That Thomas Pasatieri would grow up to be the most accessible American opera composer of the 1970s was evident from the beginning. As a child, he taught himself the rudiments of music, pecking out tunes on the piano. His primary interest was song -- he wrote 400 between the ages of 14 and 18; his formal training came first in a private correspondence course with Nadia Boulanger when he was 15 and, the following year, as a student at Juilliard where he studied with Vittorio Giannini and Vincent Persichetti. He also traveled to the Aspen Festival for pointers from Darius Milhaud. It was at Aspen that the 19-year-old composer saw his third opera, The Women, staged.
Pasatieri taught at Juilliard from 1967 to 1969, then moved to the Manhattan School of Music in 1971. He took a break from teaching as he became an increasingly busy composer concentrating almost entirely on vocal music, especially opera. He did, however, serve as a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music from 1980 to 1983.
As an artist who largely developed his tastes and aesthetics before subjecting himself to the academy, Pasatieri felt no shame in carrying on the tonal, lyrical operatic traditions of Richard Strauss and especially Giacomo Puccini. His works blended bel canto and verismo traditions, with a slightly updated harmonic sense. Critics generally denigrated his work, one going so far as to dismiss it as "a stream of perfumed urine." Pasatieri was certainly number one with audiences and singers though, enjoying applause at America's secondary opera houses. His music is so well-tailored to the voice that his operas have been premiered by such high-profile singers as Evelyn Lear, Frederica Von Stade, James Morris, and Jennie Tourel.
Most of Pasatieri's early operas are one-act chamber pieces, but he began working on a broader canvas with 1972's three-act Black Widow, first staged by Lotfi Mansouri in Seattle. As would many of his operas, this revolved around a distraught, even half-mad woman. Pasatieri preferred to write dramatic music about vivid, theatrical characters. Another work along these lines was The Trial of Mary Lincoln, written for a public television broadcast in 1972. In 1974 came Pasatieri's most successful and lushest opera, The Seagull, based on the Chekhov story and premiered by the Houston Grand Opera. Pasatieri would return to Chekhov in 1979 for a one-act version of Three Sisters, not premiered until 1986 but soon recorded. His grisly 1976 Ines de Castro enjoyed wide exposure via a National Public Radio broadcast and his slightly more dissonant than usual Before Breakfast (adapted from Eugene O'Neill) was first presented in 1980 by the New York City Opera.
Pasatieri's operatic output ceased shortly after he was engaged to direct the Atlanta Opera from 1980 to 1984; he then moved to California to work in films and TV. In his concert work, he mainly turned to song cycles and choral pieces, setting texts by the likes of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Lotte Lehmann, and, in 1995's Morning's Innocent, gay and lesbian poets. With only a couple of exceptions, Pasatieri had neglected instrumental composition until the mid-'80s. But in 1986, the Verdehr Trio commissioned from him an "opera for three instruments," which became Theatrepieces for violin, clarinet, and piano, written in the same edgy, Romantic style he had favored for opera. Several other instrumental works followed in the 1990s, including keyboard concertos and sonatas for violin, viola, and flute. In 2007, Fort Worth Opera premiered his full-length opera, Frau Margot and in the same year, San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre comissioned his two-act chamber opera, The Hotel Casablanca.