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John Eaton was called "The most interesting opera composer writing in America today" by Andrew Porter in The London Financial Times. He has received international recognition as a composer and performer of electronic and microtonal music as well. In addition, he had an extensive career as a jazz pianist, having recorded an album at 19 for Columbia and two subsequent ones for Epic, as well as one for RCA.
Eaton's work has been performed extensively throughout the world. International performances include those in Italy (at the Venice Festival, Maggio Musicale Fiorentina, RAI, etc.), Germany (Hamburg Opera, NDR, Sud-West Funk, etc.), France, England, Spain, Portugal, Czechoslovakia (Prague Festival), Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Israel, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, Latvia and Estonia. In America, his work has been performed by the San Francisco Opera, Cincinnati Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Santa Fe Opera, New York City Opera and Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others, and has been featured at the Tanglewood, Aspen, and Pepsico Summerfare Festivals. In addition, several works have been broadcast on Public Radio and Television, and his opera, Myshkin, was seen throughout the U.S.A. and foreign countries by an estimated 15,000,000 people.
In the early 1960’s he did perhaps the first live performances on modern sound synthesizers. They were put together for him by Paolo Ketoff (the Syn-Ket) and Robert Moog. Later, he performed on the new Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard, called “the most sensitive instrument to human nuance ever developed except for the human voice.” A number of these early pieces were recently re-issued on a record called First Performances by the Electronic Music Foundation.
Among his best known works is his opera The Cry of Clytemnestra, which has received great public and critical acclaim at its nearly twenty performances, including those under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The Lion and Androcles, written especially for children, was shown on national television and taken on tour by the Cincinnati Symphony. The Tempest was called a "formidable intellectual as well as musical achievement ... an opera of stark beauty" by Michael Walsh of Time Magazine following its premiere by the Santa Fe Opera. His grand opera The Reverend Jim Jones was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. His opera Losing Paradise was completed in 2008. The composition of his last opera, King Lear, was completed in 2011.
In 1993 he formed the Pocket Opera Players. That year it presented his operatic pieces for a small group of musicians in a new form for which he had developed Peer Gynt and Let's Get This Show on the Road to great public and critical acclaim, as was the case in 1996, when it premiered Don Quixote and Golk as well. On May 30th, 1997, Boston Musica Viva premiered his Travelling with Gulliver, commissioned by them and made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation. A new opera, Antigone, was added to it in very successful performances in Chicago by his opera company on Dec.9th, 10th, and 11th, 1999. In 2000, his provocative opera Youth was premiered. After its first performances at Symphony Space, May 21st and 22nd, 2002, Anne Midgette of the New York Times called it “creative, antic, quirky and enchanting”. Further New York Premieres of Travelling with Gulliver and Golk as well as the World Premiere of Salome’s Flea Circus were done on June 23rd and 24th of 2003. A festival of his music occurred at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center on May 18th and 19th of 2004, featuring the World Premiere of Pinocchio and the New York Premiere of Antigone, as well as panels on The Acting Instrumentalist: Eaton’s Pocket Operas and Eaton’s Contributions to Electronic Music. His full length comic Pocket Opera Pumped Fiction, premiered at Symphony Space on June 20th, 2007 and was repeated by popular demand on Sept. 6th. Allan Kozinn spoke of it as a “…considerable achievement” in the New York Times. Of his last Pocket Opera, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Martin Bernheimer raved in The London Financial Times and Opera News, “Everyone made the dumb charades seem smart. Everyone managed to focus the fuzzy line that connects whimsy to pathos.” And Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times said “…opera is a form of drama, and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ kept me involved right through.”
Eaton has been the recipient of many awards. In 1990, he received the "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation. His music was chosen to represent the U.S.A. in 1970 at the International Rostrum of Composers (UNESCO). He has received a citation and award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, three Prix de Rome Grants, 2 Guggenheim Fellowships, and, among others, commissions from the Fromm and Koussevitsky Foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He has lectured at the Salzburg Center of American Studies and was Composer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome. In September 2000, his career was celebrated on the American Music Center’s web site and excerpts of his operas can still be seen as well as an extended interview in the archives of www.newmusicbox.org for Sept. 2000. He did a lecture tour for Phi Beta Kappa in 2006 as well as lecturing on his operas at Oxford in 2007.
Eaton received his BA in the Special Program in the Humanities in 1957 and his MFA in 1959 from Princeton University where he studied composition with Milton Babbitt, Edward Toner Cone, Earl Kim and Roger Sessions. At the same time he was studying piano with Erich Itor Kahn, Eduard Steuermann, Frank Sheridan, and Louise Strunsky. He is Professor Emeritus of Music Composition at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1991 to 2001. Before that time, he was Professor of Composition at Indiana University (Bloomington) from 1970 to 1991.
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