10 Questions for Darren Russo

Darren Russo is a composer born in 1984 in Montreal, Quebec.  In 2006 he began his bachelor’s degree in music composition at McGill, including studies with Chris Paul Harman, and Jean Lesage. He was awarded positions as composer-in-residence for the Contemporary Music Ensemble and the McGill University Chorus (Tick Tock, Bang Bang – 2009, Missa Syllabis – 2010 (first prize winner of the SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers—Godfrey Ridout category—in July 2011). He had also collaborated with celebrated writer Sheldon Rosen on creating music for his typographical play Hansel and Gretel which was staged at Ryerson University in May 2009, later featured at the LyricCANADA national conference at Brock University in October 2010.

In August 2011, at the invitation of Tapestry New Opera, he participated in their composer/librettist laboratory. There, he worked closely with artistic director and CEO, Wayne Strongman C.M., and Professor Michael Albano (University of Toronto) in an intensive workshop geared towards meeting the challenges of writing music for the stage. It led to the development of his opera Storybook, commissioned by Opera Five in Toronto for their 2013-2014 season, and now scheduled to premiere January 23rd 2015 in Toronto.  He recently completed a Master’s degree at McGill, studying under Denys Bouliane and Philippe Leroux.

Now, on the occasion of Storybook’s premiere I ask Russo 10 questions: five about himself and five more about composing Storybook.


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

If you asked my mother, she’d probably tell you I’m most like her. If you asked my father, he’d probably laugh at the question. In my eyes, I really am a pretty even mix of the two. My parents are actually very different people: it was interesting growing up watching two opposing forces find a way to work as a team. Like any family, there were bumps along the way and it’s interesting in hindsight to observe the different ways each of them tackled challenges and embraced good times.

From my mother, I take my appetite for books and film; I take the encouragement that fed my active imagination. From her, I take my work ethic and the ability to keep moving through days that are overwhelming without complaint. I take from her the time I need for myself without guilt and without excuses. From my mother I learned how to navigate the subtleties of social interaction and to observe and understand what’s between the lines: I take diplomacy.

From my father I learned a love for food that knows no bounds, often against this formerly picky eater’s will. I learned creativity in the joys of a harmonious blend of flavours and textures. I learned to experiment and to embrace the failures as well as successes. From him, I take the ability to question everything. I take from him the courage to be myself in the face of any situation without worry of offending… so long as the cause is just: I take integrity.

They made me whole.

Composer Darren Russo

Composer Darren Russo

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a composer of “new” music?

The worst thing about new music is that it’s dressed in very old clothes. We often use archaic instruments, performers trained in an ancient art form and it seems we so often choose to present it in a highly ritualistic environment filled with out-dated customs. This makes it inaccessible to people who might be somewhat interested but become intimidated by rituals they don’t know how to perform, nor understand. Classical music has the same problem. The pieces that have survived through the centuries and that are still known to most have done so because they are timeless. They still resonate with contemporary audiences because the feelings they bring out are universal. Why then, are we stifling them in a package of obsolete customs?

There are many people, even friends and colleagues of mine that might disagree with this. And they make valid points. Classical music was never music “of the people.” It was performed for the upper echelons of society and that came packaged with a lot of pomp and circumstance. Not to say that the composers of the time were writing music that was pompous and circumstantial, but this wasn’t music that was easily available to the masses. This gradually started to change in the 19th Century, and with it came a gradual increase in the complexity of the new music of the times. When a turn toward the avant-garde took hold in the 20th Century, the composers themselves seemed to alienate audiences who had a difficult time understanding the challenging innovations they concocted. It seemed that a new elite had formed among the artists themselves that relished in complexity, dissonance and inaccessibility. You might think I’m speaking of this as though it was a bad thing, but these were truly bold innovations that probably couldn’t have been developed in an environment of total inclusion. The interesting thing to me is how these innovations gradually filtered down into more popular forms like The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, Pink Floyd, Queen, Radiohead, and electronic dance music.

To use a fiercely snobbish fashion analogy, this trickling down process was described perfectly in The Devil Wears Prada:

                “You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.”

But is this really the same thing as with new music? When you think of a fashion show or an art exhibit, what do you see? Where is it taking place? What’s the average age of the crowd? What are they wearing? What are they doing?

If we want an audience to embrace new musical ideas and challenging innovations, I feel we need to present it in an environment that fosters open-mindedness and a level of comfort in communication. I don’t know how that’s possible dressed in our great-grandmother’s clothes performing a set of rituals so elaborate they make the Catholic Church jealous.

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

Listen: Ligeti, Mahler, Beethoven, Ravel, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone, Joan as Police Woman, Tune Yards, Joanna Newsom, Outkast, Kendrick Lamar, Queen, George Kranz, Grizzly Bear, Alt-J, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode, LCD Soundsystem, Tool, and yes, sometimes Madonna.

Watch: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Portlandia, Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Gallactica (the new one), Scrubs, Paul Thomas Anderson, and (ok, I admit it), Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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

I’ve always wished to draw or paint well. Sometimes you just want to communicate everything in an instant. You can’t do that with words or music, and photography lacks the organic flow (for me at least).

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

I’m hopelessly addicted to Netflix.


 Five more questions about the creation of Storybook

1-What’s the story of Storybook?

If I told you, that would ruin it… it’s about life, just go with it!

What happens? Absolutely nothing!  …sort of. People sing what they’re thinking a lot. Nobody really talks to one another (except for that one time (and only to yell at each other (or at themselves?))).

The people here generally are pretty unhappy. Sometimes that’s funny. They’re looking for something, but I’m not always sure what.

People sing what they’re thinking.

A lot.

They have a strange fondness for the poems of William Blake.

They have very active imaginations: there’s magic.

They like to hear themselves talk.

Some of them use mild psychotropic drugs: there’s magic.

Some of them have sex.

Some of them wish they were having sex.

Some of them wish they never had.

Some of them are very alone…

…with their thoughts…

….that they tend to sing…

…a lot.

They’re searching for something.

2-Could you explain how the story of Storybook becomes opera, and how the music works?

Everyone is so goddamn desperate; what could be more operatic? Opera is fantastical melodrama. Except this is all about the painfully mundane ritual of day-to-day life. So, make them all desperately unhappy and it becomes melodrama and they all sing about it. Sometimes that’s funny.

Sometimes it’s really not. Sometimes it’s horrifying. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s sweet. Sometimes it just is.

Storybook had a strange gestation. I’m not sure at which point I decided it was an opera, but it was somewhere about 5 years in (to the 10 year process). The point it became an opera in my eyes was the point it became unified. Suddenly each musical moment had to exist on its own but also relate to other tropes in the stories. And there are quite a few stories, and they don’t always seem to relate to one another at first glance.

That’s where the music comes in. Leitmotif. It’s something Richard Wagner started about 150 years ago to give musical reference points to characters, emotions, ideas and themes. He would then combine them in ways that added layers of complexity to characters and events. Storybook has these and they do much the same thing. They also serve to highlight common themes among seemingly separate storylines and characters. But it’s still vague (and I like vague). Especially here where I feel the themes in Storybook can be interpreted in a million ways. This hopefully will let the audience pick out the things they can relate to so they can interact with the piece and engage meaningfully.

With these systems in place, the music carries the text and creates the threads linking the themes across the stories. To me, that is opera.

But there’s no plot.


3-What’s your favourite Darren Russo composition and what do you like about it?

It is unquestionably Storybook (for now). Next time you ask me, it will be whatever piece I’m currently promoting.

No, but really it’s Storybook. This took a long time to develop. A lot of it was re-written about halfway through the process (the moment I decided it was opera). In no other piece of music have I ever let my guard down so completely. In no other piece have I challenged so freely what I thought to others to think is “new music.” In no other piece have I openly invited all to come and judge me at my most exposed and vulnerable. Because it is exposed and vulnerable, it’s risky and I’m proud of it. When Opera Five approached me about it, I saw the opportunity of a lifetime and knew there would not likely be another chance. I could play it safe or grab life by the balls and go all out. I chose the latter, and whatever the fate of Storybook, this is undoubtedly my favourite composition and the one I’m most proud of.


4- The arts often feel very precarious in this country, spoken of as a luxury even as they starve alongside wealthy hockey teams.  Please put your feelings about new music into context for us, especially with respect to opera and the Premiere of Storybook with Opera Five.  

Elaborating on your previous question about what’s the worst thing about new music: I feel it’s in trouble, yes, for perhaps being too exclusive and impenetrable. But then I don’t. Artists will always find ways of expressing no matter how restricting the environment (and, let’s face it, it could be a lot worse). And people will always come in contact with these works, and over time the good ideas will always trickle down in some guise or another.

It would be nice, though, if everyone was encouraged more to take time to create things and express themselves. It would be nice if artists had more opportunities to take the time they need to observe, think and create without having to always worry about he bottom dollar. Complete artistic freedom unburdened by financial woes is a near impossibility here today and now.

The opportunity granted to me by Opera Five came at the perfect moment. I was very fortunate in that I was able to integrate it into my Master’s research, which gave me ample time and a bare minimum of money to live. It’s entirely possible in today’s artistic climate that I may never have such an opportunity again. That makes me both extremely grateful for this one but also somewhat frustrated. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that this opportunity could open doors leading to more exciting endeavours. It’s a risk to try and live as an artist and it’s not a lifestyle that meshes well with just anyone. It’s kind of exciting though, the uncertainty, and I feel adds an element of adventure to my life that would not otherwise be there. Though, perhaps that’s just cognitive dissonance. I feel I should add that I am in no way advocating putting all your eggs in one basket. I have a wonderful day-job that gives me a unique opportunity to view some of the strangest and funniest things about humanity. Maybe I’ll write an opera about it one day.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I’d like to take a moment here thank my former music history teacher and composer, the late Robert F. Jones. When I was 19 and applying to University, I had to choose two pieces as a selection for my portfolio. I only really had three viable pieces to choose from. Two were dry academic pieces written for the only composition class I had ever had, one with a bitter and tyrannical teacher. The third was something I had written for myself: a setting of the Introduction to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. My composition teacher had dismissed it as infantile with its simple language and abandonment of conventional structure. I met with Prof. Jones about a day or two before my application deadline to show him my choices. I showed him the two from my class first and he said, “These are quite good. I want to see more, did you bring anything else?” I felt shy and reluctant, but I pulled out the other piece and he looked it over. Anxious for another dismissal, I waited as he looked over the score. Finally, he handed the pages back to me and said, “Send this and only this. These two are great, but this one is you.”


Opera Five presents Modern (Family) Opera:
Il segreto di Susanna by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and
Storybook by Darren Russo
January 23, 24 and 25 at 7:30 pm
The Arts & Letters Club 14 Elm St


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1 Response to 10 Questions for Darren Russo

  1. Pingback: Stuff to see in January | Schmopera

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