Composer and performer Nathan Matthews is coming to Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center—and some of his equally talented friends are joining him for a one-night-only event. On May 16, the Riverside Opera Ensemble is presenting American Composers Concert: Matthews and Fornarola, showcasing selections by Nathan and fellow composer Drew Fornarola, performed by award-winning Broadway and off-Broadway talent.
Before the show, I checked in with Nathan to preview the set list and discuss the finer points of producing an event that he’ll also be performing in. Learn more in our interview, then pick up tickets at the venue’s website for an outstanding evening of music.
Brittany Frederick: For folks who have never been to opera before, how would you describe your concert to them? What do we need to know?
Nathan Matthews: It’s The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the most famous revenge and love stories of all time. It’s got injustice and the revenge and the drama that you want to see on stage in a show. It’s got plotting people’s murders and getting one’s way, succeeding in the face of all odds.
What’s interesting is we did a private demo recording a couple years ago. We had 60 people in the room, and these were people who are not necessarily opera people. Some of them were, but it’s like “We’re hearing a story. We’re hearing melodies. We’re hearing songs we want to hear again.” They were like “When we get to do this in public, please let us know. We want to hear the music again.”
The singers want to sing it. Ed Parks, who’s the Grammy-winner singing the title role, when we did this before he said, “I hope I get to sing this role, and I really like singing this music because the words and the music tell a story. It’s just not singing opera for the sake of making a bunch of sound and glorious tones.” I think that people would experience a story the way they like to see a play without music or a musical. It’s just all sung.
BF: Were you developing the selections and then found the right people to sing them, or were you composing for these talented folks specifically? How did the production come together?
NM: What happened is my friend Stephen Pickover, who wrote the words, is a director at the Metropolitan Opera. He and I did a lot of musicals together—Broadway-style musicals in summer theater, we produced in New York some premieres of other composers’ operas. One of these operas…he wrote me a card on opening night and said “When are we going to make our own baby?” I said, “Well, let’s try something easy.” Like anything’s easy. (laughs) Then he called me and said, “Read The Count of Monte Cristo.” I said, “You’re absolutely insane. It’s how many hundreds of pages, and there are 150 characters in the novel.”
We did it. We’d written it as a lark, as a thing to enjoy exploring [our] craft. Then I started showing pieces of it to different people in the business and different singers, and the singers were like, “Oh, I’ll sing this. Oh, I like this.” Most of the people we know in some way, or they’re connected to someone we know. Christiane Noll, the Broadway actress, is someone I’ve known much of my life and Ed Parks is someone Stephen Pickover’s known much of his life. Then this thing started to fall into place.
BF: For folks who aren’t as familiar, talk about this ensemble you’re bringing with you, and what they bring to the event as artists themselves.
NM: Edward Parks, who I just mentioned, played the role of Steve Jobs. There’s an opera called The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs; he sang the role and they recorded it, and he won a Grammy award. He sang at Madison Square Garden in December with [Andrea] Bocelli, so he’s a pretty cool guy and he’s doing pretty well. He’s sung at the Met Opera of Chicago, he’s sung at San Francisco, Santa Fe. He’s on a really upward trend towards maintaining what will be a very major career.
Christiane Noll is Tony-nominated for Ragtime. She’s on Broadway right now in Dear Evan Hansen and Monday night’s her night off, so she agreed to do this on her night off. She was in the original Jekyll and Hyde cast on Broadway. She did the tour of Urinetown, where she met her husband Jamie LaVerdiere, who was Matthew Broderick’s understudy in The Producers; he’s singing with her on stage in our concert. It’s a little bit of family and friends on stage, too.
My librettist for The Count of Monte Cristo, Stephen Pickover, has been directing at the Met for many years. He’s directed the Torino Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Pittsburgh Opera. He’s had a directing career that’s really, really admirable. My poet, Peter Kelly, who wrote the words for my songs that that Christiane and her husband are singing, he was a baroque oboe player. In Minneapolis, he founded the Lyra Baroque Orchestra. He’s some kind of crazy whiz mathematician, and he started writing poetry on the side. One day I’m reading these poems and I just started thinking, “I want to try making music to these.” A couple of them are serious, but a couple of them are hilarious. Rehearsing with Christiane and Jamie is a laugh fest for us, because they’re having fun with Peter’s words and the quirky way I’ve set them to music.
Drew Fornarola has composed music for Dreamworks films, and he has a play called Straight that’s been performed around the world. It explores gender identity as far as gay and straight. He’s got a musical called Tiananmen that’s being premiered in Phoenix, Arizona this coming season, and he’s writing a new musical based on Dorian Gray with a female Dorian. Their working title is #Dorian. We’re going to premiere one of the songs from that in the concert.
BF: This is a showcase for your work with the goal of hoping to then produce complete shows in the future. So with this being such a passion project, what has the process and the journey been like? Is it rewarding just to put the show together?
NM: Just making music with people. You sit at a piano to write music. I sit at a piano with scribble or I sit at a keyboard…but any of that, you’re doing it alone. You’re trying out things alone. The process of switching from being alone to having singers in the room is thrilling. Just that next step and realizing what works, what you like, what you don’t like or in some instances, it’s when you realize, “Oh, well this actor, who’s going to sing it first, their voice works this way. It doesn’t work necessarily quite the way I wrote it in isolation.” We have fun making changes and adjusting [the piece] to them.
It is enjoying the rehearsals. It’s enjoying trying out the music. I’m enjoying hearing some other people sing the music this time from when I worked on it a couple years ago. We had two singers get jobs in Europe and leave, so we went through that process of replacing them at a late moment. Then another part of it that’s been thrilling is one of the roles is for a younger singer ideally, and someone who’s very vibrant and fresh. She’s an excited young teenage person who’s in love. We identified someone who’s finishing their doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to do that part. She’s coming to New York for her New York debut and standing on the stage with these award winners and award nominees and Met people for the first time. That’s another joy for me, is being able to bring someone forward. That’s a triumph that’s different from writing. That’s part of the producing part that’s exciting… is just to know that she’s going to stand and sing a duet with a guy from the Met.
Tickets for American Composers Concert: Matthews and Fornarola are on sale now through the Kaufman Music Center website.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.