Matthew Aucoin Makes Opera for 2020

The preternaturally gifted composer Matthew Aucoin travels to the underworld for LA Opera.

la opera’s first artist in residence, composer conductor and macarthur fellow matthew aucoin, leads the company’s orchestra in a 2018 production of rigoletto
LA Opera’s first artist in residence, composer-conductor (and MacArthur Fellow) Matthew Aucoin, leads the company’s orchestra in a 2018 production of Rigoletto.
KEN HOWARD

At the age of four, future composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin was on a family vacation driving through Florida when he wrote his first opus, Cloud Symphony. It garnered a rave review from his father, who currently serves as chief theater critic for the Boston Globe.

This February, LA Opera will stage the world premiere of Aucoin’s Eurydice, a reimagining of the Greek myth that shifts the narrative away from the musician Orpheus and onto his beloved wife, Eurydice, who, lost in the underworld, is reunited with her deceased father.

Aucoin, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, composed the new piece during his term as LA Opera’s first artist in residence. Now nearing completion, that tenure was a productive period that also saw him conducting Philip Glass’s Akhnaten and Verdi’s Rigoletto as well as original compositions, including his new score for the classic silent horror film Nosferatu. “I’ve gotten to know the city so intimately,” says the 29-year-old Aucoin of his residency. “And the throughline of all of that has been Eurydice.”

Soprano Danielle de Niese sings the title role, with baritone Rod Gilfry as her father, while Mary Zimmerman directs and Aucoin conducts. The new opera comes as the company pivots toward original and contemporary productions, beginning with the season opener, a new iteration of La Bohème by director Barrie Kosky. It also comes at a time of transition for LA Opera, with the recent departure of general director Plácido Domingo following sexual harassment allegations.

Aucoin was 11 when his parents began to recognize his extraordinary gifts: he sat down at the piano in a Vermont hotel lobby one rainy afternoon and played The Marriage of Figaro from beginning to end. Awestruck, they asked where he had seen Mozart’s score. His reply: “What score?”

Despite this auspicious start, a career in music was not a given. “I didn’t see a clear road to being a composer for a long time,” Aucoin says. “I assumed it was just not possible, so I didn’t go to conservatory for my undergrad.” As a teenager, he immersed himself not in opera but in jazz and rock in a band called Elephantom. “What I learned from all of those explorations was that I really do believe in this thing we call classical music, and I do think it’s worth fighting for. It’s the place I feel most at home.”

A Boston-area native, Aucoin studied poetry as a Harvard undergraduate and received his MA at Juilliard—the latter while he was serving as the youngest-ever assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. In 2015, Boston’s American Repertory Theater debuted one of his first operas, Crossing, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman and directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus. The New York Times called it a “taut, inspired opera” attributable to his “prodigious gifts.”

Although he wrote his own libretto for Crossing as well as for Second Nature (an early chamber opera for Chicago’s Lyric Opera), for Eurydice Aucoin was happy to collaborate with playwright Sarah Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer finalist for In the Next Room, or the vibrator play and The Clean House.

“Sarah’s language is very musical. It’s simple but elegant. It is 21st-century American English, but it has a mythological resonance to it,” says Aucoin of his librettist, who adapted her own play of the same name to focus less on Orpheus’s efforts to rescue Eurydice and more on his wife’s trials in the underworld. “Transferring the focus is not just to give her the good things about being a protagonist, but it also transfers a lot of the blame and the fatal flaw—all the aspects of a tragic protagonist.”

Gilfry, de Niese’s costar, sang the principal role of Walt Whitman in Crossing. Aucoin “writes very quickly,” Gilfry says, “and more than any composer I’ve met, he’s willing to look at what he’s written from an objective point of view and then make big cuts. When you finally figure out how to do it, you learn something about your own singing.”

There’s an impressive mix of styles in Aucoin’s compositions—jazz, musical theater, and neoclassical, among them. “He has an appreciation of everything that’s come before him, but his voice is distinctly his own,” Gilfry says.

Aucoin says the tradition that interests him is progress: “When I look at history, with every movement there are innovators. I’m not writing for the conservative opera fans who want to hear La Bohème over and over. We’re trying to move this art form forward. We want it to be exciting, explosive, and dynamic—and true to the emotional lives that we’re living in 2020.”

Jordan Riefe is a filmmaker, a fine arts reporter, and the West Coast theater critic for the Hollywood Reporter.

EURYDICE

• Feb. 1–23
• LA Opera, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
laopera.org

RECOMMENDATIONS

Three cultural events in Los Angeles that Matthew Aucoin is looking forward to this season

Julie Mehretu at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: The first major retrospective of the artist’s career covers 20 years of global conflict through movement, abstraction, and, in recent years, figuration. While both Aucoin and Mehretu are MacArthur Fellows, she is also the recipient of a U.S. State Department National Medal of Arts. Through May 17

The Seven Deadly Sins at the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Kurt Weill’s satiric musical theater piece from the 1930s in this collaboration with English
actor-writer-director Simon McBurney and his brother, composer-writer-scholar Gerard. Feb. 16

Agony & Ecstasy at First Presbyterian Church: Jacaranda, Santa Monica’s acclaimed new-music ensemble that focuses on music by living composers, will break form, presenting selections by contemporary maestro Timo Andres opposite music by 20th-century stalwarts Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen. Mar. 14

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