Dog Days gives students an inside look at composing and mounting a contemporary opera

by Stephanie Kulke

New York composer David T. Little looks completely at home in a classroom at the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts. In his third Bienen School residency, he easily navigates the lakefront campus and knows where to find the best coffee (Colectivo). The dozen undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students in Hans Thomalla’s composition class have the score of Little’s Dog Days open on their laptops and are peppering him with questions about composing and developing a career.

A faculty member at the New School in New York City, Little is only about a decade away from his own student days. In 2004, between completing his master’s degree and beginning his doctorate, he composed the first songs that would eventually go into Dog Days. As a private student of Osvaldo Golijov in Boston, Little wrote the song cycle Songs of Love, Death, Friends, and Government. During a lesson, Golijov suggested that the songs felt like studies for operas.

One of the cycle’s songs, “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” depicts the landscape of Lee’s short film Dog Days, based on the 2001 short story of the same name by Judy Budnitz. Another of the songs, “Two Marines,” would become the penultimate number in Little’s first opera, Soldier Songs—a monodrama for which he also wrote the libretto. Little says, “There are seven songs total in this cycle, and I often wonder: will more operas come out of it?”

Although opera was not initially on his radar, Little set his sights on composing after hearing Danny Elfman’s score for the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. In Elfman’s film music, Little recognized a convergence of popular and classical styles that aligned with his own eclectic musical tastes.

Following Soldier Songs (2006), Little completed the operas Vinkensport (2010), Dog Days (2012), and JFK (2016)—all collaborations with librettist Royce Vavrek—as well as Artaud in the Black Lodge (2019), with a libretto by Anne Waldman and additional lyrics by Little himself.

In response to student questions about how to mix musical styles and how to know when a work is complete, Little pointed to a bathtub scene from JFK that started as a country-western song and evolved into an orchestral piece. “As a composer, you need to find what delights you,” Little said, “and create from an honest place of where you are at that moment.”

Little says the writing phase calls for “caring deeply,” while editing calls for detachment. After recording a run-through of a new work, he sets it aside for a week or two. Then he listens all the way through, making notes. “I’ve realized, like the view over Manhattan, I can’t see the overall piece as one. I have to trust that the other parts I can’t see are okay.” He also finds that working in concentrated blocks of time, such as a continuous weekend (including an all-nighter), can help him tap into the subconscious.

Second-year master’s student Jesse Steele said he identified with Little’s composing process of finding inspiration in multiple places and grabbing those that are most useful to serving the project. He also gained appreciation for the importance of the editing process. Doctoral composition student Jasmine Thomasian found particular inspiration in this advice from Little: “When your gut tells you you’re right and your head tells you you’re wrong, you’re onto something.”

Scenes from 'Dog Days'

Photos by Todd Rosenberg

Little’s residencies led up to the Chicago-area premiere of Dog Days, performed November 21–24 in the Ryan Center’s Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater. The production marked the first collaboration between the Bienen School’s opera program and Northwestern’s Institute for New Music. Featured as the onstage orchestra was the school’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Bienen School lecturer Alan Pierson, who had also conducted the opera’s 2012 world premiere for Peak Performances at Montclair State University.

Two casts of Bienen students tackled the challenging work, a dystopian portrait of a starving family in a war-ravaged America of the not-so-distant future. The story is told predominantly from the perspective of Lisa, a 13-year-old girl whose world slowly unravels. When a man in a dog suit appears on the family property howling for scraps, numerous questions are raised for both the characters and the audience.

“Where does our humanity begin and where does it end—and what happens to our humanity under the most extreme and dire circumstances? When do we cease to be human?” asks director of opera Joachim Schamberger, who served as stage director as well as set and production designer. He considers the work a great first opera for the uninitiated, noting that “the musical language David found for the story is incredible—it really impacts you. Unlike classical operas, Dog Days dives into the action quickly without a need for exposition.”

Bienen School senior Morgan Mastrangelo played the role of Prince, a man dressed in a dog suit. “What this piece really does is shine a light on how our humanity changes as we undergo hardship,” he says. “In a society with resources becoming scarcer, it asks how humans will maintain compassion in the face of scarcity and how we treat those who are more vulnerable than we are.” Also in the cast were Gabrielle Barkidjija, Aryssa Burns, Daniel Fleming, Jeffrey Goldberg, Pablo David Laucerica, Ryan Lustgarten, Kira Neary, Andrew Payne, Olivia Prendergast, Emma Rothfield, Marin Tack, and Aaron Walker.

Reviewing the production, Oliver Camacho of Vocal Arts Chicago praised the mature and harrowing performances of the student cast, the effective production design, and Little’s skill in writing for the voice. He called Dog Days “an essential piece of theater for this moment. In the gripping two-hour opera, the audience watches the ultimate failure of toxic masculinity, the nonnecessity of martyrdom, and how compassion may be the only thing that separates us from the dogs.”

Students enjoyed the unique benefit of participating in an opera by a living composer, especially since they were able to ask him questions and receive direct coaching during his three campus residencies. The appreciation was mutual. Little asserts that he would gladly recommend performers from the Bienen School cast for professional productions of Dog Days: “Both casts were terrific and utterly fearless.”

Stephanie Kulke is the fine arts editor in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

  • Joachim Schamberger
  • Alan Pierson
  • Hans Thomalla
  • opera