Kennedy’s ‘Roscoe’ becomes inspiration for new opera
Updated 12:36 p.m.
SARATOGA SPRINGS As soon as Evan Mack began reading the William Kennedy novel “Roscoe,” he knew that he wanted to set it to music.
Mack, a professor of music theory and piano at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, had just completed his second opera and was looking for a new project. His father gave him a copy of “Roscoe,” and he was immediately hooked.
“I’ve always been a fan of William Kennedy, and I said ‘This is an opera,’ ” recalled Mack, who lives in Albany. “It was instant — one of those gut reactions.”
Kennedy’s novels are set in his native Albany and often draw upon its colorful and corrupt political history for inspiration. “Roscoe,” published in 2002, tells the story of an aging politician, named Roscoe Conway, who is a key player in the city’s Democratic Party machine.
“There’s a lot of music in ‘Roscoe,’ ” Kennedy said. “Roscoe had a grand, operatic life. He has a musical consciousness, as do most of my protagonists.”
Kennedy said music is a big part of both his work and his life.
“I love music,” he said. “I break into song at the drop of a hat.”
Kennedy and Mack have agreed to a two-year development deal, and Kennedy has final approval of the libretto — the opera’s text.
Mack said the goal is to write the opera within that time frame, and find an opera company to produce it. So far, the first scene has been written, and the second scene is in the process of being fleshed out.
Until Mack approached him about adapting “Roscoe,” Kennedy was not familiar with the composer or his work. But he liked what he heard.
“Evan has an excellent reputation as a young composer,” Kennedy said. “I was very, very taken with our conversation.”
“Roscoe” will be Mack’s third full-length opera, and his second project with librettist Joshua McGuire. A librettist writes the words to an opera. Green and Mack collaborated on “The Secret of Luca,” an opera based on the 1956 Italian novel “Il Segreto di Luca,” about a man who returns to his village after spending 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Mack’s first opera, “Angel of the Amazon,” was inspired by the true story of Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old nun from Dayton, Ohio, who joined a Brazilian order, became an outspoken advocate for the poor and the environment, and was murdered in 2005.
A native of the Orange County town of Port Jervis, Mack said that after the tragedy of “The Secret of Luca” and “Angel of the Amazon,” he was interested in writing an opera that was a little lighter in tone and subject.
“ ‘Roscoe’ has politics, intrigue, comedy, corruption and hilarity as well,” he said. “It’s such a huge book in terms of characters, and the goal is not to condense it but to embrace it.”
Mack said Kennedy’s novels move seamlessly between the past and the present, and his opera will do the same.
“In his novels, you can go from being among the living to the dead,” he said. “The opera will be just like the novel. Things on stage will exist all at once — the living, the dead, the past the present.”
Kennedy is the founder and executive director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany. His best-known work, “Ironweed,” won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Mack’s adaptation of “Roscoe” will be the third work of classical music inspired by Kennedy’s fiction.
In 2004, “Eyeball High,” a tone poem inspired by Kennedy’s 1975 novel “Legs,” about Albany gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, premiered at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. It was written by Kevin Beavers, a composer who lives in Germany, and performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music in which another work of art, such as a novel or a painting, is evoked.
In 2007, Beavers and the ASO teamed up again, producing a concerto for violin and orchestra inspired by “Roscoe.” This piece premiered at the Palace Theatre, with Kennedy reading excerpts from his novel.
Kennedy said his writing has always been musical.
“ ‘Legs’ is full of music,” he said.
Kennedy called most recent novel — 2012’s “Chang’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” — “my most musical work. There’s a great deal of jazz in it. There are a lot of old songs in it. Bing Crosby sings ‘Shine’ in the opening chapter.”
He said his primary musical influences are jazz and the popular music of the first 40 years of the 20th century. “My parents used to sing all the time,” he said. “I wound up in choruses and glee clubs.”
So far, Kennedy is enjoying the process of turning “Roscoe” into an opera. “It’s very strange,” he said. “But it’s a lot of fun. ... It’s definitely a departure. I love it.”