Charles Ives's only opera...discovered in 1980, you say? Well, not exactly. I began writing The Death of the Forest that year, almost three decades after the death of Ives, the first great American symphonic composer. Recordings of his music had been my good companion from the early 1970s, when I was living in Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood. When I moved to Greenwich Village in 1988, I was delighted to discover that Ives had spent some of his best composing years, from 1908 to 1911, in a house across the street.
I started writing The Death of the Forest soon after first reading Mary Rowlandson's narrative of her captivity during King Philip's War of 1675-1676, but my fascination with that New England war began much earlier--specifically, when I was five. One autumn afternoon in 1948, I was trying to read a multi-volume 1895 History of Our Country in our house in Brookline, Pennsylvania, a small town outside Philadelphia. I turned to an engraving, "The Death of King Philip," of an Indian being shot. The illustration helped since I was just learning to read. I was also painting that afternoon and brushed some red pigment around the figure of the man who would decades later become the hero of The Death of the Forest.
My ancestry, it turns out, goes back to King Philip's War, though I learned this only relatively recently, in 1997, from a genealogist cousin. Our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great aunt Mary Thurston of Medfield, Massachusetts, was taken captive too and met Mary Rowlandson, the heroine of The Death of the Forest, giving her a hat to protect her from the sun.
Why have I proceeded so slowly, taking two decades and more to write The Death of the Forest? It is not just because I have never written a full-length opera before. It is also because the form itself--where a writer creates an opera from among the musical works of a single composer--is new and untried. Call it Poet's Opera. For millennia, composers have set the words of poets living and dead; for The Death of the Forest, I have reversed the process. Although I had polymathic poet precedents--Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini made films, and Ezra Pound wrote operas, music included--writing The Death of the Forest has been a step-by-step process like invention: building dramatic situations from Ives's music, discovering more of his music as I went along, reading, learning, writing, visiting people and places, juggling history, myth, legend, religion, ethnography, geography, poetry, anthropology, psychology, dramaturgy, dance, politics, and music.
There are precedents in ballet for The Death of the Forest and for Poet's Opera. In fact, after initially thinking of it as a film, I began writing it as a dance libretto called "Ives First Symphony," intending it for the New York City Ballet, where George Balanchine was still making works using the music of favorite composers like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and once even Ives. But then I began adding songs, and soon it was becoming an opera.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) mixed the European tradition of symphonies and art songs with elements of American life--the marching bands that his father led, the New England Transcendentalist philosophers, the revival meetings that filled the wooded hills with hymns--all to make a music by turns majestic, simple, complicated, emotional, intellectual, experimental, funny, mysterious, exuberant, tragic, very much of New England, and very American. Ives's father, George, loved musical experimentation and taught Charles all he knew, but it was a great sadness that George couldn't earn a good living in music-making. He died in 1894 at forty-nine, just as Charles was beginning his freshman year at Yale.
As an adult, heeding his father's advice and example, Charles would compose only in his spare time, eventually growing rich in the insurance business in New York City. His music was famously ahead of its time, which means that it was mostly ignored, misunderstood, ridiculed, and reviled during his life. Charles Ives appears in interludes in The Death of the Forest from childhood to old age, as his life's struggle to make art becomes interwoven with the struggle of two races for the lands of New England. I leave it to readers and audiences to decide if the two stories are in fact one.
Aside from these interludes, The Death of the Forest takes place in the period dominated by King Philip's War, the first major conflict between Native Americans and English settlers in New England--and proportionally the bloodiest war in American history. The opera's protagonists are real people from that time: Metacomet, or King Philip (c. 1640-1676), chief of the Wampanoags; and Mary Rowlandson (c. 1637-c. 1711), held hostage for three months. Mary's harrowing, inspiring first-person Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson--written in an English made luminous and revelatory by the newly translated King James Bible--became the first American best seller and is still studied and read with pleasure today.
Though the English settlers suffered terribly in the war, the survivors among them could flourish afterward, but the Native tribes, who had lived on the land for millennia, were decimated and lost nearly everything. The Wampanoags were in a way the guardians of the American continent, for they were the most easterly tribe. Their name means "Land of the Dawn," and they were always the first to see the sunrise. They were the first people the English settlers encountered, the Indians of the first Thanksgiving. Before the English came, the Wampanoags numbered 25,000 and had extensive lands in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. By the end of King Philip's War, there were 2,500 Wampanoags left--approximately their number today.
Metacomet was the son of Massasoit, the chief who had welcomed the Pilgrims in 1620. By the time Metacomet became sachem in 1662, at age 22, the English had gained the upper hand. The Death of the Forest shows Metacomet as he realizes he must make war or his people will die out from hunger, from the destruction of the forest, and from the new diseases brought by the English. "Níta-u-ke," Metacomet says in the opera. "This is my land." But bit by bit, by hook and by crook and every trick in the book, the English took it.
Metacomet is both an essential figure and a phantom of American history--a military and moral leader who fought against the overwhelming foe of European colonialism, and almost won. Unlike Mary, he left no writings behind, and creating his character has taken me on an artistic and spiritual journey through New England. I have met a Nipmuc who said, "If only we had helped Metacomet earlier..." but he couldn't continue, three overwhelming centuries of might-have-beens striking him silent. I have danced with Wampanoags, descendants of Metacomet. Using Roger Williams's 1643 Algonquin dictionary, A Key into the Language of America, and John Eliot's translation of the Bible into Massachusett, I have written texts in Metacomet's language for chanting interspersed with the Ives music--and even, ever so carefully, translated a few of Ives's lines into Algonquin.
Historians of King Philip's War are sometimes asked if Mary Rowlandson was sexually violated during her captivity, or if she and Metacomet became lovers. They were, after all, about the same age--Mary thirty-nine, Metacomet thirty-six--and he seemed to have liked and respected her, having the hostage to dinner in thanks for some sewing she did for his family, and inviting her to smoke with him (she refused, having given up tobacco before the war). As I portray them--besides symbolizing almost eerily well the fates of the English settlers and the Native peoples--they represent the possibilities and impossibilities of love between the two races at that time. Historians of the war, by the way, have found no evidence either way that Mary was sexually violated or that she and Metacomet were lovers.
Over the centuries, Metacomet has held a periodic fascination for Americans. He was, for example, the hero of the first truly American tragedy, Metamora: or the Last of the Wampanoags, written for the first great American Shakespearean actor, the nineteenth-century Philadelphian Edwin Forrest, who played it in America and Europe for thirty years, alternating it with his two other signature roles, Othello and Macbeth.
A mere eight years after King Philip's War ended, Charles Ives's hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, was founded, in 1684, by English settlers "looking for farmland in the endless forest," to quote the composer and Ives biographer Jan Swafford. Danbury was the crucible of Ives's life, with its patriotic celebrations and revival meetings, and it is impossible to think of him and his music without it. But one could also say that without King Philip's War, and its defeat of the Native people, there would be no Danbury, no New England, no Charles Ives, not even an America as we know them.
I have felt a calling to bring these elements of American culture and history together, to introduce more people to Ives, Metacomet, and Mary Rowlandson, to give the great Ives songs to powerful characters, expanding the lives of music and people beyond recitals and recordings of song collections and history books--even extending the composer's oeuvre, cut short in middle age by hostile reactions and ill health.
Ives, in fact, had worked on an opera idea or two but didn't get far into them. His friend and fellow composer Lou Harrison has said he thought that Ives would have written "the grandest opera ever, with the range of expressivity of the orchestral works and the characterization that his songs show.... And his command of emotional excitement! He could have done it in the grand, transcendental manner about war and peace. It would have been something for all time."
My entry into opera began as a twelve-year-old with recorded excerpts of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, and, over the decades, The Ring has, along with five or six other works of art and thought, taught me the most about the nature of things. There is a sense, however, that with Wagner, opera said it all, and subsequent composers and librettists have had to reckon with that. Opera has been in crisis for more than a century. In the United States, opera companies nobly commission new works by composers who are alas usually academics with no theater training, and the results, largely unlistenable, premiere and quickly disappear. Only a few dozen great operas have been written worldwide in the past hundred years. There should be more. Perhaps some Poet's Operas, beginning with The Death of the Forest, can swell the ranks.
Opera is a total art form, Wagner'sgesamtkunstwerk, like film, using all the other arts. Because a third of the two-hour score of The Death of the Forest is instrumental music, not wanting to have voices speaking over the Ives orchestra, I have told part of the story through surtitles, as in a silent film or a foreign film or as in a modern opera house--and through dance.
The title, The Death of the Forest, is one of those wagers against God that humans must make periodically. In 1984, when I conceived of the title, we were learning of the destruction of the old-growth forests--from Brazil to the Black Forest to the Pacific Northwest. It was an unimaginable catastrophe for the world, but I believed that the forests would live, would come back, would far outlast that threat to them, the industrialism of much of humanity, and would in fact outlast humanity itself. And so, the opera's final image is of the New England forests in full summer glory--with Metacomet as their reigning spirit.
Since late 1997, the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts/MIFA and its executive artistic director, Donald T. Sanders, have been helping develop The Death of the Forest--arranging meetings with musicians, performers, artists, historians, and fund-raisers. In August 1998 we had the exceptional experience of giving a reading of The Death of the Forest at Lancaster's Thayer School of Music, fifty yards from where Mary Rowlandson was abducted.
A week later, the Ives editor and conductor James Sinclair, Jan Swafford, and I visited Ives's grandson, Charles Ives Tyler, at the house his grandparents built in West Redding, Connecticut, ten minutes' drive from Danbury. As we stood in the composer's narrow workroom, preserved as it had been at his death--with his piano and eyeglasses, his father's cornet, and forty-four-year-old newspaper clippings still tacked to the wall--I described the opera's framing device: six-year-old Charles Ives dreaming the rest of the opera. I was gratified that these three, who love and know Ives in ways that I did not, noted how Ivesian the device was, recalling the composer's Putnam's Camp, one of his Three Places in New England, where, on one Fourth of July, a boy falls asleep and dreams of the Goddess of Liberty.
The following year, my life-partner, Miguel
Cervantes-Cervantes, and I visited our friends the poet/artist Bill
and sculptor Barbara Westermann in Newport, Rhode Island. It was an
hot day, August 12, and we had not planned to go then, but the day
or the day after. I do not think that I was conscious of the
of the date as we hiked through the woods of Mount Hope, stopping first
at the thronelike rock formation called "Metacom's Seat," where my hero
presided over his tribe's affairs, and then going another mile to see
Metacomet was killed. "There it is," shouted Bill, and we walked
the woods to it. We looked down at the plaque: "At this place, on
12, 1676, Metacomet, chief of the Wampanoags, was killed, and King
War ended." We had come to Metacomet's memorial on the 323rd
anniversary of his death.
--Norman MacAfee, Manhattan,
The Characters of The
Death of the Forest in Order
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