The composer, conductor, poet, pianist and critic may be the most promising operatic talent in a generation. But can he handle the spotlight?
By CARLO ROTELLA
"We want to feel like this shape is coming out of the mist, growing legs or something,” Matthew Aucoin said to the woodwinds. They were in a rehearsal hall in Boston, workshopping “Crossing,” Aucoin’s new opera based on Walt Whitman’s Civil War diaries. To the cellos and basses, Aucoin said, “I want this to feel psychotic, like the kick drum in a techno song.” To the whole orchestra, on the subject of the work’s constant shifts in meter and cross-grained tempos — designed to counteract what he regards as the innate Italianness of opera and give “Crossing” the distinctive rhythms of American English — he said: “We want it to splinter. Ninety percent of the time I’m going to be like, ‘It’s not supposed to be together,’ and 10 percent of the time I’ll be like, ‘I messed up.’ ”
The singers, with whom Aucoin had been working separately, would be joining the orchestra later that day. It was last fall, and the world premiere of “Crossing,” produced by the American Repertory Theater, was seven months away, scheduled for May 29.
Aucoin (pronounced oh-COYNE), who is 25, can easily pass for a high-school sophomore, with a shock of curly hair and a wardrobe that runs to jeans and much-laundered T-shirts. There are more established young composers who write operas, but if contemporary opera has a rising wunderkind, then Aucoin has to be it — although his promise as a composer, conductor, pianist, poet and critic extends well beyond opera or any other single form. The conductor Johannes Debus says that the range of Aucoin’s talents exemplifies “Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s term for everything at once.”
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