When composer Scott Eyerly decided to turn Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel "The House of the Seven Gables" into an opera, he had no idea it would take 10 years before it reached the stage earlier this month.
"I don't think I really realized what I was getting myself into just in sheer work," Eyerly said recently. "I figured it would take some years. If someone had told me it would have taken more than 10 years, I think I might have said I can't handle this emotionally. So I'm glad I didn't know."
Eyerly, who is on the faculty at Juilliard, was previously a student there under composer Elliott Carter. He has also composed a Sinfonia for Brass Octet, which was recorded last year featuring trumpeter Jeff Silberschlag. His other commissions include a work for the New York Youth Symphony that premiered at Carnegie Hall and his Music for Six, which was premiered by the Hexagon Ensemble in 1992.
The House of the Seven Gables saw its premiere at the Manhattan School of Music on December 6. But the quest to write what would become his first opera began when Eyerly started asking friends for ideas back in 1990 and one suggested the Hawthorne book.
"My only preference was that it would be something American. I figure you had to narrow it down and I liked the idea of doing something American," Eyerly said. "I loved it immediately. I think it's almost like when you fall in love with a person. I can mention a couple of things that drew me to it, but I don't want to underestimate just the visceral, personal connection I immediately felt with the book. I had the feeling, 'This is it!'"
The House of the Seven Gables tells the story of a mysterious house in 19th-century Salem, Massachusetts, and of its equally mysterious inhabitants. The story follows Hepzibah Pyncheon, who owns the house and takes care of her brother Clifford, who has regressed to a childlike state after decades in prison on a murder charge. Hovering over them and the others living in the house is the curse of Matthew Maule, who was hanged in 1692 for witchcraft because a former Pyncheon family member wanted Maule's land. Since then, the family's history has been riddled with unexplained deaths and ghostly encounters.
"I loved the atmosphere," said Eyerly. "You have this huge gloomy house and I thought that would look good on stage. I thought it would be creepy.... I was also fascinated by the characters. I wanted very nuanced, and in some cases, almost eccentric characters. The third thing is that there is a very powerful morality in the story. I think some things are bad, like screwing people over, and one of the things in the novel is about the way a man's life is destroyed because of the greed of another person. I really wanted to show that in a way that was entertaining and white hot."
The work began in earnest when he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1992. He decided to use the money from the grant to spend a summer in Salem, getting a feel for the location. In fact, the real House of the Seven Gables, which Hawthorne visited while writing the novel, still exists.
"Even though the story is fictional, I liked the fact that there's an actual house that still stands," Eyerly said. "I thought I could go there and see what he saw."
After taking several tours of the house, Eyerly mentioned jokingly to the guide that he would love to spend some time alone in the house. The guide told him that it could be arranged for him to spend the night there.
"There is a period room off limits to the regular tour, and very rarely once every year or so a Hawthorne scholar will be allowed to actually sleep there," Eyerly recalled. "I brought my toothbrush and pajamas and it was a dark and stormy night."
Eyerly is quick to point out that he saw no ghost of Hawthorne or anyone else during the night, but he wrote several pages of notes about his experience.
"Even before I had spent the night, I had this feeling in the novel that the house itself is a character. I liked the idea of a musical theme that would represent the house and because of the title I also liked as a kind of musical secret there being themes that had seven notes or seven chords," Eyerly said.
Eventually he began using seven chords to construct the melodies and referred to his notes from the night in the house to build the libretto. As the opera began to take shape, Eyerly would share bits and pieces with friends and associates. It was at this point that Linda Brovsky, who would direct the opera, came into the picture.
"Because this was not a commission, I wasn't writing with an expectation of a particular company mounting it, so here I have to thank Linda Brovsky," Eyerly said. "As she would go to various places she was working, she'd ask if they were familiar with me and she'd tell them about the opera. Time and time again I got brushed off, usually nicely."
Because Brovsky had a relationship directing student productions at the Manhattan School she eventually brought the project to them. Brovsky's previous productions have been seen throughout the country, most notably for San Francisco Opera (L'Elisir d'Amore), Santa Fe (New Mexico) Opera (La traviata, Don Giovanni) and Los Angeles Opera (The Countess Maritza).
"She'd been working on [the Manhattan School board] over time and because of Linda's enthusiasm they remained interested," Eyerly recalled. "It took almost four years before they made a commitment. It was just a year ago that they called me and said they'd decided to do my piece."
The three shows went well, according to Eyerly. A recording of the opera was made and will be released on the Albany label in the spring. But he still hopes that a major company will take some interest in it and give it a professional premiere.
Eyerly is completing his next work, a song cycle commissioned by baritone Richard Cassell, based on texts by members of New York's famed Algonquin Round Table, which included such great literary wits of the 1930s as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. The work will premiere next year at the famed hotel in the very room where the round table members gathered.
As for another opera, Eyerly said, "I'm indeed often asked if I'd write another opera, and I laugh because I'm dying to write more. For opera number two I hope I can find an opera company interested enough in me and, God forbid, actually get paid to write it. That's my wish. I'll start next week if someone's got an idea."