Kirke Mechem

I want to love a piece of music, to be delighted by it, to be moved to tears and laughter or in some way taken out of myself.(1)

Composing opera is a formidable undertaking, one not every composer wants to tackle. In the mid-1800s, when Wagner and Verdi operas premiered, the young Brahms decided that the requirements of the opera stage and his personality were incompatible.

Fast forward nearly 150 years to a young man with an intuitive attraction to the classical music and operas he heard in Viennese concert halls. Kirke Mechem arrived in Vienna in 1956 at the suggestion of his Stanford music professor, Harold Schmidt. He was an English major who had taken Schmidt’s choral class out of curiosity and been “bowled over” by the harmonies and sheer beauty of choral music. For “pocket change,” Mechem attended nightly concerts and operas in Vienna and acquired a library of symphonic and chamber music. This experience transformed him from a sports-minded youth into a Harvard graduate student of composition under Randall Thompson and Walter Piston.

While growing up in Kansas, Mechem heard opera in Saturday-night radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. The keyboard music of great composers filled the evening air when, after he was put to bed, his concert pianist mother practiced. He refers to music as the spiritual force of his adolescence. That, paired with his writer father’s influence, seeded Mechem’s creative life, beginning with the plays and poetry he wrote in high school.

His career as a composer came later, after graduate school and military service in World War II. Today, along with having published more than 250 works in nearly every genre, he has earned the title “dean of American choral composers” with a large body of beloved choral works. His achievements as an American composer have been recognized by many organizations, including the United Nations, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Gallery, the Music Educators National Conference, and the National Opera Association (lifetime achievement award). He has received honors ranging from an all-Mechem symphonic concert in Russia performed by the USSR Radio-TV Orchestra to the Choral Directors Association’s 50-year retrospective Mechem concert. He avoids the landmined terrain of musical experimentation for its own sake because of his own profound regard for music. “We composers are speaking a very old language; the ways in which we speak must be understood by our contemporaries . . . I prefer music to be the magnificent source of joy and consolation that it has been for generations.”(2)

In Vienna, Mechem saw that operas, such as those by Mozart, could captivate audiences, who filled the halls with their laughter. To date, he has completed three operas. Tartuffe, based on the 17th-century play by Molière, is the best known, with more than 300 performances worldwide, including a 1980 premiere by the San Francisco Opera. Tartuffe is loved for its theatrical flair, lyricism, humor, and wit. “For me, good characters make good opera. Diverse characters allow you to write diverse music.”(3) His characters’diversity creates human interest, adeptly moving the story forward from emotion to emotion.

Mechem’s new opera-in-progress, Pride and Prejudice, is based on the Jane Austen novel, reprinted countless times and adapted in several movies but never given an opera setting. Leave that to an English major turned composer!

When staged, the completed opera will take place on a stage split between house and garden with chorus, dancers, and a host of characters. “My music is, of course, not in the style of the period (late 18th and early 19th century), but I did often hint at the period, especially in the dances. The minuet, for example, could have been composed in Jane Austen’s time. This is the most lyrical opera I have written. Like the novel, the opera changes gradually from light comedy to poignant drama. The first scene, even most of the first act, is full of gaiety, irony, humor, and flirtation. I begin the story at Netherfield Park instead of at the Bennets’ house. This was necessary to get the action going as quickly as possible. The chorus represents the townspeople and neighbors whom Mr.Bingley has invited to his ball. They are very important in setting the tone and in facilitating the exposition. I have used Jane Austen’s words, or a close equivalent, as often as I could, and I have given many of her important observations to the chorus.”(4)

With the peek that tonight’s performance of Act I, Scene 1 offers, we can anticipate the full opera as a treasure with which delighted audiences will eagerly connect.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. From an undated interview of Kirke Mechem conducted by Hannah Williams, posted on the University of Michigan Living Music website.
  2. Ibid.
  3. From online reviewer notes by Tom Strini on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website, January, 2007.
  4. A quote by Mr. Mechem in an article in the chorus’ Summer 2007 newsletter, Society Page, by O’Brien Young.

The San Francisco Choral Society performed Pride and Prejudice by Kirke Mechem in 2007.