Matthew Aucoin, LA Opera’s Artist in Residence, is the composer, librettist and conductor of Crossing. Below are his program notes for his upcoming concert performance of Crossing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 25 & 26.
“But for the opera…I could never have written Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman reminisced late in life. It’s perhaps surprising that the quintessential American poet, the writer whose signature bard-call is a “barbaric yawp” rather than a refined warble, spent his formative years—before setting off to cross a wild, apparently “formless” poetic frontier—absorbing the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, and the young Verdi. I share Whitman’s opinion that the essence of opera has nothing to do with the stuffy salons and social one-upmanship of the Americans who imported it to New York in the 19th century: opera is a primal union of animal longing, as expressed in sound, and human meaning, as expressed in language.
Indeed, Whitman considered opera the pinnacle of human expression, something beyond the powers of language alone. And in his best poems, Whitman operates like an opera composer: he carries the English language into a new musical landscape. Whitman’s “melodies” surge boundlessly, spilling over the side of the page; his exclamations are wild and craggy. His poetry is both the waterfall and the rocks on which the water crashes.
“What is it, then, between us?” With this resonant question at the climax of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman asks many things at once: what is his relationship to his contemporaries, his fellow men and women? What is his relationship to you, the reader, whoever you may be, whenever and wherever you may be reading his poem? And what is the relationship between the contradictory elements of his own self? The phrase “between us” itself has a double meaning: what is the relationship between us, and what stands between us, keeping us apart?
In the moment that Whitman asks this question, he is in a state of unknowing; he wants to know, and needs to know. Crossing emerges out of my sense that Whitman wrote his poetry out of need—that his poetry is not, or is not exclusively, a vigorous assertion of what he is, but rather the expression of a yearning to be what he is not, or to reconcile opposing aspects of his identity. The person/persona/personality “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs” is the living product of this need.
So, in Crossing, the Walt Whitman who walks the stage is not that familiar poetic persona. Rather, this is Whitman as I imagine he might have been to himself, starting from a midlife crisis which prompts his radical, heroic decision to drop everything and volunteer in the war hospitals. Naturally, this Whitman is a fictional creation. Crossing is a musical fantasia which imagines and realizes the many forces—generosity, insecurity, longing, selflessness, bravery, unfulfilled sexual desire, a need to escape his own life, a boundless kindness—that caused a man named Walter Whitman, Jr., to forge an indelible embodiment of the American spirit in his poetry.
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