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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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Argento: Composer for the Gentle Reader

Gentle Reader: What's the best way to honor Judith Martin, the empress of etiquette, on the 20th anniversary of her "Miss Manners" column and her own 60th birthday?

If you're her husband, Robert Martin, you commission a song cycle based on--what else?--her syndicated advice, and commission her favorite composer to write it. And that would be Dominick Argento '58E (PhD).

One of America's leading composers, Argento has written more than a dozen operas, numerous orchestral works, and several song cycles--one of which, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. And he had met the Martins, both opera lovers, at the premiere of one of his own operas about 10 years ago.

But Argento was hesitant when first contacted to set Miss Manners to music. "I had seen her columns here and there, but I had not been all that aware of them," he recalls. But Robert Martin was persistent and sent Argento his wife's books. Argento read through everything to find what he wanted.

"A number of the columns dealt with how to behave at operas and other musical events, written in a very amusing and typical Miss Manners style," Argento recalls. He selected seven--on topics like manners at a concert, manners at the ballet, manners at a church recital--and turned them into songs.

Miss Manners on Music premiered at the Cosmos Club, a private social club in Washington, D.C., in September 1998. And even though the work hasn't been published yet, it's in demand by singers who have heard it in recitals by the original performer, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, or on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on public radio.

The piece was introduced, appropriately enough, at a tea attended by some 150 guests.

"Phyllis is quite a fine actress," Argento says, "and her performance included all of Miss Manners' mannerisms, like adding honey to her tea and stirring it, and she wore her hair up in a bun and glasses on a neck-chain, just like Miss Manners."

And what was Miss Manners' gracious response to the piece in her honor? Argento laughs at the wording of the question. "She was very taken, and also grateful to her husband for arranging everything," he says. Then, afterward, "she had a dinner party at her home. She was very interested in writing a libretto about children at the opera, so we discussed it."

Setting an advice column to music is not all that eccentric a notion, Argento says. "Leonard Bernstein wrote a short song cycle for some French recipes," he recalls. "I've always thought it was a nifty idea."

Most of Miss Manners on Music was written in 1998 in Florence, Italy, where Argento and his wife, soprano Carolyn Bailey, have spent their summers for four decades. After retiring from the University of Minnesota, where he had taught since 1958, Argento was hoping to move his annual retreat from the unbearably hot summer season to the more moderate fall.

Last fall, though, he was asked to participate in the recording of his works by the Minnesota Orchestra, which has honored him with the title of Composer Laureate. But an aneurysm sent him into emergency surgery in September, and he could neither travel to Florence nor go into the recording studio.

The orchestra went ahead without him, and its CD was issued in February by Reference Recordings. Valentino Dances: Music of Dominick Argento features five of the composer's works, and the orchestra has plans to come out with another CD of his compositions.

Now he's awaiting the fall premiere of The Vision, a work for chorus and string quartet. Based on fragments from Dante's Divine Comedy, the piece was commissioned for the opening of a new basilica, the Church of the Transfiguration, in Orleans, Massachusetts.

Argento admits that he checks out her column regularly now, and they keep in touch.

And--who knows?--maybe one of these days we'll be able to enjoy a new song cycle, something along the lines of Miss Manners' Guide for Correct Kids' Conduct at the Opera.

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