An Interview with Daron Hagen

Orson Welles' heart has just stopped. We enter his mind in this moment, on the threshold between life and death. In the bardo Orson’s thoughts unspool as a stream of consciousness that loops back on itself, like a mobius strip. Three avatars onstage in the theater of his mind are paired with three films within the film as he shuffles through his memories, loves, regrets, like a magician preparing for one last magic trick. Is he ready for what comes next?


Daron Hagen is a highly-esteemed artist of extraordinary versatility and creative range active as a composer, author, director, conductor, pianist, filmmaker, and mentor.


Prestigious commissions from the New York Philharmonic in celebration of its 150th anniversary, the Seattle Opera, the Curtis Institute of Music in celebration of its 75th anniversary, and dozens of major and regional orchestras, ensembles, and institutions internationally anchor a catalogue of works spanning four decades that includes 12 steadily-revived operas, 5 symphonies, 12 concertos, reams of chamber music, 6 film scores, 4 ballets, and over 400 art songs and cycles. Widely represented as a composer on Sony, Naxos, Albany, Bridge, and other record labels, he has conducted the premiere recordings of his operas, recorded his songs as a collaborative pianist, directed staged and filmed versions of his stage works and musicals, written librettos, and has published a memoir, Duet with the Past (McFarland, 2019). His 2020 FilmOpera Orson Rehearsed, presently garnering laurels at major film festivals worldwide, is “bringing opera to new audiences,” and “paving the way for a new generation of composer/filmmakers.”


Guggenheim, Rockefeller, NEA, and Kennedy Center Friedheim Prizewinner Hagen is a Lifetime Member of the Corporation of Yaddo, Co-chair of the Wintergreen Composers Retreat, and artistic director of the New Mercury Collective. After stints on the faculty of Bard College and the Curtis Institute of Music, Hagen left Academe in the 90s to make art full-time; he joined the artist faculty of Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of the Performing Arts in 2017.


Born in 1961 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, trained at the Curtis Institute of Music and at the Juilliard School, Hagen made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 19. After three decades based in Manhattan, Hagen and his wife moved Upstate to raise their children.


It was our pleasure to interview Daron Hagen for Toronto Film Magazine.

How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with a congenital, degenerative heart defect. I began looking for a story to tell in which I could explore reconciling my own mortality: what issues run through the mind of a fully expressed artist conversant with the relationship between art and life seriously facing the prospect of death? I chose Welles as my subject because he was an artistic polymath—writer, visual artist, actor, director, filmmaker—and a deeply-committed social activist who also strove to live a complete and fulfilling personal life. I have always believed as a theater person that (as architect Louis Sullivan posited) “form follows function.”


Consequently, it seemed obvious to me that Welles’ ebullient creative generosity and aesthetic range, intellect, and art required a many-layered dramatic treatment—one that fused images and sound on a deeper than usual level, wedded electro-acoustic and live music, live performance and film, opera and music theater, and jubilantly mashed-up musical and visual languages. I determined to build a multi-media piece that used the “bardo odyssey” of the great filmmaker Orson Welles (the film takes place as he lay dying of a heart attack) to do this.


I knew that this deep dive was going to require more than a love of movies, an acquaintance with the writings of Andre Bazin, and access to some video equipment. The editing process is so important to any life, but it is central to a writer, composer, or filmmaker. I had scored some films, so I was conversant with that end of things; but my subject in Orson demanded that I not just imagine but feel how it feels to edit film month after month. I had directed my operas professionally, conducted them, written their libretti, knew the ropes of live theater; but I had never directed a film, or managed a film production team. It turns out that the opera and film worlds are astonishingly similar. That’s how I came to start making films, beginning with Orson Rehearsed.


Which musical genre and which genre of filmmaking fascinates you as an artist and why?

I feel most comprehensively expressed as a composer of music interwoven with some sort of dramaturgical narrative. I’ve written eleven operas, yes, but I’ve written an awful lot of music for the concert hall—five symphonies, a dozen concerti, reams of chamber music and hundreds of art songs. Although I am a passionate collaborative artist, I admit to really liking the highly centralized and subjective control of the auteur model as defined by François Truffaut in his essays because it comes closest to the way that composers used to function in the opera world.

How does it feel to write, direct and then compose music for a personal style of indie film?

Absolutely wonderful. I have savored every second of the Process of making Orson Rehearsed: from discovery with the actors during the rehearsal and staging of the live component of the film, to learning how to live the life rhythm of a film editor; from the familiar process of scoring to film, to the unfamiliar process of shooting film myself to music already scored and seamlessly switching alternating between the two. My goal was not to document a live performance, make a music video, or an Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but to create a pathway toward a new genre which is not a hybrid but something more personal, more resistant to categorization—a film about opera, an opera about film.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?

I don’t have an answer for that yet. My process as an artist is driven forward by continual reinvention and discovery, and I am just now learning the challenges of being an independent filmmaker.

How difficult is it to fund indie films?

To the extent that the world of an opera composer is similar to that of an independent filmmaker, I am familiar with the process of bringing producers and presenters to the table, hearing their vision, collaborating, making art with the artists and resources in the room instead of the ones in my head, and letting projects either unfold or evaporate, depending on things I can’t control. Funding is always a problem, of course. On the other hand, technology has made it cheaper to make films; so long as you have access to the tools and the skills to wear a bunch of different hats, you can arrive at the end with something that looks and sounds pretty good.


In the case of Orson Rehearsed, the Chicago College of the Performing Arts served as a production partner in exchange for their students shadowing me as composer, director, and independent artist, as well as being cast in productions that combined both seasoned professionals and emerging artists. They shared costs with my New Mercury Collective, which is basically my sandbox, or, as Welles would say, train set, in which I build little sandcastles and operatic locomotives. I have more creative control than I do when I work with an opera company, but less money.

Tell us about the process of the production for Orson Rehearsed?

First, I threw spaghetti at the wall for six months in Logic Pro. I created about twenty 3-6 minute long “think pieces” about specific events and elements in Welles’ life that he might think about while dying. These dramatic beats combined manipulated snatches of recordings of my own acoustic works stretching back to the 80s, sound effects, brief snatches of Welles interviews, loops, and newly-composed vocal lines—most performed by my wife, vocalist/composer Gilda Lyons, and some by me—and mockups of what would become acoustic instrumental lines.


I chose to divide the character of Welles into three avatars: one young, one middle-aged, one dying. This allowed for ensembles and multiple points of view. They sang a libretto that combined newly-written material by me with words drawn from public domain sources and repurposed—Shakespeare, Welles himself, Emma Lazarus, and others. Gradually, these spaghetti-throwing sessions generated a core of about a dozen musical ideas that held the entire piece together.


Simultaneously, I filmed dozens of high-def video of scenelets that would serve as visual equivalents to the musical motives being tossed up during the work in Logic—a man’s hands typing on a manual keyboard in New Haven; a woman’s hands gliding over piano keys in New York City; a child blowing out candles on a birthday cake, or tracing the letters carved into tombstones in a graveyard; hail falling in Paris; waves breaking in Nicaragua; an elevated train passing by overhead in Chicago; the desert outside of Albuquerque, and on and on. These images ended up unifying the films projected onstage during the live production component of production, and also served as raw material to be edited into the final film.


During the next six months, since the film was taking place in someone’s mind and would unspool in real time in the theater, I gradually arranged the essays into a sequence, dropping some, adding others, in order to create a psychological and emotional narrative that would take the place of physical action. I edited together all the footage into three sixty-minute films that would accompany the three Orsons in live performance. These films would, in effect, show us what was going on in the minds of the avatars in Welles’ mind—films within an opera that would become a film. I edited into this mix some licensed stock footage of a red silk scarf, the Statue of Liberty at sunset, some protestors, and a poignant skein of footage culled from a 40s newsreel of a boy walking away from the camera on a country road. This boy ultimately became a rather important “ghost character.”


Once I had synchronized the electro-acoustic soundtrack to these films, I composed the acoustic chamber orchestra component that would be performed live by the Fifth House Ensemble at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago in conjunction with the electro-acoustic score, conducted by Roger Zahab. A trusted and admired colleague who generously (and bravely) agreed to my request that we eschew the standard “film to image” gear that is used for screenings of Hollywood films when orchestras show them, Roger (who had access only to a click track) marvelously coordinated live singers, an orchestra, and pre-recorded sounds in a theater entirely by ear. I asked him to do this because I wanted the risk, the excitement, and the flexibility of live execution that I have grown to feel as a conductor myself is the secret ingredient to great opera performance.


Next, I stage directed the show with the immensely gifted and creative cast. Their performances were captured visually over two shows and a dress rehearsal by three stationary cameras and one roving closeup camera—sort of one step up from the usual archival video. The soundtrack audio was recorded in the house. I wanted the soundtrack to sound captured live in order to advance the dialectic of “live” versus “canned” and the combination of the two. Post-production, and live concert mixing can make everything sound so homogenous that nothing sounds “real” anymore.


I left Chicago with about ten hours of audio and video and let it sit for nearly a year before diving back in. First, I ever-so-gently massaged the soundtrack and had it mastered. Then, I cut the performance film to the soundtrack. Next, I intercut the pre-shot films and the live performance footage (which I washed out into black and white to differentiate it from the pre-shot films) before adding a third layer of semi-opaque “ghost” images screened in red and blue that carried forward elements of both. I received important feedback from colleagues at this stage about what was and was not “landing”—H. Paul Moon, John Corigliano, and Todd Vunderink, among others. This last stage of the process slowly brought the film’s messages into clearer relief, and allowed me to discover what the rhythm of the recurring images and music were trying to express.


What inspires you to work as an artist in society and what kind of impact would you like to have on your audience as a filmmaker and composer?

Artists of conscience can speak truth to power and make a difference (for the better) by reminding people of their humanity and interconnectedness, the responsibility we have to one another. I try to do that. I am proud to serve on the faculty of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts of Roosevelt University because the institution’s values match my own. That generous, staunch support helps me to amplify my citizenship and hone my craft while sharing it with students.

What is your next artistic project?

I am directing a staged production of my opera New York Stories for Florida Grand Opera in the spring, and then directing a filmed version of my opera Shining Brow in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westcott House with the Springfield Symphony and Think TV (the Dayton PBS affiliate).

What do you think about the distribution of indie films and what do you recommend to emerging artists?

I don’t know enough about distribution to make any recommendations. At present I am submitting Orson Rehearsed to festivals and learning about distributors. It is an art film for which there is a minuscule market; I never expected it to be commercially viable or “popular.” Still, it is garnering laurels (for which I am grateful and honored), and it might get some legs, however humble. After it has been shown at festivals, who knows?

Why do you make films?

Really, it circles back to process for me. I’m just feeling my way forward as an artist and as a human, learning, going deeper into truths, and working to connect, and to make the bit of difference I can, as I am able. I’m very lucky to have landed in a place where I can discover and reinvent while collaborating with extraordinary artists.