Can an opera album stand on its own as an opera? I listened to Christopher Cerrone’s 58-minuteIn a Grove” while walking in Nebraska. I passed a deserted main street, barking dogs tied to porches, children learning to bike, and Trump 2024 signs, while listening to the story of a murder. Based on the Ryūnosuke Akutagawa short story of the same name, “In a Grove” unfolds in seven testimonies: seven inconsistent visions of a murder and a rape that take place in the woods. 

I have not seen the live opera, which was co-commissioned by the LA Opera and Pittsburgh Opera, and premiered under the direction of Mary Birnbaum. I didn’t even see the full video version until after Cerrone and I spoke, as a kind of test for whether this new version worked as a distinct piece of art. Cerrone is a composer known for his unique way of setting literary texts to music, his lush textures, and his inventive formats. For the album, Cerrone took on the role of co-producer alongside Mike Tierney and Andrew Cyr, in a follow-up to Cerrone’s 2021 Grammy-nominated album, “The Arching Path.” I recommend listening to “In a Grove” while on a walk, to see what unexpected opera scenery and truths emerge. 

Chris Cerrone talked to me over Zoom from Basel, Switzerland, where he is doing a residency at the Laurenz Haus Foundation. We talked about the adaptation process, his favorite Billie Eilish song, the influence of his wife, the writer Carrie Sun, and how he built an entire opera out of two chords. The album “In a Grove” will be released on July 7. 

VAN: I read in another interview that you choose literary texts when you feel like there’s room for something to add. The original story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa has such a long history of adaptation. What inspired you to choose it?

Chris Cerrone: Originally, my first impulse was to try to adapt a Faulkner novel, actually.

Which one?

As I Lay Dying has a similar structure of multiple characters telling the same story. It ended up being too labyrinthine and complex, but it led me to “In a Grove.” And the language of the story—I mean, of course it’s in translation—but the language is so beautiful, evocative and spare. 

And then my question becomes: Would this piece be good suffused with music? I think the music should make the story clearer, not less clear. In an opera, you’re feeding an audience so much: melodic material, words, drama, staging. So my idea was to use repetitive motifs so that the music could clarify rather than obfuscate the story. Even while the story by its nature is very ambiguous.

How did you go about the process of adaptation with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann? I noticed there were some departures from the original “In a Grove.”

At first our impulse was to adapt it pretty straight. But the more conversations we had, the more we were thinking, “Who are we to tell this story?” None of us had access to the time, place and culture out of which the shame at the center of the story emerges.

We also talked a lot about the female protagonist. In the original text, her character says she murders her husband out of the shame she felt for being raped. Her character also functions primarily as a victim. So we wanted to imagine a version where she had wants and needs that were all her own, instead of just reflecting the desires of the male characters. And we wanted it to be an opportunity to think about how male shame works, too, and how issues around masculinity can come to cloud and destroy someone. 

And then of course there was the issue of, like… Do we need another opera with a rape scene? It just felt cliché and unnecessary in this era.

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How did you navigate composing a rape in an opera, especially as a man? 

Well, it’s not technically a rape scene, which was a very deliberate decision. But Stephanie and I were like, there has to be an assault because this is the entire plot of the whole thing. You can’t remove it. 

But… I’m very lucky to have an amazing wife, who was kind enough to have many conversations with me about some intense experiences she has had. I have her consent to talk about this, of course. She has been very generous as a collaborator through this process. And obviously Stephanie is a woman, Mary is a woman, and we all had extensive conversations before I started. 

A common narrative I’ve heard is about a sense of dissociation. I wanted there to be no satisfaction in hearing this moment in the opera. To hear something like a character in agony strikes me as glorifying victimhood. 

So I wasn’t trying to bring much of myself into it. I was trying to do my best to respect what these people were kind enough to share.

That goes back to the theme of listening in this opera: different ways of listening to the same story. 

I think this was my best attempt to approach these issues with maximum listening and empathy. And then of course you just have to write the music and do your best. 

I was really interested in the complex sense of time in this piece. It’s staunchly set in 1922, but makes sonic gestures towards the present, just as there is the present and the past of the characters’ storytelling. Part of that is because of the electronics: Opera rarely uses live-processing on the voice or even microphones, so the use of close mics and distortions felt bold and surprising. How did you arrive at that choice? 

It’s funny, it actually started because of a workshop in London in 2017 with extremely limited resources, but as it went along, the electronics became core to the fabric of the piece, particularly with regards to truth and “truthiness.”

I’m always trying to use every musical device as a storytelling one. And this opera is really structurally focused around storytelling. Everything that happens in the interrogation room is true: someone is saying, “I’m here, I killed this person.” But everyone is also spinning their own yarn to some degree. So I wanted to create a stratification between those two worlds.

The effects on the voice became a way of casting doubt on veracity by pulling apart the sounds themselves.

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Can you give an example? 

Well, there’s an effect in the fifth scene, “The Outlaw,” where there’s a wildly distorted sound on the Outlaw’s voice, which I actually deconstructed from a Billie Eilish song. It’s from “Xanny,” which is one of my favorite songs by her. I went to my electronic collaborator Dave and was like, “Can you make this effect for me?” The idea was to reveal the Outlaw’s demonic nature, but also the haziness of his memory. He’s been hit on the head, so there’s a wooziness to his storytelling. 

Then there’s an absolutely horrific moment when Ambrose is accusing Leona of all these things while she’s trying to save him. I had this image of the words surrounding her, the memory overwhelming her as she sings. So I threw on all these delays so the words kind of repeat and repeat and repeat.

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I sensed you exploring the sounds of suspicion, fear or doubt. But were you also thinking about what the truth sounds like?

I think that they’re all telling the truth. I have to believe what they’re saying is true, as the creator, because even if a character is monstrous you have to understand who they are and what they are trying to do.

The piece doesn’t feel like it has a “center” for that reason. I have never tried to use less material in a piece of music. The entire piece is basically two intervals. It’s a fourth, A and D, and then a minor third of C and E-flat. The half step that separates the D and E-flat becomes very important melodically. The simpler the material, the more malleable it is. 

That gets at how the truth of an event can have very little factual material, but also be interpreted in any number of directions.

That was very much the logic. The biggest challenge for this piece was to repeat events in a recognizable way. Sort of the opposite of Schoenbergian developing variations, where it’s constantly changing. I wanted the audience to recognize the same events occurring, and distinguish changes in the combination of words, melody, orchestration, and singing.

One of the reasons the material is so limited is to make something like a half step difference very recognizable to a lay audience member. The piece is constructed out of a fourth, which is a very consonant interval, and a half step which is a very dissonant interval. The aim was to have these two poles right next to each other, and everything existing between these poles.

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Leona’s melody, while she’s singing to herself, emerges out of the repetitions. It feels like a groundbreaking moment.

That was very careful in the design. At first, we just hear a little bit of it during the Outlaw’s scene, where it’s really told from his perspective. He’s only hearing her from afar, and it’s wordless. The second time we actually hear the song she’s singing to herself, as words of self-care. And then finally that melody kind of becomes the entirety of the last scene of the opera. It becomes the essence of what happened. 

I remember Mary and other people commenting that after Leona sings that little Arietta, she sings “protection” using that same melody. I do think the music is an attempt at self-protection.

Maybe finding the nature of truth and justice is not even the “goal” of this adaptation, as opposed to Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon.” It’s ultimately more about care across these different truths, and what you do… 

How do you go on, I think, is a central question of the piece. How do you go on after these events?

What are the differences between this as a staged opera and as an album? The two feel so distinct.

Yeah, the two sound pretty different—my wife says they sound extremely different. Mike Tierney and I have worked together on the last three albums, and this one was a totally wild experiment that I am very relieved went well. 

No single musician was ever in the same room as another musician on this album. Basically I went back to the performances of the opera and traced the general tempo contours of the performances. Up and down, 80, 81, 82 [beats per minute], trying to find the platonic ideal iteration of the work, but with human, breathing tempi. And from that I built an entire click track and first recorded all the struck idiophones and pianos and harps, and then strings and winds, and then finally the singers. 

You know, every person my age or younger grew up on recordings of music, more than live music. So much of the music that interests me, I experienced through recording technology. This was an attempt to think of recording as its own medium, and say: Let’s make something pristine, detailed, intimate, and close. The idea was to try to be a co-producer here, and take a kind of George Martin-like role in this project, in addition to being a composer. 

There’s often an assumed hierarchy where live performance is considered “more authentic,” but I don’t think that’s true. 

One of my first experiences with opera was with this BBC recording that my dad had of “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which was actually unopened. So I opened it up. Now “Bluebeard’s Castle” is one of my favorite operas by far. It’s such a psychological piece, and following the story in English as a kid was just amazing for me. So I wanted “In a Grove” to work as a stage piece, but also as a kind of radio opera. 

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And it being recorded separately echoes the interrogation room structure.

At first, Mike and I were like, Oh no, this is not going to work at all. But then with care and love and some re-jiggering it was all fine. I can’t sing his praises highly enough as a producer. This was really such a collaborative endeavor, especially with Mary Birnbaum and the dramatic input from my wife Carrie Sun. As a composer you have to trust all these people, just as they have to trust you. And that’s at the core of what we were trying to do here. And I have to say, this is the project that I’m most proud of. 

It’s very vulnerable to trust people with your vision of the “truth” of a piece. 

Yes, just as so many people trusted me with their truths. ¶

Update, 16/6/2023: An earlier version of this article said the album version of “In a Grove” would be released on July 5. The correct date is July 7. VAN regrets the error.

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Julia Conrad is a writer and translator based in Palermo. She is at work on her first book, Sex and the Symphony, to be published by Simon & Schuster.