Photo by Jonathan Grassi
The Hours takes place in a single day. The year shifts between 1923, 1949, and the late 1990s, but the hours push on until night. My name is Greg Pierce and I wrote the libretto for The Hours. I’d like to tell you about a single day in the creation of our opera.
10:30 AM (on October 17, 2022)
It’s the first day of rehearsal at the Met. We are in a studio that’s so far underground we are basically spelunking. We start with Virginia Woolf’s first scene, and Joyce DiDonato is already on fire—running her fingers across walls, dashing to her chair, exploring the objects on her desk, making the room her own. Having never worked with Joyce, I’m astonished by how tactile she is. Did she start out as a dancer? She and Sean Panikkar do the first Virginia-Leonard scene three times, finding all kinds of new textures. Even though I’m married to an actor, I’m astounded that someone as self-assured as Joyce can instantly morph into someone who’s so uncomfortable in her sweater, in her studio, in her mind.
11:45 AM (on March 16, 2021)
Composer Kevin Puts and I have just boarded a plane in Cincinnati. It’s a bad moment in the pandemic, and Covid vaccines have just become available but most of us aren’t old enough to get them yet. We’ve just heard the entire first draft of our opera sung by the freakishly talented students at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. They performed it masked, distanced, and behind plexiglass shields like opera warriors. Kevin and I both think the final scene needs to be expanded, but we don’t how to do it yet. We are sitting a few rows apart, madly texting ideas before takeoff. I hit send too early. Kevin is confused, thinking I want everyone to sing the whole scene twice. Years later, in a seminar, Kevin’s students will be astonished that any part of a Met opera was written by texting.
12:15 PM (on June 16, 2018)
I am in a hotel room in Minneapolis surrounded by decrepit wood paneling. I am waiting for a call from Kevin, whom I’ve never met. He calls. He tells me he admires Fellow Travelers; I tell him I admire Silent Night. He tells me that he and Renée Fleming came up with the idea of an Hours opera, and Peter Gelb is enthusiastic, and since so many people read the book and saw the film, he wants to do something totally different—to take advantage of what opera does best. We start riffing on how the chorus could be more than just townspeople. We are talking fast—interrupting each other and apologizing. Though this phone call is technically my job interview, years later we both recall it as our first work session.
12:40 PM (on January 24, 2021)
Kevin and I have flown to Houston to meet for the first time with director Phelim McDermott and designer Tom Pye who are about to open Aida there. While sitting on a bench waiting for their rehearsal to end, a bizarre turkey-like bird struts by—neither of us can identify it. In the meeting, Phelim draws a cone on a piece of paper and describes a concept of three levels of how we experience reality. This idea will radically influence how we proceed with our rewrites.
1:15 PM (on October 4, 2019)
Over tuna melts at Cosmic Diner in Hell’s Kitchen, Kevin hands me his headphones, hits Go on his laptop, and plays me the first three minutes of music he’s written for The Hours—the prologue. Despite the corny pseudo-instruments of his composition software, the music is ominous, shimmering, mystical. I’m ecstatic. It tells me straight away what sound-world we’re in, and I have a thought about where it might reappear in Act II. I also have the thought, If I get tuna on his laptop, will I ruin a Met opera?
1:30 PM (on July 10, 2018)
Kevin and dramaturg Paul Cremo and I are having enchiladas at Rosa Mexicano across the street from the Met. Kevin and I have an idea for how to end Act I and I am trying to perform it for Paul. I’m not singing, I’m just repeating the only sentence I’ve written for that moment so far. And I am over-gesturing, trying to play all three main characters plus the curtain. When I’m done, Paul says, “I got chills.” And I think, If he got chills while seeing it performed this badly, it might work. For the next three years, we will work extremely closely with Paul, tracking a thousand story details through countless drafts of our opera.
1:45 PM (on May 5, 2020)
I am lying on the floor of my kitchen in the Catskills. I call Kevin to tell him that my 70-year-old mother went to the doctor’s with a stomach ache and found out she has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Later, Kevin will tell me that on the day of that phone call, he’d been writing the music for the moment in Act I when Laura Brown’s neighbor Kitty tells her, “I have to go into the hospital for a couple of days . . . it’s some kind of growth.”
2:15 PM (on March 28, 2022)
Renée tells us that she’s curious about aspects of Clarissa’s history that don’t appear in the current draft of the libretto, which is heavily focused on Clarissa’s fraught relationship with her friend Richard. This inspires us to rethink Clarissa’s Act I aria, “Here on this corner.” The aria changes structurally, thematically, and harmonically. Seven months later we will hear Renée sing the new version in a subterranean Met studio. Renée sounds magnificent, of course, and since we are sitting at a table right in front of her, it feels like a private concert of our work. Kevin and I keep looking at each other in disbelief.
3:30 PM (on April 23, 2022)
I meet novelist Michael Cunningham for the first time in Washington Square, where Scene 2 takes place. He is extremely warm, dapper, and curious about how operas get made. He assures me that he has no interest in passing judgement or weighing in, he’s just thrilled it’s all happening. He tells me about his love affair with Washington Square. I tell him that in a previous draft, “Michael Cunningham” made an appearance but we had to cut him, sorry. He laughs and says he understands. As I walk home via Fifth Avenue (passing the block where Clarissa stops into the flower shop), I realize how terrified I’ve been that Michael Cunningham, one of my literary idols since my Oberlin College days, might hate what we’ve done with his novel.
4:35 PM (on July 7, 2022)
During a dance workshop in a bowels-of-the-earth Met studio, Annie-B Parson has just choreographed the moment when Virginia approaches the river. Kevin and I, who for years could not imagine how dance would work in this opera, are mesmerized. It seems like we’re watching a single sheet of billowing satin rather than a group of people walking toward us. In this moment we realize that dance will be an essential part of the storytelling. And that water and the qualities of its movement will guide the flow of our narrative. And that Annie-B is a genius. Three months later, I will read her new book The Choreography of Everyday Life and it will make my commute to rehearsal seem like a dance.
6:05 PM (on March 21, 2022)
My mother dies. It is one day after the final Hours concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra. My sister Heather and I are sitting on her bed as light streams through her massive windows. A few hours later, I will email Kelli O’Hara and Kevin to tell them that the sublime music from Act II when Laura is sitting on her bed is running through my head and making me think my mom is drifting off to a better place. Kelli’s voice is nothing short of angelic in this moment and I’m grateful that’s it’s on repeat in my ear. From here on in, everything in our opera will take on new meaning for me.
7:15 PM (on March 18, 2022)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Hours for the first time with the Philadelphia Orchestra, wearing a floral shirt in honor of the story’s central motif. His off-the charts enthusiasm for this piece is enough to calm the anxious writers’ nerves. He tells us that his friend told him he looked like an octopus while conducting this opera, as though he were floating through Kevin’s music.
11:25 PM (on November 22, 2022)
I am at the opening night party after the Met premiere of The Hours, hiding behind my mask and my husband. I think about how Clarissa’s day, and Mrs. Dalloway’s day, and Laura Brown’s day, and Peter Gelb’s day, and Kevin Puts’s day, and Michael Cunningham’s day, and my day are all heading towards a party. Truthfully, I am writing this program note on November 8, 2022, so opening night hasn’t happened yet. So I can only imagine the conversation I’ll have with someone—maybe a student?—who’s just seen the opera. What do I hope she’ll say? Maybe something like, “I really loved the music. I hope there’s a recording—I want to hear it again. Everyone was so good. It makes me want to read the book again and see the movie again and to actually read Mrs. Dalloway which I was supposed to do last semester. To be honest, today was a hard day. I won’t go into it but a lot happened. But coming to the Met and seeing this opera at the end of my day reminded me that it’s worth it to just push on through, you know? ’Cause maybe it’s the hard days that connect us.” Or whatever she wants to say.
On behalf of everyone who worked on The Hours, I hope you enjoy it.
Greg Pierce’s opera librettos include The Hours (with composer Kevin Puts, based on Michael Cunningham’s novel), Fellow Travelers (with composer Gregory Spears, based on Thomas Mallon’s novel), and The Glitch (with composer Nico Muhly). His plays and musicals include Slowgirl, Her Requiem, Cardinal, The Quarry (with composer Randal Pierce), The Landing, and Kid Victory (with composer John Kander). His work has been produced by the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theater, Steppenwolf Theatre, Geffen Playhouse, Vineyard Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, Signature Theatre, and Vermont Stage Company, among others. His stories have appeared in New England Review, Conjunctions, and Avery. He has a BA from Oberlin College and an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. He lives in New York City. An excerpt from The Hours: An Opera in Two Acts, appeared in NER issue 44.1.