Interview with M Zachary Johnson


[Disclosure:  I know this composer personally.  Around the time of the interview, he held a free viewing of selections of his opera, which I attended.   Some time earlier, I had received a free copy of his book, Dancing With the Muses, which I had commented on.  Later, in 2014, I received a free ticket for the full production of the opera. –Anna Franco]

A Look Inside the Making of The Boston Tea Party Opera:

An Interview with M Zachary Johnson  By Anna Franco and Aline Bernstein

[Archived from Objective Motifs, April 2013]

We are pleased to be able to interview M Zachary Johnson, a composer based in the tri-state area, and get some insight into the process he went through  in order to create his opera. His answers are candid and very enlightening.

Objective Motifs: How did you come to think of this idea/topic for the Boston Tea Party Opera?  Were you influenced by the Tea Party movements/events that took place over the past few years?

MZJ: It was 2011, a time when today’s Tea Party Movement was really becoming prominent.  I got to thinking about the original event in 1773 – “the destruction to tea” as the colonists called it– and it struck me as just very dramatic and powerful and full of meaning.  I thought “somebody  should make an opera out of that!”  Then I paused and thought, “Hey, wait a minute–I should write an opera about that!”  And I started working on it right away, first with a phase of research.

However, I want to emphasize that it is not a “Tea Partier” show, nor is it about being a Republican or Democrat.  It’s about America–where this country came from and what it stands for. It’s about who we are as a people and why.

OM: What research did you do as preparation?

MZJ: I read a whole pile of books about Revolutionary Boston.  And my wife and I took a trip to Boston and saw all the historic sites and took in a huge amount of information;  that was really useful because of seeing the scenes concretely.  The big creative challenge was selecting which characters and events should be featured; of course, there was a lot going on! So I looked for the things that would work best on the stage and integrate to the theme I was developing.

OM: How do you decide if you will use a given historical character?

MZJ: I sought out the figures who were most visible in making overt actions that expressed the escalating conflict between the colonists and the British authorities.  I had to be ruthless, because given the time- and stage-limitations, you cannot be historically exhaustive.   For instance, John Adams in not in my opera; that probably seems strange, but his most prominent and visible contributions to the revolution show up after Lexington & Concord, whereas my opera focuses exclusively on the period before that.  So Sam Adams is in fact the primary hero, along with James Otis and tea smuggler John Hancock.  Governor Hutchinson is the primary villain.

The theme I came to for the opera was the causality of the revolution: the injustices done to the colonists combined with their fiery moral backbone–leading step by step, to open rebellion.  Thus, the show is not about the War of Independence, but the birth of the spirit of Independence.

OM:  What is an operatic musical (as opposed to an opera, operetta, musical, or other similar genres)?

MZJ:  Okay, what do I mean by “operatic musical”?  Well, in many ways the show is a grand opera–the music is my own unique style, whatever you want to call it–Baroque-Romantic, neoRomantic, or whatever. But it has a strong “classical” basis, and with the kind of layers of sound I like to create.  However, compared to typical “classical” music, mine is also more melodically and rhythmically clear and accentuated and the words have a very definite parallelism and rhyme structure, which people associate more typically with Broadway style.

The Boston Tea Party Opera is not heavy or “Wagnerian”, and it is in English; so it is not purely an opera in the old European aristocratic traditions.  It is not light and amusing like an operetta, although it does have light and comic elements in it.  The show is more serious and substantial, and done with a more classical finesse of artistry, than a typical musical;  it has more richness and depth and moral seriousness to it.

The way language is used in the show, and the style of singing, is pretty important on this question.  Operatic singing is a style evolved and adapted for the voice to soar over an orchestra and fill a hall without amplification; but for the BTPO we may in fact end up using amplification; there is no reason not to because of the things you can gain from it such as greater clarity of the words.  However, the show also uses the power, refinement, and dramatic vocal range of opera, including spectacular high notes.  Both the text-setting and the style of pronunciation are intended to be very accessible, something the audience can relate to as American English speakers.

So that’s the mix of elements I’m trying to capture when I say that the show is not just an opera or a musical,but an “operatic musical.”

OM:  How did you decide to handle the libretto? Did you take poems on the subject and set them to music?  Did you use real quotes from the historic characters  and create lyrics out of them?   What shaped your decisions regarding the libretto?

MZJ:  I had always thought I would need a text specialist to work with if I were to ever create a stage composition or  music-drama.    However, I also knew that it would be practically impossible  to find someone who I would like and who would tolerate working with me given how particular about content.  I had never written poetry or verse of my own, not at all.

But in teaching music theory to young people, I got the idea that certain points of music theory could be more easily memorized if they were packaged in a poem.    I encouraged my students to write a poem connecting relative major and minor keys (the ones with the same key signature but a different main scale-note).  None of my students ever did it but the idea developed in my mind and I ended up writing a poem myself, which I included in my book “Dancing With the Muses: A Historical Approach to Basic Concepts of Music.”

Tip for the Traveling Musician

On your quest I shall guide you with brevity and ease

By lending you the map between two relative keys;

If you seek, I will wager, all the bright pep of a major,

You’ll find nothing finer than the third step in minor.

If you hunger much the more for that remote, darker fix–

Simply march in the major up to note number six.

Caution on your journey now.  Don’t lose your way.

You’ve got to make a solemn vow, Or none of your work will pay.

In following the charted course between our two paired keys,

Take pains to never ever forget your accidentals, please!

I was pleased with how that one turned out, so I thought, “Maybe I can write verse after all!  Let me give it a shot for the opera and see how it goes.  If I don’t like it, I can always through it away.”  As I got into the text really took shape and I was very pleased with it.

For the opera, much of my goal in research was to immerse myself in colonial language, to internalize the flavor, the eloquence, the moral fire, and the wit the founding fathers exhibited.  In fact, I found many sources which I could use or adapt for use in the opera fairly directly.  And the rest of the text I created myself, drawing from my research and newly developed Sam-Adams style.

One example I am particularly pleased with is the famous speech given by James Otis against the Writs of Assistance.   The original speech had been about 5 hours long!   It was published in a brief form, which I transformed into verse  for a courtroom mega-song.  It is really awesome!  In our performance this month,  Tyler Putnam is singing this role, and he makes the most of it; he does a really great job and its a perfect match of singer and song.

OM:  When writing vocal music in general,   how do you integrate the words and music?  Do you hear the lyrics in your head as music?  Do you write the music first and then set the words?    If you are setting a poem to music, what is it about that poem that attracted you?

MZJ:   I think its important that one does not do anything to integrate the words and music–the point is that they are one, they are inseparable and make one unified package of expression.   You don’t start with two separate things, words and music, and combine them like a recipe.   Rather, the two are born together and are one organism.    And more than that, there is the picture of the stage, the motion and action of the drama–it is all one thing together.

You asked “do you hear the lyrics in your head as music”– and the answer is yes, exactly that.   A text, especially a good poem, has an inherent rhythm  and emphasis to it, an inherent parallelism to it, an inherent  pattern of unstable and stable (or incomplete versus complete) elements to it; it has set climaxes and points of emphasis, and a natural pattern of rise and fall.   One simply lets an appropriate melodic structure grow from those facts.   Of course, you have to know how to write a melody with great facility;  if it doesn’t come as second nature, forget it.  But fortunately I don’t have a problem there.

I always get the text complete first, then compose the music; once the text is in place, the music comes naturally and rapidly.  Once the rhythm and feel of the text is in you the melodic and harmonic dimension  flows out naturally in the same mold.

OM:  Suppose you are writing an aria. How do you approach it?  Do you hear the melody first and write it down, and then later work through the orchestra parts? and the lyrics?

MZJ:  The first thing I have is a clear focused concept of the dramatic situation and character’s motivation; sometimes an idea comes about in the first place because of an existing text I found and liked (such as the song “Farewell to Tea Time” in my opera), other times I create the text from the concept and mental stage-picture of the situation.  I think about the kind of message and effect that the scene consists of, and build everything from there including the lyrics, melody, accompaniment,  and progression of the song.  I have a strong sense of exactly what orchestration I want in all the details;  but I actually have to hold myself back and write only piano accompaniment first, and save the full orchestration for later.  Otherwise it takes too long and you can waste effort you’ve put in if a song needs to be altered or cut down.

OM:  How do you decide whether to make a certain character a tenor/baritone, etc?  How do you match the characters with the voice type and quality?  Do you hear the characters singing in your mind before casting?  Do you write the music first and then match the voice type?  Other?

MZJ:  Basically the choice of voice-type flows from the type of character.   If it’s a comic-buffoon type (such as Richard Clarke in the Boston Tea Party Opera), then a high tenor makes sense;  if it’s a heroic-powerful character (such as protagonist Sam Adams) , a heroic tenor makes sense; the bright ringing soaring voice is very much needed for broad heroic sentiments.  For a character voicing profound, weighty or darkly ominous sentiments, a baritone or bass voice makes sense.

As a composer, I have to settle the voice-types definitively before I get very far into any song or role, because you want to take advantage of the unique strengths and abilities of the voice type, and respect its limitations.  If you have a very light high soprano,  you cannot bank your song on powerfully deep low notes!

OM:  What were the challenges?

MZJ:  As for the challenges, I am still in the middle of all the challenges!  We’re moving gradually into production of the full show, in phases. And each phase presents its own difficulties.  That is a story unto itself…

M Zachary Johnson  founded the MZJ Ensemble,  a symphonic ensemble that performs his large scale works.  He has also collaborated with Brian Horner, saxophonist,  who has premiered Mr. Johnson’s compositions in Carnegie Hall–Weill Recital Hall, Steinway Hall, and other venues, and released a CD of their Steinway Hall performance, with Elizabeth Avery performing on piano.  In 2007 and 2008, M Zachary Johnson received the ASCAPlus Awards.  He has also released additional CDs.    His book “Dancing With the Muses:  A Historical Approach to Basic Concepts of Music”  is carried on

M Zachary Johnson received his undergraduate education from the University of Michigan and his Masters from Mannes College of Music in New York.    He also spent time studying at the University of  Salzburg in Austria and the Schola Cantorum in Paris.  He teaches in the Preparatory Division of the Mannes College.

Copyright © M Zachary Johnson, Anna Franco, Aline Bernstein, 2013.

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