Travis and Don’s duet from the end of Scene 1
Most successful was an unpretentious gem entitled Heartbreak Express ... George Lam kept his music heartfelt, always attentive to the cadences of speech. This is one of the few operas I’ve attended lately that didn’t include projected titles of some kind, and, to be frank, one of the few that never needed them.
- James Jorden, New York Observer
Inspired in part by Tai Uhlmann’s documentary film For The Love Of Dolly, the opera follows four Dolly Parton “superfans” waiting to meet their idol for the first time. Sisters Darlene and LuAnne entered an essay contest and won the chance to meet Dolly Parton in person. Darlene thinks that this encounter with Dolly will change their lives for the better, but LuAnne is not so sure. Longtime partners Don and Travis have amassed a huge collection of Dolly memorabilia. They poured their life savings into making a new Dolly doll, and came to get Dolly’s blessing to manufacture the new dolls. The opera follows the four fans as they meet in the waiting room and ends in a quintet (with Dolly’s mysterious Assistant) as they describe their life-changing encounters with the superstar.
Heartbreak Express began in 2007 as a monologue for Robert Maril, accompanied by a violin (played by myself) and a viola (played by my friend Ruby Fulton). The piece, inspired in part by the wonderful documentary film For the Love of Dolly by Tai Uhlmann, was part of the inaugural performances of a young group called Rhymes With Opera. In both the 2007 prototype and the 2015 reimagined version of this work, I wanted to create a conversation with the operas that I love: the works of Britten, Sondheim, John Adams and others, where the music is so essentially bound to the words, and in turn, both music and words deepen and propel the drama forward.
Opera in English is a very special genre for me. I love the challenge of creating drama through sung dialogue while emulating the timing of spoken English. In particular, I enjoy writing musical lines derived in part from speech rhythms, as well as combining words and music with the orchestra (another character in its own right). For example, in the opening scene between Darlene and LuAnne, the two engage in a quick exchange, often overlapping each other to emulate a simmering argument. Their conversation continues while a “country waltz” begins in the orchestra, underlining the dialogue with sounds that evoke Darlene’s musical world, one which is undoubtedly filled to the brim with Dolly Parton’s songs of hardship, hope and love.
It was a pleasure to work with my librettist John Clum, whom I first met at Duke University while I was a PhD student in music. John has not only given me (and Rhymes With Opera) a wonderfully insightful and complex libretto in Heartbreak Express, he has also been an important mentor in my growth as a dramatic composer and a teacher. In addition, it has been an exhilarating experience working with the immensely talented ensemble of Rhymes With Opera, who have so generously contributed their time and energy towards realizing this new opera. Heartbreak Express is dedicated to John and Rhymes With Opera.
Don (bass baritone)
Heartbreak Express was first performed by Rhymes With Opera on November 13-21, 2015, at the 124 Bank Street Theatre in New York City. The cast included Elisabeth Halliday (LuAnne), Karen Hayden (Darlene), Peter Thoresen (Countertenor), Robert Maril (Travis), and John Callison (Don). The production was conducted by Conrad Chu, and was directed by Ashley Tata.
George Lam’s score is evocative and nuanced, featuring a muted perpetual motion in the orchestra ensemble out of which individual instruments emerge to intertwine with the vocalists.
- Michael Berg, The Sybaritic Singer