Opera About Rostam !

When I notified the managers of Iran Online of my project to compose an opera about the Persian hero Rostam, they kindly suggested that I contribute a short article describing the work. It is with pleasure that I now outline what this project is all about, and what is needed to make it happen.

My name is Don Dilworth, I'm an American composer living in Maine, and Rostam is my first opera (although I've written an operetta, concertos for the violin and for the piano, a 2-1/2 hour ballet, numerous art songs with piano accompaniment, and a variety of works for chamber ensembles). I was drawn to this story while reading the Shah-Nama, where I found the tale of  Rostam and Sohrab to be perfect opera material. In fact, I find it hard to believe that this opera has not yet been written. I think it shows a general ignorance of Persian literature in the West, and I'm ashamed to admit that I'm pleased about that because that is the reason that this wonderful story was overlooked until I came across it. All the other great stories of literature have already been taken -- but here was a real jewel, waiting for me.

The opera will be about 3 hours long, and as of the moment (late January 1998) I have completed two out of three acts. The music is coming out well; it is a modern 20th century work with atonal ideas, but that shouldn't scare anyone away because if you don't tell the audience that it's atonal they will hear lots of beautiful harmonies and just think it's lovely music. So don't anyone let on that it's really a modern atonal work. I want people to hear it with an open mind.

But that all depends on whether anyone ever gets to hear it. It is an unfortunate fact of our contemporary life that modern music is very seldom performed -- and for good reason. If you think about it, ours is the first culture in many centuries where people don't want to hear modern music. Certainly, in the days of Mozart and Beethoven, the audience expected to hear the latest composition, and if you played anything written more than two weeks ago they got angry. How strange, then, that when you go to a concert today you only hear music at least 100 years old. Something has happened.

One trip to a convention of a modern composer's society (of which I belong to four) where they perform the members' works will clear up the mystery. In my view, the vast majority of modern compositions are utterly without merit, and cannot be enjoyed by anyone except the composer and possibly his mother. I don't know why they are writing these things. I have been to concerts where you hear the orchestra warming up, making the kind of horrible noise that they do when warming up, everyone playing something different -- and then noticed that the conductor was waving his baton. That was the composition!  I've heard music that sounds like when the waiter drops the dishes. Not too surprisingly, most audiences won't pay to hear that sort of thing, and that's why modern music is seldom performed at all. Ticket sales. That's the bottom line.

Actually, I do know why they write that kind of music. If you attend a class in a conservatory, you will hear comments from the teacher that go roughly like "That's no good. It sounds like Brahms!" A whole generation of composers has been taught that they must avoid anything that reminds anyone of the music of the past. Big mistake. The musical language of the past 400 years constitutes one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization, and I do not believe we can just throw it away in the quest to find something entirely new. This is the modern obsession. I heard of (but did not attend) a "concert" here in Maine a while back that consisted of hoisting a piano by a crane over a parking lot -- and dropping it.  I am told it was very disappointing. If that's what they teach in conservatories, I'm glad that I did not attend one.

There, I've admitted it.  I'm a self-taught composer.  As a youth, I wanted to write music, and after an interview at a music school I asked them whether they thought I should enroll.  Without hesitation they replied No! and added that if I did I would not be able to find a job.  So I took their advice and studied physics at MIT.  Perhaps they were right; high-tech skills are certainly employable, and I was lucky later to be on the team that was responsible for the optics that went to the moon on the Apollo project.  But still I wanted to compose.  So I studied enough music books to get the general idea, and began composing in earnest about seven years ago.

I said above that it's hard to get anyone to perform modern music; just try to do it if you don't have conservatory credentials!  Never mind that some of the greatest composers in history were also self taught (like Telemann, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Elgar, and others).  Even Haydn and Schoenberg were mostly self-taught. A Russian chemist wanted to write an opera, and the result was Prince Igor.  A creative person doesn't need a conservatory, and schooling won't make a person creative.  For better or worse, that's where I am.

And I'm also about 2/3 of the way through Rostam. It would be inconceivable that an unknown composer like myself could ever hope to see a major work on the concert stage, except for the fact that there is a public out there that still loves the sound of real music. You know what I mean: Handel, Bach, Verdi, Wagner. It is my hope that this public will find enormous pleasure in my opera, and that in order to experience this pleasure they will help to make it happen.  I said that the bottom line is ticket sales.  If the Iranian community can get behind Rostam, and convince a producer that they will attend in great numbers, I think we can beat the odds and get this opera onto the stage.

The first step is to make a demo tape of some excerpts.  No one is going to commit to performing an opera that they have not heard of without a very good demo.  I have been in contact with a conductor in my area who has kindly agreed to perform some excerpts from the second act, and will provide the orchestra and soloists at a cost of $16,500 to pay the performers and rent the hall.  This is a fair price.  It is necessary therefore to appeal to the potential audience of Rostam to find sponsors who are willing to help in this vital next step.  If we can secure this performance, and send the tape to an opera producer in an area where there is a large Iranian population, I believe that this opera will be staged.  I also believe that it will prove to be one of the best operas of the 20th (or perhaps the 21st) century.  Let's get behind it.

Creative ideas are needed.  Persons interested in becoming a part of the team that makes it happen are encouraged to contact me.  Many thanks to the staff at Iran Online for permitting me to bring this matter to your attention.

Don Dilworth