Gregory Spears
Gregory Spears | Credit: Dario Acosta

Gregory Spears failed to answer his phone one recent morning, but he was not blowing off a scheduled interview. Rather, he called back a few minutes later with an excellent excuse. “I had the phone on ‘metronome,’” he explained sheepishly. “When I do that, it doesn’t ring.”

If that app ticking away inspires more music, missing the occasional call is well worth it for the 47-year-old composer, whose profile continues to rise. Opera Parallèle is presenting the West Coast premiere of Spears’s 2016 opera Fellow Travelers at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco June 21–23. Less than a month later, on July 13, his newest opera, The Righteous, will premiere at Santa Fe Opera.

“It’s a really nice summer,” Spears said. “Old pieces are being done again, even as a new piece is happening. I’m really grateful for that.”

Poster art for Opera Parallèle’s Fellow Travelers

Fellow Travelers, which is based on the same Thomas Mallon novel that inspired the recent television adaptation starring Matt Bomer, premiered at Cincinnati Opera eight years ago. This operatic telling of a fraught relationship between two closeted gay men in early 1950s Washington, D.C., has since been performed to critical acclaim at the Prototype Festival in New York, as well as by a number of American opera companies, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Minnesota Opera, and Boston Lyric Opera.

From his New York City home, Spears spoke to SF Classical Voice about his approach to creating opera. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and concision.

Fellow Travelers has been staged by a bunch of smaller companies in the Midwest, but this is the opera’s California premiere. That trajectory challenges a few stereotypes some of us hold.

You’re right. There have been a lot of Midwest productions. A lot of it has to do with companies finding the right venue and the right place in their season. But I’m glad it’s happening [in California], and I’m glad it’s being done at a place that specializes in new work. I believe the director [for this production, Brian Staufenbiel] saw the 2018 Prototype Festival production in New York, which was a restaging of the Cincinnati Opera premiere. So [Opera Parallèle] has been talking about it for a long time. Of course, a lot happened between 2018 and now. But it’s nice that it’s coming to fruition.

Can you briefly recount the opera’s origin story? Did someone bring you the novel, or had you read it yourself?

It was brought to me by director Kevin Newbury, who did the premiere production and is also directing my new show in Santa Fe. We have worked together a lot. He asked me, “Do you think this could be an opera?” I get that a lot, and usually the answer is “Sure, but maybe not for me.” But in this case, I read the book, and I loved it.

What makes this story operatic?

Sometimes we associate the word “operatic” with big, extreme feelings. But I think mixed emotions — ambivalence — are what opera does best. [Opera] conveys the complexity of emotions that might be hard to hear in everyday speech. The book had a lot of that. I liked the realness of this story and how complicated the characters were. They felt very real to me in their charm and in their flaws.

Also, I wanted to write a tragic love story — not tragic in the sense of gay oppression, but tragic in the sense that [these characters are] not a great match. Tragic in the sense that their love doesn’t last.

Can you put your finger on why some stories strike you as ripe for operatic adaptation while others do not?

I think it’s very personal for each composer. There has to be something a composer senses intuitively about the material. There are a million reasons why [this] book wouldn’t necessarily make a good opera. It’s very plot-heavy. There are a lot of details. Historical fiction is all about the texture that grows out of those details. Opera is not. Opera is about having the music help the emotional truth of a story creep into your heart and stay there. That’s why opera is worth the vast resources and expenses that go into it. You remember having a certain experience with it, even if you don’t remember the plot.

Gregory Spears
Gregory Spears | Credit: Dario Acosta

In the case of Fellow Travelers, I have some lived experience of a world that in some ways resonates with the world [of the story]. I’m gay, and I was closeted through the 1990s. But I try to be very careful to represent the characters’ world — not my own experiences projected onto theirs.

You are succeeding in creating emotionally compelling music while avoiding the cliches that usually accompany such efforts. Do you have to navigate that fine line carefully?

I think about that a lot. One thing I keep in mind is how counterintuitive emotions often are in real life. If you ask someone what anger looks like, they might start screaming or throwing things across the room. That’s the operatic cliche. But in my experience, 90 percent of the time anger is expressed through silence. It’s highly energized, but it’s very quiet. The silent treatment. So when we’re trying to represent emotions onstage, I think our intuitions are often very wrong. Often, I’ll ask myself [when setting a scene], “What’s the operatic convention here? What’s the emotional truth? Are those lining up in the right way?”

That’s an important lesson I learned from American minimalism, which is anti-melodrama. [In this style] the orchestra can feel detached from what’s happening onstage, but somehow it pulls out certain emotions in the singers and in the audience. I use a lot of tropes from the 19th century, but I apply them in a contrary way.

Speaking of cliches, here’s one for you: Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?

The words are first for me. That’s how I work with all librettists. There are times when the music almost screams for a different line. I’ll then go to my librettist.

You once said, “When I think about setting a line, I think about how the character would say it.” Tell me more about that.

I find, as I’m setting a text, it’s almost like the character accepts or rejects the way the text is set. A character will say, “No, no — what you’ve done makes perfect sense, but it’s not me.” [If you use that music] the character suddenly disappears. So I come up with another version where I can say, “I didn’t lose them.” It’s a kind of trial and error where the character is leading you. Fiction writers talk about this all the time. It’s one of the things I love about writing opera. You have a constellation of collaborators, but they’re all in your head.

The characters you’ve been collaborating with most recently are those of The Righteous, which is about to premiere in Santa Fe. Does it tell an original story?

Yes, it takes place in a somewhat familiar world, the 1980s. It explores the tension between genuine faith and the fraught world of politics. The characters’ love for God becomes entwined with the complicated realities of their romantic lives. It’s the second opera I’ve done with [librettist] Tracy K. Smith. Like Fellow Travelers, it’s very character-driven [and set] within a recent historical context.

Let’s get a bit of your own history. You were born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and hold graduate degrees in composition from Yale and Princeton. How did you discover music?

My dad was in a band, but ours wasn’t a musical family. Getting into classical music was a bit of a rebellion. I started on the piano, and I felt it was natural to start composing music on that instrument. I wrote a little piano concerto around age 15 or 16. I wrote a one-movement one, and the next year I wrote a three-movement one. After I wrote the first one, my orchestra teacher connected me with Adolphus Hailstork, who lived in Norfolk, the next town over. He gave me lessons my junior and senior years of high school.

I got very lucky that I studied with a composer who is very connected to tonal language. I don’t feel I would have gotten drawn as deeply into music if I hadn’t.

As a kid, you were particularly drawn to Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, minimalism, and the pop music of the day. Why did those genres and composers speak to you? Do they cast a shadow on your writing?

Minimalism has stayed with me and grown in its influence on me. I feel you hear in it a certain American take on classical music. I really love [Gustav] Mahler as well. Part of my musical journey has been about how I combine those two worlds.