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When he was six years old, Tobias Picker set out to write his first opera. There was only one problem: he didn’t know how. “I wrote a couple of short piano pieces instead,” recalls the 54-year-old composer.
Picker’s childhood ambition finally came to fruition in 1996, when Emmeline, an opera based on the novel by Judith Rossner, debuted at the Santa Fe Opera. Its success was quickly followed by three more operas, including Thérèse Raquin, which makes its Boston debut in a College of Fine Arts production at the Boston University Theatre this weekend. Set in 19th-century France, Thérèse Raquin is the story of an unhappily married woman who enters into a tragic love affair with her husband’s best friend.
Named “our finest composer for the lyric stage” by the Wall Street Journal, Picker has written musical works for every genre, including orchestra, chamber music, piano, and vocal. He spoke to BU Today about his work and his latest opera, Thérèse Raquin.
BU Today: What inspires you to compose?
Picker: I’m inspired by a need for clothing, food, and shelter, quite candidly. I have to make a living, and this is how I do it. Thankfully, I love what I do and I’m successful at it. Not everyone is so lucky.
Do you prefer one musical genre over another?
Not really. I like writing for every genre. I’m always interested in composing opera, though, because it is the grandest of the musical genres. I choose my subjects according to their universality, because I want the audience to participate in the emotional and psychological aspects of the drama.
Who are your musical influences?
I’ve been influenced by all of the music I’ve ever heard. But if you want me to be specific, I’d have to go with the three Bs: Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven.
How important is formal training in the development of a composer?
It all depends on what type of music you’re writing, I guess. Irving Berlin had no type of formal training — he couldn’t even play the piano — but he was one of the most successful songwriters in the history of the world. There are lots of people who can’t even read music who are writing music today, particularly pop music. There’s less required today than there used to be.
You were a symphonic composer for years before you composed Emmeline. What made you want to tackle a new genre?
I had composed in every other genre, from chamber music to piano works to string quartets, so when I turned 40, I decided I was ready to take on the biggest challenge, which is opera. It was an extremely revelatory experience, and it gave me a whole new means of expression. I loved doing it.
What is your biggest challenge as a composer?
I think coming to terms with the reality that I will not be able to compose forever is the biggest challenge. I will either become too old to compose or I’ll just die.
Are you working on anything new right now?
I’m writing a ballet for the Rambert Dance Company in London. It’s based on the novel Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, and it’s set to debut in November of 2010.
Why did you write Thérèse Raquin?
The story itself inspired me, because it has all the elements of a grand opera. There’s tragedy and adultery, murder and suicide, and basically every kind of familial relationship you can imagine. It is a very emotional and psychological drama, and its subject matter is extremely universal.
What can people expect of this production of Thérèse Raquin?
Well, it would be a terrible thing to miss it because the production is absolutely dazzling. The director is brilliant, and the set designer, who is a BU undergraduate student, designed one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen. It could easily hold its own on any opera stage in the world. So, go see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button some other time, because you only have three more chances to see this production.
Thérèse Raquin is presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts schools of music and theatre, in conjunction with the BU Opera Institute and BU Chamber Orchestra, and is conducted by William Lumpkin, and directed by Jim Petosa. It will be performed at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., on Friday, February 20, and Saturday, February 21, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, February 22, at 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for the general public and $15 for BU alumni and students, seniors, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and WGBH members. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Members of the BU community will receive one free ticket on the day of the performance (ID is required).
Vicky Waltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.