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Harbison reflects on new opera, teaching

Institute Professor John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby, commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera, begins an eight-performance run at the Met in New York on December 20, the composer's 61st birthday. The live radio broadcast will be on January 1, 2000.

Articles in the New York Times Magazine and Newsweek have referred to Gatsby, which is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1924 novel and is one of just three operas commissioned by the Met in the 1990s, as both the "last big opera of the millennium" and "the last 20th-century opera."

Professor Harbison, who also wrote the libretto for "Gatsby," began work on the music more than six years ago. He was intrigued by the problem of composing an opera that contained "pop" elements: mirroring the novel's commentary on the Jazz Age, he composed and included five original 1920s-type songs in the opera.

Winner of a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his cantata, The Flight Into Egypt, Professor Harbison also has been honored with a MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1989, an MIT Killian Faculty Achievement Award in 1994 and a Heinz Award in 1997.

"John Harbison is a national institution and an MIT treasure. For more than a quarter century he has successfully led the effort to raise the quality and visibility of music at the Institute. He is a legendary teacher and mentor who nurtures the talents of our talented undergraduates. He is one of a kind," said Philip S. Khoury, dean of the school of humanities and social science.

The interview below appeared, in longer form, in the most recent issue of Soundings, published by the School of Humanities and Social Science. It was conducted and written by Orna Feldman, Soundings editor.

Soundings: What attracted you to The Great Gatsby?

Harbison: "Yearning and despair are very big operatic themes. As for the character of Jay Gatsby, I like that he takes a lot of risks and is steadfast and loyal to some vision that is not realistically possible. The opera provides many opportunities to look at both sides of that, to understand to what degree he's an impostor, and to what degree his story is real, which is a big American theme in general.

What are your goals as a teacher and coach?

As a teacher, I'm avid about getting people to listen widely and in a challenging enough way so that 30 years down the road, they are not just digging into the same soil all the time.

When I coach chamber music, I try to get the group to talk to each other diplomatically and productively. Chamber music is one of the most sensitive, tricky things. People have to be able to collaborate and say things to each other that are difficult to hear. The history of chamber music is notorious for people exploding and imploding and being unable to live with each other.

When I coach my own pieces, I try to get people to read the score closely. If it says to play loud, they should play loud. If it says to slow down, slow down. That's something which is remarkably difficult for people to actually do.

The same holds true for other composers. People find it almost impossible to accept how far the distance is from a Beethoven pianissimo to a fortissimo. Both are uncomfortable to produce. If you really play soft enough at the beginning and really loud enough atthe end, you've worked as hard as if you've showed up for swimming practice and done 25 laps. It's very punishing.

What is the role of concert music today?

The goal of concert music has to be to give people experiences that are different and challenging and elevating. I marvel at the persistence of Wagner, one of the most esoteric, crazy artists who ever lived. His five-hour pieces still get put on and they still find 2,000 people who go. What a triumph for that maniac, that he creates lofty, high art -- practically on a pedestal -- and a century-plus later there are still candidates for this.

Why have you stayed at MIT these past three decades?

I like the mentality of MIT students. Dialogue with them is very satisfying. Also, MIT as an institution has a respect for people who make things or undertake ventures that don't prove out immediately, which is extremely favorable for people in the arts.

What does music provide you in your own life?

Sometimes I get to the end of the day and I feel something is very missing. Usually it's even 30 or 40 seconds of communication with music, with some aural thing outside the motion of the day. Music affords for people who really need it every day this other plane of experiencing, a parallel world with its own time and own kind of circulatory system -- a place quite different from the ongoing pulse of the world.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 15, 1999.

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