By Mark Thomas Ketterson
A few years ago, the Tony-nominated director Diane Paulus was anticipating a production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses for an upcoming Chicago Opera Theatre season. Based upon the second half of Homer’s Odyssey, Monteverdi’s opera is concerned with Ulysses’s return from the Trojan wars to his wife, Penelope. Paulus had not settled upon her approach to the piece, but one inspiration coursed through her conversation like a conceptual leitmotif: “Penelope,” she said presciently. “I am very interested in Penelope.”
As Ravinia’s audience will discover this summer, many other distinguished artists are very interested in Penelope as well, including superstar soprano Renée Fleming, playwright extraordinaire Tom Stoppard, the members of the scintillating Emerson String Quartet, and the spellbinding pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Their fascination with the mythological queen will all converge at the Martin Theatre in a new concert monodrama by composer André Previn entitled, of course, Penelope.
When Previn passed away in February, America lost one of our most prolific, if perhaps (despite a slew of awards and accolades) underrated musical forces. Previn had been such a ubiquitous presence that he was possibly taken a bit for granted—rather like that wise old uncle you assume will be around forever, until suddenly he isn’t. Throughout his extraordinarily eclectic career, Previn composed or arranged an endless stream of musical gems encompassing classical, pop, jazz, easy listening, and everything in between. During his time as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he earned the soubriquet “Bernstein West”—he once said, “Bernstein has made it possible not to specialize in one area of music … Broadway, movies, or conduct[ing]; you can do any or all of them.” Previn scored over 50 films and won four Academy awards as well as 10 Grammy Awards, plus an 11th for Lifetime Achievement. He worked with such a disparate cadre of artists along the way, from Oscar Peterson to Leontyne Price to Doris Day. Quite a legacy for a musician who had once been critically dubbed a “wunderkind in a turtleneck.” Previn first collaborated with Fleming with his Tennessee Williams–inspired opera A Streetcar Named Desire, which premiered in San Francisco in 1998. Penelope, his final opus, will premiere at Tanglewood directly preceding its Ravinia performance on July 28, with outings at Aspen and the Kennedy Center to follow, completing the tour of the work’s four co-commissioners.
As Fleming recalls, “The Emerson Quartet and I were having a conversation about André and thought we should we try to commission him to do something; we knew he wasn’t traveling anymore, but he was still his witty, brilliant self. Plus, I am such a fan of Tom Stoppard, and I knew they were friends. I thought, well you never know, what do you think about asking them? And they said ‘great’!” As for the selection of Homer’s Penelope as subject matter, “That was the choice of Tom Stoppard. And you don’t say no to Tom Stoppard,” Fleming laughs. “You say ‘Thank you! Yes, thank you!’ ”
Stoppard’s brainstorm was just the ticket for the soprano, who, as the Emerson Quartet later recalled, wanted to interpret a “mature, complex woman.” “I wanted to do something that was a little more interesting,” Fleming affirms. “I had had my share of—as a lyric soprano, the bread-and-butter repertoire is mostly young women, and not necessarily the most interesting or strongest characters. So, Penelope is interesting, and obviously the potential for telling her story was there. André was just great. He was really pleased to have the opportunity. He wasn’t able to finish the piece, exactly. We never really got a chance to talk about it, we never got to work on it together. We are basically working with a couple of drafts, though they are far more than just drafts. There is enough there. Fortunately, we have his longtime copyist David Fetherolf, who has done the lion’s share of the work putting this together. He knows André’s voice, he knows his musical language, he knows everything about how he writes.
“It was wonderful to see André and Tom Stoppard together. I had the privilege throughout this process of just joining them for meetings every once and a while. Just seeing the closeness that they had, their rapport. It was incredibly touching to see that. Stoppard is charming, so erudite and a great storyteller.”
Penelope is the last in a string of fruitful collaborations Fleming has enjoyed with Previn. Her partnership with him has resulted in perhaps more world premieres than those with any other composer. “I think that is probably true,” she reflects, “I have done a lot of new music over the years, but I haven’t done so much repeated work. Streetcar was our first. He wrote a beautiful concert work for me [The Giraffes Go to Hamburg, based on texts from Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa], he set three Emily Dickinson songs, he set some beautiful Yeats poems that I premiered last year in Carnegie Hall.”
Fleming has particularly appreciated Previn’s ability to capture the natural flow of language in his vocal writing. “He writes beautifully for the voice, period. He has a lyrical sort of voice, compositionally. The prosody is wonderful; you can understand people. He is also willing to say ‘the orchestra is too loud there, cut it’—I never saw anybody do that so easily, he has no problem with that. I assume that’s from all his years of arranging, orchestrating, and everything else he has done. He is just very experienced. Streetcar was, and is, one of the most successful contemporary operas. It is such a joy to perform. I absolutely love that part, as do many other sopranos.
“The other thing is, he is so facile. I was gathering some material for Julie Harris, for this Emily Dickinson theatrical production I did a long time ago with Charles Nelson Reilly. I was reaching out to composers and asking, ‘Do you have any Emily Dickinson settings?’ because most people did. André said, ‘No, but I will tomorrow.’ ” Fleming chuckles at the memory. “That’s what he did; he was remarkable in that way.”
As Previn and Fleming are both artists with a deep curiosity for exploring various musical genres (including a shared passion for jazz), it stands to reason that their creative union would be a strong one. “I think that enabled a great understanding between us. He was funny about Streetcar, too, because he said ‘there won’t be any jazz in it,’ and of course there was. The actual opening phrase of the piece! I loved collaborating with him. It was simply a joy. If I needed something, he immediately understood. He was very open-minded. And I really liked his musical language.”
It is poignant to note that Fleming intermittently still speaks of Previn in the present tense. Her remembrances suggest that in losing her frequent colleague and collaborator, she also lost a beloved friend. “Absolutely. He was just a wonderful person, so lovely to spend time with. Unfortunately, we have a lifestyle that doesn’t allow us to see each other often. But when I did see him, it was a very warm, friendly greeting. It was just a pleasure.
“You know, even in this last year he was calling me and saying, ‘Let’s do a jazz album!’ He could do anything.” A Previn/Fleming jazz album is something a lot of people would have wanted to hear, I muse. “Yeah,” Fleming agrees, with a hint of wistfulness in her tone, “Oh, yeah. Me too.” ▪
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.