Composing Ada: The Journey of a New Opera

It was the summer of 2004. My friend Karen Hartman had a production of her play Anatomy 1968 at SPF (Summer Play Festival) on Theatre Row in New York City. She asked me to write some songs and music for the production, having previously written songs for her play Gum. As a composer, working on plays allows me to expand my musical vocabulary. Composing is one thing. Dramatic action is quite another. There is no better way to absorb the intricacies of drama than to be a part of a production team for a play. Directors, designers of set, costume, light and sound, speech coaches, choreographers, fight directors, together create and support the world in which dramatic action happens. Being in the rehearsal room with a smart director and great actors is the best education a composer can get if they want to create dramatico-musical work. So that’s where I was. In a tiny room on West 42nd Street. The director was Lisa Rothe. The first thing I noticed was that she sat very still, eliciting amazing work from the actors. Quiet and powerful. I loved being in that room. Things happened! Outside of rehearsal we had useful conversations about what music was needed and how it should work. Lisa and I discovered we lived right across the street from each other. We both enjoyed walking through the many parks in our neighborhood, so we started going on “urban hikes.” Walking and talking – about our lives, our work, the Hudson River, the state women in the arts, and our creative aspirations. At one point, Lisa was asked by a colleague at a writers conference if she had a musical she was working on. Lisa didn’t have such a project so asked if I had one. I responded “We should create something together.” “But I’m not a writer!” she protested. “Yes. But you might have an IDEA.” I countered. Round and round a new set of conversations, looking for the WHAT. I remembered that Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.) had a grant program in partnership with The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation which provides funding for new works that explore “the worlds of science and technology and challenge the existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination.” Maybe we should design a project around this concept. Lisa has had a long relationship with math and science. Before she decided to go into the theatre, she was studying to be an engineer. We searched for a female protagonist with a compelling story who could fit the Sloan Foundation mission. Lisa led our quest. And she found Ada Byron. Daughter of Lord Byron. AKA “The Enchantress of Numbers.” I quickly fell in love with Ada. We had our subject.

Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) is one of the most spectacular characters in computer history. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and the “Princess of Parallelograms,” Annabella Milbanke. Concluding that she could not “cure” Byron of his scandalous behavior, (among his many transgressions, he fathered a child with his half sister,) five weeks after Ada’s birth, Annabella separated from Byron and was awarded sole custody. Fearing her daughter might follow in her father’s notorious footsteps, Anna reared Ada to be a mathematician and scientist. Like Byron, Ada embarked on a Romantic quest very much at odds with the prevailing Victorian ethic of restraint. Though her medium was mathematics, she rejected the notion that virtue lies in conformity, believing instead in a higher ethic of knowledge and ambition. At the age of seventeen, Ada met the inventor Charles Babbage and became smitten with his new invention, the Difference Engine. Ada melded her father’s Romantic visions with her mother’s mathematical genius to develop the prototype of modern computer language. She is often cited as ‘the first programmer.’ She died of cancer at the age of thirty seven, and is buried next to the father who she never knew in life.

While working on the grant application, we interviewed some potential book writers for our idea, which at the time we thought was going to be a musical. In the process of looking for the right librettist, Lisa’s partner, Margaret Vandenburg, (a novelist and professor at Barnard) pitched in with our grant proposal. Her vast knowledge of the period, Byron’s poetry, our concept and the pure beauty of her writing made an obvious point – our librettist was right in front of us. We submitted a compelling grant application and in 2007 we received initial funding to write “Ada.”

Something that fascinates me about Ada is that her life coincides with the transition between the Age of Enlightenment and The Romantic Era. These two opposing philosophies became a metaphor for the war between Ada’s parents. Despite this conflict, or perhaps because of it, Ada ultimately managed to meld them together as she found the “poetry of numbers” in her work with Charles Babbage. As a child, Ada was not permitted to talk or ask about her father. She was strictly trained in the subjects of mathematics and science, and was discouraged from using her active imagination. She was surrounded by doctors and tutors and a bevy of her mother’s female friends (who Ada referred to as “The Furies”) – employed to watch over her,   insuring that her behavior was to her mother’s standards. At one point in her early teens, she became paralyzed. She was diagnosed with “hysterical paralysis.” Our theory is that this was caused by the constant suppression of Ada’s creativity by her mother and “The Furies.” It was only when she was “safely” married that she was allowed for the first time to see Byron’s image (he was deceased by then) and to read his poetry.

The first thing we did (after a lot of reading and research) was to sketch out a story line. Lisa was instrumental in guiding the story, and Margaret put it into lyrical dialogue and developed a first draft of the libretto. When I begin a composition, I don’t always start at the beginning. I was drawn to that moment when Ada, now “safely married” was led into the library of the Byron estate, and there before her is an incredible portrait of her father, whose image she for the first time is allowed to see. She pulls a book off the shelf and begins to read. The portrait begins to sing:

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, ––methought for ever more…

Byron’s ghost sings with the living Ada. This moment captured me, and I felt it was my “way in” to the work. The scene incorporates Byron’s poetry and Ada’s first clue that she has a soulmate. Fairly quickly, we all realized that this was an opera, not a musical. The language is heightened, the story demands the operatic voice.

One of the (many!) things that E.S.T./Sloane allowed us to do was to workshop our piece as we were working on it. The first of these was a “reading” of Act One in 2008. At that point we were not sure exactly what type of voices should be singing this, and we had a mix of opera and musical theatre performers. Everyone brought something useful to the table. Another member was added to our team, musical director Kimberly Grigsby, who I had worked with over the years, and whose background was very similar to mine. We are both classically trained, with feet in both the classical and “popular” musical worlds. She is best known for her musical direction on Broadway (Spiderman, Spring Awakening, The Full Monty, to name a few) and had her opera conducting debut in 2013 at the Washington National Opera. After the first reading, we knew we had to move all the way in to the opera universe. We had three readings of the work-in-progress at E.S.T. culminating in a reading of the completed first draft of the full piano/vocal score in April 2011 as part of their First Light Festival. A year later, Ada was one of four operas selected by Center for Contemporary Opera for its Developmental Readings Series.

In between all of the readings, Lisa, Margaret, Kimberly and I would discuss what worked and what did not. We added story elements, changed words, cut entire sections, added arias. One particular challenge was what I refer to as the “thickness” of the libretto. Between the Byronic Canon and the prevailing language of the era, there were a LOT of words! Too many, as it turned out, for operatic singing. We all painstakingly combed through the libretto, weeding out words and phrases, without deleting meaning, and allowing the text and music to soar more freely. Kimberly worked very closely with me editing the score. “What is this note about?” is not an infrequent question. She is my “musical dramaturge.”

In 2013, I applied, and was accepted to the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, to be a part of Musicians-in-Residence. I was there for a month and used the residency to begin the orchestration. “Ada” is structured in five acts, and is two and a half hours of music. The reason I begin with piano/vocal is that rewriting and editing are an important aspect of my writing process. Sometimes I think of it as “tailoring” the music to suit particular performers. Once the music feels structurally, dramaturgically and vocally correct, I will then go to the orchestration, which is for me the next step in composition. This is where I will find new layers of music, depth, color, counter melodies, orchestral statements and punctuation. And it is where the music becomes three dimensional in my world. The orchestration is for twenty-seven pieces. Of course at the moment this is abstract, since we are still seeking a full production. This number may have to become larger or smaller depending on where the production happens. But for now, it is bringing the score to the next level and I will adapt if the situation calls for it.

We are now pursuing a premiere, casting our nets far and wide, and in the process bringing Ada to many who never knew of her. The orchestration is about halfway finished, and we are dreaming of amazing staging. Other projects have taken center stage on and off, but we return again and again to Ada as those projects are completed, or recede. Ada continues to surprise us, inspire us and push us to the next level of creation.

By Kim Sherman

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