Shah-Nameh's Rostam & Sohrab:
Something to sing about
By Shahram Sadri
May 19, 1998
Interview with American composer Don Dilworth on his opera, "Rostam".
It will be fantastic to see a story from Ferdowsi's Shah-Nameh as an opera. Don, When are you expecting to have the work on stage?
That's the big question. Right now I'm working on the final movement to "Rostam", but since I'm not famous yet, no one will speak to me. There are simply no channels for unknown composers. Everything is controlled by people who have connections or money, and they don't want to encourage new efforts. If I had several million dollars to hire an opera company, it would be performed right away. But I have to get a producer interested first, or find a sponsor who will underwrite the production. I'm working on that. Another possibility is to get a large number of Iranians interested in seeing the opera. I feel that if there were overwhelming support from the public, and clear indication that a producer would sell large numbers of tickets, someone might pick it up.
How much of the opera is already done?
I'm nearly done. Today I am at measure 320 of the last movement. Rostam will kill Sohrab in the next few minutes, and it's so gripping that I got up at 5:30 this morning so I could work on it. This opera demands total concentration, and my wife is extremely patient! So I do nothing else until it is done. I could send out the complete score in less than a week.
How did you start on the music path? Are you a composer by trade?
I discovered music when I heard a church choir as a child. I have never had an experience quite like that since. As for it being a "trade", I guess that means do I make a living at it. No way. I have many friends who are also composers (I belong to four composer's organizations), and none of them can make a living at it either. It's said that being a free-lance composer is the second hardest profession (being a poet is the first). The money is all in popular music, and even there it's rare to find success. In my business, which is classical concert music, everything is done for love, not money. Also, it costs money to perform anything, and many composers have to hire the performers themselves if they want to hear their work. So it's negative income!
What is your background? Where did you study music?
On my own time. I wanted to go to a conservatory, and I interviewed at one when I was in high school -- but they recommended that I not study music at all! They said that if I went to school there and got a degree in music I wouldn't be able to find a job. Well, I always try to take good advice, so I enrolled at MIT and studied physics instead. It was a good time to start a high-tech career, and I've had a whole set of adventures related to a consulting business that I started over 20 years ago. I have customers in many countries, and have traveled to many of the capitols of the world. I was even on the team that was responsible for the optics that went to the moon on the Apollo project. Most people would probably stop there, but still I wanted to write music. So I sold that business seven years ago and have been composing nearly full-time ever since.
I think that when you start music late in life you don't need all of the coaching that a young student needs. I've heard most of the world's operas, and I think I understand how they are put together. And I learn from my mistakes. I don't think I've ever made the same mistake twice, and by now my music is starting to sound convincing. With every passage I write I learn something -- and the music to "Rostam" is getting to be quite exciting.
What are the previous works that you have composed?
I've written lots of works (and heard very few of them performed!) It's nearly impossible to get anything played. These include six string quartets, concertos for the piano and for the violin, a 2 1/2-hour ballet, an operetta, music for various chamber ensembles and for choir, and art songs for voice and piano, among other things. Also, there was the song "Annabel Lee", recorded by Joan Baez in the 60's.
What made you think of Persian literature in the first place, and why Shah-Nameh in particular?
My wife is to blame! She is a linguist, reads five languages, and even a little Farsi. She has several books in Farsi (one about Rostam, it turns out), and she also has a translation of the Shah-Nameh, which I read. At the time, I was looking for a plot for an opera, and when I read about Rostam and Sohrab, I know that this was it. Fantastic story! Every bit as good a plot as the stories in Wagner or Verdi. I was lucky that they didn't discover the story and write the opera first -- but there is such ignorance of Persian culture in the West that they missed it.
Opera music and Shah-Nameh literature come from different sets of cultures. Do you see any challenges in bringing Western and Eastern cultures together in this work?
Not really. There might be a problem if Iranian listeners don't understand the music, since I'm an American composer writing in a style that derives from the European tradition, not from Persian music. But I'm writing what's called (sometimes derisively) "accessible music". That means that to Western ears, it's easy to enjoy, and you don't need a PhD in music to understand it. Personally, I believe that all music should be accessible. Otherwise, what is it for? For the composer to brag about? Nobody is going to listen to (much less buy a ticket for) music that doesn't reward them. I think that "Rostam" will be rewarding for everybody. If the Iranian public has never heard western music, it's possible that they will have to hear it several times before they begin to appreciate it. But that will be a good experience for them, too. It does no harm to try to bridge the culture gap. As for western listeners, there will be no problem appreciating the story, which deals with universal human drama.
What kind of music should the audience expect to hear in this work?
All my influences show up in the opera. I hear bits and pieces of Verdi, Wagner, and many modern composers all over the place. It's an eclectic piece. But this doesn't mean that I'm consciously trying to imitate anyone. When you do that you produce rubbish. The music has to grow on its own, and where I differ from many modern composers (whose music I do not like very much) is in the concept that every musical idea is legitimate, as long as it works. I'll use anything, melody, harmony, rhythm -- all of the things that people love to hear, and I don't care if it's out of fashion at the moment. The opera is atonal, which sounds scary but really means that there is no dominant tonality to which it returns ad nauseum. There's lots of harmony. I love harmony. Give me a good barbershop quartet and I'm in heaven. But there are also dissonant sections, places where there are no identifiable triads -- but still it sounds like music. You mustn't be too sweet. Fine food needs some lemon juice here and there, and music needs contrast and dissonance. Then, when you play a major triad, it sounds all the sweeter because of what is around it. That's what makes composing an art, as opposed to mere songwriting.
I also want to incorporate at least something of Persian music. You can't just mix the two; if you mix red and green the result is not very pretty. I might use the sound of the setar here and there -- but it might get lost unless the texture is very light in those places. There is a ballet in the middle of the opera, and I think I would like to bring out a real Persian music group, perhaps with dancers, before that movement. While they play, the ballet dancers could also come out, one by one, and improvise a dance along with them. Then they are already on stage for their number. Wouldn't that be exciting to watch!
Apart from music, what are the other challenges in completing the work? Do you intend to write the script for the theatrical aspect of it?
There are program notes all over in the score. The music has to support the action, and that requires the action to be pretty well laid out. If the director has them getting excited in a section with peaceful music, it won't work. But any director that would do such a dumb thing should be out of business.
What are your words of wisdom for those little familiar with opera music?
The opera is about three hours long. As I've said, it's easy to appreciate, but then, some people can't understand a C-major scale. We live in an age where you don't have to live in New York and be wealthy to hear an opera. I urge everyone to buy some videos of the great operas. They're not expensive, and you can hear Placido Domingo and Pavarotti sing whenever you want. Buy some great works and listen to them several times. When you do this at home you're not trapped as you would be in the opera house. Push the "Pause" button when nature calls. It's much better than wasting time watching TV sitcoms. I don't even have a TV! If you have any innate sensitivity to the fine arts, you'll fall in love with some of these operas. Then you're ready to enjoy "Rostam".
What are the key elements that the audience should be familiar with or watch for in the performance to both understand and enjoy it?
I am especially interested in orchestration. You can orchestrate a passage lots of ways, but only a few really work. If you listen carefully to the orchestra, you will hear constant changes of timbre, dynamic shifts, and so on. I often conceive of the orchestration even before I write the notes; it's that important. If you pay attention to this, and enjoy what I have done, you will have experienced what I wanted you to.
How would you describe the story of Shah-Nameh for your international audience?
It's a classic drama, with all of the great elements of drama that the whole world knows and loves. There is nothing about this story that requires you to be Iranian in order to appreciate it -- although they are rightfully proud of their heritage. It deals with love, death, loyalty, hatred, tenderness, and rage. Come see it! Of course I have used only a small part of the Shah-Nameh. In the book, Rostam lives 600 years. That's a lot of adventures.
What can the Iranian community do to support you in this endeavor?
At the moment, I am trying to raise sufficient funds to pay for a recording of some excerpts from the opera. I'm not one of those composers who can just hire the orchestra by himself. I think that this recording will be essential to convincing anyone to stage a production. So a good fundraiser, or a generous benefactor, is needed. I've received many e-mails from Iranians who say they will attend a performance if it is in their area. That kind of support is important too, especially if some opera company decides that they will fill the house and make a profit. I have spoken with Mr. Ghaem-Maghami, who runs an Iranian radio program. He is willing to play the excerpt tape on his program, to create additional interest. Everything helps.
Contact Don Dilworth: [email protected]