Roger Ames: The Music Man

Mr. Ames moves between projects like a master chef with an assortment of pans bubbling on the stove
Roger Ames makes music at a piano, electronic keyboard, and laptop at his house in Springs. Morgan McGivern

    The Springs residence of Roger Ames and Elizabeth Bassine is an active place. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Ames’s daughter, Beth, and her boyfriend were working in the living room. Ms. Bassine returned from a walk with her son, Adam, and two large and exuberant dogs who proceeded to thump in and out through the pet door. In one corner of the living room, beneath several of Ms. Bassine’s large paintings, are a piano, a keyboard, and a laptop. Mr. Ames is a composer, and it’s a wonder there’s room for his muse there.

    Mr. Ames moves between projects like a master chef with an assortment of pans bubbling on the stove. On one front burner is an opera adapted from “How Green Was My Valley,” the 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn set in a Welsh coal-mining community, which John Ford made into an Academy Award-winning film two years later. The opera, for which Mr. Ames has composed the music and Ms. Bassine the libretto, will premiere as a staged concert in Colorado in August.

    Mr. Ames and Ms. Bassine, who have been married since December 2005, are simultaneously collaborating on “No Parking,” for which Ms. Bassine wrote the book and lyrics. It is the story of a woman who, at age 70, is forced to enter a nursing home, where, under the watchful eyes of the matron, she searches for her rabbit and the rabbit hole. “A story of life and its wonders and death and its transcendence,” according to Ms. Bassine, the production is designed for an acting-singing ensemble of seven, with keyboards, clarinet-sax double, and cello.

    “How Green Was My Valley” first took shape in 2006 as a theater piece. “I was attracted to ‘Valley’ because the novel is so rich in both drama and lyricism,” said Mr. Ames. “The Welsh language emerges in a way that would appeal to any composer. Moreover, Elizabeth and I are inclined to put a lens on sociopolitical issues. During the time we’ve been writing this piece, hundreds of men have died in mining accidents, and untold damage to the environment has taken place.”

    An early version was presented in 2007 in workshops at the Nautilus Music Theater in St. Paul, Minn., and at the Actors Studio in New York. Lincoln Center was interested in the musical — until it was discovered that a previous version of the story, called “A Time for Singing,” had been produced in 1966. (It closed after only 41 performances.)

    “Elizabeth did a huge amount of work rewriting the libretto,” said Mr. Ames. “She made it lean and mean, so there’s more singing in the opera version than in the musical. After Elizabeth’s work I did a full orchestration, which took six or seven months.”

    His next step is to reduce the music to a vocal score, so the singers can learn it. “One difference between an opera and a Broadway musical,” he said, “is that if a piece is billed as an opera, the singers are expected to arrive at the first rehearsal with it memorized, while if it’s a musical, Equity actors can show up without any knowledge of the material. The amount of study that takes place before an opera singer enters a rehearsal is enormous.”

    The staged concert in Colorado, a joint project of the Central City Opera House, the Colorado Springs Conservatory, and the Chamber Orchestra of Colorado Springs, will include an orchestra, a full choral ensemble, roles for actor-singers, and some lighting and costume suggestions. “The staged concert is a way to attract investors so it can be taken to a full production,” Mr. Ames explained.

    “How Green Was My Valley” is not Mr. Ames’s first flirtation with Broadway. A musical version of “Martin Guerre,” for which Laura Harrington wrote the book and Mr. Ames the music, premiered at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut in 1992 and enjoyed a sold-out, extended run. “It was the closest I had come to a real commercial success,” Mr. Ames recalled. “The producers were sure it would go to New York — until Cameron Mackintosh announced the ‘Les Miz’ team was working on the same story. At that point, the backers disappeared.”

    The Mackintosh production eventually opened in London, where it reportedly lost all of its $7.5 million investment.

    Mr. Ames grew up in Worcester, N.Y., a town of 2,200 in Otsego County where his father was a self-taught church organist and his mother a first-grade teacher. “My dad was musical, and he was determined to give my older brother and me piano lessons. We had the amazing luck to have Florence Russell, who had been piano coach for the Metropolitan Opera, retire tovWorcester. She started teaching my brother. I was maybe 4 or 5, and I would watch my brother practice his lesson, then I’d get up on the bench and play his lesson myself, by ear. I don’t know if it made me a prodigy, but it sure annoyed my brother.”

    The younger brother started lessons with Ms. Russell at age 6 and continued with her through high school. When he was a sophomore, his parents surprised him with a used grand piano and gave him permission to play it any time, day or night. At the same time, his high school music teacher encouraged him to write music.

    Valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled in 1963 at the State University of New York’s Crane School of Music in Potsdam, where a surprising number of important musical artists, among them John Cage, came up every year and lectured. “My life dream was pretty limited. I wanted to be a high school vocal teacher.”

    Mr. Ames’s first job after graduation fulfilled his goal: He was hired by Whitesboro High School in Whitesboro, N.Y. From there, he moved to Somers High School in Westchester County, where he involved more than half the school, 400 students, in the school choir. While there he began writing large works for chorus and orchestra.

    His next move was to Washington, D.C., for a position as music director of a professional theater ensemble. “At that point, the world got really big, really quickly.” He soon founded the Montgomery County Masterworks Chorus, and was minister of music and composer-in-residence at the Westmoreland Congregational Church, where he wrote several large works for choir, congregation, and orchestra.

    Since then Mr. Ames has created oratorios and choral music as well as operas and musical theater pieces. His work has been performed throughout the United States and abroad, and his oratorio “A Requiem for Our Time,” which uses the poetry of Anne Sexton and texts from the Latin Mass, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in music. He served as chairman of Music Theater at the Hartt School of Music, Dance, and Theater from 1987 to 1992, when he became composer-in-residence and director of vocal music at Great Neck North High School. Though recently retired, he still consults and teaches part time.

    Mr. Ames first visited the South Fork in 1993, when he rented a former ice-house on Mulford Lane at Lazy Point on Napeague. Two years later he purchased a house in Springs, where he has since lived full time, despite many years of arduous commuting to Great Neck.