Imagine attending an opera in the late 1600s—being seated in a cavernous theater, gazing at the brightly lit stage where decorated actors are about to begin performing. Suddenly, a lively chorus from the orchestra fills the air, instantly capturing your focus and pulling you forward in your seat, eager to hear more. Although the musicians are playing an assortment of strings, harpsichords, and recorders, the buoyant melody that enraptures the audience blends together flawlessly.
That's what it's like listening to The Overture, the introductory snippet to Nicholas Escobar's (C'18) original score for The State of Innocence, an opera by John Dryden. A project that stems from his love of music and English, Nicholas Escobar's eleven–minute score takes you back a few centuries to the restoration period of theater.
This piano prodigy's love for music began early on.
"I grew up in a household that put a lot of value on performance and music, and I started taking piano lessons when I was 8. It came very naturally to me," Nicholas remembers.
As a sixth grader, Nicholas wrote his first composition—a piano piece he performed at his elementary school graduation ceremony.
"It was a really great feeling," he recalls. This event sparked his passion for music composition.
Three years later, as a freshman in high school, Nicholas began taking classes with the Composition Coordinator at the Curtis Institute of Music, who "planted the seed in my head saying that maybe I could do music for a living." The course taught him about orchestration, counterpoint, and using computer software—all of which was very new to him.
In high school, Nicholas began to compose for film. An avid lover of movies, Nicholas had always thought about movie soundtracks and improvising them. At 17, he scored his first film— a solo piano score for a short movie made by his brothers and friends. Improvised live, Nicholas realized he "loved the feeling of putting music to the screen—it was a natural fit." Over the course of high school, he scored school plays and more of his brothers' short films. It became clear that Nicholas wanted to pursue music in college, but he also decided to explore his interests among a broad range of humanities, including literature, history, and art, which led him to study at Penn.
During his sophomore year, he took a course on English poet John Milton. For the final project, he researched and wrote an essay about The State of Innocence by John Dryden, an unscored, unfinished semi–opera (similar to a Broadway musical today, mingling spoken dialogue and music) adapted from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost.
"I was really intrigued by The State of Innocence and about John Dryden's relationship with Milton, in terms of whether he looked up to him or not, or if he had this inner hatred for him," Nicholas says.
But Nicholas wasn't able to fit all of his historical research into the actual paper, and after he completed his essay, "I had a little thought in the back of my head that maybe if I wanted to pursue this again in the future I could."
At that time though, he wasn't as much thinking of composing any music for the opera.
"I was more interested in how the opera could be put on the stage, and how placing it on stage would change people's perceptions of Paradise Lost," Nicholas adds.
Then during his junior year, while abroad in London, Nicholas began thinking about his senior thesis.
He proposed to research and write the music for The State of Innocence. "I really wanted the score to sound authentic—not like a modern score for a 17th century opera, but like it could've been performed back then," Nicholas says.
Nicholas didn't begin composing until December 2017, and for the next five months, until around May, he worked on the musical component of his thesis.
"I did a lot of research into scores of that period, mostly by Henry Purcell and Matthew Locke. Music was so much a part of the theatrical experience back then," Nicholas says. "When you went to a play in the 1670s, you're partly just going to it for the musical entertainment, because the best musicians of the city would be performing."
While employing these historical composition techniques, a significant challenge that Nicholas faced was preserving the authenticity of the piece. In the attempt to "get into the head of a 17th century composer," he had to check his own musical tendencies.
"There are certain tendencies that I have in my own composing, where I would do something different, like have a different harmony that wouldn't be present back then, so I had to really watch myself," Nicholas remembers.
For English aspect of his thesis, Nicholas analyzed the opera's existing lyrics.
"Because John Dryden only wrote one song, and since he only wrote lyrics for one song, another thing I wanted to do was write lyrics in the style of John Dryden, and explore how lyrics interacted with music," Nicholas says.
Nicholas expresses his excitement to stage the opera in the near future, envisioning his goal "to hopefully get it performed, once I get the whole score written—maybe in the UK."
A recipient of the prestigious Thouron Award, a Penn scholarship that pays for a master's degree in the United Kingdom, Nicholas plans to study music composition abroad this fall, but he's not sure where yet.
For the past year, since he graduated in the spring of 2018, Nicholas has been living at home in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
"It's been a gap year of sorts, and an opportunity for me to find my voice as a composer," Nicholas says.
The musician is currently engaged in several projects: working on sketches for a musical, releasing a piano solo album called Petals last month, writing the screenplay for a friend's film, and writing some short novellas.
"I like working on a lot of things at once," Nicholas says, chuckling. "I've really been able to develop myself as a composer and a writer."