Halloweenfest continues with one of my very favorite seasonal treats today! David Del Tredici’s Dracula, a twenty-minute “monodrama”, is a campy-yet-genuinely-disturbing take on the classic Dracula tale is a total gem in the repertoire.
COMPOSER: David Del Tredici
ERA/GENRE: 20th century, neo-romantic
GOOD FOR: A quick escape into Halloween on your lunch break, Danny Elfman vibes
David Del Tredici is…a character. Every time I found a new article about him, I also tended to find something that elicited the following reaction:
He started out his life wanting to be a pianist but switched to composing in college after Milhaud (a sweet new music composer who taught in the area) encouraged him. Don’t worry, on the record he would have been a florist if that stuff hadn’t worked out. (delight +10).
He’s very openly gay and writes works celebrating gayness because “it’s something to be celebrated” (delight +1000). He wrote a “totally pornographic” song cycle entitled “My Favorite Penis Poems” (delight +1million).
He’s also lauded for championing neo-romanticism, basically meaning making things sound more tonal (so…more “normal” to most western ears). Aaron Copland thought he was a great composer and “personality” and he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for his creepy take on Alice in Wonderland, Vintage Alice.
So I think that pretty much sets up the vibe of this Dracula.
This will be a brisker walkthrough than usual because this piece is super accessible and I don’t think a lot of explanation is needed for the audience to get it.
Dracula is listed as a monodrama since it’s a one-woman show, and it’s usually performed “semi-staged”, meaning there’s probably costumes and a director but there isn’t any set or separate stage for the singers. About writing Dracula he said
“It felt like the piece was coming through me,” he says. “It was like being turned into a vampire yourself. I began one day and said, “Who knows where this will go?'”
The text comes from Alfred Corn’s “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count”, which tells the story of a woman being seduced, used, stalked, rejected, and ultimately transformed into a vampire. The Corn poem uses a lot of updated language to enhance this new Dracula story, told through the point of view of the count’s next-door neighbor. It includes some good feminist moments, gothic camp and madness galore, and in my favorite line of the piece, it is revealed that Dracula’s friends call him Tony. Tony the vampire.
Del Tredici’s music and Corn’s text are a match made in heaven.Together they create an atmosphere that walks the very thin line between laughs and screams. As Del Tredici put it:
“scary” is a primary reaction —; as is “funny.” Nervous giggles and startled gasps would not be unwelcome here. Deeper down, the listener confronts the more ominous world of addiction, betrayal and obsession. And inevitably, there comes the ultimate degradation ” a faustian bargain with a devilish price: devolution into the living dead.
In all honesty, this piece has a lot of laughs and camp but also portrays the terrifying, depraved nature of obsession and has some truly uncomfortable moments. Maybe the creepiest thing is how Dracula/Tony’s obsession manifests in a very recognizably human way, like when he starts sending creepy presents, which I’m pretty sure was a storyline on at least two seasons of the Kardashians…
The work uses some unusual instrumentation as part of the small orchestra, including a siren, an anvil, a large wind machine, a celesta, a theremin (the ghost noise). This is definitely a soprano showpiece as it asks for a great deal of speaking, and a genuinely ridiculous range. At the bottom, Del Tredici writes a D below middle-c when she’s quoting the count (around 3:00) which is virtually impossible for most sopranos, so it produces a sort of creaking-door-meets-death-rattle effect. On the opposite end, a high E-flat when she is at the height of madness, and by the end, she is pretty much running the gamut of those three octaves within the same measure.
This piece is soooooo extra and I loooooove it.
The music itself is a rather sinister character in Dracula and serves as a check-in with this woman’s mental state. At first the music and the soprano are separate. Like how normally maybe there isn’t background music in your head when you talk…I mean, for most of us.The orchestra plays, she speaks, then they play again. But… as the soprano falls deeper and deeper into madness/vampirism she becomes more and more a part of the music, first speaking with increasingly rich accompaniment/instrumental backup, and gradually singing more and more until finally, at the end, her merging with the music is complete and she “becomes” the theremin/a vampire.
Some last things to listen out for!
There’s a fugue starting around 11:30ish if you’re the kind of person who loves to find fugues (if you are, I see and appreciate you).
Around 14:12 the tubular bells appear and, as noted in the score, chime 12 times for midnight, just as everything really begins to fall apart for this poor lady. FY
Leaving you with two youtube options as well as a Spotify track. The first one is a live staged version but the sound is blown out a little, unfortunately! The second one is a very clean audio-only version, and it’s the same as our Spotify link. It’s also the one we based our timings after FYI.
Enjoy! And remember if your next door neighbor is a creepy stalker vampire you can always call someone…