A Literal Space Opera: An Interview with the Composer of Red Giant

Red Giant is a science-fiction operetta about three people in a spaceship fleeing a planet in orbit around a dying star that’s about to go supernova. The story and music are by composer Adam Matlock, who asked me to write the libretto (we just happen to be in a band together). The operetta was commissioned by Rhymes with Opera, a Baltimore-based company; RWO will be staging and performing Red Giant in Baltimore on January 11 and 12 and the New York City area on January 18 and 19.

On the eve of its tour, I got to chat with Adam about our collaboration, and what can happen when you put science fiction and opera together.

 

Brian Slattery: So, when you asked me to write the libretto to Red Giant, I had to say yes. Why not write a science fiction operetta, right? But why did you want to do a science-fiction opera as opposed to, you know, anything else? And second, you’re a perfectly capable writer. Why did you want me to give you the words to work with?

Adam Matlock: As far as that first question goes, it has as much to do with my love of science fiction and greater comfort in brainstorming the realistic when there is a fantastic backdrop as much as it has to do with my desire to actually see an SF opera. There was no point when I thought, “science fiction opera, let’s go!”—though I always thought that if I ever wrote an opera, it would have something to do with science fiction because on some intangible level, the genre has inspired me musically. Opera and the fantastic are also very much a long-term and functional pairing; opera has never had the stigma about the genre of its libretto that other mediums have had. And in the last forty years, there have been a few pure-SF operas—they’re rare, and because opera is a finicky and expensive medium, they don’t get performed so often—but they’re out there. Howard Shore wrote an opera based on David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Tod Machover adapted Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (which I’m really curious about) and also collaborated with MIT’s robotics department on an opera about robots with consciousness. So there’s a short tradition of SF opera in the works.

The second question has a simpler answer: I tried to start a few times, and didn’t like what I came up with. I’m out of practice as a writer of anything but song lyrics, and the few times I wrote libretto-like things for music that I was writing, it was a huge pain. Plus, we already had a rapport about stories and storytelling, to the point where our first conversations about the idea would probably resemble twinspeak to an outside party.

BS: I’d never written a libretto before, so a lot of the fun of writing it was in leaving space for the music, and in realizing, as I went along, just how much the music could do narrative work—and especially convey emotion. That meant that I could get away with things I couldn’t if I was just writing fiction. This isn’t all that surprising, in hindsight. A lot of what I like about science fiction is the way it dramatizes ideas; from that perspective, science fiction operas actually make a lot of sense.

AM: There is something about staged drama that gives room for things to get weird without explanation. I’m not super well-versed in the dramatic canon, but it seems like I’ve come across plenty of plays where things happen that you could only call mystical that audiences just take for granted. The idea of that—working in tandem with an SF backdrop, where suspension of disbelief is a major concern—was interesting to me. What could the dramatic setting and the music do for the story? How could we do the world-building and the personal drama in the words and music without needing to lean on expensive visual cues?

BS: The structure of the story—I can’t remember if it was your idea or mine—flips back and forth between the present, with the three characters stuck in the spaceship, and the past, explaining how things came to be as they are. The backstory, as I wrote it, is full of passages that could be accused of being infodumps.

AM: Those were the parts I planned as arias. From the opera I’ve encountered, arias often not only provide a technical and emotional showcase for the singers, but also get the responsibility of passing along exposition and backstory too. They’re historically a great way to both foreshadow and fill the audience in, and with appropriate music it doesn’t feel anywhere near as pretentious as a voiceover track, or several pages of tangential world-details.

BS: The other thing that I laughed to myself about is that, after three novels, the operetta is where I finally did some hard SF. But (to my relief) it all let me circle back to what I think is a central problem with stories about the end of everything, whether it’s by meteor or nuclear war or climate change or exploding stars: If there’s nothing after the end, then what’s the point of writing? There has to be some hope that something survives—though you have to turn your BS detector way up to make sure the hope is earned. Science fiction is particularly good at tackling that kind of problem head-on. But also, the list of musical compositions written about staring into the abyss and pulling something meaningful out of it is a mile long.

AM: I once stumbled across a bit of writing advice geared toward genre writers, saying they should ask: “If then, what?” Sure the premise is important, but consumers of SF know better than to just be satisfied with that. And of course the “now what” part is usually best addressed by seeing how humans—or something close enough to humans—react. Even if the premise is outside of our experience, we know what a survival instinct feels like. And in music there definitely is a long tradition of reacting to the intangible, whether that is a deity, or the composer’s depression, or a real-life tragedy that affected them indirectly. I think music—distinct from prose—blurs the lines between external and internal abyss in a really great way, and sometimes suggests that the distinction is pointless, which can give a really awesome perspective on the “what comes after” stage of a life-altering event. With a lot of the most enduring music, audiences aren’t required to know the context in order to appreciate it. I don’t appreciate Mozart’s requiem any less because I don’t know anything about the person it was commissioned for. It addresses, to my satisfaction, the question of “how the hell do we move on after this?” just as well as the greatest post-event fiction does.

BS: Let’s talk a little bit about the ending. You’d mentioned that you wanted something that would let you combine all three voices into a trio. That was the part where I gave you the least to work with—just fragments of text that circle back to the beginning, really—and it’s the part where the music takes over, and takes off.

AM: I think it’s a classic example of a “theater ending,” where narrative time stops completely and we get something that’s just as unexplainable as some deus ex machina trick, but hopefully more satisfying. I didn’t want to just shove a conclusion in there, but I did want to be able to take a leap at one. The music for that scene kind of wrote itself because I had an explanation in the back of my mind—that these three, and their individual identities, which I had made a real point of differentiating in the music (the keys and scales each character primarily sing in and the setting of the text), get to have a moment in which their distinctions and irreconcilable opinions just kind of blur.

To me it’s one of the great things that staged drama can do with narrative. Blurring three people is pretty mystical if you take it literally, so it almost always ends up feeling more symbolic, though without the need to either justify it as symbolism or provide an explicit example of it “really” happening elsewhere in the libretto. It gets at what opera can accomplish as such an interdisciplinary medium. At its best, it can cherry-pick the elements of various storytelling traditions to make something that works, in the sense that it makes good drama. Ultimately, that was my concern, to tell a story in a way that I didn’t think could be told as well in another medium. It just so happens that combining science fiction and opera let me do it.

 

Get more information on the upcoming Red Giant performances in Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Jersey City.

Image of red giant by Wikimedia user Fsgregs.


Brian Slattery is an editor, writer, and musician with three novels published by Tor.

Adam Matlock is a music composer, performer, and teacher; Red Giant is the latest product of his effort to integrate science fiction with his composition and writing.

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