Jeff Sackmann is a composer, saxophonist, and bandleader with an embarrasing affection for bubblegum pop.
In an effort to create serious music for his 15-piece jazz orchestra, Oy Christina!, he has combined baroque fugue with Justin Timberlake, introduced serialism to Eminem, and spiced up dance mixes with Coltrane changes. For his trio Single White Female, among others, he has written several dozen pieces for small jazz ensemble that occasionally bridge the gap between chamber music and traditional combo playing.
As a saxophonist, Jeff spent several months performing with Clyde Stubblefield, the original funky drummer. He plays with a variety of rock bands in New York City and spent three years as the music director for the swing band Little Red and the Howlers.
Hailing originally from Spokane,Washington, he spent his undergraduate years at New York University, did graduate work in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,and studied music at Berklee.
It wasn't my intent to construct a mini-festival, but I saw two new operas in the space of 24 hours this weekend: on Friday night, the America Opera Projects' production Darkling, and on Saturday afternoon, Wallace Shawn's "play/opera" The Music Teacher. Both were excellent and thought-provoking, especially in their implications for the opera form. And as a side note, those of you who read my recent post about intermissions will be glad to know, for my sake, that neither show had one.
Darkling, directed by Michael Comlish, composed by Stefan Weisman, and based on a poem by Anna Rabinowitz, is non-narrative, built from fragments. Rabinowitz's poem is drawn from pre-Holocaust letters she found in her parents' home, and its content spans the old world and the new, relentlessly focusing on the struggle to survive in both. The production reflects this harshness in everything from the lighting to the translucent cage that separates the stage from the audience.
Even beyond the lack of a narrative structure, Darkling is not we most commonly think of as opera. The music is secondary to a theatrical realization of the poem, which includes spoken passages, pre-recorded background sounds, and sung passages that would more typically turn up in a performance art piece. For an adaptation of a modernist or post-modernist piece, it seems to me the creators of Darkling have taken a much more fruitful path: instead of letting the opera form dictate their production, they use it as a jumping-off point.
What fascinated me most was the active integration of the original poetry. Of course any operagoer is accustomed to having the text of the piece thrust in their face: that's what titles do. (And it's why, at the Met, I switch them off.) Darkling, however, didn't have typical titles. Most of the sung words appeared: some were projected onto the screens enclosing the stage, others were displayed against the back wall in ornate frames, silent-movie style.
However, the pace of the singing didn't determine the delivery of the titles: the poem did. Usually, it was a stanza at a time, presented (I'm assuming) as the stanzas were shown in the book, giving us more insight into the aspects of Rabinowitz's poem than typical titles would offer. Toward the end of the show, about fifteen lines were thrust on the screen at once, and they stayed there until the singer had caught up--probably close to two minutes of singing, with nothing else of interest happening onstage. That I found this segment among Darkling's most compelling suggests something about the show: the ideas that drove it were perhaps more interesting than their realization.
I don't have a lot to say about the music, in part because it was secondary to other aspects of the production. Weisman's text-setting was skillful, and I suspect a second listening would reveal much more in it. The Flux Quartet provided instrumental background, which was most often just that: if you've heard Michael Gordon's "Weather," take out the electronica and you've got a pretty good idea of what the quartet music sounded like, both independently and behind the vocalists.
For all the suggestive aspects of Darkling, I found myself even more enthralled by the structural implications of The Music Teacher. Written by Wallace Shawn (always Mr. Hall in Clueless to me) with music composed by Allen Shawn, the opera part of this play/opera serves what could be considered to be an entirely functional role. Like the more traditional play-within-a-play, the opera-within-a-play in The Music Teacher is more interesting what it tells us about the characters who wrote and produced it than as an independent work of art.
Mr. Smith, our main character, is a fifty-something professor looking back on his twenties, when he taught at a small boarding school. He focuses on his last year at the school, in which he and two of his prize students, Jane and Jim, collaborated on the writing and production of an opera. Jane wrote the libretto and Mr. Smith wrote the music. We learn most of this through Mr. Smith's and Jane's alternate narration, though some non-musical scenes are shown in the present tense, with the role of Mr. Smith sometimes played by Tom Cairns (the older version), other times by a younger actor with Cairns watching.
Approximately a half-hour into the show, we're suddenly watching the opera. It's set in ancient Rome and centers on a love triangle involving Alcimedes (played by Smith), Aeola (played by Jane), and Chronilos (played by Jim). So, like any self-respecting play-within-a-play, the subtexts and double-entendres steal the show. During the intermission of the opera, we return to narration from Mr. Smith and Jane, followed by the second act, before the play concludes with another 30-minute non-musical series of scenes.
What struck me most forcefully during the opera-within-a-play was that, unlike in any other opera I've ever seen, I was actually interested in what would happen next. Typically, the combination of interesting music and the glacial narrative pace convince me to give up the story--and, of course, I've turned off my Met titles. But functional opera...that's a different story. At the risk of gratuitous oversimplification, watching an opera-within-a-play provides some insight into what drives part of the academic Wagner industry: it's fun to psychologize about the composer of an opera, especially when--in Jane's opera as in Wagner--the psychology is so close to the surface.
I imagine that anyone who has ever thought much about the challenges of the opera form doesn't need my prodding to come up with dozens of ways to exploit the device of opera-within-a-play. Shawn has plenty of fun with the idea. After all, this is a high school production with a libretto written by a seventeen-year-old: it can't be that good. Case in point: a comically melodramatic exchange in which Aeola asks Alcimedes (repeatedly) how he likes his breakfast. Another: Aeola's four servants writhe around the strapping Alcimedes, singing about what they'd like to do, but can't.
Like Darkling, The Music Teacher watches like it was conceived by someone other than the composer. (In The Music Teacher, this is almost certainly the case; in Darkling, I don't know.) I suspect an opera/play of this sort, as envisioned by an opera composer, would relegate the non-musical scenes to a more transparently framing role, whereas I think more than half of this show was spoken dialogue. If Shawn's ratio of dialogue:opera:dialogue was 3:4:3, I'd be tempted to try for 2:7:1. Along the same lines, Allen Shawn's music is even more unobtrusive than Weisman's: it is accomplished but bland; even slightly gnarly passages are only gnarly in that ominous-film-score way. This, of course, is also partly functional: Shawn's music, within the play, was written by a boarding-school music teacher.
By now, self-reflexive genres--plays within plays, novels within novels, poems within poems--are little more than cliches. But given the less obvious literal content of musical forms, an opera-within-an-opera or a symphony-within-a-symphony is far from that point. I doubt that particular branch of musical postmodernity will become as prevalent as the equivalent verbal forms, but The Music Teacher suggests a fascinating way in which a musical form can have a functional role. It may be that the fictionalized interplay between opera and its creation is best presented in this type of hybrid. I'm interested to see what comes of that, especially once a composer bites into it and makes such a project his or her own.