Composer and conductor, Philip Hagemann tells the journey of Pegasus Opera Company’s Shaw Goes Wilde, which comes to the Royal Academy of Music in April:

My journey into the opera world covers many decades. I grew up in a small town in southwest Indiana with little culture. I always loved music, first playing the piano and then the saxophone. I pursued a music degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then went into the army playing the sax in a marching band, which took me to Salzburg, Vienna, and other places in Europe – what an eye-opening experience for a country boy!

I then went to New York and immersed myself in New York culture, going to operas, concerts, and theatre while teaching music in New Jersey. In the early 1960s, I wanted to compose choral music for my kids that had humor. My first piece was entitled Christopher Columbus with lyrics by Ogden Nash. The publisher liked it and asked for more, and that was the beginning of my having seventy-five published choral pieces. My most popular was an unusual piece called Fruitcake with a colleague, Penny Leka, that has been sung in thousands of schools throughout the United States during the Christmas season. I was at a gala recently honoring the great mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and was introduced to her as being the person who wrote Fruitcake. She said she sang the alto part in high school and proceeded to sing it perfectly word-for-word!

Philip Hagemann Shaw Goes Wilde

Philip Hagemann (image courtesy of Sharon Wallace)

I started my opera writing in 1976 with a children’s opera entitled The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved, based on a story by John Ciardi.

That did it for me.

In the early 1980s, my friend and partner Murray Rosenthal invited me to join him at an intimate reading of Bernard Shaw’s one-act play The Music Cure at the exclusive Beresford apartment building. His brother Richard, an actor-singer, was playing the part of Reginald. In 1984 it was premiered in New Harmony, Indiana, and has since been performed numerous times throughout the United States, primarily in colleges.

In 1988 I completed a full-length opera based on a novella by Henry James, The Aspern Papers. It premiered at Northwestern University on 19 November 1988 – by sheer coincidence, the composer Dominick Argento’s opera The Aspern Papers premiered with the Dallas Opera on the same day! This coincidence has been noted in a number of publications. The British critic Andrew Porter reviewed Argento’s on Saturday in Dallas and flew to Chicago for my opera on Sunday. They were reviewed in the New Yorker magazine two weeks later – he was more complimentary to my version.

Dominic Argento’s The Aspern Papers

Given the success of The Music Cure, I read almost all of Shaw’s one-act plays and wrote three more one-act operas and one full-length opera based on his works. But where to go next?

I wrote two original operas, one based on a short story by Edith Wharton. I then read several short stories by Oscar Wilde as I loved his plays – somehow The Nightingale and the Rose got to me. It represented to me a powerful tale of devotion and rejection. However, I could not end it as downbeat as Wilde did, so I gave it an uplifting ending.

Both The Music Cure and The Nightingale and the Rose will be their UK premieres.

As an inveterate operagoer, I have been to many of the major opera houses not only in the US but also Europe. In October 2000, I attended the Wexford, Ireland Opera Festival. The first opera performed was an usual opera by the little known composer Ricardo Zandonai called Conchita. In the first act was a soprano with a glorious voice, Alison Buchanan. I virtually bounced on her to find our who she was. We instantly became friends and, again, by sheer coincidence, she was coming to New York to get married – hence the beginning of our relationship.

Philip Hagemann Shaw Goes Wilde

Alison Buchanan (image courtesy of Sharon Wallace)

She introduced me to the tenor Lloyd Newton who had founded the Pegasus Opera Company for the purpose of providing work for singers of colour (BAME) and providing educational experiences in music for school children in Brixton and surrounding areas. Lloyd passed in January 2017 and bequeathed the position of Artistic Director to Alison, who had performed many roles with the company.

Here is another unusual circumstance.

Murray has had many hats in his life, a major one being a dentist. His love for the theatre has prompted us to go into producing, with the results that we have received three Tony Awards and one Olivier Award. Getting back to dentistry, Alison came to Murray for her dental appointment in May 2017. While in the dental chair, Murray asked what she was planning for Pegasus. She had not decided as she was still grieving for Lloyd. So Murray said,

“We are going to put on Phil’s operas”.

I, of course, agreed and last February/ March, Pegasus performed two operas of mine – Ruth based on the Biblical story and Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets at the St. Paul’s Church (The Actor’s Church) in Covent Garden. We are continuing this year at the new Susie Sainsbury theatre in the Royal Academy of Music with The Music Cure and The Nightingale and the Rose.

Shaw Goes Wilde plays at the Royal Academy of Music from 12 – 14 April 2019. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the venue website.