Dominick Argento, considered to be America’s preeminent composer of lyric opera, was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1927. At the Peabody Conservatory, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, his teachers included Nicholas Nabokov, Henry Cowell, and Hugo Weisgall. Argento received his Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Alan Hovhaness and Howard Hanson. Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships allowed him to study in Italy with Luigi Dallapiccola and to complete his first opera, Colonel Jonathan the Saint. Following his Fulbright, Argento became music director of Hilltop Opera in Baltimore, and taught theory and composition at the Eastman School. In 1958, he joined the faculty of the Department of Music at the University of Minnesota, where he taught until 1997. He now holds the rank of Professor Emeritus.
Although Argento’s instrumental works have received consistent praise, the great majority of his music is vocal, whether in operatic, choral, or solo context. This emphasis on the human voice is a facet of the powerful dramatic impulse that drives nearly all of his music, both instrumental and vocal. Music critic Heidi Waleson has described Argento’s work as “richly melodic… [his] pieces are built with wit and passion, and always with the dramatic shape and color that make them theater. They speak to the heart.”
During his years at Eastman, Argento composed his opera, The Boor (1957), which has remained in the repertoire; John Rockwell of The New York Times, writing of a 1985 production, stated that “[it] taps deep currents of sentiment and passion.” Following his arrival in Minnesota, the composer accepted a number of commissions from significant organizations in his adopted state. Among these were the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who commissioned his suite Royal Invitation (1964); and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis, who commissioned Variations for Orchestra [The Mask of Night] (1965). Argento’s close association with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Douglas Campbell, directors of the Minnesota Theatre Company, led to his composing incidental music for several Guthrie productions, as well as a ballad opera, The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1967).
The 1970’s and 1980’s saw the composer working increasingly in the song cycle form, while still writing operas and orchestral music. Among his major song cycles are: Letters from Composers (1968); To Be Sung Upon the Water (1973); From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1975); the choral I Hate and I Love (1982); The Andree Expedition (1983); and Casa Guidi (1983). His most recent song cycles, both premiered in 1996, are A Few Words About Chekhov (mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano), given its premiere by Frederica von Stade, Håkan Hagegård, and accompanist Martin Katz at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul; Walden Pond (mixed chorus, harp, and three cellos), commissioned and premiered by the Dale Warland Singers; and Miss Manners on Music, to texts by the noted advice columnist.
Since the early 1970’s the composer’s operas, which have always found success in the U.S., have been heard with increasing frequency abroad. Nearly all of them, beginning with Postcard from Morocco (1971), have had at least one European production. Among these are The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night (1981), and Casanova’s Homecoming (1984); Robert Jacobson of Opera News described the latter work as “a masterpiece.” The Aspern Papers was given its premiere by Dallas Opera in November 1988 to great acclaim, was telecast on the PBS series Great Performances, and was again presented, to critical praise, by the Washington Opera in 1990. It since has been heard in Germany and in Sweden; June 1998 brought a performance at the Barbican Centre in London.
Dominick Argento has examined fame and the immigrant experience in his newest opera, The Dream of Valentino, set in the early days of Hollywood. Washington Opera gave the work its premiere under the baton of Christopher Keene in January 1994, followed by its co-commissioning company, Dallas Opera, in 1995. The production featured special multi-media sets by John Conklin and costumes by the couturier Valentino. Writing of the premiere, Peter G. Davis of New York magazine stated, “What a pleasure to encounter a real opera composer, one who has studied and learned from his predecessors, loves the form, understands its conventions, has mastered them, and then lets his imagination take wing.” The Dream of Valentino received its European premiere in February 1999 in Kassel, Germany.
Among other honors and awards, Dominick Argento received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975 for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979, and in 1997 was honored with the title of Composer Laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra, a lifetime appointment. In honor of his 85th birthday, the University of Maryland presented a special career retrospective that included Miss Havisham’s Fire, Postcard from Morocco, and Miss Manners on Music, as well as other recitals and lectures.