The performance of a lifetime: Octogenarian composer from B’Heights debuts inaugural opera

Eighty-two years young: Richard Alan White debuts his show “Hester,” which he began creating in 1981, with two performances at a city opera house this month.
Photo by Zoe Freilich

He can finally take a bow!

An 82-year-old Brooklyn-Heights composer will debut a self-penned show with two October performances at a city opera house, and the professionally staged production contains one component that he said legitimizes the decades he spent perfecting his craft.

“There’s a classic observation that, without an audience, you are nothing,” said Richard Alan White. “I would go to concerts and I was always fascinated by the audience’s wrapped expression. I would look at all these people, and they were so involved.”

Players from the Center for Contemporary Opera, a Manhattan theater group, will take the stage at the outer borough’s National Opera Center to perform the first act of White’s work, “Hester,” on Oct. 12 and 15.

The composer, who lives in senior housing on Pierrepont Street, began working on the opera — which is inspired by the novel “The Scarlet Letter” and its protagonist, Hester Prynne — in 1981, 24 years after he received a master’s degree in music composition from Columbia University in Manhattan. White returned to Columbia that year to work as a security guard after struggling to find employment as a composer for some time, and said he began to orchestrate the show’s melodies in his head during his campus patrols.

“The job gave me some free time for ideas to percolate,” he said. “I remember going home afterward and singing a theme that was going through my head. I hummed the tune to a sergeant and asked, ‘Have you heard that before?’ and he said, ‘No, no I haven’t.’ ”

White’s earlier positions at city agencies and courts, and as an employee of the Bronx’s 42nd Precinct, provided him with inspiration for his opera, he said, because they exposed him to women who were fighting challenges similar to those his show’s protagonist faces.

“I was a caseworker for the Department of Social Services, and have worked with countless single mothers,” White said. “ ‘Hester’ is not a fantastical melodrama. It is about real life and is more relevant today than ever before.”

The songbird — a New Hampshire native who also received a music history degree from the University of New Hampshire and studied at New York City’s arts academy, Julliard — said creating “Hester” would not have been possible without aid from his daughter, Rebecca White, who was born the same year he started working at Columbia and began to help him make music when she was a tot.

“One time I was trying to work on the piano and she sat on my lap. She was banging on the keys and the only way I could play was to reach around her,” White said. “And I actually used some of that material in the opera.”

And later on, after White put together a list of conductors and directors working in the city, he tasked his daughter with getting his opera in front of the big shots, he said.

“After a few years, I dropped this pile of information on her lap,” White said. “She called it ‘Operation Opera.’ ”

Rebecca’s outreach paid off eventually, she said, after one of her messages landed in the in-box of a Center of Contemporary Opera staffer.

“I started cold e-mailing people in New York City, and the center engaged,” she said.

White continues to compose, arrange, and write works even as his decades-in-the-making opera debuts, using a piano at the senior center near his building because the one in his apartment is out of tune, he said. And being recognized for his talent now is a powerful reminder to never give up on your dreams, according to the songbird.

“It’s not that it’s never too late to finish something, but it’s never too late to start something,” White said. “As you get older, you realize that you depend on other people. But when you have a lot of other people working with you, it makes you feel younger.”

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