I first read Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" when I was about thirteen years old. The book made an impression on me as no other book has yet done. I was haunted by it, by the richness of its characters and story, the poetry of its language, the fragrance and decadence that clung to its pages, and by its vision of art and aestheticism as ends unto themselves. I had by that time decided upon a career as a composer and was determined one day to turn the novel into an opera. I remember once when I was attending school the teacher asked each student to name in turn the most influential book he or she had ever read and briefly to explain why. Most of the answers were predictable and banal: "The Bible", "The Boyscout Handbook", " Johathan Livingston Seagull", etc. It came my turn and I named "The Picture of Dorian Gray". The teacher sniffed, said, "I certainly hope not!" and moved on with alacrity to the next student.
Condemned in its own day as "immoral," it is the most moral of books, and one whose lesson in its mythic simplicity has lost none of its relevance with the passing of time. Unlike Dorian's picture, this is a work of art that has not aged. Wilde's achievement is extraordinary: he is perhaps alone amongst modern writers in creating a story of such universality as to become instantly part of the collective unconscious of our culture. Indeed, it has a mythic resonance to equal the best of the Greek myths. The least literary man on the street knows what Dorian Gray?s picture represents, even if this popular conception of The Picture of Dorian Gray is of a horror story, a view no doubt engendered by the public's familiarity with one of several movie versions rather than with the original novel. Wilde's story functions on many levels simultaneously. Horror story, yes, but also a tragic romance, a Victorian morality tale, an aesthetic treatise, and a philosophical examination of the amorality of art and the question of appearances versus reality, i.e. form versus content.
Working with "The Picture of Dorian Gray" seemed like being handed a wonderful gift of a libretto. The novel is already very musically structured in its overall dramatic form, in the echoes and recapitulations of various themes and characters, in the poetry of its language. My first draft of the libretto consisted of simply extracting all the dialogue verbatim. From there, after consulting with John Cox, cuts were made, from small passages to entire scenes and characters that I hated to lose. Very little new material was added, mostly in the love scene between Dorian and Sibyl, and in Sibyl's final scene, where I transposed some lines from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Sibyl's pet name for Dorian was changed from "Prince Charming" to "Romeo". But for the most part the libretto is faithful to the original, not out of blind faith, but out of realization of the dramatic strength and correctness of the original. Musically speaking, I have aimed for a simplicity of style, an almost classical restraint in keeping with Wilde's own apollonian ideals which, while avoiding the mindlessness of minimalism and the stylistic confusion of much "post-modern" opera, would restore the vocal line to its pre-eminet place. I have avoided recitative wherever possible (the poetry of Wilde's language made this a simple task) and banished the spoken word, my goal being a through-composed work whose two acts would each be a fully sung, unbroken symphonic span. The entire opera is based on a twelve-note row which is used not serially, but tonally, It is first heard at the beginning of the opera in pizzicato cellos and basses. It is harmonized as Dorian's theme and then as the painting's theme. As the painting disintegrates and becomes corrupted, so does its theme. The twelve consecutive scenes of the opera occur in the keys of the consecutive pitches of the note-row. In this manner the entire opera becomes one grand passacaglia, a variation of Dorian's theme, a picture of the picture the tonal structure generated by a non-tonal device a further metaphor for the form/content divide that generates the novel's dramatic structure.