MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Crossing Thresholds with Kate Soper

The program on Sunday evening at Octave 9 kept dividing and subdividing: into unexpected new components, speech shadowed by its melody mirror, natural acoustics haloed with electronic auras, philosophical speculation married to folk-simple parable. This was an evening of musical mitosis that showcased the work of Kate Soper. An extraordinarily original composer, performer, writer, and theater artist, Soper is drawn to the enigma-rich threshold between speech and song — and what she describes as “the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility, and sense, and the wonderfully treacherous landscape of the human voice.”

If that sounds awfully cerebral, in practice it was utterly engaging, fascinating, illuminated by shards of insight and beauty. Joined by Sam Pluta, a fellow composer and sound artist who contributed electronic textures and improvisations on the live sound from his laptop, Soper performed her ongoing project Dialogues. I couldn’t tell whether this incorporates, like a Russian Easter egg, her earlier pieces The Fragments of Parmenides and The Understanding of All Things (based on a Kafka text) — or whether these are meant to be regarded as a suite of sorts, somehow interconnected.

In any case, the performance started out in a lecture-presentation mode, as if Soper, in speaking voice, intended to deliver a lecture. But as the ideas began to soar, the presentation and their modes started shifting into new realms. Seattle Symphony’s new Octave 9 space was just right for the theatricalization, with Pluta’s electronic manipulation enhanced by visualizations that fluctuated across the curved screen behind the performers.

Soper’s method is to compile literary and philosophical texts, which she rearranges in collages that incorporate her own reflections. These she sets to music across a performative spectrum ranging from rhetorically emphatic narration to singing with extended vocal techniques, at times accompanying herself at the keyboard.

The Octave 9 performance underscored Soper’s special attraction to the classical world, with fragments from the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides serving as the centerpiece, “filled in” with a haunting setting of the W.B. Yeats poem “For Anne Gregory” to enhance her reflections on the metaphysical speculations — tantalizingly incomplete — of Parmenides.

The interplay between rational, logical argument and immediately graspable flashes of (irrational?) beauty emerged as a subtext. The “Way of Appearance,” paradoxically, beckoned — dazzling with its “empirical noise” — as a possibly even more alluring path than the timeless, invariable “Way of Truth” posited by the extant fragments of Parmenides’ great poem On Nature (which itself, as Lucretius later did, uses the vehicle of art for the philosopher’s message).

This will be a good season to discover the world of this amazing artist. In Seattle, Seattle Modern Orchestra will present Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit on June 5 and 6. This is a chamber music theater piece for voice, flute, violin, and percussion that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2017.

Soper also recently announced that her new opera, a treatment of the French medieval allegory-poem The Romance of the Rose, will be premiered April 2-5 on Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series.

Filed under: Kate Soper, new music, new opera, Octave 9

Beijing Music Festival: A Report

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Du Yun’s “Angel’s Bone,” in its premiere production in the People’s Republic of China (photo credit: Beijing Music Festival)


Earlier this month, I visited the 22nd annual Beijing Music Festival. Here’s my report for Classical Voice North America, with a focus on BMF’s emphasis on new music under the dynamic leadership of Shuang Zou (now in her second year as the festival’s artistic director):

“Golden Week” is the name for the national holiday period held in the People’s Republic of China at the beginning of October. This year, it also signaled an earlier-than-usual start to the annual Beijing Music Festival (BMF) — the country’s largest and most extensive festival devoted to classical music…

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Filed under: Beijing Music Festival, Classical Voice North America, festivals, Long Yu, new music, new opera, Shuang Zou

Othello in the Seraglio by Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s Othello in the Seraglio is now streamable on Amazon Prime in the US and the UK.

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, a distinguished professor at the New England Conservatory as well as an active musician with the Boston-based ensemble Dünya, has created what he terms a “coffeehouse opera” in which he reimagines Shakespeare’s tragic hero as a former African slave, a powerful but aging Ottoman Eunuch.

He explains: “In addition to a storyteller narrating in English, all characters sing in either Italian or Turkish in the musical idioms of 17th-century Italy and Turkey, accompanied by an on-stage ensemble of early European and Middle Eastern instruments with an unusual combination of percussion instruments.”

Othello in the Seraglio is performed by Dünya (which Sanlıkol also helms) and, since its premiere in Boson in February 2015, has already tallied an impressive record of 20 performances.

The critic Susan Miron compares the result to “opera pasticcio, a Baroque form in which composers like Handel and Vivaldi created substantial theatrical works from both existing and original music.” She explains that the audience is “meant to imagine being in a coffeehouse in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in the 17th century, where an all-male cosmopolitan audience smoked and sipped coffee, ‘a newly fashionable stimulant imported from Yemen.'”

Of his score, Sanlıkol remarks:

There are three distinct layers of music, which may stand alone, interact or merge; borrowed period music (European and Turkish); new music incorporating melodic and harmonic features of the borrowed material; and certain musical instruments and timbres—not period-specific—that highlight dramatic moments. I hoped to achieve a coherent musical statement by balancing these layers within the architecture of the opera. Duets between a Turk and a European even combine music of East and West: the Turkish makam (mode) is used for the Turk, and the European’s music is scored against it following the modal polyphonic practices of early European music.

Here’s an interview with the composer for WBUR Radio from 2015.

More information here.

Filed under: new opera, Shakespeare, Turkish music

Yuval Sharon’s Radiant New Interpretation of Meredith Monk’s Avant-Garde Classic

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Meredith Monk’s “Atlas” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, staged by Yuval Sharon; photo credit (c) Mathew Imaging

Yuval Sharon bid adieu this past week to his three-year residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic by boldly staging a work that changed his life: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas, which before this had existed in just one production: the original, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley and staged there in 1991.

My review has been posted on Musical America (apologies for the paywall):

LOS ANGELES — A generation has already passed since Meredith Monk first charted an unprecedented operatic world in Atlas. Yet her ambitious stage work, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1991, retains an aura of singularity — not just in its radiant music and almost entirely wordless libretto, but in the process through which Atlas was shaped as well. Monk cast aside convention altogether, building her opera from performance practices she had pioneered. 

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Filed under: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Meredith Monk, new opera, review, Yuval Sharon

The Parting: New Opera by Tom Cipullo and David Mason at MOR

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Miklós Radnóti

Here’s a Seattle Times preview of the upcoming world premiere of the new opera The Parting by Tom Cipullo and David Mason this Sunday.

The Parting is set during the final evening the poet Miklós Radnóti spends with his wife Fanni Gyarmati before he is sent into forced labor during the Holocaust. It’s the second commission from this team by Music of Rembrance, following their remarkable opera After Life four years ago.

When Mina Miller founded Seattle-based Music of Remembrance in 1998, she could hardly have foreseen that its mission would become even more distressingly relevant over two decades later…

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Filed under: commissions, Holocaust, Music of Remembrance, new music, new opera

Iain Bell’s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel at ENO

Guest review: Tom Luce on the world premiere of Iain Bell‘s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel at English National Opera (performances of 5 and 8 April 2019):

Last month saw the world premiere at London’s English National Opera of Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel by British composer Iain Bell with a libretto by Emma Jenkins.

The late-19th-century serial killing of prostitutes in London’s poverty-stricken Whitechapel district is a gruesome but legendary “cold crime” that still engages crime historians.

It even made it into opera when Alban Berg portrayed Jack the Ripper as the murderer of Lulu when she took to prostitution in London (“Das war ein Stück Arbeit”).

The new opera by Bell and Jenkins concentrates not on the criminal, who does not appear in it, but on his victims. A doss house — British slang for a refuge for the homeless — is the main scene. It is peopled largely by women forced by poverty into sex work including the murderer’s five victims. Maud, the doss house manager portrayed with force by the veteran Josephine Barstow, symbolises the intergenerational transmission of degradation. Sold as a sex object at age seven, she ends as an abortionist and a procuress of women and under-age girls to London’s elite including the local police chief. Her daughter Mary Kelly, played with huge dramatic conviction and vocal strength by Natalya Romaniw, does sex work but has longings for a proper family life centred on the upbringing of her own little girl Magpie.

The roles of other victims were vividly taken by Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Susan Bullock, and Lesley Garrett. It is a feature of the opera that the female characters are all differentiated and individualistic while the males are mostly stereotypical symbols of class and gender oppression — the Police Chief, the pathologist who examines the bodies of the murdered victims, and the burly police sergeant who tries to keep order on the front line of this divided and fractious society. These parts were convincingly portrayed by Robert Hayward, Alan Opie, and Nicky Spence, respectively. An exception to the stereotyping is a radical investigative writer, played effectively by William Morgan, who researches the whole scene for evidence of the need for social and political reform.

Like Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the new opera contains an inquest scene. In both works, the coroner has some difficulty in maintaining order in his court because the local people use the process as an opportunity to express their fear and anger at the goings-on in their communities.

On the musical side, it is possible to perceive another link with Britten’s work. One of its most moving moments is the quartet “From the Gutter” for the four women characters, who lament the lack of respect for their roles. Without being in any sense derivative, the new opera can be seen as an extended opera-length elaboration of the empathy towards women expressed by Britten. The expressive score was well realised by the English National Opera orchestra under their music director Martyn Brabbins. The production by Daniel Kramer was vivid and powerful.

In its opening moments, The Women of Whitechapel shows Mary Kelly teaching her daughter Magpie to read, which clearly symbolises a determination to provide the young girl with hope of a better life. A key conflict in the opera is the mother’s successful effort to prevent the girl’s procuress grandmother delivering her as a child prostitute to the police chief. In its closing moments, we see the silent role of Magpie — played with touching charm alternatively by Ashirah Notice and Sophia Elton in the two performances I saw — scuttling across the stage away from the scenes of death and squalor with which the opera is largely concerned. So the ending offers an ambiguous note of hope that the cycle of transmitted degradation might be losing force.

This was the first of two premieres of operas by Iain Bell this year. It promises well for the second — Stonewall –which is to be introduced in June by New York City Opera.
Review by Tom Luce

Filed under: English National Opera, new opera

Going Greek

Preparing for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 1988 opera Greek, to Steven Berkoff’s retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. BAM is presenting this staging by Joe Hill-Gibbins in a co-production with Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera.

Filed under: new opera

Kurtág’s Beckett Opera

Fin de Partie

I had a chance to listen to György Kurtág’s Fin de partie, his debut opera based on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame (setting the French text Beckett originally produced). Deutschlandfunk Kultur offered an audio stream over the weekend.

Even without the visuals of Pierre Audi’s staging, the music has tremendous resonance. I can’t wait to have a chance to get the whole experience. You encounter the super-condensed attention to the moment you expect from Kurtág (now 92), but with that intensity extended over more than two intermissionless hours, and at the service of perhaps the greatest 20th-century playwright.

The much-anticipated world premiere, postponed for years, was conducted by Markus Stenz and and staged at La Scala. The cast included Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers, and Leonardo Cortellazzi. In March, the production moves on the Dutch National Opera.

Here’s a sampling of some of the critical reaction:

Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times:


He can revel in mood, color and agile, even raucous, rhythms because there is barely a plot to convey. A sick man in a wheelchair (Hamm), his companion (Clov), his father (Nagg) and his mother (Nell) recall the joys and sorrows of the past and curse the indignities of the present and future. That’s all; that’s everything…. Fin de Partie is a farewell not just to a life and a marriage, but also to a whole culture. Mr. Kurtag is one of the last who remain of the generation of avant-garde composers that came of age during World War II and in its wake…

Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian:

Kurtág’s compositions have always been jewelled miniatures. Fin de partie is like a glistening string of them, perfectly suited to the granular nature of Beckett’s text. Only now has Kurtág agreed to release this work in progress (he has set roughly 60% of the text) … It feels complete… Beckett once told an actor preparing the play that he must “fill my silences with sounds”. Kurtág has done just that. Far from stamping on the face of mankind, this masterly composer has caressed it with all his own life’s worth.

Renato Verga for Bachtrack:

The work consists of 12 episodes (scenes and monologues, as the subtitle reads) preceded by a prologue that uses a poem by Beckett, Roundelay, sung by the mezzo-soprano, and an epilogue. The rehearsal of the 14 musical numbers required an exhausting process that took place in the composer’s home, thus the current interpreters bring the precious suggestions of the author himself with them and that is evident in the performance.

Paul Griffiths — who furnished the libretto for another late-in-life debut opera, Elliott Carter’s What Next? — offers this insightful preview:

Kurtág’s alliance with Beckett, his long-destined companion for clarity of vision and precision of utterance, started only when he was in his sixties, and then as if by accident. Ildikó Monyók, an actress and singer, had lost her power of speech as a result of a car accident, and was relearning to enunciate words by singing them, one at a time. Kurtág was reminded of a late Beckett text, “What is the Word,” which he then set in Hungarian translation, in 1990, for Monyók to perform to prompts from an upright piano, as if enacting on stage one of her therapy sessions…

Filed under: Kurtág, new opera

Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway at Oper Frankfurt

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left to right: Steffen Ahrens (Ensemble Modern), Elizabeth Reiter (Alice), and John Brancy (Pete); photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

My review of Olga Neuwirth’s extraordinary video-opera, directed by Yuval Sharon at Oper Frankfurt, is now online at Musical America:

FRANKFURT, Germany—Questions give rise to more and more questions in Lost Highway, including one that kept recurring to me as I became increasingly entangled in the performance: Why is Olga Neuwirth still so woefully underrepresented in America’s new music scene? The evening I spent with Oper Frankfurt’s production (September 19) proved to be so engrossing, so provocative in all the right ways, that the neglect of her fascinating body of work seems all the more outrageous—and our loss all the more to be pitied, until it’s remedied.

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Filed under: Musical America, new opera, Olga Neuwirth, Oper Frankfurt, review, Yuval Sharon

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

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