How Kurt Vonnegut’s First and Only Opera Was Completed
Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Vonnegut’s reworking of the myth of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War, was meant as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Now it will be performed as an opera for the first time.
Although he liked the music well enough, he found the traditional 16th century Latin text to Lloyd-Webber’s requiem off-putting to say the least. “Vengeful and sadistic” and “about as humane as ‘Mein Kampf’ by Adolf Hitler” was his description.
So Vonnegut set out to write his own text for a requiem mass. What began as an attempt to “humanize” a 400-year-old Latin text for a modern audience became nearly 30 years of musical collaborations for Kurt Vonnegut.
In the early ’90s Vonnegut began his longest musical partnership and, later, friendship with conductor and composer Richard Auldon Clark. This fall, Vonnegut’s first and only opera will premiere in Indianapolis. The operatic setting of Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June is the result of a 15-year collaboration with Clark and may very well be Vonnegut’s last work.
The original play version of Happy Birthday, Wanda June is Vonnegut’s loose reworking and update of the myth of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War that was meant as a commentary on the Vietnam War, and the nature of heaven and violence—among other things. It premiered in October 1970 to mixed reviews, and Vonnegut continued tinkering with the play during its run until it closed in March 1971.
Vonnegut first met Clark in the early ’90s after completing his “Humanist Requiem” with music composed by Edgar David Grana, whom Vonnegut had met by chance while on jury duty in 1984. But he was having trouble garnering interest in a performance.
Clark, who was then head of the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, got a call from a PR rep asking if he was interested in playing the piece even though it had been turned down by other orchestras. Clark had been a fan of Vonnegut’s since his teen years, and agreed without ever reading the score. “If I can meet Kurt Vonnegut, I’ll do it,” he said.
Their first meeting was very businesslike, and only after Vonnegut had greatly enjoyed Clark’s conducting of the “Humanist Requiem” did they begin to bond and collaborate on further projects.
Although Vonnegut had liked Clark’s conducting of the “Humanist Requiem,” he was not happy with Grana’s music, and the piece received mostly negative reviews.
In the late ’90s Clark introduced Vonnegut to composer Seymour Barab, who composed his own new original music for the text of the “Humanist Requiem” and turned it into the far more successful Cosmos Cantata in 2001.
Soon after the success of the Cosmos Cantata, Vonnegut had the idea to turn his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June into an opera. Clark again brought the idea to composer Seymour Barab, who didn’t think it was possible.
Clark explains to The Daily Beast, “Seymour just said, ‘It can’t be turned into an opera, it just won’t work. There’s too much dialogue, there’s too much going on, there’s nothing to create arias with.’ Kurt was a little disappointed, but he really liked and respected Seymour, so he just let the project go for a little bit.”
But a few years later, Vonnegut again brought up turning the play into an opera, this time with Clark as the composer. Clark had only composed smaller pieces and chamber music up to that point and never dreamed of doing an opera.
But Vonnegut insisted and Clark eventually agreed. One of the cardinal rules Vonnegut set for Clark in turning the play into an opera libretto was that they could cut text from the play, but not add a word nor alter the meaning in any way.
“Most Americans when they go to a foreign opera love the music, they love the story, but they really don’t know the words. You put titles up. Kurt was like ‘No, the words, what I’m saying is really important and that has to be served,’” Clark explained.
Collaborating proved an unorthodox arrangement, as Vonnegut was not only very protective of his words, but also the actual books they were printed in.
Clark describes, “It was very funny. The very first time, I was sitting there with the play and I think I had a pen rather than a pencil, and I got ready to cross the line out in the book and before I could he was halfway out of the chair. ‘No, no, no, don’t do it in the book. It’s out of print, there are very few copies left, don’t fuck up the book. Write it down.’ And I had to write word for word everything I was using. I had this little notepad and I was just scribbling away terribly.”
From 2002 to 2007 Clark and Vonnegut regularly met and worked on the libretto for Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
Their collaboration developed into a friendship over meetings at Vonnegut’s Manhattan brownstone, often at morning breakfast meetings discussing literature and music and drinking scotch together. Vonnegut’s famous dark wit and countercultural sensibilities unsurprisingly manifested throughout their friendship, though sometimes in surprising ways.
Clark was brought up in a strict, conservative Catholic family where cursing of any kind was strictly forbidden—especially the F word. But his strict Catholic parents had no problems saying “goddamn it.” In their conversations Clark shared this with Vonnegut, who took it as an opportunity to buck the status quo.
Clark told The Daily Beast, “We were doing this concert at Lincoln Center, and Kurt Vonnegut came to the concert. When I told him my mom he was going to be there, she was all excited because here’s a big, famous guy. She’d never read any of his books or anything, she didn’t know what kind of guy he really was, but she begged to meet him. I asked him if he would come backstage and meet my family afterward. ‘Of course, no problem. I’d love to.’ I said, ‘Yes, but my mom’s really conservative. Be really careful, please, please.’ ‘Oh, of course. Of course,’ Kurt told me.“They come backstage and the first thing he does is walk up, shake her hand, and say, ‘Your son’s a fucking genius.’ I thought she was going to have a heart attack right on the spot. He just loved pulling stuff like that.”
Clark and Vonnegut continued to create the libretto for Happy Birthday, Wanda June until the very end of Vonnegut’s life.
“Shortly before he took that very tragic fall that put him in a coma, he sent me a brand new ending to the opera,” Clark said. “That very well could be the last thing he ever wrote as far as what’s actually going to be performed and seen. I’m sure people are always doing sketches and writing things out, but nothing else was ever going to be published or seen by him again except older work.”
Vonnegut died from injuries sustained in a fall at his Manhattan brownstone in April 2007 at the age of 84. His death greatly affected Clark.
“After he went into a coma and then died, I was very, very depressed. He was a dear, dear friend and mentor, and I just loved the guy. He was very much like a grandpa to me. I spent a great deal of time with him in the last 15 years of his life.”
After Vonnegut’s death, Clark found the task of completing Happy Birthday, Wanda June too overwhelming. He had taken a faculty position at Butler University in Indiana in 2003, but the project never strayed too far from his thoughts, to the point where he found himself composing melodies in his head for it while driving.
Finally, in 2014, seven years after Vonnegut’s death, Clark was granted a sabbatical from teaching and set to work on the opera. It took a little over two years to fully write and orchestrate it.
In a final irony, Clark finished the final notes of the orchestration for Happy Birthday, Wanda June right around Valentine’s Day 2016, almost nine years to the day that Vonnegut, in 2007, had sent him the final new ending to the opera, less than two months before Vonnegut died.
In 2011, a new high-profile biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes by Charles J. Shields, was published that depicted Vonnegut as a bitter, angry, and unhappy man.
Headlines like “Kurt Vonnegut Died a Bitter Man” and “Biography Reveals an Unhappy and Nasty Writer” circulated in the press to the point that Vonnegut’s son Michael released a statement repudiating the biography’s characterization of his father.
Clark, too, disagrees with the characterization of Vonnegut as bitter or unhappy.
“He was one of the most positive, enlightening men I’d ever been around… He had a very wicked sense of humor and he was very macabre, but bitter? No way. He just called it like he saw it. He found humor in it… Bitter is not a word I would use at all.
“He thought the only way to save humanity was in the artistic natures. You have to create—poetry, anything. You have to create. He did a lot of painting himself, a lot of drawing and sketching. On one of my orchestra scores he drew a picture of himself and signed it.
“He just thought that one needed to lead a creative life, that that was the very essence of human existence. He didn’t believe in God, he was president of the American Humanist Association. He believed in humanity, in people, what could be less bitter than that? He was a hero. He’ll always be a hero to me.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s final collaboration with Richard Auldon Clark, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, will have its world premiere Sept. 16 at Indianapolis Opera as part of the weeklong Vonnegut’s World festival in Indianapolis. For more information and tickets to Happy Birthday, Wanda June, please visit Indianapolis Opera.