Daron Hagen and Orson Rehearsed: An Interview with the Composer

Composer and Prestidigitator Daron Hagen. (Photo by Karen Pearson)


American composer Daron Hagen has had an impressive and varied career, having worked with many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest musicians. He has received numerous awards, including a 2014 Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His works in a diverse array of styles and forms range from symphonies and concerti, to song cycles, and nine operas. His forthcoming opera, Orson Rehearsed, is being premiered next year, in September 2018, with his collaborators, Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble. Orson Rehearsed is based on the life and work of Orson Welles, but it is as groundbreaking and category-defying as many of Welles’s own projects. It draws inspiration from Welles’s career as a stage director, radio star, filmmaker, and even as a magician. Mr. Hagen has created a trailer for the project, which gives some idea of how unique this opera will be:

I was pleased to discuss this new work with Daron Hagen in an email interview.

F for Films: What makes Orson Welles the man an attractive subject for an opera?

Daron Hagen: I consider Welles to have been the quintessential American Artist, and his life story a parable with which every intelligent American can, on some level, relate. His intense commitment to social justice, manifested so clearly in his choice of subjects and in his personal decisions as a “self-made” intellectual whose first act was destined—from its explosive beginning with Citizen Kane—to be perceived (rightly or not) as his best. He was emotionally, intellectually, and by nature in pursuit of that which is larger than himself, and, as he got older, physically, the toll of that quest was written on his body. His choice of Kane, Othello, and Falstaff as artistic avatars alone would make him ripe as a figure for operatic treatment, but his fascination with the artifice required in the articulation of truth makes him the perfect operatic hero.

FFF: Can you speak about your personal connection to Welles? A simple question perhaps, but what is your favorite film of his? What do you think is his most enduring legacy?

DH: Kane, of course, demolished me when I saw it first on the Big Screen at the Oriental Landmark Theater in Milwaukee as a youngster. It remains etched in my psyche as a composer, dramatist, and student of American culture. That his family hailed, as mine does, from southeastern Wisconsin and Chicago figures as well. In fifth grade I re-enacted the entire War of the Worlds broadcast over the Linfield School public address system with my pals as a faculty-sponsored project. I, of course, directed, and performed Welles’s roles. By the next year I was writing, directing, and starring in my own plays. By 17, I’d written my first opera. The closest we have had to Welles in American music was Leonard Bernstein, to whom I was drawn (for that reason), and with whom I ultimately studied. Like Welles, like me, Bernstein was a polymath, and fiercely dedicated to liberal causes. That Bernstein’s mentor was the same man whom Welles chose again and again as his personal composer, Marc Blitzstein, is absolutely part of the equation. Welles’s legacy as a maverick and master of self-defeating gestures is played out in every generation of American artists. My point with this opera is that others may have decided that Welles had somehow come up short, but that he on a deep level probably did, as a man does, live exactly as he was of a mind to—in other words, he was not a victim.

FFF: The newly revealed title of your upcoming opera, Orson Rehearsed, is obviously a callback to Welles’s stage work, Moby Dick Rehearsed, but it also seems to be a reflection of the indeterminate shape of the work that you are creating. Do you see this indeterminate structure a reflection of the way Welles’s works were often taken out of his hands and completed by others? Or perhaps a reflection of the way that films are composed in the editing process?

DH: You’re quite right: it refers to the gambit that Welles undertook for his staging. The way that I understand it, he elected to concentrate on the process of illuminating the document, the actors’ process of discovery in learning their roles, and the audience’s active participation in a theatrical event that was entirely unpredictable—different every performance, and able to follow any thread that the communion of players and auditors in the theater that night wished it to go: sort of like a living Ouija board. Orson Rehearsed, consisting of 52 three-to-five minute electro-acoustic cues, corresponding to a magician’s deck of cards, will be different every time it is performed because the prestidigitator (in the case of the first iteration of the work, me) will decide on the fly which cue of the 52 should come next by responding to the audience and the performers, thereby creating a document and performance absolutely unique, and the result of the people in the room.

I don’t view this gambit (above) so much as a manifestation of Welles’ work being “taken” from his hands, but rather (he not seeming to be the sort of man who allows himself to be victimized) of Welles’ willingness to let the so-called “finished product” remain un-set, impermanent. Very much the attitude of a Puccini, or any author of living theatrical documents. I do take the stance that Welles’ love of editing (and compulsively re-editing) was in fact a joy in the Process of editing. One’s creative reach should always exceed one’s grasp, or else why should we bother doing this? Since the terms of creative life are therefore of defeat, why not enjoy the process, at least?


Orson Welles the magician.

FFF: Can you give us a brief overview of the story for Orson Rehearsed? Is its structure in any way influenced by Welles’s own work?  

DH: Orson Rehearsed consists of 52 sound environments, into which fit live instrumental improvisation, notated musical performance, vocalizations, and notated scenes based on 52 scraps of libretto. The scenes are chosen from key moments in Welles’s life; the words of the master himself—usually only one or two at a time—are sampled from the many public interviews and appearances that he gave over the years; in addition, he, in character, sings arias associated with Falstaff, Othello, Kane, Ahab, and others. In the case of public domain sources (like Shakespeare) the arias are rather longer. But dream ensembles also figure, such as one for Rita Hayworth, Paola Mori, and Marlene Dietrich. These moments “flash before his eyes” during the last sixty minutes of his life. Some make sense; others do not. The narrative logic is constructed ahead of time by grouping the landscapes into “suits”—one suit addresses his relationships with women, another with men, another with… The cast will never know exactly which environment will happen next, only what will be expected of them during it. I (as the Welles surrogate in the first iteration of the opera, pulling cards as a magician, as Welles would have) will choose on the fly from the audience which environment comes, based on the moment. The result means that, like Moby Dick Rehearsed, the thing will never go the same way twice.

FFF: In your discussion on YouTube about directing your operaA Woman in Morocco, you use a lot of terms that come from film, such as cinema verité, cross-cutting, and even POV. In my experience, this is a very unusual way to discuss the staging of an opera. How does your cinematic conception of the stage impact the design and direction of Orson Rehearsed?

DH: Technology, in general, now enables us to erase the distinction between lyric opera theater and film; further, the conceit of this project requires that the characters be treated just as I treated them in Morocco, which was, in every way, a (successful) dry run for Orson Rehearsed. In other words, the Process of functioning in the liminal zone between film, opera, and instrumental chamber music is what this show is about. That liminal zone is also the one that divides life and death, reality and dreams—what better place to stand in for the inside of Mr. Welles’s brain?

FFF: You obviously take a lot of inspiration for your stage works in terms of dramatic structure and staging from film, particularly Welles’s. How has the music of film influenced your own compositions?

DH: It is true, my operas all began (with the exception of Sandy McClatchy’s libretto to Little Nemo in Slumberland, which came to me already completed) as scene by scene filmic treatments co-written by my librettists and myself. [Opera composer Gian Carlo] Menotti once told me that parola scenica (to which I am ardently committed) is simply the creation of music and words together that can be staged in many ways, but that a director, a conductor, a librettist, and the composer are compelled to agree (based on the psychological verifiability of its characters’ actions and the believability of its artistic expression—stylized or not) is best executed a specific way. Only then can reinterpretations set the work free for a new iteration. Otherwise, composer and librettist have ceded to producers and directors the central role of dramaturge and there’s little good to come of having that many cooks in the kitchen. Turning the composer into a sous chef runs counter to what makes opera so devastatingly effective, when it is written by somebody who, like Welles, knew every persons’ job on the set, welcomed input from everyone, and then made the final decision himself.

FFF: You have said that “Over the years I’ve learned that my chief job is, in fact: to divert, engage, and entertain. If I can also manage to speak truth to power, well then, I’ll try.” Orson Welles was a very politically active artist as well, but to my mind never used his own artistic output to make overtly political statements. Does Welles influence your understanding of the political role of the artist?

DH: I’d be inclined to disagree with you. I find Kane, The Trial, Ambersons, Cradle Will Rock, the modern dress Caesar and so forth, overtly political, searing pleas for social tolerance and progressivism. They strike me as powerfully subversive, because they put the velvet glove of artistry over the clenched fist of resistance and land blows for humanity through diversion and entertainment. To the extent to which he was able to do that, he reached a lot of people whose hearts and minds could thereby be reminded of their intrinsic humanity and responsibilities to their fellow humans that agitprop, propaganda, and ham-fisted, though well-meaning, sermons not only alienate but infuriate.

FFF: This opera, seems to have a broader vision than just the title subject. Do you see the quests that Welles had, in his political activities seeking “social justice,” and his artistic pursuits after “creative liberty” to be complimentary, or related?

DH: Yes. Inextricably interwoven. Indivisibly, as is only right for a man whose creative essence was one with his life force.

FFF: Other contemporary composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass have notably taken on operas about real-life subjects. Much like a filmed biopic, you have to make artistic choices in your dramatic depiction of Welles. What is your approach to this in terms of research, and what do you think is your responsibility to historical accuracy in your depiction?

DH: Years ago I wrote an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright. My librettist, Paul Muldoon, and I took months to read everything out there about Mr. Wright, and I interviewed his (then) living protégés—people like Wes Peters, Pedro Guerrero, Richard Carney—while living at Taliesin—both in Spring Green and in Scottsdale. Nobody was interested in a whitewash; but nobody was interested in hagiography, either. They knew I wanted to create a work of art worthy of its subject. I’ve read everything published commercially about Welles, and have been a student of his work since childhood. He is, in fact, my ideal operatic avatar as a composer. It is as though I’ve trained for forty years as a composer to take on this project. Historical accuracy is something that scholars write about; getting to the truth of the matter is the stuff of magicians and artists.


Welles and Marlene Dietrich in TOUCH OF EVIL.

FFF: Your previous opera, Bandanna, references Touch of Evil as a touchstone, and also follows Welles in making an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The list of varied influences on the musical styles in that opera reminds me of the swirl of musical sounds on the border town that are present in the Walter Murch edit of Touch of Evil. Can you speak a bit about the connection to Welles in Bandanna?

DH: The morally bankrupt labor organizer in Bandanna is named Kane in order to underline Bandanna’s many deep ties to the rhetoric and methodology of Welles’ Evil. The intense stylization of the score and libretto are overt homages to Welles toolkit. Someday someone will stage it (maybe me?) in a way that highlights these connections. The result will be breathtaking. In Morocco, I worked out a lot of the cinematic flourishes (simultaneous action in foreground, middle ground, and background that seems so obvious and simple, but which anyone who’s ever tried to execute [finds] is brutally difficult to pull off, for example) that I didn’t yet have the technique as an opera composer twenty years ago when I wrote Bandanna to pull off. But Bandanna had to have been written, inspired by Welles as it was, just as Morocco had to be, in order for me to develop the technical and dramaturgical skills necessary to make Orson Rehearsed coherent.

FFF: You have a real connection to another Welles associate, Marc Blitzstein, as detailed in your essay on the composer. Blitzstein was the composer of the Welles-Houseman WPA production of The Cradle Will Rock, as well as the Hemingway documentary film The Spanish Earth, which Welles narrated in its original form. Is there anything of Blitzstein’s influence in your score for Orson Rehearsed, or elsewhere in your work?

DH: Marc Blitzstein’s musical DNA is as much present in every measure of my music as it is in Leonard Bernstein’s, and I’m proud of that, particularly because I’m very comfortable knowing that his voice is only a small part of my voice, as his was only a part of LB’s. One gets older and fusses less and less about influences, and more and more about getting to the truth of the matter.

FFF: Can you tease out the distinction being made in the slogan “Art was not his life, the Process of Making Art was.”? How does the structure of your opera reflect this slogan?

DH: Like many inculcated with the responsibility from an early age to live “an examined life,” I chose to begin framing my life experiences through allusion to works of art, and creating intertextual webs that served to create a comprehensive (if not necessarily coherent, since why must life always make sense? Isn’t it solipsistic to expect it to?) Reality. The process of crafting one’s reality is therefore an art in itself, manifesting the old saw: Art is Life; Life is Art. But I mean more than the casual tag line of an undergraduate’s philosophy mid-term essay. I’m groping toward asking whether, in fact, Welles may not have realized quite early on (the glorious failure-success of Cradle Will Rock? The early clear-the-table artistic victory of Citizen Kane, from whence there was nowhere to go but laterally or down?) that “finishing” pieces was a sucker’s game. Moving on to the Process of making the next play, movie, screenplay, adventure, was the thing, like the Don [Quixote] moving on to a new town, a new windmill. That is to ask whether it was important that the bad guys were only windmills, not villains in the end? Wasn’t the quest the thing?

FFF: You say that your work ends with Welles’s “death and apotheosis.” Since much of Welles’s work was unfinished at the time of his death, are you making a statement about what his greatest achievement was, or is this a more symbolic evaluation?

DH: The only real question, I agree. If anything, I think I’m suggesting that death coming for Mr. Welles was simply a doorway through which he sped on his way to the next adventure, Death itself being a punk, and not worthy of his attention.

FFF: The suggestion that this might exist as an interactive website is fascinating. Are you planning something of that nature after the live premiere?

DH: Immediately following the live premiere in September 2018 at Chicago’s Studebaker Theater, I have begun to lay the groundwork for a Mercury Theater-style live radio broadcast version that will be produced in Chicago. At the time of the radio broadcast premiere the website will go live.


Orson Welles the radio star as “The Shadow”

FFF: How do you think that audiences may potentially see Welles differently, having seen him through the lens of your opera? 

DH: My hope is to give a glimpse into the genius of the man for whom film was but a tiny part of the journey. I’d like to strike back against the treatment he received at the hands of those colleagues, critics, and academics who conflated (and continue to confuse) flash with substance, commercial with artistic success while giving lip-service to his talent. I’ve no scores to settle, but I do feel fervently that it is a triumph of civilized humanity for a man to—despite knowing what “evil lurks in the hearts of men”—so inhabit the role of artist that it is reflexive, like breathing.

Thanks again to Daron Hagen for his time, for a fascinating discussion of Orson Welles, and for sharing about his upcoming project Orson Rehearsedpremiering in September 2018.

Note: this post has been edited from the original publication, to correct the venue for the premiere performance of Orson Rehearsed.



5 thoughts on “Daron Hagen and Orson Rehearsed: An Interview with the Composer

  1. Great interview! You elicited some profound responses from Daron Hagen, and it gave me lots to think about when it comes to Orson Welles and his work. What struck me most is Welles’ pursuit of things larger than himself. It should be self-evident, but I didn’t realize it until it was pointed out to me.

    “Getting to the truth of things” is something I’ve always admired about Welles, and I suspect this new project will do the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments. This opera should be something to watch out for for any Welles fans. The fact that it will be available at some point online is great for those that are not local to the premiere.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent interview. He is fantastically articulate. I in particular like and agree with his assertion that art has a specific role to play, or perhaps a specific audience to reach, in the arena of the socially and politically active.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Josh. Thank you for sharing this interview. Very interesting read. I had never thought about portraying Orson’s life in Opera format, but the more you think about it the more it makes sense. He was a larger than life man with a very interesting life. Best of luck to the production.

    Liked by 1 person

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