Scored for vocal soloists, 2 flutes, both doubling on piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoon, second bassoon doubling on contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, percussion, piano, strings
In December 1862, as the Civil War raged across Virginia, Tennessee, and in the Mississippi valley, Walt Whitman traveled from his home in New York to Washington, DC. The poet had come to find his brother George, who had been reported wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg. George Whitman’s wound proved slight, but the suffering Walt saw among the more seriously hurt moved him so deeply that he decided to remain in the nation’s capital.
There Whitman found work as a copyist in the army paymaster’s office, but he spent more time as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals caring for wounded soldiers. “It was an extraordinary life decision,” notes composer Matthew Aucoin. “Whitman, a vigorously healthy middle-aged man, had already published the path-breaking first edition of Leaves of Grass, and though he wasn’t exactly rich and famous, he was hardly destitute or unknown. ... Though he had no medical training, he remained for more than three years, all through the war’s bloody, drawn-out dénouement.”
Mr. Aucoin adds that in light of the harrowing sights that confronted him daily on his hospital rounds, Whitman’s decision to uproot himself and devote years of his life to unpaid service has been rightly seen as an act of great generosity and even heroism. “And yet,” Aucoin continues,
our motives are never as simple as we’d like them to be, and the more I studied Whitman’s biography, the more I found hints of a midlife crisis. He had always been a wanderer, capable of chameleonic social transformations (newspaperman, odd-job day laborer, opera-loving dandy); the elusive spirit was surely in search of a new guise. And – perhaps more importantly – the geyser of poetic inspiration that found its form in the 1855 Leaves of Grass had already begun to dry up; I find most of Whitman’s later poems unreadably baggy, exhausting, and exasperating in their never-ending exhortations. It seems he needed a change of life and change of form: he later published his Civil War-era diaries, which arguably contain stronger writing than the poems from the same period.
And then there is the uncomfortable reality that Whitman was a middle-aged gay man who spent three years among relatively helpless boys and young men. Though I agree with the scholar Helen Vendler, who has said that surely erotic attraction would not be enough in itself to sustain a person through three years of intensive hospital work, it’s hard to ignore Whitman’s constant descriptions of his patients’ beauty, or the fact that after the war’s end he became involved with a man he’d met in the hospital.
Mr. Aucoin adds, “All this struck me as a fascinating, fruitfully ambiguous world for an opera.” This was an opera for which Aucoin would write both libretto and music. Titled Crossing, it received its premiere, with Aucoin conducting, in Boston in May 2015.
Opera has been a major focus of Aucoin’s career. He was Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera from 2013 to 2015, the youngest musician ever to hold that position, and he currently serves as Artist-in-Residence at LA Opera, a post that entails both conducting and composing a new work for the company. In addition, he has appeared as conductor with Rome Opera Orchestra, Juilliard Opera, Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari, Italy, and Music Academy of the West, where last summer, as the Elaine F. Stepanek Foundation opera conductor, he led performances of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and his own children’s opera, Second Nature.
Mr. Aucoin also is accomplished as both a pianist and a conductor. In the former capacity, he has performed chamber music with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and appeared in recital as accompanist to Renée Fleming and other musicians. Aucoin’s achievements as a conductor are no less impressive. He was the Solti Conducting Apprentice with the Chicago Symphony, which he has led in concert. He also has directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and other ensembles. Despite the demands of his performing schedule, Aucoin is a prolifically active composer. His music includes two operas, with a third on the way; a piano concerto and several other orchestral pieces; chamber music, piano works, and a solo piece written for and performed by violinist Jennifer Koh; and numerous songs, including a cycle based on poems of James Merrill that was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall.
Were this rich and varied musical life not enough, Aucoin also is a talented writer. His essays and poetry have appeared in The Yale Review, The Colorado Review, The Boston Globe, and The Harvard Advocate, and he has written the librettos for both of his operas, Crossing and Second Nature.
Aucoin describes Crossing as a “fantasia” on Whitman’s life during his Civil War nursing years. In it, the composer notes, “the hospital is a kind of purgatory. Whitman does not know why he stays, and yet he can’t bring himself to leave. Like Dante, he has somehow found himself, ‘midway through the journey of our life,’ in a strange place at the very edge of our world. The opera traces Whitman’s emotional and psychological journey, starting with the arrival of a mysterious patient who turns out to be a Confederate soldier in disguise, with whom Whitman falls in love.”
We hear a suite Aucoin has drawn from the complete score of Crossing. The composer describes its five selections as follows:
1. The opera’s Prologue, in which Whitman addresses the audience directly.
2. The aria of Freddie Stowers, an escaped slave who had experienced a strange vision on his journey north.
3. A setting of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which I imagine as having been inspired by Freddie Stowers’s vision.
4. A setting of Whitman’s “The Sleepers.” In this scene, we hear the murmuring of the sleeping patients, and Whitman expresses the sense that he can have no rest, that his imagination never rests, even as the rest of the world sleeps.
5. The opera’s Final Chorus. After the dramatic action ends, the chorus sings a kind of ecstatic ode to Whitman’s spirit. The text is a collage of his words alongside the words of poems about him by Garcia Lorca and others.
SINCE THE REMAINDER OF THE PROGRAM WAS NOT DETERMINED UNTIL THE CONCERTO COMPETITION TOOK PLACE, THE PROGRAM NOTES ONLY APPLY TO THE AUCOIN PREMIERE