Composer Margaret Garwood's new opera is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic 'Scarlet Letter'

"Scarlet" cast members (from left): Zach Borichevsky, John Packard and Corinne Winters.
"Scarlet" cast members (from left): Zach Borichevsky, John Packard and Corinne Winters.
Posted: November 15, 2010

WHEN MARGARET Garwood began composing operas 50 years ago, atonality dominated in new music, and her style of soaring arias and duets, lush harmony and sheer vocal beauty was considered passe.

Whatever goes around the theory books comes around, though. Garwood, now 83, still composes with that same expressive palette - one composers today strive for but rarely accomplish.

Not that the notes always come easily for Garwood, either.

In January 2002, after four years of work, she had completed just one scene of her fifth opera, based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel "The Scarlet Letter." When the Academy of Vocal Arts performed it in a chamber-size orchestration, this dramatic thunderbolt stunned the audience.

For years, Garwood worked daily on the piece with consummate craft and patience - even as she was besieged by requests to finish the opera. Her constant support was her husband Donald Chittum, a professor of world music, theory and many other subjects at the University of the Arts since 1963.

"I'm afraid of commissions, because composers always have to stop before it's finished," Garwood said in a recent interview. "The trouble with music today is too many premature births, works not given their proper time. Composing is a slow process and can't be rushed."

Fortunately for Garwood and a legion of local supporters, a completed "Scarlet Letter" will finally be presented, once again by the Academy of Vocal Arts in a world premiere this weekend.

For AVA's first presentation in the Merriam Theater, the 55-piece orchestra will be led by gifted conductor and vocal coach Richard Raub. The always-inventive Dorothy Danner will direct. And John Packard, a now-famous academy alumnus, performs the role of Roger Chillingworth Friday and Sunday.

Garwood's previous operas include "The Trojan Women," "The Nightingale and the Rose" and a children's opera, "Joringel and the Songflower." She also created an opera based on another famous Hawthorne tale, the exotic "Rappaccini's Daughter."

"While I was taking a graduate program at the University of the Arts," said Garwood, whom everyone calls Peg, "I got involved in Hawthorne and the short story 'Rappaccini's Daughter.' His work resonates with me, expressing the dramatic force involved in the repression of sensualism, which always leads to perversion.

"I wanted to write 'The Scarlet Letter' then, but I didn't think that I was emotionally equipped to do it yet."

"The Scarlet Letter," subtitled "A Romance," is set in 17th-century Boston. The condemned and ostracized Hester Prynne is forced to wear an A, for adulteress, after bearing a child and refusing to reveal the father.

Her long-lost doctor husband returns from England in secret, taking the name Roger Chillingworth. He treats - and torments - the respected young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, whom he suspects is the father. Finally, Dimmesdale cannot bear his guilt and admits his deed.

Hawthorne's subtext is that Chillingworth's sin of invading Dimmesdale's soul is an even greater evil than that of the cowardly minister's, a subtlety extremely difficult to dramatize.

The guilt themes throughout Hawthorne's work emanated from his ancestors' involvement in the Salem witch trials, as well as the still-puritanical rules of his 1850 New England. Curiously, Garwood can trace her ancestry back to Mayflower days and to Miles Standish. She finds this amusing but without significance.

Garwood's composing method is slow, and she agonizes over each note - traits also signature to her ex-husband, the late composer Romeo Cascarino. He spent nearly 25 years working on his opera "William Penn," which premiered in 1982.

"From Romeo, I learned what it was like to be a composer," said Garwood. "Hearing him play and watching him sweat over each note. I owe a great debt to him."

Garwood has written a wealth of choral music, including "Flowersongs," "Rainsongs" and Tombsongs," all commissioned locally and recorded on the Albany label. She wrote works for voice in commissions from the Network For New Music.

Garwood also taught many students at Muhlenberg College, including prolific local composer Andrea Clearfield, who considers her a mentor and who held an 80th birthday concert for Garwood in her popular Center City salon.

"I'm a great corrupter of my students, pushing them in the direction they should go," said Garwood. "Andrea's goal as a pianist was to accompany a chorus. But after I heard a short flute piece she had written, I said that was ridiculous, and encouraged her to compose."

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Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, $50, 215-893-1999,

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