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Jacobs School of Music

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Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010

IU Jacobs School of Music commissions new opera on life of Vincent Van Gogh

April 6, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music has commissioned a new opera based on the life of Dutch impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Bernard Rands and one of the most sought-after librettists, J. D. McClatchy, Vincent will be given its world premiere next spring in Bloomington in honor of the Jacobs School's 100th anniversary as a department.

The Jacobs School of Music has commissioned a new opera based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. The opera will premiere in the spring of 2011.

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Preparations for the 2011 premiere are in full swing for composer Rands, who considers the work a fulfillment of a lifelong desire to write a full-length opera. Librettist McClatchy returns for his second world premiere with IU Opera Theater, the first being Our Town, composed by Ned Rorem and premiered in 2006.

IU Professor Vincent Liotta will direct the premiere of Vincent as he did Our Town, this time working closely with guest production designer Barry Steele, Jacobs Professor and conductor Arthur Fagen and Assistant Professor of Costume Design Linda Pisano of the IU Department of Theatre and Drama..

"Instead of a 'set designer,' we're calling Barry Steele a 'production designer,'" said Jacobs School Dean Gwyn Richards. "This will be less of a typical set than a visual environment that combines animation and computer-generated images."

Rands was living in Amsterdam when the Van Gogh Museum first opened there in 1973 and was awestruck by the depth and body of the great artist's work.

"It was such a spectacular display of his work that I thought I would try to capture it in some way," he said. "I thought about it, researched it and made sketches over that period of time." The idea percolated for the next 35 years.

When Rands was in residence, working with the Jacobs School's New Music Ensemble three years ago, a conversation about his idea for a Van Gogh opera with the composition faculty, Dean Richards and, later, the opera and ballet committee, led to the commission.

"Bernard is so well respected as a composer," said Richards. "There is nothing more exciting than doing a new opera for the first time and being the ones who get to help generate that work."

The commission was made possible through donations from members of the Jacobs School's Dean's Circle and private support.

Rands said that when he's composing an opera, he limits himself to one major project at a time, working about eight to10 hours a day. "I am very fortunate to be building a team with (librettist) J.D. McClatchy," said Rands. "He writes beautifully and poetically. He provided me with a beautiful libretto."

Rands and McClatchy were brought together through their mutual attorney and connected well from the moment of their first lunch together a few years ago.

"It's been a very happy collaboration," said McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review and author of six collections of poems. "The challenge with Vincent is how to portray not only a difficult life filled with unhappiness, poverty, neglect, madness and suicide, but how to link that desperation with his inspiration. His life was a wrenching paradox. He sold only a couple of paintings in his lifetime, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time."

Both McClatchy and Rands read through Van Gogh's personal correspondence for inspiration.

The paintings themselves provide a "fantastic spectrum" through which to experience Van Gogh's life, said Rands, and the personality traits that made Van Gogh so interesting translate to a fascinating character study on stage. The son of a pastor, Van Gogh was a religious man who sought God through his paintings. He was also an alcoholic unable to sustain a relationship, suffered from severe epilepsy, had what today might be considered a co-dependent relationship with his brother and finally committed suicide. "He desperately wanted to be a family man, but he wasn't the most pleasant roommate," said Rands.

Liotta said he's currently in the process of trying to plan the physical production and think about tweaks that might be needed for the libretto or the music. "What I do is try and inspire everyone else to do things," said Liotta. "The process starts with analyzing a score and coming up with a concept, then bringing designers in to understand how my interpretation of a piece needs to be visually realized."

McClatchy said Van Gogh was probably the most prolific letter writer of any painter. "I immersed myself in his letters. I scanned his biography in search of those moments -- intimate or public -- by which I could tell the story of how he became a painter and ruined his life at the same time. I tried to get to the spirit and intensity of the man as it unfolds in his work. The result, with its magnificent score, will be a riveting piece of musical theater."

"This opera is taking place at the largest and best opera school in the country," said Rands. "It's a wonderful opportunity for young people, whether they're instrumentalists, vocalists or scenic designers, to be involved in a project like this early in their careers."

"I'm grateful for the opportunity," said Rands. "This is the fulfillment of a lifelong desire to write an opera and is the culmination of much in my musical life."