Victorian Terror: “The Secret Agent”

14 Mar
Victorian Terror: “The Secret Agent”

This month, the Center for Contemporary Opera will present “The Secret Agent”, a new opera based on Joseph Conrad’s novel with music composed by Michael Dellaria and a libretto by J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy. The following conversations took place in New York City last week during the final rehearsals of the new work. The distinguished lyric soprano Amy Burton portrays the tragic character of Winnie Verloc in the opera. Composer Michael Dellaira is an award-winning composer and currently holds the title of composer-in-residence at the Center for Contemporary Opera.


Conversation with soprano Amy Burton

DV: How were you approached to take part in this project?

AB: I was originally asked to participate by Sara Jobin, who is conducting the opera’s World Premiere. At the time, she had just conducted my husband’s opera “Volpone” at Wolf Trap Opera. We were talking about ideas for operas, and I mentioned that I always thought the Colette story “Cheri” would make a fantastic subject. It was then that she told me that Michael Dellaira had worked on a project based on it, and later on she asked if I’d like to be part of “The Secret Agent”. After looking at the score and listening to a workshop recording, I saw that the music written for my character was quite wonderful. Then I learned that the director of the production was one of my favorite directors: Sam Helfrich. So it was a win-win situation for me.

DV: For the readers who may not know the Conrad novel, tell me a little bit about the plot of the opera.

AB: Its based on a real incident at the Greenwich observatory, which is a home base for time. In 1894, an anarchist blew himself up at the observatory as a sort of vague attack against science. The irony was that he blew himself up and there wasn’t as much as a dent on the building. After this man blew himself up, his sister is reported to have committed suicide. Joseph Conrad writes that he had a conversation with Ford Madox Ford about the incident, and Ford’s remarks were that the bomber was “half an idiot.” Conrad could not get this story out of his mind, or Ford’s choice of words, and he wrote the novel based on this mentally challenged brother and his sister Winnie. Several reincarnations later, from the novel to the play that Conrad was to write later, to Sandy McClatchy’s adaptation for this opera, Winnie is married to an anarchist named Verloc who basically runs a shop that sells pornographic postcards in London. Her brother has some sort of autism, and she is his sole source of safety and comfort in the world. Her husband, a father figure to both of them, provides some sort of stability to the household but I am not sure how much love there is in that marriage. There is certainly not a lot of passion.

DV: And you play the character of Winnie Verloc?

AB: Yes. Michael Dellaira has described her as Carmela Soprano. She chooses not to see what her husband’s activities are.

DV: Knows enough not to pay attention?

Soprano Amy Burton

AB: Yes! She knows that these anarchists are coming to meet with her husband in their home, but she very purposely doesn’t listen to what is going on. She puts the tea out and goes upstairs. Her brother Stevie is very sensitive to injustice, and he doesn’t understand the way the world works. For instance, he sees a carriage driver whipping his horse, and he gets very upset and calls a policeman. The policeman tries to explain to him that the carriage driver is just a poor man trying to make a living. So Stevie turns this information over in his head, and decides that he wants to help poor people. He gets caught up with the anarchists, believing that their political cause is going to change the world, and gets tricked into carrying the bomb that they’re going to set off. He trips, falls, and is killed. When Winnie finds out that her husband used her disabled brother to carry the bomb, she decides to do something about it. But I don’t want to give away the ending.

DV: They should come see “The Secret Agent” if they want to know what happens!

AB: They should indeed come and see it. The music is very exciting, and very different than anything that I have sung before. I am very lucky because my character is the tonal and emotional center of the piece, so my music is very lyrical, while the anarchists’ music is very anarchical, and spiky. We clash, literally, harmonically. It’s very interesting!

DV: You have the luxury of having a living composer present during the rehearsal process. Has there been a lot of feedback between the singers and the composer when it comes to how the music is performed?

AB: Well, I think that he has given some very clear directions in the music, and the advantage of having a live composer available is that he is there to answer questions. I can ask him why he has written, say, a rest in a specific section of the score, and he will explain what he had in mind. That is just great to have. I think that a good composer understands that when you write something from your head and then apply it to real life performance with real performers, you have to find out how it all behaves and let the performers make it their own. Michael doesn’t get in the way of that process, but he is there to help us understand things and make them clear, which is great.

DV: So this also applies to dynamics and how phrases should be sung?

AB: Absolutely. In any production, even an opera in the traditional repertoire, there are varying degrees of freedom. This depends on how strict the conductor’s or the director’s concept is. That’s the thing about being a performer: Every working situation is slightly different, because you’re dealing with the different chemistries between different people. I think that Michael is great about allowing the individuality of the singer to come through. At the same time, I am not going to sing something fortissimo if it is written pianissimo. I am going to try to understand why he wrote it that way. If there is something that feels awkward, I can talk to him about it. That has already happened once or twice, where there was something that didn’t quite sit comfortably with me. We discussed it, and he made a slight adjustment. He wants the piece to work, and sometimes you only find out about things that are awkward when real people start performing it. Like any creation designed to be used, opera is not a painting or a sculpture that “is what it is and it sits there”. Opera is interactive and it doesn’t exist without people to perform it. So I suppose it has to be “user-friendly”! (Laughs).

DV: One of the main subjects in this opera deals with terrorism. Were you in NY during 9/11? If so, has your emotional experiences during 9/11 affected how you interpret your role?

AB: Yes. I lived in the upper west side during 9/11, about 5 miles from ground zero. We did not have a television at that time, and somebody called me on the phone and told me what was going on. My husband and I began to listen to the news broadcast on NPR, and that is how we heard about the towers falling. I remember that we managed to catch the last working bus as we ran to get our son out of school. The teachers and the kids were out in the hallway sobbing: It was all quite surreal. The clearest memory I have of that week is looking out of our bathroom window, which faced south. That day was famously clear, there was not a cloud in the sky but I could see one white cloud out of the window, far away. After a day or two, the cloud had not moved and I suddenly realized what the cloud was, which was really horrifying. As to whether that experience has influenced me emotionally in my approach to this piece, I cannot say that it has and I don’t know if it will. My task is to learn the music, embody the character, and present the piece through the director’s concept. Just like I can’t really hear my own voice because it’s outside of me, I can’t really experience the effect that the piece is going to have. But I think certainly think the audience will feel it.

DV: What attracts you to this role?

AB: The terrorism that happens to my character is very personal. Stevie is like a child to Winnie, and when he dies in this act of terrorism, her whole world is destroyed. To add to the tragedy of it all, Winnie believes that Stevie is away in Greenwich when all of this happens, so he dies when she thinks that he is having a restful time in the suburbs. The shock that she experiences when she learns of her brother’s death is doubled when she discovers that her husband was somehow implicated. You see, it has been the mission of her whole life to make sure that her brother is taken care of. She has married this man in her desperate hopes that he will become a father figure to Stevie, and at the end of the second scene of Act One she goes to bed thinking that he’s going to take Stevie to Greenwich and she believes that this trip will be this wonderful sort of father and son bonding event. Instead she finds out that he lied about the trip to basically use her brother. So it’s a shock after shock after shock, and she snaps.

DV: What are the big musical challenges in this role?

AB: I have a very big aria in Act Two, “Winnie sings the blues” is the best way to put it. She realizes that Stevie is dead, and the shock of it all is so great that she can’t cry. Michael has written an aria that is rather low, almost a mezzo-soprano tessitura, and suddenly in about two or three bars it goes from low B to high B. It happens really quickly, and that was a challenge for me. Now that I have lived with it for a little while, I get how it all fits together. In preparing it, I wondered how I was going to be in two places at the same time. Voices like mine tend to want to sit in the upper middle or the middle voice and go up and down, but not necessarily stay in the extremes. Fiordiligi’s aria “Come Scoglio” from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is like that, but in the end those kinds of challenges are good for you: They keep the voice flexible.

DV: In the past, modern scores have gathered a reputation for not being kind to the human voice. Are there any specific musical features of a new score that you specifically look out for?

AB: The voice is an instrument and a skillful composer knows the voice that he or she is writing for. The contemporary music that you are talking about was treating voices like non-vocal instruments. If I look at something that has a lot of pages with text on a high C over and over again, I am not going to sing that. Maybe there is someone out there who can sing that without hurting themselves, more power to them, but I am not going to sing something that doesn’t fit me. That includes standard repertoire. I am not going to sing Tosca, because I don’t have the right voice for that music. I don’t love singing Beethoven, for instance: he wrote high lines that are very percussive and brutal to sing. So I wouldn’t say that contemporary composers have a bad name for this, rather some composers are more skillful than others for writing for particular instruments. The voice is an instrument and it has the added element of diction. Clearly Michael Dellaira and Sandy McClatchy are very sensitive and very aware of that. During the first rehearsal, Sandy asked me if there were any vowels that were uncomfortable and if he needed to adjust anything, which shows you how they were thinking about how their music was going to fit with real human voices.

DV: I know that you are married to one of your favorite composers, John Musto. How did you two meet and how has your artistic collaboration been like since?

AB: John and I were introduced by my voice teacher: Erik Thorendahl. At the time, John was preparing a cabaret show with Erik. He started off the relationship by sending me Robert Frost poems that he had set to music, which was certainly a great move on his end: They are so beautiful! Early on we did some recitals together and I sang a lot of his music. He began to spend a lot of time on the road with me, and he sat in my opera rehearsals and voice lessons. As a result, he got to know the voice extremely well and began to get requests to write songs for competition winners. John wrote some of his most famous songs for me and for several baritone friends. At a certain point, we decided that we were not going to perform together because we thought that it would be best to keep things separate. As it would turn out, I was doing an audition in France and he heard the God-awful pianist who was playing for everybody. “I just can’t let you go onstage with that pianist!” he said, and ran down to the orchestra pit and played my audition. It was so comforting to have him at the keyboard because he knows my voice so well, so we have been together ever since in that sense. He has written song cycles for me, which we premiere together, and we do standard rep as well as American Songbook and Jazz standards. We play Musto together, Mozart together and we do Rodgers & Hart and Gershwin together. We have also produced a son, Joshua, who is a wonderful guitarist and is interested in pursuing Jazz in college.

DV: One final question: If you had one role granted to you, in the production of your choice with the world’s most fabulous costumes, what would it be?

AB: I have to answer that with two roles: Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, which is one of the few things in my wish list that has not been crossed off. Poulenc is one of my favorite composers, along with Mozart and Musto, and I have sung pretty much all of his music with the exception of Blanche. My true fantasy would to sing in an opera written by my husband, in a great house and a great production directed by Sam Helfrich. That would be a dream come true!

For more information on Amy Burton and upcoming events, please visit her website at:

Conversation with composer Michael Dellaira

DV: I understand that the opera is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, is that true?

Composer Michael Dellaira

MD: You are almost correct. The opera is based mostly on Joseph Conrad’s novel. However, the novel ends in a way that is rather difficult to conceive of dramatically, with the principle female character of Winnie Verloc throwing herself overboard during a channel crossing from England to the continent. I thought this was a little too “Tosca-like,” and I didn’t know what to do about it. When I started working with J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy on the project, I confessed my concerns about this, but he informed me that Conrad himself wrote a play on “The Secret Agent”, and the ending is different. It is the ending of the play that we use in the libretto, so you could say that its based both on the novel and the play.

DV: A sort of amalgamation of both?

MD: Well as the play is itself based on the novel, except for the ending, which is very different. While I won’t give away the ending, Alfred Hitchcock in the late 1930’s made a movie titled “Sabotage” based on Conrad’s “The Secret Agent”. He updated it to London just before the war, as a way of getting the English interested in joining the war. When I saw the movie (I didn’t know about the play at the time,) I thought: “Wow, he changed the ending of the novel!” But in fact he had used the same ending as the play.

DV: When did you first decide to start working on this project? Was there a specific moment?

MD: The summer of 2002. I was doing some research on a dramatic piece for chorus about authors imagining movies, and one of the sections concerned Joseph Conrad imagining the movie Lost Horizon, at the same time that he finished “The Secret Agent”. As part of the research I was reading all of the novels that these authors were involved in. When I read the novel, I was struck by the idea that there were terrorists one hundred years ago. What also struck me was his depiction of these people: He describes what they do as “gratuitous blasphemy”; These terrorist events that had no purpose at all other than to just create terror in the populace. There is a suicide bomber in the novel, which I didn’t know existed back then. About a year or two after that, Sandy and I talked about it and we ended up getting a commission from three opera companies which formed a consortium to present it: San Antonio Opera, Long Leaf Opera, and The Center of Contemporary Opera here in New York.

DV: Please describe the process of collaborating with librettist JD “Sandy” McClatchy.

MD: “The Secret Agent” was Sandy’s tenth libretto, so he was already very well seasoned. There were some changes made, but the libretto as it exists today is almost exactly as he first delivered it. There are four scenes in the first act and three in the second, and no character ever appears in more than three scenes. So characters disappear, and just when you think that you have forgotten about them, they reappear. It is such a finely structured, brilliantly organized libretto that it really keeps the story moving, and the listeners guessing.

DV: You have composed two full-fledged works for the operatic stage in the past. “Cheri,” and “Maude”.

MD: The choral piece that I mentioned earlier is for the stage. It involves a chorus and soloists, but no orchestra, so the chorus provides all of the music.

DV: Has “The Secret Agent” benefited from the experience of composing those earlier works?

MD: Yes, especially with “Cheri”. “Cheri” was intended to be a hybrid opera and music theater piece, and it doesn’t really fit neatly into either category. That work developed at the Actor’s Studio here in New York for over a three year period. Working with actors and the director Carlin Glynn over that three year period was an invaluable experience. Periodically there would be a performance or stage reading of the piece in front of a panel of well-seasoned actors to provide feedback, which wasn’t necessarily musical, but it was always dramatic. As you know, composers in their training don’t really know ever learn how to present pieces for the stage, so it was an intense educational experience for me.

DV: Did this feedback ever influence how your music was written?

MD: Yes, it certainly the way that I write for voice, and I think this is also true in “The Secret Agent”. Every word is understandable. That does not mean that its all written in recitative form. What I really learned with “Cheri,” and I think I improved upon in “The Secret Agent,” is that the vocal writing should be continuous singing yet remain as close to speech as possible. My hero, Monteverdi, does this better than anyone: Beautiful vocal lines that rarely gel into what we would call an aria, at every moment it sounds so natural, and yet it sounds like song. That is something that I really learned well with “Cheri”.

DV: Other than Monteverdi, who are your operatic idols?

MD: Well, a music that I would be very happy to be able to write would be a music that combines Kurt Weil and Giacomo Puccini.

DV: Do you think that we live in an era where a composer is actually allowed to do that?

MD: Yes. Certainly not every corner of the musical universe is that possible, but there are enough corners so that there are enough possibilities.

DV: As a New Yorker, did the events of 9/11 influence the way you wrote the music for this opera?

MD: Not if I understand you correctly. If you mean sounds such as explosions, those do not appear in the work at all. I think however that the psychological state that prevailed at the time certainly exists. It is what impressed me about the novel: That they existed in that novel one hundred years ago says to me that this exists in all of us, and it gets rekindled with events of this kind.

DV: I should rephrase, I didn’t mean necessarily explosion sounds, rather the whole concept of “tinta” on the overall musical panorama of the work.

MD: Yes, I think I translate that a little differently though: It’s a consistent musical language. Any phrase you hear sounds like it is part of that same musical universe. It would be very easy to identify sections that aren’t part of that work.


Model of the set for "The Secret Agent" (Laura Jellinek, set designer)

DV: In the past, you have used computer-generated sound effects to enhance your scores, such as in “Maude.” Do you also make use of these in “The Secret Agent”?

MD: No, “The Secret Agent” is an acoustic work, and the sounds are made by a thirteen-piece orchestra. The obvious model for this is Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” The only difference between my orchestra and Britten’s is that he has a piano and I do not, otherwise the other 12 instruments are the same. The variety of sound and color that Britten gets out of that 13 piece orchestra in “The Turn of the Screw” dazzles me, and if I only got a quarter of that I would be very happy!

DV: For singers performing this work in the future, what would you say is the musical and dramatic focus in the opera?

MD: I think I’m going to answer that in a round about question. In my score you will rarely find a dynamic for a singer. In the orchestra there are pianissimos to fortissimos, but I almost never tell the singer what dynamic they should sing in. I believe that if the music is doing its work, the singer will find his or her own best dynamic, and they will create the character as it should be created. As the composer, I am the person controlling time. When you watch actors, they control the time. They can put in pauses where they want, they can stretch words out, and that’s how they create the role. With an orchestra, you can’t really have that degree of improvisation, but for me to tell a singer “You should sing loudly here”, etc, that may work, but the singer in creating that role may do something that I never thought of that is actually better. So it’s a way of freeing the singer as much as possible within the constraints of an orchestral score.

DV: So you want to allow them to compose in their own way?

MD: Yes, that’s right. A particular line, which of course is always in a context of a situation, and that situation is always either on the way to create tension, it’s a moment of high tension, or it’s a release of tension. They have their own way of doing it. I may think that a loud gesture is best for expressing an effect, but in fact it may be even more effective almost whispered.

DV: Did you tailor the music specifically for any of the singers performing the work?

MD: No. I met the singers really for the first time last week. That to me is one of the most exciting thing in this whole process, because they all had the scores, and had prepared their roles in the way that we were just talking about. What they bring to it sometimes is better than I would have imagined, and that’s the great joy in this process.

DV: What are the big challenges for a modern composer of opera writing an operatic work today?

MD: Well there is no greater challenge than seeing the work come to live: Getting that opportunity. There has been a lot of talk about how important it is for operas to have a series of readings and workshops before the curtain goes up on opening night. One because there are so many people involved and the cost is so high. As Sandy McClatchy says: “The only thing more expensive than opera is war”. So one needs a lot of opportunities to know what should be cut, where things should be added, what doesn’t make sense, etc. Unfortunately there aren’t many opportunities to have those readings and workshops to hear the work develop. The Center of Contemporary Opera, which I am fortunate to a composer-in-residence now, primarily does this. They offer libretto readings with actors, even before there is a composer involved. The idea here is that if you do not understand the story with actors, adding music is not likely to help that situation. There are many composers out there that want to write an opera, but they don’t have the opportunity or the experience on how composing an opera is different than writing a string quartet or a symphony. When as you write a symphonic work, you distribute the parts, and you only hear it is at the rehearsals. If you need to make a cut, its usually going to be very late.

DV: If you could change one thing about the current state of music today, what would it be?

MD: I would love to make it easier for those opportunities that I described to exist. I don’t want to get into a tangent regarding fundraising, or where the money should come from, but the bottom line is that it is extremely difficult for organizations to survive.

DV: Why do you think that is?

MD: I don’t want to oversimplify, but we always have lived in a consumer culture, annd the consumer dollar when it comes to visual entertainment nowadays gravitates towards the movie theater. Even straight theater and Broadway companies have a hard time. I have no concept of what its like to make a movie, but we know that there is a set of mechanisms to raise money for movies to be made. There isn’t anything like that same machinery for opera anymore. There used to be, and I don’t know why it’s gone.

For more information on Mr. Dellaira and his work, please visit

“The Secret Agent” premieres in New York City on March 18, and 19 at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. For more information, please call 212) 772-4448 or visit

-Daniel Vasquez

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