Julia Adolphe’s work has been growing steadily and gaining many well-deserved accolades. Among her recent works are a chamber opera, Sylvia, which includes a story and libretto by Adolphe, and a 2017 orchestral composition titled White Stone, which was premiered by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic and followed a 2016 NY Phil commission, Unearth, Release. Her upcoming projects include Underneath the Sheen, a commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to kick off their centennial season on September 27th, and a residency at National Sawdust for her latest opera, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears. We spoke with Julia about these two upcoming projects and her creative work outside of composing.
You’re originally from New York–what drew you to Los Angeles?
My composition teacher Steven Stucky encouraged me to move to Los Angeles after I finished my Bachelors degree at Cornell University. He believed that LA was an ideal creative environment for a composer my age and that the thriving new music community, spearheaded by the LA Philharmonic and a myriad of contemporary music ensembles, would continue to thrive in the coming years. I moved to LA in 2010 to pursue my Masters and Doctoral degrees at the University of Southern California where I studied with Stephen Hartke for five years. I grew up in NYC and never dreamed that I would one day love living in Los Angeles!
What inspired your Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, Underneath the Sheen?
Underneath the Sheen envisions the movement of light edging and shining through a canopy of leaves and branches as observed from the forest floor. The endurance and quiet omnipotence of California’s Redwood trees served as the source of inspiration. Standing beneath these trees is a humbling and exhilarating experience, a stunning reminder of the simultaneous power and fragility of nature. The immense roots, twisting and turning, the mist hanging in the air, and the beams of light entering the forest ceiling create a striking enclosure, encasing the observer in an otherworldly realm. The music explores this oddly foreign yet deeply intimate atmosphere, a sense of a lost home, a state of vulnerability.
What sets your latest opera, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, apart from Sylvia?
The two operas are practically polar opposites, although both draw from deeply personal childhood memories. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really began writing both of these works as a kid. Jules’ Feiffer’s children’s novel A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears was my favorite book, and when I was eleven, I wrote a musical inspired by the story’s characters, who rebel against its author and do whatever they want instead of the following the plot. It is very exciting to return to that material as an adult, with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, and explore the deeper implications of Feiffer’s novella that I did not understand as a child.
On the surface, it is a playful, rollicking tale about a young royal doomed to make everyone around her laugh so hard that nothing gets done in her presence. At a deeper level, it plumbs the perils of growing up and into one’s true self, challenging notions of friendship, identity, and love. Sylvia, by stark contrast, is a chamber opera set in psychodrama therapy that explores the legacy of inherited trauma and sexual abuse. It is based on the true life events of my best childhood friend. I began writing and rumbling with the content of Sylvia when I was sixteen, but of course the opera that exists today is vastly different from my initial teenage reactions.
You’re involved in quite a number of projects outside of your composition work, such as teaching (including within an all-male maximum security prison), writing, and producing. Could you talk a bit about these?
My work teaching and producing has greatly informed my understanding of classical music as well as my own creative process. After growing up in NYC immersed in the arts and studying music within the bubble of academia, I yearned to understand how and why and if classical music reaches communities that are not regularly exposed to the art form, and whether it could still be transformative and meaningful to a more diverse spectrum of people.
When Cornell offered the chance to teach music theory at Auburn Correctional Facility, an all-male maximum security prison, I jumped at the opportunity. I learned more from these men than they will ever know about the meaning of art, community, and connection in our lives, as well as the importance of believing in your own voice and unique blend of individual influences. I’ve also learned a lot from my third grade students–who thought that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was written by a dog. Lastly, my work as a producer working with Los Angeles Opera taught me an incredible amount about the complexities of bringing an operatic work to life on the stage, invaluable information for an opera composer!
How do your external projects influence your work as a composer?
My time teaching in prison impacted my identity as an artist more than any other experience I’ve ever had. There was one inmate in particular, Gherald, whose advice empowered me, and who I will never forget. After a semester of studying a wide variety of composers and repertoire from classical music history, I finally played the students one of my own compositions on the last day of class. When my piece ended, I found myself confessing to my students that I did not know if classical music was relevant, if I had anything unique to contribute, and that I was filled with doubt and guilt about devoting my life to pursuing art. After a long pause, Gherald told me this: “As long as you write from a place of love, other people will love it too. When I hear your music, I can tell that you love what you do. I can sense how much joy it brings you to create, to express yourself, and that makes me feel good. That brings me joy. All you can do is write the music that you love.”