From “Murder In The Pit” To “Death By Opera,” To “Staged For Murder,” The Birth Of An Operatic Mystery Trilogy. An Exclusive Interview With Erica Miner.
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena [Courtesy of OperaMyLove Magazine]
A native of Detroit, Erica Miner studied violin with Boston Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Joseph Silverstein at Boston University where she graduated cum laude; the New England Conservatory of Music; and the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony, where she performed with such celebrated conductors as Leonard Bernstein and Erich Leinsdorf.
The former Metropolitan Opera violinist is now an award-winning author, screenwriter, journalist and lecturer, who actively contributes to major arts websites and magazines. As an opera expert, she is a regular presenter for the Seattle Symphony, Osher Lifelong Living Institute at University of Washington and University of California San Diego, Creative Retirement Institute at Edmonds College (Seattle area) and Wagner Societies on both coasts.
OperaMyLove Magazine: Erica, how did you, a respected professional musician, become a writer and a journalist?
Erica Miner: I’ve always written, since I was in grade school and placed in an afterschool program for Creative Writing. I just loved the whole process—of creating characters and plots and weaving them together to tell stories. I discovered that I loved telling stories. So when I had the car accident that ended my musical career, the logical next step to find a creative outlet was to go back to my writing. I studied screenwriting in Los Angeles with a noted screenwriting coach, who encouraged me in my idea for a novel, which was about an opera musician—more than semi-autobiographical. Some opera websites found my writing online and invited me to write reviews and interviews of operas and singers. That’s how my reinvention as a writer began.
OperaMyLove Magazine: You performed for 21 years with the Metropolitan Opera Company. What is the most pleasant memory you have of that experience?
Erica Miner: There were so many! I think what I remember most fondly is my very first rehearsal in the pit, of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, after I had auditioned for Raymond Gniewek, the Met’s extraordinary concertmaster. I was of course extremely excited but a bit nervous when I was seated in the first violin section. But my excitement turned to apprehension when I saw James Levine on the podium; imagine, my first time out and playing for Levine—a trial by fire! Then I looked up onstage and there were Jon Vickers and Martina Arroyo. And it was no longer a trial by fire but instead like suddenly arriving in Paradise.
OperaMyLove Magazine: In your long career as a musician, who was the most impressive musician or singer you met? What was it in their personality or talents that struck you the most?
Erica Miner: That is a very difficult question, as I’ve met countless luminaries in the music world. I think it would have to be Ray Gniewek, our fearless leader of the first violin section, and of course the entire Met Orchestra, since I worked more closely with him than anyone in my years there. Ray was the most dependable, fantastic leader you can imagine. He knew those operas inside out and backward, never made musical missteps, led the orchestra with his entire being. Not only was he incomparable as a leader, but he played the violin solos impeccably and with such great beauty. I’ve never heard anyone play them better. He also frequently showed his appreciation of what his violin section was doing: whenever we did something he thought was great, he always let us know of his approval. Of course, the opposite was also true! But my respect and admiration for his talent and abilities is boundless. I will always be grateful to him for all that he taught us and for his generosity of spirit.
OperaMyLove Magazine: Your debut novel, “Travels with my Lovers,” won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards, is inspired by your own travel adventures. Could you tell us more about the book?
Erica Miner: The idea for “Travels with my Lovers” came to me when I was working on my screenplays. My screenwriting coach thought it was a great idea to branch out into novel writing. I based the novel on the journals that I kept while I was at the Met. I wrote it in first person, but I didn’t want it to read like a memoir, just fiction, so I embroidered it somewhat. I spent a number of my summers when the Met was on hiatus traveling to Italy: both to experience its exquisite beauty and to explore the roots of Opera. My experiences there were so life-changing that I absolutely had to write about them. The protagonist is an opera musician who goes to Europe—Italy and France—and travels the high seas on a cruise. She finds both love and heartbreak in these places, but describes the beauty, history and operatic aspects of each locale. Overall I would define the book as a travelogue and love story combined.
OperaMyLove Magazine: You followed in 2009 with “FourEver Friends,” a novel about four teenage girls growing up in Detroit in the ‘60s. Could you explain what made you choose this topic and tell our readers more about it?
Erica Miner: I wrote “FourEver Friends” as a love letter to the three women who were my closest companions in high school and are still my most beloved friends. We went to a high school for gifted students that offered college-level specialties in pretty much any field you could name. The music department was exceptional, and the orchestra was legendary: many of the kids went straight from graduation to major symphony orchestras. Our conductor was a dynamic Russian man who saw to it that we would be prepared for a life as professional musicians by teaching all of the most important repertoire: from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann to Debussy, Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky and more. It was an extraordinary background that served me well later in life. We four girls performed together in the orchestra but actually became truly close in an all-female vocal and instrumental ensemble that performed all over the city of Detroit. We were absolutely inseparable, and shared all of our joys, heartbreak, and hormonal angst while we learned intensively about classical music. Within the book, I write about all of the pieces we sang and played. Afterward, I counted them up: there are no less than sixty-nine classical pieces mentioned, as well as Beatle songs. It was definitely a labor of love.
OperaMyLove Magazine: As a musician, though, I guess you could not stay away from the music world and so was born your third book, “Murder in the Pit,” the first in a series of ‘Operatic Mysteries.’ I am sure our readers would like to find out more about this book and the series itself…
Erica Miner: Yes, music is everything for me. “Murder in the Pit” was born of my experiences at the Met. I was very lucky to be at the Met at a time when some of the greatest singers and conductors were performing there. I got to work with them, rehearse with them and watch how “divas” and “divos” handled the pressure of being onstage at the world’s most prestigious opera house. But it’s a very pressured, high-stakes atmosphere and sometimes tempers flare and conflicts are inevitable. In “Murder in the Pit” I played up both the positives and negatives of working in that unique environment; of the good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. “Die Liebe Brennt”, as one of my colleagues used to say ironically. No love lost, as they say.
OperaMyLove Magazine: The main character in “Murder in the Pit” and in the following book of the series,”Death by Opera”, is a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Is this character an alter ego of yours? Is this second book’s story also developing in New York? What else should we know about the book?
Erica Miner: The protagonist, Julia, who embodies the very young violinist I was when I first started out there, because of her innate curiosity and sense of justice, becomes embroiled in a murder investigation when her mentor is assassinated and her closest colleague in the orchestra is the accused. The characters basically took over from there. I didn’t originally intend it as a series, but enough of my readers asked about a sequel, and one of them very insistently suggested I set the second book at Santa Fe Opera, for a number of reasons. The company is legendary. Its setting in the desert, between two mysterious mountain ranges (of which is actually called “Blood of Christ”) is uniquely evocative. People flock to the performances each summer from the world over (this was of course before the pandemic). Some of the world’s most prominent singers perform there. Even the weather, which can turn threatening in an instant, contributes to the eerie atmosphere. And did I mention Santa Fe has more ghosts than any other city in the US? I thought it was a great idea. I had to do a lot of research, including a major trip to steep myself in the company’s summer rehearsals and performances, and to learn my way around the multifaceted campus. But luckily, I had a close friend who provided me an entrée to all the relevant people and places. Julia goes as a concertmaster for the summer and finds just as much murder and mayhem as at the Met. So much fun!
OperaMyLove Magazine: “Staged for Murder,” the third book in this ‘operatic mystery series’ is due to be released on October 15, 2020. Tell us more about it, please.
Erica Miner: While I was writing “Death by Opera”, a friend from San Francisco Opera suggested I might make the series a trilogy by setting the next sequel in the City by the Bay. I have deep connections there, both to the city and the opera company, so that seemed like a no brainer. Again, I was lucky enough to know people who connected me to company members who gave me tours of the theatre, of the galleries, of the archives, and more. And again, a lot of research was required. But honestly, this opera company is the second most prestigious in the country for good reasons. And I think it has the most fascinating history of any in the US. Writing this novel afforded me the opportunity to paint a rich atmosphere with colorful characters, and for the potential for my wicked imagination to go wild. I’m very excited about the release, and I’m happy to say that interest is keen from readers.
OperaMyLove Magazine: You are also a screenwriter. Do you write just the screenplays of your books or other original stories? Were any of these screenplays turned into TV films or movies?
Erica Miner: I have written original screenplays in multiple genres as well as scripts based on my own books—“Travels with my Lovers”, “FourEver Friends” and “Murder in the Pit”—and even on books I have ghostwritten for other people. In fact, “Murder in the Pit” started out as a screenplay. My scripts have won awards and placed in numerous competitions, but I haven’t had anything produced as yet. Hollywood is a tough nut to crack, and it’s even more difficult to connect with directors and producers overseas who would best understand my music-centered stories. There’s a saying: “In Hollywood, there are no rules; and they’re strictly enforced.” Truer words were never said.
OperaMyLove Magazine: You have been contributing a “Power of Journaling” article series for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women. What topics do you cover in the articles?
Erica Miner: That was a wonderful opportunity and experience. I was able to express what a joy it is to journal and what a powerful tool it can be, especially for women. Most of my topics coincided with my lectures on the subject: The Power of Journaling; Journaling Resistance; Famous Women who Kept Journals; There’s a Book in Everyone—how to use your journals to create a book, fiction or non-fiction. Also, how to equip yourself for journaling, creating a journaling ritual, and more.
OperaMyLove Magazine: You have won top ratings as a special lecturer for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. What topics do you cover on those lectures
Erica Miner: I’ve lectured on all of the topics I have presented for my other lectures; mostly on opera and writing. My lectures on Journaling, interestingly, were always the most popular on the cruises. Which makes perfect sense: people have a lot of time on their hands when at sea, and Journaling is the perfect way of spending that time in a useful and gratifying way.
OperaMyLove Magazine: If you had the opportunity to meet and talk to any one person from any historical period, who would he or she be, and what would you ask them?
Erica Miner: Another tough question! I think that would have to be Mozart. I feel a deep psychological and emotional connection to him and his music. I would ask him how the music comes to him and in what form; what his favorite pieces are, his own and other composers’; and what he would want to compose if he could have lived for another ten or twenty years or more.
OperaMyLove Magazine: Do you have any new projects in the works at this time?
Erica Miner: Right now I’m in the midst of a very busy lecture season, so that, plus marketing and promoting my “Staged for Murder”, are my prime occupations at the moment. I have a fourth mystery in mind and have already spoken with my friends at San Diego Opera, which was my “home” company in the years I lived in that lovely city, about setting the next sequel there. They are excited about the prospect and I was told they know where some bodies are buried—that is a great start!
OperaMyLove Magazine: What is your greatest desire?
Erica Miner: Aside from hoping that as many people as possible will enjoy my books, my greatest desire is to see some relief from this unprecedented pandemic that is holding humankind hostage at the moment. So many people’s lives are being affected—everyone’s lives, truly—and our existence has been turned upside down. I would like to see the world function in a way that will allow us to breathe again. And I especially wish to see music being performed live again. I think performers have suffered in a uniquely difficult way: it’s virtually impossible to gather an audience in a theatre and have an entire company of performers interacting onstage as they need to do. I don’t know what the ultimate solution will be; but I fervently hope that music organizations, and especially opera companies, will somehow rise from the ashes.
OperaMyLove Magazine: Any message for our readers?
Erica Miner: Reading is one of the most enjoyable and edifying ways to spend your time as we remain limited in our ability to be out in the world at large, at least for now. I have many wonderful writing colleagues and belong to writers’ organizations that are now meeting on Zoom to stay connected and as active as possible in our world. I would like to encourage your readers to read as much as they can and support the writers’ community as much as possible. And most importantly, to STAY SAFE.