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Adaptation of 'The Hours' becomes opera event of the year


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: One day in the lives of three women from three different times and places brought together on stage through the magic of opera.

"The Hours" is a new work opening tonight on one of the world's biggest stages, the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The real-life English writer Virginia Woolf in 1923 in a suburb of London. Sung by Joyce DiDonato, she fights the demons in her head as she struggles with an idea for a novel.

Laura Brown, sung by Kelli O'Hara, a fictional housewife in 1949 Los Angeles barely surviving a sense of meaninglessness to her life. And Clarissa Ward in New York City at the end of the 20th century on a day her dear friend dying of AIDS will take his life, and she will contemplate the course of her own, sung by soprano Renee Fleming.

Renee Fleming, Opera Singer: You have got an incredibly interesting story about three women from different periods and their complicated lives, their sexuality, their -- there's suicide, there's mental health, there's pretty much everything in it.

And opera can do this without any problem, kind of taking three different periods and putting them together, because it's the music that connects everything.

Jeffrey Brown: The music is by 50-year-old Kevin Puts. And days before opening, he was intently watching and listening at a rehearsal.

This is his fourth opera. The first, "Silent Night," won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. In "The Hours," he's worked with librettist Greg Pierce to adapt the 1998 novel by Michael Cunningham, also a Pulitzer winner, which was made into a star-studded film four years later by director Stephen Daldry, and which itself was inspired by Virginia Woolf's classic 1925 novel, "Mrs. Dalloway."

For lovers of different art forms novels, films, operas, it offers a way into thinking about what each can do. With opera, two characters from different times can share the stage and sing with, almost to, one another.

For Puts, who's composed everything from solo to orchestral music as well, this taps into his love of large-scale storytelling.

KEVIN PUTS, Composer: It's that I love storytelling in music. I love evoking certain things, emotions, situations through music. I think that's the kind of most amazing thing that music can do, to first introduce the three stories of "The Hours" and sort of establish different musics for each of those, and then gradually begin to blur the lines between them and have them overlap in a way that only music can.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Metropolitan Opera Conductor: Bringing new opera is my passion.

Jeffrey Brown: Met opera conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin says he loves the collaborative aspect of opera, especially when he can work with a living composer.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin: We play so many dead ones.


Yannick Nezet-Seguin: We play so many Mozart and so many Verdi operas and so many Wagner operas.

Jeffrey Brown: You're not knocking Mozart and Verdi are you?

Yannick Nezet-Seguin: No, I love them. But, sometimes, you -- oh, you wish that you would be able to ask them questions.

And, often, I make a joke with the orchestra. I say, one day, I'm going to ask Verdi, is it in heaven or in hell? I don't know. But I'm going to ask Verdi what he means, but hopefully not too soon. Now we have Kevin Puts. We have Greg Pierce. They're here. And we're reminded how the music that's written, especially in opera, is a living element.

Jeffrey Brown: Opera as a living art form, and one that can engage contemporary issues.

Renee Fleming: Every time I work on a new piece with a composer, I say, listen I want to sing words that are relevant to me in my life, that sound like I could be singing them and should be singing them.

Jeffrey Brown: You, Renee Fleming.

Renee Fleming: Exactly. At this stage of my life, I said, I want to sing something that means something to me.

Jeffrey Brown: In "The Hours," Renee Fleming saw it, a story of women as artists, friends, lovers, mothers. Here, it's the smallest pieces of daily life, buying flowers, for example, that somehow raise the biggest questions about life itself.

Underlying all of this, the knowledge that the real Virginia Woolf would take her own life in 1941 at age 59.

Renee Fleming: Every single person who's in this opera has a really interesting role and a tale to tell. And the stories are relevant. We're in a mental health crisis in this country that is -- in the world, actually, that is unprecedented certainly in my lifetime.

And I fear for young people, and especially because it's hitting them so hard.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin: If the audience recognizes themselves on stage, they're going to relate to the story.

I believe that this then can bring more people to the opera, not just because we want to have more people in our seats, but because we believe in the mission of opera, that is, to convey those messages and collectively have a cathartic experience that can give us hope.

Jeffrey Brown: Kevin Puts, who also teaches at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, says tapping into that mission and the contemporary possibilities for opera is attracting a new generation of composers.

Kevin Puts: The fact that so much new opera is happening in this country, not only at the Metropolitan Opera, but in companies all over the country, my students all want to write operas. When I was a student, I had no interest in doing that, because I thought, well, who's going to perform it?

Maybe I will write an orchestra piece and try to get an orchestra. Even that would be difficult.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Kevin Puts: But, these days, it's a real possibility.

Jeffrey Brown: At opera's end, in a gorgeous trio, Puts shows what opera can do, finally bringing the three women fully together, the hours of one day, three lives.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Judy Woodruff: All I can say is wow.

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