It is a dangerous business to write new operas, but equally thrilling to produce them. Bernard Rands’s VINCENT, a work exploring the life and art of Vincent van Gogh, was premiered last Friday April 8 and 9 at the Musical Arts Center of Indiana University in Bloomington. Two other performances are scheduled for next April 15 and 16. The production was a major success for the university’s Jacobs School of Music, offering to the world something for which it is uniquely suited. A major center for musical performance and research, the Jacobs school has an unmatched capability for producing and testing new works with very high production values. Even though the School has not embraced this role in a regular manner, its trajectory has been distinguished by ambitious productions of new works and collegiate premieres. The list includes the famous microtonal operas of MacArthur-award winner John Eaton (Danton and Robespierre, The Cry of Clytemnestra, The Tempest); the collegiate premieres of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, and John Adams’s Nixon in China. (I still think that their airplane arrival in the first scene of Nixon is the best ever….). Besides the main stage productions in the Musical Arts Center, the School has presented collegiate premieres of Adams’s opera-oratorio El Niño, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, along with the premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s video-opera ¡Unicamente la verdad!.
The premiere of Vincent represented another kind of breakthrough for the Jacobs School Opera Theater. Known for the size of its stage and for lavish scenery built in its own workshops, this time the Jacobs School designed a new style of production for Vincent that focused on projections and digital images. After seeing two performances of Vincent with both casts, I had pre-scheduled to go to Chicago to see the last performance at the Harris Theater of Death and the Powers, the well-received opera by Tod Machover. This gave me an opportunity to gain yet another perspective on Vincent. I will not comment on Machover’s wonderful work here, except to say that it also featured original technological components in the form of musical robots and light sculptures expressing aspects of human thought and emotion. Clearly, digital technology is gaining ground as an expected expressive element in opera and other interdisciplinary genres. Soon it will need to be contemplated as a regular element in the training of musicians, especially since other musical genres beside opera are beginning to be treated in an interdisciplinary manner.
Bernard Rands’s Vincent will be judged unavoidably from diverse perspectives. As a conductor a new operas, I have been aware of the complexities of the reception of new operatic works, and I have concluded that success depends as much on a game of audience expectations as on the intrinsic structural characteristics of the composition. During the panels on the future of opera arranged around the world-premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s ¡Unicamente la verdad!, certain tensions became apparent. For some opera fans, opera is about a dramatic narrative with a continuous musical architecture that carries the listener to a point of climax and a denouement, and that (most importantly!) features singers in the central expressive role. This concept arguably peaked in the late 19th and early 20th century with the works of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini.
In an informal but memorable conversation, the esteemed stage director Tito Capobianco told me that “opera is about love, honor or both; and opera is about the singer. If the work does not have these characteristics, it is better to call it something else, such as musical theater or music drama, but not opera.” For those who espouse this concept, opera may be dead indeed. However, opera throughout history did not always represent this model. There have been periods when operas (or at least works now grouped within the genre of opera) showcased clear musical differentiation between recitatives and arias, remained focused on a reciting mode, or contained spoken dialogues. Opera was born out of an emulation of Greek tragedy, and has early ancestors in medieval liturgical dramas and passion plays. Like these genres, opera is capable of delving on deep moral topics, comment on society, and address the human condition. Indeed, as the epitome of the interdisciplinary genre, opera can do best what Susan Elliott of Musical America and Benjamin Barber of the Huffington Post stated during the panels around the premiere of Vincent: “… permit us to imagine ourselves in other worlds and learn from each other’s experience.”
The matter is, of course, that if the work is called an opera, your regular operagoer expects to see the Puccini opera model. This tension between expectations and labels prompts me to suggest that composers should consider calling their works something else—and avoid misguided disappointments altogether. Therefore, the opera by Bernard Rands, a Pulitzer Prize winner, could also be subtitled “Vincent, or Operatic Meditations on the Life of an Artist.” Clearly, it is a sign of visionary faith on the part of the Jacobs School producers to commission and present a new opera. The final impact of Vincent can only be assessed after many years, as the work receives the treatment of other presenters and performers.
First imagined in 1973, Vincent came to fruition as Rands was formally commissioned to compose the work by Indiana University, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Jacobs School of Music. After a gestation of 37 years, Rands’s style in the opera is truly his own. It is not post-modern, not minimalist, or post-romantic. It does not flirt with current trends nor desires to appeal to a broad audience. The language has been termed by some as post-tonal but it might as well be called post-serial. Beautifully voiced tonal chords can be hidden under a flurry of atonal figurations that give the glaze of serialism, where all twelve chromatic notes of the scale can appear in chords or in quick succession, even if a tonal center persists elsewhere in the texture. The musical language has the dignity and uncompromising self-discipline of the modernist who is interested in complex but coherent musical structures. However, it contains also has the sensual power available to the great orchestrator, and Bernard Rands certainly is one of them.
Ultimately, Vincent’s structure does not comply with the long dramatic arch of late nineteenth-century opera. In combination with the experienced librettist J.D. McClatchy, Rands has chosen to mingle sung passages with spoken dialogue. Rands stated that he wanted to secure the intelligibility of the text while also refreshing the ear from relentless singing. The text alternates moments of beautiful poetry with very prosaic conversation, and either type of text can be set to music or left without it. This emphasizes the text over the music, the eternal tug of war in opera. Gluck and Debussy would have been very pleased. However, although not clear from the program notes, the emphasis on spoken dialogue may have imposed the use amplification, since no naturally speaking voice would be heard in the large Musical Arts Center. Of course, the challenges of directionality of the amplified sound then emerge, as the sound projects from everywhere and not from the direction of the singing actor. For contrast, consider the unusual solution of Death and the Powers. The composer and technical wizard Tod Machover built a long snake of speakers through the front of the stage, projecting the voice from the general location of the singing actors.
Furthermore, instead of a continuous linear narrative, Rands and McClatchy have chosen to organize the opera as a series of tableaux, each self-contained, and each addressing a stage in the life and artistic development of Van Gogh, leading to his extraordinary new visual language but also to his mental disintegration. These tableaux evolve less like a conventional opera and more like the Stations of the Cross, a Catholic ritual where the believers are asked to observe, pray, meditate upon and sometimes enact the individual stages of Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion. In fact, composer and librettist make the Christ-comparison evident very early in the opera. Two statements recur throughout the opera in the manner of a ritornello. One of them, sung by Vincent himself: “O God, why have your forsaken me?” parallels Jesus’ statement on the cross. This sentence undergoes only slight variations through the opera, as Vincent addresses his father, Theo, his lover Sien, and the painter Paul Gauguin in the same manner. This device is purely ritual, and comes to be expected by the audience like the response in a litany.
The comparison of artists with the figure of Christ is not new in opera. A very recent one takes place in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (not labeled as an opera but as “three images,”) where the poet Federico Garcia Lorca is made to sing “I give you my blood, spilled for your sake,” and also “Father, forgive me, for I have done nothing, “ (paraphrasing Jesus’ words “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”). Like Vincent, Ainadamar does not construct a dramatic narrative but instead, displays a series of flashbacks reflecting on the life and death of García Lorca. Both operas can be said to partake of the objectives of liturgical drama and passion plays, rather than of those of modern dramatic theater.
Orchestral interludes separate the individual tableaux in Vincent. In this production, projections of the painter’s works and letters are also interspersed between major scenes. It is soon apparent that all components of the opera and of the production were carefully arranged to resonate with Van Gogh’s painting style and with each other. The libretto soon refers to a well-known characteristic of Van Gogh’s brushwork. As Vincent, in the throes of spiritual conviction, seeks to emulate Christ as an artist, he describes how Jesus has created with “flesh that swirls and glides and grabs the light.” The same can be said of Rands’s approach to many moments in his orchestral texture, as thick bands of color alternate with rich polyphonic curlicues. The production opened with a real-time “drawing in light” of Vincent’s signature on the proscenium curtain, as the orchestra played insinuating solo gestures under the compelling baton of Arthur Fagen, matching the gentle curves of the letters on stage. The orchestration is magnificent, and its vibrancy and variety can be considered the most immediately fascinating aspect of the score. The solos by violist Caroline Gilbert and bassoonist Michael Macauley were particularly stunning during both performances of April 8 and 9, among many marvelously performed solos within each instrumental family.
The chorus sometimes was part of this orchestration. In the exalted moments at the opening, when Vincent describes his vision “to see the world in his mind,” and at the end, when Vincent dies, streams of sounds emerge from invisible voices, as if to signal a transcendent world that Vincent alone (like a visionary saint) can perceive. The chorus also enacts a community of miners, the rowdy artists in Paris, and the bourgeois art collectors, singing in a wide variety of harmonic languages, all expertly voiced by Rands, from the comforting tonality of a French hymn, to clusters of great complexity. Chorus master Richard Tang Yuk prepared them to achieve the highest level of expression and technical polish.
The other ritualized text in the libretto is given to the community that surrounds Vincent. Many times in the opera Vincent is told by different characters that “the Lord does not need you…Nobody needs you…” sometimes coupled to Vincent’s response “I do not understand.” The destructive force of this sentence seems out of proportion with the profile of the characters that deliver it, (including his father, his uncle and his lover Sien). Arising out of the flow of the scene with shocking and unnatural finality, these sentences seem to obey the higher structural objective of a refrain or litany response. In a casual conversation, Bernard Rands declared that Van Gogh’s story could symbolize also the syndrome of alienation, a malaise that affects many of us in our modern times. Vincent’s alienation lies clearly at the heart of the opera. It perhaps explains the fact that women are portrayed without any complexity, more like triggers in the process of Van Gogh’s mental disintegration rather than fully fleshed-out characters. The opera dwells on Van Gogh’s mind more than anything else.
Rands’s Vincent approximates the principles of post-dramatic theater, where the ultimate narrative does not lie strictly within the work itself, but rather in the tension between the artistic work, the production’s expressive choices, and the culture that surrounds it. Within a post-dramatic concept, an accurate representation of Van Gogh’s life is only a partial component of the story. The liturgy-like structure of the composition, and then the visual language of the production add equally important components that together reveal the essential narrative of Van Gogh’s artistic progress.
The creative team involving stage director Vince Liotta, costume designer Linda Pisano and especially, production designer Barry Steele devised a visual language based of Van Gogh‘s own paintings and letters. Upon entering the theater, the audience faced a black empty stage, outfitted with screens in the manner of a digital arts CAVE. The sequence of images was displayed on a resourceful combination of translucent scrims and opaque screens, accepting projections from all directions, with a wide variety of procedures. Steele carefully varied his presentation choices, sometimes showing a work in a direct fashion, other times displaying its components as elements within an immersive environment, or constructing them through digital manipulation in front of our eyes. Even as the techniques were marvelous, the true expressive momentum lied in the selection and sequence of the images. As the opera progressed, we moved from the browns and grays of Van Gogh’s early works towards the ecstatic colors and wild brushwork that defined his fame. I do not know the full score, but the piano-vocal score gives no indication that specific images are requested. Instead, one should expect that subsequent performances of Vincent would show different solutions. All the same, Steele’s visual design in the premiere was so fully integrated to the expressive objectives of the opera, that now it seems difficult to separate it from the score. It certainly secured the production’s success with audiences and critics last weekend.
The success of Vincent depends in great measure on the power of characterization of the baritone that sings the title role. The work requires the singer to be on stage in every tableau for virtually the whole evening. Given these demands, the Jacobs production hired two excellent baritones with important emerging careers, David Adam Moore (April 8) and Christopher Burchett (April 9). Interestingly, their approaches to the role represented the two opposite perceptions of Van Gogh. Moore emphasized Van Gogh’s relative youth and energy, and his voice and demeanor gave an almost heroic tinge to the character. By contrast, Burchett emphasized Vincent’s vulnerability and alienation. Both artists were fully in control of their vocal and expressive techniques. The student singers, among the most talented in the world today, held their own in such distinguished company. Even though their acting had a young quality, they certainly performed with confidence. In particular, tenors Jake Williams and Will Perkins, singing the part of Van Gogh’s brother Theo, impressed by their stamina and emotional courage in the role. Given the opera’s concept, other roles were limited to one or two scenes, not permitting full character development. Even in such short appearances, all the young and gifted singers aimed at delineating the potential complexities of their characters without exception. Soprano Elizabeth Toy, as the prostitute Sien, mezzo-soprano Krista Costin as Madame Segatori, bass-baritone Jason Eck as Vincent’s father, bass-baritone Adam Walton as Gauguin. soprano Paloma Friedhoff as Marguerite, and countertenor Peter Thoresen as Toulouse-Lautrec were particularly memorable.
The one missing element in Vincent was eliminated by a conscious choice of the composer during his quest for a specific dramatic concept. There are no arias, and perhaps only two or three true ariosos in the opera. Besides the spoken dialogue, the sung segments are mostly syllabic and within a conversational range for all singers, so that the singers move in an out of singing without any awkwardness, rarely if ever reaching the extremes of the vocal register. There are songs for the chorus and for secondary characters like Mme. Segatori, who is ostensibly invited to sing a cabaret number. Even though these are relatively secondary characters, the truth is that the audience was clearly taken by these rare moments of formal organized singing. In fact, one of the most powerful moments of the opera takes place in the third scene, early in the evening, when miners are trapped and perhaps dead, and Vincent proceeds to lead the attending crowd in prayer. As the chorus intones the simple chords of a French hymn, Vincent preaches in a completely different harmonic language. The frisson was rhetorically transparent in its depiction of the artist’s spiritual intent and his alienation from the people he sought to help; and yet so powerful, that tears came to the eyes of many in the hall. Coupled to Steele’s compelling projection of a snowy landscape, the scene is unforgettable.
Elsewhere, many deep and critical transformative thoughts are spoken, rather than sung; and when sung, they are plainly set to the natural inflections and pitch range of conversation. This negates the concept that operatic singing is uniquely capable of expressing what words alone and plain recitative cannot. Is this a reference to Debussy’s goals in Pelleas? Or is it perhaps an acceptance of Wagner’s influence–to convey all complex expression through the orchestra? For the opera lover, the voice can do things that no other instrument can, such as express emotional contents that are better experienced than talked about. The singers in Vincent have great demands placed on them, especially those cast in the title role—but the individual characterization through musical means, the eloquent line, the brilliant coloratura, the intense or whispery heights, or the deep expression of an emotion in the extremes of the vocal range—all of those possibilities were absent. Instead, Rands preserved the dramatic flow, and avoided any interruptions that could have emerged due to a singer’s vocal display. Fair enough–this was a completely coherent choice that in no way mars the intrinsic prayerful quality and dark beauty of the composition. The eternal controversy in opera between dramatic realism and emotional probing through music continues here.
The master composer that gave such extraordinary solos to his orchestra instruments refrained chastely from going all out with the singers. I have no objection, as I said above. I recognize that this choice arises out of conceptual and technical discipline. Rather, my comment conveys a kind of wistful longing. What if Bernard Rands chose otherwise…? Alas, it is something to hope for in future operas or versions of Vincent.
Vincent is beautiful. The Jacobs School of Music should include it in upcoming seasons, and it should become part of the repertoire everywhere. I certainly look forward to hearing it again. Still, I will continue to hope that Bernard Rands writes another opera very soon!