Thursday, January 22, 2009

I was out and about on Inauguration Day, shopping for my next opera design project, Ralph Vaughn William’s Riders to the Sea. It goes into technical and dress rehearsals the first of March and plays for two nights in the Chapel at Wellesley College. The producer is Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series for whom I’m resident designer, in collaboration with Wellesley College and Brandeis University (where I did my graduate studies in theater design). Because of the college tie-ins, we’ll have a much larger chorus and orchestra than we’ve ever had before as well as a bigger stage crew.

The project is to give special recognition to one of the Boston area’s great singers, Marion Dry. Marion’s a contralto—a real one, not just a mezzo soprano whipping her chest voice as hard as possible, a handsome woman and a fine actress. Marion has had a fine career (Netherlands Opera, Seattle Opera--Erda in Wagner's RING, Houston Grand Opera, the Tanglewood Festival, Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Academy of Music, Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Madison Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestras of Ukraine and Panama, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Edinburgh Festival and the Kennedy Center) and she’s now on the Wellesley music faculty.

The role of Maurya, a mother living on one of the Aran Islands who's lost her husband, father-in-law and four sons to the sea, fits her perfectly. A fifth son is currently missing (a few pieces of his clothing arrive by which he's identified) and the sixth and last is planning to take a boat filled with horses across a dangerous strait to market on the mainland. A sense of inexorable fate hangs over the stone cottage in which the family lives. Did I mention it’s NOT a comedy?

When I first met the director we were part of a group including Marion, the choral director, the conductor (from Brandeis), the artistic director of Intermezzo, and a project coordinator from Wellesley. After touring the building and an organizational meeting, the director and I sat down together and looked at the highly decorated carved oak Victorian Gothic interior of the Chapel that’s about as far away from an ideal background for an Irish peasant drama as one could imagine.

In such circumstances when the venue has an incredibly high and inescapable profile, it seems to me that there are only two options: use it and work it into your set, or work in diametric opposition to it stylistically. My personal choice was to work against it in terms of color, style and composition but the director’s concept for the production which was unknown at that point has to be served. So we sat for a second or two making isolated comments on the relentlessly Episcopal feeling of it all, and then I broke the mood with, “Have you thought of the strong ritual and mythic implications of the story? The action begins with one of the girls sitting down at the spinning wheel and when Nordic or Celtic stories begin with spinning, it’s always a portal into myth and the supernatural."

Magically and excitingly, we were on the same page. I'll be posting some drawings in the coming weeks. We're both aware of the huge influence of classical Greek Tragedy on J. M. Synge who wrote the play on which the opera is based, and neither of us feels that it's just a "little play" written in a realistic style. Vaughan Williams takes it out of realism, particularly with his chorus of keening women (we'll have 50 of them!) and what I call Maurya's "Irish Peasant Liebestod." She sings it over the drowned sixth son's body, ending the opera addressing the sea and exaulting that it's finally taken everything from her and left her with no fear anymore. It's our plan to transform her into a Celtic priestess figure surrounded by a sea of women, the great matriarchy that was historically the basis of Celtic culture.

The shopping went well which is good because our concept requires rather large amounts of material (36 feet here, 45 feet there). Performance dates are March 7th (8pm) and 8th (3pm).


Back to Inauguration Day. As I passed through fabric and theatrical hardware stores, they all had either a radio or television tuned to the ceremony. I had it on my car radio also when I was driving, so I missed very little. Justice Roberts’ flub notwithstanding, I choked up a bit during the taking of the oath and the presentation of Barrack Obama to the nation as its new president. (It turns out he took the oath a second time in the White House with witnesses to stave off any attempts from you-know-which-Party, which did in fact happen, to claim he's not really our president)

I got home in time for the motorcade from the Capitol to the White House, with the impromptu walk through the streets by the Obamas that scared Fritz badly because of how exposed they were. (By the way, did anyone take notice of the tall, striking looking Secret Service guy with the shaved head walking next to them?) And then it was time to get dinner ready and I asked Fritz if it might not be appropriate to celebrate the momentous day by opening a bottle of champagne. And so we did, drinking to his health and success, which will mean the nation’s health and recovery from the long dark years we’ve endured.

And it felt really good.

I feel good too
The great work (repair) begins.
I attended a commitment ceremony (2 men) in the Wellesley chapel five years ago or so. It is indeed a very lovely space, and particularly so for that memorable day. I can well imagine it would be a challenge as an opera set though. I saw 'The Normal Heart' in the Unitarian Church at Harvard Square twenty years ago and it worked on the level of guerilla theater.
I just hope the good feelings continue. The GOP's lead bullshit artists were working the talk show circuit this morning, and I fear that too many people will continue to believe their lies and twisting of the truth.

Still, I'm more hopeful than I've been in quite a while!
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