The composer usually is first to come aboard, even in the most unconventional operas. However, the appointment of Opera Philadelphia's now-in-process ANDY: A Popera composer Dan Visconti was only announced this week - for a piece that has already had public workshop performances by the Philadelphia cabaret group the Bearded Ladies.
"It's great to taste ways of working that are foreign to classical composers," said the 32-year-old Chicagoan.
Director John Jarboe called the collaboration "radical . . . in form and process. It's a collision between the devising sensibilities of the Bearded Ladies and the epic sweep . . . of the opera world."
"I look forward to watching this mash-up of talents bring ANDY to life," said general director David Devan. The Andy Warhol piece will premiere in September at a venue to be determined.
Not a linear biopic, the opera has evolved through two stages. The cabaret version already presented to the public incorporated existing music, some by the Velvet Underground rock group, which was close to Warhol and made specific references to his circle.
What's left for Visconti to do? "I'm not obligated at all [to use that music]," he said. "What I look for is what I can do to add the great things that opera can do without destroying the 'devisement' quality. Opera can create continuous drama in which the music cuts all the way through and unites everything."
Visconti came to Opera Philadelphia's attention through the application process for its fourth composer in residence. Though the residency went to David T. Little, Visconti was approached for the Warhol project and spent several weeks with Jarboe during rehearsal of the cabaret version of the show. The composer's resume includes commissions from the Kronos Quartet, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Albany Symphony, but ANDY is his first opera.
Though the piece is out to show formative influences from Warhol's upbringing, such as the death of his father, it won't shy away from the seamier side of the artist's heavy-partying lifestyle or the eccentric company he kept. Warhol's shooting by radical feminist Valerie Solanas won't be literally dramatized, Visconti said, but she'll definitely be in the opera: "She'll have a rather extended aria that we're working on. She kind of takes the audience hostage."
Elsewhere, the repetition of images that Warhol favored in his work lends itself, musically, to the use of ostinatos, he said. The fact that Warhol himself could be a withdrawn, almost tabula rasalike personality presents the daunting question of how he should sing. "There's something about him that's so childlike, the kind of 'Oh, wow' sentiment. He's kind of innocent and skittish," said Visconti. "I looked at all of that in creating a language for him, and it feels very ethereal, very otherworldly. It's almost a chant-like style, with more in common with early music than pop styles."
Tellingly, Visconti makes casual reference to "the Andys." In real life, Warhol employed people to impersonate him for reasons ranging from safety to convenience. In that spirit, Visconti is writing operatic choruses that will increasingly appear in Warhol's image. "We'll have as many as 12 Andys," he said, "all dressed the same."