Who among us hasn’t explored the ways in which love, sex, and music wreak havoc on our sense of self? OK, readers need not answer, but this premise is front and center in composer Kate Soper’s fantastical and darkly comic opera The Romance of the Rose. Operagoers can live vicariously, then, as Long Beach Opera (LBO) presents the world premiere Feb. 18, 19, and 25 at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
Soper, who also wrote the libretto, has never been one to adhere to norms, with The Boston Globe hailing her as “a composer of trenchant, sometimes discomfiting, power” and The New Yorker citing her “limpid, exacting vocalism, impetuous theatricality, and mastery of modernist style.” Indeed, over the past decade, the Massachusetts-based Soper — who is predisposed to create works for her own soprano voice and was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her “philosophy-opera” Ipsa Dixit, which made use of texts ranging from Aristotle to Freud — has decidedly established herself as an operatic force.
Rose, which is helmed by LBO’s artistic director, James Darrah, features seven voices, chamber ensemble, and electronics and is conducted by Christopher Rountree. Composed of more than 21,000 lines of octosyllabic couplets, the opera’s namesake 13th-century poem is one of the most popular French odes of the later Middle Ages and is modeled on Ovid’s Ars amatoria (The art of love).
Soper said that she was initially captivated by the poem in 2011. “I stumbled on it at the end of grad school and felt compelled to revisit it — that there was a lot of operatic content in it. And,” she added, “a lot of humor. I’m drawn to humor in my work — surprise — and I wanted to draw that element out. But I don’t know that I would call it a comic opera. Yes, it’s great to see people cracking up in rehearsal, and I wanted those elements to be foregrounded. But it’s using humor to deal with other, darker situations.”
The medieval parable of love and reason was to have premiered on the East Coast in April 2020 but was delayed because of the pandemic, with Soper’s research into the poem having been extensive. “It covers a lot of philosophical ground and even practical ground. It’s like an advice manual,” the composer noted, “plus a diatribe, plus a rhetoric textbook. There were a lot of avenues to research — reading novels and studying horticulture and reading about medieval life. I did that to feed my brain.”
And what a diet Rose proved to be. The press release describes the category-defying work as a “thrilling opus that examines one Dreamer’s quest for a literal rose, [in which] The God of Love, Shame, Lady Reason, and their cadre of followers lull the audience into an otherworldly state that deftly highlights the profound juxtaposition of beauty and absurdity in our own human folly.”
“And no,” admits Soper, “it’s not autobiographical, except in the sense that I have the experience of those things and of the human condition, like we all do.”
But does Soper, whose awards include honors from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, call herself a romantic in the artistic sense? “I don’t think so. I think I’m too self-aware about it, and I think probably most of us are — even if we are romantic and like to indulge in those overwhelming feelings, which we do. Sometimes, it’s too intense to know how unreliable intense emotion can be and how difficult it is to hold on to it, so you can’t rely on it as a feeling of truth. It’s a feeling of something else.”
As for Soper’s compositional process, she said that it depends on what she’s doing. “For this piece, it was again research, and sometimes a musical idea would occur to me. Then I would spend a lot of time writing the libretto as well. So, I start with what I needed to happen in the scene and sometimes write from the composer’s point of view. There were tight music-to-text connections, and I had specific tasks — having one of those numbers where everyone’s singing different things at the same time [for example] — which were related to poetic and musical forms.”
But Soper, like many artists, frequently asks herself when to stop.
“I feel like it might frustrate my collaborators more than me. But I accept it as the process. This opera, since there’s been a three-year gap, I think I got it out of my system to hand it over to a new group of people. I don’t know another way to do it. I can’t write something kind of big and it works in the first rehearsal. I’m learning how it works by seeing it, getting it on its feet, and thinking, ‘Oh, that one thing isn’t working.’ But I may be a little more extreme.”
Soper, no stranger to LBO, had her work Voices From the Killing Jar (2010–2012) performed in 2021 at the Ford Amphitheater. And while she had no input in casting Rose, she said she’s familiar with several performers, including the New York-based baritone Phillip Bullock, who sings The God of Love, and Lucas Steele. The latter, a Tony-nominated singer and actor cast in the leading role of The Dreamer, is also making his LBO debut.
Then there’s soprano Laurel Irene, who stars as Shame and was in Killing at the Ford, with the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed hailing her performance as “astounding … downright superhuman.”
“There’s more traditional singing in this opera than I normally do,” mused Soper. “It was very clear it was going to be populated with singers that aren’t me, sopranos that aren’t me. I have a very particular kind of voice, a new-music soprano, so if you saw Laurel in 2021, I wrote that for myself. I wanted a coloratura, and Laurel is the [singer] most in my wheelhouse, that kind of new-music-y stuff.
“For this opera,” she added, “I was happy to let James cast it, knowing it’s also about who is right for the role, who is the best actor, as there’s a fair amount of dialogue and acting.”
Soper, whose opera The Hunt premieres in New York this fall at Miller Theatre at Columbia University, said that she would like the audience “to get really swept up in the experience and laugh and cry and whatever. Maybe later, then have things kind of percolate.
“The original poem brings up a lot of stuff,” Soper continued, “but it doesn’t really resolve things. I think that’s my feeling about the poem, the opera, and life in general — for the audience to just have an experience without having to think about it while they’re having it and reflect on the experience. I want people to have fun and be entertained, but I wouldn’t mind leaving them with a little nagging doubt about the reality of the experience.”