What Trios They Were

In the Ensemble Theatre this morning at the world premiere of What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, I began to think about the advantages of a three-person opera.

A historical recount of a civil case Emeline, a “free woman of color,” brought against Jesse P. Bolls in 1848 Houston, Houston Grand Opera’s (HGOco) What Wings They Were is a moving story told by soprano Gwendolyn Alfred, bass-baritone Christopher Besch, and tenor Brian Yeakley.

Composer John L. Cornelius II creates a wonderful score for the piano, performed with purpose and feeling by music director Bethany Self, but the vocal parts seemed separated from their accompaniment and even from one another. Any opera buff will admit to a love of ensemble numbers, traditionally the satisfying climax of an act (my favorite is the sextet “Chi Mi Frena in al Momento” from Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor), but with newer operas these ensemble numbers have fallen out of the repertoire somehow. Give me some cohesive harmony, some sense of melodic arc—good ensemble can still feel original, no one has condemned it with the old-fashioned stamp.

Three singers translate into opportunity for some rousing ensemble numbers. Bastien and Bastienne, a comedy Mozart wrote when he was only 12 in 1768, for example, has some beautiful duets and ends with a triumphant trio. In the same vein, Donizetti’s Rita, a comedy written in 1860, is ripe with jaunty duets. On the other hand, consider Stewart Wallace’s three-cast Hopper’s Wife, which makes its east coast premiere at the New York City Opera this weekend. The opera assigns a different singing genre to each character (and one character spends a good part holding her own in the nude). Mark Swed of the LA Times calls it “brave” in the realm of American opera for realist historical drama, though he stresses it’s also “not a particularly likable opera and certainly not nice.”

What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline tells an awe-inspiring true story of a woman who sued for her freedom, and for the freedom of her two children, and won. Doesn’t such an incredible story deserve an equally galvanizing trio to ignite its victorious finish? Must new opera sound so isolated?

No Spring like a Beethoven Spring

Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti and pianist Klára Würtz, performing Beethoven’s sonatas over two evenings, created a distinct familiarity with the music, the audience, and the art as the conclusion to Da Camera of Houston’s Menil Collection season. Following a night of Sonata No. 8, No. 2, and No. 9, the duo concluded with a concert of Sonata no. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 12, the famed “Spring” sonata in F Major, Op. 24, and finally the Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96.

I’ll never forget the first time I performed the Spring Sonata with Chad Spears, pianist extraordinaire, who taught me the importance of chamber phrasing. Read my review at Bachtrack.

Da Camera’s Colorado is no clever rattlesnake

Friedrich Nietzsche once called Richard Wagner a clever rattlesnake for his ability to manipulate feeling through sound. It wasn’t a compliment. Since Pythagoras, we’ve known that music has the ability to affect us in unpredictable and untraceable ways, for better and for worse. (Nietzsche would probably add “in sickness and in health.”)

Last night at the world premiere of The Colorado, presented by Da Camera of Houston in conjunction with Fotofest, I was reminded of music’s ability to complement, to enhance and raise the stakes of other artistic media.

The Colorado is a film that chronicles the history of the Colorado River with live and recorded music performed by percussionist and composer Glenn Kotche, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, and the enigmatic vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. New music by composers Paola Prestini, Shara Worden, William Brittelle, John Luther Adams, as well as Kotche and Zeigler, graced the film with intent.

The film, directed by Murat Eyuboglu, begins with serene images of the Colorado River—beautiful, striking images that pull an audience in, that make an audience invested in its power and wonderment. It’s a smart narrative arc, really. It gives background, shows maps, makes us understand our role (humanity at large) in relationship to our environment before revealing that we are the ultimate villain. What seems wild and untamed, a strand the film slowly unfurls, can easily be domesticated. We know the tragic turn ahead.

Watching this multi-media event means choosing, at least in part, between narratives: The performers below the screen and the film. Zeigler, fingers sliding down the neck of his cello, and Kotche, dancing from instrument to instrument, are exciting to watch—brilliant performers with chemistry. But the film has its own draw, too, in this age of global warming, where  despair and regret increasingly replace wonderment in regard to the natural world.

But there are times when the film and the music reach a harmonic zen together, where everything swirls in a new breed of Wagner’s total work of art. When the film introduces the Hoover Dam, ominous drumming starts quietly in the background. The rhythm picks up, scraping raw in new timbres and instruments: Zeigler, head down; Kotche, arms tensed. A chronological list appears on the screen of dams that followed the Hoover. Scrolling, scrolling, we know it means the beginning of the end, an act that painfully reveals humanity’s near-sightedness, a childish predilection for immediate fulfillment and a disregard for future consequences.

It’s this kind of feeling that makes The Colorado singular. Few classical performances have  a subject matter that so easily falls into a didactic train of politics. It would have taken only a slight turn to become a sermonizing parable. But there’s something to be noted in music’s capacity to leave an impression and to leave what that impression is up to us. When the stakes are high, as they are in this performance, it’s a remarkable experience.

The film ends on a hopeful note, both literally and figuratively. The pulsing beat is still there, a remnant of the Hoover Dam scene, but it is joined by voices rising in a major key, higher and almost joyful. The optimism was a surprise, but it speaks to the capacity of music to usher a story into reality.

n’est ce pa une opera

The world premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes it even more difficult to define his body of work. Zachary Woolfe (who reviewed it for the NYT) insists that  Quicksand is categorically “opera,” but he’s responding to the many people who insist that Ashley’s work is performance art, or theatre, or a spoken-word concert. Ashley resists categorization, but do we still need to put him in a box?

It’s the first opera staged without Ashley alive to direct its vision, although several of his core (artists who worked with him closely for many years) have a hand here: Tom Hamilton (orchestra, sound, live mix), David Moodey (light design), Steve Paxton (choreography). Quicksand is a detective-mystery novel Ashley wrote and published in 2011. The only sound in this production is his melodic voice reading the novel from beginning to end over a colorful electronic hum while two performers (Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar) move on stage.

I saw it at The Kitchen in New York City last night. About fifteen minutes into the performance, I wondered if I had made a mistake by reading the novel first, as though I had inadvertently pulled one medium out like a thread from the multi-media work. As a book that you read silently to yourself, Ashley’s attention to language falls out of the experience. Staged, hearing each word spoken lyrically in Ashley’s characteristic way, the language becomes music beautifully. And the sound was realized visually by soft colors (blue, yellow, pinkish-red) and calculated movement. The performers, sometimes dancing, sometimes acting, ducked and stretched under a patchwork sheet that billowed and pulled throughout the 3-hour show. I suspect the novel’s narrative is a mis-direction. The real story is in the sight of sound.

It’s difficult to say what this is; it is much easier so say what lines it toes: It’s a novel that’s not a novel, an opera that’s not an opera, and a dance that’s not a dance.

Weekend Music: Rusalka and Schumann

I readily admit I was a big fan of the Little Mermaid when I was young–not just the Disney film but the darker, unhappier fairytale versions too. Houston Grand Opera’s Rusalka brought the fairytale happily into my adulthood on Friday. Saturday night was a mixed bag at Jones Hall. I don’t expect I’ll hear anyone play Schumann’s violin concerto again any time soon, and I’m not sure I mind.

Read both of my reviews at Bachtrack: the opera; and the symphony.

Photo by Lynn Lane

Photo by Lynn Lane