Oakland composer debuts oratorio on life of St. Rita
Imagine you, the composer, are commissioned to write an oratorio about a saint with whom you have only a passing acquaintance.
What do you do?
First of all, the commission of an oratorio — a lengthy musical piece like an opera, but without the elaborate staging — is a rare opportunity. (Almost unheard of, say those in the know.)
You read everything you can get your hands on about the saint, coming upon the biography written by the former director of the national shrine. You ask everyone in your music community to help find a librettist — the person, who will weave the threads of the saint's story into the compelling narrative.
Then you wait.
You receive something different from what one expecting to write an oratorio might expect.
And you embrace it.
And then you compose 90 minutes of music — the longest single piece in your life's work — in a scant, in the music world, 15 months.
Such is the life of Frank LaRocca, Oakland-based composer and parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Oakland, who spoke with The Catholic Voice before the May 21 debut of his oratorio, "A Rose in Winter," at St. Rita Church in Dallas, the epicenter of an American Catholic liturgical music event that brought people from across the United States to Texas.
"I was commissioned to write this by the music director of St. Rita Catholic Church," he said. "At the time he commissioned me, I admitted I knew practically nothing about St. Rita — when she lived, what special gifts, what aspects of her life had displayed heroic virtue."
He sorted through stories about the saint, looking for something historically based. He found it in Augustinian Father Michael DiGregorio's book. "His biography was very readable," LaRocca said.
Father DiGregorio is also the former director of the National Shrine of St. Rita in Philadelphia.
"A composer needs words that not only tell a story well but adapt well to a musical setting," LaRocca said. Neither Alfred Calabrese, who had commissioned him, or LaRocca had the qualifications to write such a piece.
They were looking for someone with "literary skill who could apply it with respect for the role the saint plays in the Catholic faith," La Rocca said.
They found him in Matthew Lickona, who, LaRocca said, "earns his daily bread as a film critic for the San Diego Reader, and has written two short novels and several songs.
Lickona and another writer were asked to present 500-to-700-word samples of their proposals. Both were very well written, LaRocca said.
"Matthew's was so complete," LaRocca said. Lickona was able "to bring St. Rita out of the mists of time" to the contemporary listener.
Lickona's storyline is based in present-day and in St. Rita's time. (She lived from 1381 to 1447.)
"Two pilgrims meet during the Holy Week festival in Cascia, Italy," LaRocca said. "They begin chatting. Both of their mothers had devotions to St. Rita when they were boys.
"St. Rita had been attacked as an infant by a swarm of bees but was unharmed. Both of these boys had survived swallowing poison; their mothers had prayed for St. Rita's intercession.
"One has lost his faith; the other still practices his faith, but experiences have shaken it."
The back-and-forth introduces, La Rocca said, questions such as "Is there a God? Do lives of saints have anything to tell us in the 21st Century?"
St. Rita's life story offers much dramatic inspiration, LaRocca said. Her marriage at a young age — not of her choosing, but as an obedient daughter, she did as her parents told her — was followed by the birth of two sons and the murder of her husband during a vendetta. Her sons died of the plague soon after.
She attempted to gain entrance to the convent, LaRocca said, but several times she was rebuffed. Family members of her husband's killer were in the convent, and there were concerns that Rita's presence would introduce tension.
"She convinced warring families to reconcile, a remarkable achievement and after that she gained her admittance," LaRocca said. This act led her to her becoming the patroness of impossible causes.
"I'm learning all the things about her trying to make a woman who lived so long ago become a contemporary presence in my own life," LaRocca said. His wife Lucia purchased a small statue of St. Rita, and he surrounded himself with art.
As the librettist worked, LaRocca waited. "It felt almost like a pregnancy," he said of the six-month wait.
"We asked Matthew for 35 to 40 minutes." LaRocca said. "What he sent us was a 90-minute opera.
"It was more like an opera than an oratorio. Oratorios tend to be a series of movements, such as the symphony, well differentiated with respect to musical genre," La Rocca said.
In an oratorio, for example, one movement might feature a soloist; another the chorus.
"That's not how Matthew approached it or should he have," he said.
"He presented it like an opera, or as a film, an ongoing developing storyline," LaRocca said.
"What a challenge this is to a composer," LaRocca said. "I have not come within a country mile of writing an opera."
His previous longest piece was 20 minutes in length.
"To my delight, I took to it. I began to feel comfortable, and really started to enjoy the ongoing dramatic opportunities."
The opportunity to straddle two time periods sounds like a gift to a composer, described by fellow composer Martin Rokeach, a professor of music at Saint Mary's College of California, as having "one foot in the traditional, and one foot in the contemporary."
Time was not on LaRocca's side: He had just 15 months to work.
About four years ago, LaRocca had begun plans to retire as a professor of music at California State University, East Bay. "It just so happened this coincided with the retirement date," he said. As he left the university, LaRocca transitioned to full-time composer.
The oratorio made its debut in Dallas on May 21, the eve of the feast day of St. Rita, to an appreciative audience of more than 600. LaRocca said he hoped it will be performed at the Shrine of St. Rita in Philadelphia, as well as a music festival near St. Rita's home in Italy, in the future.
Now that he's written one oratorio, might there be other saints whose lives could be presented in this form?
"St. Francis de Sales was the earliest in what the present-day would call an apologist," LaRocca said. "He was known for his charity and vigorous defense of the faith during the early days of the reformation. He was responsible for the reversion of tens of thousands of people to the church," he said.
Another appealing saint is "St. Catherine of Siena. "She was bold and in love with the church," he said.
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