MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Opera at the 2019 Beijing Music Festival

Another installment in my reporting on the 2019 Beijing Music Festival. There was a strong emphasis on opera this year, which I looked at in this story for the January 2020 edition of Opera Now.

Filed under: music festivals, new music, opera

Refugees and Opera

Joshua Barone recently reported for the New York Times on a new production at Bavarian Staatsoper for part of its youth program that was “written for refugees, children of immigrants and born-and-raised Bavarians.”
The piece draws on Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, among other sources. “Theater about the refugee crisis has proliferated in Germany since migration into the country reached its peak in 2016,” writes Barone. “But rarely has the hot-button issue … entered the realm of opera, much less children’s opera.”

Actually, the Zuflucht Kultur Association has been engaging with these issues for several years, offering productions of Mozart’s Zaide, Così, and Idomeneo (which traveled to the Lucerne Festival last summer), Carmen, Orfeo, and, most recently, Don Carlos.

Here’s a radio interview (in German) with mezzo Cornelia Lanz, one of the association’s producer-performers, on their Orfeo production.

Filed under: directors, music news, opera

Ricordi’s Meyerbeer Edition

Filed under: Meyerbeer, opera

On the Making of Philip Glass’s Appomattox

Here’s an interview I conducted with composer Philip Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton, and director Robert Woodruff for San Francisco Opera on the occasion of the world premiere of the original version of Appomattox in 2007:

Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton first met in 1989 at a San Francisco Opera performance of Glass’s Satyagraha. Glass later wrote the score to the British playwright’s film adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1996), and in 2005 they introduced their opera Waiting for the Barbarians, drawn from the novel of South African writer J.M. Coetzee.

Appomattox involves a highly personal journey for the prolific Glass. In this interview Glass, Hampton, and the stage director Robert Woodruff discuss what each brought to the table for Appomattox and share their thoughts about the challenges of creating a new opera.

THOMAS MAY: What was behind your impulse to write an opera rooted in the American Civil War?

PHILIP GLASS: The idea for the piece got started when I was reading a book about the surrender. I came across the images of Lee and Grant together (they were actually in a private home — “Appomattox Court House” is the name of the historic town where the surrender was signed).

The characters of Lee and Grant are so completely interesting. These are men of tremendous moral and intellectual stamina. The popular idea of Grant as somehow buffoonish and a lesser person than Lee is not true at all.

If you read Grant’s autobiography, you see how amazing the man was. And I thought there are no people in public life today with the stature or moral stamina of these two men.

Americans have a lot of contempt for politicians nowadays, yet it wasn’t that long ago that there were men in power who had a different way of working. One of the things about the Civil War itself is that it’s within range of historical recollection.

We know what people said from so many sources — it’s not conjecture. We know the way the house looked and the way the men looked. Lee arrives with a clean uniform while Grant looks like he’d slept in a field. So I had a very strong image of the actual room the surrender took place in.

TM: You had previously dealt with the Civil War in your collaboration on the CIVIL warS project with Robert Wilson. You wrote the final act — the “Rome Section” — for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In fact, Lee appears as a character in that piece as well, along with Abraham Lincoln. What has changed in your outlook in the intervening years?

GLASS: I’m in a different place compared to where I was 30 years ago. I’ve moved away from the kind of idealism you see in my early works. To put it succinctly, the world has changed. For a lot of people, the world is a more threatening place than it used to be.

I’m not just talking about America – this is a global problem. I don’t know any government in the world that has real leaders instead of politicians. So I probably couldn’t write a piece like Satyagraha today. In fact, the night we premiered Satyagraha at San Francisco Opera in 1989 was the very night of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in China. It was a shocking thing.

TM: Is this shift away from idealism reflected in the balance between the private moments of the characters in Appomattox, which figure so prominently, versus their public roles?

There’s a good deal of gritty realism (for example, in the depiction of Grant’s migraines or the business of his appearance at the surrender, as you mentioned).

GLASS: Things that were not mentioned in the earlier librettos are presented much more forthrightly now. For example, Satyagraha, which was an opera about social change and nonviolence, mentions the idealism of Ghandi, but it doesn’t mention his failures.

They were huge by the end of his life. The partition of India was a tremendous failure for him — he was in despair about it. The abolition of the caste system never happened. Yet at the same time his ideas inspired the American civil rights movement.

When I wrote Satyagraha in the late 1970s it was because I thought there was an urgent need to have a public conversation about nonviolence. Little did I – or any of us – know the directions that we were racing toward 30 years later – far, far worse than we ever imagined it could be.

Appomattox is not about the Civil War in an idealistic way. It’s about the way the outcome of the war set the stage for the struggle over the next hundred years. In the opera itself, there’s a moment when Grant actually says, “How we end the war today will still be felt a hundred years from now.”

TM: So the story of the ending of the Civil War, which we might think of as enclosed and put to rest, actually bleeds into the following century….

CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON: When we decided not to deal only with the last few days of the war but the repercussions over the next hundred years, the whole thing opened up in a certain way for me.

It became not just an historical treatise or pageant but something that reached its tentacles right down to today. I started thinking about what happened hundred years after the signing. And of course what was happening then was the Civil Rights movement.

I discovered that the murder of the civil rights protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson took place almost exactly a hundred years after the signing of the surrender. So this led to the idea of putting those increasingly modern incidents into the mix.

ROBERT WOODRUFF: I saw the events of the second part of the piece as car crashes into the historical event of Appomattox. They do -– literally, in physical space — come crashing into the room of the historical setting. Ultimately the opera is about the resonance between that moment in history and the succeeding moments of violence and violation of the spirit of that pact.

TM: Along with that powerful image of Lee and Grant facing each other at the moment of surrender, what was the first musical image for Appomattox?

GLASS: I looked into the songs that were sung at the time of the Civil War and did what I could to make it sound like the time. For example, we’re told one of the Psalms [“Clap your hands all you people”] was the hymn that was sung by the freed slaves when Abraham Lincoln came into Richmond. It’s an amazing text filled with imagery of a vengeful Jehovah.

They were singing about a fierce God, and that matches well with the temper and the violence of a war where more than 500,000 men died. My first images were of the soldiers singing. I didn’t want the opera to somehow remain in an abstract world.

When people write operas, they often make references to other operas: to the history of opera or to other composers. I avoided that way of working entirely. Instead I used several kinds of colloquial music, things that you wouldn’t expect in a traditional operatic setting. One piece I set was a found text from the First Arkansas Brigade –- a black regiment fighting for the Union that enters Richmond in the first act –- for which I composed my own music. It’s the subject matter and where that compels us to go that’s important.

HAMPTON: When I was introducing the story of Jamie Lee Jackson, I talked about writing a ballad and thought of a kind of Bob Dylan song –- the language is from that world.

The way Philip thought about that piece is in a slightly different style from the rest. All these elements are gathered together in the opera and make for an interesting texture.

TM: How does this use of vernacular elements relate to the way you approach the vocal writing in Appomattox?

GLASS: English is a notoriously difficult language to understand when it’s being sung. Nowadays most opera houses will project the text. But there are some downsides to the surtitle business too. The best solution is if we understand what people sing.

I’ve made a point of that since I began to write opera in English in the 1980s, with The Fall of the House of Usher and The Juniper Tree and so on. I’ve learned a lot from the many operas I’ve written and also my song cycles, including my recent collaboration with Leonard Cohen, The Book of Longing.

Part of it involves working closely with singers and learning how the tessitura, or the placement in the voice, will determine a lot about the comprehensibility of a phrase.

For example, in English, the final consonants often indicate the meaning of a word. So if you go very high with the voice it becomes difficult to understand the words. What you’re looking for is a style of singing which is melodic but stays well within the range of the spoken voice.

As you get above the spoken voice it tends to become increasingly difficult to understand. But you’re not going to write entirely in the middle part of the voice. For a lot of reasons you want to use the whole range of the voice, but you have to be careful about where you put the words.

Part of the métier of an opera composer is to understand how the orchestra can illuminate the voice and at the same time bring color to the overall composition of the opera.

TM: How would you describe the orchestral palette you’ve chosen for the score to Appomattox?

GLASS: There are places that are extremely dark here, like the interlude depicting the destruction of Richmond in Act One. This is a very different version of the Civil War from what you get in the documentaries.

As a boy growing up in Maryland, I was taken to Gettysburg numerous times. We celebrate the Civil War as a moment of great courage and glory. In fact the dark side of it we don’t talk about much—but this opera does.

I would say that the orchestration is very dark. It doesn’t shine with the kind of exuberance you might find in Satyagraha, for example.

TM: Along with the prominence of low male voices -– for Grant, Lee, and Lincoln -– and the male chorus of the First Arkansas Brigade, there are crucial soprano roles for the wives. And in fact Appomattox begins and ends with the sound of female voices.

HAMPTON: I thought at first that the events of the last few days of the war would provide enough to deal with in the opera. But I became particularly interested in various unforeseen things. I saw the roles of Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Lee, and Mrs. Lincoln as I read more, and the perspective they could give on the men.

GLASS: In this opera you see all the different sides. The opera begins and ends with women because, in fact, wars are about women.

I grew up in the Second World War when every male relative in my family was in the army. We were raised by women. In that sense we can say that my version of the Civil War is very autobiographical. It’s what I remember from growing up during the Second World War and from the Civil Rights movement.

Opera — if it’s about anything — is a subjective poetic expression. I don’t make any bones about that. This is not meant to be a historical documentary. Opera is a species of poetry, it’s not a species of history, historical as the subject may be.

That would be true for all the people who have worked on Appomattox: Bob [WOODRUFF], the singers, the designers, everyone involved. I chose Christopher to be my librettist because he wasn’t American. I wanted someone who has an impeccable sense of theater and who could come to this subject matter and look at it in a fresh way.

HAMPTON: I knew virtually nothing about the Civil War -– no more than the average layman in England, which isn’t much at all. It was an education. I found that there was a vast library, and in that library, some fascinating books. So I did a crash reading course and discovered the American Civil War is one of the most documented events in history. That taught me as an outsider how it still sits in the middle of the American psyche in some kind of iconic way.

WOODRUFF: For me, one thing that has been surprising as I’ve learned more about the Civil War is coming to grips with this nation being in that kind of struggle. The scale of it challenges your imagination. The country was really on the brink of dissolution as a nation.

In the opera, the image of Richmond is the shell of a destroyed society. That’s really the visual muscle of the event. The interesting part of Appomattox visually is the way the signing relates to the destroyed Richmond.

This is a war that was distinctly American, and yet the idea of the opera is that it’s built upon elements — from refugees to racism to a kind of atavistic human temperament — that we live with everyday in society.

TM: How does Appomattox relate to your previous work in the theater?

HAMPTON: I think there’s a strand of my writing that this fit into very well. It goes back to a play I wrote in the early 1970s, Savages, about the extermination of the Brazilian Indians. This is not exactly a political strand as such but a strand that has a great interest in political subjects like racism or the disappeared in Argentina (which I made a film about).

These are fairly cataclysmic historical events which either are in danger of repeating every now and then or which have marked our own time indelibly. I’m very interested in those patterns of events.

WOODRUFF: I don’t see any separation here working on theater from my other work. This is theater. Christopher’s writing and Philip’s music create a form that is not distinctive from the form of theater and excellent story telling. There’s a narrative that then becomes jarred and fractured. It uses the elements of form and chaos and surprise, so that for an audience the journey is not predictable.

You might think you know the historical narrative, but the journey of the evening truly is something that comes from Philip’s and Christopher’s own ideas of what they wanted to create.

TM: How has the collaborative process played out in creating Appomattox?

HAMPTON: This is my third collaboration with Philip. But the previous two, a film and an opera, involved setting stories by other writers. So this is really the first time that I was left to do my own libretto. It was not based on anything except for Philip’s rather precise interest in doing an opera about the end of the Civil War and the civilized way in which those generals behaved at Appomattox.

I was very conscious of the notion of singability. I would write a page of the libretto, and Philip would set about composing immediately, with maybe a few comments. We got to a point where we more or less wrote it simultaneously.

WOODRUFF: As far as the rehearsals go, there’s a kind of relaxed openness between everybody. We all give voice to whatever we’re thinking whenever we’re thinking it. It’s a great way to work: there’s no pecking order.

Especially when you’re creating something new, this is the way to do it: you’re asking questions and testing and listening all at the same time. Bringing this physically to the stage, you’re trying to create a poetics between the physical body and the physical space.

This is particularly the case with Appomattox, where the gestures in a way would seem grounded because they’re historically rooted and there’s a strong historical narrative. There’s not a question of a hyperpolated physical gesture. So you’re trying to create poetry between the body of the actor and the environment that he’s sitting in.

GLASS: My feeling is always that if you bring talented people to a project, you let them do their best work. I don’t give instructions but I’m watching — and I’m inspired by it actually.

The realization of an opera is the work of a tightly bound group of people. Together they create the staging and visual images, in the same way that singers, as we say, create the roles in opera. Everyone who is singing on opening night will be creating that role for the first time.

As a composer, part of my job is to be there from the first week, listening to rehearsals. I focus on getting the balances with the singer, the hall, the orchestra right. I can’t do this theoretically.

Dennis Russell Davies [the conductor of the world premiere in 2007] and I have worked together for a long time, and there’s mutual trust that makes it possible to solve problems without any personal issues.

Questions of vanity and pride do not enter in at all. Working in the theater is a lifetime occupation. You never stop learning. I often go to costume fittings -– I’ve learned a lot from just seeing people put on their costumes — and watch the lights being focused. I watch everything. I encourage young composers to live in the theater, to spend as much time as they can becoming part of it. You have to understand the theater from top to bottom to become an opera composer.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: opera, Philip Glass, San Francisco Opera

A View from the Bridge at Seattle Rep

Seeing the excellent production of A View from the Bridge currently running at Seattle Rep, I was reminded of Arthur Miller’s genius for distilling his themes and situations into pared-down forms that are unrelentingly direct.

But the straightforwardness is deceptively simple: Miller’s plays make their stunning impact with the resonance of myth and archetype. Seattle Rep’s production certainly delivers that one-two punch: directed by Braden Abraham, the pacing is as tightly wound as the boxing lesson Eddie Carbone gives Rodolpho. (It’s fascinating to contrast Miller’s emulation of Greek tragedy with that of Eugene O’Neill or of his contemporary Tennessee Williams.)

Mark Zeisler’s gruff but not uncharming Eddie sounded the right note of insecurity that is the character’s fatal flaw (a bit overdetermined, perhaps, in Miller’s hint of a homoerotic attraction to Rodolpho in addition to Eddie’s jealousy over his niece Catherine — but Zeisler downplays the former in any case).

In much of the first act (does anyone perform the original free-verse one-act version anymore?) it seemed some of the audience wanted to defang what was making them uncomfortable about Eddie by trying to view the play as a comedy — Eddie as an Archie Bunker type they could easily mock. But Miller is no sit-com, and fortunately the isolated outbursts of giggles and snickering soon died out.

Amy Danneker makes a compellingly conflicted Catherine, gradually finding her way toward self-determination, with prodding from her Aunt Bea (played with great sympathy by Kristen Potter). Frank Boyd brings an interesting mix of passion, goofiness, and naivete, to Rodolpho. As his brother Marco — and fellow “submarine” (hidden illegal immigrant), Brandon O’Neill hides his simmering desperation uncomfortably until it inevitably comes to a boil at the play’s climax.

Leonard Kelly-Young is all gruff 1950s noir as the lawyer Alfieri, Miller’s take on the ancient chorus. Yet his final speech, about “settling for half,” delivers possibly the play’s most searing moment: “And so I mourn him — I admit it — with a certain…alarm.”

But back to the mythic/archetypal aspect of Miller’s dramaturgy. At the same time, View is deeply rooted in its 1950s setting, politically, socially, culturally. This fusion of place and realism with the archetypal reminded me of Edward Hopper, as did the superb work of the design team: Scott Bradley’s sets, Rose Pederson’s costumes, Geoff Korf’s lighting.

And that combination of realism and archetypes of course brings to mind the verismo aesthetic. So it’s no surprise View has been made into an opera (in fact, more than once): most famously, into a work of American verismo by William Bolcom.

One of the several reasons André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire is so unsatisfying, in my opinion, is the superfluous prospect of translating Tennessee Williams’s theater, inextricable from his language, to this medium. But Miller offers a composer more genuinely operatic possibilities.

Reviewing Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere production of the Bolcom opera in 1999, the critic Philip Kennicott makes some thought-provoking observations:

If you believe what seems to be a growing consensus in American opera–that pursuing stylistic and dramatic originality is a dead end–then this can be judged a truly great American opera. Bolcom mixes it up–barbershop quartets, jazz, Broadway flourishes and Puccini–creating an unapologetic and dizzying stylistic mix. Had this opera been written while Bernstein was at his peak, reviewers would have proclaimed a new genius to rival the master.

If you believe that new opera need offer only a good evening of musical entertainment, stylistic and musical originality be damned, then Bolcom’s opera will seem like a mongrelized family portrait of the last century of operatic history.


Bolcom … seems to argue that this opera isn’t just more mix-it-up postmodernism but a genuine American verismo work that just happens to have been written in 1999 (and is meant to sound like 1955).

I expect that many listeners will have exactly the same reaction to this paradox of late-20th-century opera–is it really indistinguishable from the music theater we love from an earlier era?–as I did. They will enjoy it yet question the artistic integrity behind it.

Nonetheless, Bolcom’s new work has a feeling of tragic grandeur to it, and the Lyric Opera production spares no effort to underscore it.

Filed under: Arthur Miller, opera, review, theater

Nabucco Comes to Seattle

This weekend brings Seattle Opera’s first-ever staging of the early Verdi breakthrough. Here’s an introduction to Nabucco I wrote for Washington National Opera a few seasons ago:

Verdi composed more than half of his entire oeuvre for the stage in the mere dozen years between his debut opera and Rigoletto (1851), generally considered the turning point when “early Verdi” morphed into a fully mature master.

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And an audio preview I wrote for the same production can be found here.

UPDATE: My review has now been posted here.

Filed under: opera, Verdi

Jon Vickers, RIP

In honor of Jon Vickers, who died on Friday. He stopped singing live before I was able to have that experience, but even on recordings you can get a sense of how he cast a spell on his audiences.

Read Anthony Tommasini’s excellent obituary:

He once touched on the impetus of his artistry in a graduation address in 1969 at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto. “I sang because I had to,” he said. Singing, he explained, was “an absolute necessity, fulfilling some kind of emotional and even perhaps physical need in me.”

Richard Osborne at Gramophone offers an assessment:

Vickers was sometimes accused of pushing too far, of breaking the mould of the roles he played: Laca in Jenůfa, Alvaro in La forza del destino, the uninhibitedly promiscuous Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. And Tristan. Though he was a practised Wagnerian, proud to have been Knappertsbusch’s last Parsifal, Vickers mistrusted Wagner in general and Tristan in particular – ‘a glorification of Wagner’s own immorality’ as he put it. Robin Holloway summed up the terribilità of Vickers’s Tristan when he wrote of the Third Act of the Karajan recording: ‘There is no doubt whatsoever about the stature of this unique tour de force, but it remains an extreme – something unique as if the story were, just this once, literally true [my emphasis].’

Filed under: Jon Vickers, music news, opera

Pacific MusicWorks Retunes The Magic Flute

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

My review of Pacifc MusicWorks’ Magic Flute production has now been posted on the Musical America site. (The complete review is behind MA’s paywall.) This was a delightfully fresh take on the Mozart classic, matching historically informed performance values with a provocatively revisionist staging (including a newly commissioned translation/adaptaton of Schikaneder’s libretto):

SEATTLE — A couple years after the conductor, lutenist, and recent Grammy laureate Stephen Stubbs resettled in his native Seattle in 2006 — following three decades based in Europe (mostly in Germany) — he established Pacific MusicWorks, a production company focused primarily on presenting Baroque opera and oratorio in innovative collaborations. PMW’s latest project, which closed on Sunday, offered a fresh perspective on The Magic Flute by combining period instruments with a provocatively anti-traditional staging directed by Dan Wallace Miller and a newly commissioned translation and adaptation of the libretto by the playwright Karen Hartman.

continue reading

Filed under: directors, early music, Mozart, opera, review, Stephen Stubbs

The Dream Logic of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland

"White Rabbit" by Ralph Steadman

“White Rabbit” by Ralph Steadman

At the end of this month the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be presenting the West Coast premiere of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland.

Here’s my program essay for the production:

The story of Alice in Wonderland’s creation is rooted in Los Angeles: this West Coast premiere in one sense represents a homecoming. It was Los Angeles Opera that originally commissioned Unsuk Chin to write her first opera, intending to unveil it as part Kent Nagano’s final season as music director (the 2005-06 season). When that plan became unfeasible because of budget cutbacks, Nagano brought the work-in-progress along with him for his inaugural season at Bavarian State Opera.

Alice in Wonderland therefore premiered at the National Theater in Munich in 2007 — the very theater (rebuilt, of course, after its bombing in the Second World War) that gave the world its first Tristan und Isolde in 1865. A certain fantasy narrative that would similarly go on to cast a spell over an enormous spectrum of admirers also happened to be published in that year by the brilliant mathematician, pioneering photographer, and Anglican deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) — aka Lewis Carroll. Celebrations around the globe are marking the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2015.

Yet well before the premiere of her opera, Unsuk Chin had written the song cycle snagS&Snarls — a kind of preliminary study to find her way into the world of Lewis Carroll (much as Wagner had done vis-à-vis Tristan with his Wesendonck Lieder). Four of the five songs comprising snagS&Snarls eventually made their way (with alterations) into the score of Alice in Wonderland. Nagano led the first performance at the Ojai Festival in 2004, the year in which Chin won the Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto (more or less considered the music world’s Nobel Prize).

Other pieces by Chin have in the meantime been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gustavo Dudamel in fact chose to include one of these during the first week of his tenure as music director in October 2009: Šu, a concerto for sheng (mouth organ). In 2013 came the orchestral work Graffiti, Chin’s ode to street art. The composer herself has described Graffiti in terms that could well apply to her method in Alice. She writes that the musical language of Graffiti “shifts between roughness and refinement, complexity and transparency. It is rich in contrast and labyrinthine, neither tonal nor atonal.”

Unsuk Chin’s engagement with Alice in Wonderland reaches even further back than the original LA Opera commission from just over a decade ago. Most fans of Carroll’s Alice books fell in love with these stories as children. Chin, though, is typically atypical in this regard. Instead of reading the work of Lewis Carroll as a child, she was already an adult when she encountered him for the first time as a conservatory student in her native South Korea. Chin recalls that her curiosity was triggered by reading the cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. The rest of that seminal book’s title, it’s useful to know, is An Eternal Golden Braid. A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll.

Chin found her title for snagS&Snarls in the chapter heading of another of Hofstadter’s books (Metamagical Themas). Hofstadter intrigued Chin by pulling back the surface layer of what many assume to be the mere “childlike” fantasy of Carroll’s writings and revealing a labyrinthine complexity underneath — a complexity animated by the pure joy of linguistic play. The unpredictable imagery and logic-defying antics of the world according to Lewis Carroll immediately resonated for Chin at her core, touching not just on her aesthetic outlook but on her perception of the centrality of dreams.

“The visions of my dreams represent a far more existential level of experience than anything I have known in my everyday life,” she has stated. “Dreams are for me an encounter with another world, in which utterly different physical laws prevail. Sometimes a dream is so complex that as soon as you wake up only a vague memory of it remains.… When you try to describe such a complex dream-state in words, the result is inevitably what we call ‘nonsense,’ because our language is subject to a very different type of logic.”

Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin

Indeed when it came to adapting Alice in Wonderland to the opera stage, Chin decided to interpolate two of her own dream scenes as the opening and final scenes, respectively. She explains that she was “never fully satisfied with the beginning and the end” of Carroll’s published narrative, which seemed “so much more conventional than the rest of Alice” and may have possibly signaled “a concession to public taste, as otherwise the book would have been too daring for its time.” The new dreams — which present additional mysterious encounters for Alice — supply more than a neatly symmetrical framework. They’re organic to the sense of dream time and dream logic that pervades the opera and steer clear of a facile separation between dream and “the real world” (the kind of separation that gives, say, The Wizard of Oz its denouement). As Chin puts it: “I wanted the dreamworld to be the the reality in my opera.”

Chin teamed up with the distinguished playwright, librettist, and scriptwriter David Henry Hwang — a native Angeleno — who crafted a virtuoso text of eight interlocking scenes, with no intermission. The libretto artfully blends key episodes from Alice in Wonderland and the original language of Lewis Carroll with clever postdatings, from the maniacal word play for the acrosticized twisting of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to a sly reference to the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat: a potent symbol for the overall philosophy of apparently “nonsense logic” that informs the opera as a whole.

Hwang also includes myriad details in his stage directions, and these are reflected in Chin’s musical realization. They likewise pose fascinating, at times Ring-level challenges for the staging — Alice falling through the rabbit-hole, swimming in a pool of her tears, growing a mile high, and so on.

“As humans, what we’re really interested in is storytelling and concept,” says director Netia Jones in a recent interview with Mark Powell about the high-tech elements that she has enlisted to realize her vision for Alice. “To fully benefit from the amazing sleight of hand that these techniques can offer — the coup de théâtre moment that amazes or confounds, as live performance has always sought to do — it’s vital that any technology behind a production is handled confidently enough to fade into the background.” She adds: “It’s a delicate balancing act between this air of creative anarchy, which Chin’s score definitely lays the foundation for, and the
almost militaristic technical precision required to support it.”

Carroll’s penchant for enigmas, puzzles, acrostics, and other language games also appeals to Chin’s sensibility. The composer made her international breakthrough as a composer in 1993 with Akrostichon-Wortspiel (“Acrostic-Wordplay”), a work that sets texts both by Carroll and by Michael Ende — the aptly named author of another beloved children’s classic, The Neverending Story. In this case, she turned to the conclusion of the Alice saga, drawing on the second book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (published in 1871). snagS&Snarls actually begins at the end, so to speak, with the very final poem capping Through the Looking-Glass. The poem is an acrostic in which the first letter of each line yields the name of Carroll’s (perhaps erroneously) presumed model, Alice Pleasance Liddell. (This is the only number from snagS&Snarls that never found its way into the opera Alice in Wonderland.) Chin’s list of current projects includes a setting of Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has been commissioned by the Royal Opera in London for the 2018-19 season.

Another impetus behind Chin’s choice of subject matter came from her association with one of her key mentors, György Ligeti. Following her initial studies in composition in Seoul, Chin spent three years in Ligeti’s coveted composition seminar in Hamburg (and eventually resettled in Berlin, where she resides). The maverick Ligeti has treasured Alice in Wonderland ever since encountering Carroll in a Hungarian translation as a child, and before his death in 2006 he was discussing plans for an opera based on Alice. The cartoon- and comic book-inspired “anti-opera” he completed, Le Grand Macabre, shows a number of uncanny parallels with Carroll’s tale of his heroine’s underground adventures. As it happens, Chin shares with her teacher the ability known as synesthesia, that is, to perceive sounds in terms of other senses — chords as colors, for example.

But an Alice in Wonderland by Ligeti would have been utterly distinct from Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. She possesses the uncanny talent of being able to tap into an astonishing diversity of sources — including, at times, the manifold web of Ligeti’s orchestral textures — without diluting her unique musical language in faceless eclecticism or tamping down her one-of-kind, magical vision. You can hear fragments that suggest The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, or Bartókian folksiness. The epic motto of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is tucked into the fanfare announcing the witnesses in the grand ensemble trial scene. An ominous tolling motif in the lower depths recalls the Coronation music from Boris Godunov.

What results is a fascinating blend of unpredictability and irony that has little in common with, say, the neoclassical posturing of Stravinsky. Often as Stravinsky’s influence is felt in the score for Alice, Chin’s use of allusive gestures never resembles Stravinsky’s manner of being allusive.

Much of the lore of Carroll’s phantasmagoria has to do with its enormous impact on the “adult world” of interpreters. In an essay on the centrality of “imaginary theater” in Chin’s creative thinking, the musicologist Habakuk Traber remarks that “subsequent literary developments — Surrealism, Dadaism, and the Theater of the Absurd, and in particular the ominous literary world and imagery of Franz Kafka” have endowed the Alice books “with a prophetic, prescient dimension.” So, too, the post-Freudian drive to psychologize Carroll and his creations, to interpret his literary dreams. Even pop culture has tried to “explain” what happens. Ever since Jefferson Airplane’s big hit, it’s become alms impossible not to associate the White Rabbit with an afternoon spent experimenting with psychedelic drugs.

Alice in Wonderland “has so many layers,” Chin has remarked: “It can captivate experts and laymen, children and adults as well. That is also an artistic ideal for me.” She even points out that composing the opera entailed a radical shift in orientation toward writing something “much more direct and immediate than in my other pieces.” Speaking with the scientist Matthias Essenpreis, Chin says that once she committed to writing for the genre and to using the Alice material, “I attempted to break away from the traditions of contemporary music and in an instinctive and very fluent way to compose music that resembles a funhouse mirror and that is ironic.”

Chin’s infectious theatrical sensibility enhances her choice of vocal types to assign the characters — including an instrument for the Caterpillar (given a long bass clarinet solo), accompanied by written words — as well as her repertoire of types of vocalization. Alice in Wonderland contains a kind of pocket history of singing: a hint of blues in Alice’s plaintive aria “Who in the world am I,” fancy coloratura for the frantic White Rabbit, a children’s chorus of ethereal simplicity, harpsichord-accompanied recitative at the start of the Mad Tea-Party scene and a characterful Baroque aria as the Mad Hatter laments the cruelty of Time, high dudgeon vocals for the vengeful Queen of Hearts, all culminating in an ensemble of intricately ordered chaos.

Even in the version for reduced ensemble that was prepared as a counterpart to the original gargantuan (and impractical) ensemble used for the opera’s original production in 2007, the scintillating imagination of Chin’s orchestration is unmistakeable — and gives Alice in Wonderland its essential texture. From the first sounds we hear (following those of the actors’ gestures, lulling us into this dreamworld), Chin utilizes extremes of range to effect a sense of drastically elongated dimensions, for example. Yet the “nonsense” world of dream logic hardly means that anything goes.

By the same token, for all of her elaborate timbral and compositional structures, Chin knows the importance of spontaneous fantasy. She remarks that she tries “to avoid providing rigid interpretations of the book — whether psychoanalytical or otherwise. Let the story and its dialogues speak for themselves. What ultimately attracts her to Alice is “the effortless and unconscious way in which Lewis Carroll expresses deep philosophical questions. Alice is not solely a matter of dreams. It is also about a clash between the different ways in which we communicate and experience reality.”

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: essay, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music, opera

Down the Rabbit Hole

Angelenos have lot to look forward to in coming weeks — including the belated West Coast premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland by the LA Philharmonic (in a co-production with LA Opera). I’m more and more in love with this work.

Chin on her love of dreams and their “reality”:

The visions of my dreams are for me a much more existential level of experience than anything that I have known in my everyday life. They influence my personality and are the great joy of my life. Dreams are for me an encounter with another world, in which completely different physical laws prevail.

Sometimes a dream is so complex that as soon as you wake up only a vague memory of it remains … When you try to describe such a complex dream-state in words, there inevitably arises what we call nonsense, since our language is subjected to a completely different logic.

Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music, opera

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