MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Proving Up in Omaha

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Opera Omaha production of Proving Up, photo (c) Emily Hardman

Missy Mazzoli’s opera Proving Up, which just opened at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, made a strong impression on me when I got to see the premiere staging by James Darrah at Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival in the spring. Here’s what I wrote for Musical America:

April 27, 2018
Proving Up both opened and closed ONE Festival—I saw the final performance, on April 22—and the production was specially tailored to its non-traditional location in a gallery space at KANEKO, a set of warehouses in Omaha’s historic Old Market district that have been converted into the headquarters of the artist Jun Kaneko.
In this followup to their acclaimed collaboration Breaking the Waves (also directed by Darrah), Mazzoli and Vavrek have again hit pay dirt, crafting a suspenseful, gripping, and unsettling work of music theater. In the synergy achieved at ONE with an imaginative design team, a first-rate cast, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) led with complete commitment by Christopher Rountree, they have also created another durable proof of the vitality of contemporary opera.
Proving Up draws on material notably different from the Lars von Trier-inspired Breaking the Waves. Mazzoli remarked in a talkback discussion after the performance that she wanted to explore the impact of the American Dream on those who have been motivated to follow its promise but ended up failing. The mortgage crisis and Occupy Wall St. movement provided initial impulses, but the last U.S. presidential election—and the questions it raised about American values and myths—naturally left an imprint on Mazzoli’s and Vavrek’s ideas.
The opera adapts a short story published by the American writer Karen Russell in her 2013 collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Set “somewhere in the plains of the young State of Nebraska” just after the Civil War, Proving Up centers around the ordeal of the Zegner family, who have taken the risk of leaving the settled East Coast behind to claim their parcel of land according to the promise of the Homestead Act.
Actual ownership can only be gained after a five-year period by following a set of stipulations, including the (fictive) requirement to have a home with a glass window. Pa Zegner has managed to obtain this holy grail and agrees to share it with his neighbors so that together they can “prove up” and obtain their deeds from the awaited government inspector. How he came by the coveted window is the dark counterstory, suggesting an array of related but inconclusive narratives of retribution, vengeance, or patterns of a fateful curse.
On the surface, it operated like a gothic horror tale; but thanks to Vavrek’s well-constructed libretto and Mazzoli’s memorable characterizations—as well as the pacing and deft use of symbolism in Darrah’s staging—Proving Up had a compelling mythic resonance.
For the KANEKO space, Adam Rigg designed a 72-foot-long runway box filled with dirt as the stage—a vast grave encompassing the two small graves of the Zegner daughters. This stage divided the audience, which sat on a motley collection of old chairs, into two halves facing each other.
Wooden panels at one end formed the house and, at the other, made a sculptural formation hinting at the distant horizon. The ICE players were seated in full view on the latter side, with Rountree facing the singers (and audience). Pablo Santiago’s lighting was especially outstanding: following the spirit of the production as a whole, he recalibrated its traditional mood-setting role, making it an active character that refracted the narrative’s sustained sense of foreboding.
Mazzoli’s score for a Turn of the Screw-like chamber ensemble (three winds, two brass, a percussionist, piano/harpsichord, harp, and strings, with vernacular sonorities like harmonica used in unexpected ways) proved resourceful, original, and effective. She evoked various aspects of the natural landscape—above all a sense of dryness corresponding with the drought that contributes to the Zegners’ doom—but also convincingly depicted the extreme emotional states to which this small cast of characters is driven.
Mazzoli showed a gift for giving her characters personality with her vocal writing, using exaggerations of range to powerful effect for the terrifyingly mysterious Sodbuster (Andrew Harris) who looms in the final scenes. John Moore conveyed the ruthless drive of the patriarch but also made him pitiable, while Talise Trevigne covered a vast emotional spectrum in solos that laid bare Ma Zegner’s anguish and anger alike. In a multilayered performance, Michael Slattery captured the mixture of innocence, curiosity, and fear of the youngest son Miles, who is entrusted with the task of sharing the window. Abigail Nims and Delaram Kamareh sang in haunting harmonies as the ghostly Zegner daughters, and Sam Shapiro acted the non-singing role of the incapacitated older son.
The story’s local color has obvious relevance for audiences in the American heartland who may have descended from 19th-century homesteaders. But Proving Up is made with the imagination and purpose to speak to anyone capable of being moved by the larger questions it raises. The production’s next stop will be in New York in September; redesigning it for the Miller Theatre space promises to be an epic challenge in itself.

Filed under: American opera, Missy Mazzoli, Musical America, review

Opera Omaha’s Inaugural ONE Festival Proves Up to Its Ambitions

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Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, directed by James Darrah, with John Moore, Talise Trevigne, Michael Slattery, Cree Carrico, Abigail Nims, Andrew Harris, and Sam Shapiro; photo (c) Emily Hardman

My coverage of the inaugural ONE Festival at Opera Omaha is now live on Musical America. (I’m afraid there’s a paywall.)

I devoted Part 1 to the world premiere of Proving Up, the brilliant new opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek in James Darrah’s staging:

Part 1

Part 2

Filed under: American opera, directors, Musical America, new opera, Opea Omaha, review

Alice Goodman: New York Times Profile

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Alice Goodman in Fulbourn, England. Credit Nadine Ijewere for “The New York Times”

My New York Times story on the poet and librettist Alice Goodman is now online:

When “Nixon in China” had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 22, 1987, there had never been anything quite like it. No previous American opera — perhaps no opera, ever — had so boldly dealt with recent political history…

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Filed under: Alice Goodman, American literature, American opera, John Adams, librettists, New York Times, Peter Sellars, Uncategorized

The Apple of His Eye: Review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

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EDWARD PARKS (STEVE JOBS) AND JONAH SORENSON (YOUNG STEVE JOBS) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

My review of the new Mason Bates/Mark Campbell opera is now out on Musical America:

SANTA FE, N.M.—“Hope or hype? … Score or snore?” Early into The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the snappy questions pour out in rapid-fire succession from an ensemble attending the first public announcement of the iPhone in 2007.

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Filed under: American opera, Mark Campbell, Mason Bates, Musical America, review, Santa Fe Opera

Connecting the Dots: Steve Jobs on the Opera Stage

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Edward Parks III, who will create the role of Steve Jobs; photo: Dario Acosta/Santa Fe Opera

My feature for Opera Now on The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the new opera by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell being premiered later this month at Santa Fe Opera:

Six years after his death at the age of 56, Steve Jobs has achieved an almost mythical status as the cultural icon and technological innovator behind Apple.

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Filed under: American opera, Mason Bates, Santa Fe Opera

Only Connect: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

My preview feature on the highly anticipated new opera by Mason Bates is in this month’s issue of London-based Opera Now (available only via subscription).

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will have its world premiere production at Santa Fe Opera starting 23 July. Co-commissioning companies that will stage the opera in future seasons are San Francisco and Seattle Opera.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mason Bates

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere from Mohammed Fairouz

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photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Seattle Vanguard:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

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Fairouz, now 31, based his first opera, Sumeida’s Song (2011), on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play about the fatal conflict between unthinking tradition and enlightened progress. Zabur, a combination oratorio and war requiem (just out on the Naxos label), embodies his powerfully moving response to the situation in Syria that seeks hope amid its harrowing musical depiction of crimes  against humanity. Next year Pittsburgh Opera will present the opera Fairouz is currently completing: Bhutto, which focuses on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), the first woman to lead Muslim majority nation. The composer, who is also active as a commentator on foreign affairs, cowrote the libretto with the journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif.

Meet the New Prince

The New Prince is characteristic of Fairouz both in the scope of its ambition and in being so effortlessly of our time. Set to David Ignatius’ clever libretto, The New Prince imagines Niccolò Machiavelli doing the time warp across the centuries as he faces the challenge of updating the work for which his name has become notorious — and profoundly misunderstood: Il Principe (The Prince).

The premise is that the Renaissance philosopher, writer, and diplomat has been reawakened in 2032 — 500 years after The Prince had been (posthumously) published — and must substantially revise his text to appeal to a changed marketplace. His lover and Muse, the goddess Fortuna, tells him he needs to account for world historical events in the intervening centuries. And he needs a “new prince” — a protege whom he can advise about how to wield power: Wu Virtu, the president of Amerasiopia, the troubled fusion nation of the near-future.

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photo © Marco Borggreve

This basic scenario borrows the structure Jacques Offenbach used in his Tales of Hoffmann, in which a sequence of self-contained episodes we see unfolding is unified by the presence of the writer and his muse. In a framing prologue and epilogue, we see the distressed Machiavelli  try to come to terms with his lot; by the end, as in Hoffmann, he is compelled to find solace by retreating into his inner creative world.

In The New Prince, the quickly moving episodes present famous figures from history caught up in various sorts of errors that will threaten their control of power — cautionary tales Machiavelli uses to illustrate his point, though the self-absorbed Wu Virtu only half-listens and has no interest in letting the lessons sink in.

We see examples of “why princes should beware of revolutions” in the figures of Savonarola (the fiery Florentine preacher from Machiavelli’s own time), Hitler, Chairman Mao, and the revolution-counterrevolution of contemporary Egypt. Next comes the lesson on “why princes should suppress (or hide) their human urges,” starting with the first U.S. sex scandal (a cheating Alexander Hamilton) and repeated in the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama.

The last lesson addresses “why princes must avoid a ‘collision of civilizations.’” In the aftermath of 9-11, the figures of Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney are seen to be alter egos in their rigid appeal to abstract “higher laws” at the expense of real human beings.

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photo © Marco Borggreve

David Ignatius is a veteran writer best known as a foreign policy expert (he’s an esteemed Washington Post columnist and editor) and also as the author of such bestselling espionage novels as the first-rate Body of Lies. But this is his debut venture as an opera librettist. Using the Hoffmann model as a guide was an inspired idea. Ignatius also seems to have had the tone of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in mind — his tight verse radiates a sardonic humor throughout, even in the most disturbing sections.

At times I was even reminded of a Brechtian Lehrstück in the “parable”-like line-up of events — though, of course, the lessons intended here are never learned. Thus the lack of character “development” — save for the negative enlightenment experienced by the hero — is inherent in the narrative fabric. Most of the characters are meant to be quick sketches, not fully fleshed out psychological portraits a la naturalism.

Ignatius adds a fascinating twist to the Tales of Hoffmann model. Machiavelli himself is assigned a “ghost-writer” in the form of that eminently modern Machiavellian (in the popular sense), Henry Kissinger — whom the Italian prizes as ideally suited to serve as his “scribe and jester.”

And in place of the evil personified by Dapertutto — Hoffmann’s arch-nemesis in Offenbach’s opera — The New Prince suggests persistently recurrent human foibles as the roadblock to effective rule. Despite believing he has “figured out, at last, the trick that makes the grand game work,” Machiavelli continues to wonder at the resistance of would-be “princes” throughout history to his wisdom: “Does anyone listen? Can any power bend the chain of princely error?”

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photo © Marco Borggreve

Strong Production Values

Fairouz has composed a delightfully fluid score that unites his gift for writing for the voice with his bold symphonic imagination. The orchestra isn’t particularly large — it had to be accommodated by the pit of the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, an alternate venue used by Dutch National Opera for some of its projects — but Fairouz paints a remarkable variety of soundscapes with economy.

The opening prologue in particular sets up the world of the opera with terrifying immediacy as we see Machiavelli undergoing strappado torture at the hand of the Medicis. The intermissionless New Prince ranges wildly across stylistic references (as it does across centuries) — curt Weill-like marches, Baroque gestures, touches of Broadway and cabaret, and simple but soul-searing melodies — but amid this cornucopia of musical imagery there erupts, always surprisingly, a sudden, live-wire interjection by the orchestra.

It seems to tap right into the violence that forms a perennial bedrock of human history — and that, for all his calculation, Machiavelli is never able to subdue or suppress. Fairouz also uses a recurring harmonic sequence as a metaphoric binding device. It’s reminiscent of Philip Glass, but Fairouz makes the gesture his own by recontextualizing it into his riotously eventful score.

With his large, expressive baritone and vivid stage presence, Joshua Hopkins excelled in creating the role of Machiavelli. Fairouz reserves most of the opera’s vocal highlights for him — especially the chastened beauty of the epilogue, after so much frantic activity, in which Machiavelli resigns himself and prepares to “enter the courts of the ancients.”

There’s also some terrific material for Fortuna (strikingly characterized by Karin Strobos), but I longed for more-extended treatments of several major characters. Simon Lim’s Wu Virtu was imposing, but the character ends up feeling too much like a blank slate to make his turning against Machiavelli at the end effective.

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photo © Marco Borggreve

The New Prince calls for a large cast of 13, and filling the roles was a mix of trained opera singers, actors involved in musical theater, and young artists from DNO’s training program. Thus Kissinger was played, with roguish style, by the Broadway performer Marc Kudisch. (It’s interesting to compare his characterization with that in John Adams’s Nixon in China from 1987, which as far as I know is the first — and only other — work to have brought the diplomat to the opera stage. In Nixon he has more of a comic relief function.)

In keeping with the opera’s core idea of the recurring patterns of human nature and history — a lesson that, we sense, makes Machiavelli suffer profound disillusionment in his 500+-year-old reincarnation — several cast members played multiple roles. Barbara Walsh, doubling as Eliza Hamilton and Hillary Clinton, exuded vulnerability, while Paulo Szot was true luxury casting for a combined Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney. As a supremely cocky Cheney, Szot was especially memorable in his duet with the marvelous actor George Abud’s chillingly assured bin Laden.

DNO puled out all the stops in terms of production values. Lotte de Beer proved why she’s such a prized director, shaping a brand-new, heavily ensemble-oriented show into a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Her urgent pacing, along with the choreography by Zack Winokur, was perfectly attuned to Fairouz’s busy score, abetted by Alex Brok’s almost hallucinogenic lighting design (with its occasional parodies of Broadway kitsch) and the time-traveling set and costume design by Clement & Sanôu.

Conductor Steven Sloane showed affinity for Fairouz’s highly theatrical score while also eliciting a symphonic attention to detail from the Residentie Orkest.

As a counterpart to the Cheney-bin Laden scene, Fairouz and Ignatius include an appearance by the late diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal. It’s a bit too “straight” to fit in with the tone of the rest of the opera, but the message — that there can never be a “clash of civilizations between us … it is a contradiction in terms” — introduces a hopeful counterpoint to Machiavelli’s dictum that “if we must choose between being feared and loved, we should choose to be feared.”

Perhaps the new Machiavelli, in light of his latest experiences, will reevaluate that advice and discover a more reliable method to enlighten the ideal prince.

(c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, review

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere From Mohammed Fairouz

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photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Vanguard Seattle:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

continue reading

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, new opera, review, Vanguard Seattle

Dinner at Eight Fails to Sate the Appetite

My Musical America review of the new opera Dinner at Eight by composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell is now live (behind the MA paywall).

ST. PAUL, MN–Minnesota Opera has long had in place a vigorous program to promote the creation of contemporary works. Dinner at Eight is the latest of these and brings the tally of new operas that the company has produced to 45. For this project …

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Filed under: American opera, Minnesota Opera, Musical America, review, William Bolcom

The Multifaceted Imagination of Mohammed Fairouz

MohammedFairouz-1050x700My latest piece on this wonderful composer has now been posted on Rhapsody:

It’s not every day you expect a major talk show to spotlight a composer from the world of contemporary classical music. But Mohammed Fairouz has a way of defying expectations: Last May, MSNBC’s Morning Joe presented a segment on the young Arab-American composer — just one indication that Fairouz, only 30 years old, has rapidly become one of the most visible figures in the new-music scene.

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Filed under: American opera, Mohammed Fairouz, new music, Rhapsody

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