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Composer Paul Dresher Writes an Opera for John Duykers

“Writing The Tyrant was the most pleasurable composition process I’ve ever had in my life,” says renown new-music composer Paul Dresher. Sitting in a sunny, Zen-like restaurant complex courtyard in Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto, Dresher is taking a break from rehearsal to eat a bento box lunch and discuss his latest work, a solo chamber opera inspired by an Italo Calvino story (called in English “A King Listens”), which opens in San Francisco this month.

The Tyrant, commissioned jointly by several companies, debuted in 2005 in Seattle, Los Angeles and Philadelphia and later had its fully staged world premiere in Cleveland, where The Plain Dealer wrote, “The music embraces pungent and delicate modernism even as it teases deftly with anxious waltz figures, menacing marches and expansive lyricism.”

Dresher wrote the opera for acclaimed tenor John Duykers; Duykers’ wife, Melissa Weaver, directs. Dresher has collaborated with both of these Bay Area-based artists on various projects for the past several decades. The text is by New York librettist/dramaturg Jim Lewis.

In The Tyrant, a ruler is so fearful of being overthrown that he has sequestered himself in a windowless throne room (represented onstage by an aluminum cage outfitted with projectors and surveillance cameras). He experiences his kingdom only through sound; in the guise of court musicians, the esteemed, 23-year-old Paul Dresher Ensemble plays violin, flutes, piccolo, percussion, clarinet, cello and keyboard throughout the piece, reflecting the ruler’s various mental states.

It is a remarkable allegorical story, says Dresher, perfect for opera. The king—a magnificently self-important, yet increasingly paranoid and vulnerable Duykers, gray-bearded, in business suit and military beret, brandishing a tall scepter—struggles through the exhaustion of constant vigilance to write a speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of his bloody rise to power. But he is continually spooked by mysterious sounds: an “infernal racket,” noisy pipes, a pounding, perhaps of nails into a coffin (“Whose coffin?” he frets). He sings of his fears and addresses his vanquished predecessor, whom he imagines to be lurking in the dungeon below “Maestro, Is That You?”). When he hears the pure and innocent strains of flute and clarinet (“Lullaby”), he envisions a woman crooning to her baby and longs to escape and find the angelic songbird. The drama, which includes humorous wordplay (“Sex is a royal pain in the ass!” harrumphs the Tyrant), proceeds to a powerful crescendo as the ruler’s claustrophobic world ultimately implodes. “Were you all a delusion . . . nothing but noises rattling in a shaken mind?” he cries.

“I hit a zone very early in composing this piece,” says Dresher, an amiable, six-foot-four, spiky-haired figure in a black leather jacket and rimless glasses. “Within three or four days I had such a strong concept of the character, partly because I know John so well.”

A music theorist who not only composes but invents new instruments and regularly collaborates with theater artists and choreographers, the Berkeley-based Dresher is often identified with electro-acoustic music. He tours internationally with such shows as Slow Fire, created with Duykers, performance artist Rinde Eckert and songwriter Terry Allen.

            But The Tyrant, says Dresher, is probably his most traditional piece—not flashy, very little improvisation, no electronics. “It’s a culmination of a lot of threads of my work,” he says, “particularly in relation to acoustic music and storytelling through singing. I love singing. I’m a horrible singer, but I love writing for singers, I love the power that a great voice in the body of a great actor can bring to the stage.”

            Once Lewis had written a draft, Dresher began composing on the piano, improvising and analyzing. “Maybe the first thing I wrote was ‘Aria of the Body,’ for a sad scene, where the Tyrant is sitting on the throne,” he says. “It’s where we describe this character.” Because the ruler came to power in a military coup, Dresher composed a quasi-march for that scene. “I look at the text and divide it into sections,” Dresher explains, of his process. “I analyze it. Is there a refrain? How can this harmony be expanded? What is the salient interval that I seem to be working with here?” Sometimes the music is representational, as when the Tyrant mentions the “heavenly clockwork” sounds of the palace, depicted by a percussive section of chimes. “In other sections, [the music evokes] just the wave of his emotional energy or his intellectual process, not an actual sound—just the environment in which he’s living.”

            Dresher wanted metaphors that, unlike the king himself, are fluid and flexible. So he asked Lewis to infuse the language with watery illusions: things dripping, flowing, a tsunami washing over the Tyrant, maybe cleansing him.

            He adds, “I know John’s voice really well. The reason why I’ve composed opera and theater is because of John; he gave me my very first commission. . . . He has superlative acting instincts, unusual for an opera singer. He really gets into character with his whole body.”

            “Paul has written a very lyric and expansive piece, Puccini-esque in some ways,” says Duykers, by phone from Chicago where The Tyrant was playing at the Museum of Contemporary Art prior to its San Francisco run. He finds Dresher’s proclivity for complex rhythmic moments challenging—that plus the fact that as the Tyrant he sings solo for almost 70 minutes, and must also visualize two unseen characters: the singing woman, whose voice he hears in the live music, and the voice in his head of the “maestro” in the dungeon. To get inside the mind of the Tyrant, he watched movies, looking for examples of tyranny.

            “The Tyrant is an archetypical despot,” says director Melissa Weaver. “Without specifically saying Hitler or Saddam Hussein, we’re trying to suggest all of them in one.” The opera, she says, evokes something of the real world and of the fantastical.       

            She adds, “Paul’s music is exquisitely beautiful and evocative, and he’s not afraid to let it be ugly at times. The Dresher Ensemble is free enough to explore, improvise, create nightmarish sounds [that represent] the catastrophic collapse of an empire.”

For Weaver, the sound of the woman singing touches the long-lost feminine side of the Tyrant. “What this piece is really about is the integration of these dual aspects [the masculine and feminine],” she says. The Tyrant yearns to express that unrealized side of himself.

            For Dresher, who is currently writing a score for San Francisco Ballet, the narrative of The Tyrant can be interpreted on many levels. He has written about its political level (“the corrosive psychological effects of absolute power”), its examination of the many, conflicting voices we all have inside us, its themes of “self-discovery and spiritual exploration.”

“The music is how the narrative is told as much as through language,” he muses. “And everything is about the narrative—making the music have a relationship to it, moving it forward, defining it. I love setting text. I love the act of conceiving how to sing an idea to tell a story. As long as I believe in the narrative.”

            He recalls an seminal early artistic influence, a play he saw as a kid in Los Angeles: Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, a dark comedy about greed and corruption. “It was wonderfully disturbing,” he says. “The way art should be disturbing.”