Love & Secrets: a domestic trilogy PRE-SHOW
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This option requires you to use a Chrome browser, and is heavily dependent on your hardware. The experience can vary depending on your device, internet speed, and wireless connection.
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Cast a tab from Chrome browser
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VIdeo player navigation
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THREE THOUGHTS ON THREE EVOCATIVE STORIES
On Il Segreto di Susanna, written by Joseph Marcheso
Il Segreto di Susanna (1908), is the jewel in the career of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, an Italian composer whose heritage made him a perfect fit for the new internationally-minded generation of Italian composers and musicians that followed Verdi and Puccini. Composers like Wolf-Ferrari, Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti and Ferruccio Busoni cultivated a pan-European sensibility that added virtuosity, theory and an interest in wider musical styles, languages and purely instrumental music to their country's already prodigious achievements in lyric drama.
Wolf-Ferrari, whose father was German, was born in Venice and educated in Munich, where he learned the german disciplines of counterpoint and instrumental composition. However it was in that most Italian of forms, the Opera Buffa, that Wolf-Ferrari achieved international acclaim. His eleven stage works, principally comedies were premiered by some of the world's leading opera houses, La Scala, the Met (with Toscanini conducting) Munich and La Fenice in his native city. Besides the comedies, five of which are based on plays by the 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, (who himself was a librettist of Haydn and Mozart) Wolf-Ferrari wrote two tragic works, I Gioiella della Madonna (1911) and Sly (1927).
Today the composer is best known for his opera intermezzo "Il Segreto di Susanna." which premiered in Munich (in German) and conducted by celebrated Wagner acolyte and interpreter Felix Mottl. This time the idea was not from Goldoni but by the librettist Enrico Golisciani wherein a newlywed Count notices the smell of tobacco in his home and instantly assumes that his young wife must be having an affair with a mysterious smoker. The opportunities, within the span of an hour, to portray love, jealousy, anger, sensuous relief and humor must have appealed to the versatile composer.
We can get a sense of the possibilities he saw in it by the way he approached the composition. This is an opera that is witty on every level; that is able to evoke operatic traditions both current and storied and having alluded to them, move on to the next moment. But the evocations that the composer gives are not through pastiche or quotation (with one humorous exception). Rather, Wolf-Ferrari has an uncanny sense of the DNA of a composer's sound, what Verdi referred to as their tinta, so that when for example he puts the motoric kernels of Mozart's Zauberflote overture into his own, we don't hear it as a quotation but as something entertaining and familiar. As for tinta, Wolf-Ferrari is able to capture the color of specific Verdi operas with just a few notes: The courting Falstaff at Gil's "limpida stella mia presente sempre", the beguiling Nanetta at "Oh gioja la nube leggera" (singing not about nymphs but smoking) the vengeful Rigoletto at "Precisamente, avremo una bufera!" and the reproachful Violetta at "Che palpiti che palpiti." Nor do Wolf-Ferrari's near contemporaries escape his notice. The bickering Gil and Susanna "Coccodrillo! Tigre!" mirror act 3 of Boheme's Marcello and Musetta, and her "Ecco il mio vizietto profumato" would be quite at home on any page of Andrea Chenier. The sensual impressionist palette that accompanies Susanna's smoking is a joke within a joke about the descriptive properties of different musical styles. Of course the German art is well represented, besides the contrapuntal and other references in the overture, there are the distinctly Wagnerian harmonies at "e celarne frattano uno per lui" and an extended oblique homage to Hansel and Gretel with the 14 angels replaced by cigarette smoke. The spirit of Die Fledermaus rears its head in the first confrontation duet and the ringing quotation of Beethoven's 5th in glorious c minor closes out the first half of the opera. If you listen to it long enough, you can start to hear associations everywhere. "Is the bridge to the second verse a quote from the introduction of Io vengo domandar from Don Carlo?" "Is this measure a reference to Beckmesser??"
Fortunately it is not necessary to be in a Pavlovian state of recognition to enjoy this opera. It stands on its own terms and needs not piggyback on any cultural storehouse. It is however uniquely appreciated because all of these operas and many more have been hiding under a tarp for over a year and to experience them again, even in cameo, reminds us of what we've been missing and whets our appetite for what we cannot wait to return.
On Four Dialogues, by Larry Hancock
On October 23, 1923 Ned Rorem was lucky enough to be born into an uncommonly cultured and well-educated Quaker family in Richmond, Indiana. When the children were still small, his father became a professor at the University of Chicago; he eventually worked for the U.S. government as an economist, and his work in health care costs led to the creation of Blue Cross and Blue Shield. As children, Rorem and his older sister attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where they were given great freedom to follow their interests.
In Chicago, he was exposed to one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras, and the Met toured to Chicago for a two-week visit annually. (Though the Civic Opera House was built in 1929, the Lyric Opera of Chicago wasn’t formed until 1954.) From childhood, he was exposed to theatrical performances of the first order as well as thrilling concerts in Symphony Hall and the latest, touring Broadway shows. At age seven, Rorem requested private piano lessons, which duly were provided.
In Chicago, Rorem attended the American Conservatory of Music where he studied piano while still in high school. He matriculated at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he continued piano study, and then proceeded to the Juilliard School in New York, where he also studied composition. A polite and confident young man with a keen intellect and well-developed musical skills, he soon found himself associating with the greats of the time: Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Noël Coward, and Samuel Barber in New York, as well as Nadia Boulanger and a host of brilliant composers, writers, artists, and performers in Europe while living primarily in Paris for just under ten years, returning to the U.S. in 1959.
Among his many, many awards and prizes for the compositions in his 1,000-work catalogue are a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra; a Fulbright Fellowship in 1951; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957; an award from the (U. S.) National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1968; in 1989 he won a Grammy Award for a recording by the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw for his String Symphony as well as two other Rorem pieces on the program, Eagles and Sunday Morning. In 2003 France made him a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. Of his more than 500 art songs, his principal work in that genre is Evidence of Things Not Seen for four voices and piano, premiered in the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall. The New York Magazine review described it as, “one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer.” According to music critic and writer, Alex Ross, “The songs are, indeed, among the best in the contemporary canon, showing Rorem’s uncanny ability to breathe notes into words while leaving a poet’s thoughts intact.”
Rorem’s musical style is instantly recognizable as coming from his own time. He contends that his music education was unusual in that he began not by studying composers who were active in previous periods, but by studying the works of: Stravinsky, Barber, Copland, Bernstein, Britten, Bartók, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thompson, and so many others from this productive period after WWI.
He produced his first adult composition at age 23 (1946), and it might be helpful to know that all his life he eschewed Schoenberg’s 12-tone system that was such a rage then. While Rorem’s music could have come only from a conservatory-trained composer of serious intellect and highly developed musical skills, for the most part it is intentionally listener-friendly, which is not to say pablum. He does not shy from the whole range of human emotions, and can express, while not obsessing on, the angst so dominant in the age of anxiety. His text setting is clear, the rhythms in the score follow the rhythms of the language, and, rare today, does not scoff at melodic interest or harmonic beauty. In interviews, Rorem states that his great loves are poetry and music; what could be more natural for him than song and opera?
In 1954 Rorem and the poet Frank O’Hara were encouraged to collaborate on a work. O’Hara was one of New York’s most admired poets, a leading member of the New York New School along with John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. But he was much more than that. His poetry is distinctive and remarkable, but he was so admirably experienced in the contemporary art world, that he became indispensable to the New York Museum of Modern Art in curating their exhibits and acquisitions. He could count in his circle of friends nearly every significant artist in New York, from Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, to John Cage, Harold Rosenberg, Arnold Weinstein, and so many others. He was so experienced and intelligent that he understood and could articulate current trends of the art world. His art reviews and exhibition essays were considered brilliant. When he was killed in a dune buggy accident while vacationing on Fire Island at age 40, his loss was a major event, a tragic event, for the art world. He was loved.
On April 15, 2021, Opera San José will begin streaming “Love & Secrets, a domestic trilogy.” Rorem’s Four Dialogues, for soprano, tenor, and two pianos, has been slated as the middle portion on this three-work program. This seems aptly planned, as the last of the four dialogues ends in ever softening, slowing, fading instrumental music, as if inviting something more to follow.
In talking with Maureen Zoltek, one of the two pianists, and musical preparer for Four Dialogues, I gained some insights that I believe could come only from one who is immersed in the performance of a piece at her level of responsibility. One of my fears about this work was that two pianos and two voices might lack variation, but her experience in preparing the opera proved otherwise.
“I would say that there’s nothing “uninteresting” about two pianos and two voices––far from it! The combination allows for a full, rich sound, a variety of textures, and real reciprocity of melodies and ideas between the four participants. Of course, it also provides plenty of opportunities for headaches in terms of ensemble, especially without a conductor [in the score, Rorem directs that the four performers collaborate as equals] and with the added challenge of being on a separate set from the singers, and with multiple cameras and crew floating around.”
In the libretto, I found the tenor’s sudden and pushy come¬-on too brash and too vulgar. I chalked it up to the 1950s, when men were expected to be sexually aggressive, but it set my teeth on edge. I found that Rorem’s setting makes the text a bit more palatable, but Maureen still finds plenty of aggression in the score.
“I actually disagree with you on the softening of sexual aggression in the first dialogue. I find Rorem’s relentless drive with the tempo and specific articulation markings (lots of sforzandos, accents, etc.) to be quite pushy. I believe Rorem used to term “vulgar” to describe his music and “glib non-poetry” for the text. He does intersperse these moments with a few softer, smoother passages: “What is your name? I must have you!” may be more legato in the voice and both pianos, but is quickly replaced by jarring chords and protestations from the woman. Similarly, “Will you come? It’s where I’ve parked my car?” is softly persuasive as the man tries to get the woman to depart the train with him, but where Piano 1 becomes as expressive and charming as he is, Piano 2 maintains urgency.”
Maureen went on with the following comments about the three remaining dialogues.
By the second dialogue, both parties know where things are headed––burning fires and desires all around––but the woman is still a little reticent to proceed. Unsurprisingly, the man urges her not to “fear the fire,” and the pianos support this with a relaxed waltz throughout, occasionally opening up into more suggestive, fervent passages (I’m referring to the interlude after the brief a cappella duet, three pages before the dialogue ends).
The third dialogue is certainly the noisiest, befitting the text; it’s a breakup after all. Strange turns of phrases, jaunty rhythms, busy and dissonant 16th-note passages permeate the texture. They both yell. He leaves.
The fourth dialogue starts with large, majestic chords in the two pianos, eventually dissipating into a cloud of reverberating strings while the second piano begins a wistful theme (very reminiscent of the theme “On the rough wet grass of the back yard” from Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915). This melodic gesture is picked up by the woman as she wonders what her former lover is thinking and feeling these days. Each continues to ponder aloud while the two pianos swell and shrink. She’s lonely. He’s lonely. It’s interesting to note that she expresses her loneliness in the first person (“How I wish he were back,” or “I’m very lonely in my way”), and he dissociates by referring to his “heart” being lonely in “its” way. Finally, the pianos trail off into nothingness, triple ppp.
Four Dialogues is about twenty minutes long and each dialogue lasts about five minutes or less. The work explores a relationship between a woman and man who meet in a subway car and soon move in together. Then, easy come–easy go, the relationship explodes. In the last dialogue, each of them is left wondering what the departed partner remembers of their affair. Rorem describes the work as a mixed breed of concert cantata and staged opera. This form might not be just the thing for an opera house, but it seems a natural for video capture, where the camera can focus on a face or gesture, revealing meaning in a work too intimate for a large hall, but so suitable for the salon in Contessa Pecci Blunt’s Roman palazzo where it premiered in 1954.
On The Husbands, written by Christopher James Ray
In The Husbands- a short work of approximately 10 minutes- William Carpenter’s poetry and Tom Cipullo’s music work together seamlessly to explore the deepest experiences of life-long partners and what is left with us after they have gone. The joys, the annoyances, the silly moments, and the longing to relive past experiences with a keen sense of how precious and ephemeral those moments were.
Accompanying this beautiful, poignant scene is Tom Cipullo’s music which perfectly expresses the sense of longing, nostalgia, and vacantness present in the poem. Unlike the poem, which begins with somewhat surface-level observations before delving deep into the hearts and minds of the characters, Cipullo’s first chords and near stasis of the music express a profound knowledge of what is to unfold.
Commissioned by the New York Festival of Song in 1993, The Husbands recorded in 2018 on a compilation album of Cipullo’s sons and has been widely widely performed on recitals. Cipullo writes in a style familiar to admirers of contemporary American operas- tonal and melodic with speech-like rhythms, non-traditional harmonic progressions, and mixed meters. Cipullo uses flute, viola, and piano which seem to mirror the use of mezzo and baritone, with the piano serving as the structure one which the rest is built.
As with much American repertoire, the challenge is to find the proper pacing, to allow the singers and instrumentalists to tell the story without being constrained by musical demands. The attempt is to have the music and text unfold completely naturally despite the fact that so many nuances are impossible to put into musical notation. When achieved, this creates a verisimilitude that pulls the audience into the story, with nothing contrived or artificial to interrupt the experience.
With our performance of The Husbands, we have attempted to continue the practice of art as catharsis, as a medium between ourselves and our reality. By being drawn into this art, may we grieve our losses- individual and collective- and move forward together with an appreciation of the moments we’ve shared and the many more still to come.