STAMFORD – City native David Hughes is returning home to present his first opera, “Gracchus,” directed by Kevin Collins, at The Palace Theatre on Aug. 19.
“It’s exciting,” said Hughes, who attended high school at Fairfield College Preparatory School before studying music at Yale University.
Now living in Woodbury, the composer says writing his opera has been a massive undertaking.
“It’s a very large opera in any measure, both in terms of length and in terms of the number of performing artists involved,” Hughes said. “It’s been exciting to see these extraordinarily talented performers bring this work which has been in my mind for so long to life on the stage in such a compelling and enthusiastic way.”
Set in Rome around 120 B.C., “Gracchus” tells the story of Gaius Gracchus, played by David Vanderwal, a tribune who has become complacent in his responsibilities to the Roman people. He is challenged by the ghost of his dead brother, Tiberus, played by James Gregory, to reform the Roman Senate.
It features nine principal solosts, Hughes said, with several soloists playing multiple characters, a 16-voice chorus, and a 20-piece orchestra.
“The opera is in two acts,” he said. “It was originally in three, and we’ll be staging it with two intermissions. It’s just a little over three hours long.”
Hughes said when he and librettist Richard Munkelt started pitching the opera to various companies, they had reservations about it being three hours long.
“I’d see how wide their eyes would get,” he said. “They would say, ‘This is your first opera? Why not start with something smaller?’”
The opera is an adaptation of a play written by Munkelt, who based it on Greek philosopher Plutarch’s account of Gracchus.
“I find this such an utterly compelling story,” Hughes said. “It was this story that made me interested in composing an opera. To tell it properly, it had to be fleshed out and to have all the plots and subplots resolved in a satisfying manner.”
The historical epic also features three ballets choreographed by Elizabeth Buccheister.
“There’s one that’s danced on a hill between a young lad and a young lass to set the tone of the evening in Rome,” Hughes said. “There’s a beautiful ballet that’s danced at the beginning of act two at the great reconciliation between Gaius and his wife, Licinia. The choreographer has done a wonderful job of showing what reconciliation looks like. Going from a place of alienation to a place of forgiveness to a place of renewed love. At the very end … the entire opera concludes with a very gentle ballet expressing the hope for the future.”
Hughes said he first became interested in becoming a composer at age 7.
“I’d been taking private piano instruction since I was 5,” he said.
When he would go to his piano lessons, Hughes said, he’d want to play music he made up, something his piano teacher entertained.
“In the music school in Stamford [where] I was taking piano lessons, there was a composition teacher on the faculty,” he said. “My parents talked to him and they asked me if I would like to take composition.”
Hughes said he misunderstood the proposal, thinking he’d have to give up piano. So he agreed to study composition.
“My mom said, ‘You need to practice the piano even more then,’ and that was so wonderful,” he said. “The performance of music is closely tied to the writing of music. My entire professional life has been working primarily as a conductor and an organist/pianist and, of course, as a composer.”
Now at 43, Hughes said the impetus to compose has never left him, though he has sometimes concentrated more on performance.
“In my 20s, I concentrated a great deal of my time on organ performance,” he said, ultimately leading to a full-time position at St. Patrick’s Oratory in Waterbury.
“I’m so happy to work there because the church is so supportive of sacred music,” he said. “Gregorian chants are a particular interest of mine. It’s a musical interest, an academic interest, and a spiritual interest. The Gregorian chant is at the heart of the traditional Latin Mass, which is done at St. Patrick’s. It’s a wonderful thing as a musician, to be somewhere where Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and organ repertoire and improvisation is the order of the day.”
Early classical music was an inspiration for him when structuring “Gracchus,” he said, particularly from late Renaissance and early Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi, and Classical era composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
“Not necessarily in terms of harmonic language,” Hughes clarified, “but in terms of structure and in terms of cohesion with the drama. As far as structure, Monteverdi and Mozart are the greatest inspiration. In terms of harmonic language, there’s so much that’s mixed in there.”
In terms of the harmonic language, Hughes said he was deeply inspired by 20th-century composers like John Adams and Benjamin Britten, as well as Baroque composer Henry Purcell.
“I’m trained as a jazz pianist too,” he said. “There’s a hint of harmonic language, but it’s not jazzy.”
Unlike traditional Latin operas, Hughes’ made his in English.
“We decided to make it in English,” he said. “It would complicate the process of revision of the libretto if it was in Latin. We had to be sure we were using exactly the right word and not other shades of meaning that were not intentionally implied.”
Though set in the late Roman Republic, Hughes said the opera’s themes of loyalty, betrayal and reconciliation are universal.
“The political analogues are ones that tend to recur throughout history as well,” he said. “Even though it’s set in the late Roman Republic, it’s very much an opera of our time. The perennial conflict of the haves and the have nots is at the heart of the political backstory of the opera.”
Hughes said he has been astonished by the talented cast bringing his characters to life.
“It’s no longer just music on the page or me playing my way through on the piano,” he said. “These are top-notch operatic singers who are bringing these characters to life in every sense.”
He got to know most of the performers through past choral work, allowing Hughes the opportunity to write music to fit their voices.
“I didn’t know it would be possible for this friend or that friend to sing in this production, but it’s been a thrill that every singer I wrote for a particular part was free to take part in this production,” he said.
So far, Saturday’s performance is the only one scheduled as Hughes and Munkelt had to produce it themselves.
“[We] decided the best chance our opera stood of seeing the light of day is if we produced it ourselves,” he said. “That has been no small undertaking. It’s entirely self-financed thanks to the extraordinary generosity of our benefactors. We put together this whole extraordinary team. It’s our hope that this concept will be sufficiently compelling for other opera companies to take a serious look at the piece.”
He said he’d love to see the show get picked up by an opera company, and has already received inquiries from several companies in Europe to produce it either as a fully staged drama or in concert form.
“We’d love to see something similar in this country, too,” he said. “These characters in the opera are so real to me. They feel like friends of mine. Sharing these characters through the literary imagination of Richard Munkelt and my own musical imagination, it’s a great joy.”