Go Deeper

Artist Profile: Melissa Dunphy Can’t Let the Eagle Soar

Posted July 22nd, 2009

“In 2007, I had one of those NPR ‘driveway moments,’ listening to a grab of Arlen Specter ripping Alberto Gonzalez,” says Melissa Dunphy. “I was really stunned, read up on [the hearings] and thought, ‘This is a staged concert piece. There’s drama, the 19-character [Judiciary] Committee is the chorus, and Alberto Gonzales is the soloist.’ It reminded me of Orpheus facing the Furies in the Underworld, only in our version, Orpheus is corrupt, and the Furies consume him over the course of the show.”

As a student at West Chester University, where she just completed an undergraduate degree in composition, Melissa wrote The Gonzales Cantata, condensing the transcripts of the 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over the firing of U.S. attorneys into the libretto of this 40-minute piece. The Gonzales Cantata will be performed by a 30-person ensemble at the Rotunda during Philly Fringe in September; the cast of singers inverts the gender dynamic of the Judiciary Committee, with 16 women and five men.

“I’m highlighting the disparity in politics by making the words of old white men come out of the mouths of beautiful young women,” says Melissa. “If I did a true [inverse] representation, there would be only one man. But I needed a beefier tenor section, so a few senators like Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham get to keep their genders.”

But don’t mistake this piece for a simple attack on the gender balance of the United States Senate. Influenced by a number of composers including Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach project, Melissa has infused The Gonzales Cantata with music-geek humor, rewarding the attentive listener.

“The traditional overture is called a ‘French overture,’ so I called it a ‘Freedom Overture.’ ‘Loyalty Over Judgment,’ is a Baroque-sounding piece, but at the end, the National Anthem is incorporated. While it’s funny and a parody and critical of Gonzales, it’s about the journey of a guy who fucked up. The aria in the middle is called ‘This is not about Alberto Gonzalez.’ By the end of the aria you feel pathos, really bad for him.”

An Australian immigrant of Greek and Chinese descent, Melissa moved to the U.S. in 2002 and sort of fell into composition. In Australia, she started university at the age of 16, studying medicine. “Aside from playing with dead bodies I hated everything about it,” she says. After dropping out and working variously as a legal secretary, wine marketer, IT help desk person, and on Australian television. Through the last of these she met Matt, her now-husband, during a story she did on a Nine Inch Nails news site he ran. After moving to Pennsylvania, she worked at WITF in Harrisburg and acted in the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, where she started composing music. This fall, she’s entering the doctoral program in composition at the University of Pennsylvania.

Exhibiting something of the newcomer’s fascination with American politics, Melissa falls on the liberal side of the spectrum, and pays keen attention to political machinations.

“Having talked to Ashcroft on the phone, he seemed like a true-believer conservative, with misguided but honest intentions,” Melissa says. “With Gonzales, I see a guy who relied on the good old boys to see him through his misdeeds.”

Ashcroft? Former U.S. senator and attorney general John Ashcroft? That Ashcroft? Apparently so. After the jump, he and Melissa have a nice chat, and, what the hell: Let the Eagle Soar!

Melissa wanted permission to arrange John Ashcroft’s “Let the Eagle Soar” as a companion piece to the cantata. Through a lobbyist friend, she learned that the former attorney general had started the Ashcroft Group, a consulting and lobbying firm. She called his office, and Ashcroft’s personal assistant asked her to email details. A few days later, Melissa returned a call from the assistant, identified herself, and heard this:

“Please hold for Mr. Ashcroft.”

“I was stuttering and shaking, but I think he was comfortable speaking to me because I’m a nobody,” Melissa says.

To prep for the conversation, Ashcroft had researched Melissa online, and told her that he was impressed with her “100% positive” web presence. He also learned that she was from Australia, and asked Melissa how she liked it in the U.S. She told him that this country gave her great opportunities and that she’s become increasingly politically motivated. And then they started butting heads.

“I said that public schools have deteriorated in the past few decades. He immediately replied that the reason is that public schools are run by a government monopoly. And he kept going into these conversations.”

Melissa told him that she had become a citizen, and Ashcroft laughed and said, “Why would you ever do a thing like that?” Melissa told him that she loved the country.

“Do you love freedom?” asked Ashcroft.

She said she did, but that freedom to her meant, essentially, social liberalism. Melissa kept trying to bring the conversation back to arranging “Let the Eagle Soar” as a companion piece to the cantata. Ashcroft told her that he wrote the piece twenty years ago as a metaphor for the country soaring to new heights, after witnessing the return of bald eagles near his farm in Missouri.

[Quick editorial aside: the bald eagles only started to return after the federal government banned the pesticide DDT in 1972 through the Environmental Protection Agency, which, lest we forget, was created by Richard Nixon. America is indeed weird! But I digress . . . – NG]

Ashcroft was wary to give Melissa permission because of the possibility of ridicule. He did tell her that he had let the piece be arranged once before, but that he didn’t like to listen to arrangements of his songs (and that he writes his own music, unlike Orrin Hatch, who apparently just writes lyrics).

“It speaks to me about the conservative nature versus the progressive nature. The latter wants to see what happens when you build upon an idea; conservatives want to keep the idea pure,” Melissa says.

She assured him that she would do a straight choral arrangement, but Ashcroft demurred. Melissa says that Ashcroft wasn’t concerned about himself; rather, he didn’t want to subject the country to ridicule should the arrangement be mocked.

Despite being among the more charming people I’ve met, Melissa couldn’t get permission to use the song. But to some extent, she says, Ashcroft expressed a concern with, or at least an interest in, his legacy as attorney general.

“There was a point towards the end where I wished I could have recorded the conversation. [Ashcroft] felt like he hadn’t done a perfect job, but told me, ‘After Alberto got into all of this trouble, people who previously hated me started wishing I was back.'”

Thanks to The Gonzales Cantata, we have the opportunity to consider their legacies as well, through a Baroque-style performance featuring impressive young opera singers, parading through the Rotunda in pageant-like fashion. Convinced? If not, visit The Gonzales Cantata website, where you can listen to the piece, and decide whether you and Alberto Gonzales don’t recall the era by faulty memory, or by choice.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo courtesy of Melissa Dunphy.