Tag: opera

It Takes a Village: Daron Hagen’s A Woman in Morocco

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings in A Woman In Morocco
Photos by Nathan Russell (except where indicated)

Many imagine a lone composer toiling away to produce a mammoth work. The truth is subtler. While opera is possibly the most collaborative of the arts, “an opera composer must be able to build consensus for his vision among strong people with visions of their own in order to create a viable theatrical work,” asserts composer Daron Hagen. “But he has to also know how, at all costs, to keep everyone on the creative team focused on his vision, and not theirs.”

No matter how you slice it, overseeing the development of an opera seems a lot like marshaling forces for the invasion of a small country. Hagen’s recently performed (a fully-staged, “pre-professional” workshop) full-length “opera noir,” A Woman in Morocco is no exception. The preparatory planning and writing stages alone were staggering and were followed by frank and brutal revisions. At one point during production in Austin, Hagen’s Facebook status read: “Thrilled to have trimmed five minutes from the first act.” Asked why he had over-written, Hagen responded, “It wasn’t over-written for the staging I had in mind. But I’m the first to cut linking material for scene changes that were not needed for a single set.”

Soonchan Kwon (Ahmed), Austin Bradley (Teddy), and Natalie Cummings (Lizzy) in A Woman In Morocco

Soonchan Kwon (Ahmed), Austin Bradley (Teddy), and Natalie Cummings (Lizzy)

Based on the play by Barbara Grecki and following on the heels of their previous collaboration New York Stories, Hagen began adapting Barbara Grecki’s play into libretto form in the fall of 2012, during the premiere production of his Little Nemo in Slumberland by Sarasota Opera. “I’d return to the hotel from staging rehearsals in which over a hundred children were singing about the purity of a world of dreams, order a pot of coffee from room service, and delve into the decadent nightmare world of Lizzy’s seduction, descent into drug addiction, and finally, her disappearance. It made for an agreeable sort of psychic whiplash.”
After Hagen went through several drafts of the libretto with Grecki, a table read directed by Alan Hicks, with actors at Center City Opera in Philadelphia, was arranged. More meetings between Hagen and Grecki yielded a “working draft” of the libretto, which Hagen shared selectively with interested artistic directors at opera companies around the country. “When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to have people you trust ask questions prior to the first staging. Every director ignores to some extent (and should ignore, since practical concerns like the physical layout of the stage, costs, union rules, available personnel, even the number of lighting instruments, come into their decision-making process) what you’ve written in the score. One wants feedback not on a particular director’s staging but on the document. You’d perhaps be surprised by how many people think that what they are seeing on the stage is exactly what the composer intended. That’s not going to happen unless the composer directs it himself.”

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki
Photo courtesy of the composer

Over the course of three months, Hagen hammered out a first act vocal score, changing the libretto as he went along. This led to a first act workshop by Center City Opera. “Andrew Kurtz, the general and artistic director of Center City Opera, was kind enough to volunteer to give a workshop performance, with singers and piano, of whatever I was able to get done by around the end of the year,” Hagen explains. “I never listened to the tape, but I was all ears during the run-through itself, and I certainly incorporated dozens of tessitura shifts and prosody fixes that ‘popped’ during the process.”

Hagen spent the winter finishing the vocal score, and ploughed straight into orchestrating the piece. “I knew, going in, that I would be crafting the show for three different sorts of ensembles—a seven-player ‘agitprop’ group suitable for black box and ‘second stage’ performances, a ‘small house’ version with 12 players, and a ‘large house’ version with an orchestra enlarged to include Mozart-sized string sections. Since I did all three orchestrations simultaneously, a vocal score had to come first.” Hagen delivered the completed orchestrations a few days before the first orchestra rehearsal.

“When you think about it, the composer is the only person sitting at the table with every producing and creative partner. So, I needed to be very clear about what I needed to learn about the opera in Austin. I wasn’t worried about whether the piece was dramaturgically viable; I already knew that it was. The libretto had been workshopped and heavily revised, and I knew going in that I would be directing the thing down the road myself. My primary need, therefore, was to hear the orchestrations (I wanted to make a ‘chamber opera’ come across as a ‘grand’ opera) with young singers, and to check the viability of the ‘dramatic beats’ in the piece.”

More than a year after inception, the curtain was raised. However, as far as the development opera productions go you might say that this is still Act One for A Woman in Morocco, and it was the work at this stage that I saw produced at McCullough Theater.

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Set in a small run-down hotel in Morocco in the mid-1950s, the opera tells the story of a young, wide-eyed writer, Lizzy, whose involvement with Ahmed, a worker at the hotel, sets in motion a series of events which ripple out and impact all the characters in the opera. Of course this leads, in the spirit of great tragedies, to all sorts of pain, death, and misery. The best laid plans of any good tragedy play on our hope that, despite the dark inevitability of where things are headed, they will somehow work out, and Hagen deftly plays on this most human trait, laying a bright, airy opening framework echoing Lizzy’s initial naïve outlook. As the character’s backgrounds, desires, and motives are revealed (several quite deliciously as the opera unfolds), it is in the trios where Hagen’s writing shines in particular. The first act closes with one of the most effective of these trios in which fragments of the characters arias from earlier in the opera coalesce. Short, punchy phrases in Lizzy’s aria return and play among the long lines from Ahmed’s. A third line, sung by the hotel owner Teddy, seamlessly joins these parts and, despite tight turns and nested phrases, each line is clear and perfectly placed. This trio was preceded by a beautiful aria sung by Asilah, Ahmed’s wife, a character whose story arc becomes central to the opera. Rising fourths in the piano underpin the twisting melody, and an insistent pedal builds tension as we approach the aria’s climax. Following this she switches from third person to first person, revealing that she is singing about her own life. If you followed Breaking Bad, you probably thought things couldn’t get much worse for Hal and company than they had by somewhere around mid-season four, right? Then season five shows up, and all bets are off. I won’t reveal any more about the story of A Woman in Morocco here, but let’s just say that things don’t turn out much better for this cast of characters. If you’re not familiar with Breaking Bad, then I’ll direct you to any number of Shakespeare tragedies. It’s bad news folks.

Of course, without the singers it’s all academic and the performances were both musically and dramatically really quite strong. Natalie Cummings’s Lizzy was delicate and vulnerable, made all the more poignant as the dark events unfolded, while Soonchan Kwon’s Ahmed was strong, complex, and assured. Austin Bradley’s bigger-than-life Teddy was nicely contrasted by Samantha Leibowitz’s tortured Asilah. Conductor Kelly Kuo’s command was also particularly admirable, directing the orchestra and singers through the twists and turns of a fresh and quite involved score. Hagen traffics all but exclusively in acoustic tonality, so when I heard that electronic elements were involved in this production I was very interested to hear how he would approach it. Consisting of pre-recorded and digitally manipulated sounds, including those natural (rain and thunder) and human (ululations, vocal glissandi, and a jazz trio presented as a shortwave radio broadcast), each electronic addition was subtle and organic and added an extra dimension to the proceedings.

This show was part of the work’s initial test run. Hagen will incorporate some of the cuts suggested by stage director Robert DeSimone and conductor Kelly Kuo in the next production. He also intends to lengthen and develop the electro-acoustic elements for the black-box version, which he will stage direct for Kentucky Opera in October 2014 with Joey Mechavich conducting a crack chamber ensemble, as well as the culminating ‘large opera house’ premiere at Skylight Music Theatre, with Hagen directing and artistic director Viswa Subbaraman in the pit.

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

“The show is 95% there, now,” Hagen says, with evident relief. “It will sit on the back burner for a few months while I write the script, lyrics, and songs for a musical called I Hear America Singing, for Skylight’s second stage. Directing Singing for them is giving me an opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of the company that will ultimately premiere Morocco. More importantly, I will be getting to know and work with the creative team that Barbara and I will be handing our baby over to.”
In the world of opera production, these are Acts Two and Three, and while the vast majority of the work will remain the same, the changes that are made through these collaborations can make or break the opera in the long term. “Yeah, it’s a long haul,” Hagen says, “and a lot of people are taking a lot of creative and monetary risks in order to bring it to life. That’s always right there in my thinking.” And it’s worth remembering that these changes require more than a solitary composer with a bottle of India Ink, a piano, and an overactive imagination. It takes collaboration on a massive scale by a tremendous cast before and behind the scenes. It also takes time; time to write, re-write, present, revise, and then do it all again. This is opera, people, and it takes a village.

Andrew Norman Joins Opera Philadelphia as Third Composer in Residence

Andrew Norman

Andrew Norman

Opera Philadelphia, in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group in New York, has announced that composer Andrew Norman has been selected as its third composer in residence. Norman was chosen from over 100 applicants for the position and now has the opportunity to follow a personalized development track focused on the advancement of his career as an operatic composer. Norman will begin his appointment immediately. He joins composers in residence Lembit Beecher, who was appointed in September 2011, and Missy Mazzoli, who was appointed in September 2012.

Funded by a $1.73 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program “fosters tomorrow’s American operatic masterpieces through personalized creative development and intensive, hands-on composition opportunities for today’s most promising opera composers.” The position combines its individualized plan of study with a living stipend and health benefits.

“Andrew’s music really stood out both in its emotional sophistication and his virtuosic control of larger forms,” said David B. Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president. “Both of these qualities are essential for composing opera. We look forward to working with Andrew as he takes this next step in his growth as an artist.”

Norman, 33, is increasingly active as an orchestral composer. His symphonic works, often noted for their clarity and vigor, have been commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Minnesota Orchestra, among others. A lifelong enthusiast for all things architectural, he writes music that is often inspired by forms and textures he encounters in the visual world. His music draws on an eclectic mix of instrumental sounds and notational practices, and it has been cited in The New York Times for its “daring juxtapositions and dazzling colors” and in the Los Angeles Times for its “Chaplinesque” wit.

Norman’s The Companion Guide to Rome, which premiered on November 13, 2011 in Salt Lake City, Utah, was named a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music. The Pulitzer Prize Board called it “an impressive musical portrait of nine historic churches, written for a string trio but sometimes giving the illusion of being played by a much larger group, changing mood and mode on a dime.”

Opera Philadelphia continues to help shape the future of opera with initiatives like the Composer in Residence Program and the American Repertoire Program, a commitment to producing an American opera in ten consecutive seasons, launched in 2012. The most recent work in the American Repertoire Program was Silent Night, featuring music by composer Kevin Puts, for which he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Additional announced co-commissions include A Coffin in Egypt by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Leonard Foglia, slated for the Aurora Series for Chamber Opera at the Perelman Theater in 2014; Oscar by Theodore Morrison, with a libretto by the composer and John Cox, slated for the Academy of Music in 2015; and Cold Mountain by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon with a libretto by Gene Scheer, which will be produced at the Academy in 2016. A Coffin in Egypt is co-commissioned and co-produced with Houston Grand Opera; both Oscar and Cold Mountain are co-commissioned and co-produced with The Santa Fe Opera.

(from the press release)

New England’s Prospect: Babylon Revisited

The Great Gatsby

Ryan Turner leads the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music in The Great Gatsby, featuring Gordon Gietz as Gatsby.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was….

American operas, apparently, can have the second acts American lives cannot. The concert performance, at Tanglewood on July 11, of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby—after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously hypothesized that particular limitation of biographical dramaturgy—was a bid for redemption. The program notes (and pre-concert discussion) were less about the piece than its time in the wilderness, from its lukewarm reception at its 1999 Metropolitan Opera premiere, through various salvage operations, small and large (a set of songs, a set of piano etudes, a suite, a chamber-sized version) to this full-orchestra reprise—itself a reprise, the chorus and orchestra of Emmanuel Music and the cast repeating their performance from May. The concert was presented as an opportunity for vindication, a chance to replace that original reception with something more generous, a chance to “fix everything just the way it was before,” as the protagonist put it. The opportunity was taken: a large and enthusiastic crowd saved its biggest ovation for Harbison himself.

That The Great Gatsby still doesn’t come off as an effective piece of music theater seemed beside the point. So it might be worth asking in what guise the piece might work, what it might be, what people might hear it to be—or want it to be.

* * *

The performance, to be sure, was enviable. Conductor Ryan Turner drew out the score’s depth and sway; the orchestra gave everything a patina of assurance. The singers were similarly fine. This was musical boosterism of a high level, musicians determined to present the piece in the best possible light.

In such an accomplished realization, and in a concert performance, one alternate way to hear The Great Gatsby emerged, and that is as a three-hour tone poem of Gatsbyian moods, with an obbligato layer of singing. Three hours is a lot, but the orchestral writing is frequently marvelous, a perpetually fluid swirl of plush fabric. The shading can be subtle and exquisite. Towards the beginning, an interlude transitions the scenery from the opening—Nick Carraway (David Kravitz) visiting his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Devon Guthrie), her hulking husband Tom (Alex Richardson), and her friend, the professional golfer Jordan Baker (Krista River)—to the Valley of Ashes, the industrial wasteland that is home to Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Katherine Growdon). Harbison takes the bass clarinet from the previous scene and sharpens it into a more mechanical clarinet-marimba combination; high strings, previously providing an upper overtone to the singers’ brief litany of Gatsby’s name, suddenly get an ominous cushion of horns and a brittle piano-and-harp ictus. Later, for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, Harbison pulls out a terrific orchestral shimmer of radiant cool—fluttering winds, hollow brass, washes of glissandi. Harbison is a composer for whom the orchestra seems a natural habitat.

Ryan Turner, with soloists Devon Guthrie (as Daisy) and Gordon Gietz (as Gatsby) during the Emmanuel Music performance of The Great Gatsby. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

Ryan Turner, with soloists Devon Guthrie (as Daisy) and Gordon Gietz (as Gatsby) during the Emmanuel Music performance of The Great Gatsby. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

But the result is that the orchestra drives the piece, not the voices. In a few places this is effective—instances of civility and strained politeness that can’t quite escape the roiling instrumental tension. In other places, it ties the drama down. This becomes especially apparent when Harbison is emulating 1920s pop, which he does with a stage band and a cornucopia of authenticity—banjo, choked crash cymbals, and a megaphone-wielding singer (Charles Blandy), arranged with uncanny precision—while adding just enough sophistication to make his compositional touch apparent. Again and again, though, as that music drifts into the orchestra, the characters are left to fit their lines to this material, settling into the trompe-l’oeil like some sort of musical Tetris. As Myrtle and Tom are going about their adulterous fencing, for instance, the orchestra’s simulation of pop radio is so exact that it becomes a distraction—or keeps their interaction too light and trivial to make the escalation to violence convincing. When Nick and Jordan are setting the scene for Gatsby’s entrance, they seem trapped in the party’s dance music, to the point that their own characters are effaced.

Harbison’s text-setting is largely syllabic and beholden to speech rhythms—clear and natural, but rarely letting the singing take flight. In his program note, Harbison remembers Sarah Billinghurst, the Met’s Artistic Administrator at the time of the commissioning of Gatsby, telling the composer, “It is my job to prevent you from becoming the librettist of this opera.” One wishes she had been more diligent. Harbison hits all the novel’s marks—the mystery surrounding Gatsby (Gordon Gietz); his yearning for Daisy; the affair between Tom and Myrtle, with Myrtle’s husband (David Cushing) lurking in the background; Gatsby’s parties; Gatsby’s underworld partner, Meyer Wolfshiem (James Maddalena), sidling in and out; the observers, Nick and Jordan, observing—but the whole thing unfolds less as a drama than a slightly perfunctory tour of Fitzgerald’s landmarks. The libretto is, often, its own synopsis. (This reaches a kind of absurd apotheosis at the beginning of the second act, when the chorus is so busy singing about how rumors are spreading about Gatsby that they largely fail to spread any actual rumors). The opera is not so much concerned with telling us the story as assuring us that it knows that story well enough to tell it.

The problem is not that the libretto is clunky—plenty of operas have thrived on even clunkier libretti—but that there is a mismatch between the blunt exposition of so much of the text and the expansive, emotional musical style Harbison pursues throughout the piece. If there were a Nobel prize for music, one that worked like the awards for the sciences—for innovation and discovery—some composer would probably win one for coming up with an effective modern version of recitative. The Great Gatsby, certainly, could use some of that explanatory speed. Opting for the modern perpetual-arioso mode of operatic composition, Harbison gets stuck treating plot-heavy dialogue at a deliberate tempo better suited to freeze-frame emotional peaks. Slowed down to a lyrical crawl, the prosaic nature of the text becomes a liability.

Harbison defaults to Fitzgerald’s language in a way that gives some scenes a pageant-like feel—and frustrates operatic energies. The novel’s more famous phrases duly appear, but stick out as quotes among the surrounding abbreviation. (Harbison’s deference to the novel is especially apparent in comparison with Baz Luhrmann’s movie version that came out this spring. Harbison has Gatsby fade in, his small talk with Nick about the war veneered into the middle of another ’20s-pop recreation. Luhrmann skips all that in favor of an extravagant reveal, Gatsby filling the screen, lovingly lit, with a backdrop of fireworks and the slightly anachronistic climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue blazing forth. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But also more effectively operatic than anything in the opera version.) Nick’s final peroration—the orgiastic green light, the boats against the current—is justly famous, but setting it word-for-word, as Harbison does, is to deprive opera of its own chance at storytelling. One suspects that a Puccini or a Strauss would have sent Nick on his way, given us and the orchestra one last flash of the green light, and rang down the curtain.

* * *

Cast of The Great Gatsby

The cast of The Great Gatsby bows following their performance. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

But there is still another way of listening to the piece, one I actually found the most interesting. One can hear The Great Gatsby as an attempt at the Great American Opera—and, crucially, an attempt that is not only a) fully aware of its own status as such an attempt, but also b) fully aware that the category is largely nonexistent. Think about some of the more plausible candidates for the Great American Opera: Susannah, or Vanessa, or Einstein on the Beach, or Nixon in China, or (my own vote) Bernstein’s Mass. There are other candidates, certainly, but even that little gathering is indicative of a category either so wide open as to defy usefulness, or based solely on a kind of epic quirkiness.

Harbison has done something a little different, though—he’s fashioned a convincing simulation of what an ideal Great American Opera might have sounded like to someone who, at some time in the past, might have cared about such a thing. The overall sound: tonal but brawny with dissonance, muscular yet lyrical. The use of an American vernacular: those lovingly exact pop tunes, given the structural prominence of Bach chorales. The source material, classic literature honored with a fidelity to please a high-school English teacher. Through this lens, The Great Gatsby becomes something intriguing: a consistent evocation of an imaginary art form, complete with flaws. Maybe that’s what the audience was applauding, sensing the audacity of a truly grand-scale bluff.

Harbison’s idea of the Great American Opera is, essentially, modeled after Verdi. The party scenes owe a debt to the last act of La Traviata; perhaps Harbison’s decision to write Tom Buchanan, essentially the opera’s heavy, for a tenor voice is an emulation of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto (which would make Nick, a baritone, an appropriately jester-like figure). But Verdi would gut-renovate his sources until he had a vehicle for lapidary musical characterization. The Great Gatsby doesn’t come close to such a ruthless translation of the novel’s delicate style.

There are a couple places in the score where we get a glimpse of the terms on which the opera might have worked: the duet between Gatsby and Daisy at the end of the first act; and the second scene of the second act, with all the main characters gathered at the Buchanans’ house and wilting in the heat. The characters are suddenly in the sharpest focus, paradoxically supported by the most impressionistic passages in the piece, both scenes suffused with a transparent, luminous haze of orchestration. And, significantly, both scenes are among the opera’s least-plotted. In those passages, one got the sense that simply situating the characters among a loose string of symbolic images—the parties, the car, the eyes on Dr. Eckleburg’s billboard, the green light—might be more than enough to hold up a Gatsby opera. Gatsby’s frangibility, his airy tragedy, is of a piece with the most elliptical, dream-like qualities of American life and American celebrity: all charged snapshots and everyday epiphanies, the ephemeral and inconsequential turned into the everlasting and paramount.

Late in his short life, Fitzgerald, who was in the habit of sending his daughter letters of advice, informed her that “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” The Great Gatsby, the opera, making sure that the pipes are free of leaves, ends up draining the pool—but not before, for at least a couple of brief moments, casting off the novel’s reputation and diving into the deep end.

Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The San Francisco Opera’s summer season, which concluded this past weekend, featured the world premiere production of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. A work six years in development with a libretto written by the composer, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is an earnestly personal and thoroughly researched re-examination of the role of the main women in Jesus’s life—Mary Magdalene and his mother (who is called Miriam in the opera)—as well as an attempt to understand Jesus and his disciple Peter as flawed human beings.

Adamo’s recasting of the story of Jesus’s life is rooted in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, texts that were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Written in the first couple of centuries of the Christian church, these alternate tellings of Jesus’s history did not become part of the canonical texts that we are most familiar with. Nearly every discussion about the opera I have heard or read has made mention of the 116 clearly sourced footnotes in Adamo’s libretto, and though some have found them surprising or amusing, it cannot be denied that this opera is a serious inquiry on Adamo’s part, an attempt to filter scholarship through the lens of opera and theater. He has said specifically that he is not thumbing his nose at the story as it has traditionally been told; rather, he said in an NPR interview, “I love this tradition. I would not have been able to write as I wrote unless I thought the story would gain rather than lose nobility, credibility, and passion.”

The most non-traditional elements of this telling feature Mary Magdalene’s central role in Jesus’s life as his wife, one who is at his side as he preaches and who is a forceful counterweight to his disciple Peter. Also, rather than being the son of God born from an immaculate conception, Jesus is explicitly described as a bastard child of Miriam, who was a teenage bride impregnated by a man other than Joseph, and who was given the choice to abort but decided against it. It may be that the seriousness with which both Adamo and the San Francisco Opera approached the topic—talk-back discussions were held after each performance with Kayleen Asbo, a cultural historian and mythologist, and multiple ancillary events were held at Grace Cathedral in advance of the premiere—helped to deter any public protest regarding the work. Nonetheless, San Francisco Opera’s General Manger David Gockley, who had also commissioned Adamo’s previous two operas (Little Women and Lysistrata) when he was at Houston Grand Opera, did say that the topic scared away other opera companies, leaving San Francisco Opera as the sole commissioner.

This premiere production of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene luxuriated in exceptional American musical talent, spearheaded by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke singing and performing the title role with fervor and clarity throughout. Frequent stage partners Nathan Gunn and William Burden portrayed Yeshua (Jesus, in Hebrew) and Peter, respectively, with Burden delivering a particularly compelling performance during the Passion scene in which his cowardice leads him to deny his relationship with Yeshua. Soprano Maria Kanyova, who portrayed Pat Nixon in last season’s production of Nixon in China (covered in NewMusicBox here), returned to the company for the role of Miriam. Conductor Michael Christie, who, like Sasha Cooke, was making his first appearance with the San Francisco Opera, led the proceedings confidently, balancing the orchestra well with the singers, who had a great deal of text in English to deliver, and allowing Adamo’s varied and evocative orchestration to shine.

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Adamo places Mary and Yeshua’s story within a contemporary framework by opening the opera with five “Seekers” dressed in contemporary clothes who enter the set while the house lights are still up, mirroring the audience members who are entering the house. The mammoth set designed by David Korins, which never moves in the course of the production, evokes an archeological dig site in which the Seekers voice their concern about modern-day religion: namely, that they—or perhaps we, or perhaps specifically Adamo—have been taught that the body is “unholy” and “the very source of sin,” and that this “poisonous” view of the physical and sexual self has caused years of hurt. And yet, the need to find a way to integrate their religion with the rest of their lives remains, and it sets up the rest of the opera as an attempt to “correct” and “complete” the story as it has been told traditionally. For most of the rest of the production, the Seekers remain on stage, often observing and commenting but sometimes interacting, acting as our avatars within the story as it develops.

For such a radical retelling of a canonical work, Adamo’s musical language is notably un-revolutionary; clarity of text delivery is prioritized through lyrical lines and repeated motives that move among various people throughout the opera, musically interweaving the characters’ lives. In the chorus’s frequent appearances throughout the work—the most effective being the crucifixion scene, where they violently deliver a version of the Dies Irae text, in Greek—Adamo often has them sing homophonically or in vocalise, making their pithy commentary clearly understandable. (The most memorable instance of this is when they interject footnotes into the action.)

Adamo has spoken openly of the challenges of his Catholic upbringing, as a gay man whose divorced mother continued to send him to church and Catholic school even after she was denied communion. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is clearly born from the desire to excavate that personal history through looking at the real people buried under two millennia of mythology. In this process of humanizing these characters, however, the holy and spiritual aspects of these figures are often left by the wayside. For this listener, the missing linchpin in this look at Jesus’s life was divinity: in this portrayal, it was hard to understand why Jesus gained the following and devotion that he did. In the scenes where Yeshua is preaching, he is given a fire and brimstone diatribe and a comic theatrical moment referencing circumcision, but holiness is notably absent. Yeshua invokes God only once in the entire production, when he is on the cross, forsaken. Nearly all other references to God are uttered by the women, and not necessarily in a reverential way. At best, the character of Yeshua seems almost a boorish bro; at worst, he might be perceived as a misogynistic and hypocritical charlatan. Even Miriam and Peter seem to mock Mary Magdalene at first for naively falling for Yeshua’s charismatic preaching. When the gathered crowd passionately declares him the Messiah, it is difficult to see what motivates them to do so.

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Among the most significant “corrections” that the Seekers allude to in the opera’s prologue is the translation of John 20:17, which occurs in the final scene and which Adamo explains in his penultimate footnote:

Translated into Latin as Noli me tangere, or “Don’t touch me,” this line, over centuries, inspired thousands of paintings of a tearful grasping wench thrust aside by an angel bent on higher things: the very image of the Church’s ancient equation of women with sex and sin. But the original line, in Greek, means, as rendered here, “Do not hold on to me,” or “let me go.”

In the opera’s version of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, taken from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, the crypt is not empty: the corpse is still there, but Yeshua’s ghost appears behind Mary. (The most questionable directorial choice of the production involved Yeshua’s unintentionally amusing ascension into the crypt by means of a hydraulic lift, and subsequent descending into heaven through the stage fog.) Their final duet, launched by Yeshua’s plea to let go of the ones we love, is perhaps the clearest instance of the influence of American musical theater on Adamo’s compositional language. Yeshua urges Mary to “tell them” his and her stories—essentially to spread the Gospel in her terms—a task that Adamo has taken on in this opera.

During the run of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we saw the Supreme Court rulings on California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA, as well as Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster in Texas (and Governor Rick Perry’s subsequent comments about her as a teenage mother at a Right to Life conference). Directly across the street from the San Francisco Opera house is the City Hall where same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses during a brief window in 2004, and the plaza where San Francisco’s annual gay pride celebration was taking place. Within this context, Adamo’s opera, which aims to reconcile sexuality with a Christian life, and which argues for a woman’s right to possess a physical identity without abandoning spirituality, could not have found a more appropriate home than the San Francisco Opera.

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter Premiere at Stanford University

The first time I tried to find the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, I wound up half a mile in the opposite direction and face to face with several of Auguste Rodin’s tortured sculptures. The Stanford campus is a gorgeous, messy sprawl in the rolling hills west of Palo Alto, and it is easy to lose all sense of direction there. Signs point to nearby buildings, but it can be maddening to find one’s way beyond what the eye can see. This, however, is the classic Stanford experience: amidst the miles of wild grasses and coast live oaks, intellectual ideas—in juxtaposition to one’s expectations and carefully crafted intentions—find a way of becoming novel interdisciplinary realizations.

Bing Concert Hall

The intimate 842-seat Bing Concert Hall opened in January 2013 and hosted “Visitations,” a double-bill of one-act operas, on April 12 and 13.

Stanford was thus the perfect setting for the world premieres of Jonathan Berger’s two chamber operas, Theotokia and The War Reporter. Each work explores the interior psyche of men haunted by voices, presenting an expansive psychological inquiry in addition to a contained musical experience. Berger and his creative team, including librettist Dan O’Brien and director Rinde Eckert, treated this complex topic with an economy of means. Backed by an ensemble of nine instrumentalists, the four men of New York Polyphony, along with soprano Heather Buck, deftly covered all the singing roles. O’Brien’s lean text and Eckert’s straightforward direction also emphasized the intimate qualities of chamber opera.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.

The male vocal quartet New York Polyphony. Geoffrey Williams (far right) gave a tender and ferocious performance as a schizophrenic in Theotokia.
Photo by Chris Owyoung.

Theotokia, presented in eight brief scenes, eschews a traditional narrative arc for the fragmented world of poetry. Leon, performed by countertenor Geoffrey Williams, is a schizophrenic taunted by the voices of three religious figures (sung in virtuosic alternations by Buck). In the third scene, Leon, clothed in a drab, unbuckled straightjacket, expresses his frustration at not being able to quiet the voices though, significantly, not through song. Williams began quietly, tentatively rapping his hands against the sides of the resonant box on which he sat, before surrendering to more formal, frenzied rhythmic patterns. His fierce performance clearly suggested his character’s helplessness and anger; it was frightening. The opera concludes with Leon’s awareness that he is, in fact, mentally ill, and the final quiet notes played by the pianist underscored his resignation.


Heather Buck, Craig Phillips, Christopher Dylan Herbert, Geoffrey Williams, and Steven Caldicott Wilson in Theotokia.
Photo by Joel Simon.

I couldn’t help but compare Theotokia to Pierrot Lunaire, since both works feature characters haunted by the machinations of their own minds. The tender sympathy I felt for Leon was mixed with a measure of distrust, a conflict of sentiments that I typically reserve for the dithering Pierrot. Perhaps aware that viewers might grow skeptical of a mentally unstable protagonist, Berger, like Schoenberg, calls upon the instrumentalists to hold the listeners in the psycho-musical realm. The instrumental writing fascinates at just the right moments, supporting what is otherwise a delicate psychological experience. I somehow didn’t mind when Buck’s Yeti Mother sang passionately about dung, so long as the piano conjured a smoky Berlin cabaret behind her. Steven Schick’s wild percussion solo transformed Leon’s earlier lament into what sounded like a masterfully improvised cadenza. And I held my breath as the violin (and then the clarinet) matched the pitch and dynamic of a fading vocal line, extending a thread of sound beyond what seemed acoustically possible.

Berger, who is a professor at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), surprised me with the subtlety of his electroacoustic soundscape. I’d anticipated a fully transformative ambisonic environment, but the materials used (bells, low-frequency metallic drones) were, for the most part, mere extensions of the instrumental parts. The refined blend between the acoustic instruments (particularly the percussion) and the electronic soundscape suggested that hallucinatory voices could present themselves as, simply, a distortion of what is already familiar.

Jonathan Berger

Berger is a professor of music at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where his research emphasizes relationships between music, science, and technology.
Photo by Nicholas Jensen.

In contrast to Theotokia’s candlelit Shaker simplicity and pale costumes, The War Reporter began with stark video projections and panning audio, and felt altogether more edgy and sinister. The men wore black suits. And sunglasses. The opera takes a direct narrative approach: from the opening line, “Have you seen the American soldier?” we bear witness to one man’s actions, as well the consequences of those actions both on his status as a photographer and on his psyche as someone racked with guilt. Finally, we recognize his attempts to make some peace with the demons in his mind.

Also commissioned by Stanford Live, The War Reporter tells the true story of Paul Watson, a photojournalist haunted by the voice of an American soldier he photographed while on assignment in Somalia. Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert owned the role of Watson, singing in beautiful defiance of the capacity of a single human breath. Herbert sang through ends of phrases with seemingly infinite decrescendos, setting the listener adrift in the fog of his character’s mind. When a single instrument continues this thread of sound, it feels—as in Theotokia—as if time stands still. With curvy irregularities from floor to ceiling, the acoustics of Bing Hall may have assisted in drawing attention to these moments of close relationship between the vocal and instrumental parts. Yet I suspect the magic had more to do with Berger’s writing and Herbert’s performance than with the undulating panels of beech and cedar.

Chris Herbert and Heather Buck

Christopher Dylan Herbert as photojournalist Paul Watson, and Heather Buck as his psychiatrist, in The War Reporter.
Photo by Joel Simon.

The premiere of the two operas was held in conjunction with Stanford’s “Music and Brain” symposium. Now in its seventh year, and held at CCRMA, the conference featured experts in the fields of psychology, music, and communications. Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at UC San Diego, was the first speaker on Saturday morning’s program, and her presentation included a definition of musical hallucinations in startling counterpoint to Berger’s operas. According to Deutsch, hallucinated music is virtually impossible to recall or imagine voluntarily because it generally consists of superimposed musical styles, cracked or distorted instruments, or “impossible” techniques, such as a person singing longer than a breath could allow.  Her description of these phenomena reminded me of Herbert’s performance as Paul Watson and of how his approach to the vocal line, in combination with Berger’s sleight-of-hand orchestration, effectively placed us in the faltering expanse of Watson’s mind.
One only needs to lunch with a member of the CCRMA faculty to get the sense that, at Stanford, music is never enough. It is always “music and —.” Music and anthropology. Music and psychology. Music and acoustic modeling. This view of music through the lens of the hard sciences sometimes strikes me as fantastic, but perhaps such interdisciplinary relationships are no more strange than those forged between music, art, and literature. Between the premiere of Berger’s operas, the symposium, and trekking from one end of the Stanford campus to the other, I was reminded that the juxtaposition of art and science, idea and exploration, yields results that are often as intriguing as they are unexpected.

Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Soldier Songs

A scene from David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. Photo by Jill Steinberg, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

Two worthy and penetrating studies of opera take as their premise the idea that the form is dead. In A History of Opera (2012), Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker declare that the genre is “a mortuary” and “a thing of the past” even as they grant that recent decades have seen “a remarkable global increase in operatic activity.” They bolster their mournful claims in part by stacking the deck, paying scant heed to works from the past half-century or so. They sum up Henze, Tippett, and Glass in about a sentence apiece, allot fewer pages to Britten’s operatic output than to Handel’s Rinaldo, and fail to mention Kaija Saariaho at all.

Then again, why kill off opera only once? Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world “stillborn,” “as something outdated.” The notion is tenable given the antiquarian passions that drove the Camerata de’ Bardi and the form’s other progenitors, and the themes of loss, retrospection, mourning, and (would-be) resurrection obsessively revisited in Peri’s Euridice, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and countless other operas throughout the centuries.

Žižek and Dolar propose several candidates for “the last opera,” including three monumental unfinished works: Puccini’s Turandot, Berg’s Lulu, and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. And while they, like Abbate and Parker, acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains “a huge relic” and “an enormous anachronism.”
To my mind, there are two ways to respond to the gloom that permeates A History of Opera and Opera’s Second Death. The first would be to hide the books from the artists crafting and performing new operas lest they get wise to the idea that theirs, to quote Dolar, is a “zombielike” pursuit. The second, jollier and less obscurantist, would be to invite the authors to New York to sample remarkable work of the kind that I have seen and heard in recent months. (Two birds, one stone: perhaps then Žižek really would host Saturday Night Live.) Incidentally, those imps at Britain’s Royal Opera don’t seem to believe that opera is dead. They recently commissioned four new full-length operas for the 2020 season—inspired by the writings of none other than operatic-prophet-of-doom Slavoj Žižek.
Here in New York, on an icy February night following a brutal storm, Experiments in Opera’s New Shorts program played to an overflowing house at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room. With sizzling playing by Hotel Elefant, ten new ten-minute operas, each preceded by a video interview with the composer or creative team, captivated young and old alike. (The audience ran the gamut from children to golden agers, the latter in far smaller measure than typically seen at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.)

Abbate and Parker note that nearly all now-canonical operas were seen as “disposable” when they had their premieres, and that exorbitant costs limit the risks that today’s major companies can take with new works. At New Shorts, no-frills direction by Louisa Proske, Stewart Kramer, and David Levine made plain that effective stagings need not be elaborate or costly. (The same holds true at big houses: the Met’s spare-to-the-bone production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, to be revived in May, is one of the company’s most powerful offerings.) As for the fungibility of the New Shorts operas, only time, that most wayward of arbiters, will tell which ones have legs. Their variety and consistently high quality impressed me, though, and the audience’s enthusiasm never flagged during a program of pithy works that added up to an epic-length evening.

Verdi and Britten celebrate landmark birthdays this year, and one reason why their operas endure is because so many were based on works by major writers, including Shakespeare, Schiller, and James. Two of the most compelling New Shorts operas also draw on illustrious literary sources: Bodiless by Gabrielle Herbst and The God’s Script by Justin Tierney. The latter sheathes in fierce, gorgeously orchestrated music a dramatization of Jorge Luis Borges’s “La escritura del dios,” the story of an imprisoned Mayan priest, sung with command by Jeffrey Gavett, who seeks to decipher a divine message encoded in the spots of a jaguar he sees for only an instant each day. Just as the novella’s narrator tells of “vertigo” and a “labyrinth of dreams,” Tierney’s score circles time and again around the same intervals, its claustrophobic darkness pierced by glistening threads of violin tone or washes of flute over prickly percussion.

Bodiless is a surprising title for a work based on “deconstructed text” by the philosopher Hélène Cixous, whose most celebrated essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” extols the “luminous torrents” and “unheard-of songs” that course through women’s flesh. In her setting, Herbst spins a web of soaring phrases and ululations for three sopranos: at New Shorts performed by herself, Ariadne Greif, and Lucy Dhegrae, all wearing lacy, shredded costumes with intertwining tendrils by Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda. With no discernible action or narrative trajectory, Bodiless seems more rhapsody than drama. That said, its repeated phrase “the roar of light” suggests an affinity with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (“Wie, hör’ ich das Licht?”), an opera whose own static Handlung traces an erotic journey beyond the body, and whose love music, all echolalia and vocal arabesques, similarly eschews singularity and sense.


Mark Emerson in Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

At the opposite extreme to Bodiless is Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, a monologue performed with wry brilliance by actor Mark Emerson that layers rhythmic speech over pointillist fragments of melody in a kind of ultimate distillation of stile rappresentativo. The Collector’s colloquial tone, oblique wit, and themes of paraphilia and fixation with ephemera (postage stamps) bring to mind the loopy “pictographic ballad operas” of Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy, the most winsome and intelligent new operas I have encountered in the past decade. Equally droll, WOW by Joe Diebes and Christian Hawkey makes something peppy and exuberant of the superego’s implacable ostinato (“I am ashamed of”), grandly intoned by Jonathon Hampton and Devin Provenzano, juxtaposed with a litany of disgraceful things spoken by Christina Campanella. They range from the usual suspects (“my penis size”) to matters trivial (“what my phone says about me”), earnest (“my hate-filled fellow Christians”), and forthrightly human (“having my butt checked”).

The Mother

Lisa Komara in Jason Cady’s The Mother, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Jason Cady, whose Happiness is The Problem has just been released by LockStep Records, figured as both composer and performer at New Shorts. Sung and acted in dazzling manner by Lisa Komara and Erin Flannery, Cady’s The Mother pairs colorful scoring, sassy rhythms, and sweetly angular melodies with a young woman’s darkest nightmare: being overtaken in art and love by her mother, who morphs by outrageous happenstance from dreary crone to musical prodigy. With Ann Heppermann, Cady also acted in Matthew Welch’s The Three Truths, a robot opera based on a Sufi parable that hints at an elemental unease with the soulless, mechanical underside of vocal virtuosity. Gavett and Anne Rhodes sang with the requisite authority, and Seth Bodie designed the spectacular costumes for Welch’s opera and The Mother.

End Times

Elisabeth Halliday in End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Leaha Maria Villarreal’s A Window to a Door, austerely scored for violin, contrabass, and electronic playback, explores music at the edge of silence. Her voice delicate, her presence poignant, Meagan Brus portrayed its sole character, a young woman who is held hostage—in jail? an asylum? a prison of her own making? Set in a dystopian future of planetary meltdown, End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods shares the off-kilter humor of The Mother and WOW and shifts between the acid musings of an “existential weather woman” and the rants of a fundamentalist reverend, trenchantly played by Elisabeth Halliday and Robert Maril. The last New Short offering, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Hannis Brown’s I am a Fish, probes quandaries of identity with wild vocal writing, admirably sung by Seth Gilman, and a roiling score shot through with the sting of the electric guitar.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline's Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline’s Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Beyond New Shorts, New York has teemed with vital new operas in recent months. One could argue that Out Cold, Phil Kline’s monodrama that had its world premiere last fall at BAM under the auspices of American Opera Projects, is a monument to belatedness with its nods to Sinatra and Schubert, or that those touchstones along with Theo Bleckmann’s lean tone and conversational delivery represent a repudiation of everything “operatic.” But our current thinking about opera is defective, heedless of the form’s intimate currents—Monteverdi’s Orfeo, after all, was performed in private chambers at the Duke of Mantua’s palace—and bound to bloated 19th-century paradigms. Besides, when Kline cites for his boozer’s late-night reveries the Magic Fire Music that ushers Brünnhilde to sleep in Die Walküre, does he not demonstrate the truth of Nietzsche’s claim that Wagner is “our greatest musical miniaturist”? At BAM, Bleckmann was an opera unto himself, singing, dancing, and acting with forlorn elegance and consummate artistry, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble made bright the many bewitching hues of Kline’s poison-sweet songs.

January’s inaugural Prototype Festival, produced by Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, and Kim Whitener, showcased five new operatic offerings, selling out many performances and garnering praise from Justin Davidson, Ronni Reich, and many others. I missed Timur and the Dime Museum but did cover David T. Little’s Soldier Songs for Time Out New York. Like the bare-bones New Shorts presentations, Yuval Sharon’s uncluttered but potent staging of Little’s 2006 opera refuted the idea that opera companies need to bust the bank in order to galvanize audiences. The unit set—a sandbox—deftly conjured up the landscape on which several recent wars unfolded, and perhaps also the puerile and foolhardy spirit in which certain leaders waged those wars. And the image of blood slowly soaking through the business suit and dress shirt worn by the soldier when he returns to civilian life remains among the most haunting I have ever witnessed in a theatre.

Prototype also gave the world stage premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song, already familiar thanks to its fine Bridge recording and various workshop presentations. Here, too, smart rather than pricey stagecraft carried the day. The revenge-besotted Asakir is as high-strung a leading lady as Verdi’s Azucena or Strauss’s Elektra, yet Rachel Calloway, cannily directed by David Herskovits, made her wild grandeur work in a tiny performing space. And even with the fourth wall mere feet away from most viewers, Alixa Gage’s costumes and Zane Pihlstrom’s abstract set, strands of vinyl tubing aglow with the weird colors of Lenore Doxsee’s lighting, made a credible case for Fairouz’s drama of a family and a wider world undone by violence and abiding rancor. (Gage and Pilhstrom, incidentally, were part of director Gia Forakis’s team for The Kitchen’s poetic staging of Missy Mazzoli’s Song From The Uproar: The Lives and Deaths Of Isabelle Eberhardt last spring.)

The other Prototype offerings were Paola Prestini’s Aging Musician, a work in progress that happily draws on the resplendent tones of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Bluebeard by the Dutch collective 33 1/3. An unnerving work without live musicians and with 3-D video renderings of corpses, body parts, and other ontological terrors, Bluebeard hovers between the post-human virtual and the Lacanian Real: the material ground of existence, unutterable and horrifying, shards of which can erupt in everyday life. (Quick, someone get Žižek and Dolar on Skype!)

For a “mortuary” and a “stillborn” art form, then, opera seems to be going strong, at least in these parts. In addition to the works mentioned here, recent months have brought new operas by Philip Glass, Victoria Bond, Douglas J. Cuomo, Nolan Gasser, Matthew Harris, and Thomas Pasatieri. The coming months will also bring keenly anticipated world premieres at San Francisco Opera (Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene) and Santa Fe (Theodore Morrison’s Oscar). Glancing beyond NMBx’s purview, Operabase lists some sixty additional new operas having premieres in 2012-13, at least one of which, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, opened to glowing reviews and will tour widely. This season, New Yorkers have also had chances to take in slashingly fine Adès at New York City Opera and the Met, where Nico Muhly’s Two Boys will have its local premiere in October.
Opera, then, seems to me “not completely dead”; in fact, it seems to be doing rather well. Call off the funeral and get in line to see for yourself.


Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Marion Lignana Rosenberg. Photo by Maeghan Donohue.

Marion Lignana Rosenberg has written about music, books, and the arts for Time Out New York, WQXR, Capital New York, The Forward, The Classical Review, and other publications. She has also written program notes and essays for Kronos Quartet, The Glyndebourne Festival, and New York City Opera.

Opera Parallèle Presents Golijov’s Ainadamar

Lobby - Ainadamar
Moving silently throughout the lobby and the theater prior to the start of Opera Parallèle’s recent performances were girls dressed entirely in white, carrying valises, and young women, also in white though their dress hems were soaked in red. These ghostly apparitions moved up and down the aisles and sat quietly among audience members, not interacting but making their presence felt. By the start of the show, all of Las Niñas had made their way onto the stage of the Lam Research Theater at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the opening scene of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, which received its first San Francisco production earlier this month.

Golijov’s opera, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang (which was translated into Spanish by Golijov), dramatizes the life of Spanish actress Margarita Xirgu (1888–1969), muse to writer Federico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936; murdered by Fascist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War). In real life, Xirgu created the role of Mariana Pineda in Lorca’s play of the same name; Pineda was herself an Andalucian historical figure who also was executed for her unyielding commitment to liberal causes. The 90-minute opera shows Xirgu in the moments at the end of her life, preparing to go onstage in a production of Mariana Pineda, remembering her (non-romantic) relationship with Lorca in flashbacks and visualizing the circumstances of his execution. The opera concludes with Xirgu’s own passing and transfiguration.

Ainadamar - Fountain of Tears

Marnie Breckenridge (center) as Margarita Xirgu, flanked by chorus members, flamenco dancers, and Lisa Chavez (in bowtie) as Federico García Lorca
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Xirgu, sung by soprano Marnie Breckenridge, and Lorca, a trouser role performed by Lisa Chavez, were joined by Xirgu’s student/protégée Nuria (Maya Kherani) and a chorus of treble voices, sung in these performances by a 13-voice women’s choir and the 15 young members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus dressed in white. Opera Parallèle’s production also featured five women flamenco dancers led by La Tania, who are seen during the opening chorus having their children torn from their arms by male soldiers, a reference to the tens of thousands of “lost children” who were stolen from Republican families by Nationalists for re-education.

Flamenco dancer La Tania

Flamenco dancer La Tania (in white) and four members of her troupe, with Breckenridge, above
hoto by Steve Dibartolomeo

By casting a chorus of young girls alongside the women, and also adding a corps of female dancers who at times appeared as mother figures, Opera Parallèle’s production, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, highlighted the impact of the war on women as well as intergenerational female relationships. While the score calls for a female choir (divided into three groups) to sing Las Niñas’ part, it does not specify children. This choice was a significant and thought-provoking shift from the 2005 production in Santa Fe directed by Peter Sellars, who had been instrumental in significantly revising the dramatic structure of the work after the initial performances in 2003 at Tanglewood. Whereas Sellars’s production, which had an ensemble of only eight adult women who often surrounded Xirgu like acolytes, placed its emphasis on far-right militarism and showed Lorca being shot in the ass repeatedly on stage after being called a maricón (faggot) during the “Interludio de Balazos” (“Gunshot interlude”), Staufenbiel placed Lorca’s killing offstage, instead bringing on three male soldiers to shoot the dancers, who had previously been shown protesting and lamenting Lorca’s imminent execution.

Jesús Montoya and Breckenridge

Jesús Montoya and Breckenridge enact the execution of Mariana Pineda by garrote
Photo by Steve Dibartolomeo

The score places a number of unusual demands on both the cast and the production team. Margarita Xirgu, nominally a soprano role given the luminous high Bs and Cs written for the final moments of her life, spends much of the opera singing at the bottom of and below the staff as a mature woman, but also jumps to usual soprano range for flashbacks to her youth. The role of Lorca is written astonishingly and consistently low, tapping into an unfamiliar husky timbre that is disorienting and intriguing in its power. The primary male role (there are three other small roles for men, in the passion play that surrounds Lorca’s death) is the fascist officer, Ruiz Alonso, who was played in this production by Jesús Montoya, a flamenco singer who produces a full-throated and passionately raw sound that isn’t taught in conservatory voice studios. (Montoya, who recorded the role for Deutsche Grammophon, has sung in multiple productions of Ainadamar, though this is the first one in which he has had to act the role on stage.) All of the performances, including Kherani’s crystalline Nuria, were vocally commanding, but Breckenridge’s committed physical embodiment of Xirgu provided the continuous thread that held the production together.

Chavez, Breckenridge and Kherani in the final trio

Chavez, Breckenridge and Kherani in the final trio
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Because the vocal parts are often in unusual ranges, the singers are amplified throughout the performance. Also, there are prerecorded elements throughout the show—the sound of drops of water (Ainadamar, which translates as Fountain of Tears, is a reference to a fountain outside of Alfácar), galloping horses, gunshots, and a field recording of a prayer ceremony—in addition to extensive percussion and keyboard parts within a highly spirited and impressively cohesive 32-piece orchestra, conducted by Nicole Paiement. Unfortunately, these disparate elements required a more sophisticated and integrated sound design than what Opera Parallèle was able to provide, and as a result there was inconsistency in the levels of the singers and some occasional distortion at the performance I attended.

Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, at an open rehearsal

Nicole Paiement and Brian Staufenbiel with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, at an open rehearsal

Ainadamar is Opera Parallèle’s first production since changing its name from Ensemble Parallèle. This small company, founded in 1993 by Paiement, has turned their focus to contemporary opera with several successful productions over the past few seasons—last year’s production of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby was an award winner in January’s National Opera Association competition—and the change brings their name in line with their current identity. The company has been making a concerted effort to open up the rehearsal process to audiences, offering sneak previews and open rehearsals to the public free of charge. Opera Parallèle’s season continues with a double-bill of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge in April, and a workshop of the company’s first commission, Dante De Silva’s Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, in June.


News in Brief: The San Francisco Girls Chorus announced this month that Lisa Bielawa—composer, longtime vocalist of the Philip Glass Ensemble, founder of the MATA Festival, and a Girls Chorus alumna—has been named artistic director, charged with overseeing the group’s programming and developing new artistic partnerships. Bielawa will divide her time between San Francisco and New York; principal conducting duties at the chorus will be assumed by Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

New England’s Prospect: “The harpsdischord shall be theirs for ollaves”

It was the beer, in the end. And Schrödinger. But for much of the time, Martin Pearlman’s Finnegans Wake: An Operoar did right by James Joyce’s garrulous tumble of language. The Sunday night premiere was under the nominally anachronistic auspices of Boston Baroque—the inaugural concert of the group’s new chamber series—but the rationales were both obvious (Pearlman is Boston Baroque’s music director) and, maybe, a little meta-historical, the whole early music movement being, after all, a product of modernity. And the opening chapter of Finnegans Wake is nothing if not historically informed, a dense, hallucinatory tour of legend and lore, the centuries peeled back to set the stage for the fall of the original Finnegan, Finn McCool, and the wake which proves the unlikely creation act of the novel’s dreamlike narrative.

What success the work produced could be traced to two fundamental decisions: not cutting the text (the piece—as it stands, Pearlman reserving the Joycean prerogative of calling it a “work in progress”—sets the novel’s first seven pages in whole), and opting for a reciting actor (Adam Harvey) rather than singers. The words could flow unimpeded, Pearlman’s rhythmic setting natural and fluent, Harvey’s delivery (even with the handicap of an American accent) confident and—no small feat—remarkably off-book for a premiere. The music, for the most part, provided constantly shifting scenery. The ensemble was of the new music ilk—flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, piano, and a fair collection of percussion—and the musical accent that of post-serialism, rhythmically and contrapuntally busy and multivalent, but harmonically mediated, not averse to venturing forth chromatically (occasionally rising to a pitch reminiscent of Joyce’s “duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation”) but always staying within earshot of a tonal center or resolution. Many of the motives alternated between chromatic, “atonal” versions and more triadically contoured twins.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Pearlman clearly loves the song-like nature of Joyce’s language (Joyce was a singer, after all), and his delineation of it was optimized towards bringing out its capacity for rhyme and dance-like scansion. (At times, as in Harvey’s snappy delivery of lines like “the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers, homesweepers, domecreepers, thurum and thurum in fancymud murumd,” it was almost as if to make a case for Joyce as a kind of proto-rapper.) And Pearlman was attentive to the broad symmetries in the prose’s structure: the rolling tolling of historical events, with the musicians giving fragmentary cues for Harvey to respond to, was mirrored in the telling of Finn’s fall, Harvey now the one spurring commentary from the instruments, interpreted portents now become portentous gossip. The tallying of Finn’s various incarnations, with the music providing a mickey-moused soundtrack keyed to the text, was transformed into the din at the wake, the speech rhythms herded by the hints of Irish song burbling up through the ensemble. The opening glimpse of the River Liffey, a wash of cymbal and a heavy jig from the violin, returned at the end, Anna’s “wivvy and wavy” hair (borrowed from page 28 for a coda) now elided with the river’s current. (The perception of all these structures was vastly aided by the piece being performed twice.)

Still, it was those Irish songs that hinted at the barrier Pearlman’s setting—along with all settings of Finnegans Wake—eventually ran up against. Pearlman relished the chance for the ensemble to provide a gloss to the text, the songs Joyce hinted at or parodied suddenly poking out of the musical texture. But the results were more of an Ivesian hubbub than Joyce’s rapid-fire but precisely aimed allusive vectors. The problem, of course, being that music goes, inexorably, in real time—on the page, Joyce’s references, however passing (and they almost all are in passing), can still hit their marks, clear and momentarily in the spotlight; but layered into music, they were perceived only peripherally. By the time one had processed a musical quotation, the next one had already gone by. (And some remained unprocessed—even on second hearing, and primed by Pearlman’s mention of it during a question-and-answer interlude, I still missed a Beethoven quote accompanying the “dusty fidelios” at the wake.)

It’s the eternal trade-off of trying to musicalize Finnegans Wake: you can capture the rhythm of the language or the depth of field of the allusive web, but not (at least in my experience) both—because the allusive web is as much visual as aural. You can see it in the beer, the cask meant to accompany Finn, pharaoh-like, on his journey to the world of the dead, the “barrowload of guenesis hoer his head” to match the “bockalips of finisky fore his feet.” It’s one of the book’s more famous portmanteau-puns, the barrel of Guinness made to bookend the whisky in a Genesis-Apocalypse biblical whole, but also containing within it the spark that will fuel the book: not only genesis (after all, what better image for creating a universe than brewing it) but also genius, the creative urge to tell the story. And, if you’re a close reader of Finnegans Wake, you note that this is already the book’s second version of the pun, after the initial introduction of the title character, who, in a parenthetical digression, we learn

sternely struxk his tete in a tub for to watsch the future of his fates but ere he swiftly stook it out again, by the might of moses, the very water was eviparated and all the guenneses had met their exodus so that ought to show you what a pentschanjeuchy chap he was!

And then you can dig deeper and find out that the Guinnesses did meet their exodus in a way particular to Joyce, Joyce’s father having been secretary to the Liberal Party whose candidate unseated Sir Arthur Guinness for a seat in the Irish parliament, Arthur’s father, Sir Benjamin Guinness, Lord Mayor of Dublin, to be likened in Finnegans Wake to Noah, Noah who went on the first biblically recorded drunken spree, a spree recorded in Genesis, a spree that could very well have been fueled by a barrel-load of Guinness. It’s the sort of referential rabbit-hole that infuriates the book’s detractors and endears it to its adherents.

In a way that has eluded every musical setting of it I’ve yet heard, Finnegans Wake is a book of quantum superposition. Joyce, in fact, wrote it at the same time quantum physics was coming into its own, at the same time as De Broglie’s equation, Schrödinger’s wave function, the Copenhagen interpretation. It was Schrödinger who came up with the most famous analogy for the superposition that resulted from a probabilistic interpretation of his wave function, his cat, suspended between the states of life and death until an observation forces it into one state or another. But Finnegans Wake might be an even better illustration of the concept, every one of Joyce’s half-inherited, half-invented words encompassing an abundance of states simultaneously, all the interpretations and allusions and hints able to hover, superimposed, for as long as the reader wants. For all the respect and entertainment value Pearlman brought to his setting, in the end, the performance, the accompaniment, the necessity of forward motion inevitably collapsed all those functions, the multitudes within each of Joyce’s redolent mutations reduced to whatever wave was most aurally apparent.

Still, the one-state-out-of-many that Pearlman chose was almost always an agreeable one; Finnegans Wake: An Operoar might hem the text in, but it does so in a way that still defers to it, puts it in the foreground, and celebrates it. It has to be some sort of testimonial that, after hearing the piece, quibbles and all, I nonetheless went home and started re-reading.

Lembit Beecher: To Tell a Tale, To Sing a Story

When Lembit Beecher was named composer-in-residence with the Opera Company of Philadelphia (in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group of New York) in 2011, he didn’t bring a large portfolio of operatic work with him to the brand new three-year program. An instinct and affection for storytelling, however, already infused his compositions. Though he clarifies that he doesn’t often approach a piece programmatically, his music—whether for the operatic stage or for piano trio—often begins on a strongly emotional level, and its development is focused on how various elements interact and play off one another to achieve balance.

Raised in California with strong ties to his mother’s Estonian heritage and native language, Beecher went on to earn degrees at Harvard, Rice, and the University of Michigan—schools, he says, that seemed “pleasantly outside the loop” in that students were free to pursue their own interests, absent particular ideologies. Once he realized that even though he loved playing the piano, he didn’t love practicing, his focus began to shift towards writing his own music. “I don’t think I’m one of those composers who’s felt that I always had to be a composer,” Beecher admits, “but I’ve always been unhappy unless I was making something.”

He found himself particularly attracted to the subtle shadings that music can bring to the expression of emotion. “It’s seldom ambiguous but it’s always nuanced,” he explains, “and there’s always a sense of an emotion being incredibly deep and varied. More than writing or painting, it’s what speaks to me most vividly.”

He can follow this braid of music, emotion, and storytelling back to a childhood spent listening to his grandmother’s accounts of the occupation of her native Estonia, tales he equates with scenes straight out of a Hollywood movie. He built And Then I Remember, a 50-minute chamber opera, around the memories she shared. It’s a piece he describes as a “documentary oratorio—a combination of This American Life, Different Trains, and maybe a little bit of Les Noces thrown in there.”

By mixing recordings of her actual voice from interviews he conducted with instrumental portions and sung sections built out of arrangements of selected phrases, he was able to capture the “sense of legend” he felt as a child. “It doesn’t matter if all the facts are true [in the musical representation]; there’s something deeper that’s being expressed.”

Beecher has taken these lessons and is now applying them to his opera residency work. Not all stories translate well to the form. For Beecher, the best sources are not necessarily found in plays or novels, though admittedly he finds it hard to generalize. “Part of the challenge is not just what stories, but what parts of stories can best be expressed,” he explains. “Personally, the stories I’m drawn to have emotional clarity and deeply felt emotions.” Opera provides a way for him to frame those feelings for an audience.

It’s a task that he notes is particularly challenging when dealing with contemporary audiences likely to be turned off by the overt displays of sentiment common to the genre. Opera can be powerfully expressive, but as a result it can too easily come off as fake to a cynical consumer. It can’t compete with movies or even the straight drama when it comes to expressing reality, Beecher points out. However, “what opera can do is express an emotional reality that is in some way more true to our experience. The audience can then come along for the ride realizing that this is part of an inner experience of the world, rather than trying to show us what the world looks like from the outside.”

By putting on display what is rattling around inside our heads rather than flashing before our eyes, the listener accesses an experience that opera—even in an age of CGI and reality TV—is still perhaps especially suited to revealing.

Adams, Nixon, and New Music Excitement in California

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

The Spirit of ’76 finally touched down at the San Francisco Opera with the first local performances of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a quarter century after the work’s creation. Just prior to the work’s 1987 premiere in Houston, there had been a reading in San Francisco with piano accompaniment at the Herbst Theater, a recital hall, but this marks the first time it has been staged in the Bay Area, which has been Adams’s home for more than 40 years. The work was commissioned by David Gockley when he was general director of the Houston Grand Opera. With Gockley now at the helm of the San Francisco Opera, co-commissioners of Adams’s Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer, this appearance of Nixon in China feels like a missing puzzle piece being put into its proper place.

Most followers of contemporary American music are probably familiar with the basic background behind Nixon, which has received multiple productions and two recordings. The opera—conceived by director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and Adams—is inspired by Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing to meet with Mao Tse-tung and China’s Premier Chou En-lai. In the course of three acts during which the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred, five distinct character portraits emerge: of Nixon, Mao, Chou, Pat Nixon, and Chiang Ch’ing, or Madame Mao.

The opera contains some of the most memorable, charming, propulsive, lyrical, witty, and fresh writing of Adams’s career but, even so, 25 years is enough time to have passed that it does have the sound of a different era. Adams recently said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, “I was surprised by how minimalist the music is. When I started opening the score again, I hadn’t really looked at it or conducted it in 10 or 15 years—and compared to what I now do, I was shocked by all those bald arpeggios, bar after bar! It’s a kind of writing I would never do now.”

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

But for those who haven’t heard Nixon before, the music itself remains surprising and shocking. I had the great fortune of seeing it with a group of traditional opera-goers who had never heard a note of the piece and was reminded that, despite our easy access to recorded material nowadays, live performances of major works like this are essential if they are to have an impact on a local audience. As is my custom, I attended the June 17 performance on a standing-room ticket; just before the start of the performance, a stranger generously offered me an empty seat in her box. My box-mates were in their 50s, more or less contemporaries of Adams, Sellars, and Goodman, and knew very little in advance about what they had come to hear. But it was particularly gratifying to me that, at the first intermission, it was immediately apparent that no explanations or apologias were necessary: these first-time listeners were thrilled by the energy of the landing of Air Force One in the first scene; they grasped the banal yet complex portrayal of Nixon that develops from him singing “News” twelve times in a row; they accepted the ambiguities of the language and the action. Nixon was in a language that was immediately comprehensible to them, and by the time Madame Mao sang her final “Book!” my hostess declared that she could see herself becoming a Nixon groupie.

Of course this reaction wouldn’t have been triggered without strong performances by all the principals and the orchestra and chorus, under Lawrence Renes’s baton. (The short preview video above gives a sampling of the cast singing all the greatest hits.) Baritone Brian Mulligan’s Nixon was physically and vocally youthful and vibrant, sung with a warmth and lyricism that prevented the character from ever slipping into caricature. The punishingly high part of Mao was sung securely and admirably by tenor Simon O’Neill, with a stridency entirely appropriate to the figure he was portraying. But the person that everyone will likely remember when they recall this performance is the petite 29-year-old Hye Jung Lee, just two years out of the SF Opera’s Merola young artists program, who completely took over the stage from the moment she declared, “That is your cue!” and shot Kissinger. “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung,” she fearlessly announced, and one could easily see how millions of people would “hang/ Upon her words” through Lee’s powerful and astonishingly precise performance.

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That same weekend, across the bay in Berkeley was another performance of a John Adams work in a much more modest venue. The Friction Quartet, a group of young musicians who have all studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performed the second movement of Adams’s String Quartet as part of a triple-bill at the Subterranean Arthouse, a small (above-ground) “community art space” near the UC Berkeley campus. (You can hear part of the Friction Quartet’s performance of the Adams quartet at the conservatory’s Hot Air Music Festival on YouTube.)

Living Earth

The concert was organized by composer Brendon Randall-Myers, who was leaving the next day to move to the East Coast, and was a manifestation of the enthusiasm for new music that is coming out of the conservatory right now. The other performers, guitar/percussion duo The Living Earth Show and members of the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, are all recent graduates of SFCM and approached this program of contemporary music—which also included two works by Randall-Myers, a piece by Timo Andres that was also performed at this year’s Switchboard Festival, and works by Adrian Knight, Kevin Villalta, and Frederic Rzewski—with exuberance and a complete lack of pretense.

Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge

This was best exemplified by Nonsemble 6’s performance of a section of Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, which is “for any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything.” According to Rzewski’s performance instructions, “nonmusicians are invited to make sound, any sound, preferably very loud, and if possible are provided with percussive or other instruments.” Nonsemble 6’s solution for this was to write out their cell phone numbers and tape the papers to their stands. They then encouraged the audience members, many of whom seemed to be friends and colleagues, to call and text the numbers during the performance so that the rings would allow the nonmusicians to participate.

As it turned out, the ringtones weren’t loud enough to register, so the audience switched to other methods of making very loud sounds, including, but not limited to: stomping on the ground; snapping a leather belt; taking shoes off and pounding them on the walls; clapping; and making vocalizations that started as good-humored “boo”s, which then transformed into “baa”s. In the end it felt more like a raucous jam session than an actual performance of Moutons, but one couldn’t deny the infectiousness of the joyful abandon in their music-making.