Archive for the “Opera” Category
[Ed. Note: Please welcome composer (and long-time S21 supporter) Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, and sit back as he spins a tale for the ages (and yet all quite true!), of how he managed to conceive, write, and finally produce his very own opera in the (semi) wilds of Vermont.]
In the past week I’ve received emails from other composers, many of whom had doubted that my opera Erzsébet would ever be mounted. After two decades of promises, nearly two years of faltering fundraising, three directors, and a flood that pushed us out of our home, opening night seemed distant and dim. How did it happen for me? Could they finally get to mount their operas?
The opera’s genesis is long & convoluted. When I was a child in the 1950’s, my adoptive father Zoltan Bathory had mentioned an evil family ancestor. In 1983, I was given a copy of Dracula Was a Woman, Raymond McNally’s biography of Elizabeth Bathory. She was a vampiric, serial killing, blood-bathing countess with male and female lovers who died walled up in her torture chamber! The Tigress of Cséjthe! Hungary’s National Monster! What could be better for an operatic tale? In 1987 Erzsébet was scribbled onto my compositional to-do list.
Coincidentally, I’d heard that poet and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu was working on a biography of Erzsébet based on new research. I got in touch; Codrescu was interested in writing the libretto.
But soon my life was in turmoil, with my failed computer company and failed personal life and broken compositional dreams and a falling out with Codrescu, whose biography ended up as an attempt at a Tom Robbins-esque novel. Beyond that, Vermont was not a friendly place for new music in the 1980’s, even though my pseudo-csárdás piano sketch for the opera overture had been commissioned and performed. My new partner Stevie (now my wife), her daughter and I left for Europe in 1991. A rare opportunity brought us into then Czechoslovakia at Cachtice, home of Erzsébet’s most notorious castle.
I sketched some scenarios for the opera, considering chamber and grand-opera versions. I’d written an opera before — Plasm over ocean, with libretto by David Gunn, my cohort on Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar — but this new one would be less avant-garde and more actual storytelling and drama.
On returning to Vermont, my boxes of Erzsébet research—books, articles, novels, stories, photosgraphs, videos, postcards, trinkets—became the impetus to create an online home for the opera project. That led to a connection with a Czech sculptor living in America, Pavel Kraus. We had similar artistic sensibility and soon worked together on Sex and Death: Offerings in Burlington, Vermont, and later at Prague’s Mánes Museum, newly restored after the dreary Communist years. Pavel would be the opera’s visual designer, and was the earliest team member who stayed with the project.
In 1999, Lisa Jablow, singer, conductor, and aficionado of new music, became interested in the Báthory story and wanted to sing the lead. She suggested a monodrama written specifically for her, and that became the manageable version of the opera—small enough to afford, intimate enough to create a powerful atmosphere. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rehearsing Tom Cipullo’s The Husbands
Presented by Remarkable Theater Brigade
Weill Recital Hall, NYC
Fri, Nov 4, 2011
Seeing the Remarkable Theater Brigade’s production Opera Shorts, it is clear that on a small stage like the one at Weill Recital Hall, it is very much a theatrical production that cannot escape that trapping, but the pieces that resulted from the 9 composers (Two of the shorts were composed by musical director Christian McLeer) were mostly comical in nature, thus making it a cheerful night for patrons and a kick in the pants for the opera world. Read the rest of this entry »
Once again, we find ourselves in the thick of things. The New York concert season is reaching a fever pitch of pre-holiday season intensity, in which presenters and ensembles try to get their programs heard before the inevitable onslaught of Messiahs, Nutcrackers, tree-lighting ceremonies, and caroling elbows its way to the forefront of New York’s calendar of musical events – ready or not. While we can’t be in two places at once (I still think Steve Smith has a magic ring that enables this power!), hopefully between the various new music enthusiasts in the Sequenza 21 community’s NYC cadre, we can support these “hot tickets.”
Tom Cipullo's The Husbands in Rehearsal
11/4 at 8 PM at Weill Recital Hall: Opera Shorts 2011
The third annual installment of the Remarkable Theater Brigade’s Opera Shorts program is this Friday. These mini-operas – ten minutes or less – are an emerging composer’s dream: a chance to hear a brief slice of their work on the stage. But Opera Shorts draws some heavy hitters to the mini-opera game as well. The 2011 installment features works by prominent songsters Jake Heggie, William Bolcom, and Tom Cipullo, as well as emerging creators Marie Incontrera, Mike McFerron, Davide Zannoni, Anne Dinsmore Phillips, Patrick Soluri, and Christian McLeer. Given the length of that list, it’s lucky that none of them have Wagnerian ambitions — this time out at least!
11/4 at 8 PM on the water: Bennett Brass at Bargemusic
Can’t decide whether you’d prefer an evening of early music or present day fare? Bennett Brass
(trumpeters Andy Kozar
and Ben Grow
, hornist Alana Vegter,
trombonist Will Lang,
and tubist Matt Muszynski
) has got you covered. Friday night at Bargemusic,
they are presenting a program that works with both of the venue’s series: ‘Here and Now’ and “There and Then.’ The latter is represented by a Rameau
suite and Elgar’s Serenade for Strings
(but this time arranged for … you guessed it … brass!). Among the more recent music is Fanfare for All
by the Dean of Dodecaphony: Milton Babbitt.
His compositional antipode John Cage
is also on the bill, as are some still-living figures: Ted Hearne, Nick Didkovsky,
and Dan Grabois
BoaC. Photo: Pascal Perich and Julien Jourdes
11/5 at 9 PM at Zankel Hall: Bang on a Can’s 25th NYC season opener!
BoaC celebrates 25 years of gigging in New York City with a show at a ‘modest’ venue – Zankel
, the theater downstairs at Carnegie Hall!
The centerpiece of the show is the New York premiere of Louis Andriessen’s Life
with film by Marijke Van Warmerdam
(postponed from a previous season due to that unpronounceable volcano in Iceland). There’s also David Lang’s sunray
, Michael Gordon
’s for Madeline
, Kate Moore
, three pieces commissioned by Bang on a Can from David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors
, Matt Damon
, Breakfast at J&M
), and Lukas Ligeti
’s Glamour Girl
. The concert serves as a live preview of the All-Stars’ first studio album in five years: a two-CD set titled Big Beautiful Dark and Scary
(out January 2012 on Cantaloupe Music
). Ticket info is here
, but we’ll let you in on a nice perk for early attendees: the first 200 to arrive get a free drink at the Zankel Bar!
Gorecki. Photo: ©Gerry Hurkmans
11/8 at 7:30 at Le Poisson Rouge: IN MEMORIAM HENRYK MIKOŁAJ GÓRECKI
Seems like yesterday, but it’s been a year since Gorecki’s passing. To commemorate the first anniversary of his death, the Polish Cultural Institute is hosting a concert at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday. The program includes Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka (1993), performed by Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, as well as JACK Quartet playing the 2nd SQ (“quasi una fantasia,” 1991).
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[Ed. note: Please welcome one of our newest S21 shipmates, violinist/ composer Cornelius Dufallo. The New York Times' Steve Smith writes "As a violinist and a composer in the string quartet Ethel and the collective ensemble Ne(x)tworks, Cornelius Dufallo has made substantial contributions to New York’s burgeoning new-music scene." I couldn't agree more, and look forward to his contributions to come. So take it away, Neil!]
Life in ETHEL is frantic these days. In the midst of meetings, emails, conference calls, and intense rehearsals, I sometimes (sadly) lose touch with the sense of wonder that originally drew me to a life in contemporary music. Missy Mazzoli is one composer whose music always brings me back to a fundamental excitement about what I do. I have been working with Missy on her solo violin piece, Dissolve, O my Heart, which I will be performing at Bargemusic on October 5th (8PM) as part of my ongoing Journaling series.
Originally written for Jennifer Koh, the piece is essentially Missy’s emotional reaction to J. S. Bach’s D minor Chaconne (one of the great masterworks of the solo violin literature). She starts the piece with the same iconic d minor triad, in which, she explains, the listener immediately “acknowledges the inevitable failure of the assignment.” Missy is referring to the impossibility of achieving the structural perfection of Bach’s work, and how, from her perspective, the only way to create her own piece was to embrace it as a “failed Chaconne.” It’s a gorgeous failure, if you ask me. The version that I will be performing in October includes live electronics (three different kinds of digital delay), which Missy and I have been developing together.
Abigail Fischer in "Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt" (photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
One of Missy’s massive new projects is to create three operas, each one about “a fascinating female character from the 20th or 21st century.” Part one of this trilogy, Song From The Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, is sure to be spellbinding. The libretto, co-written by Royce Vavrek and Missy, is based on the journals of Isabelle Eberhardt, and depicts more than a dozen scenes from Eberhardt’s life. The opera begins at the moment of Eberhardt’s death, and continues as a series of flashbacks.
Eberhardt, who was a Swiss writer and explorer of the early 20th century, has been alternately idolized and shunned as a symbol of female liberation. Missy points to Eberhardt’s relentless search for personal freedom and independence, her complicated love life, and her gender ambiguity (as a cross-dressing female artist) as themes that continue to be relevant to women today. Another interesting through-line of the opera is how Eberhardt navigates the conflict between Eastern and Western cultures. Eberhardt moved to North Africa and converted to Islam when she was a young woman. “She fought in street battles in Algiers against the French,” Missy explains, “but she was also working for the French as a journalist, so she was caught between these two worlds.”
The opera, directed by Gia Forakis, has already been workshopped at Galapagos in Brooklyn, New York City Opera’s VOX, and Bard College, and will be premiered at The Kitchen on February 24, 25, and March 1-3. Performers include singer Abigail Fischer and NOW ensemble; with films by Stephen Taylor.
Missy has some other exciting projects coming up, including two new pieces – one for the Albany Symphony, and one for cellist Maya Beiser. Her all-star band Victoire (Olivia De Prato, violin; Eileen Mack, clarinet; Lorna Krier, keayboards; Elenore Oppenheim, bass; and Missy on keyboards), whose CD Cathedral City was one of NPR’s top ten classical albums of 2010, will be performing at the Bell House in Gowanus on October 17. Not to be missed!
This post was also published in Urban Modes
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Rhymes with Opera
This Spring, Baltimore-based composer David Smooke composed Criminal Element, a “nonopera” in a fabricated language, for Rhymes with Opera, a company devoted to presenting opera in nontraditional spaces. Alongside works by Martin Zimmerman, Ryan Jesperson, and George Lam, it premieres Friday, June 17th in Brooklyn at Cafe Orwell. The program, titled Criminal Intent (hopefully Dick Wolf won’t sue), will be repeated in Baltimore, Hartford, and Boston.
As if it weren’t hard enough to compose an opera, non or otherwise, in the midst of a busy semester teaching at the Peabody Institute, where Smooke is a faculty member, the composer decided to create his own libretto, in a made-up language built out of IPA no less! To help us translate this phonetic construction and its backstory, I asked for some further information about the piece, which he shares below.
Smooke says, “In this nonopera, I consider the fraud—the unveiling of which helped spark the recession of 2008—perpetrated by Jérôme Kerviel, the rogue trader from France’s Société Générale who appeared to me to function as the archetypical white-collar criminal. Like his British counterpart Nicholas Leeson, who brought down the venerable Barings Bank in the 1990s, Kerviel was an interloper in the European banking society. These men were among the first working-class hires within traditionally upper-class departments and both appear to have perpetrated their crimes as part of their vain attempts to please their superiors through outworking and outsmarting their colleagues. Here, scenes of trading—number arias—recur throughout, with each growing progressively more tense. Life beyond the office is represented by a lullaby sung by paternal and maternal figures (Kerviel’s parents were a blacksmith and hairdresser in Pont-l’Abbé, Brittany), and by snippets of city life that include an invitation from friends to join their revelry. Although this piece creates theatrical scenes with some referential elements, it is a meditation on class differences and on the germinating factors in exorbitant criminal events, and is not intended to portray the life of any specific individual.”
“There is no text; the action is conveyed through an invented language notated in the International Phonetic Alphabet. The action therefore remains relatively ambiguous and non-specific. I ask the singers and the string quartet to explore many unusual performance techniques, which force them to stretch beyond their normal comfort zones.”
Criminal Element in rehearsal
Featuring the West End String Quartet
Orphée Redux and Someone Anyone directed by Elspeth Davis
Friday, June 17 at 7pm | Café Orwell
247 Varet St, Brooklyn, NY 11206
Saturday, June 18 at 6pm | Windup Space
12 W North Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201
*A party for Friends of RWO after the show!*
Friday, June 24 at 7:30pm | Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St, Hartford, CT 06106
Saturday, June 25 at 2pm | Yes!Oui!Si! Space
19 Vancouver St, Boston, MA 02115
- RYAN JESPERSON Orphée Redux
- MARTIN ZIMMERMAN and GEORGE LAM Someone Anyone
- DAVID SMOOKE Criminal Element (2011, premiere, commissioned by RWO)
This musical creation – call it theater or call it opera – with its live dancing singers and singing dancers – one-person virtual orchestra with live guitar and psychedelic visual imagery projections on the floor, is an entirely new production, with a 2010-11 score, of Elodie Lauten‘s iconic, The Death of Don Juan, (originally conceived in 1981), with its present premiere showing at the Theater for the New City.
This is an amazing production of a compelling musical, visual and visceral work, with wonderful sound – magical – with Ms. Lauten controlling the Electronic Orchestra, and excellent performances by the cast and the production team.
Don Juan, the archetypal seducer, meets empowered women in this opera: to quote Ms. Lauten, there is “something compelling about Juan as a character: he has courage, passion, and above all, he is thoroughly human, because he is after love and freedom. Something about him resonates in us, both women and men, and we cannot bring ourselves to hate him.”
Don Juan dances and sings with empowered female spirits – reminisces of the women in his life – as performed by Douglas McDonnell as the title character, Don Juan, and Courtney Symonds as Death as a Woman, Arianna Armon as Death as a Lover, Mary Hurlbut as Death as a Spirit, and, Alisha Desai as Death as a Shadow. All give compelling performances, with varied and memorable singing, dancing and acting.
Elodie Lauten performs the synthesizer and Electronic Orchestra; and, Jonathan Hirschman, the electric guitar.
The music, libretto and visual imagery is by Elodie Lauten; it’s directed by Robert Lawson and Henry Akona; Alexander Bartenieff is the Lighting Designer; Ron Benjamin, the Audio Engineer; Robert Mendoza, the Stage Manager; Anna Thomford and Carla Gant, the Costume Designers; and, Elodie Lauten, Producer and Musical Director.
The theater is in NYC at 155 First Avenue, (10th Street), May 5 – 22, 2011. (Tickets $15 / $10 students & seniors; Thurs., Fri., Sat., 8pm; Sunday 3pm matinee; box office tel. 212-254-1109.)
Ms. Lauten’s program notes sketches out the whole opera, its theme, the libretto; and its creative process, employing both Western and Eastern methods. I need not repeat it. Ms. Lauten is a Parisian romantic post-minimalist composer, who lives and works in New York, and who is most imaginative in her craft and emotional focus – this is a brilliant and moving piece; most entertaining and thought-provoking.
Are we there yet? For years, we’ve been listening to virtual instruments, even virtual orchestras, but the sound samples and sounds produced were but distorted shadows of the acoustic instruments. This sound sounds real.
Ms. Lauten, by patient work and brilliance has gotten the sound right – and we’re finally there, with her one-woman keyboard controlling a virtual orchestra (with a live electric guitarist).
Furthermore, the imagery – psychedelic, to some extent, a child of the 1960s, but out of wellsprings of much older traditions, is convincing, powerful and beautiful in its imagery.
This is real opera, but it is also real theater; and, it is as powerful and accessible as a Broadway musical, even though it has a seriousness of purpose and attention to detail that is rare in either theater or operatic settings.
Real opera should be passionate – not tidy, but vary large emotions and small details, with enough changes and transformations to keep things interesting, and enough consistency to have a story to follow. Real opera, like real life, should be unpredictable, even when one sees things coming. Real opera should be real theater: there is no boundary line between musical theater and opera (although one has classically-trained singers and conventions, there is no need pigeon-hole one).
Are we there yet? Yes, thanks to Ms. Lauten, we’ve arrived at the point where electronic technology – virtual orchestra and imagery – has the realism and power to be real, vivid, and emotionally true.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Composers, Contemporary Classical, Dance, Houston, Opera, Premieres, tags: Chamber Opera, Dance, Divergence Vocal Theater, Dominick DiOrio, Elliot Cole, Greek Heroine, Houston, Isadora Duncan, Klytemnestra, Misha Penton, Selkie, Spring Street Studios
Opera Singer Misha Penton as Klytemnestra (photo by Kerry Beyer)
(Houston, TX) Houston based opera singer Misha Penton opens her unique performance space Divergence Vocal Theater this Friday, April 15th. Located at Spring Street Studios, home to many of Houston’s finest visual and mixed media artists. Divergence Vocal Theater will bring together Ms. Penton’s team of singers, musicians, composers, dancers, and lighting and costume designers to present new chamber opera repertoire. Klytemnestra, a collaborative opera dance theater work featuring music by composer Dominick DiOrio, sung text by Misha Penton, spoken text by John Harvey, and choreography by Meg Brooker, is receiving a great deal of positive press in advance of its premier April 15th and 16th at Divergence Vocal Theater.
Ms. Penton’s mission is to subvert the social mores and business paradigms preventing singers from creating their own works. In the wake of reality after graduate school, more and more classical instrumentalists are creating their own business and career models, going further and further out into what is, for many musicians, uncharted territory. Violinist Todd Reynolds, the ensemble Alarm Will Sound, and Houston based pianists Jade Simmons and Kris Becker are a few examples of musicians who are each developing a sustainable means for commissioning, performing, and deriving an income from playing contemporary classical music. Their approaches are as varied as their personalities, and there is much to discuss when it comes to what is actually working for one musician as opposed to another. But in the near future, these intrepid instrumentalists are going to find that more and more singers, including Misha Penton, are “out there” with them.
Misha and I met shortly after my relocating to Houston and I quickly recognized a kindred spirit. This interview took place via email in advance of the premier of Kyltemnestra.
Chris Becker: In a recent interview you said: “One of the things I want to do…is restructure the way people think about who does opera, how it’s done, who makes it, and who performs it…What I do with Divergence is…create my own works and I sing in them. It’s very much something actors and dancers do, but singers are not encouraged to create their own products.” Do you think this model that you’re describing is the future of classically trained musicians?
Misha Penton: Actually, I do – but it’s already happening. And it really isn’t anything new…instrumentalists in particular have been savvy to this model for a long time – the success of independent ensembles like Eighth Blackbird comes to mind immediately. Some conservatories are starting to take entrepreneurship seriously. Opera America has a great feature about entrepreneurship in its spring magazine and about singer-led initiatives, and entrepreneurship is the theme for the conference this year as well. Obviously rock and jazz musicians work this way and always have. I’m seeing more classically trained singers take on their own projects, but it doesn’t seem to be as encouraged by the vocal teaching tradition as it could be…but again, that is all changing. The more opportunities we, as artists create, the better we’ll be able to define success for ourselves. As a singer, I’m only partly an interpretive artist. I’m a theater artist and writer too, so I’ve always done creative work. I think of myself as an independent artist who happens to create work collaboratively.
Opera Singer Misha Penton (photo by Kerry Beyer)
CB: Who are some of your peers among singers that are doing something similarly subversive?
MP There are more and more small opera companies popping up that singers are joining forces to create – that’s absolutely fantastic. And classically trained singers are branching out into all sorts of music projects. I meet singers all the time who say, “Hey I have this idea for a project” – I just love that. Go do it!
In general, I question the traditional company and nonprofit structure – so I’m not sure that’s the best survival tactic nor the best creative model. There are so many options for funding work now without forming a nonprofit (fiscal sponsorship, crowdfunding, etc). The last thing I want on my back is an “organization”. I work project-to-project and I’m aspiring to a Robert Fripp-ian model – a “small mobile intelligent unit”.
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Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass
If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.
At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.
The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.
Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.
Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.
This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).
This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.
Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.
The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by Chris Becker in Composers, Contemporary Classical, New York, Opera, Performers, Premieres, Women composers, tags: Andrea Liberovici, Apollo Theater, Helga Davis, Jeffrey Zeigler, Mephisto's Songs, multimedia, paola prestini, Robert Wilson, Salon Series
This Friday and Saturday October 22 and 23, Andrea Liberovici’s multimedia work Mephisto’s Songs premieres a part of the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series. I’m not familiar with Liberovici, but I am familiar with Mephisto’s featured performer singer Helga Davis. In addition to Ms. Davis’ amazing vocals, the piece includes recorded narration by Robert Wilson and cello improvisations by The Kronos Quartet’s awesome Jeffrey Zeigler. Live musicians for this performance include Clarice Jenson (cello), Fred Cash Jr. (bass), and Abe Fogle (drums).
Some of you may be familiar with Helga Davis as a host of WQXR’s Overnight Music. She works frequently with composers Paola Prestini and Bernice Johnson Reagon who, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, created the critically acclaimed opera The Temptation of Saint Anthony with Davis singing the role of Hilarion. And some of you truly hip folks may know that she sings on two scores I composed for dance, Like Dirt for Racoco Productions and La Spectra for Movement Pants Dance. Davis is also a distinctive and powerful composer. Her solo shows combining song, spoken word, theater, and video at venues that include New York City’s Whitney Museum or Galapagos are not to be missed.
Check out the Apollo Theater website for ticket information for their Salon Series. An article about another one of Liberovici’s recent projects can be found here.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Conductors, Contemporary Classical, Houston, Interviews, Opera, Premieres, tags: Bangkok Opera, Buddha, Houston, India, Opera, Opera Vista, Somtow Sucharitkul, Thailand, The Vista Competition, Viswa Subbaraman
It’s a cliché to say Texans like things BIG although a mid morning drive on Houston’s freeways will do little to dispel this notion. However, many incredible opera companies in Houston presenting cutting edge programming and embracing fresh approaches to audience outreach are relatively small operations. But that doesn’t mean these companies and their ambitions aren’t growing.
Viswa Subbaraman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Opera Vista, Houston’s innovative contemporary opera company. October 15, at 8pm at Zilkha Hall (located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts) maestro Subbaraman and company present the world premiere of composer and Bangkok Opera artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul’s The Silent Prince. Billed as a “Bollywood Opera,” The Silent Prince tells the Buddhist tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha who has been reincarnated as a prince. When forced to choose between committing terrible karmic deeds and disobeying his father, Temiya withdraws from the world into silence.
After visiting Sucharitkul’s website to hear samples of his music and blog to read his first hand accounts of composing and conducting music in Thailand, I reached out to Viswa Subbaraman with a few questions about next Friday’s premiere and the future of opera:
What are the connections between Bollywood and The Silent Prince? Does the Bollywood connection have to do with the production’s staging and choreography as well as the appearance of a live elephant?
The Bollywood connection has primarily to do with the staging, dancing, and costuming. In a lot of ways, I see this as a throwback to to the Bollywood movies I remember watching with my parents. When I was really young, it seemed as though my parents could only find Bollywood movies that had been out for at least 5-10 years. It wasn’t as prevalent to find Bollywood movies in the US back then. Those old movies had a very operatic element to them. I think the Bollywood connection in this opera harks back to that type of Bollywood film.
Musically, the work tends to be a very eclectic piece. There are moments that strike me as being old-school Bollywood. There are also times that I’m reminded of Sondheim, Wagner, Bernstein and a score of other composers. What I find extremely successful is that it does not sound piece meal. There is a definite unity between the various musical styles.
The score for The Silent Prince combines Western and Indian instruments. What Indian instruments are used? Does the score incorporate instruments from other parts of the East as well?
The Indian instruments in Somtow’s score include Tamburas and Harmonium. In the original conception, there were ideas to use Indian percussion and a variety of Indian instruments, but in the end, it seemed as though Somtow pared things down to create a much cleaner texture. One could make the argument, however, that he uses the violins and flute in a very Carnatic way at points. There is a definite South Asian connection in the instrumentation. Somtow uses a number of tam-tams, gongs, and antique cymbals, so there is a “gamelan” influence. Granted, those instruments tend to be so common in the orchestra that we don’t consider them as exotic any more. That being said, there is a definite nod to eastern traditions in the way those instruments are used.
From your perspective as a conductor and director of an opera company, where do you think contemporary and yet-to-be-written opera in the 21st century is headed? Are the costs of production stifling the development of this tradition of music? Or are more and more people like yourself discovering innovative ways to keep this particular genre of music and its audience growing?
This is an interesting question in that these days I see a ton of new opera. Opera Vista runs an annual competition for new opera (The Vista Competition), and since our focus is primarily opera by living composers, we also receive a number of perusal scores. When I started Opera Vista, I was wary of what we would receive in the way of submissions for the competition, and I was also curious to see what the state of new opera was. I can honestly say that we should be excited by all the great opera being written by living composers. I think opera, much like other areas of contemporary composition, is marked by eclecticism. I don’t know that you can say that there is a specific style or direction that marks contemporary opera. We’re seeing every manner of opera under the sun. There seems to be almost no subject area that is taboo. There also doesn’t seem to be a musical style that is necessarily in vogue right now.
Costs of production are probably the biggest hurdle. I have literally hundreds of ideas for new productions of new opera as well as a variety of directions we could go to help composers develop their art. That being said, it is still difficult to convince potential donors of the necessity of donating to support new music. New music still scares people. This is an area that I guess I could write a book about now. I love all types of music, but as Artistic Director of an organization that is still in its infancy, there is no doubt that I have tabled some productions that I think would be amazing to explore – Elliott Carter’s What Next? comes to mind – because I need to develop my audience base as well as their faith that new opera can be interesting and not scary. I really want Opera Vista to develop a consistent donor base and to be able to truly afford its staff and musicians before pushing the envelope too far – although a Bollywood opera with a live elephant really does feel like pushing the envelope! In some ways, that is the beauty of The Vista Competition.
The Vista Competition for new opera has been an amazing way to introduce living composers and their music to audiences. Every year, I have thought that there might be a piece in the mix that is “above the audience,” and to my amazement it does extremely well in the competition. The Vista Competition is run in an American Idol style. We perform 6-10 minute excerpts of the opera to give the audience a flavor of the work. The jury then asks the composers questions about their work, and in the end, the audience votes for the winner. Because of the interaction between the jury and the composers and in the finals directly between the audience and the composers, there is an opportunity for the audience to learn about the piece in fun and hopefully not-so-scary manner. It has been a building process. I’m excited each year by the number of people who return for the competition and bring friends. We are slowly finding a way to overcome the “opera” and “new music” stereotypes that scare people.
I think there are a number of groups that are working towards fostering new opera. It takes time and a ton of effort. It truly is a labor of love initially. It’s an exciting time for new opera. I really believe in the work we are doing. I know there is now the Microscopic Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Bluegrass Opera in Kentucky, and a number of others are growing.
The Silent Prince by Somtow Sucharitkul, performed by Opera Vista, Viswa Subbaraman conducting, will premiere October 15, 2010, 8pm at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,
800 Bagby St.,