Say It Ain’t So, Joe is a chamber opera composed by Curtis K. Hughes in 2009 with a subsequent premiere in the same year by Guerilla Opera, which is now available as a commercial recording. It reimagines the events surrounding the 2008 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, with a non-linear narrative that pans back and forth between other media appearances of Sarah Palin and “cameos” of Hillary Clinton, and Joe Wurzelbacher (aka “Joe the Plumber”). I was immediately struck by the whimsical mercuriality, and the built-in musicality of the speech-like vocal melodies delivered by Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Throughout the work one senses a slow, and subtle shifting of musical material. It moves delicately from rhythmically declamatory sputters to lyrical flourishes of bel canto-esque melodies. Despite the focus on the 2008 vice presidential candidates, Hughes insists that “the opera isn’t about Palin and Biden as real people so much as it is about their public identitities as constructed in the imaginations of American people.” What comes out of this opera is less a social commentary on this infamous, yet inconsequential, sparring between political foes, and more of a reimagining of what opera really is. Through Say it Ain’t So, Joe Hughes deliberately defies convention on many levels: it is an opera about a political event without an overtly obvious political message, the libretto is primary source text that hasn’t been retooled to be more lyrically palatable, and the ensemble is more like a jazz quartet, than a pit orchestra. Ultimately, the veneer of opera and all of its historical baggage is stripped away to clear the room for an intimate experience that retells our experience as viewers and listeners during the highly volatile political climate of 2008. At times it is as uncomfortable as it is profound, seriously sad as it is hilarious. All the more fitting as we all (well at least us in the U.S.) brace ourselves for the next round of political antics that will be played, replayed, reviewed, re-reviewed ad nauseam in this election year.
Taking a nod from the five question format of I Care if You Listen I sat down with Curtis Hughes and talked to him about this interesting work and the processes and preoccupations behind its inception and production.
In what way would you call this guerrilla opera?
I would say that the intimacy and the scale of it makes it something that is very immediate and accessible, though perhaps not “accessible” stylistically in the way that word is often used. It is something that could be put on in a small space, an unconventional space, and it can be experienced by an atypical concert-going crowd. The hope is that it might reach people a little more directly with a little bit less pretense than you find in the big opera houses. But stylistically, I think the aspect of the music that merits the word “guerilla” the most seriously is the use of common speech-based material in the supposedly elevated context of opera. In vocal music I’m interested in the idea that actual everyday speech, potentially including something like the way we are talking with each other right now, can be heard as operatic. It wasn’t meant to be completely subversive, but it really did piss some people off. I think a lot of people who really hated this opera hated it because it didn’t have so much of the lyrical singing that they associate with opera. But actually it does have quite a bit in some scenes, especially in the second half. You just have to wait a long time to get to it. At the first performances we definitely had some walk-outs. During the first debate scene, some people were immediately out of there. Some listeners have suggested to listen to Act 2 first, which is a little more conventionally lyrical. But I had one reviewer who repeatedly described the opera as “torture.” So perhaps its effect was a little stronger (for some) in a negative way than I would have anticipated.
In your program notes about the opera you use two terms that are fascinating to me, especially given the subject material. In what way would you say this is tragic and comedic?
I will have to go back to something we were talking about earlier, about there not being a linear plot. My favorite playwright is Samuel Beckett, who has famously been described as writing plays in which nothing happens. Or, in the case of Waiting for Godot, nothing happens, twice. Of course this isn’t really true. There are trajectories and transformations that happen, although there is kind of an inescapable redundancy. The way in which it’s presented to us changes and the way we feel about what is presented to us changes. And there are really interesting examples in Beckett’s work of poignancy and things that are both gut-wretchingly sad and downright hilarious. This wasn’t a specific inspiration for my opera, but I think it has affected the way I generally try to approach constructing drama. And in calling “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” a “light tragedy” I am not being completely facetious. I do think it has elements of tragedy depending on whose perspective you decide to take. There’s nobody killed on stage, but there is, arguably, a kind of a political suicide. There are tragic backstories to both characters, which come more to the foreground toward the end of the opera. And, at times I wanted the music to belittle what the characters were saying, which is I think where the comedy comes from. I’m not going for anything corny or for the Saturday Night Live approach, which was done so well and so immediately after the fact. But my opera IS parody, at least in the sense that it is repeating the events with certain things changed. It is meant to reflect in a somewhat surreal way the experience of the listener or viewer of the debate. And there’s comedy inherent in that. I think almost anybody watching the original debate, no matter their political background, found things to laugh at. So one of the things I enjoyed most in the opera performances was how unpredictable it was what people were going to laught at. It was different every night.
Why Sarah Palin? At the time (not as much presently) she seemed to be the low-hanging fruit for criticism of pundits in and outside political discourse?
I can answer that very precisely. I sketched out a scenario for an opera based on one of the Bush/Kerry debates back in 2005, but I scrapped it because I didn’t feel I could get enough musical contrast; their tessituras were too similar. It was an idea that interested me. And then in early 2009, Guerilla Opera asked me to come up with an idea for an opera in less than a week. So, I immediately turned back to the debate idea because it was the only operatic notion that I’d had in recent years. Then I recalled how much music had been in my mind when I watched the Palin/Biden debate, particularly in moments such as when Biden started looping something repetitive like “I haven’t heard how his policies on Iran will be different than George Bush’s, I haven’t heard his policy on Pakistan will be different than George Bush’s.” So, he gets into these loops and uses exactly the same pitches over and over again, an idea which I eventually used in Act 2 of my opera. This had gotten me thinking that it would be interesting to try and contextualize and highlight what was musical about that. I also thought, “Well, great, here I also have a good contrast between the two voices.” I then became more interested in the musical characteristics of Palin’s voice. I tried very much to put my political viewpoints aside and really just focus on these people and their methods of expressing themselves. I tried not to think about politics while writing.
Knowing that you lean to the left politically, I was surprised how apolitical this work was. Was this something that you had to work hard to achieve, or did it just happen naturally?
I know of at least one person who took an impression from the opera that the opposite was true (that I was more sympathetic to right-leaning politics). I consider this a wonderful thing. But I think for most listeners it probably still comes across as more left-leaning, but certainly I hope its not some “hammer-on-the-head” political message. Anyway, the apolitical aspect of the music did happen naturally. I was thinking about the music and the characters and how they come across. I wasn’t generally thinking about whether I agree or not with their viewpoints. There isn’t that much mockery of Palin in the music, I don’t think. She is a serious protagonist. There is mockery of Joe the Plumber. Absolutely. And there is perhaps a more reverent treatment of Hillary Clinton. But, I don’t feel like I did that for political reasons. Every great drama has to have the jester show up at some point. And that’s Joe the Plumber, absolutely.
Given the limited “orchestra” of four players (clarinets, saxophones, percussion, and cello), how do you keep the music so fresh throughout? It stays astoundingly “new” sounding throughout.
Well I had the benefit of attending other operas by Guerilla Opera. I knew of my challenges in advance of dealing with this instrumentation. Saxophone and percussion were a given; they are the two standing players in each production they do. I had some flexibility in choosing other instruments. There were many many times when I felt “what wouldn’t I give for a violin,” just to be able to have something that can sustain and have dynamic flexibility in a high register. But, I worked very hard to try to pace myself in terms of planning out the use of the instruments. That kind of planning is essential in a work of this scale, but in a way it is just grunt work when it comes down to it. I’m glad if that came through because I felt there was a big danger of there being not enough contrast from scene to scene.