Wormwood-Biology of a Fall

It was just brought to my attention that Netflix released a series today called Wormwood chronicling and dramatizing the last days of Frank Olson, about which, you know if you have any idea who I am as a composer, I wrote an opera about with Gary Heidt in 2003-2007 entitled Man – Biology of a Fall. I have watched the first two episodes so far. Great casting!

I lived with this dark tale for a long time. Coming after the first two Defenestration operas it was the one into which I put the most effort. The first thing we did was display about 30 minutes of the opera in two workshops partially funded by the Brooklyn Arts Council in 2003, one at OfficeOps in Bushwick and one at Galapagos in Williamsburg. Gary had reached out to Eric Olson about our events, but was told that opera wasn’t the vehicle that he was looking for to tell his story. No arguments from me on that, and I am glad he has his optimal vehicle on Netflix, where his collage technique can merge with film and drama. As a sidebar we also got an offhand reference in Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare At Goats where Eric elaborated to the effect of, “the story is complicated enough as it is without having it sung at people.”

After those workshops began the long arduous process of my trying to find anyone interested in producing the opera. In 2004-2006 New York had pretty much the same small, contemporary opera groups that they do now, maybe one or two fewer, and no one was interested.

I finished composing the opera, largely in one sitting during a 3-week residency at the MacDowell Colony in December, 2005, two months after our first daughter was born.

With no interest in either the story or me as a composer by every opera company in NYC dedicated to “new opera” I produced it myself, as I had with my first two operas. The were some false starts with regard to venues until finally Rodney Hurley, director of Kumble Theater on Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn (part of Long Island University) came to my aide and gave me some dates in the theater in October, 2007. I got the green light in December of 2006. Once 2007 began I was off and running, seeking a Director, Production Team, Music Director, cast, orchestra musicians, and so on. Oh, and I had to orchestrate this 2-1/2 hour vocal score for an orchestra of 15 plus an electronic musician, incorporating a technique I had come up with employing occasional real-time sampling from the orchestra, special sound cues, effects, and electronic music expansion of the score. Oh, and I had to hit the fundraising trail. The production would cost me $50,000.

I struck gold with my director, Jyana Gregory (Browne), and it is thanks to her that the Production Team came along. I also struck gold with an electronic composer in Daniel Iglesia, who understood exactly what I was trying to do on that note, and could do it, right down to following a conductor. Dan Gaydos, one of the only people involved with the Defenestration Trilogy from the beginning, complemented the production with excellent sound design and reinforcement. I found a Music Director, but he skittered off a month before we opened leaving me to rehearse and conduct the performances. (I was helped immeasurably at this time by a musical assistant, Eli Zoller.) That was high stress, and it prevented me from engaging in Phase 22 of the project, which was promotion. I spoke with multiple publicists and no one wanted to take the project. The Kumble Theater added to my misery by neglecting to mail out the promised flyers to my NYC “hot” list of 400 anybodys. I didn’t know until the day of the opening.

2007 was a year of ups and downs. Incredible successes, such as when I received a check from Edward Albee in my fundraising campaign, not to mention donations from the Bienstock family of Carlin America, where I worked, and many others, measured against setbacks in things like casting and receiving a budget for a set that exceeded anything within the realm of possibility. Lessons learned! I kept a video diary of the process, and had intended to edit a “Making Of” DVD Special Feature – not made yet, but perhaps someday. (The DVD/video of the opera is made, however.) I am reticent to relive the stresses and disappointments of the process, but I still want to do it because there is a great ending quote by my 2-year old daughter the day after we closed, hanging out in our apartment, where she says, “No more opera.” ha-ha

There are some interesting anecdotes surrounding this period, such as the time I drove to Fort Detrick, hoping just to see it from a distance, but driving too close to the gate, being pulled over and having my car searched. I told the guy who was searching the car that I was writing an opera about Detrick and wanted to see the facility. He said, “An opera? About Detrick? Well, you’ve gone too far, open up your trunk.” This was early January 2005.

When we were auditioning for the lead, Frank Olson, it had come down to two singers. Steven Ebel won it with his fabulous musicianship and voice and incredibly cooperative nature. What’s more, he was blonde and from Wisconsin like Olson. But the day of the run-off, which we jokingly called American Idol – Olson, was a New York terror moment. It was July, 2007 and I had to walk from my office on E. 38th St. up to Times Square to the Shetler (I think) studio for the audition in the evening. This was the day of the steampipe explosion on 41st and Lex, 3 blocks from my office. It had just happened when I came out of my office. There were sirens, people walking hurriedly in all directions, “smoke” in the air, and the sound of a dull, cavernous roar. I believed that a dirty bomb had been detonated at Grand Central. I actually believed that had I turned the corner to peer north to grand Central I was see a crater in the ground. Instead I walked directly west down 38th, onward past Bryant Park to Times Square, never looking back, mind racing to all scenarios. The sidewalks were packed. Everyone thought it was a terrorist incident. I was thinking about how to keep radiation off of my person, keeping buildings and objects between myself and the blast site. I recall walking past the red-headed guy that was the announcer on the David Letterman show, leaving the day’s taping.

Another poignant episode was concerning whether or not I could get my parents up from North Carolina to see it. They wanted to, and loved coming to New York, which they had last done in July, 2005 to see my Aphex Twin premiere. However, my father’s Parkinson’s had developed and his walking was unsteady. As a solution I would put them in the Hotel Pennsylvania (the very hotel that Olson was thrown from), so that I could meet them at the Amtrak station and walk them across the street to their room. They would hire cars to go everywhere. It would cost me $400 a day, but I was resolved. I made a special appointment with a hotel manager to find the right room with good location, accessible shower, etc. In my hotel tour with the manager I asked her to show me room 1018A, the room Olson was thrown from. She asked me why and I said that my parents had stayed there on their anniversary. (I lied because my real reason would sound as preposterous as it did at Fort Detrick.) When she let me in I walked directly to the window and put my forehead against it and looked down. I looked around and got the lay of the room, and then we left. Of course, by then my opera was already written and being staged, so this was just a confirmation, and something of a consummation. The end to this story is that my parents did not come to NY for the opera after all due to my Dad’s affliction. This situation hurt a lot, as it pointed the way to the end of a life I had enjoyed of sharing my creations with my musical parents. I am glad to say that I did get to watch the DVD with my father before he passed. He wished I didn’t have the sex scene in the George White episode…

Thus it became that with a fine cast and orchestra, in a nice theater with nice dressing rooms and plenty of seats (too many of them empty), we put on a marvelous opera for those who came to see it, and I got the monkey off my back. I suspect that, with Wormwood, Eric Olson has gotten a monkey off of his back, too. The opera cost me whatever money I had at the time. It did not “lead to better things,” as they say, it was not reviewed (in fact, it was never even advance-listed except in one publication, TimeOut NY) and I have no desire to produce an opera again, though I would surely write one for someone else to produce. But, as with anything else, it was gratifying to set out and accomplish a goal, and be internally certain that it was good. Others can catch up to it as they like. I will be very curious to see what young composer watches Wormwood and says “Aha! That would make a great opera!” I can predict that that person will get funding and an opera company or two willing to do it. Why now and not then? Because it’s on TV for God’s sake! It is ordained that no new opera will be produced that hasn’t already been tested in the waters of mainstream entertainment.

Another post-mortem is that in 2010, H.P. Albarelli published his very thick book, A Terrible Mistake, that goes into great detail about the Frank Olson story, and puts forth his hypothesis about who did the killing. I suppose I’ll find out at the end of Wormwood whether they agree with and take the cue from Albarelli. Our opera’s villain, George White, has been debunked as a potential hammer-slinger, but that doesn’t matter. As a friend once told me “Art and the Truth were never great bedfellows.” I would have liked to nail every historical fact accurately, but we were ahead of the curve on putting anything out there, so there is that, and that particular fact was deemed unknowable, so we conflated a few relevant items. In what I have seen of Wormwood so far, it is like watching my opera down to the smallest details. The hotel room, the beds, the phone, the phone conversation, Frank and Alice at home. Are you sure you didn’t get any ideas from our opera when you depicted the scene at the lodge, where Gottlieb says “You’re the one on stage, Frank.”?? I mean, we did play the whole lodge scene with theatrical references galore…Never mind. Yet it is thrilling for me to see the footage and stills of personages and places I lived with and depicted, and actors I myself would likely have chosen to play their roles. Surely they could have found a place for the hit single from my opera, “He’s an Allergist, Not a Therapist” !! Or “Killing Monkeys For Freedom”?? Maybe even “Need to Know (Higher Clearance)”? Ah, riches await you all.


-Dec. 15, 2017


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