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A Demanding Composer Meets His Orchestral Match

In between rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera, composer Tobias Picker laughingly recalled another opera orchestra — which shall remain nameless — whose violinists, protesting his penchant for writing in the instruments’ extreme range, greeted him in rehearsal in mock submission, waving white handkerchiefs on the end of their bows.

Nothing of the sort awaits him on his latest project, “An American Tragedy,” based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel about a notorious murder. In fact, Picker was inspired to give the Met Orchestra, one of the finest in the world, something they could really dig their teeth into.

Not only are they up to the challenge, “the orchestra ate it up,” conductor James Conlon said of Picker’s score. “The orchestral writing is compelling. They’re really enjoying playing his music.”

The enjoyment is paying off: The December 2 premiere of “An American Tragedy” has turned into one of the most anticipated music events of the year. The star-studded, sexy young cast — including Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn and Susan Graham as the love triangle — and Conlon (often mentioned as a potential successor to the Met’s current music director, James Levine) have helped generate some of the advance buzz for this new opera. But Picker is clearly the central reason for much of this attention.

“This weighs more than any opera I’ve written,” the composer said, dramatically dropping the two huge volumes of the score down onto a desk to underline the point. “It’s really grand opera: large orchestra, many soloists, men’s chorus, women’s chorus, even children’s chorus.”

Librettist Gene Scheer and the composer also included elements from the original upstate New York crime that inspired Dreiser’s book, about the first man to be executed in the electric chair. As the poor, striving son of a Midwestern missionary, the story’s protagonist is impatient to advance himself. When presented with the opportunity to marry into a wealthy family, he causes his inconveniently poorer and pregnant girlfriend to drown.

“My father had a signed copy of the book in his library. Like many left-leaning Jewish intellectuals of his generation, he was attracted by the social themes of the story,” Picker explained. “Dreiser was an incisive writer who got inside his characters’ heads to really feel their thoughts.”

The trial, which occupies much of the second act, offers the musical opportunity to accompany the testimony with echoes of the earlier scenes’ themes. According to Conlon, even in rehearsal “it was so effective, you could feel the hush through the room on the last chords of the last scene.”

Picker has been in rehearsal all day, six days a week, since October 25. And at night he makes corrections or alterations, and the next morning he hands them to the copyist and librarian. “I’m like an old Jewish tailor, taking in a little here, letting it out a little there,” he explained. (The musicians seem delighted with him; one gushed, “If only we had the opportunity to work with Mr. Verdi the way we can with Mr. Picker!”)

As remarkable as it is for a living composer to have such success with new operas, it is even more so in Picker’s case, as he is afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome. “Not the plain kind of Tourette’s,” he explained, “but a more fancy, phantasmagorical kind. It’s all emotional, and very heavy.” Describing the struggle of composing and living with this highly unpredictable condition, he explained that, as he matured as a composer, “the Tourettic elements in my music have grown into something emotional. I’m now able to harness and control and also build on them.”

Building on an already successful career as a symphonic composer, Picker’s much-admired first opera, “Emmeline,” premiered in 1997 at the New York City Opera. “Thérèse Raquin,” based on the Emile Zola novel, quickly followed, and then came the Los Angeles Opera’s commission for his comic, anthropomorphic “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the Roald Dahl story. Picker deliberately gave one of that opera’s characters klezmer accompaniment, as a rebuff to the notorious antisemitism of this beloved children’s author.

Maybe Picker’s Met premiere was foretold: Even before James Levine arranged the commission of “An American Tragedy,” Picker’s partner of the past 25 years, writer Aryeh Lev Stollman, wrote a story about a composer writing an opera for the Met. In Stollman’s story, however, the opera was about the false messiah Shabbatai Zvi. Perhaps that will be Picker’s next opera.

Composer Raphael Mostel’s “Night and Dawn” was recently premiered by the Royal Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony Orchestras’ brass in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Ensemble will perform it again in February 2006 in New York.

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