The Forest of Dreams is a new opera that tells the story of the lost colony of Roanoke. It was premiered May 5th, 2016, by New Voices Opera.
The famous disappearance of the Roanoke Colony is one of those mysteries that has always fascinated me. I remember watching TV shows about it as a kid; like so many other mysterious or paranormal phenomena, it is the type of legend that provokes our imagination, and thrill of not knowing the truth, but having clues to tease us, entices us.
However, as I have gotten older, I have become more interested in the human side of the story. Recent events, most notably the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, were the real impetus for The Forest of Dreams. I found that the sensationalist news coverage of this tragedy obscured the pain of those truly involved in the event, and I wanted to create a work that could bridge the gap between all of us observers of tragedy and those who take part in it.
I began writing the libretto as a standard telling of the story: John White leaves the colony to get supplies from England, he is delayed, and he returns to find no one there, nor any trace of habitation. As I went on, though, I felt more and more that this needed to be retrospective; that it needed to put us inside the mind of John White after the fact. I realized that ultimately I was so much interested in the painful events themselves, but more in how people moved on from them, or if they did at all. So, I took one of the arias from the end of the libretto, put it at the beginning, and reconstructed the libretto from there, using John White's emotions as a starting point.
The retrospective quality of the libretto allowed me to work with the characters' senses of themselves in past, present, and future, so one of the first things I was musically interested in was an element of nostalgic remembrance for John White. For him, though, the memory of who he lost is simultaneously painful; it needs to be something that is pleasant to hear because of its associations, but fundamentally empty--only a memory. Once I had music that I felt accomplished that, the character of White feel into place, and the other characters took up opposing poles, both dramatically and musically. The libretto changed considerably as I went through it and wrote the music (I composed mainly from start to finish, with some excursions), and I cut much of it so that it falls roughly into three short, continuous acts, within a one-act opera.
My process during the composition of the music changed from day to day, but one thing it always involved was focus; I learned that because of the sheer number of variables involved in an opera, I had to limit myself to achieving very concrete goals. If someone had asked me before writing this project, "What is it like to write an opera?" I would have compared it to a long-distance race. I was wrong: it is more like moving the contents of your apartment a long distance. There is a huge number of possibilities of what to do at any given moment, and all of them require time and energy, so my greatest asset, second only to work itself, was planning. Additionally, though, one has to be prepared for the unexpected, and flexible when the plan must change. In some aspects of the composition of The Forest of Dreams, I needed to see it with some perspective; because of the size, it was easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak. So taking time off from the piece when I could afford to was another strategy I used, and I also searched for outside opinions as much as I could.
On many occasions, I drew on an experience NVO had given me: an exhibition they had put on in November 2014 had allowed me to see some music (some of which ended up in the finished opera, and some of which didn't) on stage. As I went on, this became an experiential source of knowledge for me and helped me think a lot about the dramatic power needed for the work. I continued to consider this even after I had completed a rough draft of the full opera, and I extensively revised not only the music, but also the libretto, freeing it from some of the formal conventions it held to, and pushing the characters further toward their limits.