If you have a hunger for relevant live theater that includes the emotional boost of music and poetry, spring 2008 in New York City featured a wide range of offerings from the Metropolitan Opera’s Satyagraha by Philip Glass to New York City Opera’s VOX, a showcase of work-in-progress operas. Political topics made most of the excerpts from the new operas at VOX acutely engaging. And Philip Glass and Constance DeJong’s look at Mohandas Gandhi’s development of his strategy for nonviolence during his years in South Africa serves as a good base for talking about the political stances of the new works offered at VOX.
SATYAGRAHA AS THE GRAVITY OF TRUTH . Satyagraha made its world premiere in 1980 (Netherlands Opera). Because Glass’s overall oeuvre (over 20 full-scale and chamber operas as well as music theater pieces) presents in a musical style and dramatic presentation that continues to be on the cutting edge, this essay will use Satyagraha as co-produced by the Met and English National Opera (ENO), in collaboration with Improbable (a London-based theater company) as the touchstone to talk about the 2008 VOX Showcase.
To ground this discussion, here’s a sketch of Satyagraha and the Met-ENO production. In six performances that began April 11 and finished May 1, 2008, the Met presented this three-act, seven-scene opera running four hours with two intermissions. Satyagraha is a non-linear story that begins with Gandhi as a young lawyer getting thrown off a South African train for asserting his right to sit in first class with a valid ticket. Each of the three acts are presided over by an important historic figure representing the past, present, and the future: Act I, Leo Tolstoy whom Gandhi corresponded with until Tolstoy’s death in 1910; Act II, Rabindranath Tagore, the respected poet of Calcutta who stood by Gandhi during marches and fasts; and Act III, Martin Luther King, Jr., who would later employ Gandhi’s strategies for civil rights work in the United States. These three witnesses, Tolstoy, Tagore, and King, bring a mythic and timeless largeness to this opera which was magnified by this particular production that used huge puppets, some more than 20 feet tall. The puppets visually connect the ancient Indian story of the Bhagavad Gita to Gandhi’s quest for justice in South Africa for Indians living there. The text of Satyagraha, which means “truth force,” as in the gravity of truth, is drawn from the Gita and is entirely in Sanskrit. Abbreviated translations of the Sanskrit text were projected in this production on the set and on objects held (such as a newspaper). Repetitive serial music produced by strings, woodwinds, and electric organ (Glass does not use horns or percussion in this opera) and the tenor voice of Gandhi (sung by Richard Croft) produced an emotional wallop like a fast running river. This writer provided more details about this production in an earlier review at CultureVulture.net.
VOX 2008. This year’s VOX offered excerpts from ten new works:
Charlie Crosses the Nation with music and libretto by Scott Davenport Richards.
Criseyde with music by Alice Shields and libretto by Nancy Dean based loosely the tale “Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer.”
Dice Thrown by composer John King based on a poem by Stèphane Mallarmé.
Dylan and Caitlin with music by Robert Manno and libretto by Gwynne Edwards.
Eleni with music by Cary Ratcliff and libretto by Robert Koch based on the book by Nicholas Gage.
Jeanne with music and libretto by Justine F. Chen
The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth with music by Veronika Krausas and libretto by Tom Pettit based on the play by William Shakespeare.
The Officers with music and libretto by Steve Potter.
Our Giraffe with music by Sorrel Hays and libretto by Charles Flowers.
Soldier Songs with music and libretto by David T. Little.
ALL ART IS POLITICAL. VOX program director Yuval Sharon said in the opening panel discussion, “All art is political. Making a work non-political is still a political statement.” The word political has several meanings including those meanings that deal with governing and groups that band together with similar ideas for governing (political parties), but also the meaning that deals with social relationships involving authority and power. This writer interprets the “political” nature of these operas as follows—six of these ten relate to the definition involving governments and affairs of state while two deal with social relationships and another two make political statements about what opera is with their experimental formats.
The largest category includes: Charlie Crosses the Nation (about an integrated American army band in Germany in 1945), Eleni (about a Greek family in 1945 caught in the governing crosshairs of World War II), Jeanne (about the prosecution and burning at the stake of Joan of Arc), The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth (about Lady Macbeth’s involvement with regicide), Our Giraffe (about political intrigue between Ottoman Egypt and France in 1826), and Soldier Songs (about soldier reactions to wars that include Vietnam and Iraq). Criseyde (about an uncle who forces his niece, a young widow to marry a man she isn’t comfortable with) and Dylan and Caitlin (about the troubled marriage of poet Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin) concern the politics of love. The last category deals less with subject matter and more with form. In the wake of John Cage, Dice Thrown addresses the politics of defining an opera. In Dice Thrown, the composer John King provides each performer with an individual set of musical materials varying in character and length but allots 15 minutes for everyone to perform together. The results, known as aleatoric music, are always produced by chance. In The Officers, Steve Potter uses found text around a set of invented characters that engage over the question of whether God is dead. The music involves (according to Potter) “varying degrees of robotic repetition.”
ONE OPERA FROM ANOTHER. What are some of the characteristics not already mentioned that distinguish these operas from each other? Charlie Crosses the Nation is a jazz opera. Our Giraffe is a comic opera where a person sings the role of a giraffe. Criseyde is sung in Middle English. Soldier Songs is more an oratorio than an opera. Jeanne seems to have a possible nod to Kabuki theater related to an exaggerated character who sings in falsetto until he arrives at a transformative insight.
Discerning readers will probably comment that it is unfair to compare any of these work-in-progress operas with Satyagraha, which has a high profile story (that of a significant icon—Gandhi—who plays in the field of world peace) married with an enormously powerful literary masterpiece (the Bhagavad Gita). No attempt will be made to rate any of the VOX operas in that way or any other, but rather to give some overall impressions so that once these works come to full production (if they do), that one will be able to remember something about their early “workshop” presentation at VOX. Another basis for looking at what was presented at VOX 2008 is an interview this writer did with Yuval Sharon that was published in Scene4 Magazine’s January 2008 issue. What is important to know from the Sharon interview is over the last few years, sixty percent of the submissions to VOX were Neo-romantic in their musical style and that of the 83 submissions this year, eight dealt with World War II subjects.
So here are some impressions. Two of the showcased works—Charlie Crosses the Nation and Eleni—were World War II stories. Soldier Songs also featured testimony from a WWII vet. Three of the VOX works played with language including Criseyde (the libretto is written in Middle English), Dice Thrown (libretto, in French, is based on the spatialized poem of Stèphane Mallarmé and it breaks apart the poem as part of its chance format), and The Officers (the libretto is filled with language taken from commercial situations that might involve such text as safety instructions or advertisements). These days in the field of new opera innovation with language seems to be an important way of distinguishing one opera from another. For example, J. D. McClatchy used Old English for all the characters in his libretto for Grendel (premiered by the Los Angeles Opera in 2005) except for the main character, the monster Grendel, that sang in English. One VOX opera—Our Giraffe—featured a character that was not human and this also seems to be something that is happening more often in contemporary opera. In Satyagraha, the non-human element was handled by puppetry.
Musically speaking, Charlie Crosses the Nation is a jazz opera in the tradition of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; Criseyde is tonally lush and repetitive with influences of Gregorian chant and Indian ragas; Dylan and Caitlin, Eleni, and Our Giraffe are Neo-romantic scores; Dice Thrown is experimental and harkens back to John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez who set many poems by Mallarmé; The Officers is also experimental but evokes a wide range of predecessors including the performance art of Rinde Eckert, plainchant, maybe a dash of the industrial sounds of George Anteil; Soldier Songs mixes heavy metal and a little Edgard Varèse with folk; Jeanne is a mix of lyric and dissonant; and The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth seemed more dissonant than lyric.
THE POLITICS OF LESS IS MORE. Typically VOX showcases of the recent past offered twelve new operas and an evening program entitled “On the Edge” that included American Opera Programs, Center for Contemporary Opera, Encompass New Opera Theatre, and Music-Theatre Group. Sharon said, “Tech time precluded us from sharing a stage with ‘On the Edge’ this year, and concentrating on ten operas rather than twelve allowed us both to feature more of each opera and rehearse it better.”
Most of the 2008 VOX operas featured highly experienced singers such as James Bobick as the lone singer in Soldier Songs;
Lauren Flanigan as Lady Macbeth;
Melissa Fogarty as the sole singer in Dice Thrown;
Beth Griffith as Zarafa, the giraffe;
and Emily Pulley as Eleni. These singers in particular delivered notably outstanding performances and were backed up by satisfyingly rich orchestral performances.
Although the reduction in the number of operas presented is a blow to those competing for a place at VOX, the overall program benefited and the audience overload was ameliorated. Every opera presented had something to engage the audience. To New York City Opera and VOX management’s credit, the diversity was also apparent with four women composers, two composers of color, and a variety of geographic origins and current home bases. The selection process seemed demonstrably fair and equitable.
If this writer were asked what her favorite opera preview was at VOX this year, she would first point out that every audience member has his or her own experiences that push a selection in a certain direction. This critic loved the Met-ENO production of Satyagraha and she has always been drawn to the music of Philip Glass. That said, because VOX is showing only a part of each of these works, certain aspects of numerous works made this writer choose the following operas for her Favorites List: Our Giraffe (for the quirky vocalizations of Zarafa and the pleasing lyrical music accented by the harp), Soldier Songs (for the emotional load produced by real solders’ testimonies in combination with powerful musical score), Eleni (for the heart-wrenching story and music), The Officers (for the evocative text and music), and Charlie Crosses the Nation (for the poetry of the libretto in combination with a satisfying jazz landscape).
Application deadline for VOX 2009 is September 1, 2008. Typically the annual program occurs during the second weekend of May. Perspective audience members should be warned that although this has been a free event, this year for the first time, a reservation system was created and more people than seats petitioned for entrance. Therefore, VOX 2008 continued to be an exciting two days of new operas with relevant subjects and memorably interesting music and text delivered to a crowded auditorium. Vive l’opera!
All VOX Photos by Carol Rosegg