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.”
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.
“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’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.