On Playing With Others

The great thing about writing fiction is that whatever you say—with enough authority—becomes true. There are no requirements about how many characters you need, or what kind. It won’t be more aesthetically pleasing if you have four people talking during the course of a story, instead of three. You don’t have to collaborate with anyone, and there are no casting issues: if you can describe a character, then he or she exists.

I didn’t appreciate the flexibility of the form until the composer Greg Bolin started adapting two of my stories into one-act chamber operas. It reminded me of what a novelist friend said after watching Burden of Dreams, the great documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, in which Werner Herzog drags a steamboat over a Peruvian mountain to make a movie about dragging a steamboat over a Peruvian mountain. She said, “We have it so easy: this is what he has to do to make his art!”

When I started writing short stories, I was trying to depict and dramatize the American West I’d grown up in. In graduate school, one of the other writers complained that all my male characters were stoical, taciturn westerners with names like Chet. He wanted to see a talky Samoan character with a long, unpronounceable name. That writer was David Benioff, who has now co-created HBO’s Game of Thrones, and he was scarily smart—my policy was to take his advice.

So I wrote a story called “Tome,” about a young female lawyer in Montana whose client, a construction worker with a head injury, takes a security guard hostage in frustration over his workers’ comp claim. The construction worker was talky and obsessed, and I named the security guard Amituana. He had come to Montana to play college football, and was related to the Samoan royal family. If fourteen people died, he would be king.

“Tome” was in my first story collection, and Greg adapted it as a one-act opera that I saw performed in Montana. The music is dramatic and intricate and moving, with five parts: the soprano lawyer, her baritone client, a pianist who sings, a male lawyer, and the Samoan ex-linebacker hostage, who makes it difficult to cast. It’s hard enough to find an operatic bass willing to work for little money in a new chamber opera on the road. But to find one who also looks like Manti Te’o? It’s tricky.

To become a full evening’s entertainment, “Tome” needed a counterpart, a second short opera, ideally one that could use the same basic cast: about four characters. I had another story about young residents at a hospital, thrown together for long hours with a common purpose—a situation that performers understand. It had a single setting, and was mostly dialogue: two women talking in a kitchen. One of the women, Alice, thinks her doctor husband is having an affair with another resident. She talks wistfully about how they used to start dancing whenever they had a fight—in the grocery store, or in someone else’s house—and it meant they could never stay mad at each other.

As the story stood, most of the opera would be the two women talking, the alto and soprano going back and forth. It would be better, Greg said, to have another male voice throughout. That made sense harmonically, but a story about two women talking wouldn’t be the same story with a man in the room.

So I looked at the story again. I knew we had a pianist who could sing. I thought maybe the pianist could be the other husband, of the confidante, watching their conversation. He would be a sort of Greek chorus: not actually in the kitchen, but a knowing presence. He could comment, and talk to his fellow watchers in the audience. His wife could come out of the kitchen and talk to him in her head, if she needed to. I wrote a libretto that was essentially the story stripped down to dialogue and stage directions, plus an omniscient and involved pianist, and I sent it to Greg and forgot about it. A year later, as if by magic, he came back with “Tango,” a staggeringly beautiful piece of music.

At least I thought it was staggeringly beautiful. But there was only so much I could tell from reading the score. I went to Austin for the first sing-through, in a choir practice room in an Episcopal church, and watched the musicians start to pull the steamboat over the mountain.

The rehearsal was squeezed in between the church’s first gay wedding, at which the pianist played the organ (and wept), and the singers’ performances elsewhere in town that evening. There was a question of whether we could use South by Southwest’s coffee cups—the music festival was meeting down the hall—to drink the wedding reception’s coffee. And would the baritone playing Alice’s husband know how to find the choir room? These questions resolved, they got out their scores and pencils, and their smartphones to record the difficult parts, and started to sing.

I didn’t expect a chamber opera to have catchy, hummable melodies, but it did. And it was funny, even when I knew what was coming. It was shivery and sad, when it was sad. Greg listened to the alto sing an unaccompanied section and said, “You’re a little sharp on the third note. Try it again. Still a little sharp. One more time. There it is.” An E-flat was in a tricky place in the soprano’s voice. They worked on the slow fourth beat in some of the tango measures, where the foot gets dragged. The pianist what the acoustics were like in the theater where the premiere would be, but no one had any idea.

Greg was ecstatic, hearing for the first time a score he had finished writing the summer before. I imagined not having any way to see if a short story was working until I had assembled four enormously talented people to perform it and secured a rehearsal room with a piano and coffee. The idea made me feel a little faint. What if you couldn’t even read a story over without all this help and accompaniment? And you still didn’t know if people would catch every word, because you didn’t know what the acoustics would be like when they read it? Greg and the soprano got up to tango past the piano while the alto sang, but they got their feet tangled and gave up, laughing.

I loved watching them work, watching them play with the music and learn the difficult notes and speak lines I had written so long ago. When Alice and her husband had to leave for their call times, the soprano sang her solo at the end, which involved some startlingly high fireworks that only a soprano can produce, and which have no experiential relationship to seeing those notes written on a page. We stared at her, amazed.

Greg said he woke up the next morning grinning helplessly. I went home to Los Angeles humming the songs, which were stuck in my head. I knew that the singers would be staging the scenes and marking up scores and borrowing coffee and learning to tango until it was done. I was happy to know it was going on, and also happy to be alone in a room again, making things up.