Reflections on composing QUIXOTE / by Amy Kirsten

For three years I’ve been held a willing hostage, cooped up in the most pleasant composer-prison, by a failed playwright from Spain who died the same year as Shakespeare. Through the cracks in the walls I could see that he looked a lot like his most famous character: old, gnarled fingers and knees, cheeks so gaunt they kiss inside his mouth, tree-bough lance in rusty hand, a fool standing by the road behind the picket fence of his teeth, an errant knight lost in time. 

Did you know he was once enslaved by pirates? And years later was imprisoned for something shady having to do with accounting? (I can’t imagine Cervantes cooking the books, but he must’ve.) I read that he tried to escape from prison several times, but failed every time – perhaps he let his imagination save him from the dark: it was from the confines of a cell that he dreamed up Quixote (although he wouldn’t begin writing it until later).     

Before this fascination started, I thought that I had a sense of Don Quixote. I remember hearing fragments of stories of a mad knight and his proverb-loving companion. Songs have been written about him, poems, music, movies. I've used “quixotic” and “tilting at windmills” to describe that rebel who risks everything for what they believe is Good – even risking looking a fool. Picasso’s black and white scribbled ink drawing of the spindly knight on his decrepit horse with the round Sancho Panza nearby is how many of us visualize the pair. 

I realized a few chapters in that I didn’t know anything. 

He is so much more than his ubiquitous image, more than his overused metaphor, which is somehow impervious to time and place. Quixote willed himself into existence and created for himself a new reality, one in which he hoped to finally, truly live. He brought back, if only for himself and his squire, an old way of life that he fiercely believed was beautiful and noble. But it’s complicated - not only because he (mostly) unknowingly reaped damage on everyone he thought he was helping, but because he pays a high physical price for these pursuits. The beatings and humiliations he suffers are also tangled; I found myself laughing about his most awful torments (because they are described so hilariously) and later feeling such guilt for those belly laughs. Perhaps that is the mirror that Cervantes was aiming to hold up…? No doubt a 17th-century audience would have a different, perhaps less romanticized response. In any case, those binaries left a deep impression on me. So did what Don Quixote is made of…

He’s a character quite literally made of old books and stories – he’s one part Orlando, one part Amadís, a teaspoon of Lancelot, and many other parts of many other medieval knights; when making life-altering decisions, he considered his only viable options to be those that had already been acted out by one of history’s most famous, lance-wielding heroes (fictional or otherwise). Cervantes’ masterpiece seems on one level, to me, to be a book about books, a book about storytelling. It’s also a book about creating; a book (because of its puns, linguistic, and literary ‘tricks’) about the sound of language itself; a book about a blurred reality in which fictional characters actually exist, and about the power of imagination – for better or for worse. 

I wish I could say otherwise, but after spending these years with Cervantes trying to absorb all I could, my learnin’ only barely scratches the surface. How intricate is Quixote’s story – his stories – how mysterious his mind and motivation. It’s humbling and exciting get to the end of a project and want to keep learning about the subject forever – not just Cervantes and Quixote, but poetic voices from Spain’s past. 

The winding path of my little room led me to Iberian poets Ibn Faraj, Samuel the Nagid, Ibn ‘Ammār, Luis de Góngora, Tomás de Noronha, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and many others; Nabokov’s Quixote lectures, Echevarría’s (and so many others’) scholarly writings. For these enchanting doorways I am so grateful because they helped me find my own way to and from Quixote, to create not a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather a snapshot of the mad knight on his deathbed told via the potential magic of music and stage. 

As insignificant as it is in the context of the world and it’s problems, for this fleeting human and for this one tiny moment it feels so wonderful that: today the final double bar was engraved, last minute tweaks to the libretto were made, and computers powered down. My joints need an oilcan (as my skeleton is now in the shape of a desk chair) and our poor houseplants are gasping for water. Eventually my eyes will adjust to the sun, my mind to being momentarily (and happily) aimless, but I imagine it will take some time to say goodbye to this remarkable man and his intrepid knight. For now I rest knowing that QUIXOTE is in the capable hands of the artist-friends of HOWL who inspired it and so generously helped create it – especially my partner in all this, Mark DeChiazza (talk about an intrepid knight!); and in the most happy embrace of the production team at Peak Performances @ Montclair State whose incredible belief and support will, when all is said and done, have given us seven weeks of residency time over 2 seasons to build this thing. (Read more about the PeARL Extended Residency at Peak Performances)
I hope you’ll come see it in March (23-26th). More details soon. But first a glass of champagne and a long winter’s rest.

(written by Amy in December 2016)