“I knew really young that writing music was what I wanted to do, and set my life on a path forward as a composer. I had commissions, went to music school, and when I was about 22, I had the realization that the things I most wanted to create in the whole world were not ever going to be offered on that path. I wanted to make huge, transformative art that you go to and your life is never the same when you leave.”
That’s Dylan Mattingly, now 32, speaking by phone from his home in Berkeley, CA, about his opera, Stranger Love,which has its world premiere — a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission — at Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 20. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, with a libretto by Thomas Bartscherer and choreography by Chris Emile, the three-act work, clocking in at six hours (including a one-hour dinner break), indeed promises to be huge, while the transformative aspect has yet to be determined.
But if Mattingly’s musical track record is any consideration — the New York Times described his 2021 composition, Sunt Lacrimae Rerum (these are the tears of things), another LA Phil commission, as having, “met the moment with music that teemed with defiant, unflappable hope for the future” — the audience should be prepared for a sonic and visual journey unlike any other. That it’s been gestating for more than a decade, with excerpts having been performed in 2017 at “First Take,” a program run by L.A.’s avant-garde opera company The Industry and in 2018, at the Prototype Festival, when the complete first act was performed, adds to the work’s mystique.
Scored for a 28-piece orchestra built on three microtonal pianos, and performed by the New York-based Contemporaneous, a group co-founded by Mattingly and conductor David Bloom, Stranger Love is, according to the press notes, “a grand celebration of being alive in the unfathomable mystery of an ever-expanding universe.” It’s also a love story, as well as the story of love, with the opera following two paramours whose romance unfolds with the seasons, while the architecture of the work is essentially Plato’s Symposium.
Explained Mattingly, who received a bachelor’s degree in Classics from Bard College and a master’s in composition from the Bard College Conservatory of Music, as well as a master’s from the Yale School of Music: “The starting point of Stranger Love was my interest in the ancient world and perspective. I was fascinated by anything that can allow you to have an expanded perspective on your life and the world we live in.
“The ability to think about the ancient world through relatable, in some ways, texts that we can read, we can see what it was like to live in a different world,” said the composer, also a cellist, who cites John Adams as having first been a mentor and is now a friend. “There are similarities to today, but to be able to cross thousands of years and expand that perspective to your life and the world we live in, and be one with a different culture, fascinated me.”
That attraction was explored with the librettist, Hudson, NY-based Bartscherer, Mattingly’s humanities teacher at Bard, with the duo becoming collaborators on several projects since their initial encounter. “I met Dylan the first day of class in his first year, in August 2009. I realized he was an exceptional person when he turned in an assignment writing a letter home to somebody, [and was also] aware that the students were going to read it aloud to the instructor.
“It was a letter to his girlfriend,” added Bartscherer, “and I was amazed by what he perceived, the way his mind worked, his language. There was something so visceral about what he was paying attention to.”
It was the following year, when the professor was invited to collaborate with Contemporaneous on Mattingly’s composition, The Bakkhai, which premiered in 2013, that their fruitful partnership began. “I took up the invitation and it was splendid to work with them. It was energizing for me and fun, and an opportunity to get under the hood with them.”
As for their process working on Stranger Love, Bartscherer said that it was “very gradual, but there were moments that were like lightning strikes, then there would be a long rumble of thunder lasting months. By 2012, [Contemporaneous was] doing great concerts and I walked out of one with an idea that was a form, a structure more than anything else.”
Bartscherer said that the form had two voices, although he wasn’t sure if they were “human voices singing languages, but what was apparent to me, there were two voices that had some kind of unfolding, an encounter, and something that came from the outside that drove them apart. It became clear to me that it was abstract, but that it mapped onto the seasons.”
After myriad discussions, at the end of 2014, when the three acts of Stranger Love were in place, the librettist’s mapping process took the form of a 12-foot long, three-foot wide scroll that he described as his modus operandi. And while it wasn’t exactly the 120-foot long continuous roll of paper that Jack Kerouac fed into his typewriter in order to write his iconic novel “On the Road,” Bartscherer said that that’s how they figured out the scenes.
But it wasn’t until early 2015, a full three years into the process, before Mattingly wrote the first notes. “The early years of Stranger Love were imagination and dialogue between me and Thomas, and figuring out what this thing could be,” said the composer.
As the form took shape, Mattingly would occasionally be in New York during the ensuing years, with Bartscherer recalling the pair “rolling out this scroll on a really long table, and we would figure out how many scenes we need to do by handwriting. When he would send me MIDI files, I would look at the scroll and then I would know he was imagining that piece of music.”
And voilà, an opera of epic size was born: The first act represented love on a human scale, a second act love on an archetypal scale, and the third act, well, that’s nothing less than divine love. Who, really, wouldn’t want that? Seriously, Mattingly said that in working with Bartscherer, who also looked to Octavio Paz’s book The Double Flame for inspiration, that it was a kind of “call and response, where so much of the process has felt like not trying to createsomething but trying to find something.”
Surprisingly, though, Mattingly, who was awarded the Charles Ives Scholarship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2016, and has also had his music commissioned and performed by a number of prestigious festivals, including the Ojai Music Festival, said that “as the opera became more real, it’s become clear that what it really is — it’s not an intellectual experience, it’s not a non-intellectual experience, but the sort of thing that washes over you like the ocean.
“It’s more like a force of nature than anything you can talk about,” Mattingly enthused, “and we discovered that as we heard it.”
Another force, COVID, entered the picture, and the opera, which was initially scheduled for November 2021, would have to wait, leaving the composer despondent. “After eight years of giving everything and then to have it taken away, it was indescribably difficult for me. I fell into uncertainty for a while, until everyone was figuring out what we would do.”
With schedules rejiggered and venues returning to nearly pre-pandemic levels, the opera, which may sound a tad heady nevertheless promises to provide plenty of grist for the sonic mill. The first act, divided into two parts with a 10-minute intermission, runs 3 hours and 45 minutes, and features singers, including the lead lovers, Tasha (Molly Netter) and Andre (Isaiah Robinson). Following a one-hour dinner break, the second act showcases three pairs of dancers moving inexorably slowly towards each other (hello, Robert Wilson!), but sans singers, and is about 80 minutes; while the 25-minute final act unspools in total darkness, with human perspective abolished.
Indeed, the opera ends in what Mattingly calls, “ecstasy,” with the finale, in another feat of derring-do, performed without singers.
“Even within the first act,” noted Mattingly, “the singing is kind of small on the landscape, though it’s still massive. But there’s less singing than in most operas I hear. The second act pulls back from language and away from that individual human experience to offer an archetypical vision with dancers.
“The music and design move through another cycle of seasons, as if we’re seeing it from 30,000 feet up,” added the composer. “Everything in Stranger Love is moving towards its most elemental form, and the dance offers that in just movement. Act III is light, stars, darkness, and music — pure velocity — and ends with pitch black.”
For Blain-Cruz, whose directorial accomplishments include the Tony-nominated play The Skin of Our Teeth as well as …Iphigenia, a radical remaking of a Euripides’ play that was eight years in the making, Stranger Love fits into her wheelhouse. That she had also met Mattingly at Bard College when she was directing a production of The Bacchae, which made use of some of the composer’s music, proved auspicious.
“Dylan’s music,” explained Blain-Cruz, “holds you in a wonderful way. It has a kind of scope in terms of production, [so] it feels important to match that scope and not compete with that score.
In some ways it asks a kind of participation of the audience. For me, the production requires a maximalist minimalism — how to make it feel like the entire universe while also imagining it simultaneously.
Acknowledging that the opera is a production challenge, Blain-Cruz said that the creative team was key. “So, I brought on Matt Saunders for the set, Hannah Wasileski for the projections, Yi Zhao is doing lighting and Kaye Voyce is doing costumes. They’re all so smart about color, composition, maximizing elegant simple gestures. It’s a joy because they know how to paint in space.”
Blain-Cruz, who makes her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2024 with John Adams’s oratorio El Niño, agreed that Stranger Love has a philosophical bent to it. “Ah, yes, the round of high ideas,” she exclaimed. “I also feel there’s something elemental to it. So much of it is about the seasons, the cycles. That quality literally living in the midst of the splendor of nature, I think, is very welcoming in its openness.
“But,” added the director, “I don’t know if I would call it an opera. It’s a new, energizing piece about love. Love and its largeness.” It was also Blain-Cruz who brought on choreographer, Chris Emile. “I had seen him as a dancer when I was at Opera Omaha, that’s when we met. This is an interesting person and human, and Stranger Love is such a strange project.”
Strange enough, in fact, that three weeks before the premiere, Emile, who recently created and performed The Horse at Long Beach Opera, hadn’t yet made any choreography for the second act dance-athon, as time and resources were not made available.
“I can do a lot myself,” Emile opined, “but until I have the bodies to put it on, it’s ideas and solo work,” adding, “I’ve never made anything this lengthy before, and have never been given such a short time span to do it. But I’m not worried, we’re going to put on the show.”
Emile said that he and Mattingly talked about casting three couples in the production, and that each couple would take the entire act to find each other, which would account for the slow-as-molasses pace imposed on the performers. “I’m playing with ideas of Butoh [a form of Japanese dance that began as a response to the bombing of Hiroshima], so I’m interested to see what slower movement will do.”
As for research, Emile said that Mattingly and Bartscherer wanted to center the act around the Grecian myth of circle people, and he discovered that “the Gods believed that circle people were becoming too powerful, so they cut them in half to bring them down to earth. They are separate entities; people are always searching for their other half.”
With that in mind, Emile talked about having, “two people being back-to-back, duets [where dancers] never face each other.” In addition, the choreographer decided to begin the work with the dancers in the audience of Disney Hall, not on the stage.
“I’ve been to many shows at the Concert Hall, and because this is made for an orchestra, it makes performers look small onstage. The dancers’ entrance coming through the house will be improvisation, but once we get on the stage, it’ll be more choreographed.”
In combination with the music, words, stagecraft, and performers, the opera is sure to generate a response. Whether or not the work can answer the larger question of human existence and how profound it is to be alive, or will simply offer the audience a chance to experience communal joy, one thing is certain: Mattingly’s vision, grandiose and ecstatic as it is, will be laid bare.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve had the feeling of being overwhelmed with the miracle of being alive” said Mattingly. “The world is so superabundant, and life is so short in comparison to the vast expanse of the universe, that I felt compelled my entire life to try and offer something that reminds us of that crazy joy that exists in the world.
“From the smallest things — the birds outside on the tree, to falling in love — the world is full of miracles, it’s easy to forget, because it’s so difficult to live a life. The ecstasy in my work that I try and offer to other people, it’s not that I try and live an ecstatic life, [but] the world is so ecstatic. And I just want to capture that, and focus on it, and celebrate it for as much as time as we can.”