Matthew Aucoin is, at a minimum, a quintuple threat: an American composer, conductor, writer, cofounder of his own opera company, and 2018 MacArthur Fellow who unquestionably puts the “genius” in “genius grant.”
In just one example of that genius, a 2015 New York Times article entitled “Matthew Aucoin, Opera’s Great 25-Year-Old Hope” recounts how, at age 11, he shocked his parents by sitting down at a hotel piano and playing The Marriage of Figaro from beginning to end, never having seen Mozart’s score.
To speak with him is to know that you are in the presence of blinding, dazzling brilliance, and yet Aucoin—now 32 and still a fount of hope for this art form—is delightfully down-to-earth and fun to talk to. When we caught up with him to chat, he was at home in Vermont, where among (quite a few) other things, he was busy preparing for this moment: his debut engagement with HGO, and his very first time conducting Verdi’s La traviata.
Opera Cues: Conservatively speaking, how many projects are you currently working on?
Matthew Aucoin: I do try to keep it down to a relative few that I really care about. I’m working on a new theater piece—a music theater piece with Peter Sellars that I wouldn’t quite call an opera. So that’s one. There is another opera in the hopper. So that’s two. There is preparing to conduct La traviata at Houston Grand Opera. That’s three. There’s an orchestral piece. That’s four…
OC: Is any one endeavor occupying your brain more than others? What are you thinking about today?
MA: Composing always comes first for me. You know, I am a composer in the end. And so I generally wake up and think about that. And in the afternoons, I’m working on Traviata, getting dynamics and articulations written into the score so that the orchestra and chorus can be ready to roll this fall.
OC: Can you share more about how you’re prepping for La traviata?
MA: Verdi is in my bloodstream. I love practically every note he ever wrote. I just feel this kind of animal sympathy with Verdi as a composer because he used his brain when he had to, but he mostly wrote from the heart and the gut. Part of my background is as a vocal coach and pianist, so I study scores by playing every note at the piano and singing everything myself. I think the best way to prepare for conducting an opera is to really know how it feels from the perspective of your colleagues. No one else would ever want to hear me sing any Traviata, but in the privacy of my studio, a big part of my preparation is playing and singing just to get a sense of the flow. And the work I’m doing now is this kind of obsessive marking of the score, little ideas about the dynamics—you know, should the orchestra play softer here? Should they play louder there? Of course, Verdi gives us a lot of that information, but the reality is he was writing for a very different performance situation where there was no pit. There was a very different-sized orchestra, different-sized theaters. So part of my job as conductor is to always have in mind what is going to speak most clearly in Houston.
OC: Are you excited to work with HGO for the first time?
MA: I am so thrilled. And I think we have such a world-class cast. I mean, Angel Blue is one of my favorite sopranos working today. I’m excited to work with her. And I’m really looking forward to getting to know the city better. I’ve only ever visited for three or four days at a time, doing some things with DACAMERA. I’m looking forward to getting a more in-depth Houston experience.
OC: You’ve written a fascinating new book called The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera, and everyone should read it. But in the meantime, is there a short answer? Why is opera impossible?
MA: Opera is impossible in a positive sense, because it strives for this union of all these different art forms. And something always goes wrong. We’re human. But it’s the attempt that is important. It’s this attempt to reach beyond ourselves, because even though we’re reaching for something we might never attain, we reach further than we would have otherwise if we’re aiming for this kind of impossible alchemy. And that’s why I am drawn to this art form in the first place.
OC: Would you have had time to write the book without the pandemic?
MA: No, no chance. I know for a fact that I would have been sucked into various projects. I would have stayed on the merry-go-round of composing and performing. And I really only had a window of maybe five or six months when things were really shut down—in 2020, getting into the winter of 2021. And it helped that the book had kind of been in my head for a long time. I just had never had time to kind of sit and put it on paper. So it felt, in a way, more like transcribing something that had been kicking around for a few years.
I do think I’m not the only one to have learned a lesson or two about why it’s important to make time for things you want to do. And I’m trying—even though the world has opened back up, I’m trying to remember those lessons. It is difficult sometimes.
OC: I noticed Patrick Summers’s blurb on the back.
MA: It’s true! Patrick and I got to know each other in 2019, on one of my visits to Houston. And then he was kind enough to fly out to Los Angeles for the premiere of my opera, Eurydice. And he gave me the most in-depth, thoughtful feedback of, I think, anyone that I encountered throughout the whole Eurydice process. I mean, he really understood at a cellular level what I was trying to do with the opera. And this Traviata project emerged, in a way, out of that.
OC: You founded American Modern Opera Company with Zack Winokur in 2017. What inspired you?
MA: AMOC is a collective of artists, singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. It’s not an opera company in the conventional sense; it’s more like a traveling theater troupe. Zack and I wanted to build a structure for artists to work together collaboratively over many years and to develop a shared vocabulary of art-making.
What we do as a company is we develop and produce new work, all of which feels, in a way, like opera, but sometimes, it’s a dance-focused piece. Sometimes, it’s a concert. Sometimes, it is a staging of a chamber opera. But the important thing is that it’s all ideas that come from the artists who also perform it and bring it to life. It’s kind of a new model for a small-scale opera company. And what we looked for in the artists that we invited to be a part of it is, we looked for people who work with opera companies or orchestras around the world, but who also sometimes want to do projects that don’t fit into that mold. We wanted people who do both. We’re not asking Julia Bullock or Davóne Tines to, say, give up singing with big opera companies. That would be ridiculous. But we like to have it both ways.
OC: It seems opera allows you to explore all your various passions at the same time.
MA: Yes. I do think, if you have all the interests I do, you’re probably doomed to work in opera. (laughs) It’s the only art form that can embrace all of them. And I do find that the different kinds of experience inform each other. If you have experience conducting operas, it really informs the way that you compose them.
OC: Why do you think La traviata is so beloved?
MA: La traviata strikes a unique balance, within Verdi’s operas, of being both forward-looking and nostalgic. La traviata comes a couple of operas after Rigoletto, which was, I think, for Verdi, kind of the lightning bolt, when he finally created something that was so condensed and taut and tense. And with Traviata, he keeps some of the innovations that he had discovered by Rigoletto, but it’s also a piece that has a lot of nostalgia for bel canto, for me. This is part of what gives it its magic. Violetta is sick. She’s dying. She is looking backwards for part of the opera. She’s looking backwards at the things she regrets. In Act Three, she’s looking back over her doomed love affair with Alfredo. And so there’s a kind of nostalgia—and the word nostalgia does mean a kind of sickness—baked into the piece. There’s a kind of mysterious, tender, sickly quality to it that I think really affects people.
Traviata has the best of both worlds. It has the dramatic intensity of the mature Verdi, but it also has some of the sweetness of bel canto opera. Violetta’s arias are quite nostalgic and quite bel-canto-esque in their construction, especially the slower ones. So it makes perfect sense to me that when Verdi, at some point later in his career, was asked which of his operas was his favorite, he said, “Speaking as a professional, Rigoletto. Speaking as an amateur, La traviata.”
OC: What is your favorite thing about La traviata?
MA: There are operas that I love, and there are also acts within operas that I love. Sometimes, an act—from one intermission to the next—can be a little masterpiece of its own. And for me, Act Two of Traviata has always been one of my all-time favorite operatic acts, because it covers such an astonishing trajectory, from first seeing Violetta and Alfredo happy together, all the way through the catastrophe of her leaving him at his father’s behest and their unbearably intense confrontation at the party.
It is just the most compact, explosive thing you could imagine. And when you see how much Verdi accomplishes in so little time—I am just in total awe of what happens there. And the fact that he gets to sneak in some party music in the middle of it, as a kind of palate cleanser in the midst of this massive crescendo, so to speak—it’s just the kind of thing that makes a fellow composer bow down. ∎
if you have all the interests I do, you’re probably doomed to work in opera.
Matthew Aucoin: 32-year-old composer, conductor, author, and co-founder of American Modern Opera Company.