Posts Tagged “Experiments in Opera”

Marc Day and Patrick Fennig in

Marc Day and Patrick Fennig in “Brother Brother”

In June I sat on a panel organized by Opera Cabal, in their visit to the Kitchen to produce Georg Haas’ Atthis, with two other critics, John Rockwell and Zachary Woolfe. While the audience was sparse, they were generally attentive and the talk, which began with the question of whether or not we missed City Opera, was varied and interesting.

I was surprised, though, by how much we ended up talking about the Metropolitan Opera, and how Rockwell and Woolfe’s critical thinking is so involved in the context of not only what the Met produces, but the general standpoint that the long-standing repertoire is the thing that matters. The Met demands that much attention in terms of both time and money, and the professional critics (I’m making a value-free distinction between those who are paid for every review they write and those who are paid for some of the reviews we write) pay that much more attention to the Met and that house’s peers: it’s their job.

This is certainly no criticism of Rockwell and Woolfe, especially the former, who has done so much to advocate for contemporary opera. It actually made my contributions more valuable, because while I certainly see plenty of things at the Met (almost a dozen performances this past season), what happens outside that house matters to me more. Nothing against good productions of operas of lasting value (though the grand opera tradition, as seen on stage, includes too many mediocre works), but as a composer I’m most concerned with the state of the form now, what other composers and companies are doing with it.

When I answered the opening question, I was even more surprised to realize that I didn’t miss City Opera. The loss of the company is still painful, but what involved me the most with them was what George Steel was doing to produce modern and contemporary work, and this past season, starting with City Opera’s swan song of Anna Nicole, I saw enough new work (on a necessarily smaller scale), and missed so much more new work, that it was clear to me in retrospect that contemporary opera is in decent enough shape. Smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, HERE Arts Center and Experiments in Opera are making new work, and they are free of the burden of having to maintain a redundant version of the repertoire that the Met has a lock on.

What does it take to produce an opera? Experiments in Opera has an infinitesimal fraction of the Met’s budget, easily less than 1,000,000th, so the composers who formed the organization—Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady and Matthew Welch—work together to produce each other’s pieces. I saw their season finale, Siegel’s Brother Brother, in the beginning of May at the Abrons Arts Center, and while the opera didn’t come off as a successful music drama, it has two important things going for it: it tries to expand the repertory and it made it to the stage—that itself is a success.

Siegel is trying to move narrative structure beyond linear story telling, something the world of contemporary opera desperately needs (as I said at the panel, I’m amazed that in a world with comic books, Pulp Fiction and long form dramatic TV, there is almost never any variation to the Verdian model). He is trying to convey a drama about the Wright brothers by telling the story of an additional pair of brothers, abstracted as Red and Blue. An interesting idea, but unsuccessfully executed.

Siegel wrote the libretto, and could probably have used some critical distance: the words don’t amount to much meaning. They don’t do much to provide human flesh to the Wright brothers (sung by countertenor Patrick Fennig and tenor Marc Day), and the fragmented, abstract dialogue for Red (Julian A. Rozell, Jr.), and Blue (Danyon Davis) make them poetic figures and put them out of the context of the drama. Red and Blue are also speaking parts, and although they are accompanied by music, they seem to belong to an entirely different piece.

Siegel fills in a lot of the narrative with a chorus, but this also works against his drama, because this is music the Wright brothers could sing, and by singing bring us closer to their experience and dramatic realization. They pop up, Day sings heroically at one point, everything goes up in flames. It doesn’t work. Siegel also doesn’t completely get beyond the challenge of his own minimalist idiom—the repetitive music relies predominantly on vibraphone (the accompanying ensembles were Mantra Percussion and the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, conducted by David Bloom), and as lovely as it often is, there is too little changes in quality and harmony to indicate that some kind of narrative transformation has occurred: the music doesn’t convey the dramatic idea.

Production- and performance-wise, the event proved that there is no lack of capable singers, musicians and directors (Mallory Catlett). The actors were miked, probably because the instruments were miked, but in the tidy acoustic of Abrons this should never have happened, and the vibes overpowered the actors and the singers too many times. Perhaps tight budgets mean insufficient tech rehearsals.

But the problems with Brother Brother are those of commission, people trying to do something new. No money means nothing much to lose, and an unsatisfying but honest attempt at something different is more welcome than another acceptable and predictable production of Strauss.

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Experiments in Opera, the new collective founded by composers Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch, presents its Spring Series on May 10 + 11 (Thursday and Friday) at Roulette in Brooklyn. Four new operas will be heard in workshop performances over the two evenings.

The May 10 program features a complete semi-staged, multi-media performance of Cady’s Happiness is the Problem, plus a semi-staged, work-in-progess presentation of To Scale by the creative trio known as Cough Button, and a concert excerpt from Siegel’s Brother Brother.
May 11 will be devoted to a semi-staged production of Welch’s Borges and The Other, heard in its premiere as a complete work. Both shows begin at 8 pm.

While highly divergent in style and tone, all four works engage in a provocative dialog with the fundamental assumptions of the operatic form. Laugh tracks, graphic novels, localized radio transmitters, characters that are (literally) two-dimensional, two pairs of singers portraying a single historical figure: all of these elements figure in EiO’s experiments. Yet their creators remain devoted to craftsmanship and the expressive power of music to tell a story, no matter how non-linear.

Cady, Siegel, and Welch, who met at Wesleyan University, describe Experiments in Opera as:

“…a composer- and performer-driven initiative, featuring recent and new works with unorthodox answers to the traditional questions about how to connect words, story and music. Our activities emerge from a pronounced need to nurture composers drawn towards extending their work beyond the standard concert experience and into the hybrid space of the theater, performance, installation, dance and storytelling arts.”

Thursday, MAY 10

Cady’s Happiness Is The Problem is a two-act opera buffa about idealism and disillusionment. It presents three young women who sell an elixir of happiness derived from the secretions of slugs which they market as “Euphoressence.” The Problem of Happiness, which has perplexed philosophers since Plato, is explored in lighthearted yet penetrating fashion. Cady’s musical idiom melds postmodernism and pop, with occasional interjections from a very canned laugh track. The script by Cady and Nadia Berenstein takes the form of a comic book drawn by Berenstein, which is projected as sopranos Christie Finn and Megan Schubert and mezzo-soprano Lisa Komara perform to pre-recorded tracks.
“It’s a 2-act opera, semi-staged and directed by Jeremy Bloom,” explains Cady. “We did the first act at Le Poisson Rouge, but this will be the full two-act performance.”.

Aaron Siegel speaks about the work on his piece Brother Brother:


“For the concert last January, I shared 2 selections that were for percussion instruments, and this coming week, I’ll be sharing 2 of the choral excerpts. This is a piece that is still in progress, and I’ve done a little bit of recording on these works just to be able to share them. This is the first time these pieces are to be performed live, and we’re not doing it with the full ensemble this time, just with piano reduction. So there will be about 20 mins. worth of music. I’m super excited to do a work that has some choral elements in it. It just adds a whole other dimension of possibilities when you’re doing a bigger work like this.”.

Cough Button‘s To Scale is a work-in-progress that details the relationship between an architect and his “scalies”–the two-dimensional characters who populate architectural models. Co-written by Cough Button members Lynn Levy, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons, To Scale explores the gap between creator and created. The piece will also play with novel techniques to bridge the gap between singer and listener, including the use of localized transmitters, picked up by radios in the audience. The cast includes Paul Pinto, Brian Rady, Lainie Fefferman, Dylan Widjiono, and Aliza Simons, accompanied by instrumentalists Karen Waltuch (viola), Vasu Panicker (keyboards), Lea Bertucci (bass clarinet), and Dave Ruder (electronics).

~~~~~

Friday, MAY 11

Matthew Welch’s Borges and The Other is based on the iconic writer’s life and work. It’s scored for two mezzos, tenor, and baritone, backed by Welch’s ensemble Blarvuster, which serves up a potent brew of Celtic sounds, raga, minimalism, and progressive rock. Says Welch, “In 2007, the first of [my] Borges mini-operas featured two mezzo-sopranos portraying an older and younger Borges meeting in a dream space. For a second act written for tenor and baritone, two additional Borges of differing ages meet yet again in a separate encounter of dreaming each other. In both acts, each Borges views his other in disbelief, hashing out self-loathing critique, whilst verifying biographical information.” Mezzo-sopranos Lisa Komara and Amirtha Kidambi, tenor James Rogers, baritone Jeff Gavett, and The EiO Chorus all portray Borges. Blarvuster consists of Leah Paul (flutes), Karen Waltuch (viola), Emily Manzo (piano), Taylor Levine and Matthew Hough (electric guitars), Ian Riggs (bass guitar), Joe Bergen (vibraphone), and Mike Pride (drums). Matthew Welch conducts.

Further information can be found at experimentsinopera.com.

Experiments in Opera
Thursday, May 10th and Friday, May 11th, 8 PM
Roulette
509 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
(917) 267-0363
Roulette.org

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