“If you see them from half a mile away, you know who the artist is.” The composer Bernard Rands is talking about the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Although today van Gogh’s paintings are arguably the most well known in the world, during his short and troubled life, van Gogh was a nonentity, able to sell just one piece.
For Rands, van Gogh’s story has amounted to a journey that began 40 years ago and is just now reaching its destination. In this case, the destination is Bloomington, Indiana, and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Rand’s opera, Vincent, will receive its world premiere, April 8-16 in celebration of the Jacobs School’s 100th Anniversary.
Vincent’s genesis took place in Amsterdam in 1973, at the opening of the Van Gogh Museum. “I was one of the first on the doorstep when it became open to the public,” says Rands, who was in the Netherlands for performances of some of his compositions.
“I had seen a great deal of his work in various museums around the world,” recalls Rands, speaking from an IU rehearsal hall. “But that particular lay-out was so striking in so many ways. I thought sometime, somewhere, I will make a theater work that will attempt to capture the nature of this man and his work.”
Rands had already forged a formidable international career for himself as a serious composer of concert music. Born in Sheffield, England in 1934, Rands’ work has been programmed by such renowned symphony conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Pierre Boulez, Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Slatkin.
A U.S. citizen since 1983, Rands’ Canti del Sole won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1984 and a recording of his Canti D’ Amor by men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer received a Grammy in 2000. He has taught at the Juillard School of Music, Yale and Harvard, where he is Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music Emeritus. Rands has received commissions for new works from the Boston, Cincinnati, and BBC symphony orchestras, as well as the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics. His Danza Petrificada will be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May, just a month after Vincent’s premiere.
The magazine Musical America called Rands “a composer with a poet’s sensibility and a painterly love of color and line.”
Rands’ artistic accomplishments and honors stand in stark contrast to those of his subject, Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh was born in Holland in 1853. He was a pastor’s son, who took up art in his late 20s, after a series of personal setbacks, including two busted romances, and the repeated failure to make a go of one job after another – bookstore clerk, art salesman, preacher.
In 1886, van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who worked in a Parisian art gallery, introduced Vincent to the art scene there. Van Gogh took classes and came in contact with Impressionism. He met such artists as Pissarro, Monet and Gauguin.
Eventually, van Gogh moved to the town of Arles, where he hoped to start a school of art. He persuaded Gauguin to join him there, but their friendship crashed. One night van Gogh attacked Gauguin with a razor; Gauguin escaped injury, but van Gogh turned the blade on himself, slashing his earlobe.
Van Gogh’s voluminous correspondence with Theo makes it clear that Vincent was painfully aware of his own mental instability. He checked himself into an asylum in Saint-Remy. At first he seemed to be recovering, but it didn’t last. Van Gogh shot himself and died two days later, at the age of 37.
Van Gogh created at least 900 paintings we know of, in barely 10 years. Although he sought recognition for his work, he was rejected again and again. He wrote that “a good picture is equivalent to a good deed.” And: “It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to…The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.”
Letting Vincent be Vincent
“I wouldn’t say that the temperament of the man is unique in the history of art,” says Bernard Rands of van Gogh, “but the combination of elements is virtually unique.”
After his experience at the Van Gogh Museum, Rands began to research the artist. Van Gogh served as inspiration for his orchestral piece, Le Tambourin, that has, in turn, informed his music.
“His art was an expression of his life,” says Rands. “His life was a particularly tortured one in many ways. He was a religious zealot from his father and his grandfather. It’s also pretty well established that he was an epileptic, which meant that his temperament, both physical and mental, was always in a delicate balance. One lives a life between complete control and completely out of control, without any warning. He was addicted to tobacco and alcohol. And so this unstable temperament made him go through these fast changes between affability and aggressiveness. We tried to find ways in which to let the man be who he is.”
Rands’ collaborator, the poet and libbrettist J.D. McClatchy, was given the job of putting Vincent’s experience into words. “I knew as much about van Gogh as anybody with a passing acquaintance about his life and work,” says McClatchy. “But I plunged back into the available biographies in English and the huge correspondence that he left behind, and it gave me a new sense of the character really, to be able to follow him through his eyes – what he thought he was doing and not what we look at and think he did.”
McClatchy was especially struck by what he calls van Gogh’s “religious obsession. The painting was a way of getting to God, not a goal in itself. His use of colors and detail was a way of acknowledging and praising God’s creation. The energy behind his drive to get some kind of transcendence through color and composition was, in many ways, a drive toward the Divine. Out of many failures with his family, in business, as a clergyman, he retreated and found that his only consolation, his only way of serving God and his fellow men, was to be an artist.”
Vincent, says Rands, was a misfit. “Vincent just doesn’t fit in society. He doesn’t fit in this life. He doesn’t fit in this world. And so, his only way, in the end, is to remove himself from it.”
Adds McClatchy: “We ended one of the scenes near the end where he literally eats the paint he’s working with, as if to become a painting himself. It’s that kind of drive and obsession that is scary to watch, and exhilarating at the same time.”
The future of music
“We were very interested in making sure the audience was as inside the paintings as van Gogh was in his creation of them and his imagination of them,” says McClatchy over the phone from New York City, where he serves as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in addition to his duties as editor of the Yale Review and the Voice of the Poet audio series.
Vincent uses virtually no built scenery, relying instead on digital projections and lighting design. “We create an atmosphere,” says Rands,” and a visual experience which is that of [Vincent’s] world, all derived from his paintings.” The opera plays in two acts, consisting of 13 scenes in all. “Each scene is like a tableau,” says Rands, “placing [Vincent] in various contexts where aspects of his temperament and character are made manifest.”
This makes the role of Vincent particularly demanding, says McClatchy. “That character, unlike many characters in operas, is on stage all the time. He is the center of every scene. There are adjacent characters in his parents and his lovers and his friends, and there are choruses and his brother, but really the center of the opera is one character.”
Rands says the Jacobs School of Music, which commissioned the opera, has proven to be a fine partner for this production. “Indiana University has a facility second only to the [Metropolitan Opera]. Its structure, the theater and all the workshops are very similar to a professional house. It is one of the great training schools for opera in the world, and probably the biggest and best in the United States. Another advantage of working in a context like this is we’re not just starting rehearsals in the last few weeks. They’ve been going on in one way or another along with preparations and discussions and planning for weeks and weeks and weeks. One wouldn’t be able to get that kind of dedication and extended preparation in a professional house, where everything has to be done in a much briefer time.”
McClatchy also praises the talent IU is able to put on stage. “I very much like working with young, talented singers. The young are enormously talented these days. They bring more than they used to 50 years ago. They bring a lot of experience, a lot of dedication to their art. When you look at how well-trained and disciplined and how focused they are – both the musicians and the singers – it’s really a very encouraging atmosphere in which to work. There’s the future of music.”
As for the future of opera, Rands feels optimistic. “It seems, on the surface, that the fact that there is something to look at, there’s action, there’s narrative, there’s music and all of the technological appendages that now go with it, is very suitable for audiences who, in the television age, are used to looking at something. They need more than one dimension. It’s different from going to the symphony or listening to a string quartet, where that’s what you have and that’s what you hear. It seems the attention spans of western cultures in general now need to be titillated, on many levels. So I think, in that sense, opera is going through a boom period.”
Van Gogh’s ghost
Rands hopes younger audiences will be drawn to new operas. “Maybe they’ll find it more fascinating.”
But he is also awed by the sheer expense of mounting a production. “It’s such an expensive art form. It’s massive. In here we’ve got an orchestra of 78 musicians, a chorus of 58. We’ve got ‘X’ number of characters and a double cast [equaling at total of 20 performers]. And then all of the technology! Directors and painters and costumes. It’s not something that can be thrown together in a brief period of time and cheaply.”
Given the artform’s demands, McClatchy says it’s no wonder that many opera companies across the country have been stressed. “There has been a jolt because of the worldwide financial crisis – there’s no doubt about that. But I think audiences are growing. Look at the success of the Met’s HD movie series. They’re all over the country, in small communities and large. People are flocking to see opera. The number of new operas being commissioned is also encouraging.”
This atmosphere makes the premiere of Vincent especially compelling. Representatives from opera houses around the world will be in attendance to see the IU production and to judge what comes next. “They may like it, they may not like it. I can’t do anything more about that,” says Rands equably of what may come of his 40-year journey with van Gogh’s ghost.
“He sacrificed a life to make more than a life,” says McClatchy of van Gogh. “Those kinds of tensions and ironies, and those kinds of exultations and sorrows are, I think, the stuff of opera to begin with, and this opera, in particular. It should make for a very exciting evening in the theater.”