Roger Trefousse: Taking Opera Into The Millennium

Sheridan Sansegundo | February 25, 1999

    The composer Roger Trefousse lives in one of those perfect little Sag Harbor houses with wide plank floors and intricate moldings that were built when the village was a booming whaling port. He and his wife, Kathy, who is a writer, and two boisterous dogs spend most of their time there.

     "We do have an apartment in Manhattan," said Mr. Trefousse, "but it's very small. When I'm composing, I sometimes do nothing but sit there playing the same phrase over and over again. Kathy has no escape."

     In Sag Harbor, on the other hand, they have an ideal arrangement. At the bottom of the narrow garden, past a raised vegetable bed in winter disarray, is a little building not much bigger than a garden shed.

Musical Dollhouse

     Inside, taking up nearly every inch of space, is a grand piano and a synthesizer on a movable stand. This musical dollhouse - which must be every composer's dream - is thoroughly soundproofed to forestall neighbors' complaints.

     It symbolizes the two sides of Mr. Trefousse's life. The piano represents the music he lives for - opera and instrumental works - and the synthesizer represents the music that helps pay the rent - film scores and background music for television programs, including soap operas such as "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns."

     "It's okay, I don't actually have to watch the soap operas," he said reassuringly. "They just ask for 'a Gershwin-type piece' or so many minutes of romantic stuff. Film scoring," he added, "is more like a script in the symphonic tradition."

     But to compose music for the voice has always been Mr. Trefousse's particular ambition. His first opera, "The Monkey Opera," premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1982 and, having received wide attention in the press, is perhaps his most widely known work (his other operas are "Blue Margaritas," "The Heliotrope Bouquet," and "Found Objects").

     It is based on William James's assertion that if you sat a bunch of monkeys to type randomly for a few centuries, eventually they would reproduce Shakespeare. In Mr. Trefousse's opera, the monkeys end up reciting the Hamlet soliloquy that begins "O! that this too too solid flesh would melt."

     The monkeys start off babbling, but gradually more and more of the text is included in their words. There are moment of clarity amid the obfuscation and there are subplots in which the monkeys manage to have a bit of a life on the side and fall in love.

Concert Pianist

     At one point the tenor monkey sings the entire soliloquy but only the vowels - "all the meaning and feeling is there, but you can't understand it."

     In the end, they achieve the full text, but Mr. Trefousse has divided the words randomly among them, so that it remains unclear whether they understood what they were singing or not.

     The Brooklyn-born Mr. Trefousse began his musical career as a concert pianist. He was not on the piano stool in diapers as many other career musicians were.

     "I started playing at 8 or 9, but I didn't have a serious interest until my late teens," he said.

Enjoyed Composing

     At that time his parents got him a Steinway and he went to study with the Berlin-born Grete Sultan (she recently performed "The Goldberg Variations" at a concert on her 90th birthday).

     While she was an enthusiast of the music of Bach and Schubert, she was also a close friend of John Cage, and introduced the young pianist to Mr. Cage's music.

     When she saw that he was as much interested in composing as in playing, she introduced him to Mr. Cage himself.

     "It wasn't that I felt I had so much in common with his music," said Mr. Trefousse, "but he gave us all permission to do different things in music."

Romanticism

     Another early influence on him was Ben Weber, the first American to write 12-tone music, with whom he studied for five years until Mr. Weber's death in 1979.

     "He was very mystical. I think my music reflects some of his lightness, joy of experimentation, and bittersweet romanticism."

     In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Mr. Weber's death, a concert is in the works for later this year which will feature Mr. Trefousse and Michael Colgrass, who studied with Mr. Weber, and also Francis Thorne, Lou Harrison, Ned Rorem, and Milton Babbitt.

     "And that just about runs the gamut of new music," said Mr. Trefousse.

     Before writing "The Monkey Opera," he had produced a number of choral works, incidental music for plays, and, in 1974, a musical with lyrics by Jane DeLynn, "Hoosick Falls," which had the bad luck to open Off Broadway on the night that Nixon resigned.

     "We didn't have a big audience."

     But the critics loved it, with The Village Voice proclaiming it "this season's hottest off-Broadway ticket."

Invited East

     Mr. Trefousse's first contact with the East End was when he was invited to Edward Albee's summer colony for young artists in 1981, where he worked on "The Monkey Opera."

     "I fell in love with the place. I felt so crowded in New York - I love it but it's not what I want. I wanted the country."

     At about this time he was interested in ragtime, and a concert he gave at Alice Tully Hall led to his meeting with the filmmaker Amanda Pope. After providing a ragtime score for her documentary about an artists' soapbox derby in San Francisco, Mr. Trefousse and his wife rented her house in East Hampton and later bought the house on Rysam Street.

Pollock's Lyricism

     Sag Harbor's quiet and picturesque charm has provided more than just the perfect ambience for composing, it's also provided some interesting contacts for his music.

     In 1984, Ms. Pope made a movie about Jackson Pollock, who had lived in Springs, for which he wrote the score. The film was shown during the recent retrospective of the artist's work at the Museum of Modern Art.

     "Amanda wanted to show the lyrical side of his paintings. I made an orchestral suite out of the music, scored for eight instruments. It was one of the most exciting things I've done."

Musical "Raft"

     Another local connection has been with the playwright Joe Pintauro, with whom he is working on a musical adaptation of "Raft of the Medusa."

     "I realize it's not a conventional idea, to make a musical out of an AIDS therapy group," said Mr. Trefousse. They recently gave a concert to launch five of the songs from the work and were very happy at the reception they received.

     "I am very excited about it. The concert has really galvanized us."

Four Seasons

     He is also working on a commission for cello and string orchestra for Roger Low, the principal cellist of the Maggio Musicale in Florence, for whom he has also composed other works.

     "I'm planning it as a four seasons piece" said Mr. Trefousse. "There's a wonderful botanical garden in Padua and there will be one movement for each season inspired by a series of statues that stand in the gardens."

     In the garden outside the little house, the late afternoon sun lit up a row of conifers, and Mr. Trefousse's eyes drifted toward the Steinway.

     "I'm a little behind . . ."