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Fort Worth Opera to Premiere Herschel Garfein’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Wendy Lazear Werner - April 18, 2014

Type: Artist News, Artist Profiles

MacDowell Colony Fellow says idea to re-create the Tom Stoppard play as an opera came as an epiphany.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by composer and MacDowell Fellow Herschel Garfein, is among eight works to premier at the Fort Worth Opera Frontiers Series May 8 and 9. The opera, based upon the iconic play by Tom Stoppard, retells Hamlet from the point of view of the play’s two minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Garfein, who has been to The MacDowell Colony four times, says the idea to re-create the play as an opera came as an epiphany.

“I was standing in my living room and suddenly thought of the Stoppard play,” recalls Garfein, “and said ‘I have to do this.’ Of course, as soon as I thought of it I thought I would never get the rights, and my heart would be broken.”

But Garfein’s heart remained intact as he soon began the long journey of writing both libretto and music, something he says he does in tandem.

“Everyone wants the complete libretto before you’ve written a note. That’s the way most operas are written,” he says. “I can’t possibly do that because no word that I write down stays the same when I put it to music, and by the same token, no note stays the same when I put words to it.”

Stoppard’s verbal ingenuity and wit was a challenge, but didn’t scare him off. In fact, says Garfein, that’s one reason he chose the play, explaining that to his mind, the greatest operas ever written are acutely verbal, witty and funny.

Garfein, who began his professional life as a composer and only started writing his own texts when he couldn’t find any he liked, points to The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville as perfect examples, saying they were seminal for their time and “managed to be translated to opera with all the nuance.”

He is grateful for the opportunity to explore Shakespeare’s great themes without actually tackling his plays, saying that an operatic condensation of Hamlet would require cutting it to ribbons, something he isn’t prepared to do.

“Stoppard did that job for me,” he says, “so I get to do these wonderful, indelible scenes from Hamlet, without changing anything from Shakespeare.”

The music in the opera flows naturally from the play, says Garfein, explaining he let himself “run wild because of the wonderfully clashing narrative modes of the play itself. There are vaudeville bits, interpolated games, and that’s all part of what inspired me musically to make use of a number of styles and genres.” He makes use of Stoppard’s comedic bits, transforming the famous verbal tennis match to a modern game show.

“It’s regrettable that the opera world has largely conceded the ground of comedy to musicals. I’d like to change that.”

The composer’s previous opera, Elmer Gantry, was written in collaboration with composer Robert Aldridge over a period of 17 years. “I’ve learned to be patient,” says Garfein who says that some of that time was spent at the MacDowell Colony, where he wrote a great deal of the opera. The effort netted both him and Aldridge GRAMMY awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2012. (It also won a 2nd GRAMMY for Best Engineered Classical Recording.)

“I have the greatest fondness for MacDowell as a place where you can do those things that nobody is asking you for, and you can get them done in your own time, to your own standards.”