And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Small Lessons from a Master Class

Last night I attended a master class presented by Opera Philadelphia and featuring Dawn Upshaw.  It reminded me of how much I've lost by stepping away from music for a quarter century — expertise and confidence in my craft, "what might have been" and all that, yes — but also being connected to living, working artists, to new music, trends, and ideas, and to a community that shares my atrophied passions.
 The sold-out crowd was completely engaged.  This wouldn't be surprising at a concert, nor for an appearance by Ms. Upshaw, but the fact that the audience were intent on the discussion and lessons, that they "got it", and appreciated the nuanced results — well, it made me feel all funny inside.
 Though billed as an educational program for the three composers in residence, the focus seemed more on vocalist considerations and choices in interpreting and presenting the text, using the music as a guide to the composer's intent, but also in going beyond that to the character/mood/message itself.  Ms. Upshaw wasn't shy about admitting that she sometimes "breaks the rules", in that she may not follow the music with utmost precision if she feels that doing so prohibits a fuller expression of what the work is really trying to accomplish (that's my own phraseology there; I hope I'm not doing Ms. Upshaw a disservice with it.)  My favorite quote was on singing a particular series of quarter notes: "Even though the quarters are equal, they aren't equal."
 I don't know that the composers had as much to take away as the vocalists, but I was rewarded with a few insights (such as the use of diction/consonants and pauses as means of expression, not just the vowels and dynamics, etc.), ideas (for instance, having the vocalist deliberately stop and then restart a vibrato mid-note — the effect was startling and rather moving in context), and even a couple caveats (like writing carefully for phrases that bridge or leap the passagios.)

As for the music...

First up was the junior resident, David T. Little, who's working on an opera based on the last day(s) of JFK.  I'm sad to say I wasn't a fan of the aria prepared, Jackie's song to a sleeping Jack.  After looking at Mr. Little's bio, I understand why, as he strives to blend pop and classical sensibilities and influences.  This happens not to be my cup of tea, or at least not in the way he goes about it.  But with commissions from the Kronos Quartet, the PRISM Quartet, and Opera America to his credit, it's obvious that my taste can get stuffed.
 Putting the music itself aside, I had another concern that came out of the on-stage discussion between Mr. Little, Ms. Upshaw, and the vocalist, Jazimina MacNeil.  The aria is a love song, Jackie's re-commitment to her marriage after numerous difficulties, and ends with Jackie happier than she's been in some time.  This is intended to be especially poignant because the aria takes place just hours before JFK's assassination (I won't link to the real Zapruder film; Google it if interested).  But the poignancy depends solely on the audience's foreknowledge of that event.  Granted, it's common knowledge for most opera-going Americans, and for many older non-Americans.  But it restricts the full impact of her aria to those in the know, and to those seeing the opera a second time.  Decades and continents removed, this will be lost on most listeners.
 As a potential audience member, of any work, I rather resent being in a position where I could be denied a full experience solely for lack of knowledge of things outside the story I've been presented to that point.  Yes, a first-time viewer can reflect on the tragic irony afterward over coffee, and there's some merit to that.  But IMHO, the sobering depth of this particular moment would be best experienced as it happens, every time around, including or perhaps especially the first.  Moments like those are, to me, a reason to re-experience an opera rather than merely listening to it on the radio; but having to re-experience the opera to obtain the moment is less inviting.  Sadly, there was no forewarning of the assassination.  Unless the opera toys with historic details, I don't believe they can rightly foreshadow it enough to put the audience where they need to be when Jackie sings.  I certainly can't blame Mr. Little or the librettist (Royce Vavrek) for that.  But I don't have to like it, either.
 This concern goes very much to the heart of my work on Usher, where, because the work is early American fiction, I can and would blame the composer for presumption of audience awareness.  The story is among the most well-known of Poe's output, so I think it a fair bet that some who'd be interested in seeing such a work are already fans of the source material.  But I can't count on that, and don't feel I should.  With successive generations and cultures, fewer and fewer people read Poe, know this particular story in any detail, or even watch the movies inspiring my efforts, so it's an even fairer bet that seeing my Usher would be an introduction to the tale for many.  By leaning on audience familiarity to help deliver the story, I'd be doing a disservice to those new to the material, and I'd miss opportunities to be a "real storyteller," to be the architect of the audience's emotional response, to introduce, foreshadow, and reveal events through the music alone.  Ya feel me?

Moving on...

The current senior composer in residence, Missy Mazzoli, is working on an opera based on the film Breaking the Waves, by Lars von Trier, the movie that introduced much of the world to Emily Watson (whose performance I found so compelling and convincing that it was almost too stressful to watch).  Ms. Mazzoli's compositional choices were intriguing, even counter-intuitive in places, but smart and never dull.  I'm already looking forward to the 2016 premiere — imagine, an opera based on a film!

I was especially taken by the music of Andrew Norman — a fine example of what I mean by missing out on working artists and new music.  In fact, Ms. Upshaw commented that she had just assigned his very first piece for voice — Lullaby — to one of her students, which I take as an amazing compliment.  A finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, awarded commissions by major orchestras/ensembles, composer in residence at Opera Philadelphia... and I'd never heard of the man nor his work until that night.  And for every Andrew Norman there must be dozens of others also worth following.  Or, in my case, discovering fresh.  I look forward to that process, even as I lament the need for catching up.

Finally, I learned that Lauren Eberwein is my new(est) secret girlfriend.  (But shh!  Don't tell my other secret girlfriends!  Act casual!)  All of 21 tender years, and already her voice is arresting and her stage manner genuine, warm, confident, polished, and engaging.  As I listened to her performance of Norman's Lullaby, she unwittingly convinced me that my next proposed chamber opera in the American Madness triptych, which will be very nearly a one-woman show (hint! hint!), will and should be for mezzo.  And specifically her, if she's available and the material worth her consideration.  Attention readers: follow Ms. Eberwein's career — it's poised to be a remarkable one.  Wait, isn't Dawn Upshaw also a mezzo?...