"Stewart Wallace is a born storyteller. That might seem obvious for a composer best known for operas such as Harvey Milk and Hopper's Wife, in which real events or people often become points of wacky departure, but even in his more straightforward concert music Wallace finds plenty of stories to tell." – The Washington Post
Growing up in Texas, composer Stewart Wallace played in a rock band and sang as a cantor in the synagogue. For his thesis at the University of Texas, he wrote his first opera, though he was studying literature and philosophy, not music. At 28 years old, he had his first major premiere Where's Dick? at the Houston Grand Opera. This was the beginning of fruitful collaborations with librettist Michael Korie and director Richard Foreman. Wallace has gone on to collaborate with a diverse group of artists including Christopher Alden, Evelyn Glennie, Marc Ribot, Chen Shi–Zheng and Amy Tan. His unconventional and highly theatrical body of work is at once intensely rhythmic, melodic and emotionally compelling.
Harvey Milk, Wallace’s fifth opera and most widely known score, was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera. With a libretto by Michael Korie and directed by Christopher Alden, the world premiere was a cultural phenomenon discussed and debated in every major American and European newspaper, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and on CNN. The Washington Post said, “Harvey Milk is an astounding achievement – lively, artful, tough-minded American music-drama, deeply satisfying to ear, eye and mind.” Reviewing the Teldec recording with Donald Runnicles conducting the San Francisco Opera, France’s Diapason called Harvey Milk “trulystaggering.”
The music of Stewart Wallace returned to San Francisco Opera with The Bonesetter's Daughter, his collaboration with Amy Tan based on her bestselling novel. Researching the opera, Wallace and Tan traveled together extensively in China, studying various regional forms of Chinese opera, attending funerals in small villages of northern Shanxi Province, and exploring the music of the ethnic minorities in the southern mountains of Guizhou. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, The Bonesetter's Daughter features a Beijing Opera percussion section, KunJu singer, Chinese Rock Singer, two suonas (double–reeded trumpets) and twelve Chinese acrobats. Chen Shi–Zheng directed the September, 2008 world premiere at the San Francisco Opera with Steven Sloane conducting. Coinciding with the world premiere, Chronicle Books published Fate! Luck! Chance! Creating THE Opera of The Bonesetter's Daughter by Ken Smith.
Hopper's Wife imagines American Scene painter Edward Hopper married to Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper with Ava Gardner as Hopper’s model. This opera with a Korie libretto premiered at the Long Beach Opera with Christopher Alden directing and Michael Barrett conducting. Mark Swed noted in The Los Angeles Times, “Hopper's Wife is brave, bold and important. It dares to stand apart from the current trend in American opera for realist historical drama. Instead it radically reimagines history. Hopper's Wife is an arresting attempt at the level of music, poetry and theater to grapple with one of the most meaningful issues in art today, namely: how, in a postmodern age dominated by popular culture, can high art remain meaningful?”
Like The Bonesetter's Daughter, many of Wallace's works have featured unusual instruments and soloists. Skvera for electric guitar and orchestra, composed for "Guitar God" Marc Ribot, was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra. Inspired by a trip to Skvera, the Ukrainian shtetl his grandparents fled before the Russian Revolution, the four movement work premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2004 with Leonard Slatkin conducting. Marin Alsop conducted the West Coast Premiere at the Cabrillo Festival.
Wallace composed a trilogy of works for percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie: the concerto, Gorilla in a Cage, performed in Germany, France, Britain and the United States, and the chamber works, The Cheese and the Worms, which Glennie and pianist Philip Smith toured internationally in over 100 performances, and Irving in Indonesia, for Glennie on Indonesian gongs and Margaret Leng Tan on toy piano, premiered in 2001 at London’s Wigmore Hall as part of the Evelyn Glennie and Friends series.
Book of Five, for Icebreaker, the 12 person British amplified ensemble, and orchestra, premiered in 2002 at Carnegie Hall with Steven Sloane conducting. Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, the Bochum Symphony and the ASCAP Foundation, this five-part, forty-minute work is a deeply personal response to the months following the World Trade Center attacks and the birth of Wallace's son. Steven Sloane also conducted the European premiere with the Bochum Symphony.
Peter Pan, Wallace’s first ballet, premiered with the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet in 2000. Based on J. M. Barrie's novel with choreography and scenario by Graham Lustig, Wallace's three-act ballet was called "one ballet where you can almost close your eyes because the music is so good.” (The Fort Worth Star Telegram) The Madison Ballet will performed Peter Pan in 2008 with choreography by Earle Smith.
Wallace’s film scores include Book of Love, written and directed by Alan Brown and Persons of Interest, directed by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse. Both films premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For director and writer David Barker, Wallace composed scores for Seven Days (Rotterdam Film Festival, 2004) and Afraid of Everything (Sundance Film Festival, 2000).
Stewart Wallace was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006. He was Music Alive Composer–in–Residence at the National Symphony for 2001–2002 and is the recipient of numerous awards including fellowships and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Opera America, Meet the Composer, Mary Flagler Carey Trust and others. He was a fellow at the inaugural Institute for the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard. Residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo have been indispensible to the development of his work. In the Spring of 2000, Toni Morrison invited him to be Artist-in-Residence at Princeton University as part of her Princeton Atelier. Stewart Wallace's most recent work, She Told Me This, a monodrama for mezzo-soprano and ensemble inspired by and adapted from the opera The Bonesetter's Daughter, premiered in October, 2010 with Musiqa of Houston.