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.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
One more step toward a sculpture garden.
On our way to Hope, we had stopped for the night at the home of an old and dear friend of Fritz's who is always a pleasure to visit; before we went out to dinner, she said we must see the the local art association's exhibit and sale. The work was in a very wide variety of media and of very good quality. I was particularly struck by a number of small sculptures in granite carved in leaf and fern patterns. They were small, 12 to 18 inches in height and elegant. I remembered seeing a much larger, similar work outside the building and inquired if it was by the same sculptor and/or for sale.
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Opera Festival Weekend
Last weekend was my annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, NY for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival (yes, Virginia, there is much more than the Baseball Hall of Fame to Cooperstown!) It was my 21st annual trek, one to which I look forward avidly every year for the combination of beautiful rolling farm country filled with prosperous working farms, great antiquing, several fine museums and restored historic houses to visit, good restaurants, winding country roads to explore, and an intelligently planned opera program performed in extensively rehearsed productions cast with singers from established world-class stars to advanced, highly promising young talent.
The 900+ seat opera house (above, looking to the back of the auditorium) is informal, comfortable, designed to have excellent acoustics and sight lines -- and to be ventilated before the performance and during intermissions by sliding open the panels that make up the side walls of the theater. The panels close to keep out noise and keep in sound from the stage and orchestra pit during the performance.
I have sometimes gone out alone, but usually with a friend or, as last year when Fritz decided to go with me. He's not a big opera fan unless the works are sung in English (he prefers to hear the opera's text, not read it's translation via supertitles) and/or I happen to be the set designer. Under the current directorship, one classic American musical is programmed each year in the original keys, voice ranges, and orchestration but without amplification. It's a treat to hear what voices really sound like, and listen to the voices and orchestra rather than being assaulted by them.
This year Fritz stayed home and I invited a blogger friend who had always wanted to go to Glimmerglass to join me. He flew into Albany and I picked him up on my way westward from New Hampshire.
Mornings before the Saturday and Sunday performances I usually explore countryside and stop at a huge antique (the building and its contents) barn on four levels well outside of town, and he fell right into the routine with me. We also did a walking tour of Cooperstown and, on Sunday morning, spent an hour and a half at the excellent Fennimore Museum (of the James Fennimore Cooper dynasty that looms large there). The author of the Leatherstocking tales named the shimmering surface of Lake Otsego "the glimmerglass.") There was a revealing special exhibit on the Wyeth family that went far beyond "Christina's World" and showed the current, youngest generation of Wyeth painters developing the family tradition in new directions.
The opera repertory this year, the 200th anniversary of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, in the order I saw them:
Verdi's early comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day) which was a failure at its premiere but, with some judicious pruning of what were judged to be way too many repeats, made a charming evening performed as something between musical comedy and vaudeville. The bulk of the cast was from the current Young Artists program, and of alumni from that program who are now getting established nationally.
Lerner and Lowe's Camelot was the Saturday matinee. The original production which I saw on Broadway had been staged for spectacle; every now and then six women in magnificent heraldic gowns with six foot long trains and wearing elaborate, tall headdresses would cross the stage just to get gasps of delight. Glimmerglass's handsome and outstandingly sung, but restrained, production was focused on the interpersonal relationships and was deeply moving in its major scenes of love and loss. Baritone David Pittsinger made a very fine Arthur, Andriana Churchman's lovely soprano was easily the equal of the legendary Julie Andrews, and Nathan Gunn was the handsome, smooth-voiced Lancelot.
David Lang's one hour a capella opera, The Little Match Girl Passion, was easily the most unusual piece on the stage this year. Based on the rather grim Hans Christian Anderson story of a battered child sent out to sell matches on a cold winter night, who succumbs to cold and dies in a doorway, Lang's opera avoids any sentimentality. References to Bach's St. Matthew Passion elevate her condition and death to a level that calls attention to the stoic, uncomplaining way the child accepts her fate and dies with a vision of heaven. Four singers, two men and two women, sing the story as it is acted out, each of them also occasionally striking various percussion instruments that point up, but do not musically accompany, moments in the vocal narration. At the request of the Festival, Lang expanded the work to include an introduction by a children's chorus, who also played a role in acting out the drama. It was a fascinating production.
Match Girl was accompanied by a staged version of the Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pergolesi. A hymn to the Virgin Mary on her grief over the death of her child it was sung by two altos, one female and one male, the astonishingly good countertenor Anthony Rolf Costanzo (who also danced seamlessly with the eight professional dancers) in an extremely beautiful and imaginative production.
Our weekend ended with Glimmerglass's second production ever of a Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman (his early Das Liebesverbot based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure having been the first). The most vocally demanding and dramatic of the summer's operas, Dutchman was excellently cast with Ryan McKinney whose rich bass-baritone never faltered, Melody Moore who had all of Senta's high notes and all of her lyricism, Jay Hunter Morris, now the Metropolitan Opera's preferred Siegfried, and Peter Volpe as an excellent Daland. The orchestra under John Keenan's direction, the stage production under Francesca Zambello's direction, and the splendid chorus (made up of all the members of the Young Artists Program) were all in synch for a superb rendition of the very German Romantic score.