Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Return To Tonality

After many a night of cringing through some of the nastiest, most abrasive kinds of modern music (including those contemporary operas which seem intent on abusing rather than showcasing the human voice) I'm happy to report that composers are once again creating operas which are meant to be sung. Last month, I attended performances of two new American works which were remarkably user-friendly. One was receiving its world premiere in Louisville, Kentucky (a city noted for its long and healthy tradition of corporate sponsorship of the arts). The other work was barely two years old.

While audiences didn't leave either opera house humming the music, they came away from each performance feeling satisfied with the emotionality of the experience, charmed by the beauty of the evening's aural texture and gratified to have shared a meaningful night in the theater. More to the point, the performers in each cast felt as if they had had a worthwhile artistic experience which allowed them to use their vocal and dramatic talents in new, challenging and rewarding ways. That's hardly an inconsequential achievement when you consider that one of these pieces was written by the dean of America's operatic composers and the other by a complete novice.


Any restaurateur will tell you that the presentation of an entree or dessert is a major part of his establishment's culinary appeal. In November 1988, when the Dallas Opera presented the world premiere of The Aspern Papers with a cast headed by Elisabeth Soderstrom and Frederica von Stade, Dominick Argento's new opera struck me as a delicately-spiced and magnificently crafted piece of art which had been stuck on the wrong plate and served in the theatrical equivalent of flourescent lighting. The problem lay not so much with the opera's production elements as with the dimensions of Fair Park Music Hall -- a theater whose monstrous proportions quickly sabotaged the dramatic intimacy inherent in Argento's new work.

Last month, when the Washington Opera presented The Aspern Papers in the Kennedy Center's intimate 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater, the opera took on a totally new sense of verismo and vitality. Not only was this production (which used the same sets and costumes created for the Dallas Opera) blessed by a stronger cast than the original, it took place in a theater which fit its emotional needs like a glove. The result was a magnificent evening of contemporary music theater which could easily be enjoyed by one and all.

The cast was comprised by an ensemble of American artists whose work sets any professional standard but whose fame does not reach as far and wide as, say, Luciano Pavarotti's. As the aging Juliana Bordereau, soprano Pamela South gave one of the best performances of her career. Katherine Ciesinski's portrayal of Juliana's spinster niece, Tina (whose emotions proved to be a great deal more forceful and tortured than in Miss von Stade's interpretation) added yet another superb characterization to the mezzo-soprano's rapidly growing portrait gallery. As the mysterious Lodger who seeks an unpublished score to Aspern's last opera (which, according to rumor, may lie hidden among the decrepit Juliana's personal possessions) baritone Robert Orth gave a performance of wonderful strength, sensitivity, diction and (when appropriate) scholarly sleaze. Cameo contributions came from David Kuebler as the composer Aspern, Eric Halfvarson as the impresario Barelli, and Susan Graham as Barelli's mistress, Sonia.

Philip Brunelle conducted with a strong sensitivity to the lyricism of Argento's score. As staged by Leon Major, the final moments of The Aspern Papers were greatly enhanced by letting the audience watch Tina as she burned the pages of Aspern's lost manuscript in the fireplace. In speaking with members of the cast after the performance, I was fascinated to learn how grateful they all were to be given English words and contemporary music that were a joy to sing. Let's all pray for more to come!


The miracle behind the creation of The Stone Man, a one-act, 78-minute opera which received its world premiere from the Kentucky Opera in January, is that the person who served as composer, librettist and designer is a self-taught country boy from the hills of Eastern Kentucky. Considering that this was Daniel Dutton's first opera, I'd suggest that you keep close eyes on this man. With the innocence of a child, he has created -- in his very first stab at the operatic art form -- a work whose honesty, lyricism, sensuality and musical strength should embarrass the living daylights out of any and all academic composers who have lost touch with the audience.

Dutton (who, in addition to supporting himself as a painter and sculptor, has worked in a punk rock band) takes his protagonist on a dream journey filled with strange and familiar sounds; a journey of the mind and spirit guided by the elements of earth fire, air and water. Working with an astounding combination of musical styles which have been carefully blended into a new and exciting whole, Dutton's score was sensitively shaped by conductor David Berger.

Director John Hoomes staged The Stone Man (which later toured to several small rural communities in Kentucky) on a simple unit set that benefitted immensely from the use of video elements in the background. The ensemble featured Fred Love as the Dreamer, with Anne Nispel as Air, Elizabeth Huling as Water, Dean Anthony as Fire, and Kenneth Shaw doubling as Earth and the Stone Man.

What is so remarkable about The Stone Man is the sensuousness of Dutton's music, the user-friendly appeal of his concept and the sheer lyricism of the opera's dramatic thrust. Scored for a 13-piece orchestra, The Stone Man is a natural vehicle for touring companies and educational outreach programs which must function on limited budgets. I wish it a long life. More importantly, I wish the composer a flood of commissions so he can write more new operas. The talent and ability is there. In awesome proportions.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 1, 1990

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