It’s rare that a dancer/choreographer can also add composer, librettist, and director to his CV, but that’s precisely what Peter Wing Healey has done. Having founded the Mesopotamian Opera Company (MOC) in New York City in 1985 in order to mount his own works, the polymath, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1990, is presenting The Tree at the Highland Park Ebell Club, May 25–28.
But the transition to writing his own music and texts makes sense in a kind of Venn diagram way. Indeed, Wing Healey’s impressive pedigree in his 40-plus year career includes him having danced with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, while his long association with the Mark Morris Dance Group helped pave the way to his multihyphenate status. As a performer, Wing Healey originated the role of Mrs. Stahlbaum in Morris’s iconic The Hard Nut. He was also rehearsal director and ballet master on the 1987 John Adams/Peter Sellars opera Nixon in China. Working with Morris on the groundbreaking piece from its inception at Houston Grand Opera, as well as on productions later seen at Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, Wing Healey knows the nuts and bolts of the art form.
And now there’s The Tree, a 2–1/4-hour opera that was inspired by the writings of American-Canadian journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Featuring a cast of 12 and a small ensemble of percussion, clarinet, and violin, with James Lent conducting from the piano, The Tree has its own history: Wing Healey first began work on the opus in 2005 as a librettist before it was performed in 2006. But it was two years later — and somewhat of a fluke — that led him to composing.
Wing Healey explained: “In 2008, we had a power outage, and I couldn’t work on choreography, cooking, or watching TV. All I had was the piano. Jon Rogawski, a UCLA colleague of my spouse, Don [Blasius], had a lot of piano music from his father, a psychiatrist who had worked with Freud and was also a musician. After Jon’s father died, I got this big pile of stuff, and there were all these scores from Franz Lehar and Emmerich Kálmán, who wrote The Gypsy Princess.
“I was reading through these scores,” added Wing Healey, “and this thing just hit me, that I could do this. I play a lot of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, but reading through these scores, they were beautiful but not quite as original as Bach. And then Don got me a copy of Sibelius [Music Notation Software] and I started writing. The Blur: or How to Marry a Billionaire was the first score I wrote, and we did a reading of that in 2011.”
And thus was a composer born: In 2017, MOC presented The Spell of Tradition, two Noh plays/operas on the life and afterlife of Benjamin Franklin, with Wing Healey’s original score and book. “I was frustrated, because I had a libretto about Ben Franklin, and this composer said, ‘I can’t do this.’ With The Tree, there were obvious things that didn’t get written, and part of that was because there was no money for the composer.”
Among its myriad productions, MOC also presented a series of “dance operas” in New York. Among them were The Norma (1991) and Jane Heir (1988). The latter featured Wing Healey in drag playing the lead role, a cross between Lucia Di Lammermoor and Jane Eyre. In his one-person show in L.A. in 2000, Wing Healey tackled three female roles: Isadora Duncan; Amneris, the other woman in Aida; and Siren, one of the half-bird, half-goddesses from Greek mythology. It’s his work as a dancer and choreographer, said Wing Healey, that also helps with his composition process.
“For many years I had that skill of memorizing small amounts of material instantly. I’m good at that, and I will sit at the piano and then go to the computer. Once you get it on the computer, you can work with it structurally, and it’s much more fun; when you have the notation, it becomes more visual. You can look at it.”
While The Tree is inspired by the works of Jane Jacobs, it’s also a retelling of an ancient Shinto myth about a tree spirit, performed here by soprano Camila Lima, who leaves her tree to marry a mortal man (tenor Marco Antonio Lozano), whom she helps transform into a city-builder.
“This goes back so far,” recalled Wing Healey. “When I had moved to L.A. from New York, where I lived for 27 years, I was in shock, having to drive all over the place, [learning] the way this city does and doesn’t work. Then when I was doing The Hard Nut in Berkeley, I went to a bookstore that specialized in urban planning, and I bought the Jane Jacobs book.
“A year or two later,” he continued, “Don took me to Kyoto, and we went to this temple and there was this woodcut of this tree spirit legend and somehow with Kyoto and L.A., it all just flashed into my mind — this tree spirit story, city-building, urbanism — it just fell into place.”
In 2005, the multihyphenate also admitted to being influenced by the news of Marie Antoinette’s fallen oak tree. Having died during a heat wave in 2003, the tree that had been standing for more than three centuries was uprooted by the gardeners at the Palace of Versailles.
“This was front page news in France,” Wing Healey exclaimed, “and at the time I was writing the libretto, so that came into the script. In her opening aria, Jessica, the lead character [who’s wearing] a beautiful green dress, believes she’s descended from Marie Antoinette.”
And while this opera may sound esoteric, Wing Healey would, nevertheless, like his works to be presented by a major opera house. But he’s realistic. “If it moves on, I’m open to it. [Composer] Nico Muhly had a great line when he was doing Marnie, [which] started at English National Opera then went to the Met. He said, ‘Well, you can’t really shop this stuff around.’ The whole method of doing workshops like they do on Broadway — readings, getting people to produce — they don’t have that here in L.A. in opera.”
Still, Wing Healey hopes audiences for The Tree will “have a musical experience. I want them to be excited by people singing a story that’s more about their time, vibrating, connecting with the world we live in. I find people are delighted by what I do, in general. Of course, there are people who hate it, but they don’t say anything.”