For a wonderful view of a scene from the South Korean production of Chicago, go here:
USTheater is devoted to plays, operas, and performances, American and international, performed and published in the United States. We also are open to new plays by playwrights. All materials are copyrighted as noted. The blog is edited and much of it written by Douglas Messerli
For a wonderful view of a scene from the South Korean production of Chicago, go here:
sudden a vista peeps
by Douglas Messerli
Tyshawn Sorey (composer, based on a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar), Nadia Hallgren (director) Death / 2021
Already this year, with the quarantine having still closed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and other performance centers, LAOpera presented an on-line digital performance of a new composition by composer Tyshawn Sorey featuring poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Death.” The composition was performed by mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms. The work as a whole consisted of three parts in the short film directed by Nadia Hallgren, premiering on February 19th, 2021, the date I watched it.
The first part, titled Act I consists of a reading of the poem by Ariyon Barbare in the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio. Act II is a short discussion of the work and a brief history of Sorey’s early youth playing the piano in a Newark Catholic Church he attended with his aunt. And Art III consists of the song, with musical accompaniment by pianist Howard Watkins, sung by Bottoms.
Sorley has for many years been known for his wide swath of influences from classical contemporary composers and musicians as various as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Anthony Braxton (with whom he studied), Cecil Taylor, and younger jazz musicians and ensembles. Alex Ross in The New Yorker has described him as a defiant shape-shifter who straddles both the classical music and jazz worlds.
“There is something awesomely confounding about the music of Tyshawn Sorey, the thirty-eight-year-old Newark-born composer, percussionist, pianist, and trombonist. As a critic, I feel obliged to describe what I hear, and description usually begins with categorization. Sorey’s work eludes the pinging radar of genre and style. Is it jazz? New classical music? Composition? Improvisation? Tonal? Atonal? Minimal? Maximal? Each term captures a part of what Sorey does, but far from all of it. At the same time, he is not one of those crossover artists who indiscriminately mash genres together. Even as his music shifts shape, it retains an obdurate purity of voice. T. S. Eliot’s advice seems apt: ‘Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.’”
Known for his highly complex compositions, Death, because of its focus on a poem of a 12 lines, is far simpler in structure and resonance, each stanza beginning in a rather assertive chordal statement before quickly broiling down in minor chords that—as director Hallgren exemplifies in her images of flying and often quarrelling hawks—spin down into darker and jarring dissonants, finding only temporary repose in major chord key respites.
The poem itself is not only dark, as you might expect from its title, but is odd in its implications.
Storm and strife and stress,
Lost in a wilderness,
Groping to find a way,
Forth to the haunts of day
Sudden a vista peeps,
Out of the tangled deeps,
Only a point--the ray
But at the end is day.
Dark is the dawn and chill,
Daylight is on the hill,
Night is the flitting breath,
Day rides the hills of death.
The poem begins in an almost Dantean manner, the narrator “lost in the wilderness” having suffered the horrors of life, groping to find his way, apparently, to light.
Yet the rest of the poem does not function in that manner as a “vista peeps,” the narrator spotting “a point, a ray” of possibility. It is not daylight, however, that provides that vision for in the next line we see in the conjunction “But” the alternative, “day,” not evidently what the poet is seeking. The vision of the vista has come in the dark of “dawn and chill,” just before the sun rises. Night provides a “flitting breath,” while death rides the hills of daylight.
In short, it appears, the narrator prefers the vision he has found in the night as opposed to the daylight when death becomes a far more obvious opponent.
If, as Sorey seems to argue, this poem has important meaning for our own times, it is not our having been able to move out of the shadows that we have been facing that will help us to go forward and live fully lives, but rather the visions, the beliefs we burnished out of the dark. Visionary revolutions, one might argue, are always spawned in the worst of times rather than in the best. The new vaccines for COVID were created in the very darkest days of world-wide deaths.
By 1903 Dunbar, with the loss of wife and his impending death from TB, accordingly, had plenty of reason to fear the reminders the daylight might show him, an empty house and the daily strife and stress of his illness. In 1904 he moved back to Dayton where his mother lived remaining in her house until his death in 1906.
We are now so fortunate to be able to have this work, the third musical setting of this poem, on film. Although, obviously, it would be far better to hear this lied sung by Bottoms in person, I do hope that after the present health crisis the LAOpera company and others who have made similar attempts to reach new audiences will continue to tape and film symphonic and operatic works. I was grateful to be able to share this LAOpera Now production with friends throughout the US.
Los Angeles, February 20, 2021
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance and World Cinema Review (February 2021).
by Douglas Messerli
Gene Scheer (libretto, based on the unpublished play “Three Christmas Letters”), Jake Heggie (music), Three Decembers / video directed by Tara Branham for Opera San Jose, 2020
In this terrible time of the pandemic COVID-19, when theaters and most museums around the world are closed, some theater and opera companies as well as film festivals have been remarkably innovative in offering new works through open-timed, on-screen streaming. Given the demands of living intensely in quarantine at home with family, the idea that one can simply tune into these works at any time of day or night within the space of specific dates is a far more brilliant strategy that other performance-oriented organizations who have limited their screenings to specific hours and days, as if they were still locked-in to the rise of and close of the curtain.
One of the most innovative of these companies is the small San Jose Opera, which filmed Jake Heggie’s chamber work Three Decembers with its three singers (Susan Graham, Efrain Solís, and Maya Kherani), and, in this instance, two pianists (Veronika Agranoy-Daafoe and Sunny Yoon, wearing protective masks) and conductor (Christopher James Ray), in a manner closer to MET-live HD productions, even subtly toying with the Metropolitan Opera’s backstage invitation to its audiences.
It also reminded me and at least one other critic (Harvey Steiman, writing on the blog Seen and Heard International) of earlier days of television glory when theater and opera were regulars on the smaller screen. Growing up I watched, with great joy, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors with my mother for several years each Christmas. Perhaps with any luck, this “Christmas” or, at least, “December” opera will become a seasonal staple for contemporary home screen and computer-bound audiences.
As always Heggie’s shimmering and often dark, minor-keyed score served as a treasure to the ears, performed by the always powerful mezzo-soprano Graham as the dominating mother / grande dame actress Madeline (“Maddy”) well supported by Solís as her gay son Charlie and Kherani as her unhappily married daughter Bea. This trio was particularly convincing when performing as an ensemble in the very first scene which began as a musical reading of Maddy’s annual Christmas letter by Charlie in San Francisco and Bea in Hartford, joined eventually by the overbearing mother who, we can well imagine, even from the far away Barbados quite literally enters their own living rooms.
Graham is particularly stunning in her sudden “recollection” of their long-dead father and she unexpectedly—given her larger than life career—walking the Golden Gate Bridge, the young couple very much in love and stunned by the ocean on one side and the glorious view of the Bay City on the other. No matter how much we eventually grow to dislike this pushy prima donna we always recall that she was once a young innocent simply dreaming of her life ahead.
Unfortunately, that life led—after her husband’s death by a car accidently hitting him on a New York street—to an almost total abandonment of her children as Maddy took up a life in the theater, becoming a famous star and infamous mother who resents her son for having become a homosexual, unable to even remember the name of his companion Burt dying of AIDS, and even less attentive to her daughter’s plight of living in a marriage with college-age children and an unfaithful husband. For Maddy, as even she admits, the theater and all the illusions it represents are better than everyday life. One of the most poignant moments of the opera, in fact, occurs not in its glorious operatic refrains but in Heggie’s gentle spoofing of Broadway musical theater as Graham sings, as David Allen writing in Opera News describes it, “one stand-alone number, a ballad from Maddy’s otherwise unseen Tony Award-winning turn,...a knockout.”
Actually, we never find out whether or not Madeline wins the Tony for which she has been nominated, but she surely wins the hatred of her own children, declaring as she does just before the award ceremony that for all these years she has hidden the truth about their much beloved and almost forgotten father (both were just young children when he died, and Charlie, as he longingly sings in an aria, remembers only a chair where perhaps his father once sat). He was not the loving man she has recreated for them, she brutally reports, but a failed alcoholic who, instead of dying in a drive-by accident jumped to his death before an oncoming subway train. Somehow it never registers in her momentous ego that her career might have also accounted for his alcohol consumption and his feelings of desolation.
When Maddy dies soon after, her children, nonetheless, give her an appropriately staged farewell, forgiving her despite the fact that even after death she returns—at least in their and our imaginations—to deliver her own eulogy centered around her egocentric philosophy to the effect of “life is so grand I’m glad I managed to attend it”—correcting her offspring even as they bid her and the audience farewell: “I’ve already said that!”
Los Angeles, January 25, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog, World Cinema Review, and USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2021).