Matthew Aucoin is 26 years old, an age where many composers are still “finding their voice.” But for him, that’s never been a problem. “I feel I had a voice early on — most clearly in opera,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “If a text spoke to me, it just sort of exploded into music automatically. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. For me, it’s been all about learning what technical things I can do to let that voice speak. That takes a lifetime of refinement.”
Aucoin, who has been widely acclaimed as a rising star as both a composer and conductor, is spending his summer at the Music Academy of the West. His varied duties will include teaching classes and conducting the annual opera production, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. In addition, he will lead a performance of his own family-friendly opera, Second Nature, Tuesday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre.
Second Nature was commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, correct?
It was. About a year after I graduated from college, I had a meeting with the folks at Lyric. Renée Fleming had heard a student piece of mine and recommended me. They asked about doing a chamber-scale opera with young audiences in mind. They said, “It doesn’t have to be about anything in particular, but it will premiere at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in a second-floor café/reception area. So if you have any ideas relating to the animal kingdom, go for it!”
I took a day and walked around the zoo. Climate change was on my mind that week. It often is, but being around so many petri-dish-sized samples of the natural world makes you really aware of what’s happening to the environment. So I started thinking of this Orwellian situation in which the world, as we know it, goes through a mini-apocalypse, and the few surviving humans take refuge in what was once a zoo. It’s basically a reverse Garden of Eden story.
You wrote your own libretto for this, as you often do. Which comes first — the words or the music?
The words do. They’re the bones, and the music is the flesh. You wouldn’t have anything to put the flesh on if the text isn’t strong, if it doesn’t have its own structure. I also think of their relationship in this way: The text is the tinder the music sets on fire. I like to have it quite far along before the music is added.
My major was in poetry. I have found it helpful to have trained separately as a writer, apart from my musical education. It allows me to treat them as two related but distinct processes. One of the things that makes Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress so strong is the libretto by W.H. Auden. Auden’s lines have such power and tensile strength; that informs the rhythmic language of the music. If the text is flabby, the music is almost inevitably flabby, too.
While you were studying poetry at Harvard, were you also writing music?
Things happened in a really strange order in my life. I have been writing music about as long as I can remember, but I didn’t have any formal training in composition until pretty late. When I was in college, I was a hell of a lot more advanced as a poet than I was as a composer, at least from a technical perspective. I realized I needed to get every tool in the composer’s kit and have it under my belt.
I had intense piano studies earlier in life and studied conducting in college. All those things fed my composing. But there are times where you need a teacher who can tell you, “The English horn won’t speak in that octave in this kind of texture.” That came after college for me, when I did a year of a master’s program at Juilliard.
A New York Times Magazine profile of you said your music strikes a balance “between innovation and tradition.” Do you agree, and if so, is that a conscious process for you?
I’m glad someone felt that way listening to it, but I don’t think about that. The process is more organic. I have never felt the need to make the music accessible. I think that compelling music, even if it’s challenging, always invites the listener in. Making music that is intellectually interesting, and entertaining and stimulating, are not actually different things. Ideally, it’s all one.
So is communicating with the audience your goal?
Well, communicating, but not with any particular audience. I feel that, in my music, I’m talking to you — whoever you are — as opposed to “the audience.”
What’s the distinction?
I’m writing individual to individual. When Beethoven said “From the heart, to the heart,” he meant “It comes from somewhere very deep in me, and hopefully it touches something very deep and personal in whoever is listening.” That, to me, is different from writing for “the audience.”
You grew up in Boston and now live in New York. How did you get involved with the Music Academy of the West?
I have never been out there. We’ve been trying to find a way to collaborate since 2013, when I auditioned for a conducting position with the Chicago Symphony. Marilyn Horne was on the panel. I conducted an aria from a Bellini opera, which she had sung literally better than anyone, before or since. She liked the fact I had an affinity for that repertoire. We hit it off, and started having the occasional dinner back in New York. The stars didn’t align until this year, but they really aligned — I think I’m doing about 100 things out there this summer!
What’s next for you?
The project I’m working on now is an adaptation of a play by Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice. She’s writing the libretto herself.
Perhaps you should adapt her terrific comedy In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, which was recently staged here in town. Could be amusing!
We should probably make that into an opera. A vibrato vibrator opera.
Matthew Aucoin will lead a performance of his own family-friendly opera, Second Nature, Tuesday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre, 33 East Canon Perdido Street. Call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.com.