A Life in Libretto: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Life and Art Take the Stage at Arizona Opera
Emily Balli | Aug 6, 2019
Much of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and work has intrigued people all over the world, but the period of his life from 1903 to 1914 was especially tumultuous. In this time, Wright experienced a devastating fire, complex
relationships, and other intense hardships. Over the years, these stories have inspired books and continue to fascinate Wright fans.
This September, Wright’s life and work are taking the stage at Arizona Opera.
In the summer of 1989, composer Daron Hagen was approached by the Madison Opera in Wisconsin to create a musical interpretation of this fascinating period of Wright’s life. Over the next few years, Hagen partnered with Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet and librettist, to create “Shining Brow.” Named as a nod to Wright’s two Taliesins (Taliesin means shining brow in Welsh), the two-act opera is inspired by the events of Wright’s early life. Hagen and Muldoon thoroughly researched Wright’s life, and consulted with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation; Wright apprentice, Edgar Tafel; Wright’s close friend and personal photographer, Pedro Guerrero; and a number of other Taliesin Fellows and Wright experts.
The work debuted in April 1993, and received critical acclaim from the New York Times, calling it, “effective and stimulating,” and noting Hagen’s “gift for the big tune.” There was quick interest from other opera companies in putting on their own productions of “Shining Brow,” and the show was reproduced several times over the years—each time with a slightly different arrangement and location.
In September 2019, “Shining Brow” will come to Arizona, home of Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home and desert laboratory. The Arizona Opera will debut a new version of “Shining Brow,” which has been revived and reimagined for the new location.
For this production, Hagen trimmed the opera by 20 minutes and eliminated the female chorus, in order to intensify the central story. “I like to revise my operas when they are revived—not just to integrate what I’ve learned from previous stagings, but to customize the work to the presenter,” Hagen said. “I’m very excited that Arizona Opera will share the new version with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Arizona audiences.”
Hagen feels as though Wright’s story portrayed in “Shining Brow” continues to connect with audiences on an emotional level today because it deals with many basic human issues everyone can relate to. “The opera’s story contains all the elements of great lyric theatre: love, betrayal, great dreams dashed, murder, personal reinvention, and tragedy,” Hagen said. “The opera centers on these events and probes the all-important, secular humanistic struggle between art and life. This is not just a timeless story, it is the human existential question—what role does faith play, and what is faith in our time? Mr. Wright struggled with it, as we do today.”