A couple of months back we brought you the story of an up-and-coming composer and conductor who's becoming a major classical music star. In August, he led the world premiere of his latest work here in Chicago. It's an opera for young people. But that new work might not have come about had it not been for a chance encounter with a superstar singer who's playing a major role in Chicago's cultural life.
When 25 year old Matthew Aucoin premiered his latest work this summer, he did so as something of a veteran musician. That's because Aucoin composed his first work more than 20 years ago when he was only 4 years old. Two decades later, his musical gifts are being compared to those of Mozart and Leonard Bernstein.
"It is absurd," said Aucoin of the comparison. "It reveals something deeply messed up with classical music in our world, that the first name anybody reaches to – and it has nothing to do with me – if anybody comes up in classic music, people reach for Mozart, Leonard Bernstein, because they're not familiar with what's actually going on today."
What's going on today for Matthew Aucoin is a series of commissions and associations with major musical institutions that are propelling the young phenom to the top of the classical world. His talents as composer, conductor, poet and instrumentalist are being championed by a number of big names. Among them, superstar soprano Renée Fleming, who was introduced to Aucoin at Harvard University when her daughter was performing in a new work by the then college sophomore.
"My daughter was performing in an opera at school and I went up to hear her and then I found out that it was student-composed," Fleming said. "He wrote it, conducted it, orchestrated it and wrote the libretto. And he was a sophomore. And I thought, 'Oh no. This is going to be so painful.' And 15 minutes into it I said, 'Oh my gosh. This is actually really good.' Every part of it is good." (Watch our extended interview with Fleming below.)
Matthew Aucoin's opera for Chicago is called "Second Nature." It's a work geared toward younger audiences, and Aucoin fashioned it for the setting where it premiered in August: Café Brauer at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
The story is described by Aucoin as a "dystopian fairy tale." He says the opera is "set in the future, in which we humans have screwed up the environment so badly that we have decided to live in a kind of zoo-like habitat."
It might not sound like the kind of simple music usually written for kids and the subject matter is not exactly light and airy but the tale of children rediscovering the environment their ancestors damaged has a hopeful message. As for the music, Aucoin says many people assumed he would tone it down.
"A lot of people have asked me, 'So, did you kind of tame your music? Did you make it – sort of – cutesy and kid-friendly?,' and I think kids are some of the most open-minded listeners, because they don't have preconceived ideas of what opera's supposed to be," he said.
Earlier this year Aucoin completed a two-year-long conducting apprenticeship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And he was hired as the youngest associate conductor at the Metropolitan Opera where he is also developing a work. But his reputation was already on the rise while still a Harvard undergrad.
Aucoin's first association with Lyric Opera of Chicago is with the company's Lyric Unlimited Initiative, whose mission is to sing far beyond the opera house.
Aucoin's rare talent was becoming evident as a pre-teen when he composed his first opera at age 11. But then he gave up on classical music to join a rock band, Elephantom. Aucoin then went on to work with jazz musicians, and his many influences make his output as a grown-up difficult to categorize.
“I think kids are some of the most open-minded listeners, because they don't have preconceived ideas of what opera's supposed to be.”
"Second Nature" is Aucoin's second world premiere opera this year. In May a more adult work called "Crossing"–about Walt Whitman's work with wounded Civil War soldiers–was highly praised by the New York Times, which called Aucoin "opera's great 25-year-old hope." But while his star rises, some seasoned professionals are offering him advice to ensure he has an even more stellar future.
"I think there's a real danger that someone of Matt's talent, which is already widely recognized, nationally and internationally, that he will burn out if he's not careful," said Anthony Freud, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "But ultimately, the most important word in the vocabulary of a prodigiously talented artist is, 'No thank you.'"
Among Aucoin's other gifts is an apparent level-headedness that appears to indicate he can handle the great expectations many have for him. For the time being, however, he's focused on a work for young audiences which, much like the composer himself, is optimistic about the future.
Matthew Aucoin's "Second Nature" will be performed this coming Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Francis Parker School in Chicago. A very limited number of free tickets will be available at the door.
"Second Nature" is performed this fall as part of the Opera in the Neighborhoods program. Performances take place Oct. 19 through Nov. 20. For information about attending, please contact the schools directly.