Hannah Lash on her opera Beowulf

SusanLarsonPicQ & A with Susan Larson

SL: When you made this piece, did you imagine a sonic world first, or the dramatic situation first, or the philosophical problem first? Or do these elements arrive simultaneously or in a random sequence? Not that it matters much. But you may discuss your creative process here.

HL: The idea came first….I wanted to make a story about a hero who was suffering, a monster who was a situation, and a situation which was tragic, beautiful, full of love and loss. Then I wrote a synopsis, and from there the libretto, in many, many drafts. But as the libretto was emerging, so was the sound world of the piece in my imagination. I knew the kind of music I wanted to write; just the sense of it… its aroma.

SL: Why the name Beowulf? The name is freighted with a particular sort of bare-handed violence, so when I heard the title I was ready for rending arms and underwater wrestling.  Do you like the surprise factor?  Or the idea of an aged king using the last of his strength to fight a dragon and save his people?

HL: I think archetypes are very powerful in opera. When we invoke them, we immediately engage something in our social consciousness to which many people can immediately relate. The more I worked with my ideas, the more it occurred to me that my story bore some type of relationship to the Beowulf legend. I wanted to refer to the archetype of a hero, to signal immediately to the audience that the story they are about to hear in my opera is about a struggle for life and death. So I used the title, and a few structural points of my story relate roughly to its namesake.

 SL: Are there other literary sources for this story besides the Beowulf saga?

HL: No. Not direct ones. And I would stress that the Beowulf epic poem lurks only in the very back of my story, as a kind of anchor for the human emotional thread that runs throughout.

SL: Why did you choose not to collaborate with a librettist?

HL: This story and the way I wanted to tell it felt so particular, so personal, that it seemed only right that I should write it myself. It was one of those wholly internal creative processes that need a great deal of nourishment in a dark environment to survive. I needed to be absolutely alone with my own ideas to make this piece. I shared my libretto with trusted friends along the way, and was open to feedback, but this is a road I needed to walk alone.

SL: Can you name a few of your mentors?

HL: Martin Bresnick, Steven Stucky, Julian Anderson, Robert Morris, Bernard Rands.

SL: Are there other harpist-composers? Are there characteristics, either sonic or mechanical, (i.e. open strings, pedaling, a harmony instrument, etc )of the harp, that have shaped your musical imagination?

HL: There are extremely few harpist-composers. It’s especially odd for a composer to play the harp (as opposed to a harpist compose). But I think of myself as being a composer first, not being defined by my instrument. Harp is a big part of my life, and being a very proficient harpist is quite important to me, and helps keep me limber and agile as a musician in general. But my instrument has not shaped my imagination particularly. It is a sound I love and one that often is foregrounded in my orchestral pieces as well as chamber works with harp, but I hope as a composer that my impact upon the harp will be greater than its impact upon my compositional voice.

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