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Stephen Schwartz conjures up an opera

September 19, 2009 | 11:30 am


You’d think that writing the music and lyrics for some of the most successful musicals in American theater history would make someone feel like a creative Superman. Perhaps so, but even Superman had Kryptonite.

For “Wicked” composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, creative Kryptonite nearly took the form of orchestrating his first opera, “Séance on a Wet Afternoon,” which opens Sept. 26  in Santa Barbara. That’s a complicated task he never had to perform for the Broadway stage.

“I certainly feel that I’m using parts of my brain that I’ve never used before,” Schwartz told me when discussing the Opera Santa Barbara commission he began writing more than three years ago.

“When I was starting to undertake the orchestration last November, I literally had a month of panic attacks. I’d wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning with my heart pounding, thinking, ‘I can’t do this and I don’t know enough about it.’ And somehow I learned.

“Yesterday, I spent a good part of the day with a friend of mine in Los Angeles who’s a great harpist, going through the harp parts and making sure they were clear enough and had the right voicing and fingering. Of course, she found many things that could be improved, but the truth is, she said, ‘I’m really proud of you. When you started, you didn’t know anything about the harp except that you like the sound, and now look at you: You’re writing for the harp.’”

Not to mention the full spectrum of instruments in the 46-piece orchestra. There’s even a synthesized version of a glass harmonica or bowl organ – bowls filled with different levels of water which the player rubs with fingers – to suggest supernatural creepiness.

Read my Arts & Books story about Schwartz and his opera here.

--- Irene Lacher

Photo: Stephen Schwartz. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times