Michael Kaulkin, composer firstname.lastname@example.org (510) 326-0827
As of December, 2022, I hold an exclusive option to adapt J.R. Salamanca's 1961 bestseller LILITH for the stage. This is a proposal for a commission to create an opera based on this endlessly fascinating novel and its extraordinary characters. I am also seeking the collaboration of a playwright/librettist who can contribute ideas for innovative ways to tell this story on stage.
Lilith tells the story of Vincent, a wide-eyed and principled soldier recently returned from World War II to his rural Maryland hometown. Having taken a job as an entry-level aide at an exclusive private psychiatric institution, he becomes drawn into an affair with Lilith – a mysterious and delusional patient whose manipulative power drives him to the brink of madness himself. More than a passionate story about forbidden love, Lilith explores the very nature of mental health. We wonder: who is more in need of healing – the patient or the caretaker?
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This is not intended as a beat-by-beat synopsis of the opera on stage, as that will depend on the outcome of a hopefully collaborative adaptation process. The libretto may deviate from this exact timeline, for example, in ways that enhance suspense and drama.
The setting is Poplar Lodge, an exclusive mental institution in a rural Maryland town, in the mid-1940s.
VINCENT has just returned home from World War II. With no ambition other than to be of service to others, he has ruled out a college education, and decided to pursue this job, despite having no experience or suitable background.
Starting out with noble intentions and a sincere desire to do his job well, VINCENT is gradually drawn into the delusional world of LILITH, a patient who manipulates and bewitches all who come in contact with her. LILITH's imaginary world is so detailed that she has her own language, religion and folk music, and she shares it with a whole race of people like her in a highly organized society. This is her reality, whereas real life in Poplar Lodge among outsiders is an irksome distraction. LILITH came to the Lodge shortly after her brother had died in a fall from a window. The circumstances around that are never made clear, but there are elliptical suggestions of LILITH’s involvement.
LILITH's power over VINCENT is evident from the moment they first meet. Despite warnings from senior medical staff, VINCENT allows LILITH to draw him into personal conversations and to manipulate him to the point where his judgment is increasingly clouded. He is drawn to her world, but does his best to resist and perform his job with honor.
By the end of ACT I, LILITH has lured VINCENT into a secret affair that will lead to tragedy.
In ACT II, VINCENT gradually becomes increasingly preoccupied with deceiving his superiors in order to be with LILITH. At the same time, LILITH's true nature emerges. She reveals to VINCENT that she would like to have time alone with YVONNE, another patient. She threatens to blackmail VINCENT if he doesn't assist her in this. VINCENT becomes overwhelmed with jealousy, and when he refuses to comply with her further demands, LILITH threatens to “persuade” another staff member to help her.
Meanwhile, VINCENT makes great progress in helping another patient, WARREN, who is severely anxious and emotionally fragile. WARREN is in love with LILITH, although she treats him like a plaything. VINCENT is warned to keep the two separated as much as possible, because of LILITH's predatory tendencies and WARREN's fragile nature.
VINCENT is finally pushed over the edge when LILITH, touched by a hand-made gift from WARREN, expresses regret for her treatment of WARREN and asks to be taken on an outing with him. Later, when WARREN eagerly asks VINCENT for news of LILITH and whether she has mentioned the gift, VINCENT pointedly lies to him, telling him that LILITH has rejected the gift and said that she despises him. Later the same evening WARREN commits suicide.
After learning of WARREN's demise, VINCENT rushes to tell LILITH the news. He is now fully detached from reality, and harboring his own delusion: that he has done the right thing, and that LILITH will be pleased. But LILITH has already heard the news, and it has proved to be a bigger dose of the real world than she can cope with. In a final “mad scene” she does not recognize VINCENT, but speaks of her earlier real life for the first time, revealing more about what had really happened to her brother. Attendants lead LILITH away, and, realizing that LILITH is now completely out of contact, VINCENT is left to confront the consequences of his actions.
Prototype Scene: West Edge Opera SNAPSHOT performance
The “Bicycle Scene” was selected for inclusion in West Edge Opera’s 2022 “Snapshot” program – an evening showcasing works in progress. The subtitled video of that unstaged performance is below. This is a prototype scene that I created using only dialogue from the novel, and only meant to be a “proof of concept.” It should not be taken literally as a finished scene for this opera, but it does convey the characters and the musical language.
While it is tempting to update this story and set it in the present day, one realizes almost immediately that it can only work as a period piece. Our society’s attitudes and mores about mental health and general workplace culture have changed since the 1940s to such an extent that there is little about this story that would seem feasible or even make sense now. An inexperienced staff member of a present-day mental hospital would not be left unsupervised with a patient – especially one like Lilith, who has a history of predatory and manipulative behavior. Leaving the setting in the past, we can suspend our disbelief.
I am particularly interested in treating the topic of mental health with a sensitivity that was lacking in our society when the novel was written – and certainly when it takes place. Putting the character Lilith on stage presents the opportunity to ask some interesting questions. She is diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. As we get to know her, we should wonder: is she really? Schizophrenia is a condition whose definition has been something of a moving target over the decades. Would she still be given the same diagnosis today? Is she perhaps not just different? Does she really need to be institutionalized? She has suffered trauma, we infer, but she is very happy in her own world. Problems exist for her only when she is forced to interact in the “real” world.
While the character Lilith is presented in marketing blurbs for the book and the movie as a crazy nymphomaniac (two terms that have no place in today’s culture), ultimately I would like the audience to question who is the more mentally healthy character: Lilith or Vincent.
Cast of Characters and Instrumentation
(Subject to change. The exact details of the adaptation, including which characters are included and how, are yet to be determined.)
VINCENT BRUCE, Baritone
A young man just back from the war, newly hired as an occupational therapist at Poplar Lodge, a private mental hospital in his home town
LILITH ARTHUR, Lyric Soprano
A patient at Poplar Lodge, about VINCENT’s age, with manipulative tendencies and extraordinary delusions that perplex her doctors
WARREN EVSHEVSKY, Tenor
A severely anxious and vulnerable young patient. He is obsessed with LILITH, who finds him both a nuisance and an amusing plaything.
YVONNE MEAGHAN, Dramatic Soprano
A somewhat older patient at Poplar Lodge who has also been involved in a secret affair with LILITH
Vincent's supervisor and mentor
DR. LAVRIER, Bass-baritone
LILITH's “People”, as well as various Poplar Lodge patients and staff
INSTRUMENTATION Lilith is envisioned on a full scale with an orchestra of 18-24 players, but a smaller ensemble is also possible. Details can be determined based on the circumstances of the first production.
Although it's referred to as “Poplar Lodge” in the book, Lilith takes place at the once-famous Chestnut Lodge asylum in my home town of Rockville, Maryland – a place I had always known about growing up. I was also aware since childhood of the novel and the movie based on it – the 1964 Robert Rossen film, starring Warren Beatty, having partially been shot in Chestnut Lodge and other Rockville locations. I read the novel in 2006, and became so taken with the idea that it would make a terrific source for an opera that I made a project of tracking down the author. I eventually did reach him and succeeded in receiving his permission to make the adaptation.
In 2007, on a December trip home to the Washington, D.C. area, I had the thrill and good fortune to meet with Mr. Salamanca in person to discuss my ideas. He was very gracious and forthcoming about the book, and told me many stories about its background, as well as the making of the film. In 2007-08 I made copious notes and drafted a couple of prototype scenes – thinking I would serve as my own librettist. Unfortunately, I became distracted by other projects and obligations, and the Lilith idea ended up languishing in a drawer for many years until I revived it in 2021 by composing the music for one of my prototype scenes. The scene was chosen for inclusion in West Edge Opera’s “Snapshot” program for 2022, and that unstaged performance can be viewed below – either in excerpts or in its entirety.
I am seeking collaboration with an experienced and like-minded playwright – particularly with expertise in adapting a novel for the stage.
Mr. Salamanca, who passed away in 2013, personally gave me his written and verbal permission to pursue the adaptation of Lilith, but there had never been a formal agreement until now. I have remained in touch with the author’s son Richard, who now owns the copyright and has also always been supportive of this idea, and we have now executed an exclusive Option Agreement. With the help of an attorney, I have also ascertained that the adaptation rights sold by Mr. Salamanca to Columbia Pictures in 1961 did not include the right to adapt the novel for the stage, meaning there should be no legal obstacle to producing an operatic adaptation of Lilith. Documentation is available upon request.
About the Composer & Work Samples
Michael Kaulkin (b. 1967) is active as a teacher and composer in the San Francisco Bay Area. His choral, orchestral and chamber music has been performed around the world. Most recently, an excerpt from his opera in progress Lilith was included in West Edge Opera's 2022 Snapshot program in San Francisco, showcasing new works.
Chamber works available from Universal Edition include Zwei Hülshoff Lieder, for soprano, clarinet, viola and piano, American Standard for clarinet and piano, and String Quartet No. 1 ("City Walks") for string quartet, which was a finalist for The American Prize in 2015. More recently, By Hook or by Crook (2020), for horn quartet, was the 1st Place winner of the Quadre 2020 International Composition Competition.
Kaulkin’s orchestra piece Misterium Tremendum won the San Francisco Conservatory’s annual Highsmith Prize in 2000 and was later performed by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Other orchestral pieces include Letter to Hungary (2005), for string orchestra and Cycle of Friends (1996) for soprano solo, SATB chorus and chamber orchestra.
A composer with deep ties to the theater, Kaulkin has collaborated with the Philadelphia Area Repertory Theatre, ARK Theater in Los Angeles, and the San Jose Children’s Musical Theater, among others. He also composed the score for the independent film Shakespeare’s Merchant.
In recent years, Kaulkin has composed a number of choral works, popular among them including The Noble Art of Music, a 2-minute choral fanfare, and Tumbalalayka (2015), an arrangement of the popular Yiddish folksong. He served as 2017-18 Composer-in-Residence for San Francisco Choral Artists, and he is the 2020-21 winner of the Organization of American Kodály Educators’ (OAKE) Ruth Boshkoff Composition Prize, resulting in the commission of Redbirds for children's choir, now published by Colla Voce Music.
A native of Washington, D.C., Kaulkin studied composition with Joseph Castaldo at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, followed by 3 years’ post-graduate study at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary, under the tutelage of composer János Vajda and choral conductor István Párkai. He earned his Master of Music degree at the San Francisco Conservatory, where he studied composition with Conrad Susa. He is on the Musicianship and Composition faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory’s Pre-College Division.
♫ Examples of Relevant Past Work
Mvt. IV: “Blue Hills Over the North Wall” (5’47”) - soprano and orchestra
The Music Group of Philadelphia, Sean Deibler, Artistic Director with Orchestra 2001 and Janice Fiore, soprano
Blue hills over the north wall; White water swirling to the east of the city: This is where you must leave me – A lone puff of thistledown on a thousand mile journey. Ah the drifting clouds and the thoughts of a wanderer! The setting sun and emotions of old friends. A wave of the hand now and you are gone.
— Li Po (701-762), tr. Innes Herdan
Texts from 19th-century German poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Premiered under the auspices of LIEDER ALIVE! (San Francisco) in 2015.
Jessica Wan, soprano Natalie Parker, clarinet Paul Yarbrough, viola Laura Dahl, piano
I. O Nacht (0’0”)
II. Lebt wohl (4’44”)
Misterium Tremendum was the winner of the SF Conservatory’s 2000 Highsmith Composition Prize, and premiered by the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 2003.
Excerpt 1 (2’31”): The mysterious, partially aleatoric opening
Excerpt 2 (2’30”): A lush, lyrical moment
Excerpt 3 (2’38”): The climax and final moments of the piece
Oakland East Bay Symphony, Scott Parkman, guest conductor. Oakland, Ca., 2003
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Contact: Michael Kaulkin ・ email@example.com ・ (510) 326-0827