The Kennedy Center

Opera without Words

About the Work

Tobias Picker Composer: Tobias Picker
© Thomas May

Tobias Picker, described as "displaying a distinctively soulful style that is one of the glories of the current musical scene" by BBC Music Magazine and "a genuine creator with a fertile unforced vein of invention" by The New Yorker, has drawn performances and commissions by the world's leading musicians, orchestras, and opera houses.


Picker's operas have been commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, (Emmeline), The LA Opera, (Fantastic Mr. Fox), The Dallas Opera, (Thérèse Raquin), San Francisco Opera (Dolores Claiborne), and The Metropolitan Opera (An American Tragedy). His operas have gone on to be produced by New York City Opera, San Diego Opera, L'Opéra de Montréal, Chicago Opera Theater, Covent Garden, Opera Holland Park, English Touring Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, and many other distinguished companies. In 2015, Opera Theatre of St. Louis mounted a major new production of Picker's Emmeline, that garnered universal acclaim as "a work of gripping emotional intensity and extraordinary musical expressivity" (The Dallas Morning News) - "one of the best operas written in the past 25 years" (The Wall Street Journal) and "the greatest American opera of the 20th century" (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch).


In addition, Picker has composed numerous symphonic works, commissioned and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic, L'Orchestre de Paris, Munich Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, L'Opéra de Montréal, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Vienna RSO, and Zurich Tonhalle among others. In addition to three symphonies, he has composed concertos for violin, viola, cello, oboe, and four piano concertos. His ballet, Awakenings, based on the book by Oliver Sacks, was commissioned by the Rambert Dance Company, which toured the work throughout the UK in 2011, performing it 80 times with live orchestra.


The extensive Picker discography includes such labels as Nonesuch, Sony Classics, Virgin Classics, Angel, Chandos, Ondine, and Albany Records. Most recently, Wergo and Tzadik have devoted complete albums to Picker's chamber music spanning the years 1976 to 2011.


Picker has received numerous prestigious awards and prizes and was elected to lifetime membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012. Picker served as the first composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony from 1985 to 1990 and has served as composer-in-residence for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Pacific Music Festival. In 2010, Picker founded OPERA San Antonio and served as its Artistic Director until 2015. His music is published exclusively by Schott Music.


It was around 15 years ago, Picker recalls, that Christoph Eschenbach began asking him to write a new orchestral work. By then the composer's opera career, which he launched at Santa Fe Opera with Emmeline in 1996, had become his central focus; the Metropolitan Opera-commissioned An American Tragedy in particular prevented Picker from taking up Eschenbach's request for the time being. The conversation was reinitiated when the conductor commenced his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra. At first they considered the prospect of a concerto grosso and then a concerto for orchestra: "Something I could really sink my teeth into in a way I hadn't done before," says Picker. Eventually, though, he opted for a radically new form, creating the purely instrumental Opera Without Words for large orchestra that is being premiered on this program.


The result is a major new achievement for Picker, one that synthesizes his gifts for orchestral virtuosity and large-scale structure with the wisdom accumulated from being one of the most-active opera composers on the scene today. Ultimately, explains Picker, "I have inhabited the disparate cultures of the symphony orchestra and opera for a long time and have always been perplexed by how unaware each is of the other. So, by returning to the symphonic world now, after a hiatus of more than two decades, I want to bridge that gap by giving musicians and audiences a work that has its roots in both worlds."


As the composer remarks in his commentary below, the title Opera Without Words is not merely a metaphor: the work was conceived as an actual opera, from which the voices and text have been withdrawn (save some of the stage directions, which are left in as instructions to the musicians). The issue at the heart of the matter here-which comes first, the words or the music?-famously underlies the whole of opera history (Richard Strauss even wrote an entire opera, Capriccio, about it), and it has long extended to the concert hall as well in the form of the debate over "programmatic" versus "absolute" music (Liszt versus Brahms, if you will).


Yet what sets Picker's new project apart is the actual operatic inspiration for a purely orchestral score that is not a "derivative" or abridgment-unlike the entire genre of suites drawn from pre-existing opera scores-but the final composition as intended by its composer. There are precedents for some aspects of the creative process Picker describes below-J.S. Bach inscribing into an instrumental score wordless "parodies" of melodies associated with particular hymns, for example, or Schumann alluding to a Lied of Beethoven in his Second Symphony-but these are threads woven into a larger fabric. Picker himself had followed a similar procedure in his Cello Concerto of 1999, into which he incorporated orchestrations of a few songs he had previously written. He's also worked in the reverse direction: he transformed Old and Lost Rivers (1986), one of his most frequently performed orchestral pieces, into an achingly poignant aria for his heroine in Emmeline (1996).


Picker approached Opera Without Words, by contrast, as an actual, complete opera; merely by removing the text, it became an unprecedented form of music drama for orchestra. "For me, music in opera has to push the drama forward and to be the drama, not an accompaniment to words," says Picker. "It must have the power to communicate the deeper emotional life of the characters; the words are just an ornament to hear the profound beauty of the human voice. But music can feature characters without their being sung, lit, and costumed. The music tells the whole story."


The composer has provided the following commentary on Opera Without Words:


"It has been said that composers can be divided into three categories: those who write for the stage, those who write concert music, and those who write both. I belong to the third group. I've written three symphonies, four piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello, tone poems, a melodrama, and a large body of chamber music, two ballets and five operas. I have seen a lot of the classical music world and have had the privilege of working with many great artists-including, over the past 30 years, Christoph Eschenbach, who invited me to compose a piece for the National Symphony Orchestra featuring soloists within the orchestra.


At first, I started thinking about a Concerto for Orchestra, and found myself reviewing the differences and similarities between a concerto for an orchestra and an opera. A concerto is a composition for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by an orchestra. An opera is a composition in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. An "opera without words" is no more a misnomer than a "concerto for orchestra." I concluded that there are far more similarities than differences between the two, and decided to focus on those similarities by removing the singers from the opera.


I thought about composers of the past. Mendelssohn wrote Songs Without Words without any text in his mind whatever. There are several purely orchestral recordings of Puccini operas without words. Lorin Maazel created a version of Wagner's Ring called The Ring Without Words. One of my principal teachers, Milton Babbitt, once wrote a short piece called Phonemena for soprano in which the singer has no words, just phonemes. He was trying to merge his own complex compositional technique with the jazz form known as scat singing. I remembered how another of my principal teachers, Elliott Carter had introduced me to his notion of instrumentalists as "characters" or "players in a drama."


And so, I approached my first purely orchestral work in 22 years as I would an opera. I hired a librettist, Irene Dische. We had long discussions about the characters, the role of the chorus (in this case, a double chorus), and issues of text setting and stage directions, characterization and motivation. I then set her words not to voices but to musical instruments, unfettered by considerations of vocal range and technique. When I finished the opera with words, I removed them all. I kept a separate copy so that Opera Without Words could (with some adjustments for the human voice) theoretically be performed as an opera with words, the original words and staging restored.


Having done away with the words and stage directions, I decided to leave in traces and artifacts of the deleted libretto. Terminology of an unusual nature (for instrumental musicians) remains. Instrumentalists are accustomed to standard terminology such as dolce, espressivo, legato, staccato, cantabile, etc. But in this work I added some 75 additional terms only an opera singer is accustomed to seeing. A passage may be marked "pompous," "doting," "defensively," "upbraiding," "terrified," "self-righteously," even "aside to the audience," and so on.


Opera Without Words is composed of five scenes entitled: "The Beloved," "The Minstrel," "The Idol," "The Gladiator," and "The Farewell."


Opera Without Words is a music drama about some of the fascinating people I have known. To those people who may wonder if it is about them or whether they are in it, I refer them to the Carly Simon song, "You're So Vain, You Probably Think This Song Is About You." I will never reveal who the characters in this work are lest anyone I know or love feels slighted by not being included.


Opera Without Words is dedicated to my mother, the artist Henriette Simon Picker, 1917-2016."