As an opera, composer Peter Westergaard’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which has its world premiere this week, is quirky. “To begin with, opera has its own strange rules of reality,” Westergaard says in a telephone interview from his Princeton home. “People sing instead of talking, and there is an orchestra.”
Rather than limiting himself to the standard anomalies of opera, Westergaard, who has been an emeritus Princeton professor since 2001, pushes beyond the ordinary conventions in his new work, which is performed for the first time at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 22 in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. The opera plays also in New York’s Symphony Space on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 3 and 4. Westergaard admits that, following the example of Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s” author, he likes carrying a line of thought to its logical extreme.
Going through the looking glass of operatic practice in his new opera, Westergaard calls for seven performers to play 38 roles. “At one point I thought I would need nine performers, but I winnowed it down,” he says. Remembering that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, I ask Westergaard if he used a computer program to calculate the minimum number of players needed to cover a particular number of roles in a specific vehicle. No, Westergaard says, he worked it out by applying seat-of-the-pants techniques.
Unlike standard operas, “Alice” has no orchestra. The chief instrumental accompaniment consists of hand bells rung by the vocalists. “One of the cast members had played handbells, and instructed the rest of the cast,” Westergaard says. “It’s not difficult, and they soon became very good at it. I didn’t know that handbells would blend so beautifully with voices.”
While most stage scenery has fixed dimensions, the set for “Alice” shrinks and grows to compensate for the inability of soprano Jennifer Winn (Alice) to become bigger or smaller at will. Projector technology manages the changes in size. Westergaard has assimilated the irrefutable logic of Lewis Carroll’s topsy-turvy world.
“Since I was 16, I thought that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would make a wonderful opera,” Westergaard says. “It sat on the back of the stove, simmering.
“I kept thinking about this opera,” Westergaard says. “First, I thought about casting. I asked myself what kinds of singers you would want. I could do this without thinking what the notes would be. The White Rabbit was easy. He’s very uptight, precise, and precious. I decided on a counter-tenor. The one we’ve got (Marshall Coid) relishes the role. He gets to come back as the Mock Turtle, crooning with the tenor (David Kellett). Then, I thought of the Queen of Hearts, as being like the dame, played by a man, in British pantomime. So I chose a bass (Eric Jordan) to be the Queen, and a mezzo-soprano (Abigail Fischer) as the king.” Sopranos Karen Jolicoeur and Amaia Urtiaga also play multiple roles in the production. The only cast member with a single role is protagonist Alice.
“Having done the casting, I started thinking about the kind of orchestra I wanted,” Westergaard says. “I thought a chamber orchestra would be better than a full orchestra because a small orchestra would improve the chances of producing the opera since it is less expensive than a full orchestra.
“I also was thinking about a reduced number of instrumentalists because of the need for transparency in order to make the singers easily heard. As I gradually made the instrumentation more transparent, I eventually thought, ‘Why not have no orchestra at all?’” Obviously, this is the very line of reasoning that led Lewis Carroll to invent the smiling Cheshire cat, who gradually disappears until only his smile is left.
‘Once you don’t have an orchestra, the production becomes very economical,” Westergaard says. “Any director likes that idea. But the singers asked, ‘Where do we get our pitch from?’ Nobody in the ensemble has absolute pitch. So I added hand bells as a pitch-stabilizing feature. I added quite a few more in rehearsal as part of the security system for pitch; they may no longer be necessary. I worked the handbells into the music. They blended with the voices and became part of the vocal fabric of the piece.
“This piece is so damned hard,” Westergaard continues. “It’s not so much vocal difficulty. It’s the mental feat of keeping it all in your head and keeping it going. The performers are constantly changing characters. They really have to concentrate. The singers have to depend entirely on one another and trust each other. Our cast for ‘Alice’ has a degree of trust higher than I’ve ever seen in any opera cast. They have to listen to each other instead of trying to out-sing each other.”
To make his conception of the opera as vivid as possible for the world premiere, Westergaard is directing “Alice’s” first performances. “My role is to get the opera to the audience as clearly as possible. Once another director is there, you can’t tell the director what to do. I like to direct the first time around, to make sure that things that I’ve imagined will work as I imagined them. I want to have the staging the first time around reflect the music. I think that what you see is what you hear. Many directors like to think that what you hear is part of what you see.”
Westergaard consciously mimics Lewis Carroll. “Carroll’s world is a logician’s world. It’s not conventional, it’s not representational, but it’s logical. I tried to make my opera a pure Carrollian world. The rules of physics are different; there are different assumptions and different results. But the kind of music that can emerge is internally consistent.
“I wrote the libretto myself,” Westergaard says. “I usually do that. This is my fifth opera. For my stories I like to choose a classic, and fashion the libretto by taking everything appropriate from the literary source. I don’t try to come up with my own dialogue. The funny lines in ‘Alice’ are all from Lewis Carroll. There are plenty of them.”
Sarah Cubbage is doing the costumes. “Everybody has 19th century costumes,” Westergaard says. “They come from 1862, Sarah tells me. The costumes have funny little ruffled pants. Each singer’s pants have a different color and texture. That means that each singer can be identified, but not strongly. It contributes to a dreamlike quality that I think Lewis Carroll would have appreciated. People are the same, but different. That’s there in Carroll’s ‘Alice.’
“The scenery is close to John Tenniel’s illustrations for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Alison Carver is the scenic designer. She’s an illustrator, and an admirer of Tenniel. I had to persuade her to work with the ideas of Tenniel, a person that she is in awe of. She created 12 drawings that can be manipulated in various ways. Keith Strunk and Laura Swanson are experts in projections and video manipulation. They handle the scenic maneuvers. They can do tricks like having the scenery grow when Alice shrinks after drinking the little bottle that says ‘Drink me.’”
Westergaard says that his “Alice” is not an opera for children. “It’s for grown-ups. People will come away from this music thinking that they’ve enjoyed it. But they won’t remember the tunes after one hearing. They won’t be able to recall how the opera went, but they’ll recall what it sounded like.
“This is 12-tone music,” Westergaard says. “It’s atonal. I don’t tell people that it’s not tonal. Singers say, ‘Don’t tell me it’s not tonal or I won’t be able to learn it.’”
Westergaard has developed a method for musical analysis in his book “An Introduction to Tonal Theory” (1975). “My reputation in the music theory world is as a theorist of tonal music who doesn’t take chords seriously. I’m more concerned with lines, and how they move and interact. My ideas probably come from the fact that I’m not much of a pianist, and never played the guitar.”
Born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1931, Westergaard comes from a family peppered with academics. On his paternal side, he is a fourth generation university professor. His father designed the Hoover Dam. His grandfather was a statistician; his great-grandfather was a philologist. His maternal grandfather devised the Talbot spiral, a way to calculate how a railroad track must be banked and curved to descend a mountain optimally. Westergaard’s mother studied and taught art. His sister is a physical chemist.
Prior to Princeton Westergaard taught at Columbia University and Amherst College. He lives in Princeton with his wife, Barbara, who is a drama critic for U.S. 1. She was trained in economics and is the author of “New Jersey: A Guide to the State,” published by Rutgers University Press. The couple’s two daughters are both graphic designers.
At age nine, Westergaard was selected for an Episcopal Church choir in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I had a lot of great music in my bones by the time I was 12 or 13,” he says.”Then I became a flutist and went to Greenwood Camp in Cummington, Massachusetts. A lot of important musicians went to Greenwood.
“It always comes out in my musical biographies that I went to Harvard and Princeton and studied with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Darius Milhaud, Edward Cone, and Milton Babbitt,” Westergaard says. “But the Episcopal Church and Greenwood were more important.”
Alice in Wonderland, Thursday, May 22, 8 p.m. Princeton University, Richardson Auditorium, World premiere of opera staged by Princeton composer Peter Westergaard based on the children’s classic. Jennifer Winn, Marshall Coid, Abigail Fischer, Karen Jolicoeur, Eric Jordan, David Kellet, and Amaia Urtiaga sing and play a set a 19th century English handbells on loan from Scott Parry of West Windsor. The opera will be performed in New York City at Symphony Space on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 3 and 4. $45. 609-258-5000.