Opera, Real and Surreal

Three operas featured at New Works Forum

Three new operas showcased at Opera America’s New Works Forum: l-r, The Summer King, Judgment of Midas, Dog Days

“Opera permits us to go into a world that is not real.”

This was spoken by Nicole Paiement, artistic director of Opera Parallèle, about halfway through a panel discussion of storytelling in opera at Opera America’s New Works Forum, held last week in New York. I was there because Judgment of Midas, the new opera I’m involved with, was scheduled for a showcase performance—an excerpt with singers and piano.

I heard these words with a sense of relief and recognition. After this, others in the room acknowledged that many opera companies have gotten into a “quasi-naturalistic groove,” developing new operas that share with much of traditional opera a straight-ahead, scene-by-scene narrative arc.

It’s been almost forty years since the 1976 premiere of Einstein on the Beach, with its shocking mix of enigmatic text, Robert Wilson’s hypnotic movement and the propulsive sound of Philip Glass—and it’s been eighty years since Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, sung to a blithely out-there libretto by Gertrude Stein. Since the groundbreaking Einstein, new opera and music-theater have staked out a wider range of possibility for the story, or in some cases, the text that goes with the music. Operas like John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, about the first atomic blast, expand the story with diversions into poetry and myth, while Anna Nicole borrows TV talk-show format and flashbacks to create a large-scale version of the would-be Pop goddess.

At the New Works Forum, Nicole Paiement described an upcoming production planned for her Opera Parallèle in San Francisco, a mash-up of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel and the Baroque-era Les Mamelles de Tirésius by Poulenc, which sounds—well, I can’t even imagine how this will turn out, which makes it pretty interesting. In some ways, a lot of new opera has more in common with Baroque opera, with its stories of mythical heroes, gods and goddesses. With Judgment of Midas, the libretto I wrote offers a place where Greek gods interact with present-day humans. In the libretto for Violet Fire, I tried to create a dream-like space in which the events, people and visions experienced by the inventor Nikola Tesla could intermingle.

People still respond to the big characters and passionate stories that are the stuff of traditional opera. But it may be that now, with our lives marked by a dizzying interplay of the virtual and real, we need art forms to reflect that multiplicity of experience—the feeling of living in different realities. That kind of multiplicity is coded into the structure of opera, with its synthesis of story, movement, visuals and the human voice at its most powerful. You could see this multi-layered approach as stretching back to the earliest human storytelling, which combined rhythm, movement, costume and voice to create an experience of a greater, expanded reality shared by humans and gods.

I came away from the New Works Forum recharged and inspired by the work of some gifted artists in the field, and the dedication of the opera professionals who want to see new work happen. Here’s to the making of crazy, weird new operas that help us make sense of our strange, fast-changing world.

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Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved seeing Gravity. In my opinion, the Planet Earth should be nominated for a supporting-player Oscar. I drank in the massive, stunning views of the earth in the background of so many scenes—completely convincing, thanks to high-level CGI effects. At those screen-filling distances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmosphere, the delicate outer membrane that makes life on earth possible. There they were: the biosphere and the atmosphere, as seen from space for real by just a few hundred people so far.

That soft shell of atmosphere offers a visual analogue to other, unseen layers, both actual and imagined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of reality that’s tied to physical things like computers, servers, satellites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain digital, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem farfetched to think of this quickly filling-in worldwide web as another, invisible shell surrounding the earth’s surface.

And then there’s the noosphere, an idea put forward by the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Verdansky, a Russian scientist who himself gets credit for coming up with the term “biosphere.” With the noosphere (the prefix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teilhard invites us into a kind of thought experiment: imagine that all of human thought surrounds the earth in an invisible shell. As our mental outpourings grow and intensify, this “thinking layer” fills in and comes into its own. Teilhard suggested that the noosphere would emerge out of technologies “extending a closely interdependent network” around the world. At that time he was referring to radio, teletype and television—but his description seems to eerily anticipate the Internet and our current web of digital communication.

This promise of the noosphere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libretto for Violet Fire about Nikola Tesla’s vision of the earth becoming “a single brain” through his planned World Broadcasting System. In Leaving Alexandria, the novel I’m working on, it has helped me envision the accumulation of knowledge, from ancient libraries to our expanding digital cybersphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translucent envelope of our atmosphere, but that doesn’t stop us from experiencing them around us.

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James Turrell and sacred architecture


James Turrell’s Aten Reign at the Guggenheim

James Turrell’s installations at the Guggenheim left me in an altered state.  Using light as his primary medium, Turrell’s art requires slow looking and an active acceptance of ambiguity—both conducive to entering a kind of contemplative trance.

He’s pursued his singular work, from early experiments with slide projectors in dark rooms to Roden Crater, his monumental environmental work-in-progress in the Arizona desert. Since most of us won’t get to Roden Crater—though I sure would like to—this year’s major shows in Los Angeles, New York and Houston offer a rare chance to see some big work by Turrell. Aten Reign, his transformation of the Guggenheim’s atrium into a massive cone of gradually shifting light and color, is the biggest temporary piece he’s created so far. The experience of it is quiet and meditative, shared with a crowd of people, and lasting about an hour. In other words, it feels less like an art exhibit than the sacred experience you might have with others in a temple or church.

Turrell  has been open about this side of his work; he talks about light as revelation. A Quaker, he has designed a space for a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston that brings the sky directly into the room, translating the Quaker idea of finding the light within into outward form. But, given the times we are living in—many centuries after the ages of great sacred architecture—the art world can be a more or less welcoming alternative for such impulses. It’s less welcoming to the extent that talking about the connection of light with spiritual life can and does make some people uncomfortable (see Jed Perl’s piece in the New Republic).

Turrell may be better understood in the context of his predecessors in sacred architecture—including those who created the stained-glass light shows inside the great Gothic cathedrals. The Abbé Suger, who lived in the 12th century, brought together glass artists from all over Europe to make the innovative stained glass windows of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the first truly Gothic building. The Abbé developed his own theology of light, involving three aspects: lux, lumen and illumination. Lux is physical light, from the sun or another source. Lumen is light transformed by sacred intention—having passed through the artist’s sparkling glass panels into a consecrated space. And illumination is that transformed light, standing for a divine, invisible light, apprehended within the viewer’s heart. This way of exploring how physical light can be transformed feels more useful to me in responding to James Turrell’s work than limiting the conversation to perceptual psychology—how the mind works to interpret the tricky behavior of photons.

Turrell knows all about the photons, and how we perceive them—he’s a mage of light and its effects. His predecessor, Abbé Suger, reminds us not to get hung up on the photons—to be open to the illumination within.

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Out of Print – What’s happening to books?

ImageWe’re living through a slow-motion earthquake in the world of books. The massive shift from printed books to e-books and other digital formats may be as momentous as the arrival of the printing press five hundred years ago. This is one of those big changes that, even though it’s affecting our lives profoundly, is hard to talk about—maybe in part because it’s so new. As Lev Grossman said in a 2011 article, “if anything we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all.”

A new documentary by Vivienne Roumani, Out of Print, aims to get us talking about this phenomenon. How many of us still read printed books, or any long-form books at all? What is the effect of the e-book revolution, and the broader, internet-induced change in our reading habits: on publishing companies, on writers, on libraries? What about children and teenagers coming to reading now—how will it affect how they learn, even how they think?

The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, is on the festival circuit, and will be shown this Saturday, July 20, in New Hope as part of the New Hope Film Festival. Roumani gets a kind of virtual conversation started through interviews with an impressive array of experts. In one corner, there’s a surprisingly eloquent Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon—the big gorilla of both e-book and print book sales—who speaks with passion about the book as an elegant object, and about how reading a novel can transport you to an alternate world. In the other corner, there’s Scott Turow, who as president of the Authors Guild acts as a kind of pit bull for writers, arguing for their right to earn money from their work against initiatives like Google’s controversial plan to digitize thousands of books.

And then there’s the late, great Ray Bradbury, speaking about his discovery of reading at his local library in Waukegan. In the basement of that library, he banged out the first draft of Fahrenheit 451, the book that presciently imagined a future where most people live with immersive entertainment screens, and where books are in danger of disappearing in a different way. Is our new world as strange as that, or stranger? This elegant and thoughtful film opens a door on that question too.

Out of Print will be shown Saturday, July 20, 7 p.m. at the New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Ave. @ Bridge Street, New Hope, PA 18938, as part of the New Hope Film Festival

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How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s something about the inventor Nikola Tesla that has strongly attracted artists—much more than his arch-rival Edison, let’s say. Tesla’s amazing life and grand visions have pulled artistic creations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, novels and stories, film and video. I know about this firsthand, because it happened to me. Discovering his story led me to write a libretto for what became the opera Violet Fire.

Nikola Tesla, born in 1856 to Serbian parents in Croatia, was a visionary scientist/inventor who helped create the bedrock of our technological world, with his groundbreaking discoveries in electricity, radio, robotics and even computer circuitry. His intense stream of visualizations led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull electrical energy from the upper atmosphere, still sound like science fiction. He was a charismatic figure who moved through New York’s Gilded Age high society, befriending Mark Twain and others, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s story knocked me over. How could he not be universally known? His visions seemed like those of a mystic, yet they had led to inventions that have had global effects on how we live. With his strange, outsized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to portray him. I centered the story on Tesla’s relationship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of powerful light. Violet Fire was brought to life by the beautiful, haunting music of Jon Gibson, and the contributions of director Terry O’Reilly, choreographer Nina Winthrop, and video designers Sarah Drury and Jen Simmons. Exactly seven years ago, on Nikola Tesla’s 150th birthday, my collaborators and I had the great honor of seeing the premiere of Violet Fire at the National Theater in Belgrade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tesla. A large-scale opera, Lightning in His Hand, has been mounted in Hobart, Tasmania. Melissa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recently performed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jarmusch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tesla is rediscovered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in artforms we haven’t yet imagined. Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla.

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The Barefoot Artist

Lily Yeh

Lily Yeh, Image thanks to The Barefoot Artist, barefootartistmovie.com

Next Wednesday, The Barefoot Artist—a documentary about the unusual career of Lily Yeh—will have a special preview screening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Go if you can. It’s a chance to get a deeper look at this artist, who’s traveled to “broken places,” as she calls them, working on projects that use “the power of art to rebuild communities” (also her words). Over the past twenty years she’s worked in North Philadelphia, in a desolate slum in Nairobi, a school for migrant workers in Beijing, and on a genocide memorial in Rwanda, always catalyzing the energy of the people in those places to create something they can continue on their own.

Lily Yeh came to the U.S. from Taiwan, already trained in Chinese landscape painting. Her work to reclaim an abandoned lot in North Philadelphia grew into the Village of Arts and Humanities, with an abundance of parks, arts and youth programs. When I wrote about her work for Art in America as the Village celebrated its tenth birthday, I tried to show how what she was doing, and is still doing, is her art—not just a very successful community art project. The term relational art may be the best art-world term to cover the thing she does, and it does take in community-based work like the French artist JR’s massive guerilla photo installations in Rio’s favelas. But there’s something so open-hearted about Lily’s work; I like the idea of “public art as a spiritual path,” the title of a recent article that talks about her work. What we call it may not matter, but I’ll be thinking about this as I watch the movie.

If you subscribe to this blog, I’ll send you a copy of my review of Lily Yeh’s work, which includes a description of one of my favorite art-performance moments ever.

The Barefoot Artist, directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wednesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. Free with admission.

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From the Ground Up

Isaiah Zagar landscape painting

Isaiah Zagar’s Islands of Nova Scotia, 1973 – a pre-mosaic painting

“Like embedded journalists, Peter Kinney, Isaiah Zagar and Jeff Waring have made the work in this show as ‘embedded’ artists, burrowing deep into the natural world to bring back its dirty, messy, mysterious secrets… Each of these artists is after full-on communion with the natural world, the kind that leaves you surrounded and bowled over, forgetting the difference between being human, rock, plant or divine…”

Me and artist Peter Kinney - a painting by Peter on left, and one by Jeff Waring on right

Me and artist Peter Kinney – a painting by Peter on left, and two by Jeff Waring on right

This is part of the statement I wrote for the exhibit From the Ground Up: LandWater&Sky, now up at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens through June 9. Thanks to Ellen Owens for inviting me to be part of this wonderful show, which has work by Peter Kinney, Jeff Waring, and some rarely seen early landscape paintings by Isaiah Zagar, dating to before his outdoor mosaic work. Two years ago I included Peter Kinney in a small-group show called Ecstatic Landscape in the Borowsky Gallery at the Gershman Y, where I’m the curator. Peter, Isaiah and Jeff’s work feels like they’re all part of the same school: wild, made-outside visionary landscape?

A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah's mosaic ceiling and floor - works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring

A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah’s mosaic ceiling and floor – works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring

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Midas in Milwaukee

Kamran Ince conducting the premiere of Judgment of Midas, at UWM's Zelazo Center

Kamran Ince conducting the premiere of Judgment of Midas, at UWM’s Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts. All photos here by Susan Spangler.

Pan, sung by Jennifer Goltz  (to left of Kamran Ince), during the music contest

Pan, sung by Jennifer Goltz (to left of Kamran Ince – yes, the part was cross-cast), during the music contest.

Left to right: singers Gregory Gerbrandt and Abigail Fischer, Miriam and Kamran clapping for the orchestra

Left to right: singers Philip Horst, Gregory Gerbrandt and Abigail Fischer, Miriam and Kamran clapping for the orchestra. The projected image is by Crawford Greenewalt Jr., depicting the participants in the legendary music contest as an ancient mosaic.

Judgment of Midas premiered in Milwaukee last week, and I’m still buzzing. It was an incredible experience. Kevin Stalheim, who leads Present Music, and Jill Anna Polasek of Milwaukee Opera Theater, succeeded in making this wonderful production feel like an opera, even though it was “semi-staged.” Kamran Ince, the composer, conducted the Present Music ensemble, expanded to small orchestra size and including five Turkish musicians. The soloists lined up concert-style to sing, but each one created their characters in place: Franny and Theo, the contemporary couple visiting the ancient ruins of Sardis; the guide Melik/King Midas; and the Gods Apollo, Pan and Tmolus. Projected images and digital lighting on the Zelazo Center stage gave the performances a visual presence and operatic scale.

I felt the piece coming alive, and the audience being pulled in to it, as Kamran’s thrilling, high-octane music, the story and words, the beautiful singing and playing, and the visuals came together into a single whole. I’m so grateful to everyone who gave their best to this production. Both nights were captured on audio and video, and we are looking ahead, hoping Midas will continue to develop and be seen again.

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Touching on Midas

It’s just a week now before the premiere of Judgment of Midas, the opera I’ve been working on with Kamran Ince. It’s happening in Milwaukee, in a production with Present Music and the Milwaukee Opera Theater. I’m really excited, looking forward to seeing how it’s been imagined, and hearing the complete score for the first time. This is my second libretto, and I know I will feel that amazing sensation again, of hearing words I’ve written come alive through the music.

For me, Judgment of Midas began when I met Kamran in Philadelphia after a performance of his Strange Stone by Relâche. I found Kamran’s music ravishing, with beautiful textures and a sweeping energy. I told him how much I liked it, and in the conversation that followed he mentioned he had received a commission to write an opera, but had no librettist yet. My first opera, Violet Fire, had had its first performance at Temple University just a few weeks before.

Describing the project, Kamran explained that it was inspired by an ancient myth, a story connected with the archeological site of Sardis—part of the kingdom of Lydia, and now in western Turkey. My antennae went off: I had visited Sardis a few years before and remembered it vividly. Thanks to Steve, my husband, who has a lifelong passion for antiquity, we’ve been to Turkey several times, that last time with our son Ethan.

Sardis sits on a high plain. You see the Greco-Roman city rising up out of an empty field, and farther away, the huge burial mounds that dated to an even earlier time. It’s one of those places like Stonehenge—so quiet, you can hear the breeze going past your ears.

It’s also the place where Dr. Crawford Greenewalt, Jr. spent every summer for decades, supervising the archeological dig. It was Greenie’s idea (that’s what everyone calls him) to commission an opera based on the story of King Midas—not the Golden Touch, but the less well-known sequel, known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The story that Greenie suggested to Kamran involved a music contest. It goes like this: after Midas has washed off the Golden Touch, he retires to the woods, following the god Pan. Pan challenges Apollo to a musical contest, a sort of Lydia’s Got Talent, to be judged by the local mountain god, Tmolus. Midas protests when Apollo is declared the winner, which leads Apollo to punish him by giving him a pair of asses’ ears.

Full disclosure: I am a mythology nerd. Being able to dive into this story, with its range of divinities from the most sublime to the least, and play with the themes it throws off, was a great attraction. Midas was a real king, and is historically connected to the even earlier Phrygian kingdom. But legend said that he washed himself clean near Sardis, in the river Pactolus—the source of gold for wealthy Lydia.

One of the gifts of this project was meeting Greenie, a remarkable man who followed his passions for archeology and music without stinting. If he were still alive, he probably wouldn’t want any fuss made over his central role in the project. Fortunately he was able to see the concert performance of Midas in New York in 2011. But I’m sure he’ll be with us in Milwaukee too.

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