Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A short visit home

I'm in Virginia enjoying the shortest of visits with family before continuing on. We had a two fantastic performances of "Annunciation + Visitation". I'm currently overseeing the construction of the sets for "Songspiel" and the costume design, which I enjoy being part of since color, texture, and harmony are so integral to my staging. It is good work though, a way to be creative in a three-dimensional space when I'm used to working creatively in my head mostly. Tomorrow I will leave for Detroit and then to London, Ontario where I'm teaching masterclasses and meeting about a new opera project there which looks very exciting. Then onto Amsterdam for four days of dramatic coaching at the Netherlands Opera Studio. In the meantime, I thought I would post one of my favorite Sylvia songs!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Annunciation + Visitation

So, I've been so busy with rehearsals that I haven't had much of a chance to write about the project I'm working on. I'm here in Bloomington, Indiana creating a new production of two one act pieces that are vaguely connected. The project is called "Annunciation + Visitation". The former uses songcycles by the American composer George Crumb, and the latter the Tenebre lessons of Francois Couperin. After last nights dress rehearsal I can officially say that the production is going to be amazing. A main element of it is the infusion of not just projected video, but interactive media. Cameras in real time record both the singers and even the audience, and incorporate that information into a real time project effect. It is a bit beyond my understanding, but the visual is really cool. As I don't have enough time to write about it in full...I will include my program notes here in hopes that they will be interesting.

Annuncation + Visitation
Some brief thoughts....

“Annunciation + Visitation” takes its title from two biblical episodes in the life of the Christian matriarch Mary. The former is the announcement of her impending pregnancy and her ultimate reception of that message from the Angel Gabriel. The latter is her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, at the same time pregnant with John the Baptist.

The production you will see tonight bares only a very tangential relationship with those scriptural references, and instead uses the imagery of an idealized woman (in this case Mary) as a starting point for the exploration, through music, movement, and video projection, of multiple conceptions of female sexuality. As inspiration the creators take the figure of Simone Vespucci, the Florentine model for almost all of Sandro Boticelli's female paintings. In this way Simone has been immortalized as both the prototypical virgin (Mary) and the prototypical sexual woman (Venus). In her eternal assumption of those roles, she has virtually lost all self identity, as little else is known about this enigmatic figure.

“Annunciation” explores the idealization of the female as mother, using imagery from the biblical annunciation. Through stylization the work meditates on that mysterious story, and this prototypical girl becoming a woman through her assumption of the role of mother. The piece traces her through childbirth and the inevitable, and ineffable separation that occurs between mother and child. While using the figure of the Virgin, this woman represents at once a sort of every-woman, and an idealized woman that can not possibly exist.

“Visitation” is a janus-face to that first piece. It looks at the objectification, and even more the consequences of that objectification, of the woman as a sexual body. In contrast to “Annunciation”, “Visitation” portrays a very real women dealing the aftermath of being a victim of sexual violence, sexual objectification that ends in rape. Together with her cousin, these two women embark on the journey to find their way out of the depersonalizing and demoralizing effects of female idealization, whether in the form of a virgin or a venus.

Two disparate composers separated by a common voice.

The choice of using, let alone combining, music of 18th century French composer Francois Couperin and 20th century American composer George Crumb, for this performance will no doubt seem strange. Their compositional processes, perspectives, aspiration, and objectives could not be more different; and as for both performers and audience members, they share very few. And yet in their music (and for Couperin it must be admitted that these notes are uniquely relevant to the three Tenebre lessons) there is something that for me seems common. It is the enigmatic and the eternal. Both musics exist in a sound world of the infinite, both stretch aurally toward the furtherest reaches of man's understanding of the universe, and inadvertently come close to Eastern musics which function more as ritual and less as performance pieces.

The peculiar nature of lecons de tenebres (a genre of composition common throughout the French late-Renaissance and Baroque) pushes them towards the eternal quality that is so much more obvious in Crumb's works. Each strophe in the Couperin, taking its text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, begins with a melissmatic intonation of a Hebrew letter. This peculiar aspect gives the music a ritual and ancient quality that makes it unique. With its overall affect reasonably static, the music begins to resemble the slow unfolding sounds of Crumbs own world, perhaps not in the literal aural experience, but at least in the sensory imagination that aural experience elicits.

Textually, the pieces are not so far from the conception of this performance as they may seem either. Crumb's “Apparition” comes from Whitman's “When Lilacs Last on the Dooryard Bloom'd”, a funeral ode for Abraham Lincoln. Read out of context, however, the poem really is about impending doom; not dread, but rather doom in the sense of the unknown coming upon one. In this way, the poem's images lend themselves to an interpretation where the proverbial girl enters, ritualistically, into the mysteries of adult womanhood. By the same token, “Ancient Voices of Children”, taking its many texts from poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, has texts that can be understood to explore separation, perhaps from mother and child, and perhaps even the post-partum experience. Even the change of language mid-performance is not so incongruous. The girl, having received the most divine experience imaginable, slips into a new paradigm of consciousness, and even her language is transformed.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah offer ancient meditations on the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Read in a non-literal way (perhaps even intended this way?), they can easily be read as the mourning of a woman who has been invaded, who has lost her innocence, and her precious self-identity. The verses resound with the self-guilt, anger, blame, and exultation which abound in post-rape psychology. And, the author's choice of the female for his description of “Jerusalem” exhibits the very objectification this work attempts to explore.

A telling paradox happens with this understanding of the text and concept of “Apparition and Visitation”. Very contemporary secular music is used to tackle a look at the ancient and sacred understanding of Mary's birth of the Messiah. The ancient and sacred music is used to portray a most modern and profane experience. It is, in its way, a sort of unification, perhaps even reconciliation in both artistic and social worlds.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

From the vaults!

I just found this amateur archival video made of a rehearsal of AOT's "Dido and Aeneas" earlier this year. We will be touring with this show next summer to a number of festivals, and then bringing it to Baltimore next year!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Practicing Healthy Living in London

I'm in Heathrow Airport...and have been here for about 6 hours on a layover between Amsterdam and BWI. It makes a great chance to catch up on work, but also makes me anxious to get going. Last night night I went to a performances of Dido and Aeneas by Opera Zuid in the Netherlands (the performance was a run out into the Hague). It was a coproduction with the Netherlands Opera Studio and had Canadian mezzo Catherine Daniel in the lead (she has just finished the young artist program in Montreal with my good friend Chantal Lambert, and will this year be coming to the opera studio here in Amsterdam). The production was directed by Hans Nieuwenhuis, who in a real masterstroke combined the piece with Purcell's funeral music for Queen Mary and staged it as a funeral for Dido's first husband Iarbus. A really nice touch...it is always a problem figuring out what to pair with Dido. We are trying something very interesting with the piece next year...but more on that later. I'm particularly keen on the opera studio, because they have asked me to do some guest teaching and directing there this year in a number of projects.

What I really want to be doing is posting a blog on my real thoughts about Francesco Zefferlli....a so-so director, but perhaps the greatest window dresser in the world. In reality I admire his work in a certain empty-but-beautiful way, but it is him as a person and public figure that really gets to me. No excuse for that kind of behavior. But, I'm resisting the urge to a diatribe...and will sate myself my posting another video of the wonderful talents of Sylvia McNair. I'm off to Bloomington right now to start coaching some Weill with her. Can't wait!!!!