Bernhardt and George Bernard Shaw. Henry Adams considered her a genius; Henry James wrote a monologue for her (she never performed it); John Singer Sargent sketched her; and John Gielgud declared himself “infinitely fortunate” to have both known her and seen her onstage. “

She was the daughter of a cultured uppercrust New York family and she began to write and perform her monologues for family and friends only. One family friend, as mentioned above, was Henry James. Leon Edel, James’s biographer, writes: “When James first saw Draper do some of her characterizations and sketches she had not yet embarked upon her professional stage career; she had appeared in London, in a few private salons, always writing and developing her own material. Miss Draper talked to James of her plans. She wondered whether she should go on the stage in plays, devote herself to writing, or do the unique type of sketch she later made famous. She has quoted James as saying to her, “”My dear young friend you have woven yourself a magic carpet—stand on it!”

“There was a long time when no one knew who she was,” says Kate Draper, one of Paul Draper’s three daughters, and once a Broadway actress herself, “but she’s always been very popular with gay men. It was always gay actors that found her appealing. I could mention my name, and they’d say ‘You’re not a relation of Ruth Draper’s by any chance?'”

Uta Hagen, who estimated that she saw Draper perform some sixty times, said she never would have considered her own interpretation of a Draper monologue. “I wouldn’t even know where to start,” she said. Neither would Lily Tomlin: “That would be sort of sacrilegious.” Asked if she would ever try her hand at a Draper sketch, Julie Harris responds emphatically, “No! God save us! She was so unique.”

While working as a director at Britain’s National Theatre in the 1980s, Simon Callow attempted to stage a tribute to Draper with five actresses each doing a different monologue. Though initially enthusiastic, the actresses—Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Anna Massey among them—all came back to Callow with sincere regrets. Draper, a memory onstage for some, a recorded voice for others, was too much to live up to. “That’s the real tribute,” he notes.

If no actress alone could entirely reinhabit Draper’s texts, perhaps music could play a helping role. In so far as there is a libretto structure it is this:
1. Introduction: Signorina
2. Mabel Norton
3. Jane
4. Miss Pounder
5. Puppy
6. Count Bluffsky
7. . . . Miss Swift a
8. Camilla
9. Miss Swift b
10. The Lover

2) what do you love about The Italian Lesson?

Leslie: May we rephrase the Q? I’ll answer it in Q. 3, no? Here I will address something I like about The Italian Lesson because of astrological associations.

Henry James suggested Draper’s gift was her magic carpet. Draper chose, in the service of her art, continually and extensively to tour, to spend much of her life as a woman travelling alone, a one-woman show, a self-transportable objet d’art.  Now her Sagittarius is the sign of flight and traveling, and tends towards bachelorhood, a temperament that thrives on distance rather than intimacy. (“The Pilgrim’s Progress”, “The Sentimental Journey”, “Gulliver’s Travels” are each by Sagittarians.) Draper had only one significant romantic relationship, and it was a characteristically long-distance one. She fell passionately in love with a dashing Italian poet 17 years her junior. His name was Lauro de Bosis.   He died in 1931 when his plane crashed after a daring solo flight distributing anti-Mussolini leaflets over Rome. Three years earlier he had written a premonitory verse drama called “Icaro”. Draper translated it and had it beautifully published. I have a copy.

Oh, and de Bosis was also a Sagittarian.

I can fill out the picture by mentioning that the wonderful poet and Sagittarian James Tate’s first book is called “The Lost Pilot” with reference to his crucial relationship-in-absence with his father, a pilot shot down in WW2, whom he never met. Then there’s the bachelor composer Beethoven, author of Les Adieux and An die ferne Geliebte (To the Far-off Beloved), whose Pastorale Symphony was interpreted by Walt Disney, another Sagittarian, as a tale of centaurs and flying horses. I’d better stop.

3) Do you have favorite moments in The Italian Lesson?

That would have to be when Mrs. Clancy says to her secretary-helper Miss Swift: “And then what have I? Oh! The Philharmonic?! It seems to come so often. Does anyone really like music? Everyone says they do but I never believe them. Oh, I know who does, my old piano teacher, Miss Hattie Tush, she has a friend, and they stumble in together, and they enjoy it more than anyone I know, so send the tickets to her. . . “

4) How do you relate to The Italian Lesson as a modern man?

Sonja Gustafson

Sonja Gustafson ( Sylvia Mioduszewka –fiveonenine photography)

“The Italian Lesson” is certainly a very niche-y piece and perfect for the kind of singer that Sonja Gustafson is, who blurs the border between cabaret and opera. (I can’t actually remember when it was last done with orchestra.) Several of Lee’s songs do this and I’ve been promising Ms. Gustafson to send them to her. I believe a new collection of Hoiby songs is on the way; he left behind a good deal of unpublished music.

As a “modern man” (as opposed to a medieval ghost haunting our day)  my relationship to the Estate of Lee Hoiby, which encompasses works like the operas “The Tempest” and “Romeo and Juliet” in which I had a substantial hand, and music written before I even knew him, all of that, comprises my sole source of income, as a modern man, who would like to remain so. I find it not only a pleasure but a necessity to encourage people to enjoy Lee’s legacy and perform it. I might add here that those like myself who have the misfortune not be in London, Ontario next week will be able to see it performed in New York City, USA on Dec. 6-8, by Darynn Zimmer, accompanied by Ted Taylor, directed by Beth Greenberg. (http://eastharlempresents.org)

Due to this terrible thing called political borders Lee’s work is less known in Canada. Timothy Vernon lit a torch for us with an exceptional production of the Tempest in Victoria. We always regretted missing Barbe et Doucet, who had to leave before we saw the show. I remember Lee and I being sadly resigned to the news that the second act was to be performed without the orchestral prelude, because of time. B&D invented a delicious coup de theatre to replace it.

Marc Edmund Jones

5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

Marc Edmund Jones, Dane Rudhyar, Charles E. O. Carter, Charles Fort.


Lee Hoiby’s The Italian Lesson will be presented Friday October 25th at 12:30 pm, at von Kuster Hall, University of Western Ontario’s Don Wright Faculty of Music, London Ontario by Diva Lounge Productions. 

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1 Response to Ten Questions for Mark Shulgasser

  1. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

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