‘It feels like something different’: turning The Hours into an opera

The acclaimed book and Oscar-winning movie, about three women grappling with despair, is making an unusual leap to the stage in New York

On Tuesday night the superstar soprano Renée Fleming will return after five years to the Metropolitan Opera for the world premiere of The Hours. As a packed auditorium of her adoring fans waits with bated breath, she will deploy her sumptuous voice with the portentous opening word: “platters”.


That’s right. Platters. Her character in the opera adaptation of the 1998 novel and 2002 movie The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan, is preparing a party for her best friend Richard who is dying of Aids, and she needs, well, platters.

It’s a juxtaposition of star power and mundanity that tickles the composer of the new opera, Kevin Puts. “That’s kind of funny, that ‘platters’ gets to be Renée’s first big return to the Met,” he told the Guardian.

Not that he’s taking the opening night of The Hours remotely lightly. To find himself at the Met with Fleming, having been brought up in Alma, a town of 9,000 people in deepest rural Michigan – that’s no platters.

“For an American composer, to do something at the Met is just beyond your wildest dream,” he said, looking genuinely a little awestruck.

Fleming is not just starring in The Hours, she was seminal in its creation. She had been working with Puts on smaller pieces, and they had developed an affinity for each other’s work to the point that it seemed a natural step for him to ask her whether she would join him were he to write a new opera.

The singer was enthusiastic, and suggested The Hours. “It seemed immediately interesting to me,” Puts said. “I knew the film and the book, and my first impression was that the atmosphere of the piece, the mystery of it, the connection of three women across three time periods, it spoke to a kind of musical vocabulary that would be exciting for me.”

Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming. Photograph: Evan Zimmerman/Met Opera

The Hours as a story appears to lend itself to multiple art forms. It began life as Michael Cunningham’s riff on one of Virginia Woolf’s most revered novels, Mrs Dalloway. In his novel, Cunningham traces a single day in the life of three women touched by Woolf’s great work – Woolf herself in 1923 as she writes Mrs Dalloway in suburban purgatory in Richmond, England; Laura Brown who is reading the book in 1949, yearning to be transported by its literary magic away from her life as a housebound Los Angeles wife and mother; and Clarissa Vaughan, a New Yorker in 1999 haunted by her past.

Puts, 50, said he instantly saw the potential for opera to take the story to places that literature and film would struggle to go – especially in the interplay between the characters across time and place. “I knew with opera that once you establish the three stories, you can begin to overlap them with duets, trios – music and harmony allow for that in ways that other art forms do not.”

Given how Puts and Fleming conceived the opera together, it is no surprise that the composer wrote the music very much with her voice in mind. Early on in the process, she said to him, “I really just want to sing beautifully,” and he replied, “Yes, I can do that,” by which he meant that having worked with her in the past he knew that his composition style was suited to her voice, and equally that her singing suited his music.

Admirers of the movie The Hours were spellbound by its triad of exceptional performances – Meryl Streep as Vaughan, Julianne Moore as Brown and Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman as Woolf. The Met production meets the same extraordinarily high bar by bringing together three superlative female singers: Fleming in the Streep role, the Broadway musical diva Kelli O’Hara in the Moore role; and another Met favourite, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in place of Kidman.

Puts said writing for three such titans imposed “immense pressure” on him which he dealt with by drawing on his musical muscle developed over 25 years of composing. He has been creating operas for more than a decade – his first, Silent Night, about the Christmas Eve truce in the first world war, won a Pulitzer in 2011; The Hours is his fourth.

The more he learned about the nuances of each singer’s voice, the more he honed the score personally for her. In the opera, the three women are each granted their own sound world.

I asked Puts to describe those sonic bubbles, and though he protested that he found it difficult to express his work in words without referring to other composers which he tries not to do, he made a decent stab at it.

“Clarissa’s sound world has an American quality, I guess you can take it back to Leonard Bernstein, maybe even Aaron Copland, with luminous and rich textures swelling up behind her. For Laura Brown, who is living outside Los Angeles right after world war II, I wanted to capture the music of that time and the sense that she is living in blissful domesticity, Pleasantville, but it’s not her world, it’s not her music. And for Woolf, her music is much more intimate and spare, with harmony that closes in on itself and takes turns you don’t expect, much like her writing with its streams of consciousness.”

The Hours is an evocative but dark story. The three women are all grappling with lives in which they feel trapped, or about which they are in denial, and the other main character, Richard, is close to death and in despair.

Puts said that once he submerged himself into the libretto by Greg Pierce, he found himself feeling intense empathy for the characters. “The piece is about, for me, a huge, very powerful theme: being forced to live in a way that’s inauthentic.”

It made him think of growing up in small-town Michigan, and how that echoed with today’s expressions of intolerance with the recent evisceration of the constitutional right to an abortion and fears about a possible similar attack on LGBTQ+ rights.

“Friends at high school were gay, and they couldn’t be gay, and they were traumatized by it. I’ve witnessed the effects of that over time,” he said.

The composer’s dive into these thoughts while composing The Hours went so deep that he said it affected him personally in ways he hadn’t experienced before. “A lot of composing for the piece was exhausting. I felt exhausted. I tried to figure out why that was, because in general I like composing. I think it was just the heaviness of those things and the connections I was making.”

The emotional toll, by all accounts, appears to have been worth it. The Hours was first performed as a concert piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra in March, and the local Inquirer described the work as “immediately lovable, with a lush orchestration that hits you in the solar plexus”.

That chimes with something memorable Fleming said to the New York Times about why she was drawn to Puts’s style of music. “Kevin is not afraid to write something that’s moving and beautiful for the general public,” she said, observing that composers in her lifetime have struggled with that.

Does he agree with Fleming’s assessment? Is he more willing to write for a broad audience than many classical composers?

“I have always felt a composer’s prerogative goes beyond a sort of duty to uphold the aesthetic ‘movements’ and trends of their time, though those ought to be considered,” he said. “I have a sense that composers feel a duty stylistically to other composers, a need to be regarded with respect within contemporary music culture. Given the nature of what I write, I know this is perhaps impossible for me.”

Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Evan Zimmerman/AP

So does he write for the audience?

“I know what moves me. I have no idea what the audience’s tastes are, I can only imagine myself as the audience and make my decisions based on that.”

All these swirling reflections on musical style, craft, beauty, sound worlds and authenticity in life, come to a climactic head at the end of The Hours. Puts unleashes opera’s freedom to cross boundaries by bringing all three women together on stage to sing in unison.

As musical theatre, it’s a showstopper. “Oh my God!” Puts exclaimed. “The three mega-stars on the same stage, singing together? I was very much aware of the need for that.”

But it’s not just a historical Met moment. It’s also the artistic denouement of the piece, the chance for Puts to bring the interplay of his sound worlds to its conclusion.

“It’s the end of the day, the end of the opera, the three stories come together, it feels like something different. We try to create some sense of hope, a sense of being carried, like you carry, I’m carried by, you know …”

And with that Kevin Puts drifts away, leaving us to wonder where, finally, his musical imagination will take us.

  • The Hours is showing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 15 December


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

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