MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Salvatore Sciarrino’s Venere e Adone

Staatsoper Hamburg is presenting the world premiere production of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s 15th opera, Venere e Adone, 28 May-8 June.

Drawn from Ovid’s retelling of the myth of Venus and Adonis in Metamorphoses and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Sciarrino’s new opera is a meditation on love and death. The cast features American countertenor Randall Scotting in the role of Adonis, who is pursued by Venus, the goddess of love, sung by soprano Layla Claire.  Staatsoper Hamburg’s General Music Director, Kent Nagano, conducts and Georges Delnon directs.

“Adonis is probably the liveliest character in the whole opera,” says Scotting. “He is youthful, boisterous, and concerned only with hunting and making love. The music Sciarrino composed for him really embodies these qualities, especially in his big hunting scene. There are aspects of the opera everyone will recognize, but it also feels new and relevant today.”

an atmospheric and inventive opera that often surrounds the audience in the nuanced sounds of the natural world.  Mimicking the cycle of life and death, sounds arise from nothing and just as quickly disappear, leaving the listener engaged, interested, and waiting on the edge of their seats for the next surprise.  ‘Adonis is probably the liveliest character in the whole opera.  He is youthful, boisterous, and concerned only with hunting and making love.  The music Sciarrino composed for him really embodies these qualities, especially in his big hunting scene.  There are aspects of the opera everyone will recognize, but it also feels new and relevant today,’ said Scotting of his role in the opera.

From the Staatsoper Hamburg site:

“Sounds from the silence. They come closer, move and dissolve into darkness. Their nature is being and non-being, coming into being and passing away – the same as all living beings in the eternal illusion of life and death. They are sounds as they surround people, a music close to nature. They tell of mythical figures: Venus and Mars, who once begat Cupid. Cupid, who is now to avenge his betrayed father. The beautiful Adonis, whose love for Venus is his undoing. And above all: the monster who knows no affection, no love, no hate, least of all himself. It waits, unknown and deadly, maltreated by the voices of the world. An ancient story winds through the thicket of mythological entanglements and finds new paths. Who will triumph, love or death?”

Filed under: music news, new opera

Music of Remembrance at 25

Mina Miller, Music of Remembrance founder and artistic director. (Ben VanHouten)

My story for the Seattle Times about Music of Remembrance at 25, which will present a double bill of one-act operas by Jake Heggie this weekend:

Mina Miller is convinced that music can make a difference in the world.

“I am the child of parents whose entire families were annihilated in the Holocaust, so I grew up with a visceral awareness of the power of memory — of the stories that need to be told…”


Filed under: commissions, Jake Heggie, Music of Remembrance, new opera, Seattle Times

Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit with Seattle Modern Orchestra

Following the triumph of her opera The Romance of the Rose, which received its world premiere at Long Beach Opera in February, Seattle Modern Orchestra presents Kate Soper’s evening-long chamber music theater work Ipsa Dixit (“She, herself, said it…”) at Cornish College of the Arts’ Raisbeck Auditorium this weekend: Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25, both at 8PM.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Soper explores the intersections of language and music and has been described by Alex Ross as “a 21-century masterpiece … a ninety-minute tour de force …call it philosophy-opera.” Zachary Wolfe praised The Romance of the Rose‘s “ability to stick in the mind and soul.”

SMO’s performances will feature local soprano Maria Männistö alongside musicians Sarah Pyle (flute), Eric Rynes (violin), and Bonnie Whiting (percussion). This dramatic showcase will be directed by C. Neil Parsons and includes immersive lighting design. 

Kate Soper is a composer, performer, and writer whose work explores the integration of drama and rhetoric into musical structure, the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility and sense, and the wonderfully treacherous landscape of the human voice. She has been hailed by The Boston Globe as “a composer of trenchant, sometimes discomfiting, power” and by The New Yorker for her “limpid, exacting vocalism, impetuous theatricality, and mastery of modernist style.” A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Soper has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Koussevitzky Foundation, and has been commissioned by ensembles including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, and Yarn/Wire. She has received residencies and fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Camargo Foundation, the Macdowell Colony, Tanglewood, and Royaumont, among others.

Praised by the New York Times for her “lithe voice and riveting presence,” Soper performs frequently as a new music soprano. She has been featured as a composer/vocalist on the New York City-based MATA festival and Miller Theatre Composer Portraits series, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series, and the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella Series. As a non-fiction and creative writer, she has been published by McSweeney’s Quarterly, PAJ, the Massachusetts Review, Theory and Practice, and the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies.

Soper is a co-director and performer for Wet Ink, a New York-based new music ensemble dedicated to seeking out adventurous music across aesthetic boundaries. She is the Iva Dee Hiatt Professor of Music at Smith College.

Founded in 2010, Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO) is the only large ensemble in the Pacific Northwest solely dedicated to the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Led by co-artistic directors Julia Tai and Jérémy Jolley, SMO commissions and premieres new works from an international lineup of composers, in addition to presenting important pieces from the contemporary repertoire that are rarely if ever heard by Seattle audiences. The ensemble “operates at that exciting cusp between old and new, between tradition and innovation” (Vanguard Seattle) curating new sounds and experiences for concert goers in the region.

SMO provides audiences with performances of the best in contemporary chamber and orchestral music, and develops radio talks, lectures, and other forms of outreach in an accessible and inviting format all designed to expand the listener’s appreciation and awareness of the music of today.

Filed under: Kate Soper, new opera, Seattle Modern Orchestra

Tod Machover’s Overstory Overture

The composer Tod Machover and ths soprano Joyce DiDonato. Machover’s chamber opera, “Overstory Overture,” stars DiDonato and is an adaptation of Richard Powers’s novel.Credit…Alex Hodor-Lee for The New York Times

Here’s my latest New York Times story on the latest adventure of tech-forward composer Tod Machover, which receives its world premiere Tuesday evening at Alice Tully Hall and features Joyce DiDonato and the Sejong Soloists under Earl Lee:

Musical themes abound in the work of the novelist Richard Powers, often intertwined with science and social issues. The parallel decoding of Bach and DNA (“The Gold Bug Variations”), the saga of an interracial family of classical performers unfolding against the events of the Civil Rights era (“The Time of Our Singing”): A signature of Powers’s novels is the virtuosity with which he weaves these strands into narratives that seem both surprising and inevitable….


Filed under: new opera, New York Times, Tod Machover

A Thousand Splendid Suns Dawns at Seattle Opera

Cast members in A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Opera. Photo credit: Sunny Martini

The moving operatic transformation of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel A Thousand Splendid Suns by composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitvakos had its world premiere over the weekend at Seattle Opera in a powerful production directed by Roya Sadat. I reviewed the opening night performance for Musical America:

Soon after reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sheila Silver sensed that the story’s combination of tragedy and endurance has an archetypal, larger-than-life quality — exactly what opera excels at expressing. It’s a terrible irony that the work’s lengthy genesis has actually made this story of the oppression of women even timelier than when Silver first considered the idea over a decade ago….[see below]

Filed under: Musical America, new opera, review, Seattle Opera

A Thousand Splendid Suns at Seattle Opera

In just a few weeks, Seattle Opera will unveil a new opera that has been many years in the making: an adaptation of Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini‘s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns by the American composer Sheila Silver and librettist Stephen Kitsakos. Hossein’s fiction has inspired adaptations for the screen and the spoken stage — and even a graphic novel. But this marks the first time an opera has been made from his work. Seattle Opera’s production also presents the pioneering Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat’s debut as an opera director. 

I wrote a preview feature for Opera Now, which appears in the January 2023 issue:

The fate of Afghanistan and oppression of women are two phenomena that have acquired a topical urgency in today’s world. Sheila Silver has been immersed in these subjects since 2009, when she first encountered Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. She was struck by the overwhelming power of Hosseini’s narrative, which unfolds in Afghanistan between the 1960s and 2002. Above all, she sensed an operatic intensity in the bond that develops between the two protagonists, Mariam and Laila, as they struggle to cope in a milieu of abuse and domestic violence. The strength of that bond is what makes the shattering sacrifice at the opera’s climax possible. 

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Filed under: commissions, new opera, Seattle Opera

Missy Mazzoli’s The Listeners

As a huge fan of Missy Mazzoli, I’d meant to post this wonderful gift from Den Norske Opera & Ballett but let it slip through the cracks. The company recently made this recording of its world premiere production of her latest opera, The Listeners, available on YouTube until 12 May 2023.

Premiered last September as part of the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, The Listeners continues Mazzoli’s longstanding collaboration with the librettist Royce Vavrek. They developed an original story by Jordan Tannahill based on the phenomenon of the “global hum,” the dynamics of cults, and the abuse of power.

Synopsis from Den Norske Opera’s website:

“The Listeners” follows Claire, a suburban high school teacher living in the southwestern United States. Her life spirals out of control when she begins to hear a mysterious low-frequency hum. The Hum keeps her awake at night and threatens her sanity, but she finds an ally in Kyle, a student who also hears the all-consuming noise. When Kyle discovers a group that meets regularly in hopes of understanding and eliminating the source of the Hum, Claire is optimistic that this might be a turning point in her crisis. The group is led by the charismatic Howard Bard and his second-in-command Angela, who provide a compassionate environment for the beleaguered Claire and Kyle.

As the group grows in number the meetings devolve into strange, ritualistic behavior. When former soldier Dillon is expelled from the group after suggesting that the noise is a government conspiracy, he attempts to shoot down a mobile phone tower. He is arrested and criminal attention is placed on Howard and the cult of Listeners. The group explodes when it is revealed that Howard has abused his power and manipulated the members. Claire, armed with newfound confidence, picks up the pieces in an effort to harness the power of the Hum.

Filed under: Missy Mazzoli, music news, new opera

From the Underworld to Our World: An Opera About Frida and Diego

The “Último Sueño” team, photographed in front of a Diego Rivera-influenced mural in Chicano Park, in San Diego: from left, the writer Nilo Cruz, the director Lorena Maza, the composer Gabriela Lena Frank and the mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz.Credit…John Francis Peters for The New York Times

In today’s New York Times, my story on the new opera by Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz:

“I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return.” Frida Kahlo confided these remarks to her diary in 1954, just a few days before making her final exit.

In a new opera, “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego”), the composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz imagine Kahlo overcoming her reluctance to return from beyond. ..


Filed under: new opera, New York Times, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera

David T. Little’s Black Lodge

Black Lodge is the first full-length feature film by the influential opera producer Beth Morrison Projects. and features music by Grammy-nominated David T. Little, with a libretto by legendary Beat poet Anne Waldman. Drawing on the disturbing and complicated mythologies of the surrealist writer William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Black Lodge uses dance, industrial rock, classical string quartet, and opera to take viewers through a Lynchian psychological escape room. Starring Timur and dancer Jennifer Harrison Newman, Black Lodge is now available for streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.

Set in a nightmarish Bardo, a place between death and rebirth, a tormented writer (Timur) faces down demons of his own making. Forced to confront the darkest moment in his life, he mines fractured and repressed memories for a way out. A woman (Jennifer Harrison Newman) is at the center of all the writer’s afterlife encounters. She is the subject of his life’s greatest regret, and she materializes everywhere in this Otherworld. The writer cannot detach any thoughts of his life from her. 

The groundbreaking Beth Morrison Projects developed and produced Black Lodge over the past ten years. Founded by “contemporary opera mastermind” (LA Times) Beth Morrison, who was honored as one of Musical America’s Artists of the Year/Agents of Change in 2020, BMP has grown into “a driving force behind America’s thriving opera scene” (Financial Times), with Opera News declaring that the company, “more than any other… has helped propel the art form into the twenty-first century.”

The project is attracting attention throughout the music industry. Renowned musician Thurston Moore, known as a member of Sonic Youth, serves as executive producer of Black Lodge. “This is opera ripping through the fabric of future vision psychosis where the integrity of classic form clasps the hands of radical possibilities,” said Moore. “David T. Little takes no prisoners here, in confluence with poet angel head Anne Waldman’s libretto of nature, irreality, and spirit consciousness, divining deliverance from life’s spectacle of chaos and love. You’re about to have your mind scorched, my friends!”

Composer Philip Glass (AkhnatenEinstein on the Beach) is also a fan.  “Black Lodge is a bold new operatic film,” said Glass. “It seamlessly blends poetry and music into a powerful cinematic experience.”

Filed under: music news, new opera

Saariaho’s Innocence

After a yearlong delay caused by the pandemic, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has unveiled Innocence, its latest opera commission from Kaaija Sariaho. Despite its tragic story involving a school shooting, the experience — even at a distance, via the stream currently available on, is overwhelmingly affirmative: of the power of art to transform impossible pain and senselessness.

Innocence, set in contemporary Helsinki, features a libretto by the Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, with multilingual contributions by Aleksi Barrière. The text incorporates English, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Greek in addition to Finnish, its setting in an international school suggesting an allegory for Europe’s attempt to achieve a multicultural society.

From the Aix summary: “It is a typical wedding for a cosmopolitan city, in present-day Finland. The fiancé is Finnish, the bride Romanian, and the mother-in-law French. But suddenly, during the wedding banquet, the Czech waitress feels ill… Ten years earlier, these characters were struck by a tragic event. Ghosts revive their memories of the trauma, which occurred in a school; there is a guilty haze, a lost innocence.”

The Australian director Simon Stone staged Innocence, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; the cast features Magdalena Kožená, Sandrine Piau, Tuomas Pursio, Lilian Farahani, Markus Nykänen, Jukka Rasilainen, Lucy Shelton, among others.

Zachary Wolfe, in his eloquent review, describes Saariaho’s score: “Porous and agile; simmering beneath and around the voices; and only occasionally, briefly exploding, this is music as a vehicle for exploring and intensifying drama. It is complex, yet confident enough to exist not merely for its own sake.”

Writing for Bachtrack, Romain Daroles observes: “The score is served with a masterly hand by Susanna Mälkki and the London Symphony Orchestra who, from the opening of the opera, creates a music box that the implacable and impeccable rigor of execution quickly transforms into a Pandora’s box, revealing one by one the secrets, the defects, and the evils of individuals, of humanity.”

Declares Reinhard Brembeck in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “She continues what Claude Debussy initiated. She meets the unadorned reality and its brutality with a slight detachment, she wraps the action with a veil of sadness, love and clairvoyance. This enables the audience to accept this confidently unobtrusive avant-garde music without resistance. Kaija Saariaho is the greatest master of opera today.”

Innocence was co-commissioned by a consortium of companies that will bring the work to Helsinki, Amsterdam, London, New York, and San Francisco.

View the score here.

Filed under: Aix-en-Provence, new opera, Saariaho

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