Photo: Andrew Kelly

Interview w/Tracy K. Smith

U.S. Poet Laureate and Librettist of "The Righteous" at Santa Fe Opera

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Imagine how many hours alone Tracy K. Smith spent on her way to becoming the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States. Now picture her on the grounds of the Santa Fe Opera, surrounded by people, as she attends rehearsals for “The Righteous,” a world premiere opening July 13, for which she wrote the libretto.

As Smith tells it, stepping out of her privacy and into the act of collaboration, in particular working with composer Gregory Spears (with whom she previously teamed on the opera “Castor and Patience” which debuted in 2022) has allowed her to tell stories in a new way.

“It was a gradual realization for me about the radical difference that comes with collaboration because the first stages were just conversations with Greg (Spears), thinking about our questions, our interest in America, what facets of history felt relevant to the present. And then I started writing scenes, you know, writing arias and building the language. Finally, at early workshops, when I got to hear the instrumentation and the voices together, things enlarged, the work stepped into these other dimensions, other personalities. To me, the physicality of the performers brings so much in.”

“The Righteous,” tells the story of a one man’s spirituality, as it comes face-to-face with power and politics in the “American Southwest” in the 1980’s A starting place for the creators of the new opera was the story of King David, from the Old Testament. The main character in the opera is named David. His lover Sheila is a stand-in for the adulterous Bathsheba, and Jonathan, a questioning gay friend in the opera, is based on Jonathan the son of Saul, King of Israel, with whom the young David had a close, possibly homoerotic relationship.

“David helps us to start the question process. He is someone who loves God, someone who also has access to great power and power over others. I don’t think any of us wanted to retell the myth. I think you want to leap off from it, which is how myth operates in our culture. So that’s what we did.”

Q: Why set the story in the 80’s?

A: I think the 80’s was the beginning of the religious nationalism that has since deepened and fortified and has been capitalized upon quite literally in the decades since. So this is an opera that looks at this stream that’s beginning to fork. We all understand what the many forks have become. But what does it look like quietly, when perhaps not everybody who’s benefiting from it is fully or consciously aware of it?

Q: You chose to work with a poetic form called, “villanelle.” Was that throughout the opera?

A: No. It’s the opening and closing arias that obey that form. It’s a pattern of repetition, internal rhyme. I see that as a pattern that’s really great for consternation or obsession because these lines repeat, repeat, repeat and change over time. The song also feels like prayer to me. You know, in the same way that if you become all knotted up in your obsessions and anxieties, somebody with faith or a mystical imagination might say, ‘OK I can’t handle this. Let me turn this mess into some form of prayer.’ Take these questions that spiral in on themselves at one moment, and then turn them upward or outward. It also felt like an interesting way of expressing how transformation happens.

Q: All these people are going to be sitting in the audience reading your words, the libretto, on their little seat-back screens (even if they understand English—it’s a screen) while all this other stuff is going on onstage. Does the music and the staging add to your text, take away from your words, or is it just part of the whole scenario?

A: We’re seeking to create that perfect symmetry. Greg is such a great composer and one of his strengths is his ability to set natural speech so that it is legible. I’m hoping that viewers will look out from the safety of their screens and just be in the presence of the music and the voices and let that operate on them. It’s a balance they’ll begin to test and then trust. I hope.

Q: How has writing opera changed your poetry?

A: One thing I know about myself as a poet when I sit down to write a libretto, is that my sense of the music of language is not always conducive to what language does with music. You know, these lilting rhythms that can live in a line that will be read, sometimes need to be scaled back a little bit in a line that will be sung. I wonder if my poems are beginning to anticipate that in some way. I know that my compositional process, by which I mean my thought process, has become led more vigorously by sound. It’s not that I’m writing to music, but that I’m thinking about the rhythmic momentum of lines and stanzas about musical modulation across the entirely of a poem. I think that definitely is a side effect of thinking with music.

Q: You said you attended a Baptist church in Northern California growing up. I was wondering in terms of that church and where you are today with spirituality.

Now, my sense of faith is a little bit more like Sheila’s, which is there’s this wonderful and terrible mystery that we belong to, and that we can take solace in and be in dialogue with. I like the vastness of that.

A: Yeah, well, I’m not in a church at all. I really feel like the social and human frameworks of religion always made me uncomfortable. Part of that church-going for me as a young person was or became a vocabulary of shame and prohibition, and posturing, you know, in some ways, righteousness. Now, my sense of faith is a little bit more like Sheila’s, which is there’s this wonderful and terrible mystery that we belong to, and that we can take solace in and be in dialogue with. I like the vastness of that. I think a lot of artists, for example, are invested in these questions of the soul or this consciousness that we have as individuals and that we contribute to in a collective way.

Q: How does the AIDS crisis come to play in “The Righteous?”

A: I think the main questions that the AIDS crisis activate in the opera have to do with compassion and courage. David’s best friend is a gay man, somebody who’s terrified of going out into the world and who suffers from that sense of being closeted. He suffers from that sense of isolation, and then he suffers emotionally from witnessing his friend, who has a voice, fail to challenge his congregation to love end embrace their sons and brothers.

Q: As a gay man who lived through the AIDS years, it feels like everyone has forgotten about that period. For us, it was our Vietnam. We watched our friends die. Now, it’s like a little blip in history.

A: Somebody should make an opera about how the state basically turns away from each of those Vietnams. There are all these versions of ‘we the people’ who are abandoned in times of peril. As a black person, I definitely feel like there are many moments where the state or the nation pivots away from expressing an understanding or commitment to that.

Q: Opera is an anachronistic form that not a whole lot of people care about in the country. But do you think it has a power to say something that other forms can’t?”

A: I think it really does. The fact that a human voice and body and spirit is transmitting sound, vibration, emotion and information to you? In a live setting where you’re not just hearing it as digitized sound waves, but through your body? I think that’s really profound and creates a kind of intimacy even in a large opera house.

The other thing is that opera invites you to be unabashed in your receptivity to the inner—the inner voice by way of ‘aria.’ So all of the things that usually don’t get vocalized take out time and space— the music lifts you out of self-consciousness. And what I love about new opera is that we can ask or invite our audiences to be susceptible to the interior lives of people that the medium, for most of its existence, have told us aren’t opera worthy. That’s exciting.

New stories are an intervention upon the comfort and the habit of longtime opera goers and devotees. And they’e also an on-ramp for people who might not have a relationship to an incredibly powerful art form.

Q: Is there a moment in the opera, musically, that blows you away?

A: One of my favorite moments is expressed by a minor character. Jacob, who’s the black preacher, is appealing to David at a political dinner for a little bit more understanding about how the crack epidemic is hitting his community. But as he’s talking to David, he realizes he isn’t getting anywhere. So he tells David a story. ‘There is an elderly man (I can’t quote him properly) who spends his time beautifying the community by planting trees. He does this because he wants the world to know what it looks like in God’s imagination.’

What Greg does with that moment opens up a place in my heart. For God’s imagination to enter in. There’s just something so vulnerable, beautiful and fearless about what that voice is asked to do.

What Greg does with that moment opens up a place in my heart. For God’s imagination to enter in. There’s just something so vulnerable, beautiful and fearless about what that voice is asked to do.

Q: What about a favorite line in your libretto?

A: I don’t have a great answer to that. I really don’t. But there’s one image, and it’s Sheila’s. She and David are speaking for the first time and she talks about seeing God in every bead of water, every raindrop. There’s a sense of how universal spirit is everywhere. I guess it’s a huge part of the private theology that I hold. I get quickened by those images They’re all so quiet, but sometimes I like the small and how it can be a container for something big.

Q: It must be hellish to work in a college setting right now. (Smith is a Professor of English and of African American Studies at Harvard University, where Claudine Gay, the first African-American president was recently forced to step down after Senate hearings around anti-semitism on college campuses during Gaza protests. Soon after she faced dredged-up accusations about plagiarism in her published scholarship.)

A: It’s everyone’s problem. This dynamic is coming to every institution that we are connected to as Americans. And so I don’t want to put it out of my mind. I want to be useful to the clarity with which we admit and respond to this fact. And so, it’s good to be in the heart of it. And to think ‘OK I’m a poet. What does that mean? I teach literature. What does that mean?’ How can I help fortify our vocabulary for thinking through difficulty and thinking with courage and honesty about these dynamics that are not new in our country?

And then I go to Santa Fe and I think, ‘Oh, I get to climb up into my soul. Oh, and maybe the vocabulary of the soul can be useful to this mess that I bring with me everywhere I go.’ That’s how I feel.

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