Midmorning in Café Luna. Not much happening. Whirrs and beeps of coffee machines, low murmur of convo, nothing out of character for a cozy, uptown coffee shop except for maybe one thing. There’s a bitcoin ATM next to the counter, an anachronism all the more consequential because it’s likely one of a few such ATMs in town, a harbinger of the future in a city which thrives on its past and dotes on financial icons like The Whitney.
Still, the laid back ambience with its minor dissonance seems spot on to talk music and the life of a composer in the Crescent City with Tucker Fuller, composer of Marigny Opera Ballet’s November world premiere, Giselle Deslondes.
This is not your mother’s Giselle or even your sister’s. This is music set to a stripped down story line that plops the original folk tale smack in the middle of Faubourg Marigny in 1930’s New Orleans.
Well, what about Adophe Adam, composer of what has been called the “Hamlet of Ballets”? Well, what about him? “I’ve listened to the score,” Fuller says. “It’s very lush, pretty and of its time, but I didn’t take much or anything from it.”
The 1841 work is “a problem ballet, like a problem play, e.g. A Winter’s Tale.” One thing off-putting about the original was its ham-handed characterizations. “This poor fragile lady who falls in love and is taken advantage of by this terrible man.”
Fuller’s Giselle is a charming, charismatic woman, with a Scheherazade-like way of drawing people to her. Not so much the victim. Act 2 depicts what happens to Giselle as Giselle’s choice. So, Giselle Deslondes is less a caricature than her 19th century counterpart and more complex and relatable to contemporary audiences.
“I tried to keep in mind music from the first third of the last century – not just jazz but Tin Pan Alley. There were a number of composers in that period (including Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Kurt Weil) who were interested in popular music.”
Working with a scenario created by Marigny Opera Ballet Executive Director David Hurlbert, Fuller drew major inspiration from New Orleans’ much loved New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. Although New Leviathan doesn’t create original compositions, it draws music from archives throughout the U.S., especially the Tulane University Jazz Archive and Tin Pan Alley. Its uniqueness comes from instrumentation. So Fuller’s Giselle Deslondes is scored for pre-depression era jazz orchestra, one that includes strings.
Act I, he says, consists of consists of the kind of music you’d hear in a dance hall – polka, foxtrot, waltz and Charleston. “Act II goes away from the dance hall but takes everything from the beginning and develops it. “ Voodoo is an important element here, with the well-known Wilis (a group of supernatural women who dance men to death) from the original Giselle replaced with a witch and spirit slaves.
CHALLENGES OF COMPOSING FOR BALLET
“Writing for ballet is hard. Very difficult. I take the scenario and parcel it into numbers and scenes. From there, I start writing and imagining what the dance might be like and how much time it might take.
“I then sit down with Dave Hurlbert and choreographer Maya Taylor and talk through how I visualize everything happening. I come up with a blueprint. Then, when Maya starts working with the choreography, she might say ‘this section is a little long’ or ‘can you add a couple of bars here.”
“I’m not a dancer. So I want to see if what I’m imagining in my head works aligns with their visions of the ballet.”
“I worked with Maya on last year’s Orfeo.”
“Maya gets things done. She’s disciplined and focused. No waiting around for the muse to strike, if you know what I mean. Maya’s also very thoughtful. We click very well when we’re talking about character and motivation.”
“It’s fun, too, because Maya and Dave will sometimes see something or will have an idea about how to do something. So, it’s a real collaboration.”
Every ballet begins with a vision and takes its shape from a scenario created by Hurlbert that’s then translated into music and choreography.
“Dave’s genius was to take the original story which involved 16 dancers and strip it down to eight. While many contemporary versions of Giselle disrupt the setting, period and costumes, few create new scores as we have.”
What elevates Marigny Opera Ballet is its ability to commission original scores and choreography that are presented with a live orchestra. Being able to work with a conductor and musicians is almost a luxury for contemporary dancers. If a dancer is having difficulty with the pace of the music, the conductor is able to adjust tempo to movement.
Key to the team’s third season of award-winning productions is musical director Francis Scully who founded New Resonance Orchestra in 2008. Scully’s musicians are mostly drawn from the ranks of the LPO and the NOCCA faculty.
Because New Resonance focuses on innovative approaches to presentation, Scully is a great fit for the Marigny Opera Ballet and for Tucker Fuller. For Fuller’s Orfeo, which will be reprised this season, Scully’s 13-member string/woodwind chamber orchestra was a major contributor to the production’s critical success.
“Francis is fantastic, extraordinary and thoughtful. He goes above and beyond — It’s wonderful to work with a conductor who spends so much time going through the score and doing his own analysis of the entire piece.”
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE IN NEW ORLEANS
“It seems everything I’ve been asked to do by Marigny Opera House has pushed me in different directions. Everything I’ve been asked to do for them is very different — from the religious music to Orfeo, from sort of a Baroque pastiche style to jazz. They’ve all been challenging, but when you train as a composer, you just do it.”
For a composer, New Orleans is a kind of nirvana. “A main difference between New Orleans and New York is that I can afford to live here, although that’s getting harder. There’s like a thousand composers in NYC trying to do whatever they do. I like being away from that scene, being able to write things, find an audience and connect with it.”
“Here it’s really nice. I’ve been able to do more theatrical stuff. It’s a different kind of composing. It’s not so much about what you want to do but being able to work with performers and directors and choreographers.”
“There’s so much going on here. It’s a very lively arts scene. A ton of things going on. What I like about New Orleans is that it doesn’t have many of the trappings you find in other cities, cities with a specific aesthetic.”
“I’ve been in New Orleans since August 2010. I’ve lived in lots of different places but there’s no other place in the U.S. like this one.”