Thursday, November 28, 2013
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
A perfectly lovely story
Curtain Up on a New Production
Allen Klein, Bliss Hebert
By ROSALIE R. RADOMSKY
Published: October 20, 2013
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Contemporary Opera rules in Boston
My season began with the Fringe Festival that Boston University's Music and Theater Arts Departments (the latter where I studied Stage Design in the 1960s) put on each year. Two chamber operas (we are currently in a BIG flowering of chamber in the U.S. because they are modest in scale, easy to produce, and cost vastly less than big opera house operas) began the series:
Jonathan Dove's 1994 Siren Song is a 5 character piece telling the story of a Royal Navy sailor who falls in love with a young and beautiful model via their pen-pal relationship. Every possible meeting with her is frustrated by word from her brother that she is ill or has been called to London for an unexpected photo shoot, etc. etc. The model is a character in the opera, appearing and singing her letters to the sailor, seen only by the audience, in the form that he imagines her. All the while, the brother is collecting money to set up the apartment the sailor and his sister will eventually share.
It's all a scam, of course; there is no sister, the brother is feathering his nest, and the sailor is called up for investigation because of his frequent ship-to-shore calls to a man. It was a bit of a shock to hear that the Royal Navy would take action against a gay man because the rules have recently been so relaxed that they had a campaign to attract gay couples into the Service. But this was 1994, and things were different. The opera ends in sorrow and disillusion as the brother is arrested for fraud and theft while the sailor watches the image of his beloved fade from his eyes.
The music is both lyrical and quite expressive, particularly for the young woman. With minimal props and excellent lighting, the production was totally satisfying.
The second BU Fringe offering was Nico Muhly's very recent (2011) Dark Sisters that was premiered in Philadelphia and then played New York City to strong reviews. I was doubly anxious to see it as I have a ticket to Muhly's Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera in November--it premiered to good notices in London two years ago. I gave a two day symposium on American Opera a year and a half ago and ended it with a profile of Muhly with an eye to the question, "Is he the future of American Opera?" He's a most interesting young (29) composer whose range spans film music, collaboration with rock bands, a large output of choral and instrumental music, and connections to many other important composers (Philip Glass, currently), music ensembles, and musicians.
Dark Sisters is based on two prominent raids by Federal authorities on polygamous Mormon compounds in which large numbers of children (over 400 in one raid) were seized and placed into protective custody, with charges of sex with under-aged young women brought against the men involved. The 7 character opera opens in the aftermath of a raid, with five women mourning the loss of their children. The head of the compound, the "Prophet," urges them to "keep sweet," an actual directive used on wives and daughters in the Mormon Church; he then leaves, supposedly to confront authorities but actually on a jaunt to Las Vegas. The act closes with an almost 20 minute ensemble by the five women as they process their loss and the openly rebellious stance of one of them.
Act two takes place in a very different culture and musical atmosphere. The women (now including one's 15 year-old daughter) are on a talk show trying to get the message out to the world that their children should be returned to them, while the host in interested mostly in the more sensational side of polygamy. The opera ends with The Prophet returning and getting the women back under his thrall, except for the rebellious one who has escaped the compound. In the final moments, it becomes obvious that the 15 year old is on her way to becoming one of his wives, like her mother before her.
Muhly's music is attractive, dramatic and expressive. I did think the first act could have been 5 to 10 minutes shorter but basic interest never flagged and the ensemble of women featured some excellent music. Both Siren Song and Dark Sisters were received enthusiastically by their audiences.
In the coming months, the following operas are scheduled for production in Boston:
Boston Lyric Opera will present the premiere of a new chamber opera version by Jack Beeson of his opera Lizzie Borden, based in Lizzie's famous ax murder of her father and step mother.
Opera Brittenica, a brand new company, will present Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and The Burning Fiery Furnace.
Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series will present the premiere of Anne Hutchinson with music by Dan Shore and libretto by Fritz Bell and William Fregosi -- Fritz and me -- our second libretto to be set to music. I'm also designing the set.
Boston University will present Daniel Catan's magic realism opera Florencia en el Amazonas, based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera.
Boston Opera Collaborative will present Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the premiere of Mohammed Fairouz's Sumeida's Song.
Odyssey Opera, the reincarnation of Opera Boston will present chamber operas in the spring. No titles have yet been announced but it is understood that some modern American chamber operas will be involved.
All in all, a varied and extremely encouraging advocacy of new work by a city that is very musically sophisticated.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Unlike the vast majority of soldiers whose hitches were for one or two years, Willy Greene's superior skills were such that he was kept in for all five, seeing action in some of the most important and devastating battles of the war. His survival was extraordinary because the Confederate armies had big bounties on sharpshooters, and tried to take as many out as possible at each engagement. But Willy came out alive and eventually moved out west to become a farmer in Oklahoma.
The letters were discovered two decades ago in a concealed drawer in a desk that was being repaired and refinished. Fritz had the book when we first got together over sixteen years ago and always thought that a performance piece could be made of it. The fact that we're working with letters makes it easy to produce -- nobody has to memorize anything. The letters to and from Willy and his Mother, Uncle, Friends, et al. would all be read as in A. R. Gurney's very successful two character play Love Letters. A narrator will fill in the blanks and provide various facts as necessary. Only a few rehearsals will be required to set the tone, get people familiar with the material, and comfortable with their characters.
The idea is to have the play ready for the 250th anniversary of the Town of Raymond next summer, under the auspices of the Raymond Historical Society of which we are members. A church on the Town Green, where a very handsome version of the typical New England Civil War Memorial stands, will probably be the performance venue. It would also be offered to other New Hampshire towns for July 4th or Old Home Day celebrations, etc. The play will not be performed for a fee; the idea is that all performances be community efforts offered without charge (the Editor/Publisher loved the idea and is not asking for any fee or royalties, either). If audience members want to leave a contribution to their town's Historical Society, fine, but we want Willy Greene's story to be available to everyone who wants to see it, gratis.
Monday, September 09, 2013
We are given just so many days . . .
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
What's up at the opera, Doc? Part Two
About 40% of what Intermezzo produces is newly commissioned work, usually for a one act, approximately one hour opera. We realized early on that to convey the richness and variety of Anne's story we should keep the historical trial setting but collage the text from all available sources. We were NOT writing a documentary but a vivid drama. We began by writing a prose scenario of the action, and developed a unified plot.
We decided immediately not to write the work in what we called "Puritanese." Playwright Arthur Miller had been strongly criticized for using stilted, pseudo-archaic language in The Crucible, his play about the Salem witch trials. So we settled on modern English with a certain formality and just a few, thoroughly comprehensible 17th century turns of phrase to set the period tone.
We also knew that the theological issues brought up at the civil trial, while vitally important, would be largely incomprehensible to a modern audience (everything in Puritan Massachusetts included religion, even civil matters). We didn't want a lot of talky exposition or having to tell half the story through the program notes. We focused on just one of the major charges against her, that she downgraded the importance of the ministers by claiming that she and all people, men AND women, could hear the voice of God directly in their minds and hearts without a clergy to interpret it for them -- a MAJOR heresy. We also emphasized her forwardness and independence as a woman that drove the ministers into a fury.
Reaction to the scenario, and to the couple of scenes that we had written to give the company director, production director, and conductor a sense of our approach, was so positive that by the end of the evening, we were told that they now wanted a two act opera of around 80 minutes. (Fritz: "Oh, s__t, now we have to write finales for TWO acts!").
The resulting libretto is a trim, compact but detailed depiction of Anne's trial and banishment, after which she finds herself in a "theatrical space" where she wonders if her words and what she stood for will have any resonance into the future. Out of the ether come men and women who were involved in various rights struggles -- Mary Dyer, Abigail Adams, Walt Whitman, Frederic Douglas, Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks. They assure her that her struggle has been taken up through American history and that she has been an inspiration to them all. A major ensemble grows out of their dialog and then settles down to just Anne standing victorious on stage saying "Anne Hutchinson is present!" not in defiance of a prejudiced court any more, but in triumph.
Friday, August 16, 2013
What's up at the opera, Doc? (unforgettable Warner Bros. cartoon starring Bugs Bunny) Part One
The opera takes place during Anne's two day trial in November of 1638 on overt charges of heresy and of holding weekly meetings in her home to subvert the power and reputation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's ministers by discussing the previous Sunday's sermon and then giving her own take on various points on which she disagreed. There was also a not so "sub" subtext which was that she refused to be the typical totally domestic, ideally compliant and subservient Puritan wife and mother.
Mother she was (15 pregnancies with an astonishing number of children surviving to adulthood for the era) but "subservient" was not in her vocabulary, given the education her minister father had given her which is estimated to have been virtually the equivalent of the one Queen Elizabeth I was given. She and her husband Will had also worked out an equal partnership agreement for their marriage, which exposed him to some ridicule in the colony, and her to accusations of dominating him and leading him around by the nose. At the trial, her forwardness was repeatedly thrown in her face as she repeatedly argued the Judge, Governor Winthrop, and the ministers to silence because she was smarter than the lot of them.
Now, trials can be dramatic dynamite on stage or in the movies, but they can also be too much of a one-note, fairly grim situation -- and Anne's was a very serious trial indeed. We faced a couple of potentially major decisions: a) do we base the libretto solely on the trial transcript, which has survived and is fascinating reading; b) do we use the language of the time, as fully revealed in the transcript in archaic terms and in torturous Jacobean syntax, as is; c) do we limit ourselves only to the trial, leaving the audience wondering how Anne got into the situation in which she, and we, find her as she answers Governor Winthrop's summons to the Court with a firm and defiant "Anne Hutchinson is present!"
To be continued.