Articulate

S6 E8 | CLIP

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.

AIRED: January 08, 2021 | 0:10:28
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- [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.

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