Like the kid who won baseball's Triple Crown in his rookie season, Kevin Puts returns to Minnesota Opera with the eyes and ears of the music world upon him.
His first opera, "Silent Night," won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music, and his sophomore attempt, "The Manchurian Candidate," launches its world premiere at Ordway Center on Saturday. He has again teamed with librettist Mark Campbell, and early listens in workshops and rehearsals justify an optimism and curiosity about this new work.
Dale Johnson, the opera's artistic director, told a gathering of cast, designers and staff that he believed that "The Manchurian Candidate" is "the best thing we've ever done."
Kevin Newbury, who is directing the staging, added that he believed that Minnesota Opera was "looking toward the future" with this new piece.
"Our goal is for audiences to say, 'I've never seen anything like that,' " Newbury said.
And Tomer Zvulun, director of the Atlanta Opera, upped the ante in a recent conversation about Puts.
"He is the composer of our generation," said Zvulun, who directed the European premiere of "Silent Night" at the Wexford Festival. "He understands with a witty partner in crime [Campbell] that we live in a generation that expects strong, fast stories."
No wonder Puts, a modest and polite gentleman, admits in understatement, "There is a lot more pressure and expectation now."
The composer of his generation still has to work for a living. He was just finishing two long days of auditioning students at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore when he took an evening phone call from a reporter.
He would be in Minneapolis the next day for a "Manchurian Candidate" rehearsal and an evening promotional event in St. Paul. He'd then fly to Kansas City for a quick trip to buck up the Lyric Opera troops staging "Silent Night" and then head home to Yonkers, N.Y., for his son's weekend birthday party. The following Monday, he'd return to the Twin Cities for the two weeks running up to opening night.
This doesn't even touch the stack of projects on his piano at home, including another opera with Campbell for Opera Philadelphia and a commission from the Baltimore Symphony for a piece intended to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Carnegie Hall.
"When I worry about stress and schedule, I have to step back and think, 'Come on, I'm writing classical music for a living.' " he said. "I mean, if I were a pop musician — the world really wants that, but classical? It is unbelievable that I can call this a career."
Puts, who turned 43 in January, grew up in St. Louis with all the distractions and video influences of his generation. His music is frequently called "cinematic" rather than "operatic" for its sense of movement, its evocation of image and its striking drama. He accepts that assessment, saying that he didn't grow up with opera.
"I know a lot of people hear my operas and say, 'It's just not opera. It's too quick; it doesn't have these long arias.' "
Zvulun, who flew to Minneapolis last December to see a workshop performance of "The Manchurian Candidate," said he believes that it is those very qualities that distinguish Puts' music.
On that Saturday afternoon, Zvulun and an invited audience of donors, board members, journalists and opera friends heard a work that built a constant thread of tension, shifting gears instantly from Stravinsky influences to Dixieland, from Sousa to "Twilight Zone" — with huge, knuckle-busting crunchy chords dissolving into single, persistent notes. The music told its story with a pulsing rhythmic propulsion.
"It constantly surprised me," Zvulun said. "It's a powerful thriller that moves rapidly through realism, surrealism, imagination and suspense. And it sounds effortless."
Sometimes it works out
As "Silent Night" was taking the stage in late 2011, Johnson realized he had a team worth holding onto. He invited Puts and Campbell to propose a new project.
Campbell brought up "The Manchurian Candidate." He'd thought for years that the 1959 Cold War thriller would be perfect for opera and had asked his agent at one point to secure the rights. The story was made into a 1962 movie with Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey. The plot involved a brainwashed soldier (Harvey) who was manipulated by his mother (Lansbury) into a plot to assassinate a presidential nominee.
"It's an opera about paranoia and politics," Campbell said. " 'Manchurian Candidate' is a diamond-hard story."
Puts welcomed the chance to write a score that "wouldn't let the audience breathe." He could hear the harmonies in his head and was determined that "I wanted people on the edge of their seats."
Johnson put frequent Minnesota Opera director Kevin Newbury on the project, along with music director Michael Christie, who had conducted "Silent Night." Longtime favorite Brenda Harris was asked to sing Eleanor Iselin (the Lansbury role). Tenor Leonardo Capalbo, fresh from "The Elixir of Love," will sing Ben Marco (Sinatra), and Matthew Worth, who sang Father Flynn in 2013's "Doubt," takes the tragic role of Raymond.
Harris collared Puts during a recent rehearsal break and asked him to look at the rhythm of a difficult section. The composer nodded and quickly made adjustments.
"He has a great sense of self and a great sense of collaboration," Harris said. "The more I listen to Kevin's music, the more I hear how developed it is, how many layers of interest there are. That is the mark of a really fine composer."
Campbell, who has worked with 30 composers, said he and Puts submerge their egos in service of the work.
"I adore working with him because he's so down to earth," Campbell said. "We've argued, but it's always finding a solution — if a character isn't clear, for example. I have worked with composers who feel it is their story. Kevin doesn't do that."
Minnesota Opera expects "The Manchurian Candidate" to draw representatives from several opera companies, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Cincinnati and Kansas City. Writers from Opera News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the London-based Opera Magazine also are likely to check out the Puts and Campbell team.
The composer said he believes that he has written something good, but that he needs to hear that judgment from audiences.
"All the time — every time I write a piece," Puts said when asked about insecurities. "At the premiere of 'Manchurian Candidate,' I'll be watching the audience, and worrying. Are they bored, are they confused?"
For his part, Johnson said flatly that "Manchurian Candidate" is all around "a better piece" than "Silent Night."
"In the first piece, he was tiptoeing around, discovering what voices could really do — the arias were modest," Johnson said. "He's allowed his characters this time to have arias where they take over the stage. He's also learning how to write duets, trios, quartets. He didn't have that in 'Silent Night.' "
Puts shuts his ears when superlatives are thrown around. He recalls how much the Pulitzer accolade threw him. The weeks after the announcement were surreal. He wasn't sleeping well and he asked composer Jennifer Higdon, who had won a Pulitzer in 2010, for advice. She told him to get back to work.
"For a composer, that's the place that makes the most sense," Puts remembered Higdon saying. "And she was exactly right."
Still, you can't stop people from hearing what they hear. Johnson, when asked about Zvulun's assessment of Puts as composer of the generation, sliced the superlative just a bit thinner.
"I think he is the opera composer of our generation," Johnson said.
"He is in his early Verdi stage, and we haven't even seen his full potential. He's just testing his muscles."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299