Even some of those whose hackles haven't automatically risen at the mere thought of translating one work of art into another form have cited the old adage `don't mess with a masterpiece.' Mind you, they said that to Lerner and Loewe when they started fooling around with Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion but their resultant My Fair Lady turned out to be a musical theatre milestone. That, however, is the exception that proves the rule, and it must be conceded that as far as Gatsby is concerned, history is not on Harbison's side.
An early stage version of F Scott Fitzgerald's trademark jazz-age novel sank virtually without trace and there have been three celluloid attempts - including a lost silent version -- so it might seem that the idea of musicalising so evanescent a piece of writing is about as likely to succeed as an opera based on Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Or an all-singing version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible or A View From the Bridge or Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Actually, all three of those have made it to the operatic stage in recent years. Indeed, Streetcar is now available on CD and DVD, but, despite the committed performances of a smart cast, Andre Previn's often lush and luscious writing too often winds up sounding merely illustrative. The music merely echoes the play's moods instead of performing a convincing dramatic role.
Harbison, however, has focused absolutely on determining the function of the music in Gatsby, telescoping and enlarging the narrative with that imperative in mind. "I guess what I was happy about was that the characters don't have much to say," he confides. "Even if I'd had the lunatic idea of setting everything they say, there wouldn't have been enough material. Some of their most important dialogues are reported back to us, which is a curious literary strategy that works very well but leaves a lot of crucial scenes to be imagined."
Which is where music and drama come in. He speaks eloquently of the way in which Gatsby's world is created through suggestion and the withholding of information. "Of course, on stage you can't do that, you have to go in the other direction." He has thus abandoned the framing device of Nick Carraway as a semi-omniscient narrator. "In the novel, Nick witnesses everything. In the opera, we're the witnesses."
This throws Nick firmly into the texture as opposed to being at one remove and allows him to become the bearer of an important theme. "All these people come from somewhere else. Some of them fit in by position or wealth such as Tom and Daisy; some, such as Gatsby, are imposters and some spend the opera working out their role, Nick for example." This device allows the tale to be told chronologically and, crucially, instead of being told about the pivotal character of Gatsby, we now watch and listen to him.
Dangerously, this might appear to align itself with Jack Clayton's 1974 film flop. At the time, much of the just criticism of that movie focused on having made so tantalisingly absent a central character so tangibly present, thus robbing him of his abiding mystery. Harbison disagrees. "I don't think they did make him present," he argues, an allusion to blond, bland Robert Redford, who, to appropriate a Dorothy Parker remark, ran the gamut from A to B.
Balanced against the restructuring of the novel is his first-hand experience of not only opera - he wrote a full-length A Winter's Tale and a one-act work based on Yeats's writings - but also his experience of jazz. He was playing in a Dixieland band at the alarmingly precocious age of 11. At the age of 61, he still plays jazz piano occasionally, which should smooth the gear changes between the idioms of the age and his own compositional voice.
To that end, he has eschewed adopting other people's material for the sake of period authenticity, and has written traditional-style, very symmetrically shaped "pop" tunes for Gatsby's parties. Above and beyond their literal context, these songs provide the simplest expression of the basic musical material which is then developed via a whole range of styles through all gradations between tonal and atonal for specific effects.
For Harbison, the visual dimension of opera is crucial. Events and ideas are not only related through sound, they happen in front of you in relation to ongoing theatrical activity, a vital distinction between opera and other vocal music. "When you're writing song, the focus is on the poetry and the ability of the music to realise it. In opera, text has to be streamlined. High poetic values are nice but that's not what it's about." He cites students of his who announce that they are writing songs in readiness for opera. "I tell them to do something closer to opera like a concerto," he says. This is evidently a central tenet. Songwriting is predicated on stasis, a kind of aural photograph. Opera is - or should be - about dramatic action and he sees endless parallels in the concerto form.
"You have a protagonist [the soloist] who has to enter in a certain way, be framed in a certain way. Those entrances have to be refreshed and dramatised. This, to me, is operatic by nature. Mozart wrote around six songs but 30 concertos. They're at the heart of his work and there's incredible variety in the way the instrumentalist begins playing, like a character arriving."
Now 61 and looking a little like a less astringent younger brother to Edward Albee, Harbison "arrived" as a composer long before he won a Pulitzer prize in 1987, but he's sceptical about some of his students' hunger to establish an instantly recognisable musical profile. "You have to narrow your parameters a lot to get that. Sometimes, shooting for an individual voice - which is what students are encouraged to do - you'll create a striking personal tone but not a lot of staying power. You need to have a repertoire. That's what gets you through the decades."
That, and the esteem in which you're held by other musicians. In Harbison's case that's very high, with first-rank instrumentalists and singers regularly returning to work with him, notably Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who are creating the roles of Daisy and Myrtle. Like Britten, he's happiest writing for specific performers whose individual qualities, both in terms of vocal timbre and acting skills, he can rely upon.
As opening night looms near, you can see the tension of expectation in his face, but he's prepared for most eventualities. He's certainly used to what happens when you set a famous text such as The Great Gatsby. "I kind of enjoy the situation," he says, tentatively. Very early in his career he wrote a piece based on five famous Blake poems. "There was this sort of uproar about it. People had very strong ideas about how they should sound. Because of that connection with the material, they quickly reached a state of outrage. But that's not so bad... there's worse things that could happen." Like sleeping through it? "Precisely!" He pauses, looking a little wistful, but thinks better of it. "Whether they like it or not is, of course, another matter.'
`The Great Gatsby' opens tonight, then in rep to Jan, The Metropolitan Opera, New York (001-212-362 6000)