Arts & Culture

E-mail collaboration yields chamber opera

5 min read

Composer Ruehr worked long-distance with novelist to fashion musical piece

Critics say that composer Elena Ruehr – a Radcliffe Fellow this year – makes music that is challenging, natural, intelligent, and socially aware.

She brought all of these qualities to a Feb. 13 presentation on the creative process. “From Novel to Opera,” spliced with musical samples and punctuated by laughter, was a low-key discourse on how composers work.

If you compose music to go with a poem or other text – as Ruehr often does – you look for the musical structure underneath the words, she told her audience.

“The music is a way of bringing emotional material to the forefront,” said Ruehr later in her plain Radcliffe office.

For the presentation, about 40 people were on hand at 34 Concord Ave., where the public is invited to afternoon lectures and where Radciffe Fellows enjoy talk-filled lunches.

At the end of the hour-long lecture, a member of the audience asked Ruehr, “Can’t you just play some more music?”

The idea that music can fill in for words is an idea the composer likes. “My string quartets are all stories, [but] like stories without actual words,” she said.

Ruehr has written four string quartets; three of them are instrumentals and will be performed by the Cypress Quartet at Harvard this Friday (Feb. 22), in an all-Ruehr concert.

In September and December, Ruehr helped the group record all her quartets at George Lucas’ prestigious Skywalker Studio in Marin County, Calif. (The CD will appear in 2009. In the meantime, she said, “The concert is the CD.”)

Music is her business, but words were at the heart of the creative journey that led the composer to the subject of her lecture, Ruehr’s 2003 chamber opera “Toussaint Before the Spirits.”

It tells, sings, and dances the story of the final hours of Haitian legend Toussaint L’Ouverture in a French prison. He was the self-educated military genius – “the black Napoleon” – who in what is now Haiti led a ragtag army of slaves in an 18th century rebellion against colonial powers.

Ruehr’s first inspiration of words for the opera came from Langston Hughes’ “Gospel Cha Cha,” set in Haiti. A children’s book on Toussaint deepened her fascination.

But it was a novel about the Haitian hero, Madison Smartt Bell’s “All Souls Rising,” that completed the inspiration for what Ruehr calls a “dance opera.” (Even the singers dance, though in stylized movements.)

Ruehr persuaded Bell and his wife, poet Elizabeth Spires, to do the libretto for the musical story of the slave-turned-hero. The creative collaboration took place entirely by e-mail, which provided a sense of “working in a private space,” said Ruehr. “It worked.”

Distance was an issue. She’s a lecturer in music and theater at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Bell and Spires live in Baltimore, where he teaches at Goucher College.

For years, Ruehr – a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Juilliard School – was not interested in the traditional operatic singing style, she said. But about eight years ago, she met opera baritone Stephen Salters, who asked her to write something for him.

Months later, Ruehr listened to his voice on tape. “Magical,” she said of the musical encounter. “I have to write music for this guy.”

Right away, there were creative issues. “How was I going to put this [operatic sound] into a modern context?” she asked.

Until she came across Toussaint, Ruehr considered an opera about Napoleon, or about Galileo.

Today, she describes her chamber opera as “a modern old thing.” Commissioned by Opera Boston and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the 50-minute work (with Salters in the lead role) borrows from the opera of old: dramatic musical storytelling, high tragedy, heroics, and the harpsichord.

And it uses the new: a score that calls for bongos, congas, marimba – and modern dance by choreographer/director Nicola Hawkins.

Ruehr had written only one musical theater piece before this, a retelling of “The Snow Queen” a decade ago. The new opera “was a big breakthrough,” she said in her office. “I learned a lot.”

Ruehr learned to mine the text “for the nuance of each word,” she said, as if she were composing “the director’s emotional script.”

The composer is continuing to mine text for the musical structures underneath. She’ll sit at the piano in her home studio, savor the lines most attractive to her, then gradually match the words with music. “All text,” said Ruehr, “has rhythm.” It’s a dreamy process that she compares to doodling.

At Radcliffe, Ruehr is writing “Cantata Averno,” a score based on a 2006 book of poems by Louise Glück. She recites a line from “Averno,” the poet’s book: “After the first winter, the field began to grow again.”

“I remember it,” said Ruehr, “because it’s a tune for me now.”

‘The Cypress Quartet Plays an All-Ruehr Concert,’ compositions by Elena Ruehr, 8 p.m. Friday (Feb. 22), John Knowles Paine Concert Hall, Harvard University Music Building. The concert is free and no tickets are required. For more information, go to or call (617) 821-0532.