Fertile Ground Portland

A Festival of New Works Blog

MEET THE ARTISTS: Evan Lewis & Claire Willett January 10, 2013

Welcome to the 5th Annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Work!  Over the next few weeks we’ll be profiling various participant artists on the blog in an interview series where you can get a sneak peek at the origins of their projects and get to know them as artists. 

The Witch of the Iron Wood

Music by Evan Lewis
Libretto by Claire Willett


Part of Ripen: A Feast of New Works at Milepost 5
Dates & Times: 1/27/13, 1/28/13, 1/31/13, 2/1/13 (7 pm)
Tickets: $12 door ($2 off with “DIG IT!” festival discount button)
Contact: miss.willett@gmail.com

fertileground_postcard_frontEvan Lewis, originally from Portland, received his Masters of Music in composition from Mannes College, The New School (NYC) in 2008, where he studied privately with David Tcimpidis.  He was a winner of the Jean Schneider Goberman/Alaria Competition, and had his orchestral work, “Alecto,” premiered at the 2008 Contemporary Music Festival by the Mannes Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Michael Adelson.  He graduated with a BA with honors in music composition from Whitman College in 2003, where he studied classical composition with John David Earnest and jazz composition with David Glenn.  He has also studied with Conrad Cummings at Juilliard, Chen Yi at California Summer Music, and Pulitzer Prize winners Paul Moravec and Jennifer Higdon at Mannes College. He completed the Film Scoring Certificate program at UCLA in 2009, where he studied film composition.  In addition to composing, Evan plays piano, euphonium, and tuba.  A proud member of ASCAP, his music has been performed all over the US.  He currently lives in sunny Pasadena, California with his wife and two cats.

Portland native Claire Willett is a new company member of Playwrights West as well as the 2011 Oregon Literary Fellow for Drama.  A founding artist of the Fertile Ground Festival of New Work, Claire has seen four of her plays produced as staged readings in the festival, most recently Dear Galileo, which was written on a summer 2011 artists’ residency at the I-Park Artists Colony in East Haddam, CT and produced in January 2012 by Artists Repertory Theatre.  Dear Galileo was funded by a 2012 Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission and will be produced in March 2013 in the Hothouse New Play Development Series at Pasadena Playhouse, starring Matthew Lillard.  Her most recent project was a world premiere adaptation of W.H. Auden’s 1942 poetic oratorio For the Time Being.  Claire has a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA and is a graduate of the Paul A. Kaplan Theatre Management Program at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. She is the Development Director for Polaris Dance Theatre in Portland.


1. An Artist in My Field I Have a Giant Artist Crush On Is . . .
Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise and music critic for the New Yorker.  What’s not to like?  He’s whip-smart, a great writer, and he makes classical music interesting and understandable to everyone.

Cheryl Strayed.  I’m a devoted fan of her “Dear Sugar” essays on The Rumpus, which are so transcendently knock-you-on-your-ass beautiful – so luminous and witty and true – that they don’t just make me want to be a better writer.  They make me want to be a better person.  

2.  A Work That Has Shaped My Artistic Voice Is . . .
Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw.  It’s a chamber opera, and it’s terrifying.  Often when literary works are turned into operas they are, uh, less than great.  This manages to maintain the tension of the source material, and because it’s Britten the music is perfect and very singable, and it’s tightly structured.  Not a note out of place, plus creepy ghosts  . . . the perfect opera.

Angels In America by Tony Kushner. It’s huge and ambitious and crazy and beautiful and pulsing with life, and as a playwright I feel like it gives me permission to think on a vast, borderline-insane scale.

3. When I’m Not Creating Art You Can Often Find Me . . .
Napping on the couch with my two cats, going for a run, cooking for my pregnant wife, or reading.  My two speeds: running fast or not moving.

Throwing epic cocktail parties, reading British mystery novels, drinking lots of coffee.  Did Evan already take “napping”?

4. Five Songs On My Writing Playlist Are . . . 
“Century Rolls,” John Adams
“In Seven Days,” Thomas Adès
“Stupid Memory,” Sondre Lerche
“Lasso,” Phoenix
“Music for 18 Musicians,” Steve Reich

“Hold On You,” Jeff Bridges (From Crazy Heart)
“Come Healing,” Leonard Cohen
“Sanctuary,” Eliza Gilkyson (although actually the version I listen to on repeat is a recording of my dad singing it at a charity concert)
“Here Comes the Sun,” Nina Simone
“Inutil Paisagem,” Esperanza Spalding

5. A Portland Artist or Company I’d Love To Work With Is . . .
Opera Theater Oregon.  I love their creative attitude towards opera, and that they have a sense of adventure and sense of fun.  Opera can get too serious, and it’s great to have groups that remind you opera is, at its base, all about entertainment.

Candace Bouchard from Oregon Ballet Theatre.  She’s a beautiful, beautiful dancer, a terrific choreographer and one of my favorite people in the world.  I’ve been fantasizing for years about adapting The Trojan Women with movement and dance, and drafting Candace as Helen of Troy.

6. I Am Terrified Of . . .
My computer not backing up correctly, poor intonation, bicycles.

Anything touching my wrists, opening champagne bottles,  bicycles.

7. I Am Obsessed With . . .
Parks & Recreation

Nate Silver

8. The Book Currently On My Nightstand Is . . .
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers & Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a Henry VIII junkie.

9. Three Adjectives That Describe This Work Are . . .
Angular, Dramatic, Stormy

Passionate, Brooding, Lyrical

10. In the Indie Art-House Bio Film Of My Life, I Should Be Played By . . .
Well, Paul Giamatti. I look just like him, only I’m 15 years younger and have a full head of hair.

YOUNG ME: Lena Dunham.  OLD ME: Maggie Smith.


1) Tell us about your Fertile Ground Festival work. 
How far would you go to set in motion the end of the world? How far would you go to stop it? Since time immemorial, Odin and his children have ruled over the kingdom of Asgard, gifted with eternal youth by the Tree of Life. But when the Tree and its guardian fall suspiciously ill, the gods begin to grow weak as well. Desperate, they send the trickster god Loki into the shadowy Land of Giants to seek the only person powerful enough to cure a dying god – the Witch of the Iron Wood. Once Asgard’s enemy, now their only hope of rescue, the Witch captivates Loki, though the other gods doubt her motives. As the Tree’s strength fails and a forbidden romance takes root, Loki is forced to choose between loyalty to the gods and the love of an alluring but enigmatic woman who may be his downfall, or the only person who has ever truly understood him – or both. Greed, ambition, love, vengeance, faith and desire become entangled in this contemporary adaptation of a little-known slice of Norse mythology, scored by Evan Lewis with a libretto by Claire Willett.

2) How did this work come about?  What inspired it?

EL: Well, the basic idea of writing an opera together was suggested by my mom.  Claire and I went to college together, lived together for two years and shared a bathroom with a carpeted floor (it’s as gross as it sounds), and have been close friends ever since; we met in a 5-times-a-week 9 a.m. Latin 101 class freshman year, and it’s all been downhill from there.  In terms of the opera, I love writing vocal music and I’m a big fan of theater — my wife is a classically-trained actress, so we see a lot of theater and both love opera because it’s half my area (music) and half her area (drama).  Claire writes amazing, dark, complicated plays, and I write dark, complicated music so my mom said, “You two should really just write something together.”  And we thought, “Yeah, why not?”  It’s a great working relationship because we’re on the same page artistically, and we’ve known each other long enough that we can say “I hate what you just wrote” without the other person getting upset.  So it’s been good.  We picked the subject matter by talking about works we like, what kind of story we want to tell, and some basic ideas of structure, number of characters, etc.  And then Claire just ran with it.

CW: We actually had the first conversations about this, and began outlining the story, in July of 2011.  And yes, Evan’s mom get’s all the credit for the idea.  Having been best friends for years, and having such a huge affection for each others’ work, it’s totally nuts that we never thought of it until that moment.  We bounced ideas around for months and then last February I flew down to Pasadena for a week so we could work in the same room.  I had the first finished scene of the libretto to Evan by I think mid-spring, and then he dived in.  I know nothing about opera, by the way.  I thought 30-some pages of libretto would give us a nice tight 45 minutes, and Evan was like, “Dude, that’s like three hours.”  So yes, we’re doing some cutting . . . Luckily we’ve been best friends for such a long time that the working relationship could NOT be easier.   It’s the trust factor that makes such a difference from other collaborations I’ve done.  I’ll send him a rough draft of a scene from the libretto and trust him to cut, alter, edit, rephrase, or tweak however he needs to in order to make it work with the music.  And he’s very nonjudgmental about my utter cluelessness; I’ll say stuff like, “Okay, so, the music here should be, like scary – but not like Halloween-scary, like spooky-scary . . . and then, like, they’re in the woods . . . so it kind of sounds like nature – but not like birdsongs or some crap like that . . . you know what I mean?”  And then I’ll get the sound file and I’ll listen to it and it will be perfect because somehow he knew EXACTLY WHAT I MEANT.

3) Talk about your creative process.  (How do you work?  When do you work?  What gets you inspired?)

EL: I am not a morning person.  I’m so jealous of those interviews with creative people who say “I get up every morning at 5, compose for 4 hours, then have breakfast and compose for 4 more.”  NOT ME.  I sleep in, I slowly wake up, I take my sweet time.  I compose best in the afternoon—the window between lunch and dinner is perfect.  I’m in a good mood because I just ate, and I’m in a good mood because I know I’ll eat again soon.  I work at the piano with pencil & staff paper, and do a lot of general sketches.  Opera is easier to dive into than a purely musical work because the structure is already set—you don’t have to decide on the size, scope, or direction of the music because the libretto has already done that for you.  So I dip in and out of scenes and make verbal notes on the libretto pages and musical notes on the staff paper.  Then I put it all into the computer, listen to the playback, and start tinkering.  The initial burst of notes is the easy part, it’s the constant tinkering, shifting, changing, rethinking that takes forever.  Deadlines are good because they force me to put the pencil down, step away, and say “finished.”  For inspiration, I listen to music constantly.  I’ll listen to pretty much anything, and I think all music has value.  Running is great for clearing the cobwebs or helping me work through a problem that I’m stuck on.  It clears my head, gives me a fresh outlook, and helps me restart and approach the music with fresh eyes.

CW: Circumstances (like, you know, work) dictate that my writing time is usually relegated to evenings.  I’ve always been a night owl and I do a lot of my best thinking around midnight.  The process for this work involved a lot of reading.  We both had stacks and stacks of books on Norse mythology, and we kind of sketched out the stories we wanted to use while I was in California, so when it came time to write each scene I would read and reread and make notes and let it percolate until I felt like I had the sense of where we wanted to go.  You have to sort of wait for the moment when Loki stops being a faceless mythological character and clicks into a real flesh-and-blood person in your head, and then you can let him go wherever he wants to go.  We feel like we were really respectful of these characters’ stories without being at all literal; our character Baldur is a fusion of the god Baldur and another goddess named Iduna, and our witch is sort of a mashup of five or six different Norse myths that had interesting witches in them.  So I wasn’t too concerned, as I wrote, about creating a literal adaptation of the existing canon.  We’re telling a totally new version of this story.  I think for both of us, one of the biggest inspirations in this process is that during the last year we both took trips to Iceland.  I went hiking on a glacier when I was there in March (which is a story for another blog post) and I felt like the starkness of that landscape, the blue ice and black rocks and gray skies, rooted me in a sense of place.  The gods of Asgard live in a beautiful lush garden where it’s summer all the time, but every time I want to get into the mind of the Witch of the Iron Wood, I go back to the top of that glacier.


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