The Story Behind the Indianapolis Opera’s New Vonnegut Production
Happy Birthday, Wanda June opens September 16.
The first few months of 2014 proved to be a punishing, cathartic time for Richard Auldon Clark. Secluded in an upstairs bedroom of a house in upstate New York, he planted himself at an electric piano and looked out at the frozen backyard, wrestling through some awful chords to find the right ones for a very personal composition. Consecutive days of record-setting low temperatures gave him nothing but time indoors.
The music professor on sabbatical from Butler University was picking up a project he began many years earlier with longtime friend Kurt Vonnegut. The two had been working on an operatic treatment of the famous Indianapolis author’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June when Vonnegut died in 2007. With the promise of a 2016 world premiere by the Indianapolis Opera, Clark finally had a deadline and a calling: to write music worthy of Vonnegut’s anti-war play, believed to contain the last creative writing he ever produced.
Back in Indiana, Indianapolis Opera general director Kevin Patterson was facing his own challenges. Before Patterson was hired in 2015, the Indianapolis Opera had gone into debt, lost most of its audience, and disappointed funders. It canceled not only the last production of its 2013–2014 season but also its entire 2014–2015 season. Patterson was charged with turning the struggling 41-year-old organization around.
On September 16, the Indianapolis Opera will open its 2016–2017 season with Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Clark’s adaptation represents the latest update to the sometimes stodgy repertoire IO had been staging before it nearly collapsed. Organizers hope such programming can bring in a new audience without alienating the old one, but there’s no question which way the institution now leans. As Patterson puts it, “The old Indianapolis Opera is dead.”
When a young accountant named Arnie Hanish joined the 5-year-old Indianapolis Opera in 1981, couples in suits and dresses sat for nearly three hours as grand productions of La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, and Carmen played inside the 2,500-seat Murat Theatre. Hanish initially was a member of the board of directors and helped the young organization keep its books, then took on the role of president in the 1990s when the group fell into some financial trouble. During his tenure, the Indianapolis Opera did what had to be done to get back in the black, canceling a production, eliminating debt, and bringing in new leadership. Hanish left the opera thinking it had great prospects for the future.
The show went on until the Great Recession hit in December 2007, battering arts organizations across the country. For the Indianapolis Opera, the fallout came to a head in 2014, when the group drafted Hanish, then an Eli Lilly retiree, to be president once again. The situation was critical. In addition to its financial troubles, the IO recently had lost its general and artistic directors. The mounting turmoil led to the 2014–2015 season cancellation and the hiring of former Indiana Repertory Theatre managing director Steven Stolen to evaluate the situation. “They were really in crisis,” says Stolen, who now works at the Indy Chamber. “They were stuck with that message: They had to cancel a show! In the community, people were wondering, ‘Was it going to be okay?’”
From the fall of 2013 through the end of 2014, Stolen carried out a feasibility study, meeting with past and prospective funders, people who knew about the opera, and others who didn’t. He listened to opinions about the group and opera in general, gauging confidence and awareness. Among the findings: Sponsors’ expectations were not being met, the budget needed to be severely cut and reworked, the venues were too large, the leadership had to change, and the board of directors needed an overhaul.
The situation wasn’t unique to Indianapolis. Opera houses were folding across the country. Companies that were finding success, Stolen says, were “the ones reimagining themselves, the ones that were figuring out how to do innovative work and still be attractive to an audience. Not just edgy—opera in your underwear doesn’t work.” Opera Memphis, the Cincinnati Opera, and the Des Moines Metro Opera stood out as organizations that were thriving by changing, incorporating modern pieces. And those progressive companies were still presenting productions such as Falstaff, Turandot, and The Marriage of Figaro as ties to tradition.
Patterson immediately embraced Stolen’s recommendation that the Indianapolis Opera update its programming. After all, the IO general director had pursued the same path at other opera houses. Before returning to his home state of Indiana, Patterson and his family lived in Anchorage, where he skied six miles to work as the director of the Anchorage Opera, rebuilding that floundering organization. “When I moved back in 2014, I reconnected with a lot of high school friends who settled in Indianapolis,” he says. “It was amazing to talk to some of them. They were 47 years old and they didn’t know the opera existed here!”
When Patterson came on full time in 2015, the Indianapolis Opera became a startup again—even considering, but ultimately deciding against, a name change. The organization paid outstanding bills, slashed its budget from $1.9 million to $1.1 million, and launched never-before-used social media and digital marketing tactics. “The old way to communicate with the audience was to hope for an article in the Star, send out postcards, and pray,” Patterson says. The IO also started collaborating with other arts organizations, several of which (Encore Vocal Arts, Motus Dance, Indy Film Fest) now have set up shop alongside the group’s administration in the Basile Opera Center.
Patterson’s first season at the helm in 2015–2016 included a free outdoor concert with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and two operas. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (based on Oliver Sacks’s classic) explored a singer’s neurological disorder, and Mansfield Park was an operatic adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. After more than 20 years at the 2,172-seat Clowes Hall, IO’s mainstage moved next door to the 450-seat Schrott Center. The changes helped put a costly art form back on solid ground. “The average show is $175,000 to $250,000 per production,” Patterson says. “And that’s just what the audience sees—no overhead.”
Of course, cutting costs fixed just one side of the ledger. The Indianapolis Opera also needed to sell tickets. And no name fills seats in Indy quite like Kurt Vonnegut.
In elementary school, Clark picked up his first string instrument at age 9. As a teenager, he attended the Manhattan School of Music and earned his bachelor’s degree in violin performance and master’s degree in viola while studying composition and conducting. In 1987, he founded the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra and remains the conductor and music director, focusing on works by contemporary American composers. One year out of college, he made his Carnegie Hall debut. “I was very fortunate to land right into a performance career,” Clark says. “I got my doctorate on stage.” Since then, Clark has premiered more than 400 works and recorded dozens of albums, with ties to film, Broadway, and Carnegie Hall.
Clark met Vonnegut in the early ’90s. A composer had recorded a requiem for Vonnegut, but no one would perform it. One of Clark’s orchestra members called him and told him about the situation. “She said, ‘How would you like to do a Vonnegut project?’” he recalls. “I went crazy, and I told her I would do it if I could meet Kurt.” Clark told Vonnegut the requiem was awful, and that Clark could help. When the author heard Clark’s new version performed a few months later, Vonnegut had tears in his eyes. “After that, I could do no wrong,” Clark says.
Vonnegut became Clark’s mentor. The author would regularly attend his performances, and they talked for hours about literature, music, and art. They even recommended books to one another. When a friend told Clark about a position available at a private Indianapolis school called Butler University in 2003, Vonnegut encouraged him to pursue it. During his first year as music director of the Butler Symphony Orchestra, Clark brought the student musicians to New York’s Trinity Church. Vonnegut sat near the front of the sanctuary and watched them perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.
Throughout the years, Clark and Vonnegut created new musical works based on Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, and Cat’s Cradle. Often, Vonnegut would narrate those pieces.
Vonnegut wrote Happy Birthday, Wanda June in 1971, right after his bestselling novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Intended as a protest of the Vietnam War, the play chronicles the unexpected return home of a mercenary soldier named Harold Ryan. When Harold leaves his wife, Penelope, she’s a ditzy carhop. He returns after eight years lost in the Amazon to find that she has gone to college, majored in English lit, and changed her attitude about the macho man she married. The work was Vonnegut’s first attempt at writing for the stage, and an off-Broadway theater hosted the show for a few months that year, its run cut short by an actors’ strike. “Kurt thought it had a lot of flaws as a play, but he thought they could be taken care of with music,” Clark says.
Vonnegut busied himself with other projects in the decades that followed, however, and it wasn’t until 2005 that the two old friends began to work in earnest on an operatic version of Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The author cut large chunks of dialogue to make it work as a libretto, then gave Clark permission to cut further as he saw fit. Clark began to compose the music, and felt encouraged by the early strains on the page. But time finally caught up with Vonnegut in 2007. “He died before he heard a single note,” Clark says. “It was very heavy for me, so I didn’t touch the story for another seven years.”
In March 2015, one month into his job as the general director of the Indianapolis Opera, Patterson reconnected with Dennis Long, the production manager at Butler’s Schrott Center. Patterson was a voice student at Indiana University when Long taught there. Long told Patterson he should meet a Butler professor named Richard Auldon Clark who was writing an opera.
“If I had a dime for every time someone came up to me and said, ‘I’m composing an opera,’ I’d be rich,” Patterson says. “But as soon as Richard said ‘Kurt Vonnegut,’ I sat up a little straighter.” Clark was nearly finished writing the music for Act One, and he sent the first few scenes’ worth to Patterson, who listened to an IO staff member play them on piano. Patterson encouraged Clark to keep going, hoping it might be ready for the 2016–2017 season.
Clark returned to New York without his mentor to guide him, but he felt he had a clear sense of what the Hoosier author envisioned. “Kurt said he didn’t want an artsy-fartsy opera,” Clark says. So Clark strived for an accessible one just two hours in length. Over the course of last winter, he hammered out the rest of the score and sent the finished composition to Patterson, who thought highly enough of the work to schedule it.
Vonnegut’s biting sense of humor and language may not appeal to theatergoers who believe opera should be epic and noble. If a few old-timers don’t show up for this kind of unconventional programming, that’s fine by Patterson. His second season with the Indianapolis Opera is about building on the quirky successes of his first. But traditionalists will have plenty to look forward to as well. After the Vonnegut play, IO travels outside of Marion County for the first time to The Tarkington in Carmel to present The Barber of Seville. In March 2017, the group returns to the Schrott Center for The Jewel Box—a pastiche of music by Mozart with a libretto about working artists.
Usually, the composer takes center stage in the opera world, but Vonnegut will be the draw with Happy Birthday, Wanda June. That doesn’t bother Clark. “It’s Vonnegut speaking to us from beyond,” he says of the opera. Clark hopes to record the show and see stage performances of it by companies across the country. If you’ve read the play, you’ll recognize most of the story on opening night, but not all of it. Vonnegut rewrote the ending over the last few weeks of his life and sent the changes to Clark. The final minute and a half of the performance represents Vonnegut’s concluding literary contribution to the world. Clark remembers receiving the edits and being as stunned by the content as he had been when he met the author all those years ago. “I’ll tell you,” he says, “it was a shock.”