Hearing the Music
A composer considers audience response
Steve Everett, Professor of Music


Vol. 11 No. 5
April 2009

Return to Contents

The New Reality
Emory faculty respond to a transformed economic world

Schools adjust to hard times

“To suddenly have to do a complete, 180-degree about-face and think about where we can slow down, where we can cut, and constricting ourselves while trying to maintain some of our momentum and simultaneously go in the opposite direction—that's quite disconcerting.”

We are very stretched in a number of important areas. Our challenge is to find the right balance between reductions in staffing versus reductions in the collections.”

Conflict of Interest and Ensuring the Public Trust
Historical perspectives and current concerns

Hearing the Music
A composer considers audience response

Making Love to the World
The practices that sustain research


Composers often think that audiences will—or should—be listening in a space similar to the one they inhabit. Of course, when I am composing, I cannot accurately predict the response these sound patterns will trigger in the listener, if any at all. Sometimes the performance setting of a work may offer clues to sociocultural backgrounds and aesthetic expectations of audience members, but my thirty-five years of producing concerts of contemporary art music have shown me that audience makeup and reactions can rarely be accurately predicted. These unknowns are part of what makes live performance such a compelling and often transformative social exercise.

As a composer of experimental art music, I am particularly fascinated by the richly varied listener responses to a complex and unfamiliar sonic vocabulary. They can range from frustration, confusion, and outright anger to indifference or ambivalence. Occasionally, however, listeners may experience a powerful aesthetic response or a heightened sensitivity to humanistic concerns.

Recently I was struck by the dynamic and passionate audience reactions to the November 2008 premiere of my chamber opera, Ophelia’s Gaze, based on Emory poet Natasha Trethewey’s work Bellocq’s Ophelia (Greywolf 2002). The premiere of this work at the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts in November 2008 elicited a more profound emotional response among audience members than any work I have composed or conducted in recent years. Approximately one hour long, this monodrama is structured as a reverie on Ophelia, the young girl portrayed in Natasha’s poems. They present a narrative sequence around the thoughts and perceptions of a young prostitute in a brothel in the Storyville section of New Orleans and photographed by E. J. Bellocq between 1910 and 1912. The aural-visual relationships in my composition unfold as a series of tableaux using the consciousness of dreams, memories, and reveries, as described in French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s work La Poétique de la Réverie (1960). The performers included coloratura soprano and Emory alumna Katherine Blumenthal and the Vega String Quartet, currently in residence at Emory. The audience included Emory faculty, administrators, and students, as well as professional musicians and contemporary music devotees from the Atlanta area.

Following the premiere of a composition, it is not unusual to receive congratulatory e-mails from colleagues. Seldom, however, do they speak to the personal—the emotional, psychological, or intellectual impact of the work. Particular elements of the Ophelia’s Gaze production seemed to powerfully affect those in attendance. Here are a few samples from the many e-mail comments I received from audience members following the concert:

  • “The opera was both disturbing and compelling.”
  • “I don’t know if I’ve experienced that kind of saturation of music, theater and screen in such a reality-enhancing and altering way.”
  • “Seeing Katherine Blumenthal in the audience afterwards seemed surreal—another indicator of her otherworldly impact on stage.”
  • “Scenes and sounds are lingering in my conscience, and I find myself returning to the troubling complexities of the poetry.”
  • “I was transported into her dream.”
  • “It managed to capture the essence of dreams throughout the
  • “Truly, I think it took away everyone’s breath.”
  • “Images and music struck me and have stuck with me very powerfully.”
  • “A great triumph—both as a creative masterpiece and logistical miracle!”
  • “It was a mesmerizing experience.”
  • “An absolutely stunning work of art.”

I am always happy to receive any feedback on a work I have
created—positive, negative, or indifferent. But this opera seems to have touched a particular emotional place for many. I am not entirely sure why, but my guess is that it was a combination of factors.

First, in creating the character of Ophelia, Natasha extensively researched the living conditions for prostitutes in Storyville. Her three years of work laid the foundation for an accurate, realistic, and ultimately believable setting and portrayal of Ophelia. The poems consist of imagined personal diary entries and letters home from Ophelia to her schoolteacher. In reading them, I noticed that Ophelia regularly entered various states of reverie triggered by images of the brothel where she now found herself working or by memories of her family and life before she arrived in New Orleans.

Natasha also discovered that some of the most popular prostitutes in Storyville were often of mixed race—quadroons and octoroons. She assigned Ophelia to one of these hypodescent racial categories, further complicating her story. During my two years of work on this opera, Ophelia became for me a complex and intriguing individual trapped by the gazes of her multiple clients in the brothel, a domineering house madame, E. J. Bellocq’s camera, her own double identity formed by her white appearance and African-American cultural designation, Natasha’s poetry in 2002, and my own imagined sonic world—a created extension of her consciousness and surroundings.

A second factor in the work’s emotional power may have been the multiple media forms I incorporated, which allowed the audience to share in and perhaps empathize with the character’s conflicted psychological states. Ophelia’s Gaze is a music-theatrical setting designed to capture this character’s many struggles with her own identity and her precarious employment. I wanted to merge image, text, and sound into a dreamlike meditation on Ophelia. On reading the poetry, I immediately felt a deep compassion and curiosity about Natasha’s fictitious character. I also quickly imagined a music-theater work that might give her a voice and physical presence. With various media forms and technologies, I hoped to bring Ophelia’s persona into the present—to try to enable her to “exist” in current imaginations and perhaps give her power over her own image or history.

Finally, I believe Katherine Blumenthal’s role in giving a
physical voice and developing the character of Ophelia was essential in eliciting the audience responses. Natasha’s poetry is sung and spoken by a soprano who encounters multiple reflections of her own image and environment. She interacts musically with a string quartet and visually with her own images reflected in video “mirrors.” Video cameras and microphones collect and transform her image and voice through interactive computer-processing programs and an interactive video motion capture system that I developed for the production. Katherine’s commanding presence on stage and the dynamic playing of the Vega Quartet pulled the listeners into an intimate dialogue with Natasha’s poetry. When I first called Katherine to see if she would consider singing this role and sent her the text, she too was immediately excited about Natasha’s character and knew that she had to help bring her to life on stage in this production.

When I compose, I begin with a set of questions or concerns, often centered on qualities of sound and relationships of the body to new performance technologies. But on another level are the unconscious preferences: the imaging of dreams, memories, and reveries; representations of stillness; sensuous and ambiguous textures; darkness unfolding into light—in essence, my projections and imaginations on Natasha’s poetry. It was the “dance” of these two processes that constituted my creative method in composing this opera. Both were necessary in my mind to effectively bring the many facets of Ophelia’s internal and external life to the stage.