It’s Alive!

For this Halloween season, composer Gregg Kallor, A00, premieres his second horror-touched opera, based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Though Gregg Kallor, A00, had been performing and composing for piano since age 6, he never considering writing an opera. Then a few years ago the New Yorker started going to shows of his friends who were opera singers and was instantly hooked.

“It was magic, it drew me in,” he enthuses. “When it works, it’s all of these elements in collaboration—the music, the libretto, the staging, the lighting. It makes for a total experience that just transports you.” He decided to dip his toe into the genre, looking for a short story he could adapt rather than committing to a full-length show.

The one he chose was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen’s classic story of a murderer driven mad by guilt, who comes to believe their victim’s heart is beating beneath the floorboards. “I thought, let me see if I could create a musical ghost story, something like the experience of going camping where someone sticks a flashlight on their chin and spins a tale,” he says.

a headshot of Gregg Kallor

Gregg Kallor, A00. Photo: David White

The intimate show has since been performed in churches, crypts, and catacombs, as well as on more traditional stages. For a follow-up, Kallor decided to adapt one of the greatest horror stories of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

This spooky season, he’ll be ushering in an operatic  double-feature, with the Arizona Opera premiering Frankenstein this month and the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center performing The Tell-Tale Heart on Halloween night. He hopes these familiar, thrilling tales can help introduce new fans to the genre.

“Opera does suffer a little bit from the perception of being ‘other’—which is actually a beautiful tie-in to Frankenstein, which is all about otherness and misjudgment,” he says. “But all you need is a way in, that first experience to make the connection.”

Music in the Blood

Kallor has music in the blood—he’s fourth cousin to Evelyn Lear, one of the great operatic sopranos of the 20th century. Closer to home, his grandmother was a violinist whose parents bought her a grand piano for her 16th birthday. That piano ended up in the house where Kallor grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. “As soon as I could walk, I kind of stumbled over and started banging things out,” he says. He’s grateful his parents and grandparents never forced him to practice but let him discover music on his own. “I was able to retain my love for it,” he says. “It never became a chore.”

Kallor came to Tufts as a sophomore for a dual degree program with New England Conservatory of Music, but ultimately dropped out of the program and became an American Studies major instead. “It allowed me to take classes in every discipline. That to me was the perfect college experience—just sampling a smorgasbord of topics. That approach has since shaped my career.” In performance, the full-time musician has been all over the map. “I love Brahms, I love Coltrane, I love Radiohead,” he says.

Jennifer Johnson Cano in The Tell-Tale Heart

Jennifer Johnson Cano as the guilt-maddened narrator in Kallor’s musical adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The intimate show has been performed in churches, crypts, and catacombs, as well as on more traditional stages. Photo: Kevin Condon

But his career as a composer only came together after he moved to New York, where he set the poems of Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats to music and performed them at the recital hall at Carnegie Hall. “From that point, I knew composing had to be a big piece moving forward.”

For The Tell-Tale Heart, he made the surprising choice to set the music for soprano. “I had always assumed it was a male narrator, but reading the story over, there was nothing in the text to suggest gender,” he says. “I liked the idea of treating it slightly differently, in a way that makes you raise an eyebrow.”

He’d never been much into horror or macabre before writing the show—but leaned into the psychological aspects of the story. “It’s not just about the murder, it’s about how we feel, what drives her to this, and do we empathize with her? Do we fear her? Do we loathe her?” Adding a particularly creepy touch, his director Sarah Meyers suggested he put the actor in medical scrubs. “It could make her seem like an inmate in an asylum, or a home aide nurse taking care of your loved one,” Kallor says. “I get chills thinking about it.”

The Horror of Otherness

Looking for a next project, it was Meyers who suggested Frankenstein. Kallor, who only had Boris Karloff’s creaky movie monster in his head, was skeptical. But he found in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel something completely different.

“It’s not a horror story in the way people think of it—the horror is that this man created a life and abandoned it,” Kallor says. “It’s about people ‘othering’ this creature, and that resonates deeply. Everyone alive has experienced the feeling of being perceived as ‘other’ or looking at someone else as ‘other.’ The horror is the lack of empathy, and that’s what breeds tragedy.”

Musically, he set the creature for baritone. “It’s an earthy, grounded sound,” he says. “And I thought it was important for the audience to connect with this creature in a warm way.” For Victor Frankenstein, he chose a piercing tenor. “Victor basically considers himself a God, and so to have him auditorily over the creature felt right to me as well.”

It was important for Kallor to set the work in a way that audiences could relate to it; from there, it was a matter of reading the text over and over to capture the emotions of isolation and fear experienced by the characters of Victor, his fiancée, and the creature.

“I didn’t invent anything—my approach was simply to be a vehicle for Mary Shelley’s text. It’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of literature I’ve ever read,” Kallor says. “All I had to do was stay out of the way and just give it a musical carpet to tread on.”

Kallor has been sitting in on rehearsals with the Arizona Opera, which commissioned the work for its world premiere. “I had to kind of pinch myself,” he says. “I’m looking around and seeing all of these people who are super-passionate and dedicating themselves to a work I’ve written,” he says.

It’s a different experience than he usually has as a composer, where like Victor, he often feels isolated in his work. “I spend so much time alone in my cave with my piano,” he says. “It’s just an amazing, humbling feeling to see this is no longer my opera, it’s our opera.”

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