Matthew Aucoin is being compared to Mozart, Wagner and Leonard Bernstein. He’s worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Now this rising star is tackling his most ambitious project to date: his own new opera, for which he’s composed the music, written the words and is conducting its Boston premiere. And did I mention he’s just 25 years old?
Aucoin (pronounced oh-coin) has been working on his opera Crossing for more than two years. It’s a dark exploration of poet Walt Whitman’s time as a volunteer nurse in a Civil War hospital. The opera is based on the poet’s diaries, and one entry in particular ignited Aucoin’s imagination.
“Whitman describes this young southerner John Wormley staring at him, like, ‘Who is this middle-aged weirdo?'” Aucoin says. “And that’s basically it. He makes a cameo appearance. But I imagined who this person might have been, and entirely fictionalized it. And there are betrayals and lies and, you know, it’s an opera, we gotta have the blood and guts.”
This opera is something of a test for Aucoin. Throughout the genre’s history, one person usually writes the music while another conjures the words. But the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. commissioned Aucoin to do both. The work received its world premiere Friday.
“I can still barely believe they took a chance on me,” Aucoin says. Then he makes an observation: “Classical music is obsessed with youth, and it’s obsessed with old age. If you try to act like the young hotshot, they will eat you alive.”
Baritone Rod Gilfry sings the role of Walt Whitman in Crossing. He’s worked with the young conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. The veteran singer has performed a lot of contemporary opera, but he says this time it’s different.
“He could just be a composer, he could just be a conductor, he could just be a pianist, he could just be a poet or a critic,” Gilfry says. “And yet he can do all of those things simultaneously. And it’s pretty remarkable.”
As for the music, the baritone says it’s got everything, including great choruses: “You know we’ve got 12 wounded soldiers who sing together these beautiful choruses that will just melt your heart.”
Aucoin grew up surrounded by art, theater and music. His father, Don Aucoin, is a longtime Boston Globe drama critic, and Matthew studied at Juilliard, the Tanglewood Music Center and Harvard, where American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus started courting him.
“I think Matt is kind of a throwback to the time when you had composers who were conducting — writing the libretto that’s even more than usual — but he was a poetry major here at Harvard,” Paulus says.
The Tony Award-winning director was blown away when she first heard Aucoin’s music. A.R.T. was already part of a national project commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and she thought: This is the guy to write our opera.
“I’m in a sort of pinch me moment of having met him in my office three years ago and just saying, ‘You know you should think about A.R.T. as a home for you, and maybe there’s something we can do together,'” Paulus says. “And just to think that from that one conversation was spawned this work of art is such an exciting and affirming moment for what I hope A.R.T. can do for artists and what we can contribute to the canon and in this case to new opera.”
Aucoin is definitely having a moment — not only with his new opera but also with a lavish New York Times article about him published last week with a headline calling him “Opera’s great 25-year-old hope.” Still, the young composer has also had his doubts.
“There was a time,” Aucoin says, “I’m talking when I was really young, like 11, 12, when I just got a bit depressed by the way the classical music world functioned in relation to its audience, and the way that kids my age were forced into playing music by their parents and so on. So I went off and mostly played jazz and rock for a few years, and I think it kept me from getting prematurely jaded.”
Aucoin recognizes the baggage and expectations that come with being labeled the next big thing — but his eyes appear to be wide open.
“A lot of people have said you can have a career if you’re a 10 year-old wizard, or you can be an old master. It’s very hard in between,” Aucoin says. “The best thing I can do is to make it all about the music.”
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