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The Fires of Shining Brow

Fire dominates UrbanArias' 90-minute production of composer Daron Aric Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon's Shining Brow, an opera about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and an illicit love affair. Upon entering the Sprenger Theatre of Washington, DC's Atlas Performing Arts Center on October 14, 2017, the Dresser was immersed in smoke. Director Grant Preisser uses smoke to emphasize the murky world of Wright's memory after a fire had been set at the Taliesin estate in the house Wright designed and built for his mistress Mamah Cheney. Shining brow is the literal translation of the welsh word Taliesin. As operagoers, we learned Mamah died during that fire but as students of Wright's biography, we know that a deranged cook working in the house set the fire and then proceeded to kill with an axe Mamah and six others, including her two young children as they tried to escape the conflagration.

Outlaw.jpgSo there is the house fire which the audience experiences as a set of piled up chairs perched over a slit in the stage floor with smoke pouring out there and from several other trap doors. But also there is the fire of passion between Wright (baritone Sidney Outlaw) and his mistress (soprano Miriam Khalil). Additionally, there is the friction of explosive dimension between Wright and his wife Catherine (mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle). Even Louis Sullivan (tenor Robert Baker) Wright's mentor turns up the heat with a disturbing argument. The singers including bass-baritone Ben Wager (as the husband of Mamah) are first class. Miriam Khalil's singing and acting performance nail Mameh's sexual magnetism which Wright cannot resist.


The mostly hidden orchestral ensemble under the agile baton of UrbanArias founding director Robert Wood produced the polytonal score in a flow of pleasing music. The Dresser's personal favorite composition was a syncopated number that featured the words Sodom & Gomorrah.

Poet Paul Muldoon's libretto was unquestionably overwritten. Instead of the libretto, the program booklet featured about four pages of glossary detailing plants, birds, mythological characters, literary allusions, native American tribes, and more. This is one of those operas in English that could have used English surtitles or fewer and simpler words.

While overall, the Dresser enjoyed Shining Brow, she thinks that the 90-minute version is confusing and suggests it would be beneficial to see the entire opera which premiered by the Madison Opera in 1993. She also found some of Director Grant Preisser's touches adding to this confusion, such as the mouth to mouth kiss Louis Sullivan plants on Wright (there was no indication either were homosexual) and the ghoulish makeup used particularly on Edwin Cheney's eyes. Later in a talk back, Preisser said he wanted to indicate with the makeup that Wright was remembering various people and that they were not in real time.

In Judith McCombs' poem "The Habit of Fire," a hiker travels alone at sunset while the entire landscape begins "talking." The hiker is a stranger in the natural world and as long as this person does not light a fire, he or she can partake and "see" what is there. Frank Lloyd Wright was known for creating buildings in harmony with the natural world. However, he made himself a persona non grata and therefore a stranger in his community (among his family and colleagues) by allowing a fire to ignite between him and a woman who came with her husband to employ Wright as a builder of their dream house. Instead he kindles the flames of passion, builds a dream house for this woman who becomes his mistress, and while he is away, someone who works for him burns down the house and kills everyone in it.


By the wilderness lake I settle my haunches
in a nest of stones, lean back on a deadfall
carcass of pine, the only shelter,
cold but not wet. Behind me thickets
waiting for nightfall; no openings my size,
no one's been here. The sun slides down
over the green-black cones of the mountains
rimming the lake; the sky flares up
like a mirror, pearl on the water, glaring
and greying. Suddenly thinned air, like water,
wraiths of cold swimming towards me;
too late to wash up. grey fire stones and kindling
readied before me, unlit; deadfall
enough for hours.
............................Black mountains, black sky;
stone shapes changing. I see through a face net
my personal aura of insects close in,
signaled by warmth. Things crackling and listening
behind me; the sky goes Whooee, Whooee,
no one I know.
.......................Smell of horses
from somewhere, then gone; no horses out here,
anything that big is probably bear.
New prints today on the logging road,
in the place where I backtracked for water, bear crossing
over the prints of my Vibram soles,
full-grown. While I yawn, the road I will follow
leans downhill, gullies, lets go; stones topple;
thickets I broke are healing behind me.
I don't want to know how the blackness spreads
under my ribs.
.......................If I died out here
it would be my doing, not theirs; I smell
of textiles and fire; even dead they'd avoid me.
I couldn't live here.
..............................In the blackness a lapping
of water or muzzle; the air says something,
gibberish or warning, and quits when I move,
matches in hand, to strike open the fire
that stops me from seeing.

by Judith McCombs
from The Habit of Fire

"The Habit of Fire" copyright © 2005 by Judith McCombs


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 15, 2017 5:01 PM.

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