Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Gay Opera?

One of the realities of living in Europe and running a company in the United States is that the production calendar gets somewhat compressed (somewhat being a gross exaggeration). I arrived back on native soil last week and have been body deep in supervising set and costume construction, preparing to rehearse with the choir, prop acquisition, you name it. I am going to take a break from that to write a new entry on "David et Jonathas".

As my previous posts show, there is a lot about this opera that makes it unlike anything else of its time. One particularly compelling aspect is that of the relationship between David and Jonathan, a historical relationship that has for a very long time been held by many to be romantic and even sexual in nature. In deciding to produce this work, one has to decide how to portray the relationship, which side they stand on, if not in relation to the biblical truth, than at least to an the issue of same-sex love in 17th century French society.

Really, there are three temporal locations for this consideration.

The first is biblical. Many scholars argue on both side of this issue. The text of Samuel I and II clearly indicates the primacy of David's relationship with Jonathan. But it isn't that easy to find the context. While this part of Samuel deals largely with the relationship between the two men, and lines such as "love more than that of a woman" abound, the text also indicates that David weds a daughter of Saul and has children with her (and of course we know what happen is Basheba). Some would argue that same-sex romantic and sexual relationships were a norm at the time, and that David's marriage was pursued in order to create heirs (the ancient equivalent to a 501K plan). The answer this question will probably never be known, and both sides make excellent points.

The second temporal consideration is the period in which the work was written, 17th century France. Regardless of the actual nature of the historic relationship, how did Charpentier and his contemporaries view it, and thus portray it. Again, no clear answer emerges. On the one side, the is a lot to be said for the existence of same-sex relationships, in fact an entire culture of such, in baroque Europe. Ellen Harris wrote a noteworthy look at Handel through the context of his secular cantatas. While I'm not sure I buy into her conclusion of Handel as a homosexual, she does establish a tradition for homosexuality during that time. At the same time, writing for a Jesuit college, it seems circumspect to circumspect that Charpenter would be writing a "gay" opera. This is probably unlikely. Instead it seems that a type of male-male relationship existed in the 17th century that does not exist today. A close, largely non-sexual, but extremely intimate relationship. This closeness between men is at least viewed with curiousity if not open dismay today.

Finally there is the here and now. For me this is what is important. We have no idea as to the nature of the historic David and Jonathan's friendship. At the same time Charpentier's "David et Jonathas" could very well have intended to portray a type of male-male relationship unknown today. Instead I have approached the text as organically as possible, trying to react honestly, and I think I have come to the same place most audience member would when encountering this libretto and viewing it as a new modern work, without historical or generative baggage. I have purposely ignored what I know about the historical life David following the death of Saul, as well as what seems the most likely way the first Parisan audience understood this story.
Lines like "despite the harness of my fate, at least I can still tell you that I love you” (Jonathas to Daivd, Act V) and "Lord, I have lost everything that I love, for me all is gone" (David talking about the death of Jonathas, Act V), abound through the piece and I think have a clear implication for the contemporary reader. Just as I am uninterested in baroque staging because we are performing for a contemporary audience, I am also uninterested in the historical or originally intended portrayal of this relationship. Instead I am interested in what will emerge for an audience what the work today, it is in this way that masterpieces rise as phoenixes..

So, yes, for me "David et Jonathas" is a "gay" opera. But seen as such, the work becomes more beautiful for what it is not about rather than what it is about. That David and Jonathan are lovers is not at issue, it is never brought-up, and has no function in the unfolding plot. This a tragic love story, the type almost cliché to opera. The only difference is that the central pair of star-crossed lovers are two men. Because of this the piece is even more breathtaking in its restraint and simplicity. Seeing these two male characters embrace freely on the opera stage is a powerful and moving experience.

Now I am off to rehearse with the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers who will be joining us for the production. Tonight I introduce them to the French Baroque concepts of inégal and ornamentation.
This photo is another one of my favorites from the workshop.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Wearing multiple hats.

A small break from the "David et Jonathas" saga: Thanks to Clayton Koonce for drawing my attention to thisact of conductor filling in as tenor.

I worked with Antony at Wolf Trap and he is one of the brightest and most versatile conductors around, as this clearly indicates.

DAVID ET JONATHAS - Accidental structures and the silent character they create.

I have often said the "David et Jonathas" is unlike any opera of its time. This is not simply because the music contains an emotional musical directness that predates verissmo, and a through-composed formal structure of which Gluck would have approved. It is also because dramatically the work has more in common with much more modern, even absurdist (and indeed I used “The Myth of Sisyphus” and other writings by Calmus to develope my initial concept) theater styles, than it does with other contemporary works of the baroque.

This is not the case because Charpentier and Bretonneau were interested in early modernist dramatic concepts. Rather, it is a product of the magic touch and infinite wisdom of history. The work was originally composed to be performed at the Jesuit school for which Charpentier worked, interspersed with a spoken tragedy titled "Saül", also by Père Bretonneau. Each act of this spoken Latin tragedy would be followed by an act of the sung French piece. While the spoken play propelled the dramatic action, the musical portion reflected on the emotional states of the principle characters. We perform "David et Jonathas" as a five act opera with prologue, but this is not how it was imagined. As such the work takes on a new dramatic affect that reflects a much more modern theatrical aesthetic.

There is almost no true "action" in this work. Rather there are four character portraits bookended by the prologue, which sets the tone of the work, and the final act which portrays the tragic consequences when these emotional states meet each other. Each of those four acts contains a large central scene for one of the characters (David, Jobel, Saül, and Jonathas), and it is indeed these monologues where time freezes that the work's most profound music lies. As such, the modern work "David et Jonathas", without the spoken action of "Saül", becomes a portrayal of humanity's core themes - love, fear, and faith.

Because so much of the work is devoted to monologues, a curious theatrical coup occurs. This is a biblical work, and the majority of these monologues are addressed to a "God" - some external force, deity, fate, or simply the vast universe. These external force is so strongly present in the text of the work, that it becomes an ever silent omnipresent principle character to which the fundamental questions are posed and from which no answer returns. Man is met with the implacable silence of the universe. In the words of Pascal:
“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”.

That captures it perfectly for me.

The trajectory of this work's "meaning" is of great interest to me. Just deciding to produce it, without the spoken Latin text, creates a completely new work. Arises a theater piece with modernist/absurdist aesthetic of which Charpentier could not have conceived. Emerges an utterly crucial, but non-tangible eleventh character. And, the work takes on an additional central theme - that of man's struggle to reconcile logic with the seemingly arbitrary and, as such, unfairness of God's/the Universe's law.

And a few photos that capture some of these moments of man vs. silence (Jason Buckwalter as Saül, Brian Cummings as David, Matthew Walker as Jonathan:

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


In a month from today American Opera Theater will give the North American professional premier staging of Charpentier's 1688 masterpiece "David et Jonathas" (for those of you that knew us when we were Ignoti Dei Opera this might seem a bit confusing - we workshopped D+J in 2005 with our young artist program Les Enfants Terribles at the Baltimore Theatre Project and a tiny band - this will be a full mainstage production with large forces for both the orchestra and choir). This is an important step for the company, and after 3 performances in Washington, DC we make our New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music...more than a touch scarey, but exciting all the same.

Inspired by Opera Vivente director John Bowen's blog posts leading up to their performance of Jonathan Dove's "Tobias and the Angel" (a show that got great reviews and I hate to have had to miss it - congrats to John and the whole company!) I have decided to embark on the same pre-show path. I must admit that John's dilligence in this is a little daunting, but I will try all the same. With each post I will also include one or two production photos from our 2005 workshop (beautifully shot by Greg McKleskey).

For this first in the series I am going to take the easy way out (because I am running out the door to rehearse for a concert of rare Spanish violin sonatas I am playing with ID violinist Daniel Boothe this Friday!), and will post the description of D+J on our beautiful postcards designed by Kel Millionie. Still, I hope it will wet your appetite.

This photo of Jason Buckwalter as Saül is my favorite from the workshop.
As a piece mainly about man's relationship with a higherpower, be it fate, God, a vast space,
I think that this photo captures it perfectly.

The American Opera Theater completes its 2007-2008 season and makes its New York debut with Charpentier's remarkable 1688 opera "David et Jonathas". This work is a breathtaking masterpiece of the French baroque, yet strikingly contemporary in its themes. "David et Jonathas" explores the relationship between three timeless figures and mans relationship with the universe. In profoundly beautiful music Charpentier creates a heartbreaking portrayal unlike any of its day. The Baltimore Sun says the opera "set to music of immense beauty, couldn't be more noble as anything by Wagner, as emotionally wrenching as anything by Puccini". With the acclaimed Ignoti Dei period orchestra and an international cast of soloists, AOT is also particularly proud to be joined by the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers in these performances. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this rare and profound work come to life on stage in a New World premier production.