Royce Vavrek: Forthright at the Opera
Royce Vavrek doesn’t court controversy, but it seems to follow in his shadow. The celebrated opera librettist and lyricist says if his work provokes, it’s not to advance any personal agenda.
(inspiring classical music)
- [Tori] Royce Vavrek has been known to stir the pot.
For the past 10 years, he's reveled in bringing
diverse shades of humanity's ugliness to the stage.
From adultery and murder,
to kidnapping and torture.
- I've always been sort of a rabble rouser, a troublemaker.
- [Tori] Vavrek is a librettist.
He writes the lyrics for operas,
and he's one of the most eclectic
and most successful of his generation,
part of a cohort dedicated to making sensational
thought-provoking opera for the 21st century.
Take his latest three-part work,
"The Wild Beast of the Bungalow".
- It's about a girl who is gifted a mermaid in a jar,
and she proceeds to abuse it
until one night it offers this sort of graceful
gesture to her, that you hope will have changed her,
but she ends up just going back to her abusive ways.
And there was something about the way
that I approached that.
It feels so authored from a place
of right directly in the middle of my heart.
There are all these little references,
and strange elements that feel
that they borrow from my childhood.
- [Tori] Vavrek's own childhood was fairly conventional,
growing up in rural Alberta, Canada,
a young Royce preferred writing in his room
to tending the family farm.
- I had no desire to participate in farming.
That was something that I knew from a very early age
was just not necessarily for me,
but I never had any sort of negative thing
where I was like I do not wanna be like my mom
or my dad or my brother or sister,
I just kind of did my own thing.
- [Tori] Royce was an imaginative child
who would recruit his siblings and cousins to perform
in his homegrown shows, but backyard playtime wasn't enough
and soon, movies became his window into the world
beyond his small hometown
until one day, at 13, he stumbled upon a film
that changed his worldview.
Lars Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves"
is the story of a twisted husband
who, after becoming paralyzed in a work accident,
demands that his wife, Bess, sleep with other men
in their small, devout Scottish town.
Years later in 2016, Vavrek would adapt
"Breaking the Waves" into a much-talked about opera.
- There was something about that emotional ferocity
that just completely blew my mind.
I remember renting it on VHS,
and I took it to my friend's house,
and we watched it on a tiny little television,
and I for some reason, my memory is
that my nose was like right up against the glass.
But I remember this very uncomfortable
but singular viewing experience,
and it really, really changed my life.
- [Tori] But as a teenager he had no inkling
of what was to come, yet he understood
that he had discovered something important.
From then on, Vavrek abandoned stories
with moral certainty and happy endings
and set about writing the most provocative tales
he could think up.
By the end of high school, he had written 17 plays,
some of which were put on at his school,
St. Joseph Catholic.
But young Vavrek's shows, one about a murderous nun,
and another about a pig who gets plastic surgery,
caused a stir in his conservative surroundings.
- The Catholic Women's League in my local town
had heard that I was performing some controversial material
and wrote a letter to the principal of my school,
and to the priest, and were begging him
to reprimand me, and my mom saw this letter on a pew
at the local parish, and she became so incensed,
because she was like none of these people,
none of these women, have seen my son's work,
it's just on hearsay and they just have no idea,
and so she took her name off the church cleaning list
because of that, and my parents were remarkably,
remarkably supportive, although my mom,
I remember when I told her that I was writing
a piece about abortion, she sort of had a moment,
an emotional moment, where she was like
well why can't you just write about sunflowers?
I said well, I could write about killer sunflowers
or something like that.
- [Tori] This was the start of a long and winding path
for Royce Vavrek.
First he went to film school in Montreal,
but caught the musical theater bug
after a weekend in New York City
taking in Broadway shows, and at 22,
he moved there to study at NYU,
where he found himself in the right place
at exactly the right time.
- There was an advertisement that came over
the musical theater writing forums
that suggested that there was this opportunity
for people who were interested in contributing
to the operatic forum, and so I found this community
of young composers, David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli,
Du Yun, Paola Prestini,
who were all really eager to contribute
dramatic stories to the music theater form.
- [Tori] Vavrek and his close cohort of peers
have spent the past decade shaking up the opera world,
unexpected plots with flawed characters
that audiences love to hate,
and sometimes hate to love,
like "Angel's Bone", his Pulitzer Prize-winning
collaboration with composer Du Yun,
in which a broke, struggling couple
finds hope for redemption when they discover
two angels that have fallen to earth.
They kidnap the angels, and enslave them
to turn around their own wretched circumstances.
Vavrek's libretto explores both the mindset
motivating captors, and the dark effects
of their actions in a heart wrenching portrait
of human trafficking.
- I try to do as much research as possible.
If you don't know what you're writing about
it's sort of your duty
to really dig in, and to try to learn
as much as humanly possible about that experience.
But you also have to give yourself,
there's a time when you need to put the books away,
and the media, and all of those things,
and let this character live in your imagination,
and let it spill out into the work that you're creating.
- [Tori] In 2016, Vavrek faced a particularly
intensive research project when he was trying to write
an honest story about President John F. Kennedy.
That opera, "JFK", set the night before he was assassinated,
shows a man mourning his sister, Rosemary,
recently debilitated by a failed lobotomy,
while he faces mounting pressure from a country
in the midst of social revolution,
all the while, haunted by his own personal demons.
- We tried to create a figure that wasn't this god,
that was just a normal man who happened to be
the president of the United States
and have this crazy event happen that just shook the world,
but really, opera is an emotional art form,
and I think that trying to find the courage,
the emotional current in the life of JFK
and in that blink of an eye moment
was really the answer to our opera.
I think that it's, there's something really beautiful
about the warts, as they say.
- [Tori] This is part of the philosophy
that drives Vavrek, and his collaborators.
They push the boundaries of the forum with stirring
novel stories that have the power to engage
a younger generation with more cynicism
and more media options than ever.
- I think that it's important that we
give the audience agency to make up their own minds,
so I think that yeah, my work is often a little ambiguous.
Moralizing is not, it's just not interesting.
- [Tori] His approach is working.
Vavrek's operas are attracting ever-larger audiences.
In 2021, he and Missy Mazzoli
are slated to bring their twisted storytelling
to the Metropolitan Opera in New York,
the world's greatest stage,
and a place that, at one time,
Vavrek wouldn't have even dreamt of.
- I saw my first opera when I was 18 or 19.
Opera for me was this elitist form,
so it was this thing that, people arrived
with huge ballgowns, and tickets were so expensive,
and those chandeliers at the Met, my goodness.
And so they were sort of the antithesis
of my farm upbringing.
But it's interesting now that I am,
I'm so desperate to make opera for everyone.
- [Tori] And making opera for everyone
means meeting head-on the human condition
and all its glory and misery.
Royce Vavrek makes stories that others couldn't,
or wouldn't, by refusing to write off any character
for their thoughts, feelings, words,
or even actions, he forces audiences to question
their own values, to judge others a little less quickly,
to listen a little more deeply.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.