William Saroyan, Paul Bowles & Opera, Opera

Playbill from the original 1940 production of Love's Old Sweet Song by WIlliam Saroyan, Music by Paul Bowles. There is little doubt that William Saroyan was one of the most-connected people of the middle portion of the 20th century. His correspondence includes figures ranging from Katherine Hepburn to Ed Sullivan, Flann O’Brien to John Cheever. Often, within a few exchanges of letters, one or the other in the letter exchange would bring up the possibility of a collaboration. These collaborations bore fruit from time to time, including some of the most impressive of all work that Saroyan would be attached to.

   Sometimes, they did not.

   Paul Bowles is one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the twentieth century. Like Saroyan, he was a relentless creator, and not willing to confine his creativity to a single area. Bowles was a writer, composer, and translator. He is best-known for his years in Tangier, where he wrote and acted as a historian of indigenous music. Before that, though, he was one of America’s true gifts. A prodigy at both music and poetry, he was publishing work before he was a teenager. His work, at times surrealistic and full of modernist sentiment, stood in many of the most important publications of the day alongside many of the most important figures of the time.

   Bowles studied with Aaron Copland, perhaps the most well-known American composer of orchestral music in the first third of the twentieth century. The two became lovers, and together moved between Paris and New York. At the urging of Gertrude Stein, the two visited Tangier for the first time in 1931. After returning to New York, he began to create music for the stage. Though never fully trained as a composer, his work with Copland, and later Virgil Thomson, was informal, and the two of them had urged Bowles to get more formal training. Despite this fact, many directors, producers, and choreographers sought out Bowles as a collaborator. These included some of the biggest names in theatre, such as Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles.

   There were few names bigger than William Saroyan in the late 1930s. He had exploded onto the scene with the release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, and then made just as big a splash on the Broadway scene in 1939 with the release of My Heart’s in The Highlands and The Time of Your Life. Even prior to his first plays being performed, he was already in demand by media organizations looking for content, and in 1937, that content was radio.

   Bowles was friends with photographer and writer Dorothy Norman, who was a regular correspondent with Saroyan at the time. Dorothy and Saroyan interacted in cards and letters. It was likely in one of the letters between Saroyan and Norman that he mentioned he was working on a radio piece. In June of 1937, Bowles wrote to Saroyan for the first time.

   “Dear Mr. Saroyan,

   Dorothy Norman has suggested that I get in touch with you regarding the music that might be necessary for a play of yours which she says may be given to CBS. If you do need such music at any time, send me the script a while beforehand.”

   While many of Saroyan’s penpals would become collaborators, Bowles may be the first to contact Saroyan specifically for the purpose of collaboration. He had already scored work for Orson Welles during his period of work with the Federal Theatre Project. He also appeared to have a love-hate relationship with that sort of work.

   “The thing is,” Bowles said in a letter to Saroyan, “I’m itching to get to work at something really serious and meaty and exciting and not just another incidental score. In between furnishing music by the yard, you’ve got to call on yourself for spontaneous, personal inspiration once in a while or you dry up.”

   Thus begun their correspondence, and shortly thereafter, Bowles was asked to provide music for My Heart’s in the Highlands.

 DBR019   “…the details of exactly how I happened to be assigned the composition of the score for My Heart’s in the Highlands aren’t clear in my mind.” Bowles noted in a letter to David Battan in 1981, “My suspicion is that Elia Kazan, who was then part of the Group Theatre, approached me,” and then adding “Saroyan and I had been corresponding shortly before the Group Theatre decided to present the play, and it’s possible that he was partially instrumental in making the decision.”

   Bowles provided music to several other Saroyan productions, notably Love’s Old Sweet Song. Bowles, working largely at creating incidental music for stage, was restless to get to more challenging work. He wanted to create an opera, while this period of Bowles’ career was defined by his theatrical music, he yearned not only to create operatic music, but to collaborate closely on the form with a librettist. 

   In a letter from July 21, 1941, Bowles made his pitch to Saroyan.

   “What would really be ideal would be real collaboration, of the kind we did in Love’s Old Sweet Song, whose songs I still like very much, including the one published separately this Spring. Those lyrics were perfect, but if you remember, they were the result of actual collaboration, which always goes a good long way toward making good prosody and song.”

   Saroyan had already proven himself a master of the theatrical form, and the collaboration on Love’s Old Sweet Song had prover fruitful. While Bowles had already composed an opera, Denmark Vesey, in 1937, with a libretto by Charles Henri Ford, and in 1941 was soloing on writing both music and libretto on The Wind Remains, based on a play by Frederico Garcia Lorca.

   Saroyan, on the other hand, had never written an opera, but had certainly considered it.

   “The idea of writing an opera is an old one with me,” he wrote in the introduction to his piece Opera, Opera in 1940, “but so far it has gone unfulfilled.”

   The piece is metatextual, damn-near post-modernist in approach. It references the tropes of opera, while not, itself, being an opera. The piece is largely a comical farce, put certainly played to a non-operatic audience who thought they knew what opera was all about.  

   Of the play, Bowles said –

   “Opera, Opera I think is swell, but I feel it’s a bit short, and is rather a ballet with a few songs than an opera.”

   What Bowles had in mind was a more-or-less traditional opera.

   “A one act opera wherein the characters speak, sing, recite to music, dance and act and do any other damned thing you can think of… but where we have real songs that will enable us to call it an opera.”

   Both men were busy on many projects, but the idea was strong. Bowles seemed to understand Saroyan’s tremendous level of output.

   “I know you work like a whirlwind, and a composer can’t, but a short time of real collaboration makes for the disparity of in tempo, and helps weld the two elements into one.”

   There is no doubt that both men were excited by the project, but perhaps Bowles slightly more than Saroyan. Bowles ended his July 21 letter with “If you are in New York and busy, still let me know if and when you’ll feel like making the great American opera, and I’ll be there.”

   As often happens when collaborators work at a distance, the progress was difficult to measure. The two appear to have communicated through letters, primarily. At the time, Bowles lived in Jalisco, Mexico, which Saroyan was alternately in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. The letter between the two are fascinating, not only for the discussion of the work, but because of the view of the everyday lives of two of the 20th centuries most fascinating characters in the arts. Saroyan had just moved on to working on Jim Dandy, which ended up a failure in try-outs, never making it to Broadway. The same was true for Sweeney in the Trees. Bowles had been contacted about providing music for both. Bowles wrote extensively about his health woes; Saroyan wrote about his issues with Pat Winters, and the difficulties of working in New York and Hollywood.

   And, of course, they talked about the project.

   “Naturally a tremendous part of the opera will have to be added by the director. I am writing set numbers: songs, dance sequences, etc. I notice for the player-piano you have chosen the same piece we used in Love’s Old S[weet] S[ong]. I’d like to use the same orchestral result of that, which was thrown out in Philadelphia, if you remember.”

   Things were sporadic, apparently, but an interval of roughly a month passing with no news, Saroyan sent a message to Bowles.

   “Dear Paul:

   I am not sure if this letter will reach you but I am eager to hear how the music for Opera, Opera is working out – if at all. Please let me know. I hope you are well now and that you are working.”

   The response, written two weeks later, was rather emphatic.

   “I’m glad you wrote to see how Opera, Opera is, because it’s dead. I struggled for two months with it, and wrote a good deal of music for it. And I noticed as I worked, I was never really ready to tackle anything vocal."

   This was the end of Opera, Opera, at least as far as Bowles was concerned. As Bowles noted in his 1981 letter to Battan, "Opera, Opera was the same proja little closer pleaseect as The Alphabet Opera; Bill sent it to me in Mexico. I didn’t feel it was the right libretto for me, and our correspondence came to an end.”

   Saroyan appeared to have moved on, creating a great amount of work in the early years of the 1940s, though his time in the military both slowed his meteoric rise and changed the timbre of his work. Bowles would keep working in music throughout the rest of his life, by the late-1940s he had transitioned to focusing on prose. He moved to Tangier in 1947, making it his primary residence until his death in 1999. His home in Tangier became almost a point of pilgrimage for Beat writers of the 1950s, with various authors and poets of the movement, including Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, having stayed with him. In 1958, the Rockefeller Foundation funded an ethnomusicology project for Bowles to document Moroccan music, which would become the core of a major collection at the Library of Congress.

   The fascinating thing is that this was not the end for Opera, Opera. In 1956, composer Martin Kalmanoff inquired of Saroyan about creating an actual opera out of his theatrical work Opera, Opera. In the introduction to the opera’s publication, Kalmanoff said, “it is hoped that this spoof of the old school of opera in the grand style will not offend anyone, since it is meant goodnaturedly.”

   While the score and whatever libretto Bowles created is gone today, the legacy of the Bowles-Saroyan collaboration still remains. While many of the scores Bowles created for the stage have been lost, three songs created by the pair have survived – A Little Closer, Please (The Pitchman’s Song) from My Heart’s In the Highlands, and The Years and Of All The Things I Love both survive today in voice and piano versions. These songs were created deeply in their collaboration and makes one wonder what would have been possible had they kept at it.

Special thanks to the University of Delaware Library for providing the letters between Paul Bowles and William Saroyan.


Further Information

Background on Paul Bowles life and career - http://www.paulbowles.org/enter.html

The Original score for A Little Closer, Please (The Pitchman’s Song) - https://www.foreversaroyan.com/music

Martin Kalmanoff’s Opera, Opera - https://issuu.com/theodorepresser/docs/kalmanoff_opera_opera_issuu

Finding Aid to the Paul Bowles Moraccan Music Collection - https://www.loc.gov/folklife/guides/paulbowles.html


San Jose, California, August 12, 2021 by Chris Garcia, an archivist for Forever Saroyan.

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