“It’s the only opera I know of that has a mummy as one of its romantic leads,” jokes Lawrence Rapchak about his new opera, The Lifework of Juan Diaz. Indeed, the unusual story, which is based on the Ray Bradbury short story and his 1964 Alfred Hitchcock Presents teleplay of the same name, is hardly typical fare for the opera house, but Rapchak, who is also music director of Chamber Opera Chicago, had a particular interest in the subject.

“I had been wanting to set a southwestern piece for quite a while. I had done some pieces about Indian legends, but I wanted something with a Mexican flavor to it. It also happens that I am a big fan of science fiction television from that period, The Twilight Zone, some of the Outer Limits episodes, but in general, Alfred Hitchcock was so overlit and bright that it looked sterile and static–the hour episodes in particular were so contrived. But Diaz is a notable exception. The production values were high, and they weren’t afraid to use some black here and there. I dare say that if I hadn’t seen the TV show and been deeply affected by it, I don’t think the story alone would have grabbed me.”

Set in Guanajuato, Mexico, and centering around the Day of the Dead (November 1), the one-act opera concerns an impoverished man’s promise to his wife on his deathbed to provide for his family better in death than he could in life. When a greedy grave digger blackmails the family by threatening to exhume the man’s body, the widow must follow a plan of action that, as Rapchak says, “creates an ending where you don’t know if you’re supposed to be horrified or touched. That duality of poignancy and horror is what attracted me to setting the work. I was riding home on a train one day and remembered that old show and it seemed absolutely perfect for an opera–the locale, the small number of characters, the wonderful dialogue and fascinating relationships between the characters, perhaps a touch of fantasy, and something interesting to see onstage. Perhaps something lighter was expected of me, but I was determined that if Bradbury would give me permission, I would do it.”

Whether or not Bradbury himself–an Illinois native–will attend the new opera is still uncertain because the famed writer lives in California and he refuses to fly. Rapchak has been in constant touch with him, however, taking into account his suggestions and modifications and passing them on to librettist and director Carl Ratner. “I can’t say what he’ll think of the music if he comes,” says Rapchak. “He admitted that he’s more of a Puccini man than a Stravinsky man when it comes to opera. He’s working on a Broadway show with Jimmy Webb and has used Jose Feliciano for another, so his taste is obviously a bit different from my style of writing.”

Rapchak has been with Chamber Opera Chicago since 1986, though composing is his first love. Diaz gives him the opportunity to merge both worlds. “It’s strange in a way, because of the eight to nine hundred scores I have [collected], probably no more than 30 are operas. . . . I don’t regard myself as an opera conductor per se. You have to bury yourself exclusively in that and the repertoire is so small. It’s great fun but I have to be more diverse than that.”

Rapchak’s conducting before he came to Chamber Opera Chicago was largely committed to unfamiliar orchestral music, works such as Dvorak tone poems or neglected symphonists such as Arnold Bax. “I’ve tried to keep up that interest, sometimes even very indirectly,” says Rapchak. “For instance, I found the money and made the connection to make the Chandos recording of the Franz Schmidt Second Symphony possible last year. I found out that it had been Henry Fogel’s dream for 20 years to record that work, ever since he had been two days away from having it done in 1969 in Syracuse when the conductor died of a heart attack.” He managed to get Neeme Jarvi interested in learning the piece and doing it with the Chicago Symphony, but couldn’t find the money to record it. “I hooked him up with Chamber Opera Chicago’s founder and angel Barre Seid, and the record ended up charting 19 out of 25 in Billboard!”

Things are moving right along for Rapchak; in addition to the opera premiering, Jarvi will do another piece of Rapchak’s in Detroit next year, and Concertante di Chicago will perform his Concerto for Bass Clarinet. “The Jarvi thing was pretty incredible,” he says. I had finished a piece for the CSO’s Illinois Young Composers Competition, and was having the score bound a couple doors down from Rose Records. While I was waiting I walked over to Rose, where I saw Jarvi shopping for CDs. We chatted a bit, I excused myself and ran over to get a score for him. At first I thought, ‘This is nuts, a composer shoving a score under his arm on his day off. On the other hand, I’m 38 years old, let’s get something going here.’ I showed it to him and he seemed interested, asked to have it sent to his hotel. Six days later I got a call from the Detroit Symphony [where Jarvi was recently appointed music director] saying that he wanted to do it there. I was floating for two days.”

Rapchak was delighted because he thinks his music is somewhat inaccessible for some conductors. “I’ve been rethinking the orchestra for myself over the last few years. I rarely use flutes or clarinets, and the brasses are always muted and play very little, one reason why my music will probably never interest the Chicago Symphony. I rely heavily on double reeds–oboes, English horns, bassoon, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and saxophones. That’s part of why I think Diaz works so well coloristically–there are no flutes or French horns, it’s all a homogenous palette meant to serve the tenor of the drama.”

The Lifework of Juan Diaz premieres Saturday, April 21, at 7:30 PM, at the Ruth Page Auditorium, 1016 N. Dearborn. The opera will run for six weekend performances through May 6. Also on the program is Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Tickets are $12 to $29. Call 822-0770 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.