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The Troubled Kids Club

An interview with composer Melissa Dunphy on “Everything for Dawn”

Olivia Giovetti of VAN Magazine

Starting tomorrow, the New York-based Experiments in Opera will launch its latest venture: a ten-part video opera series told in 15-minute segments. Each segment is written by a different composer-librettist team. In “Everything for Dawn,” the eponymous heroine spends her critical teenage years coming to terms with her father’s mental illness and eventual suicide, which is further complicated when his paintings become posthumously celebrated as “outsider art.”

As someone whose first work for VAN detailed my relationship to my father’s suicide and its convergence with art and opera, the plot was like catnip for all its personal relevance and meaning. For composer (and fellow VAN contributor) Melissa Dunphy, who teamed up with librettist Krista Knight to write Episode Six, “At the Crack of Dawn,” there was a similar resonance: While she and Knight depict Dawn’s first visit to her father in a mental hospital, Dunphy also drew on her own experiences having a parent in in-patient care.

I recently spoke with Dunphy via Zoom about her contribution to the series, and she immediately jumped into why she said “yes” and why her seemingly random episode assignment hit so close to home.

Melissa Dunphy: I kind of said “Yes” with just an elevator pitch that they gave to me about what the whole thing was. And then it was really interesting, because I kind of wasn’t in on the discussions of how the episodes would be divided up and who gets what part of the story. And when they divvied it up and said, “OK, you and Krista [Knight] will be working on Dawn’s first visit to the mental hospital, that was the point at which I sent them an email and was like, “You know, I have a lot of personal experience in this area…”

My mother has severe bipolar disorder. Her first major episode was when I was seven. Even though she was medicated, the medications didn’t completely control the episodes that she was going through. So on an at-least-annual basis, she would have a major psychotic episode and end up in a mental hospital. I grew up visiting her in these hospitals, and I have really visceral memories of what it was like. When we talk about mental health, we—quite rightly—often center the people who are mentally ill and their experience of mental illness. Even now, but certainly in the 1980s and ’90s, there was not a whole lot of conversation about how mental illness—particularly of a parent, but I think of any close family member—means that the entire family has to deal with it. You can’t just be like, “One person is mentally ill, so they’re dealing with their mental illness.” Your whole family is dealing with it. The complicated relationship that you have with a mentally ill-parent, it shapes so much of your childhood, your worldview. The parent is traditionally and conceptually supposed to be this rock of stability. Then you see that they can’t be. And, especially if you’re young when you experience that for the first time, it affects you in this really deep way. You cannot rely on this parent because of their mental illness. They will react in ways that don’t make sense to you. As a child, you take that on in a really interesting way; you make up all these things in your head. It’s like, “If I were just a better daughter…” Or, “Maybe I could fix them somehow. Maybe it’s me…” It’s a way of trying to retain control.

This is not just a story that I’m trying to tell. This is also excavating a lot of my history.

VAN: Many of your works have personal layers, but was this your first time excavating that particular part of your personal history?

In this very overt way? Absolutely, yeah. I have on the back burner this opera about Ayn Rand, which is talking about some of the issues in my family. But Ayn Rand didn’t have children. So I never had to dig into, “How did Ayn Rand’s particular brand of mental issues affect a child?” It affected her sexual partners and the people around her, but a child is a very different beast. My therapist had so much to say about it. She was like, “You’re writing the story of your own family and you’ve literally chosen a story that has erased the children from the story. What does that say about you?” [Laughs.] It was like, “Fuck you, therapist! That is something to think about.”

This particular episode is very much from Dawn’s perspective. Again, these were things that were outside of my control, but this happens a lot with creative projects where the universe almost lands something in your lap and it’s more perfect than anybody curating the project even knows. I am about the same age as Dawn was in her timeline; the opera is set in the mid-’90s and Dawn is 15, 16 [in our episode]. I was born in 1980. So the timeline is perfect. And having that experience of being a teenager and going and visiting my mother in a mental hospital [was] nothing that I’ve ever covered in my creative work before.

How much did that come through in the libretto?

Krista sent me a first draft of the libretto, and I was like, “OK, let’s go back and forth on some things, because I have all of this personal experience that I think can make this much more accurate to the experience.” The minutiae of what a mental hospital smells like—

That’s what I was going to ask about, because that line where Dawn mentions the smell of mashed potatoes felt so specific that it couldn’t have come from anything but a lived experience.

It’s the food and the disinfectant, and it always smells the same. I know this from many years of visiting hospitals: Entering the hospital, coming in from outside, riding up the elevator, the elevator opens, and you’re hit with this smell which just stays with you forever. There were lots of things in the libretto which I think we basically lifted completely out of my initial email to Krista.

What else?

The sort of fearful anticipation. When I went into a mental hospital for the first time, I was very young and very small—not Dawn’s age—but I remember not knowing at all what to expect. Is it going to be like in the movies? Is it going to be really scary? There’s all this security and lockdown, and it sort of feels like your parent is in jail. It’s overwhelming and it’s terrifying for a first-time visitor to think, What am I gonna see? It didn’t look anything like I expected.

And then the awkwardness of seeing your relative in the hospital and talking with them for the first time. You know why your parent is in there. [In “Everything for Dawn,”] there’s this sort of unspoken undercurrent in the libretto of what happened that landed him in there. It’s something that really hurt Dawn. So there’s that weirdness of being the child of a mentally-ill parent. You don’t want to be angry at them for something they can’t control. But at the same time, it did hurt you and you have no recourse. It’s so frustrating, because you don’t feel like you can say anything about it directly. If you do, it enters into this huge complicated argument of, “You hurt me, but you couldn’t help it because you were sick, but was that really you or wasn’t it?”

It’s that guilt of having needs.

That’s totally right. Because there’s that whole thing where it’s like, “Your parent is sick.” This has been explained to us over and over again: “Your parent is sick and you can’t get your needs met by a sick person.” But you’re still a child! You still have needs as the child of a mentally-ill parent. But you can’t ask for things anymore. That forces you to grow up much more quickly. Which, I think, over the course of the episode, you see Dawn [do]… By the end of it, the big realization for me was Krista’s line: “I have to save myself, you can’t save me.” Which is huge—a really momentous moment for any child to have. But it has to happen so quickly when your parent has a mental illness and is incapacitated in some way and can’t give you what you need. I’ve had similar discussions with kids of alcoholic parents, for example.

Are there other ways your experience helped to reshape the libretto?

In the first draft of the libretto, [Dawn] was talking about how horrible it was to have her dad be in hospital. And I was like, “OK, here’s the weird thing: It’s actually amazing when your parent goes to the hospital.” There’s all this guilt associated with that, but it’s like this huge relief off of your shoulders: “Oh my God, I’ve been dealing with this mentally-ill parent in my space and in my home for so long, and now they’ve gone off to get treatment, and my life feels 1000 percent better than it was when I had to deal with them every day.” You feel so guilty about that as a child, because you’re like, “I’m actually cheering for the fact that my parent is in hospital.”

So Krista took a lot of this and was like, “OK, we’re gonna rework that whole number, and she’s actually going to say to her dad: ‘My life is pretty good now that you’re in hospital.’” And of course, if you say that out loud, the person in hospital is deeply offended or hurt. It was really cathartic for me as an artist. And, I hope, much more realistic for anyone who’s gone through that experience. And also putting yourself into the head of a 16-year-old who doesn’t have the filter or understanding that what they’re gonna say is actually gonna really cut their parent to the core. It’s no one’s fault, but how do you deal with hurting your parent? And then, if your parent does kill themselves, what that might do to you in the future—looking back and thinking about all of the times that you said things… It’s heavy subject matter.

But to your point, it’s so rare that we see this side of things. In operas that portray suicide or mental illness, it’s often romanticized as this lovely Young Werther type of thing. To say nothing of how children are portrayed. In “Wozzeck,” the son doesn’t have a name. In the Met’s production of “Madama Butterfly,” Butterfly and Pinkerton’s son is literally a puppet.

Jacki Lyden, the NPR reporter, wrote a book, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, which is a memoir about growing up with her mother who was bipolar. I read it probably in the early 2000s, and I love that book to death. Her mother is not the same as my mother, but it was the first time I had read about the same kind of experience that I had.

But, like you said, it’s a newer thing that people are exploring that perspective: all of these feelings of guilt and resentment and the grief of not having the parent you wanted or expected to have.

To me, this project was a chance to explore all of this stuff and try to also share some of the complication of it—the fact that it’s not all doom and gloom. I wanted there to be light-heartedness as well in my episode. I have memories of laughing with my mother in mental hospital visiting rooms or having trivial arguments over bullshit in hospital visiting rooms. There are some insane stories that my mother would tell about other mental patients that I remember to this day, which were hysterical. If you put them out of context, it’s almost horrible that we’re laughing about the events at a mental hospital. But that’s humanity, you know what I mean?

I speak from experience when I say that nothing is as funny as a suicide survivor support group.

When I was a teenager, I had this group of close friends. We called ourselves The Troubled Kids Club. We all had different but severe family problems, and the reason we bonded so well was, yes, we’d all gone through family trauma of some kind, but it was mostly because we could tell jokes and stories and nobody would freak out.… [With] most people, there’d just be incredible concern. And [we were] more like, “Your mom chased you with an ax?! Oh my God, that sucks! Like in a horror movie?” “Yeah, seriously! She had an ax like the dude in ‘The Shining’!” And then we’d all just crack up laughing at the image of my mom chasing me with an ax. [Laughs.] And, you know, you tell “normal” people this story and they’re like, [sober tone] “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. That’s the worst thing in the world.” And it is bad. I’m not saying that it’s good or normal. But the ability to approach that topic with that experience gets you out of the need to create victims and create this story that’s just: Oh, look at this trauma, wasn’t that terrible?

Do you think there is a victim in “Everything for Dawn”?

I think it’s much more complicated than that. Which is a reason why I was drawn to the initial topic. There are no victims. There are no heroes. There are no Mary Sues. If anything, everyone in the story is complicated; everybody has their own agenda. Even the art therapist in the hospital… It doesn’t happen in my episode so much, but I wanted to sort of hint at what’s to come, which is that she has this idea that she’s discovered this incredible artist and now she wants to push it forward, and after he dies it’s like, Do you have the right to do that? It’s this big question. Every single character in this story has fucked up in some ways, or is in ethical gray areas in some ways. Dawn is this typical teenager: She’s a little self-obsessed and self-absorbed with her own teenage experience. But she’s also suffering under the situation of the family at home. And I think that’s really important and doesn’t happen in opera a lot, because we tend to just want straight-up archetypes of: The ingenue is the perfect woman, and everybody loves her, and then she gets consumption.

And this is the root of so much misogyny in opera. It’s the root of so much of what in opera becomes offensive. Eventually, we examine it and go, “Wow, this is a really one-dimensional telling of this story.” Yes, the libretto is gonna be shorter than a play, so you can’t necessarily dig into all of these issues in the text. But if you have a text where you can hang the musical story on it in such a way that touches on some of that complication, for me that’s what’s exciting about opera. It’s implicit more than explicit a lot of the time.

How do you touch on the complications of this story in your episode?

We’re placing this in the mid-’90s, and this was the period when I started getting into rock music—hard rock music, alternative rock music. So I was like, “Oh, that’s totally who Dawn is.” Maybe I’m projecting myself onto Dawn a little bit. But also, come on: You’re 16 years old in the mid-’90s? That’s what you’re doing. That’s what you’re listening to.

With all of my experience following ’90s alt-rock stuff, I really haven’t let that influence come into my music a lot of the time. Mostly what I write is choral music, that’s my bread and butter. It has slipped in, in certain places, but it’s pretty hard to find a Nine Inch Nails influence in a choral piece that I wrote for a Unitarian choir. [Laughs.] So this was my chance to just go hog-wild on some of that. They told me who the instrumentalists were, and I was like, “Oh, I’m getting a drummer? This is exactly what this is gonna be.” It’s different from the other episodes in a lot of ways, because I really leaned into that ’90s rock flavor. But I also think it’s true to Dawn’s voice, at least my conception of teenage Dawn.

And then there are these sort of anthem numbers that I gave to her dad as well. He’s a working-class Detroit dude, and there’s a weird tension of having working-class Detroit dudes sing classical opera. Do you really want him to do that? That’s also a question about opera that we’re thinking about now. People often use the word “elevate” when they talk about opera. “We’re ‘elevating’ the story.” What does that actually mean?

Even something like “La traviata” sounds elevated now, but so much of it was riffs on popular music of the era.

Right, but we interpret it as this high-class thing because that’s what classical music is.

It reminds me of a scene in “Futurama” where one of the characters refers to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” as classical music.

We’re at this weird crossroads: Where does the classical music tradition fit into music culture [at large] in our society? I think it’s one of the big reasons why so many young composers are like, “I wanna do film music.” Because that is a place where classical music still fits into the culture in a sort of Western classical music form. You hear a John Williams score, it’s clearly from that tradition. But I think, in the 21st century, so much of what we do musically is crossing over, pushing those boundaries without so much gatekeeper culture saying, “No, you can’t do that.” Some of those walls have come down to some degree. Especially with a project like this, where it’s this hip young group in New York City and you can kind of do whatever you want. I was like, “OK, this is what this libretto is sounding like in my head. I don’t have to worry about some academic dude telling me that drums or a rock beat doesn’t belong in an opera; or that it sounds too much like fucking Andrew Lloyd Weber or something.

I think you’ve hit on something that is also unique to opera: this need we have to define it against and separate it from musical theater. It used to be that opera was sung all the way through and musical theater had breaks. But then something like “Jesus Christ Superstar” or Gilbert and Sullivan happens and you end up playing this weird game of triangulation.

I hate it. I think it’s all bullshit. I ask my students all the time: “What is the actual difference between an art song and a singer-songwriter song?” And they sort of throw all these things up like, “Oh, it’s for a piano.” OK, here’s Alicia Keys singing something at the piano. Is that an art song? “No…” Why not? Because there’s syncopation? Because she’s singing and playing the piano at the same time? I am very much against the divide between musical theater and opera, I think that’s bullshit. I hesitate to put labels on things. Obviously, people want to put genre labels on things. I’ve heard people say, “What if it’s all music theater, and then we have different genres of music theater?” That makes a lot more sense to me than saying, “This work belongs in an opera house. This work belongs in a Broadway theater.”

The drum kit in “Everything for Dawn”… if I took the drum kit out of some of the numbers, it wouldn’t sound rock at all. Then you stick a drum kit in it, and suddenly it’s musical theater. Because with a drum kit, we interpret that sound as not classical. And I’m sure in decades past, people were like, “Oh, you put a saxophone in your orchestral piece? Now it’s no longer classical.” But that realization makes me want to double down on it and be like, “Maybe I’m gonna put a drum kit in every opera I write from now on, and then you can decide what the genre is!”

Do you think with this type of project, where it’s multiple composers each telling one part of the same story in an episodic way, that underscores the point about genre ambivalence?

I have seen both successful and unsuccessful versions of projects like this. In some ways, things like TV shows have prepared us for this.

Right, the production schedule is built in such a way that you can’t have the same writer or director consistently working on each episode.

Exactly. With some of the TV shows that I love, you feel the change in the timbre of the show, and then, at the end, you see who the director was and think, “Oh, OK, I see this is their take on this section of the story, with these characters played by the same actors.” I didn’t know that they were gonna do this because this was past my involvement in it, but they actually sort of filmed it almost like a TV show. It has these ’90s-like credits. That’s perfect. So we’ve had this form of art in our public consciousness before where multiple people, multiple teams are telling one narrative, but each episode is going to have a slightly different take. So you will have different genres—different genres of music, or different styles of music. But to me, audiences are more and more used to seeing the narrative told in different ways throughout.

Because we as the composers couldn’t listen to what the other composers were writing, there’s a little bit of an almost exquisite corpse feel going on. You’re not going to tie your material thematically to the stuff that’s come before; you’re not really passing off the baton to the next one. It’s a credit to the people organizing that they picked composers whose genre styles gel with each other.

Going back to what you said about humor, it’s one thing to have that in the libretto, but how did you work with that in the music itself?

I launched my career with “The Gonzales Cantata,” and that was something at the forefront of my mind: Comedy is much harder than tragedy, especially in opera. It seems like all the new operas that are coming out are about really dark subjects. And I understand why: You have to have a sense of comedic timing, which means the librettist can write the funniest fucking libretto on God’s earth, and if the composer fucks up the timing, it’s not funny anymore. So you have to have a sense of what makes you laugh and how to make people laugh. Which is hard, and definitely not something they teach in music school. But I was kind of obsessed with the idea when I wrote “The Gonzales Cantata.”

For “Everything for Dawn,” there were certain parts of it that were amusing to me. Such as when Dawn suddenly starts asking about driving the car. It’s mundane, it’s funny—it’s a real teenager moment that she has brought into this situation. So it’s about thinking about the timing of when these lines are coming out: How is she gonna sing them, what are the pauses in between when she delivers the line? And thinking about instrumentation that in some ways lets the audience know it’s OK to laugh, which I think is actually one of the most important parts of comedy in music.… But dramatists understand: You can’t have something break your heart unless you’ve laughed at the same time.

I was speaking with Lise Davidsen about this recently following her performance in “Tannhäuser” at Bayreuth. I kept getting dirty looks from the guy next to me because I was laughing during the production, and she said that was kind of the whole point: If the production opened us up to these funny moments, the tragedy in the final act hits you that much harder.

I’ve seen two productions of “Lulu” at the Met. One of them was funny, and I think “Lulu” is supposed to be funny—and that people forget it’s supposed to be funny. And then at the end, as ludicrous as the plot was, I was so sad. And the second one I saw dug into this sort of expressionistic aesthetic, and it wasn’t funny. I was like, “I’m bored. I hate this. I don’t care about Lulu.” So yeah, absolutely. To me, I wanted to bring that out in my episode: that there’s humor in this situation, as tragic as it sounds in a one-sentence blurb. And that, hopefully, is the moment when you fall in love with Dawn a little bit—as much as she’s being a self-absorbed teenager and as much as you see the aching tragedy of her relationship with her dad.

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