Daniel Dutton's "The Stone Man"

A Dream Come True

By Jean Metcalfe

Daniel Dutton believed in "The Stone Man" so much that he decided he would, if necessary, sell everything he owned in order to get his opera to the people. Furthermore, if all else failed, he would simply sit on a stool and tell his story to the audience.

It wasn't necessary for Dutton to resort to either alternate plan, as he was able to bring together enough people who believed in him to accomplish his objective. "The Stone Man" premiered in the Bomhard Theater of the Kentucky Center for the Arts on January 6. The opening night performance was a sell-out.

Sitting in the lovely library of the Brennan House where the Kentucky Opera has its offices, Dutton spoke with quiet enthusiasm about the opera he had literally dreamed up in 1987 during one of his life's bleakest periods. Sleep has, on numerous occasions, eluded the young Kentucky painter and sculptor since the night of the dream that inspired "The Stone Man," and prior to the opera's opening-night performance.

"Everyone's artist" is what Daniel Dutton would most like to be. "I don't want to limit myself to a group of people who are intellectuals or esthetes. I would prefer to make the effort to speak to everyone in sight. My job in the world is to be an artist and to speak and tell my stories... . The works of art that will be relevant in this century will be the ones that have the nature of courtesy ... that speak to all people."

When he set out to make "The Stone Man," Dutton did not have in mind to make an opera such as Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande" one of his favorite operas. "I was thinking of a music that I thought was very pleasant, one that would be enticing. I was a little playful. I said 'What if? What if I do things this way? Is it really such a capital sin for someone who knows nothing at all about orchestration to get a book on orchestration and read it as carefully and closely as they can, try to assimilate the information in there and then apply themselves to the task at hand, doing their best? Isn't that interesting, in a different way, than the person who is very carefully trained and who understands through long experience how to use the piece'?

"Now I've gotten some of the experience, in the hardest way possible, just the hardest way and I've learned my lessons, I hope well.

Daniel Dutton. Photo by Jean Metcalfe

"If I set out to compose another piece in the classical idiom for an orchestra I will understand many things that I didn't before. And I think that's a step that society can make to the artist. They can say, 'We're willing to listen to your experiment and we're even willing to let you stumble and fumble a little bit, as long as your heart is in the right place as long as your heart is in the right place.' And then the artist has his job more correctly defined. That's to be a dreamer, an idealist, to have their heart in the right place and to tell the story as honestly as they could.

"I had hoped that in my interview with Mr. Mootz (veteran Courier-Journal Staff Writer and Critic William Mootz), by spelling that out as clearly as I could, try to make clear to him exactly where I was and where I came from, what was important to me, that he would see it in that light, but he chose to judge it in a different light." (Dutton had not brought up the subject of the Mootz review I had asked him about it.)

Although I feel that much of Mootz's criticism was on target, I was disappointed that he chose to be sarcastic in his sewing up of it. His parsimonious compliments were tarnished by his choice of words: "Occasionally there is evidence that Dutton has a modest gift for pleasant melody, but he lacks the technical skills to give his ideas musical coherence." (Italics mine.)

Mootz was even grudging in his estimation of the attendance at the sold-out opening night: "It was attended by what appeared to be a capacity audience who greeted it politely." (Italics mine.) It brought to mind the fellow who, upon having a flock of white sheep pointed out to him, would only agree that they were white "on this side."

More Mootz: "If 'The Stone Man' has any future destinations on its horizon, it is more likely to be Nashville's Grand Ole Opry than Italy's La Scala." For shame, Mr. Mootz. The talented Mr. Dutton did not aim at either venue. Better leave the humor to Erma Bombeck; she's infinitely better at it.

During our visit, Dutton spoke of his happy childhood on a farm in Somerset, Ky. where he was born and still lives. His arrival, some eight years after that of his parents' then-youngest child, was greeted with something less than enthusiasm by the older siblings, at least one of whom was already in high school. After they got over the initial "horror" of his birth they decided he was "the perfect toy, the perfect p1aything," so a great deal of love and attention was given to him when he was very small.

Bom on February 23, 1959, Dutton can remember singing Christmas carols at Christmas time that same year songs that his sister had taught him.

"I learned to talk at a rather early age and I haven't stopped since then," he said laughingly. "I had a great love for music and for the visual arts from a very early age," he added.

Dutton's family was very supportive of what he did. They didn't mollycoddle him when he was a teen-ager, he said, but rather challenged his choices in life. "They knew that dreaming grand dreams is all well and good, as long as you have the moral fiber and the strength to understand that just because you love doing something or even just because you have talent of one sort or another doesn't necessarily mean that that will ensure your survival in the world. You have to have survival skills, which means work, you have to develop a work ethic, so I was very much challenged... They wanted me to see that if I was going to commit myself to life as an artist I had to understand that things might be difficult... that I must be prepared to make sacrifices. I have the most marvelous parents in the world I'm certain of it."

He talked about his pleasant association with mountain music matriarch Jean Ritchie and about many other interesting subjects. He expressed the gratitude he feels toward all the people who were instrumental in turning his dream into a reality.

I enjoyed talking with him so much that I fear I took up too much of his time. I was reminded of that fact when Dutton mentioned in his pre-performance talk later that evening that the day had been a busy one. I was aware that he had attended a luncheon meeting of the Governor's Task Force on the Arts with Kentucky Gov. Wallace Wilkinson just prior to our meeting. Dutton is perhaps the youngest person to have been appointed to serve on that committee.

I suggested to Dutton that he gives the impression of being a very serious person and I wondered if his friends ever say to him, "Lighten up"? He smiled and said, "No, I'm known more as a madcap than as anything else. My sense of humor that's my guiding light to get me through." He did say, though, that in speaking about his opera he is probably a little more serious than he should be. He said that his sense of humor would show through in the opera in "a really nutty scene" that "comes as quite a surprise" contrasted with the dark nature of the rest of the opera. (He was right.)

I attended "The Stone Man" on the evening of January ll, just a few hours after my interview with Dutton. The opera was unusual, to say the least, but it did hold my attention. Early on I tried very hard to understand all that I was seeing and hearing; later I decided to just relax and let the opera entertain me. I found it to be a rather soothing experience.

"The Stone Man" is difficult to describe. Had I not spoken with Dutton earlier in the day, or had I not read the Mootz review of the opening-night performance, I would have been completely surprised.

My initial interest in attending the opera came about because of a statement in a Kentucky Opera press release:.. this music-theater piece will span the gap between the interests of the country music lover and the more traditional opera lover." My knowledge of opera is limited to several of the more popular ones and the press release had formed for me a mental picture of an opera somewhat akin to the musical "Oklahoma."

Daniel Dutton is a likeable, talented artist. He is and I am confident he will continue to be, a dreamer and an idealist an artist who has his heart in the right place.

BREAK

Several days after attending the performance of "The Stone Man," Bob Bahr phoned and said that he'd seen "The Stone Man" and would like to submit a review of it for Louisville Music News. I was delighted. I had been experiencing misgivings about my ability to adequately write about Dutton's opera.

Bahr is a graduate of Bellarmine College, where he graduated with a B.A. in English / Mass Communications. He also has a minor in music from Bellarmine. His review follows:

Fred Love as 'The Dreamer' in Daniel Dutton's 'The Stone Man.'

"The Stone Man"

By Bob Bahr

For a member of the audience, Daniel Dutton's "The Stone Man" was hard work. His symbolism demanded your interpretation the activity in the opera (if indeed it was an opera more on that later) was abstract and subtle. Graceful hand movements, physical positions and facial expressions told the story as much as the libretto. If you didn't try to interpret and make sense of what was going on, you wouldn't enjoy the performance. This was not "Aida." This was not easy entertainment.

"The Stone Man" was, however, a compelling piece of work. I chose not to read the synopses printed in the Kentucky Opera Association program and I took Mr. Dutton's advice in freely participating in the performance. My contribution: an interpretation of the work that proved quite different from the story line supplied in the synopses. Is this what Mr. Dutton had in mind when he invited participation in his pre-performance address to the audience? If it was, then the work was a success. The five actors/singers/dancers in the piece created a cast of characters that expressed pungent emotions. Emotions gave form to Dutton's symbolism. It was left to the viewer to decide how to put the patchwork of symbols together. I did my best. '

The Dreamer and the forces of Air, Earth, Water and Fire were the main characters for the bulk of the opera. The opera opens with the Dreamer sleeping on a double platform that looks suspiciously like a sculpture stand (a hint to the composer's visual arts background). The four forces come and awaken him and each force teaches the naive dreamer something about life. From Earth: awareness, kindness. From Water: melody and wisdom. From Air: love. And from Fire: violence and painful disillusionment, shown by a flicker of fire.

The Dreamer climbs a mountain, where gauzy draped figures sing to him. He joins in their sad song. When he tries to touch them, they run away. The scene is reminiscent of the more surrealistic David Bowie videos. An old hag offers guidance and advice; he follows her and then hugs her. The old hag reveals herself as Fire and the Dreamer recoils.

We inexplicably go to a nightclub, where a solitary lonely hearts singer sings a sad, sappy song.

The pace picks up. A comic divertissement breaks the solemn feel of the work. The Dreamer finds himself on a train with revelers and he watches their foolish actions in astonishment. The journey of the Dreamer continues and he learns. He goes to the ocean; he finds a shell. He encounters the street-wise Fire and learns a bit of his craft. He falls in love with Air again and his heart is broken again. The dreamer assumes the positions of all the forces and incorporates their knowledge and qualities into himself.

The opera ends with the Dreamer observing another dreamer. The new dreamer is awakened by the forces as the Dreamer was. This time, the Dreamer plays the spoiler and scares the new dreamer with Fire. He seems sad and ashamed at this role reversal and ponders a falling leaf.

The libretto was composed of poems and dialogue; there were no arias in the traditional sense. The words themselves painted the emotions well, although they sometimes slipped into the nauseous world of cliche (."..her eyes were pools of jade..."). The music was a patchwork of styles ranging from jazz to folk, opera to pop. Pleasant, but unremarkable. It was maddening to hear the subject of love almost always married to the most predictable and saccharine of the music used, although this may have been intentional.

The opera was actually a multi-media production, with films and slides projected. on a screen mounted above the stage. From my seat on the far right, the projected images were often blurred beyond recognition.

Still, they added feeling, even if only by the virtue of their color.

How did the opera succeed with all this confusion and these troubling faults? The images and emotions were lucid gems, inviting thought, feeling and wonder in the viewer. "The Stone Man" was a dream captured in art and how compelling the mind and thought patterns of a dreamer are! The symbols were muddy and confusing, but how much better it is to struggle with opaque symbolism than to get bludgeoned by painfully obvious symbolism! The unquestionably talented Dutton will, it is hoped, develop his skills further and his next effort will retain his lucid imagery while gaining coherence.