Jennifer Higdon is an American composer born in Atlanta, Georgia. Her concertos have earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Music and a Grammy Award. Cold Mountain is her first opera, and it was co-commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia. She was reached by phone at her home in Philadelphia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ML: How is composing for opera different from the composition work you’ve done in the past?

JH: It’s really different, first of all, because you’re trying to take care of actual characters in a story. You have to think about, because opera is over two hours, how you structure something musically so that it’s interesting for the audience. You also have to think about what kind of music depicts these characters. Basically I’m trying to figure out how to draw an aural picture of these people, but it’s really hard. More… “Accented Arias”

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

Everyone has a first time. My initiation into the sublime and absurd world of grand opera came not with my attendance at a legendary performance or under the tutelage of an impassioned connoisseur but through a chance encounter with a bizarre musical experiment conceived by Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and craven self-promoter. It happened like this. One day in the mid-‘80’s I was half-listening to an innocuous pop ballad on the radio when there arose from the drum machines and synthesizers a surging female voice unlike any I had ever heard — or at least paid attention to — before. As the aria, which turned out to be “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly, floated over me, my only thought was: How can anything be so beautiful?

I wish I could say that from that moment I became a passionate convert to all things operatic, but in fact I went on listening to rock ‘n’ roll and even now have got around to only a dozen or so works in the operatic repertory. Yet one of those works is Madame Butterfly, and if on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version — identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans — I might never have known grand opera at all. Although I no longer need to listen to opera with the electric guitars, drum tracks, and pop vocal choruses so helpfully provided by McLaren, I occasionally go back to Fans to marvel at its audacious and bizarrely sympathetic settings of some of Puccini’s most sumptuous music. More… “A Fan of Fans

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.

“Long live the knife, the blessed knife!” screamed ecstatic female fans at opera houses as the craze for Italian castrati reached its peak in the 18th century — a cry that was supposedly echoed in the bedrooms of Europe’s most fashionable women.

The brainwave to create castrati had first occurred two centuries earlier in Rome, where the pope had banned women singing in churches or on the stage. Their voices became revered for the unnatural combination of pitch and power, with the high notes of a pre-pubescent boy wafting from the lungs of an adult; the result, contemporaries said, was magical, ethereal and strangely disembodied. But it was the sudden popularity of Italian opera throughout 1600s Europe that created the international surge in demand. Italian boys with promising voices would be taken to a back-street barber-surgeon, drugged with opium, and placed in a hot bath. The expert would snip the… More…