Following a delightful evening of opera, Review Fix Senior Editor Olga Privman was given the opportunity to speak with legendary American composer and librettist Thomas Pasatieri. As The Julliard School’s first doctoral graduate, Mr. Pasatieri has written over 20 operas, including an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and “Hotel Casablanca,” which received its NYC premiere this January. Although an article will be forthcoming, we felt that our readers deserved to read as much as possible directly from the brilliant prodigy, as he discusses upcoming operas, his uncanny scholarship to Julliard at age 16 and his ultimately heartwarming relationship with his father.
Review Fix: First of all, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. How are you feeling?
Thomas Pasatieri: Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic; I am so happy.
RF: Why is that?
TP: I’m happy because this was such a brilliant performance – young singers. One of my favorite things in the world is young American singers and we had a cast of brilliant singers, actors and we had an audience that was completely involved in the show, as you could tell from their response.
TP: And the orchestra played so beautifully, and it was so well-directed, and the costumes – it was just a perfect evening of comic theatre, so I’m happy.
RF: What were your influences for the composition of this opera?
TP: I would say that as I started to write the libretto, I was very influenced by two American television shows: “I Love Lucy” and “Dallas.” I don’t know if you knew them; of course, “I Love Lucy,” I think everybody knows.
RF: Yes, I definitely know “I Love Lucy.”
TP: “Dallas,” which took place, of course, in Dallas, Texas, on a ranch – all of that. So it was the grandeur of Texas and the kind of wackiness of “I Love Lucy.” So that was my direct inspiration for writing the piece.
RF: Are you working on anything else currently?
TP: I am.
RF: What are you working on?
TP: All right; I’m going to tell you, but you have to get permission from Michael because we are writing a libretto for a new musical theatre piece for Christmas. (Editorial note: Permission was obtained.)
RF: What’s it called?
TP: That’s what we’re talking about right now, because we have two different titles. I don’t know which one we’re actually going to come to. But I would say it’s going to be called either “God Bless Us Everyone” or “The Christmas Spirit” – it’ll be either of those two. It’s based on the writings of Dickens, but it takes place 20 years after “A Christmas Carol,” so Scrooge has just died and everybody is 20 years older.
RF: That’s interesting.
TP: Tiny Tim is not so tiny anymore. And it’s just a beautiful story, and they wrote a beautiful libretto, and we’re half finished. I’ve written the first act – it’s in two acts – it’s about the same length as this (Hotel Casablanca), 45 minutes each act. So I wrote the first act. We have just been together yesterday – working, all of us, on the second act. We’ll probably premiere it this Christmas – probably here, I think, at Dicapo.
RF: You said it was standard musical theatre, not opera?
TP: It’s both. It’s opera and musical theatre. It’s in-between.
TP: Because even this piece could be done on Broadway.
RF: That’s true. It could.
TP: It sort of bridges the gap between serious opera and Broadway music. I mean, it’s completely sung. Nothing’s spoken, so it is opera. But it’s more accessible to the audiences because of the melodic structure. It’s designed not to be something that they can’t understand. In fact, you don’t even need the subtitles because you can get all the words.
RF: That’s true.
TP: So, the Christmas piece is like this; in other words: In between opera and musical – completely American.
RF: I’m actually very much looking forward to this. It sounds very exciting.
TP: Oh, great!
RF: Yes. I have a question for you. I read in the program that you attended the Julliard School when you were 16. That is very impressive! So you must have known that you wanted to be a composer very early on.
TP: Oh, yes – much younger than that. I started writing when I was 11. By the time I was 16, I had already been for some time as a composer.
RF: How did you realize that this was your niche?
TP: That that’s what I wanted to do? Well, it was unusual because I actually started my career as a concert pianist at 10, giving concerts.
RF: Wow! That’s remarkable.
TP: About a year later, I started to write music. And I came from a very, very simple Italian-American family. And my parents were not musicians, so my father did not like the idea. So he refused to let me write any music. He would rip it up if he found it. So because of that, I was really desirous of writing. I used to write in secret.
RF: That’s very interesting – that’s almost a romantic story.
TP: For several years. And then I was accepted to Julliard, and so he had to accept it. Later on, he changed his mind about it, but for that time. He was a truck driver. He was a wonderful man – don’t get me wrong – it’s just that he couldn’t conceive of writing music. And he was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make a living – that nobody would pay any money. He wanted me to be an accountant.
RF: A lot of people think that way. My parents think that way.
TP: What are you going to do?
RF: Did you apply to Julliard in secret?
TP: Did I apply in secret? That’s a good question. Well, I told my mother. That’s another story. Here’s what happened: Before I applied to Julliard, I applied to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I went up to Boston, and I had an audition, and they accepted me immediately on the spot. Then, I applied to Julliard and Julliard said: If you have been accepted by any other college or conservatory, you have to refuse it or we will not consider you. So I had to turn down a sure thing to apply for Julliard, but fortunately, Julliard accepted me – gave me a scholarship. So I had told my mother that I was going to do that, but I had not told my father. So, I remember I was in high school. I was senior in high school, and I was 16, and I remember calling my mother at lunch time and said: You got a letter from Julliard and they accepted you and they’re giving you a scholarship. So – oh my God – so that night we told my father, and he didn’t make a scene. He was okay. And after that, he was fine. He felt that as long as they were paying me – as long as they were giving me a scholarship – that must be on the up and up. So he accepted it. And after that, he was just wonderful about everything in my career. He was terrific. I have nothing bad to say about my father. You know, even in those years when he was tearing up the music, he was reacting from where he had come from. He had come from a tough Brooklyn-Sicilian-tough-guy atmosphere. So he was just reacting in the way that was natural for him. I didn’t blame him.
RF: Thank you so much.
TP: My pleasure.
RF: Is there a specific piece of yours that’s his favorite?
TP: My father?
TP: His favorite was “The Seagull.”
RF: “The Seagull?”
TP: Yes, one of my operas, which they’re doing here in September, in Dicapo. I remember he came to the Kennedy Center. He had seen it already at the world premiere in Houston. He had seen many productions and he loved that opera. And I remember when they did it at the Kennedy Center, he came – he and my mother drove down – and at the big party after opening night, he said to me: You know, Thomas, this is the best thing that you ever did, and I love it. It’s beautiful, beautiful music.
RF: Oh! That must have felt amazing.
TP: It was just amazing.
RF: How old were you at the time?
TP: Okay, I would say I was about 30 by that time. My father lived until he was 85, so he died 10 years ago. I’ll tell you one last story about my father: Of course, I started my career, as I told you, at 10, as a concert pianist. And then, many, many years later – it was a year after my father died – he died in ’93. And in 1994, I was giving a concert – a performance with orchestra – a piano concerto with me playing the solo part. I was in my dressing room before going on, and I was terrified. I felt so many nerves. It was just awful. I thought: I can’t do this – what am I going to do? I remember my father had just died maybe two months – three months – before that, and all of a sudden there was a calmness and I felt my father’s presence. And I felt him put his hand on my back, and push me onto the stage. I really did. Now I don’t know – maybe it was a figment of my imagination – but I felt it! It felt real. And I went out and I was able to play. And the audience was unbelievable. It was completely sold out. And there was a big, big standing ovation. And a man in a wheelchair came up to me afterwards – an old, Russian man – and he said: You know, the only other time that I felt like this was when I heard my compatriot, Mr. Rachmaninoff, play his piano concerto. My only regret is, because of the wheelchair, I couldn’t stand up like the rest of the audience.
RF: That is so beautiful.
TP: So, I’ll close with that.
But this hardly concludes our interview. Stay tuned for part two of this exclusive Q&A.
Photo by Ellen Appell