Tony-Award winning composer Jeanine Tesori visited WNO this week as the company rehearses her holiday opera, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me , a work commissioned by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello that originally premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2013. “You never know what’s around the corner.” Jeanine Tesori discusses how a three-year old piano student grew up to be an award-winning composer.
How did you get started in music?
I started playing classical piano when I was three. My piano teacher made sure that I did a lot of improvisation and played in a lot of keys. He would let me play pop music, so I had fluency in many different styles. I learned how to play from a lead sheet, which is what a lot of bands play from. A lead sheet has just one line for the melody, plus an indication of the chord, and I had to fill in the rest—my right hand might stand in for the guitar, my left hand the bass.
When did you know you wanted to be a composer?
Very late. For a long time, I never even knew you could go into music as a career. I thought it was something you did as a hobby. I went to school to study science so that I could be a doctor. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized people could “do” music full-time. When I graduated, I started working as a pianist, then as a conductor, then I wrote music for dance, and then I wrote music for shows. I did all of these things without having any knowledge of what would come next, which just goes to show that you never know what’s around the corner.
When you are working on a new piece, how do you get started?
The way I work, I like to have the skeleton of an idea to start with. Then it’s my job to add the heart and the soul and the brain. Hopefully you come up with a person—I think of my shows like people—you can put into the world and watch walk away. Sometimes it may stumble, and sometimes it actually takes flight. Francesca Zambello, who is the director of the show, brought me this book—The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me—and I loved it immediately. It was a story I thought I knew, but retold from the vantage point of someone very small. As grownups, we sometimes forget what it’s like to be so small. When my daughter was younger, I always appreciated when people would get down on their knees to talk to her, because otherwise all she ever saw was kneecaps. In this story, you have this small child, this small animal, and this mother, and in a way, they are all carrying each other, all protecting each other.
What was it like to create music for so many different kinds of characters—humans, an angel, and an ark’s worth of animals?
Sometimes I will go to an opera in another language and realize that, even though I don’t know what the words mean, I can understand everything I need, just because of the music. I wanted that to be true for my animals, too. For the Lion, I chose a bass clarinet, which sounds deep and scary, and I used the harp in a way that made it sound like an African thumb piano. For the Unicorn, I thought of the harp in a different way—celestial and mysterious, like it might vanish at any moment. I also used a celesta, which looks like a piano but has bells inside. It has a magical sound. The Donkey’s music has a very plodding, patient quality. For the Flamingo, and especially the Cat, I had a lot of fun looking at videos on YouTube to see all the funny things these animals did, and I tried to put that kind of personality into the music.
What advice do you have for a young person interested in pursuing a career in music?
Try to step away from the computer as much as possible. Listen to as much different music as you can, and go to hear music live as much as you can. The things that happen in real time are so different than things that are recorded. It is different to be in the room with a musician, or with a teacher, or to be in a church, or in a sports arena. Things happen when we are together, and then they go away. We need to cherish those moments in our lives that can’t be played back by hitting a button. They can only be played back in your mind’s eye, which is an important thing for an artist—for