Stewart Wallace was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Texas.
The radical mix of jazz, blues, gospel, Tejano, rock and classical music
there profoundly influenced him.
He played in a rock and roll band and sang as a cantor in the synagogue.
For his thesis at the University of Texas at Austin, he wrote his first
opera, though he was studying literature and philosophy, not music; and at 28
years old, he had his first major premiere Where's Dick? at Houston Grand
This was the beginning of his fruitful and ongoing collaboration with
librettist Michael Korie. Like many subsequent Wallace works, Where's Dick?
wrestles with the myth of America and its politics, in this case seen through
a series of comic book grotesques doing vaudeville turns.
Now forty-four years old, the versatile composer has written music in every genre with performances throughout the world.
Harvey Milk, Wallace's fifth full-length opera and most widely known score,
was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and San
With a libretto by Michael Korie and directed by Christopher
Alden, the January 1995 world premiere in Houston played to sold-out houses
and was discussed and debated in every major American and European newspaper,
Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and CNN.
In fact, the term "CNN Opera" was coined for Harvey Milk by critic Peter G.
Davis. Though at first it was meant disparagingly, Davis praised the opera's
premiere and, for better or worse, the name stuck. The Washington Post said,
"Harvey Milk is an astounding achievement - lively, artful, tough-minded
American music-drama, deeply satisfying to ear, eye and mind."
The original Christopher Alden production was then seen in New York and San
Francisco. In 1996, a new production of the opera in German premiered in
Reviewing the Teldec CD with Donald Runnicles conducting the San Francisco
Opera, France's Diapason called Harvey Milk "truly staggering."
Returning to San Francisco by way of China, his next opera is based on Amy Tan's bestselling novel The Bonesetter's Daughter with Tan collaborating on the libretto with Michael Korie. The opera takes place in China right before the Communist revolution and is framed by the forgotten memories of an elderly Chinese mother in present-day San Francisco.
Chen Shi-Zheng, whose 19 hour production of Peony Pavilion was internationally acclaimed, will direct. In September 2005, Jessye Norman will make her Chinese debut premiering the first aria from the opera in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The Bonesetter's Daughter will premiere in 2008 in both the United States and China.
His most recent work, Skvera for Electric Guitar and Orchestra, was composed for "Guitar God" Marc Ribot and commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra. Inspired by a trip to Skvera, the Ukrainian shtetl his grandparents fled before the Russian Revolution, the four movement work premiered at the Kennedy Center June 2004 with Leonard Slatkin conducting.
Writing in the Washington Post, Ken Smith said, "Wallace is a born storyteller," and conductor Slatkin continued, "I already have no hesitation recommending this piece to other orchestras." In August 2005, Marin Alsop will conduct the Premiere of the Revised Version at the Cabrillo Festival in California with Marc Ribot returning as soloist.
Wallace has composed a trilogy of works for percussion soloist Evelyn
Glennie. The first, Gorilla in a Cage, a concerto for percussion and
orchestra, was commissioned by the Bochum Symphony, Germany. Steven Sloane
conducted the February 1997 premiere. The piece is dedicated to the
composer's aunt who died of ovarian cancer at the time of the work's
The title comes from a psychic's remarks about the same aunt two years before
her death. She said, "All I see is the image of a gorilla in a cage. She's
fighting like mad. She's relentless as hell. She's not going to make it."
The 25 minute work opens with the soloist singing a capella.
In April 1999,
Glennie played the United States premiere at the Kennedy Center with the
National Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting. Slatkin and Glennie performed
the French premiere in Paris with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio
France in November 2000 and the New York Premiere with the
National Symphony at Carnegie Hall in October 2001.
The Cheese and the Worms for Glennie and pianist Philip Smith began an
ongoing international tour in April 1999 with performances in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Poland and Japan.
It is inspired
by Carlo Ginsberg's book of the same name about an eccentric, creative and
politically incorrect miller named Menocchio in 16th century Italy who was
ultimately burned at the stake.
Menocchio's Passion, the third part of the
four part work, features Glennie on the Great Highland Bagpipes.
Percussionist Pei-Ching Wu will perform the Taiwan premiere April 2005.
The final work of the three, Irving in Indonesia, for Glennie on Indonesian
gongs and Margaret Leng Tan on toy piano, premiered in March 2001 at London's
Wigmore Hall as part of a series of "Evelyn and Friends" concerts which also
featured The Cheese and the Worms.
Book of Five for the British amplified ensemble Icebreaker and
the American Composers Orchestra premiered in March 2002 at Carnegie Hall
with Steven Sloane conducting. Commissioned by the American Composers
Orchestra, the Bochum Symphony and the ASCAP Foundation, this forty minute work is a deeply personal response to the months following
the World Trade Center attacks and the birth of Wallace's son.
Book of Five includes two Icebreaker only movements. Icebreaker performed the European
premiere of Book of P September 2002 at the Kunsthalle in Vienna and the UK premiere of Book of E and Book of P November 2004 in York.
Steven Sloane conducted the European premiere of Book of Five in December 2003 at the Bochum Symphony.
Wallace's first ballet Peter Pan premiered with the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet
in April 2000. The three act work for full orchestra is based on the J. M.
Barrie novel with choreography and scenario by Graham Lustig.
Concluding a long article on the newly commissioned score The Fort Worth
Star-Telegram said, "Like the big ballet scores of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev,
Wallace's Peter Pan is loaded with memorable melodies. With all respect to
the wonderful action on the stage, this is one ballet where you can almost
close your eyes because the music is so good."
Hopper's Wife imagines what would happen if American Scene painter Edward
Hopper married Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Ava Gardner was
the artist's model. Though written with librettist Korie before Harvey Milk,
the opera premiered two years later in June 1997 at the Long Beach Opera with
Christopher Alden again directing and Michael Barrett conducting.
Mark Swed's enthusiastic review in The Los Angeles Times noted,
"Hopper's Wife is brave, bold and important. It dares to stand apart from the
current trend in American opera for realist historical drama. Instead it
radically reimagines history. Hopper's Wife is an arresting attempt at the
level of music, poetry and theater to grapple with one of the most meaningful
issues in art today, namely how, in a postmodern age dominated by popular
culture, can high art remain meaningful."
Kabbalah, Wallace's second opera with Korie, premiered in November 1989 at
Dance Theater Workshop as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave
Festival. It explores the Jewish mystical tradition as it evolved through
centuries of exile. The mystical themes in Harvey Milk have their roots here.
An abstract work in seven movements, Kabbalah is sung in Hebrew, Aramaic,
Medieval Spanish and German, and English and was conceived as a dance opera.
Choreographer Ann Carlson directed the premiere. Following a concert tour
directed by Rhoda Levine and conducted by Michael Barrett, Kabbalah was released in 1991 by Koch
Wallace's film work includes scores for Book of Love, a feature film written and directed by Alan Brown; and Persons of Interest, a documentary directed by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse. Both films premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
For director David Barker, Wallace composed scores for Seven Days (Rotterdam Film Festival, 2004) and Afraid of Everything (Sundance Film Festival, 2000).
Wallace's first collaboration with Korie is now set to become the first ever
feature-length animated opera. Inspired by comic strips, detective fiction,
film noir and the rampant greed of the go-go eighties, Where's Dick? premiered in May 1989 at the Houston Grand Opera with Richard Foreman
directing and John DeMain conducting.
The cartoon will be directed by nihilistic former Bugs Bunny director Greg
Ford who is also responsible for compiling the CDs of Warner Bros cartoon
composer Carl Stallings and the recent award winning It's the Cat.
Upcoming Wallace works include Yiddisher
Teddy Bears, with writer-director Richard Foreman and The Klezmatics;
and a Duo Concerto for Evelyn Glennie, percussion, and Fred Frith, electric guitar.
Wallace was Music Alive Composer-in-Residence at the National Symphony for
2001-2002. He is the recipient of numerous awards including fellowships and
commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for
the Arts, Opera America, Meet the Composer, Mary Flagler Carey Trust and
others. He was a fellow of the inaugural Institute for the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard in 1998.
His residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo have been indispensible to
the development of his work.
In the Spring of 2000, Toni Morrison invited Wallace to be artist-in-residence at Princeton University as part of her Princeton Atelier.
Stewart Wallace lives in New York City with his wife Dianne Festa and son Lucas.