MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Mozart’s Ambitious Declaration of Independence

In honor of Mozart’s birthday, here’s my essay on The Abduction from the Seraglio. His breakthrough opera hit after Mozart made the bold move to become a freelance artist in Vienna, it’s being presented (starting this weekend) by Los Angeles Opera in a lively production directed by James Robinson. From my program essay for LA Opera:

With The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart scored the biggest stage success he would enjoy during his lifetime. It premiered in Vienna on July 16, 1782, and, by the fourth performance—according to Mozart himself—the show was “creating such a sensation that they don’t want to see or hear anything else, and the theater is packed full each time.”

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Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Mozart

Abducted by Mozart

Enjoying a fresh look at Die Entführung aus dem Serail as I research for an LA Opera essay. In January the company presents James Robinson’s staging of the Mozart Singspiel, which the director describes as “one of the most unabashedly romantic pieces that Mozart ever wrote” along with being “a wonderfully funny piece.”

From Mozart’s letters when he was working on Abduction in 1781, the year he broke with  his Salzburg boss and decided to settle in Vienna:

An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme … The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause – even of the ignorant.

 

Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Mozart

Akhnaten at Los Angeles Opera

Here’s a look at Los Angeles Opera’s production of Akhnaten by Philip Glass, which was a big hit at ENO this past spring and which opens in LA tomorrow.  From my essay for the LA Opera program:

Numbers, chanted in hypnotic patterns, set the stage for Philip Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach, and the very idea of numbers underlies the revolution depicted in his third, Akhnaten: the monotheistic revolution instigated by the opera’s pharaoh-protagonist, who fatefully attempts to replace ancient Egypt’s traditional polytheistic order with the one god Aten.

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Filed under: essay, Los Angeles Opera, Philip Glass

Singing Archeology

That’s the term one of Philip Glass’s collaborators, Shalom Goldman, famously applied to the idea of transforming texts from ancient artifacts into the libretto for Akhnaten. Glass worked with Goldman and a handful of others to craft the libretto for this third in his trilogy of “portrait operas” including Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha.

I’m completely spellbound studying this work now ahead of the Los Angeles Opera production directed by Phelim McDermott and starring Anthony Roth Costanzo  (which premiered to ecstatic reviews last spring at ENO).

Glass stated that he was drawn to these iconic figures as “people who changed the world through the power of ideas rather than through the force of arms.” Recalls Glass:

I came across a work by [Immanuel Velikovsky] that was new to m: “Oedipus and Akhnaten.” It is a concise and scholarly work in which Velikovsky attempts to trace the origin of the Oedipus legend to the period of Akhnaten, the 18th-Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh who, in modern times, is looked upon as the first monotheist. Like everything else about Akhnaten, though, this one-word description hides more than it reveals.

Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Philip Glass

Kosky & Co. Recharge the Magic of Flute at LA Opera

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Musical America has posted my review of the Barrie Kosky/Suzanne Andrade-directed Magic Flute (behind a paywall):

LOS ANGELES— Singspiel meets silent film in this genuinely innovative production of The Magic Flute directed by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade. Initially created in 2012 for the Komische Oper Berlin …

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Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Mozart, review

Made in LA

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Tonight the Los Angeles Master Chorale performs a program celebrating the hotbed of creativity this amazing and diverse city inspires. Here’s my essay for the program:

A couple of months ago, Angelenos were treated to a concert by a chamber ensemble known as The Golden Bridge (whose singers include some members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). Led by Suzi Digby, Lady Eatwell OBE, and true to its name, the ensemble links two golden ages of choral music: Tudor England and the remarkable choral creativity now flourishing in California — particularly in the Los Angeles region.

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Filed under: choral music, commissions, Los Angeles Opera, new music

Moby-Dick’s Operatic Rendering

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Los Angeles Opera is about to give the LA premiere of Moby-Dick, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s operatic adaptation of the Melville classic. Here’s my essay for the program:

“It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree…,” Herman Melville wrote in a letter on May 1, 1850, his first recorded reference to Moby-Dick. He would go on to transform the riveting adventure story from which the novel had been seeded into a metaphysical epic — just around the time that Richard Wagner began expanding his treatment of a mythic hero into an unprecedented four-part project, aka Ring cycle.

“Melville’s novel is mythical and timeless: that’s what makes it operatic,” says composer Jake Heggie. “But to make it work onstage, we had to find a way to make it very human and tangible.” And for Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, crafting “the most famous book people claim they’ve read without reading it” into (just one) normal-length opera required an intensely collaborative effort that involved still more shifts of focus.

Heggie recalls being initially “terrified” by the audacious proposal to make an opera of Moby-Dick. The idea originated from the veteran playwright Terrence McNally, the librettist for Heggie’s debut opera, Dead Man Walking (2000) as well as the just-premiered, bel canto-styled Great Scott. “The only story I’m interested in doing is Moby-Dick,” McNally said when asked to participate in a commission from Dallas Opera in 2005 for a work to inaugurate the new opera house it was building.

Despite — or, more accurately, because of — his trepidation, Heggie soon found the idea irresistible. “As a composer it’s important for me to take on a new challenge that will keep me on edge. If I’m going to write an opera and invest years in it, it has to be a subject that stimulates me. With Moby-Dick I began to think, ‘I can do this, but I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ Every day became a big guessing game.”

The composer also found himself reassured by his confidence in McNally’s theatrical instincts. The playwright proposed three essential premises that set the coordinates for the dramatic adaptation: the entire opera would take place at sea, Captain Ahab would be a heldentenor, and his cabin boy Pip would be cast as a pants role to introduce a female voice among the otherwise entirely male cast.

About a year into the commission, personal reasons forced McNally to withdraw, and Heggie turned to another seasoned man of the theater, the highly versatile writer and composer Gene Scheer. The two had collaborated on some other projects, and Scheer had already adapted another complex American epic for the medium of opera with his libretto for Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy.

“The process became very organic for us,”says Scheer. “There was no linear sequence of first libretto, then music.” Indeed, when I met with the team over the summer for this interview, just after the world premiere of Cold Mountain — Scheer’s most recent operatic adaptation, set to music by Jennifer Higdon — the collaborative spirit came so naturally that they frequently completed or supplemented each other’s sentences.

“What makes our partnership operate so well,” Heggie explains, “is that both of us are really about the work. It’s not about our egos. We’re eager to shape the piece so it feels clear and fully formed and solid.” He adds that the same holds for the entire team who designed the look and staging of the show, which premiered in Dallas in April 2010 (director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Brill, and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, among others): “It’s important to remember that the success of the opera was a group effort.”

“Every opera is, but with these folks there was a sense that we were handing the baton back and forth to each other,” says Scheer. “I do believe the music is the marrow of the matter, but we all worked together to make sure everything here is about telling the story.”

In addition to jettisoning the early chapters that take place on land and keeping it all at sea, perhaps the most critical decision about how to retell Melville’s story was to change the novel’s narrator Ishmael into the character “Greenhorn” — which is to say, into an earlier, more innocent incarnation of this character, the only member of the Pequod’s crew who has never been on a whaling expedition before. The fundamental conceit is that the experiences Greenhorn encounters in the opera are what he will ultimately transform into a kind of “memoir” by writing Moby-Dick.

“We knew we couldn’t have the narrator as a character, so with this rookie Greenhorn it became an opera about the education of Ishmael,” according to Heggie. “The novel’s famous opening line would become the last line of the opera, and it would have to be earned.”

This line of thinking profoundly informed the opera’s dramatic and musical conception alike. A signature of the sound world Heggie has created for Moby-Dick is its tautness, its intense economy: variety is extracted from the ingenious manipulation of a network of leitmotivic ideas. And chief among these is a rising-then-falling four-note motif of elusive, shifting harmonies. This idea, heard right at the outset, is threaded obsessively throughout the score.

Heggie recalls the uncanny experience of composing the opera’s final page, when he suddenly realize that this motif was “spelling” the phrase Greenhorn sings to the unseen Captain Gardiner at the end: “Call me Ishmael.” “I didn’t know until the end that this is what these notes were saying all along.”

The function fulfilled by the narrator in the novel was meanwhile transferred to the orchestra. Says Heggie: “The orchestra itself is the character of the sea and the world that surrounds everyone on the Pequod. The hard part of any opera is finding what I call the musical universe that is specific to that piece. Once you find that sound world, the characters can emerge organically with their own identity. It feels of a piece so that the audience also feels as if they’re in that watery world that’s carrying them forward.”

The result is that Moby-Dick is the composer’s most intricately scored operatic score to date. This and the prominent motivic network — much more than the obsessive Ahab or the maritime setting — lend the opera its Wagnerian echoes, which are otherwise uncharacteristic for Heggie. Trained early in his career by the legendary Ernst Bacon (who also mentored Carlisle Floyd), Heggie is widely known as a gifted melodist. Yet the material of Moby-Dick led him to assimilate some unexpected influences: “I had probably been resisting all my life: Wagner and Philip Glass. That surprised me, but it felt right for this piece.” Other more usual suspects the composer mentions that get stirred up in his “creative crockpot” include Debussy, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (to whom the score is dedicated), and “the great movie scores i grew up loving.”

Both Heggie and Scheer agree that what really launched the project was a trip they made together to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, just after they’d finished working on their first full-length opera collaboration, Three Decembers (2008). “Being in that environment and walking those streets made it very real,” recalls Heggie. “We had dinner with [maritime historian and Melville champion] Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book about the event that inspired Melville [In the Heart of the Sea] made it so human.”

Scheer says the images they encountered of the specifics of life on a whaling expedition — the nocturnal rendering of the oil, the way the mastheads loomed up above the ships — immediately inspired some concrete ideas for the libretto, such as the duet between Greenhorn and Queequeg at the start of the second act.

His own growing obsession with the Melville source contributed incalculably to the libretto’s sense of authenticity. Re-reading the novel nearly a dozen times, Scher internalized its peculiar rhetoric and steely poetry. While virtually all of Ahab’s words are taken directly from Melville’s text, the libretto incorporates passages that are entirely new, but in the style of Moby-Dick. Heggie proudly points out that several Melville scholars have admitted being unable at times to unravel “which lines are from Moby-Dick and which from Gene. It’s a real testament to the quality of his work.”

But Moby-Dick was by no means all smooth sailing. After a six-month immersion in writing music, Heggie felt that “nothing was sticking” and jettisoned most of his sketches except for the music to Queequeg’s opening chant, the text for which Scheer had unearthed from an authentic Samoan source. His musical breakthrough arrived when he focused his attention on Ahab’s first-act aria “I leave a white and turbid wake” and finally found his way into the opera’s central, most complex character. “Ahab suddenly became real to me, and then I was able to go back to the beginning and write straight through.”

Scheer hit a brick wall of his own in the scene with Queequeg’s coffin in the second act. “I wrote so many versions of that scene — as a chorus, a duet for Pip — it was eight weeks of hell. There was a lot at stake, because we had to establish the coffin for the ending and to show the education of Greenhorn taking place. And then I met with Jake and Lenny [Foglia], who was so helpful acting as dramaturg and letting us bounce questions off him, and we cracked it together. I was able to write it then in one night.”

Winnowing Melville’s massive text into a feasible libretto hardly became a matter of mere “cutting.” In fact, Scheer savvily conflated events and characters (as in the rescue of Pip) and even invented scenes to reintroduce important themes from the opening chapters — most notably, the bonding and affection between Greenhorn and Queequeg, which represents this opera’s love story. As for the novel’s notorious excursions on the industry and techniques of cetology (and their allegorical implications), Scheer admits with bemusement that “the whaling stuff ended up becoming my favorite parts of the book.” He even found room for a reference to this material as a background to the initial private confrontation between Ahab and Starbuck in the first act.

“When most people hear the words ‘Moby Dick’ they think of the White Whale that bit off Captain Ahab’s leg — and of Ahab’s rage for revenge,” writes the Melville scholar Robert K. Wallace in his book Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century. “When most people see this opera, they will be equally concerned with Queequeg, Starbuck, Pip, and Greenhorn.”

One of the opera’s most prominent achievements is to create distinctive personalities, in real stage time, for each of its cast of seven principals. Scheer says he was motivated by his understanding of each of the characters as embodying “a different way of looking at the world. Ahab is maniacal, but he’s inspiring and brilliant and gets almost everyone on that ship to follow him. Starbuck brings a religious perspective, along with the rigidity of religion which is also part of the story. Stubb represents someone who laughs his way through life and Flask is a simple-minded person who doesn’t think so deeply. Queequeg is equally poised between all of these characters. And Greenhorn is culling through them all. Ultimately he admires Queequeg’s way of looking at the world because it has more validity and resonance for him.”

Heggie continues the analysis: “Starbuck is the conscience, while Queequeg is the heart and soul, the spiritual center of the ship. Pip is the tragedy and the youthful optimism that gets quashed. He represents the future.”

Narratively speaking, transforming Moby-Dick into an opera involved a kind of creative reverse engineering to make the adventure story from which Melville had taken off front and center. At the same time, the original novel features passages imbued with a heightened, “operatic” intensity or even allude directly to music. By incorporating these into their treatment, Heggie and Scheer ensure that the opera’s streamlined narrative is by no means “lightweight” but rather richly textured.

“The subtlety comes in many forms,” says Scheer, “but it comes principally in the music. Not to underemphasize the importance of the structure and the words, but in the end the music provides a direct way of communicating that is different and wonderful.”

Filed under: essay, Jake Heggie, librettists, Los Angeles Opera, Melville, new opera

Hercules vs. Vampires: Opera Goes to the Movies

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Los Angeles Opera truly has become a company interested in innovation. Next month brings Hercules vs. Vampires, an opera-meets-cult film mashup between Mario Bava’s 1961 film (Hercules in the Haunted World) and LA-based composer Patrick Morganelli.

Here’s my interview with Mr. Morganelli:

A century ago, the budding film industry borrowed pretty heavily from opera—which makes a lot of sense, considering how the larger-than-life gestures of operatic acting suited the new medium of silent film so effectively.

And film has been repaying the favor in recent years: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, Howard Shore’s The Fly, André Previn’s Brief Encounter, even a new opera by Giorgio Battistelli inspired by the controversial Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, set to premiere in May at La Scala.

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Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, profile, programming

Ghosting in LA

Patricia Racette (Marie Antoinette) and Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais): © Craig Mathew | LA Opera

Patricia Racette (Marie Antoinette) and Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais): © Craig Mathew | LA Opera

One of the most thrilling evenings I’ve experienced in years at the opera house — at the theater in general — was last weekend’s opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of The Ghosts of Versailles.

Here’s a quick overview of the critical reaction so far:

It’s comic and serious, entertaining and erudite, silly and thoughtful, emotional and mysterious, harrowing and uplifting, intimate and over-the-top — and the more times you see it, the more you’ll find in it and the more you’ll get out of it. It helps to be an opera or history buff to get all of the references, reminiscences and send-ups, but it’s not necessary.

–Richard S, Ginell, Los Angeles Times

James Conlon in the pit showed an absolute mastery of the score and LA Opera Orchestra played like angels for him. Through an evening of very challenging harmonies and swift changes of tempo they alighted on each new melody with precision and a transparency that I hadn’t enjoyed in this work before…

A better performance of this large and complex work couldn’t possibly be hoped for and I can’t express strongly enough what a tremendous experience it was to see live. We were “in the presence of the composer’ last night as they say.

–Patrick Mack, parterre.com

In an achingly beautiful LA Opera production, the ghosts of monarchies and revolutions past materialize before our eyes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We are enveloped in an exquisite postmodern version of Marie Antoinette’s little theatre at Versailles, awash in dusty blues and pearlescent greens. It is the world of John Corigliano’s opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

–Jane Rosenberg, The International Review of Music

It’s all interesting and entertaining if not invariably arresting. Written for the Metropolitan Opera, which gave the premiere in 1991, “Ghosts,” lasting nearly three hours on Saturday, seems rather loosely-knit and bloated. The jokes, pretty good though sometimes fairly broad, don’t always sit right with the ostensibly serious subject matter. When all is said and done, the whole is about as deep as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

–Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register

With an expensive stage set that rivals the royal opera house in Versailles and a large cast that includes a headless Marie Antoinette and a rabid army of French Revolutionaries — as well as an exotic temptress portrayed by a certain Broadway star who enters astride a hot-pink elephant — L.A. Opera’s production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Chandler Pavilion is a visually stunning affair.

–Falling James, LA Weekly

Patricia Racette gives a commanding performance as Marie Antoinette, combining wistfully naïve nostalgia with nightmarish horror.

–Jim Farber, San Francisco Classical Voice

In the end, there wasn’t even enough room on stage! At the curtain call the cast stretched the entire width of it with several getting squeezed out of the final bow. Corigliano’s opera really is larger than life, and, appropriately, the last person brought out was the composer himself. The Ghosts of Versailles, over 20 years after its première, (which was 11 years after it was commissioned) was worth the wait. While the opera isn’t perfect, it is a colossal achievement. William M. Hoffman’s poetic libretto with Corigliano’s evocative fusion of styles makes not only an impressive spectacle of theater, but an opera of intense feeling and LA Opera’s production captures that magic exquisitely. It was a triumph.

–Matthew Richard Martinez, bachtrack.com

Filed under: American opera, directors, John Corigliano, Los Angeles Opera

Love Save the Queen: The Ghosts of Versailles

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This Saturday brings the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano and William Hoffman.
Here’s my essay for LA Opera’s program:

There’s an entire category of landmark operas that originally met with resistance from their own composers. Take Ariadne auf Naxos. In its first version, the work posed so many problems that a frustrated Richard Strauss shelved the project for several years. And when he was approached by director Peter Sellars with the concept for his first opera—a venture tentatively titled Nixon in China—John Adams initially kept a skeptical distance.

The inception of The Ghosts of Versailles couldn’t have offered a more encouraging set of circumstances. Desiring to present a brand-new work to celebrate its upcoming centenary season, the Metropolitan Opera was determined to pull out all the stops. What composer would not leap at the chance—especially given such a spectacular context for his debut opera?

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Filed under: American opera, essay, John Corigliano, Los Angeles Opera

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