SALOME in Philadelphia

“Yet he was drawn from the smooth crown of the locust into Herod’s nest, the palace of lust, a teen-age dance. She encircled him and he lost his head.” - Patti Smith, Auguries of Innocence

Organ pipes loom over the stage like a menacing silver sky in which seven metallic moons are suspended over a stage of wood and steel. The sky of swords and the scrap metal moons shine a brilliant cold light onto five figures cloaked in black who huddle in silence atop an immense and veiled column before dispersing and seating themselves high above and to the right of the stage. Their silent departure ignites the orchestra. The ritual begins.

The moons shining in a sky of swords hover indifferently over Narraboth and the Page as they tread nervously over the subterranean prison of Jochanaan, John the Baptist. The cistern where he is kept may be hidden below them, but it is focus of the spectacle. It mediates between the real time of the ritual story and the timelessness of the orchestra pit. When Jochanaan speaks, his prison burns with a soft light that surrounds him like a halo. When he is silent, he is devoured by complete and quiet darkness. Thus enshrouded, the echo of his words still elicits convulsions and twitches from those whose feet weigh down his prison door.

The doleful moan of an oboe snakes up from the mumbling of the orchestra and, like antique silver crashing down a forgotten staircase, tumbles with Narraboth’s words as he sings “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht.” Dressed in a black robe with a turquoise band painted across her eyes, the page prophesies disaster in tones to dissuade Narraboth from glaring at Salome. Like a cloud of mist, she floats slowly and suddenly into the space and absorbs the cold silver of the moon and the sky of swords. The frost of winter and the white glare of summer seethe beneath her diaphanous blue skin. Her voice, forged from the same cool metal of the seven moons, is pulsed to life by the primordial bubbling of the orchestra. She appears as if summoned by the wind caused by Jochanaan’s outbursts and she demands to see the prisoner who speaks against her mother and whose echoing words have called her forth. From the honey venom of her voice she weaves a sticky silver web of promises to ensnare Narraboth. If he will let her see Jochanaan Salome will give him smile at him through her veil or she will drop a flower just for him tomorrow. Narraboth’s red-hot resistance is cooled by the princess’s icy glare, and he hastens to the cistern to bring Jochanaan up into their world.

The prisoner ascends the stairs into the cool moonlight. It shines onto his pitiful, soft form: he is a disheveled middle-aged man. The knots and snags that are his black hair cascade over the dirty rags that hang on his body.  Salome has never seen a man like him before. His body and mind are untouched by the decadence of her stepfather’s court with its people hiding their ugliness and ugly intentions behind robes, bracelets, peacocks and power. Her voice and emotions, dulled and stunted by a lifetime of extravagance and drowned in a sea of yesses, are conjured into being by this man’s peculiar body and shattering voice.

Salome wants him to look at her and notice her. She tries to use the same impartial, wandering chords and languid vocal line with which she manipulated Narraboth to attract Jochanaan’s attention. If only he would turn his head toward her, he would love and desire her, as everyone else has and does. “Ich bin Salome, der Tochter der Herodias,” Salome sings but Jochanaan takes command of Salome’s wayward music and drives the current of the orchestra into a tempest. He roars and threatens her with the heavy chains tied around his wait. No one has ever denied her before and the rejection only kindles her desire. Raised in a world of poses and phrases, she has never heard anyone speak with such honesty and conviction before. The bored nonchalance and haughtiness of her music is thawed by Jochanaan’s incandescent passion. The throbbing of the orchestra beneath her brightens and swells and she is transformed. She professes her love for Jochanaan with a new voice, in a new language. For the first time, Salome isn’t the passive object of desire. For the first time, she understands how it feels to yearn for release. Jochanaan hesitates—he is human, after all—but he obliterates each Salome’s lusty effusions. Each time he denies her, her voice gets stronger. She is powered not merely by a desire to get what she wants, but by a warm gentleness that seethes beneath Jochanaan’s fire and brimstone. He soothes Salome with promises of a savior who will bring a new world and will bring the truth that will wash away the grimy smiles and the false eyes of her world. But Salome cannot yet hear Jochanaan’s music, and he casts her aside in disgust and frustration, covering her in her moon-colored cloak before rushing back to the darkness underground.

Salome and Jochanaan are in touch with something deeper and unseen. He is connected to God and a world of light and she is the moon’s double. They are outsiders in the physical space of the ritual where the corporeal, the empirical, the easily understood and the superficial reign through Herod, his cynical wife Herodias, the lusty weakness of Narraboth and the bickering of the five priests.

Herod, Herodias, Narraboth and the five Jewish high priests sing, but what they say and how they say it is artificial. Herod greases his way through the music in vulgar waltzes and grotesque gesticulation. His wife guffaws and nags at him in a voice of treacherously magnetic metal. Their gestures and words are similar but they do not listen and do not understand one another. Even the five priests, who are the voices of God on earth, do nothing more than compete with one another in a high-lying and disconnected counterpoint that evades harmony and cadence. After Jochanaan rejects Salome, she retreats inside herself, marveling at this knowledge of a new world and trying to understand the changes happening inside her. While Salome molts in the corner, Herodias and Herod dominate with their bicker and superstitions.

Frustrated that Salome has withdrawn from the party, Herod implores Salome to dance for him. She refuses in blanched, irritated phrases until he promises to give her whatever she desires if she will only dance for him. His music is covered in the slime of artifice, but Salome is now intrigued by his offer. “Anything?” She asks him. “Anything!” He responds. She agrees and begins to dance. The orchestra bangs and thrusts with savage rhythm and Salome’s body responds. She flies and flitters on top of the cistern. She ways her hips to anachronistic waltzes and convulses to hair-singeing tremoli. It’s an awkward, unrefined choreography of spasms, thrusts and leaps. She doesn’t move from a desire to please Herod but from an intuitive need to use her body to express herself and to spend the mysterious anxiety and strange desires burning inside her. The orchestra accelerates and swarms of chords bang and grind against one another, driving Salome and Herod to separate climaxes.

Herod is satisfied, and Salome is ready to collect her reward. She demands Jochanaan’s severed head presented to her on a silver platter. Herod is horrified. He balks and refuses. The five priests rise in protest. Herod offers Salome jewels, his white peacocks and the holy veil of the temple in place of the prophet’s head, easily gotten material goods that cannot satisfy Salome’s craving. Herod is convinced that Herodias has told Salome to make this outrageous demand as vengeance for Jochanaan’s slander against her, but Salome insists, “I don’t listen to my mother. Give me the head of Jochanaan!” Having sworn an oath, Herod cannot refuse and so gives the command for Jochanaan to be beheaded, washing his hands of all guilt.

Salome’s eyes shine with desire and anticipation as the slave descends to the cistern with a gleaming silver sword heavy in his hands. The orchestra is silent except for a faintly audible grumbling and a sudden and sharp pang. Salome is frantic. Will the slave kill him or not? Why doesn’t Jochanaan make a sound? She screams and races around the stage. Jochanaan kneels next to the executioner, his decrepit form bathed in gold. The light disappears and the cistern is swallowed by darkness. The slave emerges from the darkness of the cistern and the silver light of the moon reflects onto the silver platter that presents Jochanaan’s severed head. And now, the princess who has been spent her life in studied poses unleashes her desires in a world of sound. The effusions are parallel to Jochanaan’s prophetic outbursts. Jochanaan, the truth teller and the seer, has given Salome a language and grammar in which she can express her newfound awakening, but Salome’s flames leap higher, their red and blue peaks reaching upward toward the sky of silver swords and scrap metal moons. Holding the head of Jochanaan aloft, she screams at him for refusing to look at her for if he had only looked at her, he would have fallen in love her. The music hardens and softens as fast as her emotions change. She sings with a voice that is steel and unbreakable one minute and the next like a silk rose. Salome has taken control of the orchestra. She commands the movements of the moon. Herod and the five priests are no longer in control; the ritual is in Salome’s hands. All are at the mercy of the princess who has learned the answers to the riddles of love, life, death and God which they can barely fathom. In a moment of repose, Herod tries to regain control, but his wife just laughs at him and refuses to join him in surrender behind the castle walls.

Salome thrusts her face onto the dead man’s head, smearing her lips with the bitter taste of his blood. “Is that blood? They say that love has a bitter taste. But what does it matter? I have kissed your mouth!” Salome sings triumphantly having taken control of the action and shamefully expressing her agency by finally joining her lips with the blue blood-spattered lips of a prophet. Her revolt against the order is too much to tolerate, and Herod regains sovereignty. He orders her to be killed and the five priests, having observed the revolution, swarm around her calmly and with intent while the orchestra crushes Salome, shrouding her voice and her body, and silencing the orchestra. The light of the moons is extinguished and the ritual ends, for now.

A prose essay written after the following performance of Richard Strauss’s SALOME.


SALOME: Camilla Nylund


HEROD: John Mac Master

HERODIAS: Birgit Remmert

NARRABOTH: Andrew Staples


FIRST JEW: Dominic Armstrong


THIRD JEW: Joseph Gaines


FIFTH JEW: Nicholas Masters




SECOND SOLDIER: Donovan Singletary

A SLAVE: Allison Sanders

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Directed by Kevin Newbury




Twenty-First Century Song: 21c Liederabend, op. 3

On Friday, November 22 and Saturday, November 23, Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt bring the art song recital into the twenty-first century with the third installment of their groundbreaking, visually and aurally stunning Liederabend series, 21c Liederabend, op. 3. Showcasing the music of twenty-two living composers and including nine world premieres, 21c Liederabend, op. 3 is an experiment in the interactions between music, text, digital art and performance space within the context of twenty-first century “art” music.

The Liederabend tradition began in the nineteenth century, partly as a way for composers and poets to come together and share new sounds and ideas and partly as in-home entertainment for the rising middle class, for whom domestic music-making was both a past-time and a status symbol. Our flat screen TVs were their parlor pianos. The tradition of the Liederabend survives today in most conservatories, allowing students of song to explore the repertoire of nineteenth-century tunesmiths like Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

“I was interested in bringing the term and form Liederabend out of the insularity of the conservatory and into the public experience,” says Beth Morrison, creative producer of Beth Morrison Projects, “I wanted to update it to the twenty-first century by presenting music written by living composers and adding a visual component by pairing composers with designers, while still concentrating on music and words.”

In looking for an ensemble to partner with to present the first Liederabend, Beth approached VisionIntoArt, an interdisciplinary production company in New York City that focuses on the intersections of music, art, text and technology. Paola Prestini, the founder of VisionIntoArt and a celebrated composer in her own right, agreed to co-produce the first Liederabend with Beth Morrison Projects. “Collaborating with VisionIntoArt really brought the visual element to life,” says Beth, “We found that our aesthetics matched, and that was the beginning of our partnership.”

The Liederabend series aims to reexamine what an art song can be and how a recital can come to life in the twenty-first century.

“For us, art song is something that is set apart from the ‘popular’ music by the intentions of the composer,” says Beth, “All of the composers we use are ‘serious’ composers in that they were trained as classical musicians. Even if they incorporate pop, rock or world music, they are still coming from a classical tradition. The intention behind the song makes it an art song.”

The program is put together by both Beth and Paola. In the two years between the productions, they compile an ongoing list of composers, listen to their works and ask them to submit pieces. From that pool, they compile the program.


21c Liederabend, op. 2; Jill Steinberg, 2011

The first Liederabend was presented in 2009 at the Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo. A three-hour marathon of twenty-first century song and visuals, the first installment of the Liederabend series was named Best of 2009 in Classical and Opera by TimeOut. Two years later, Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt collaborated again for the second Liederabend at The Kitchen in Chelsea, a three-day festival which was sold out weeks in advance.

21c Liederabend op. 3 inaugurates a relationship between Beth Morrison Projects, VisionIntoArt and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, produced in association with Trinity Wall Street. The program, spread over two nights, boasts an impressive and diverse list of the twenty-first century’s most exciting composers for voice: Anna Clyne, Mohammed Fairouz, Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Ted Hearne and Julian Wachner, who also functions as music director, among many others.

The program is a mixture of independent pieces and excerpts from larger works. The Liederabend is, as Beth says, the “first steps” of these projects and includes selections from Du Yun’s Woman: The War Within, Fairouz’s Bhutto, performed by mezzo Rachel Calloway, baritone Christopher Burchett, and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and a new music theater piece by David T. Little. Among the nine world premieres of complete works are Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s His Name is Jan and Nico Muhly’s Hymns for Private Use. 21c Liederabend, op. 3 will also present Prestini and Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. The work received its world premiere in Rockport, Maine this July, but this will be the world premiere of the choral version, performed by soprano Jessica Rivera and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

For each Liederabend, a female composer is commissioned to write a piece which will receive its world premiere on the program. On Saturday, November 23, composer-in-residence Anna Clyne will premiere her vocal work The Lost Thought, performed by Norwegian vocal chamber ensemble Trio Mediaeval and paired with a film designed by festival projection designer S. Katy Tucker. Brooklyn-based composer Marie Incontrera and librettist-in-residence Royce Vavrek will also premiere their latest collaboration, “Albert, Bound or Unbound” from No Shirts, No Skirts, No Servic, sung by upcoming soprano Cree Carrico.

The visual structure of the Liederabend is equally as important as the music. The evening begins with a half-hour of music videos that have been made by classical composers for their pieces, such as Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads. To be played during pre-curtain mingling, the music videos draw the audience into the space and include them in the in-your-face, participatory intimacy of the salon.

“We begin on the thrust of stage, just piano and voice, lit by an antique chandelier so all the audience can see is the pianist and the singer in that very contained space,” says Beth, “From there, different screens move to reveal more and more of the stage and the number of musicians on stage increases until the stage is entirely open, revealing a full African rock band at the end.”

The composers and librettists were paired with visual arts and filmmakers who created videos and projections that enliven the stage in tandem with the music. Interstitial designs by S. Katy Tucker function as a visual program by introducing each piece. Scene and lighting design by Maruti Evans take the audience on a journey that begins with the antique lighting of the chandelier and brightens into urban rock fluorescence.

“We cover a lot of territory over the course of the night,” says Beth, “It’s meant to be about the voice expressing text and music. We invite audience to come into the tradition with us and to see where we can take them.”

21c Liederabend, op. 3 plays at BAM’s Harvey Theater on Friday, November 22 and Saturday, November 23. Tickets starts at $20.

Click here for more videos from the 2013 BAM Video Series “Liederabend on the Street.”

NYFOS: Ned is Ninety

On November 5, the New York Festival of Song brought their celebration of Ned Rorem’s ninetieth birthday, Ned is Ninety, to their home base in Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Center following preview concerts the program in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The party-in-song curated by founders and pianists Steven Blier and Michael Barrett is the third birthday concert NYFOS has thrown for Rorem in twenty-five years.


Barret, Blier, Garland, Lindsey; Photo by Matthew Murphy

Blier and Barrett melt the frigidity of the art song recital with their charismatic personalities, varied programming and a narrative that guides the audience through different genres, styles and composers. Ned is Ninety is not a chronological recap of the composer’s life nor is it a hit parade but a hologram of Rorem’s fascinating and well-documented life. Music by Rorem and his contemporaries – friends, mentors and frenemies alike – told a musical biography of the composer, highlighting relationships, ideologies and life experiences. Blier, Barrett and the two evening’s two singers, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey and baritone Andrew Garland, read passages from Rorem’s many diaries, essays and interviews and made the performance seem like an intimate party of friends, swapping tales about the guest of honor.

Rorem wrote operas, symphonies, sonatas, and oratorios, but it’s in the intimate world of song that he has made his largest and greatest contributions. The celebration began with “From whence cometh song,” from Rorem’s Evidence of Things Not Seen. This 75-minute long song cycle for piano and four singers was commissioned and premiered by NYFOS fifteen years ago for the organization’s celebration of Rorem’s 75th birthday. Of the composer’s many works for voice and piano Rorem considers Evidence of Things Not Seen to be his greatest work. Selections from the work adorned the program, with Lindsey, Garland, Blier and Barrett engaging in poetic dialogue in the duets or soliloquizing in the excerpted solo songs.


Blier, Lindsey; Photo by Matthew Murphy

The diversity of the program demanded musical versatility and charismatic strength from Lindsey and Garland. There’s no character for a singer to shield themselves behind in song. Even Evidence of Things Not Seen, with its operatic undertones, relies on the ability of the performers to communicate and project a story. Lindsey recast the veiled silver of her mezzo for every poem and song from Rorem’s bright-eyed, introductory “I am Rose” to the wailing anger of “The Comfort of Friends,” Rorem’s setting of what is essentially William Penn’s pacifist manifesto.

Garland, with his burnished baritone voice and stentorian tenor extension, sang two of Rorem’s most admired songs: the quintessentially New York” The Lordly Hudson,” with its steam-boat rhythms and surging melody, and “Little Elegy,” one of Rorem’s masterpieces in miniature.


Garland, Lindsey, Barrett; Photo by Matthew Murphy

Garland and Lindsey joined together for the program’s most bewitching moment, which was not a duet, but a brilliant example of Blier and Barrett’s attention to storytelling. Garland sang Marc Blitzstein’s “Emily,” in which a bombardier writes to his girlfriend the night before he is deployed, imbuing every note of Blitzstein’s exquisite melody with heartfelt meaning and a sense of impending doom. The whispers of the bombardier slink into Rorem’s “A Specimen Case” from War Scenes and Lindsey, like a Nightingale of Death, slinks onto the scene and  with a hollow voice describes the human carnage of a military hospital. Performed together, these two stylistically disparate pieces told an emotionally charged tale of the humanity of war, beautiful, raw and painful.


Ned Rorem; Photo by Matthew Murphy

After the final song, “A Birthday” from Rorem’s Women’s Voices, the composer was led to the lip of the stage where he received the gratitude of the performers and the audience before a chorus of singers appeared in the aisles and serenaded Rorem with his own “Early in the morning,” a song of nostalgia that ends with the line: “I was twenty and a lover and in Paris to stay very early in the morning on a lovely summer’s day.”


Cree Carrico

Cree Carrico

Soprano Cree Carrico will inaugurate Chautauqua Opera’s Emerging Artist Recital Series on Tuesday, October 22 at the National Opera Center, performing her self-curated performance The Ophelia Project. A hybrid of opera, art song and theater, The Ophelia Project obliterates the fourth wall and draws the audience into the narrative of one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing and contemporary female characters. The program, which includes arias, art songs and monologues, was devised by Cree herself.

The idea for The Ophelia Project began during Cree’s senior year at Oberlin when she found Jake Heggie’s Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia. The recital program already included Heggie’s twenty-minute monodrama At the Statue of Venus, which Cree reprised for the piece’s New York premiere last March. “I really wanted to do the Heggie pieces, so I thought about organizing another recital with music depicting mad women,” says Cree.

Unhinged women have long found a voice in opera, so it’s no surprise that Cree found a wealth of contemporary material depicting mad women; however, she continued to be attracted to Ophelia. “So I finally thought: ‘Why not make the whole recital about Ophelia?’ That’s how the idea for the project began.”

With director Christopher Mirto acting as coach, dramaturg and metteur en scène, Cree began to build a narrative, starting with Shakespeare’s text. “I introduced Cree to Heiner Müller’s The Hamlet Machine, an 8-page post-modernist play that aggressively reinterprets the subtext of Hamlet and Ophelia,” says Mirto. Although Cree will not perform anything from the play, two monologues from The Hamlet Machine will be projected when the audience enters and when they leave. “The Hamlet Machine really inspired the psychology behind the program,” says Cree.

And then Hurricane Sandy happened. “I was stuck in my apartment, so I cut up a copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and pasted it on my wall, then I took each song I had collected and applied two adjectives or verbs to them. I did this until I figured out the story I wanted to tell.”


“Ophelia” – Millais

Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a taciturn, sheepish character. Her protective bigger brother overshadows her. She can barely raise her voice over the pontification of her father. Hamlet, despite his love for her, uses her as an emotional punching bag when his own mental state begins to deteriorate.

“In Shakespeare, Ophelia says next to nothing until she goes mad, then all of her thoughts and her feelings pour out, “says Cree. “But is she really mad or is she a modern woman expressing herself? Maybe she is merely perceived as mad because she is transgressing against what is acceptable for a woman to do in her world,” says Cree. “I want to take the audience on a musical and theatrical journey through Ophelia’s mind.”

The Ophelia Project begins where Shakespeare’s Ophelia begins to deteriorate and whither: the Mad Scene. Cree chose to begin the recital the recital with Ophelia’s Mad Scene from Thomas’ Hamlet.  “She welcomes the audience, asking them to listen to her song. For me, it’s an invitation into her psyche. It’s not Ophelia’s demise, it’s her beginning.” The recital goes on to include Richard Strauss’s Drei Ophelia Lieder. “They’re not quite beautiful,” says Cree, “and they really capture her mental state.”

Jake Heggie’s Sonnets and Songs for Ophelia, the impetus for the project, offer a change in perspective. Set to text by Heggie and the American poet Edna St. Vincent-Millay, they focus on Ophelia’s youth and her playfulness. “I wanted to explore another side of Ophelia. Her life is traumatic, but she is still a young girl with hopes and dreams. Heggie’s pieces look at Ophelia through a different lens.”

Throughout The Ophelia Project, Cree hopes to engage the audience, mentally, personally and physically. “I interact with the audience, I shock the audience, I talk and sing directly to them,” says Cree. “I wanted to break the recital format. I can’t just stand and sing for an hour. I want to communicate with the audience on a deeper level than the traditional recital format allows.”


Cree Carrico, Jamison Livsey

Pocket Opera Players Presents Two World Premieres


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From October 10 through October 12, the Pocket Opera Players will present the world premieres of Michael Dellaira and J.D. McClatchy’s The Death of Anton Webern and John and Estela Eaton’s Re-Routed, a Dostoevskian satire of opera companies and technology.

The Pocket Opera Players — unaffiliated with Pocket Opera of New York — was created in the early 1990s by John Eaton, who was teaching at the University of Chicago at the time. Comprised of a handful of singers and a Pierrot ensemble with percussion, Pocket Opera Players set out to create a new operatic genre — the pocket opera. “We dedicated ourselves to putting operas together using things you might pull out of your pocket,” explains Eaton. “We don’t use elaborate costumes, we use costume elements. We don’t build our sets, we use projections. The idea in the beginning was that we could fit it all in a van and travel.” pop

The seed from which Pocket Opera Players grew was planted when, at age seven, Eaton saw his first opera. “Mimì was dying on stage. I looked in the orchestra pit and the horn section was playing penacle; the flutist had to wake the oboist for his solo,” Eaton remembers. “Years later, I recalled this and thought ‘how we can we integrate the musicians into the action?” The instrumentalists are assigned dramaturgically significant characters, musical and spoken dialogue and are integrated into the stage action. This innovation has become the Pocket Opera Players’ calling card.

Winner of the 1973 Peabody Award and awarded MacArthur “Genius” Fellow in 1990, John Eaton has been the sole composer for the Pocket Opera Players since the ensemble’s first production of his Peer Gynt in 1993. Under Eaton’s direction, the group has performed thirteen of his original pocket operas. Michael Dellaira’s The Death of Webern, receiving its world premiere alongside Eaton’s Re-Routed this weekend, will be the first opera performed by the Pocket Opera Players that has not been written by the group’s founder.


Michael Dellaira

“John saw the world premiere of my opera The Secret Agent, and several weeks later he asked if I would write an opera for the Pocket Opera Players to be premiered along with his new pocket opera,” says Dellaira.

Before he was approached by Eaton, Dellaira was already discussing adapting Hans Moldenhauer’s The Death of Anton Weber: A Drama in Documents with the prolific poet-librettist J.D. McClatchy. “I was more fascinated by Moldenhauer’s determination to find out who killed Webern than I was by the circumstances surrounding Webern’s death,” says Dellaira. Published in 1961, sixteen years after Webern’s mysterious death, Moldenhauer’s book chronicles his search for truth about Webern’s death. Combining Moldenhauer’s investigation with Webern’s private lectures and the mythic intrigue still engendered by the composer’s life and death, Dellaira and McClatchy aim to capture the parallels between the musicologist and the composer.

“Webern was concerned with the musical idea than he was with fame or even performances. Moldenhauer was also chasing an idea. He was pursuing this question even as everyone was dismissing him. In a way, they are a reflection of each other,” says Dellaira.

“From the 1950s through the 1970s, Webern eclipsed Schoenberg and became the god of contemporary composition,” says Dellaira. “And today? I recently met four music students from major conservatories who had never heard a note of Webern and had never seen a score. And I thought that’s the death of Webern.”

“Michael’s opera is such a beautiful work,” says Eaton, “And there couldn’t be two operas that are more different and complement each other so well.”


John Eaton

John Eaton’s Re-Routed is satirical romp complete with caricatures, musical commentary, operatic parody and a deus ex machina conducted by an iPhone GPS. It is also Eaton’s first comedic opera, as well as his sixth collaboration with his daughter, the poet Estela Eaton. The plot is a modernization of a farcical short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, in which a destitute writer follows a funeral procession into a cemetery and overhears an eclectic group of souls in their graves but not quite dead yet. “They are stereotypical and recognizable characters – a general, a political leader, a courtesan. For Dostoevsky’s audience this would have been very funny,” says Eaton, “But we wanted to find a way to translate the humor for a modern audience.”

Eaton and Eaton fille reset the story in a modern opera house with a cantankerous group of opera archetypes: the stage director, the prima donna, the stage manager, the impresario and the conductor. With personalities and post-mortem egos clashing, they attempt to plan their next season using an iPhone app, voiced by the ensemble’s flutist. Eaton uses his celebrated electronic and microtonal language to bring out the dark humor of this outlandish and posthumous opera world. “There are snippets of popular opera arias that are shifted around into microtones,” says Eaton. “It’s totally different from the stories I usually set. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The Pocket Opera Players’ double-bill of Re-Routed (music by John Eaton, libretto by Estela Eaton) and The Death of Webern (music by Michael Dellaira, libretto by J. D. McClatchy) plays on October 10, 11 and 12 at 8PM at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space


Opera Philadelphia: Opera Political

Painted, one-dimensional sets layered and stacked to give the illusion of a three-dimensional space. Simple costumes evoking biblical Babylon adorn the bodies of singers who do little more than walk, park and indicate . Thaddeus Strassberger’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco for Opera Philadelphia presented itself as a traditional staging of the Italian master’s third opera, but as the performance continued, the innocuous, nearly bland facade, was gradually stripped away to reveal the political commentary seething beneath the surface.


Strassberger uses Verdi’s magnificent overture as a time machine, propelling the audience back to La Scala, 1842. A stage manager lights the footlights; Austrian soldiers march freely about the stage and shout a foreign and martial “Au marche!” A noble family saunters about the stage with hauteur and indifference before exercising their hereditary right to the prominently displayed balcony box seats at stage right. Throughout the performance they move and make noise, attracting the same degree of rancor from the modern audience as an unexpected iPhone solo.

By inciting the audience’s distaste for the entitled elite, Strassberger is attempting to recreate the political atmosphere in which Verdi wrote and premiered his Nabucco. At the time of the premiere, Milan and most of Northern Italy had been occupied by Austrian powers since 1815. During the 1840s, the first decade of Verdi’s career and the most prolific period of his life, a surge of national pride swept the Italian peninsula and the quest for Italian unification was begun. Verdi was inspired by Temistocle Solera’s libretto, a very free adaptation of the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar (infamous for throwing Daniel into the lion’s den and destroying the Temple of Solomon), which revolves around the king’s ruthless oppression of the Hebrews; however, the historic remoteness could not shroud the political vitality of the opera. Whether or not Verdi chose the libretto as vehicle of his political leanings is unimportant; what is important is that the Italian audience saw a reflection of their own times in the struggle between what is presented in the opera as the ruling 1 percent (the Babylonians) and the occupied 99 percent (the Hebrews).


Throughout the opera, Strassberger acknowledges the three worlds of his production: the story-world of the opera, the historical world of the performance, and the modern world of the audience. During Part II, Abigaille, who has discovered that she is not Nabucco’s real daughter but the daughter of slaves, is empowered by her new identity. Representing both Abigaille and the singer who first performed the role, Giuseppina Strepponi (later Verdi’s second wife), Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross confronts the balcony boxes. Sung with fearless defiance by Boross, the cabaletta “Salgo già dal trono aurato” becomes an anthem of the people, as she sings how she, the progeny of slaves, will seize the crown from her oppressor, Nabucco. The noble family physically reacts, some leave, and Abigaille/Strepponi triumphs in her reordering of the social hierarchy.


Abigaille’s complicated psychopathy and Nabucco’s equally egomaniacal outbursts contrast with the calm patience of the Hebrews. Whereas Abigaille responds to injustice with violence, the Hebrews, led by the High Priest Zaccaria, react to their oppression with non-violent protest. Prepared by Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden the Opera Philadelphia chorus triumphs in the opera’s many choruses and ensembles, especially in the famous chorus “Va pensiero,” the unofficial national anthem of Italy, and the most politically appropriated piece in the opera. The boldest statement of Strassberger’s production comes when Abigaille/Strepponi takes her bow and then leads the entire company in a reprise of “Va pensiero”; the stiff Austrian soldiers aim their shotguns at the protestors, who sing amid a sea of red, white and green — the Italian flag. The false ending confounded audiences members, eliciting nervous laughter and gasps. After all, weren’t we being threatened too?

Shepherding the chorus of Hebrews was the authoritative and nuanced Zaccaria of bass Morris Robinson. He was joined by his sister Anna, sung with clarion strength by Angela Mortellaro. Their Babylonian counterpart, the Hight Priest of Baal, was a quietly vicious character, emphasized by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana‘s complete physical transportation into the ancient and contorted cleric.

Sebastien Catana sang Nabucco with a big, majestic voice; he matched Boross and Robinson’s volume in the ensembles without sacrificing beauty of tone, but dramatically, his Nabucco, like the Austrian rulers, was a one-dimensional figure of oppression. As the young lovers caught up in it all, Fenena and Ismaele, rising mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa and tenor Adam Diegel, sang with power and passion.

Opera Philadelphia’s Nabucco opened a week after Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb’s article in the Bloomberg News justified the decision to not dedicate the company’s 129th opening night to the “plight of Russian gays” by citing the supposed apolitical status of opera. (The article was reprinted and inserted into programs on opening night.) Two days after I saw Nabucco, print and digital headlines around the country blasted the United States Congress for “holding the country hostage”.  Performed amid these questions of the relevancy and power of art as a political tool, with an American public burdened by gaps in income inequality and an ineffective federal government,  Strassberger’s Nabucco became a manifesto on the power of art and opera in modern-day politics.

Fairouz and Prestini: New York Festival of Song

And so I inaugurate this chronicle with the music of Mohammed Fairouz and Paola Prestini, two young and vibrant composers whose origins fuse Mediterranean sensuality with old-fashioned American brightness and twenty-first century uncertainty.

I had heard of both composers before but was unfamiliar with their music. Earlier this year I had foolishly eschewed a performance of Fairouz’s opera Sumeida’s Song at the PROTOTYPE Festival for David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. A few years ago, I had listened to excerpts of an opera by Ms. Prestini from New York City Opera’s VOX Festival, but I only vaguely remember the story and the music. Despite my lapses in judgment and memory, I was still attracted to these composers and was both nervous and thrilled to hear their music for the first time on a program curated by Fairouz for the New York Festival of Song’s NEXT series.

Since their first concert in 1988, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett’s New York Festival of Song has grown into a cultural mammoth without losing its boutique intimacy. The NEXT series allows living composers to curate a unique and personal concert that illuminates the motivations of the artists as much as the music. For his exhibition on Tuesday, April 30, Mohammed Fairouz highlighted vocal chamber music with pieces by himself and his contemporaries, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Paola Prestini, and Huang Ro.

The first half of the program was dedicated to lamentations. Fairouz wrote “Tahwidah” for clarinet and soprano upon the death of the poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose words he used for the text of the song. Fairouz’s music is saturated with incandescent sorrow and to no greater affect than in this song, which opens with an extended clarinet solo of long, labyrinthine lines salted with bitter quarter-tones. The soprano enters with a doleful melody that clashes with the clarinet. Their melodies are vertical and independent, but when they intertwine, the sonic affect of the two voices uniting after conflict is arresting. While the English translation is given without parallel Arabic text, the exact meaning of each word is not necessary to recognize the interdependence of text and melody. A cathartic journey, the song’s end was like a cleansing of grief and an invitation to heal.

After two laments by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the effervescence of Paola Prestini’s …Cut Him Out in Little Stars, three songs using texts from the seminal Twenty-Four Italian Art Songs and Arias, dismissed grief for sensuality. Prestini dug into these simple and repetitive texts to discover new layers of love and devotion. In these songs, Prestini reveals a musical language that savors melody, not only in the voice, but in each of the three musical instruments: violin, cello and piano. With just four musical voices, Prestini creates a tiramisu texture: soft, intoxicating, comforting, and wonderfully agrodolce. “Caro mio ben,” the most ubiquitous of the 24 Italian, was reinvented. The many repetitions of “Caro mio ben,” based on a short, simple motif, were set with straightforward directness in the beginning, with the pain of sexual longing in the middle, and finally with exuberance. Awash in impressionistic blues, colored with shades of Puccini, Respighi and Zandonai, flexible in rhythm but staunchly wired to the text, each musical twist was welcomed for its unexpectedness and innovation.

Fairouz ended the program with his 2011 For Victims, a song-cycle of sorts with an instrumental introduction, “Prologue: The House of Justice” and a song for baritone and string quartet “Song of the Victims.” Preceded by the recitation of the text by poet David Shapiro, the song confronts the graphic imagery of Shapiro’s poem for the victims of the Holocaust with an unstoppable energy of rhythm and texture. He never softens the pain with a silent moment for contemplation; instead, Fairouz provides mood and form through changes in texture. An overwhelming section of cathartic cacophony fades into a solo violin. Melody slips surreptitiously from cello to viola to first and second violins, subtly changing the color but never the expression. As with “Tahwidah,” the absence of sound at the conclusion of the piece demands silent reflection.


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