Tarik O’Regan’s bi-continental approach helped him make HGO’s ‘The Phoenix’ rise

Composer Tarik O’Regan Photo: Pedro Grieg Some time after he moved to the U.S. from England, Tarik O’Regan began noticing a curious discrepancy in the program bulletins at concerts presenting his work.

“You [become] rapidly known as the other person, or the Other, from both of your communities,” says the London native, who recently relocated from NYC to San Francisco.

O’Regan has been a U.S. resident since 2004, almost exactly two centuries after another European crossed the Atlantic. Mired in debt, this man had written the librettos for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas “Don Giovanni,” “Cosi fan Tutti,” and “The Marriage of Figaro,” but any monies from those had long since run out by 1805, when he decided to roll the dice on a new life in the New World.

His name was Lorenzo Da Ponte, and his life is now the subject of “The Phoenix,” a brand-new work commissioned by Houston Grand Opera. O’Regan and librettist John Caird use the two-act opera, whose remaining performances fall Tuesday and Friday at the Wortham Center, to explore the cultural vertigo of feeling neither fully American nor European.

O’Regan can relate.

“That kind of strange relationship between being neither one nor the other, or always being viewed as the Other, you really feel with Da Ponte,” he says.

The accidental American

Da Ponte was a fascinating character whose identity issues were not limited to nationality. Jewish by birth, his father converted him to Catholicism just three months after his bar mitzvah. He became a priest but was eventually banished from Vienna for engaging in “public concubinage,” a rather foreboding term meaning he enjoyed the company of women a bit too much for his occupation.

After a brief spell in Dresden, Da Ponte landed in Austria, where he rose to become “poet to Emperor Joseph II of Austria” and, through Mozart’s nemesis Antonio Salieri, secured commissions to co-write “Giovanni” and the others that eventually made him famous. (He actually wrote librettos for nearly 30 operas.)

But Joseph’s death in 1790, one year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, spelled the end of Da Ponte’s run at court. He nearly got caught up in the French Revolution — Joseph’s sister, Marie Antoinette, was then queen of France, but not for much longer — but instead wound up in London. There the overwhelming debts of the King’s Theater, which he began running around 1802, left him destitute. At that point he decided to join his wife, the former Nancy Grahl, and children in America.

In the U.S., he worked as a grocer and teacher to get by, but his real dream — which eventually came true, briefly — was to build America’s first Italian-style opera house. Another way he made ends meet was selling his treasured library of Italian literature to Columbia University.

O’Regan credits his fellow Brit Caird, an experienced HGO hand who also co-wrote 2009’s world premiere “Brief Encounter” and directed this season’s production of “La bohéme,” with helping soften his opinion of someone he originally viewed as “pretty awful…you know, not a nice man.”

“John had a much more — and it may be our differences of age — sympathetic, or nuanced, approach to how one’s sympathies do not need to be binary,” explains O’Regan. “You don’t need to go from ‘What an awful human being’ to ‘What a great human being.’ You can have elements of both all the way through the opera.”

International influence

O’Regan and Caird also wanted “The Phoenix” to suggest how events in faraway lands wind up shaping people’s destinies through no action on their part. As Da Ponte and his friend Casanova sit at a Viennese cafe and discuss the Declaration of Independence, which has just been signed, Da Ponte is inspired by the Americans’ lunge for freedom; Casanova cautions “men need herding, just like sheep or goats.”

Flashing back to the long-ago scene, the older Da Ponte reflects “that year in Philadelphia, men were dreaming of a country, while I was dreaming who to be.”

In a way, O’Regan sees Da Ponte as the originator of a trend that truly blossomed in the late 19th and into the 20th centuries, when European greats such as Gustav Mahler, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schönberg, and Igor Stravinsky all moved to America. Some stayed but briefly, while others never left.

“We always think of them as European composers writing European music,” O’Regan notes. “But a significant amount of very important output was created by those composers in the USA.

“Bartok,” he adds, naming another.

“Tarik’s compositional voice is both highly lyrical and movingly intellectual,” HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers says in the current issue of Opera Cues, the company’s in-house publication. “He is that real rarity — a thinking heart and a feeling brain. [He] is the perfect choice to bring us musically into the world of a genius who transited many cultures.”

Becoming a citizen

O’Regan was in the middle of writing “The Phoenix” when he became a U.S. citizen himself, and Da Ponte’s naturalization ceremony becomes a key moment in Act 2. Interestingly, O’Regan took an informal poll among his predominately American temporary HGO colleagues — “the chorus, the cast, the orchestra” — and only one person had ever witnessed one.

“Most countries don’t have these big ceremonies, so very few Americans see the final stage in the immigration process,” he says. “It’s actually a very beautifully crafted ceremony that has stood the test of time. But it’s something that nobody ever gets to see. That’s something that I felt very connected to.”

O’Regan hopes “The Phoenix” will caution against the “binary” mindset he believes has especially taken root lately, both in the U.S. and Europe, which demands people define themselves as either native or foreign — one or the other, with no room or reason to craft a sort of hybrid identity.

The composer dismisses that sort of thinking as “not very helpful, and not very true.”

“What appeals to me in general is trying to work my way into those parts of the narrative, particularly from the American perspective, that speak to a more complicated and, for me, ultimately more real and genuine truth,” he says.

“I think there is no one immigrant story,” O’Regan adds. “Immigration has become such a big, dominant word, and we all have an opinion about it as if it’s this thing . You realize that every single story is different, yet every single story has at least one connection to another story.”

Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.

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