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Paul's Case: Intersection of Minimalism and Baroque

Hurry, while there are still a few performances of composer Gregory Spear's new opera Paul's Case scheduled in the outstanding world premiere production by UrbanArias at the Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia. Everything about this 90-minute chamber opera organized in two acts and five scenes works. PC-Paul-NYC.jpg

The music, with a Minimalist through line, perhaps a little less insistent than Philip Glass' style but not less exuberant, surprises with various kinds of quotation or influence including the sounds of an oncoming train, Benjamin Britten, Vienna waltz, and the polyphony of Monteverdi and Cavalli (per Gregory Spears). Spears, in a short email interview April 21-22, 2013, with the Dresser, said his "more modern influences included David Lang, Michael Nyman, and yes, definitely Britten. I'm also influenced by the operas of John Adams, Robert Ashley and Philip Glass."

Part of the musical soundscape is humming and whistling, which to the Dresser's mind adds an edgy and primitive response of the characters to their situation and each other. When asked about how these sounds entered the composition, Spears replied, "The humming and whistling were part of the piece from the beginning. I thought of the humming like a sort of sonic equivalent of thinking or pondering. Humming can also be a very mysterious and strange sound to hear onstage. And then I knew I wanted Paul's response to the teacher to be whistling. It seemed both irreverent and enigmatic--he doesn't really have anything to say to them. (In the story he whistles Faust at one point.)"

The libretto, written by Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat and based on a much anthologized story of the same title by Willa Cather, deftly pares down to essential phrases like "something of a dandy" (his teachers' accusation against Paul's arrogance) and "I did not mean to be polite or impolite" (Paul's response to his teachers who do not understand his behavior).


The story set in 1906 is about a high school boy who is kicked out of school for his impertinence. His father decrees that Paul must become a cash boy and work in his firm. He tells Paul he is no longer going to be allowed to work as an usher at the Carnegie Music Hall, the only activity in the town of Pittsburgh that the young man loves to do. So, Paul steals money from his father's business and runs away to New York City where he books a room at the Waldorf Astoria. He has a drunken night on the town with a college student from Yale and awakes to hear that his theft has been publicized in the Pittsburgh newspaper and that his father is on his way to collect him. Paul decides he cannot go back and in desperation steps in front of an oncoming train.

Commenting about how the libretto with Kathryn Walat was written, Spears said, "I absolutely love her approach to playwriting and dialogue, so I knew her style would be perfect. I decided on the overall structure of scenes and then she wrote about 2/3 and I wrote about a 1/3 of the first draft. After we had a draft, she helped craft the scenes I wrote, and I would ask permission to layer, interweave, or fracture certain lines in her scenes. She was very gracious and open minded about letting me experiment with creating various ensemble moments. She also helped revise and tweak the piece and its structure throughout the development process."

The performance by tenor Jonathan Blalock was tenderly executed. Playing Paul is a challenge because Paul is a complicated young man who is a throwback in time. He is courtly but without affectation. Blalock is able to portray this emotional complexity without overdoing Paul's youthful defiance. The Dresser was deeply moved by the duet between Blalock and tenor Michael Slattery who played the Yale student. The exuberance of these two young men out painting the town of New York red was palpable. PC-Yalie.jpg

Predominantly, the singing is ensemble, creating a good deal of syncopated texture. The supporting cast baritones Keith Phares (Paul's father) and James Shaffran (the high school principal and Astoria bell boy), mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider (Paul's English teacher and Astoria Maid #3), and sopranos Melissa Wimbish and Erin Sanzero contribute satisfyingly to a rich vocal score.

Costumes of turn-of-the-century styles lend professional authority to the production, which is spare on sets but rich in lighting technique. Notable is movement technique used by Paul as he enters the runway style stage and later this same stylized movement is mirrored in the swagger of the Yale student. When asked how the stylized movement came about, Spears answered, "The opening of the opera foreshadows the final moments of the opera musically, but it was [Director] Kevin Newbury's idea to stage that slow motion walk and have it return. As a director, he was very sensitive to big structural moments in the music and the symmetry of the piece's design. He really knows how to take musical structures and make theater out of them."

The chamber ensemble includes two violins, viola, cello, bass, two clarinets (one base), harp, and piano. Robert Wood conducted masterfully.

In James Arthur's poem "Aspirations," the reader encounters a voice that the Dresser suggests could be Paul's. The end lines reference Prospero (same character from Shakespeare's The Tempest) but these lines were written by W.H. Auden in his long poem "The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

........... after W.H. Auden

to address mystery
without being mysterious,
never expecting anyone
to know, speaking only for yourself

..... but not being self-centered,
conducting yourself
as if your work matters, knowing nothing

makes nothing happen, never naming
what you love, believing in truth--
as who doesn't--and not selling
something, not contenting yourself

with saying nothing, to bow down
and obey, to hate nothing
and to ask nothing for its love

James Arthur
from Charms Against Lightning

Copyright © 2012 James Arthur

Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography


Comments (2)

This is interesting in that the story is so contemporary and slight, opposed to the thematic rigor of most operas. I;m also impressed with the comments about the collaboration.Perhaps the good will in the process shows up in the product.

Barbara Goldberg:

Me too, meaning i'm intrigued by the collaboration of the writers to achieve a libretto. but gee, does the hero always have to die??

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 23, 2013 10:03 AM.

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