Portman at the Proms, Beaudoin at the Arcola
In England the last Monday in August is a Bank Holiday, and is more or less equivalent to Labor Day in the U.S. in being the last holiday of the summer. The Proms for August Bank Holiday Monday usually has a matinee, and the whole day usually has a more populist, is not popular- music, slant (the evening concert this year was devoted to the singer Michael Ball and was a concert of Broadway-type songs). The afternoon concert, billed as a family concert and presumably intended to be especially appealing to children, was the occasion of the first performance of The Water Diviners Tale, a sort of opera, (sorry, “a dramatic musical piece for people of all ages”), by Rachel Portman, with a libretto by poet Owen Sheers. Portman is a successful composer for movies who has provided music for, among others, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Emma, The Cider House Rules, Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, Miss Pottter, The Manchurian Candidate, Marvin’s Room, Benny & Joon, and Chocolat; her opera on Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and has been taken up by a number of other companies, including the New York City Opera.
The Water Diviner’s Tale came about as the result of Portman’s work with BBC television producer Fiona Morris on a broadcast of The Little Prince. Wanting to do another large work which would involve a lot of children and have “some relevance to their lives;” they decided to focus it on the environment, specifically on climate change. The work became the focus for an American Idol-like process (undocumented or, at least, broadcast, at least as yet), called BBC New Talent Search which led to the selection of the group of 40 children, ages 11-16, from all over the UK, who constituted the ensemble of “lost children,” performing with professional adult singers, six youth choirs, and the BBC Concert Orchestra., conducted by David Charles Abell. This is one of several educational outreach programs associated with the Proms, one of the others being a series of BBC Proms Composer Labs and “Inspire”, a BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composers Competition, that led to a concert featuring ten high school composers on August 17 at Cadogan Hall.
In The Water Diviner’s Tale, a large number of children, lost as a result of a cataclysmic storm which has separated them from their homes and parents, encounter a man wearing a sort of bathrobe and turban and carrying a staff (in this case the sonorous actor Nonso Anozie), who tells them that their individual cries for help will never be heard (the fact that they are already en masse and singing as a chorus seems not to matter) and encourages them to join together as a group so that their parents can find them. They begin to ask the Water Diviner how this catastrophe has occurred, and he, surprisingly, assumes personal responsibility for it. This has something to do with his inability to alter the world’s habits of energy consumption, which he has tried to effect by following and telling stories of water. The children tell the Diviner that they will listen to his stories, at which point he puts them in a deep sleep and summons up a Weather Forecaster, who cheerfully, in her chipper “Elegy for All that Shall be Lost,” predicts the worst for the world and tells the Diviner that he is too late to change any thing about it by telling his stories; she also adds that if nothing changes (something that she’s already said is impossible), the children with him will also be lost (presumably in some larger sense than that they are already separated from their homes and parents). The Water Diviner, newly aware of the importance of his task, brings the children out of their trance and tells his story, which is about a young boy who was seduced by the siren song of oil, coal, and gas (represented by the adult singers) concerning their amazing benefits. The boy’s ability to hear this song attracts unsavory scientists and businessmen who sing their own siren songs about how they can put these fuels to use. These songs overpower the “Song of Natural Harmony,” with which the section began. Eventually the boy begins to hear reports of the ill effects of his cooperation with coal, oil, and gas, and he travels the globe to hear the stories of drought, flood, and disaster. It turns out that the Water Diviner is that boy. The children ask him if he thinks it is too late to change the future, and he says it isn’t (even though he’s already be assured by the Weather Forecaster that it is). He then summons up the Weather Forecaster again, but she is unable to detail all that will be lost this time, somehow as a result of the promises of the children to do better than the Diviner has done. They all promise to change things and everybody leaves, happy and unlifted. The fact that they still are separated from their homes and families has somehow ceased to be a problem; it certainly isn’t mentioned any more. (To quote Anna Russell: “I’m not just making this up, you know.”)
The music for The Water Diviner’s Tale is efficient and skillful and, in a way, effective, but it is the sort of generalized effectiveness of movie music, it’s all background. There is never any musical portrayal of any character (despite the fact that there’s a sort of chirpy xylophone figure associated with the Weather Forecaster and a sort of menacing, dinosaur-like, low sort of awkward galumphing motive associated with the siren song of oil, coal, and gas), never any sort of specific or individualized emotion, and never any particularly clear way in which the action, such as it is, could be thought to be either effected or realized by its relationship to the music.
Writing music aimed at children is a tricky undertaking. I found myself comparing The Water Diviner’s Tale to other works intended to have a special interest to children and involving young performers: works such as The Little Sweep, the 150th Psalm, and Noye’s Fludde by Britten (Noye’s Fludde is one of my favorite pieces of Britten’s, and seems to me to be his most successful stage work), or Cinderella, The Two Fiddlers, Kirkwall Shopping Songs, and a whole raft of other small stage pieces (the only one of that group I’ve seen is Dinosaur At Large) by Peter Maxwell Davies, or, even Amahl and the Night Visitors. All of those pieces have a much stronger and clearer dramatic effect, which is manifested IN THE MUSIC. The part of the “message” of The Water Diviner’s Tale that has something to do with collective responsibility and the importance of individuals working together is, in a way, closer to that of The Second Hurricane by Copland, which has nicer music, but is also impeded by the less than completely sure stage sense of its librettist and composer. The piece which Portman’s is closest to, maybe, is the Ballad of Americans by Earl Robinson and John LaTouche, although that piece isn’t staged and even it isn’t quite as hamfisted with making it’s point. The performers in the Portman, especially the lost children and the youth choirs, were absolutely first rate and sounded great. The end of the piece seemed to have been extremely uplifting. The audience when it was over went wild. Like all Proms concerts, this can be heard online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
The Arcola Theatre in Hackney has become a major fringe venue in London; this summer they have been presenting a series of operatic performances, curated by Andrew Steggall and Mehmet Ergen and produced by Michael Harris, called Arcola Opera: Grimeborn. On August 22 they staged the first act of Pierre, a work in progress based on Melville, by Richard Beaudoin, The production was directed by Steggal and the “orchestra,” in this case the very excellent pianist Constantine Finehouse, was conducted by Christopher Ward. Although this might be said to be a workshopping of the piece, the simple, effective, and completely polished production did not seem in any way unfinished or tentative, and the singing, by Joseph Kaiser, Annete Dasch, Rachael Nicholls, and Abby Fischer, was uniformly fantastically wonderful. The music for Pierre is carefully considered and masterly in its composition. The vocal writing was effective, and the word setting just about perfect; one could always understand just about all of the words. The weaknesses are that it takes a while into the act before one can quite figure out what might be going on and that there is a certain sameness of quality and tempo. Since voices can’t be that much different in speed and quality if the composer seriously wants them to present the words clearly, differences in tempo and character need to be very clearly articulated in the accompaniment. Still, it would be hard to imagine a more sympathetic or polished realization of Beaudoin’s work on the project up to now; it made me eager to see and hear the whole opera when it’s finished.