The City of Philadelphia welcomes the world premiere of a Nathaniel Hawthorne tale he himself once envisioned as opera. The Scarlet Letter, an opera written by American composer Margaret Garwood, adapts Hawthorne’s classic novel of the same name and will be presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts on November 19, 20, and 21, at the Merriam Theater.
Last spring, when I first learned about AVA’s presentation of The Scarlet Letter, I was immediately interested in learning more about the opera and about Ms. Garwood. My initial research left me intrigued. One might also call it possessed–because she is a contemporary female composer writing into her eighties and because of the subject matter she’s tackled throughout her career. I had presumed that The Scarlet Letter had been a favorite read of hers as it was of mine–or that it had haunted her (as it had me) until she finally gave voice to its intrigue via writing a contemporary opera. And because Margaret Garwood’s classical career is unique.
She did not begin to compose until her mid-thirties. In 1964, she and Miriam Gideon began a student-mentor relationship lasting until Gideon’s death in 1996. Before receiving her Master’s degree in Composition from the University of Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she had already written two operas, several song cycles, a ballet, and a few smaller works. She has been the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, ASCAP, AMC, the National Opera Institute, and the National Federation of Music Clubs.
One online site described her as possessing “a gift for lyrical vocal writing and a deft hand with instrumental colors and textures.”
Through her publishing company, Hildegard Publishing, I was able to request an interview, and Ms. Garwood graciously agreed, despite the fact that proofreading orchestral parts has been consuming every spare minute of her time.
Welcome to “Operatoonity,” Ms. Garwood!
Tell us a little bit about your impetus for writing The Scarlet Letter. I’ve always felt an affinity with Hawthorne because of our common ancestry, i.e., the Puritans and the emotional and psychological climate that was passed down to us from them. In 1975, I got interested in Hawthorne scholarship, especially Frederick Crews book “The Sins Of The Fathers,” based on a Freudian analysis of Hawthorne’s psychological themes, especially The Scarlet Letter. As Hawthorne himself said when questioned, he didn’t think it could be done as a play, but he did think it would make a good opera.
Since I didn’t think I had the maturity as a composer to set this, having had only written two other operas, I decided to set some of Hawthorne’s short stories. I decided on Rappaccini’s Daughter first. Ten years later. when I finished it, I began to have glimmerings of The Scarlet Letter, but had other pieces I needed to work on. Then in 1992 I wrote an approximation of the libretto. In 1997, I started writing the opera full time. In 2002, The Academy of Vocal Arts performed Act 1. From that time on, I worked on the rest of the opera and finished it in 2010. And that’s the short answer!
The Academy of Vocal Arts describes the score as neo-Romantic. Is that how you would characterize it? It’s easier to say what it isn’t. I think that is close enough.
Are you drawn to works that allow you to convey themes like adultery, revenge, and redemption in your writing? I prefer the victimization of women. It’s more operatic! Number one was The Trojan Women, whose theme is obvious. Number two was The Nightingale and the Rose where the soprano gives her blood to save her lover. Rappaccini’s Daughter was victimized by her father, the mad scientist!
Of course no companies consult Verdi or Puccini when they present their work, but have you been involved in and/or consulted regarding the upcoming production? As much as I want to be!
Is there anything more fulfilling than seeing your opera performed? Yes. Writing it.
Anything in particular you are looking forward to regarding the world premiere? I hope the audience will respond to it.
What’s next? I’m going to get a cat and do nothing for a very long time!
* * *
The Scarlet Letter will be conducted by Richard A. Raub, directed by Dorothy Danner, and features the AVA Opera Orchestra. Ms. Garwood plans to attend all performances, she explains, because “there is always something to learn.”