Several times in my life I've been tempted to set a pre-existing bit of lit, something that somehow inspired me language-wise or otherwise. And, in fact, I have from time to time succumbed to this temptation, the whisk of the devil's tail against my ass, and have paid a price for it, a sin confessed through the grill whilst the priest daydreams of beddable young 'uns spurting out wet, white and jam-like decades of the rosary laying recumbent upon the altar.
But let me give the reader a bit of advice. When the itch comes upon you to adapt, first, step into the kitchen, put the kettle on the boil, traipse out into the garden and pick a bit of fresh mint, pack it into a clear glass teapot, pour the water hot over the aromatic plant, pick the pot up and then smash the whole thing hard against your face. And the point of this exercise is to allow you, the reader, to experience a scale model of a simulacrum of the pain that will ensue if you are foolhardy enough to follow this path, a scarring burning pain that never never never ends.
I'm feeling this pain once again as I'm trying to assemble a DVD box set of my operatic legacy (titled Erling, a life in Opera) and once again the pain is beginning to throb deep behind the eyes. Once again I'm on the phone and the email and the written letters with the lawyers, the agents, the holders of rights, the representatives, the money changers and all their ilk, and the wretched torture rises again.
When I first read queer, Burroughs was quite alive and, as I thought of writing an opera based on the novel, I figgered I would just write him and ask him if I could do it, auteur to auteur, assuring myself that he would put his arms around me in a fatherly way and tell me sure, go ahead, I'd like that. But then, like a number of my erstwhile partners, he went and died on me, leaving me in the hands of his estate, a cold institution not so fatherly, unless we consider fatherliness to be the quality of the absent father, the dad that doesn't take you fishing and isn't there for you and turns his back when you say I love you. I had contacted Burroughs's longtime secretary, James Grauerholz, who was into the project, but the institution and its lawyers were not satisfied. I wrote many letters and many many emails, pissing into the wind, and the months and years went by and time was running out. The theater calendar had been set, the costumes were on the drawing board, the greasepaint was already being poured into the troughs and I was considering going forward guerilla style when, one day, I mentioned to my colibrettist John Morace that the latest roadblock was that the lawyers had informed me Steve Buscemi had optioned the rights to queer for a movie and all was in limbo while he scared up money for it. Upon which, John picked up his phone, dialed the number of Steve's brother from memory, and all was taken care of. As it turned out, John and the brother had been friends since childhood and once the outer defenses of the celebrity fortress had been penetrated, well, Mr Buscemi could give a shit about some small-time chamber opera writer infringing on his option. I rapturously forked over a $1000 to keep the lawyers sunny and all was then right with the world.
But, every time I think how lovely it would be to resurrect the piece, to see Trauma act it again, to put out a DVD, to do any more than think about it, I realize I have to face this all again. The Buscemi version seems to have never materialized and who knows who has their hands on it now.
A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil I ran across at Cody's on the remainder table in the early 80s, playing with it for a decade before taking the plunge and setting the whole thing. As this was before the experiences with queer above, I was even more the naif. Permissions were an ephemeral notion that turned solid enough when I ran headlong into them. Unraveling the tentacles of the octopus that is the rightsholder to the Ernst artworks was a process that took over six years from start to finish. The English translation was by Ernst's wife, Dorothea Tanning, pictured above, born 1910 but who was and is still alive and writing and painting. I tracked her down and received permission, I thought, for everything, but the underlying untranslated text was still held by the Artists' Rights Society in New York City, and the images by ADAGP France, facts that took years of investigation. Like all good rights societies, they slice and dice Ernst's holdings into the smallest pieces possible, and my six years of effort and another $1000 led to the acquisition of the limited rights to print up 1000 copies of the opera CD and perform the piece three times: San Francisco, Klagenfurt, Brühl. Again, happiness at the end of a long road.
But, once again, every time I dream of reviving the piece, of hearing the music come to life, of finishing the DVD, the familiar weight comes upon me and drags me down into the mud, where I struggle in vain, lungs filling with muck.