Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Dolls of New Albion: An Interview with Paul Shapera

When musician Paul Shapera contacted me about reviewing the recent recording of his steampunk opera, The Dolls of New Albion, I was certainly intrigued. What would steampunk sound like? When I tried to imagine it, all I could think of was the recent storyline in The Guild that ends in characters riding into a convention hall in a steampunk airship (aaaaaand I am officially revealing more of my geeky self than intended).

Just listening to the overture of The Dolls of New Albion, however, and I instantly recognized the influence that the genre had on the music. This musical is all about moving parts -- from the way the narrative weaves through different generations of characters to the sounds that come together in one musical machine. To share more about his vision for New Albion, Paul agreed to answer some questions about the recording, steampunk, and more.

Me: Where did you get the idea to write The Dolls of New Albion?

Paul Shapera: A friend of mine once pointed out that the Dresden Dolls song which inspired the plot is a song about a… uhm…a vibrator.

About a year ago a director I know asked how I felt about writing an opera My response was mixed, in that I didn’t want to write an orchestral opera with operatic singers. I am more a rock musical kind of composer. I responded off of the top of my head that the kind of thing I would be interested in writing would be a steampunk opera. I wasn’t really serious and was just trying to come up with a unique combination to demonstrate where my interests might lay. I went on to suggest it could sound like the love child of the Dresden Dolls, Rasputina, Tom Waits and Stephen Sondheim and left it at that.

A month later however I could not stop thinking about it and the musical possibilities. I emailed the director saying that I needed to write it. I had to write it. I couldn’t not write it. If I did write it, would he put it up? He told me to go for it.

Obviously the next step was to come up with a plot. Two days later I was driving alone, humming the song “Coin Operated Boy” by the Dresden Dolls, which is actually about a vibrator but also suggests a mechanical boy. I flashed on an image of a mad scientist trying to build a mechanical mannequin and boom. Over the next 25 minutes the first 2 acts and a good bit of the third just poured out.

Me: How do you define 'Steampunk' in the context of The Dolls of New Albion?

Paul: The very first thing that makes the show steampunk for me and the reason I became obsessed with writing the piece was trying to imagine what music for a steampunk show would sound like. There’s only a smattering of steampunk music since it’s mostly an aesthetic and literary movement. I was enthralled with trying to make the music, especially at first, which sounds like what you would THINK steampunk sounds like.

After that, I tried to create a city in an alternative reality whose description fits the bill of a fantastical city from a past that never was. The city of New Albion itself plays an important role in the show. Additionally, once the show is staged and visual design elements are present the steampunk aesthetic will have a chance to really shine

I also see steampunk as a movement containing strong women and bizarre and iconic individuals. Why strong women and steampunk seem intertwined, I’m not sure. Perhaps because there is such a large online presence of women who have embraced steampunk design and who create an image of steampunk femininity which is strong and full of vivacious personality.

The moment I thought of the idea of a mad scientist bringing to life a mechanical doll, it was clear to me that the mad scientist needed to be female especially since the mad scientist trope is so thoroughly male. It made the premise more interesting and at the same time I was convinced that it also made the concept more steampunk.

Me: This show is split into 4 acts, each telling about a different generation within the McAllister family. Tell us a little about the structure of the show and how you decided to bring it together in that way.

Paul: The day before I came up with the image of a mad scientist that got the plot rolling, I was at a bookstore and saw a book called Escher’s Loops. I read the back cover where it talked about using Escher Loops in the context of storytelling. I thought this idea was amazing and pictured the famous drawing of 4 walls of a castle that circle into themselves. I wondered if I could do the same thing in writing a story for the opera, that is make a story that functioned in some way as a four sided Escher Loop.

So the idea of 4 stories that tie back into themselves was already in my head the next day when I pictured the scientist. The story of the scientist and the Doll, who in my mind clearly needed to be a dead lover, seemed neat and concise, a short story. Perfect as the first of 4 stories. Four stories would translate into 4 acts, each building on the one before. This could be done by having each act follow a subsequent generation, each generation developing a larger story arc further and further, building dramatically until we pass crisis point.

Me: What is the significance of the role of the narrator in the show?

Paul: I have a thing for Narrators and always had a thing for Narrators, ever since I discovered Fosse and his MCs as a teenager. I use Narrators a lot in my work, and I used to experiment with them having sinister or Trickster archetype aspects. As I kept working out how to use song cycles to tell stories I started developing issues with how other albums, usually concept albums achieved this. Eventually, I came to feel a story could be gotten across more plausibly and less convolutedly by simply having a Narrator flat out tell the story.

Many of my musical stories function as song cycles or even concept albums and in order to avoid certain pitfalls of that much maligned genre, I have developed a style of using spoken narration.

The show required a Narrator to get across the details of the story and the world. In this instance speaking would not work so she must sing her part and when staged really be an iconic character. As she evolved she also took on some subtle Greek chorus aspects, occasionally commenting on the characters’ actions or motives, although they almost never hear her. She functions as the show’s conscience and the bridge between the audience and the world of the show.

The need for this Narrator became even more pronounced when the director wrote to me and asked if I could write the steampunk opera in a way that a blind audience could follow the story. This was more or less my intention anyway, but after that request I paid special attention to making the audio as complete as possible so that you can follow the show purely by listening. Ideally.

Me: Something I'm always interested in when it comes to cast albums is the fine line between a cast recording for a show and a concept album. Do you feel the recording can represent the show without a production? How do you view this show's relationship to the stage?

Paul: I do think, I certainly HOPE the album can be followed on its own to a large degree. However, it is clearly a theatrical album. I have other works which tell stories and they are not so obviously theatrical. I wrote this to be performed on a stage. Yes, you can get most of the story by simply listening to? the album, but I think the album begs to be seen and experienced as a live show.

Me: Where are you in development on this show? What is your vision for The Dolls of New Albion in the future?

Paul: The initial director is still attached and we are theoretically seeking to build the show through a series of performances. I say theoretically because as the director is pursuing plans he presents different possibilities. But our main plan is to build the show from a more workshop oriented staging to a full production at fringe theaters in London and/or festivals where it can be seen by producers.

I'm hesitant to discuss my vision of the stage show since it is up to the directors who stage it to translate it. I have photos in my head of what certain scenes look like in still frame, but those photos exist only to help me create the music and story. I do not believe in stepping on directors’ toes. Arguments between authors and directors can destroy a show. Let’s just say there has been talk of projections and scaffolding as sets, the use of a cast divided into the singer characters and a supporting movement cast, and costumes and lighting drafts that make my eyes pop. We actually get mail from costumers and scenic designers offering their services.

Me: The genre of the show definitely has its own set of internet-savvy fans, and you also keep a blog. What has been your experience of building an online community for this show? What have been some of the greatest challenges? What have been some of the greatest rewards?

Paul: The blog has several purposes for me, one being to educate myself about steampunk and anything that could be used as inspirational fodder for the show. For instance, I looked up Victorian music and found this amazing giant Victorian music box which had the most haunting chime sound. The moment I heard it I knew it had to be the sound that opened the show. I had to use a sound program to approximate it as best I could, but I got pretty damn close.

The more I used the blog to explore periphery topics, the more I stayed immersed in the creation of the show. So the blog has been fundamental in creating the mental space I’ve lived in while writing the piece.

I also wanted to be transparent on the internet. I began the blog on the day I wrote the first note and I plan to carry on with it throughout performance. I thought that the blog would be a fantastic record of the entire process of creating a musical, from idea to stage.

Of course, a blog is also a way to attract an audience so I try hard to keep it varied and entertaining. 9 out of 10 posts have nothing to do directly with the show and are about various things I’ve become interested in while exploring show related topics. The blog MUST first and foremost be entertaining. I don’t find vanity blogs to be entertaining so I don’t write one.

The hardest part is keeping posting up day after day. You want the numbers to keep going up? You must post.

The greatest reward is that people I’ve never met, do not know, may never meet and have not ever spoken to, from all across the world, are buying the album. Certainly a cast album without a show is not the normal order of things although Webber did it successfully. But up until now no promotion has been attempted other than an ongoing blog and a YouTube video. The YouTube video has garnered over 50,000 views and the blog has resulted in thousands of people listening to the first act when it was posted some months ago, and now to the completed album That’s worth a small pat on the back for banging out all those posts for a solid year while writing the album

Me: Any other plugs?

Paul: Go listen to it! You can stream it. You can listen to the whole thing for free any time. If you like it, buy it and help feed us. In this day and age whenever someone actually buys a piece music they like on the internet an angel gets their wings…

While you’re there you can check out my other work:

And the blog mentioned previously is here:


Cas rae Fristoe said...

I wonder why his account name is Mochalab.

Absolution Jailor said...

I recall hearing/reading that the amount of caffeine he went through trying to stay awake long enough to bring his first onslaught of ideas to life was staggering. Thus, the lab fueled by mocha (chocolate coffee).

The Steampunk Album has since become a completed trilogy, venturing into dieselpunk and then atompunk, the next two technological leaps after steampunk. Diesel bleeds jazz clubs and industry, and atom is like those "house of the future"/"world of tomorrow" with a dose of that so-bad-it's-good sci-fi of the 50s-80s. I loved them both.

The Escher wheel expanded to cover the second and third parts in such a moving way that I was wounded to reach the end, and immediately started back at the first installment. Since this blog post, three stage shows of Dolls of New Albion have happened, with talks for a fourth which will professionally shot to be sold on DVD/download.

I really hope this is a trend that continues, as it rivals some of the touring Broadway musicals I've had the pleasure to experience, and would love to be able to attend a stage show of it.