The Big Score

Local opera phenom Matthew Aucoin’s world premiere at the American Repertory Theater will tell you everything you need to know about the future of classical music.

matt aucoin

photograph by John Andrews

A recent Wall Street Journal headline screamed: “Is Matthew Aucoin the Next Leonard Bernstein?” Perhaps, but this past winter, the composer was nowhere near the limelight. “I’ve been living inside the cave that is the opera,” he said via phone.

Aucoin was laboring over the opera he’ll debut this month at the A.R.T., Crossing, based on the diary Walt Whitman kept while working in a hospital’s charnel house during the Civil War. “Composing is like, ‘Sit alone in a room and suffer,’” he joked. The 25-year-old prodigy from Medfield, who began writing symphonies in middle school, studied poetry at Harvard before serving as assistant conductor for the New York Metropolitan Opera Company’s luminous 2012 production of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Aucoin impressed the Met by memorizing parts of the treacherously difficult score beforehand.

Crossing will be the first full staging of an Aucoin opera, but hardly the last. “It’s the most raw, physical, primal, intimate, and rich art form that I know,” said Aucoin, the Peabody Essex Museum’s first composer in residence. “I’m saying that as someone who’s played in a rock band.”