Friday, October 23, 2009

OTO lets it all hang out in 'The Beggar's Opera'

Opera Theater Oregon opened their 2009-2010 season Thursday the 22nd at the Someday Lounge with a fresh re-telling of John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, a farce based on the operatic traditions of the day that lampooned London personages and featured low-life characters involved in seedy plots. All of these core elements were kept, but the scene was updated to modern day Portland in this work featuring the talents of librettist/director Stephen Marc Beaudoin and composer/arranger Michael Herrman.

The show began even before the ‘curtain,’ with a group of shoddily dressed performers wandering through the audience and arguing loudly, so that at first it was difficult to tell if it was real or some sort of clever gimmick. The performance began with on-stage vocalises by the ensemble that turned into a wailing cacophony and then morphed into a declamatory air sung by the whole ensemble that directly addressed the audience and explained the purpose of the opera.

The opening scene was set in a pornography store called Peachums-n-Cream. One of the principals, Mrs. Peachum, a sadistic proprietress who wielded a riding crop against virtually everyone in the course of the evening, was sung by Beth Madsen Bradford. She put her comedic talents to good use, often dropping ghastly French phrases spoken in phonetic English, and her opening aria ‘God bless these tools of lust’ was sung with the utmost sincerity and lascivious intent in her full, glorious mezzo. The role of the groping pervert Felch (Peachum’s husband) was sung by Arne Hartmann who also got great laughs throughout the evening.

Soprano Leah Yorkston sang the role of Polly Peachum, their ingenue daughter who, thanks to her parents, discovers in the first scene that her beau, up-and-coming PDX indie rocker Mack the Guitar (sung by tenor Scot Crandal), has been moonlighting in gay porn films. Yorkston was convincing in the role of the poor, confused girl who tries through the course of the evening to figure out what to do with her boyfriend, and showed a fine voice in her aria ‘Mackie my love–I’m shocked he’d do this on film.’ Scot Crandal carried much of the burden of advancing the drama, as it becomes clear that many people are plotting against him and trying to take advantage of his success. His singing was spot-on and well-suited to the role, but the acting was sometimes lacking in conviction. Emily Zahniser played the role of Lucy Lockit, a corrupt cop’s daugher, doing a gratifying send-up of Portland personality Storm Large. Her best singing was as a rocker in the Herrman original tune ‘Lucy’s Song.’ Gigi Urban also deserves mention for her beautiful aria ‘There was a time when life open’d just like a perfect flower.’

Musically the production was a great success. (See the interview with the composer and librettist here for more information on the musical structure.) Herrman wrote a number of original tunes, the most compelling of which were ‘Little Sparrow’ and ‘Song of Redemption.’ It was somewhat incongruous to hear these modern tunes interspersed with other songs from Gay’s opera that retained much of their centuries-old structure (but for the most part with new lyrics by Beaudoin). The incongruity was fun though; it helped to update the ‘attitude’ of the piece, and made for a nice change from the old tunes.

There is very limited staging space at the Someday Lounge, so the cast took the interesting step of just hanging out in the cramped space on stage in full view whenever they weren’t part of the action. The costuming was original, and it was interesting to watch the clever costume changes right on stage. From a staging perspective, the opera was a brilliant case of maximizing the small space and limited set in order to focus most of the attention on the story itself. There were stretches, however, especially in the second half, where the pacing seemed a bit slow for this type of story.

There was lots of good stuff for Portlanders who are in the know as far as local happenings, scandals, personalities and politicians, so its freshness was very effective. With the scenes being set in a porn shop, a strip club, a jail and under the Burnside Bridge, the down-to-earth (yet still intelligent) humor came off smartly for the most part. There were so many coarse one-liners that when one didn’t go over, it didn’t really matter because there was another one right around the corner. This was an ambitious project, and for those who like more than a dash of daring in their opera, who enjoy beautiful music coupled with bawdy humor, it should prove a very enjoyable outing indeed.

Cross-posted at NW Reverb.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Columbia Symphony plays Beethoven, Sibelius

On Friday, October 16th at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Huw Edwards began their regular season with a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D. Major, Op. 43. The concert was themed 'Awesome Openings' partially in reference to the unique opening moments of each work.

Portland-area pianist Barbara Roberts was the soloist for the Beethoven, which opened the evening. She began the concert beautifully, with a simple, intimate opening for piano alone, an unusual feature for a concerto of the day. Her playing was smooth but the long scale runs were sometimes blurred by a bit of excessive pedalling, leaving one wishing for a more crisp articulation. Edwards did well in keeping the orchestra sounding full, yet not intrusive during the many delicate moments of this work.

During the final Rondo the repartee of orchestra and soloist came off quite well, the tricky syncopations being tossed off between the two sounding vibrant and fresh. After an octave run towards the end where Roberts seemed to lose her place for a moment, she asserted the thunderous pomposity that one often associates with Beethoven into the final cadenza, using the moment as a springboard to achieve a fiery, satisfying final flourish.

The Sibelius opened with a three-note theme that was heard throughout the piece. It felt as though it took a few moments for the full effect of the dynamic contrasts to manifest themselves; for the orchestra to take the pianos as seriously as the raucous fortes. In the second movement the brass choir and percussion were exceptional, very intuitive and responsive to Edwards' direction in what was a challenging section for them. The rich, handome sound that marks the CSO's string section was put to good use in the heavy tremolo used by Sibelius to heighten the tension towards the end of the second movement.

In the finale Edwards and his group wowed the crowd with the revolutionary ostinato theme that built slowly but steadily in a minor key until it exploded in the glorious major sunburst, to shine briefly and then decline once more into the depths. The orchestra was largely sensitive to the many colors called for in this symphonic heavyweight. This concert will reprise Sunday the 18th at 3pm at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

SideNote: Complete conversation with Stephen Marc Beaudoin and Michael Herrman about the Beggar's Opera

On Wednesday September 30th I sat down and talked with Stephen Marc Beaudoin (librettist/director) and Michael Herrman (composer/arranger) and spoke at length about the process of creating an opera. Stephen was there first and Michael showed up later (a dynamic that I've noticed more than once during this project). A distilled version of the interview was posted at NW Reverb, but I chose to present a transcript here of the entire conversation, complete with interruptions and swearing and laughing and irrelevant sidebars, and a few editorial comments as well. All editorializing of any kind is presented within brackets. To make this a little shorter textually, I've sometimes compressed multiple short exchanges onto the same line

I turned on my digital voice recorder a few minutes after arriving at Sherman Clay/Moe's pianos. S is Stephen, M is Michael and L is me. Without further ado, here it is.

S: So do you want to hear more of the tunes?

L: Yeah.

S: So the first order of business is…we have all this goddamn music. What are the tunes that we’re going to chose?

L: That was one of my questions: which homages to the original did you include?

S: The musical concept was interesting. What we did was we took about twenty tunes from the original and basically imported them wholesale into the show. And those tunes, and Michael’s arrangements, which are new, are the tunes from the original. Now sometimes we’ve changed some accidentals, or time signatures, that sort of thing. But those tunes from the original are the tunes that the characters sing in the context of the drama. So…scene one, in the office of Peacham and Felch [There is a character in the original Beggar's Opera named 'Filch. If you don't know what the word 'felch' means, there are a number of good online urban slang dictionaries you can consult. I suggest you do so.] She sings air one and then sings air two and then they sing air thirteen. [Per our previous discussion, Peachams and Cream is a porno shop, and Ms. Peacham the proprietress. Hey, this is P-town.]

L: Do you mind giving me that air one more time? I think I’m a big fan of it already.

S: With that lyric? [laughter] L: Yes please. [laughing]

S: So let me give it to you with the original lyric, because the original lyric is quite good as well. [A resounding minor chord sounds from the piano and Stephen begins to sing. He has a marvelous voice with a tight, focused vibrato, reminding me of a declamatory bardic air.]

Through all the employments of life, each neighbor abuses his brother,
Whore and rogue they call husband and wife
All professions berogue one another.
The priest calls the lawyer a cheat, the lawyer beknaves the divine.
And the statesman, because he’s so great, thinks his trade as honest as mine.

And this version…I’ll sing it and play the arrangement for you on my I-phone, which is pretty cool.

L: Alright.

S: God bless these tools of lust, each dildo, cock-ring and dog collar
There’s treats for your nuts and your bust; this buttplug is only one dollar.
The pervert, the wanker, the skank
Look to us for spiritual bread.
With their eyes upon heaven they wank
So buy up, go home and get spread.

L: [wryly] Beautiful.

S: Then, when you hear it in the context of the show [reaches for his I-phone]…what did I ever do before my I-phone?

L: Yeah, what did we ever do without all these gadgets? [motioning towards my digital voice recorder.]

S: [Talking to himself and fiddling with his iphone.] We uploaded it to a secret site on OTO’s website. [conspiratorial whisper] only we can find it.

S: [The door opens and in comes Michael with his guitar] Hi Michael! [pleasantries, introductions.] I’m just playing through some of the tunes so Lorin can hear it. Do you have speakers?

M: No, I’m playing my guitar. S: My iphone’s being slow. M: I can play it on my computer.

S: So obviously, what Michael does is we would get together and I would sing the tune for him, and be all ‘ok, here’s the tune, here is what I’m pretty sure the lyric would be [we previously discussed that in Gay’s original, just the lyrics and a naked tune with no textual underlay was given to the singers, and they had to work it out for themselves. Stephen is working from a battered, completely unbound paperback of Gay’s version, held together by a large binder clip.] And here are a few ideas that I might have’ without getting in his way musically, because he’s the composer, and ‘do what you will.’ And he would come up with all sorts of interesting things. [laughter from both of them.] Do you want to play Air one?

M: You bet. L: This is your composition, correct? M: Right.

S: So the tune is the original tune, but the composition is his. [quiet ride on the cymbals, organ music come from the laptop.] Sort of gothic horror. [listening for a moment.] What’s the instrumentation?

M: We have organ, bass, guitar and drums. S: And what’s the orchestration for your band?

M: Viola, violin, upright bass, piano, drums and guitar. It’s a six-piece.

L: So this is a group you play with regularly?

M: Yeah…my band, Buoy LaRue. L: Like the knife, plus LaRue?

M: Yeah, like the thing that floats in the ocean. Plus the French for ‘the street.’ [Chorus, of froggy, hackneyed ‘bien sur’ and ‘oui ouis’ from Stephen and I.]

S: So that gives you an idea: there’s the original, there’s the tune with the lyric, and then there’s the arrangement. And sometimes we took big departures…

M: Right.

S: So what would be a tune that would be a big departure? Let’s do Mac’s trial. So in Act Two the ensemble sings a song about Mac, who’s the hero of the piece, about…[misc crap]. So in the original I liked this tune --[to Michael] Don’t say anything—and this is the original tune. [Humming and playing.]

L: So it’s like a chanty…

S: I played it for Michael, and Michael’s like ‘that is so dumb.’(laughter) That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

L: ‘I hate that song!’

M: Literally. I was like, ‘there’s no way I can do anything with that.’ I was just like, ‘no.’

S: So we sort of sat for a minute and thought about it, and I was like ‘oh, let’s try this.’ [S turns back to the piano. The same tune is heard in some sort of minor modality.] That’s a much more interesting tune.

L: That’s not a straight minor modality, right?

S: No, just some other funny things…minor with…

M: And I was like ‘Yes, lets do this.

L: 'That can work.'

S: And then it became this [sample from the laptop as S sings.]

His trial, and now he will stand before the law
If only his music held him higher then somehow he’d escape this fall.
How can we of the poor try to help him?
Maybe it’s too late to be saved.
So we wait and watch and wonder: how soon until he lies in his grave?
We will judge him as his punishment
His fate is surely in our hands
And yet do we pardon him as innocent
Or kill him off as any other man.
How would you in our place try to help him?
It isn’t clear that there’s a choice
Do we wait and watch and wonder, bystanders to the drowning of his voice [x3]

Yeah, that’s a nice little tune.

L: What scene is that from?

S: That is in the second act, right as the people, everyone on stage except for Mac, are going to be making him pay for all the hell that he’s put them through. But they have conflicting feelings about it obviously. So, yeah, that’s one tune that we took to a different place.

L: [blathering for a moment] So how many of the original tunes from this…is most of the music based on these original tunes, or is it a mixture of original compositions that come from Gay’s opera?

M: What my job was was to do eight full-on new, original songs, and then arrange for Buoy LaRue to play somewhere in the ballpark of 20 of the old airs. So what we had was what you just heard Stephen playing on the piano—that was the melody line that we had to work with, with some small alterations, and try to do it in the sensibility of what Buoy LaRue would bring to it, so…

S: And also in the sense of what was going on in the show...

M: Obviously…so who was singing would determine what instrument was being featured, or what was happening in the show would determine the mood of the song.

S: And Michael’s approach was pretty sophisiticated…much like in opera, there were instruments in the band that match up with the principal singers. So you would hear that Mac usually a guitar, and he plays a guitar. Scott Crandall, I don’t know if you know him…

L: Nah.

S: He’s a fabulous singer, and he plays about twenty…he plays a ton of instruments. But he also plays guitar in the show. [to M] What are some of the other characters in the show?

M: Lucy is the violin, Jenny is the clarinet, so you know when the instrument is featured that you know as an audience member that...

S: So Michael’s original compositions [irrelevant discussion about the air conditioning for a minute] So Michael’s tunes comment on the action in some way, either in terms of foreshadowing what’s about to happen, or commenting on what just happened.

L: The original tunes? S: Yeah.

M: 'Little Sparrow'…want to play a few seconds of that. I could sing it for you.

S: Yeah, that’s much nicer. So the trick for the singers, first of all this is like the opposite of the way that most classical singers work. They’re expected to come in and you hand them the score. We didn’t print the score for the singers. We said ‘here are the tunes that we’re basing the stuff on, learn the tunes,' and I set down vocals for all the tracks once he did his arrangements I sang all the tracks, believe it or not, and said ‘learn it by ear.’

L: So you just gave them a recording of the way you wanted the vocals laid down underneath the tune?

S: Yeah, so that caused some singers no end of…

M: however, in the audition process that was one of the things we wanted to make sure of

S: We were looking for people who could learn by ear. And I think one of the things that is pretty impressive about this cast is that they have the chops to do a huge range of stuff. And you’ve got to.

L: Like as a cast or individually?

S: Well, individually and as a cast. Scott does pop music really nicely and has this really nice, light lyric tenor, but he can just bust out the serious shit as well.

M: [tuning, strumming guitar. To Stephen ] You wanna sing the ensemble parts?

S: Yeah!

M: So this one…I tried to vary the different styles of the original songs, and I felt like where we were in the show and where I was in the process of writing the originals that I wanted to do something really simple, that brought, dynamically, the whole thing down instead of making this big arrangement with all of the instruments and making this big song, I kind of stripped it all away and it became this solo guitar song, and I thought it added nicely to the tempo of the whole show. So it starts with a little intro.

[Folksy slow, vaguely Pink Floydian guitar]

Hey little sparrow start your song.
Your wings are short but your voice is strong
Sing to the ocean, shout to the sea
That big world out there is yours to see.
Fly, little sparrow, tree to tree
And don’t look down, the fall is [can't make this out]
Be quick [or this]

S: That’s the first part of it which is like, in a way, I think some of the cast was like, ‘this is so stylistically different than anything'[laughter] but at the same time it’s not. I think there is a sound world that’s created just by the virtue of having been composed by one person, and having one band of pretty specific, limited type of instruments playing it. [nods, murmurs of assent from M] So I think there... But the idea is also that you’re drawn out from that world of the drama for something very different.

L: An interlude of some kind? S: Yeah, or an ‘exterlude’ [laughter]

L: Or a Quaalude…[more laughter]

S: Yeah, there are definitely some Quaaludes in the show. M: That’s funny.

S: So what else can we like, tell you about the music stuff?

L: Well, let’s get to my little prepared… S: Yeah! M: Yeah! S: Do it up, do it up.

L: Well, my first remark is that I really wanted to have the interview somewhere where we could drink, [laughter] but I know from past experience that Stephen’s a teetotaler, so…[more laughter]

S: [incredulous] Yeah, right, [to me] that day that I was very drunk at the Holocene and I smacked your butt in the spandex at the Baroque Bash. [M claps.]

L: Yeah right, kinda like that… S: The first night I met you.

M: Off to a good start! Awesome. S: Yeah, definitely off to a good start.

L: So! The first question…whose idea was it…to do the Beggar’s Opera? Who was the first person that said ‘let’s do the…’

S: It was Katie [Taylor] at Opera Theater Oregon, who wrote me, and [mocking] she begged me to…no she didn’t beg, but she really wanted me to do it because I had really been wanting to do this piece for a number of years, and she had for some reason heard this through the grapevine. Actually I was talking to some of the guys from FourScore about like doing a theater piece, and I was like ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we did an all-male version of the Beggar’s Opera, with all the characters played by four guys.' And she had heard through the grapevine that I was talking about this and said ‘actually I’m thinking of doing that…do you want to write it and direct it?’ and I was like ‘well, fuck yeah!’ [laughter]. So she enticed me with it, and so obviously she waved like a big six-figure check in my face and that made all the difference.

L: Oh yeah, so you’re rich after this now, eh? [laughter]

S: Yeah, I am, I am.

L: Well that’s excellent, I’m glad to hear that.

M: That’s funny…why was mine two figures? [three men guffaw and cackle like hens.]

L: “Yeah, we’ll give this guy fifty bucks to write the songs and play the guitars.”

S: [to M] Because you’re a musician… M: Oh, I see, that’s cool…ok

S: That’s the way it goes…and, Michael was one of the very first people I thought of to do the project. I had known his music from before from when I was writing for Willamette Week, and I had known his band, and I’ve said this before and I think it bears repeating---Michael’s a strong songwriter, as you heard, and he’s a really nice songwriter, and there’s something cinematic about the sweep of his music that I found very appealing and sort of inherently theatrical and I thought it was funny that after we started talking more and he’s like ‘actually, I have a theater background.’ And I was a clogger, and I’ve like, choreographed some musicals, and [laughter from M] I guess we were meant to do this project.

M: Theater is definitely…I grew up…actually my dad grew up in theater too. It’s kind of in the family, you know. My grandmother had a PhD in piano music, and my grandfather had a theater in NYC, and my dad as a kid was always working the popcorn stand or taking tickets or whatever it was, and he got to see a young Liza Minelli come in and was part of the show…

S: I love it! L:Wow…

M: So anyway he did theater his whole life, and I grew up in that kind of an atmosphere and got really into it in high school, and then afterwards did some choreography, and all the while I was writing songs and doing my band music too, so…[vocal warm-ups are heard from outside the room]

L: [I shuffle through my notes] So, let’s see here, I guess, I think a lot of these things we’ve just sort of talked about here, in my questions, and…Oh, so one of the questions I had was that, uh, I, um, thinking back to the original Gay’s opera, lots of these [tunes], if not all of them were well-known to the people of the day; they would’ve heard it and said ‘oh, I know that song.’ Is there anything like that? Did you arrange or adapt any tunes from our popular milieu, or…

S: It’s a great question. We did not. I thought about that…[to M] I never actually approached you with that idea because my thought was, in a sense M’s music would be the sort of, contemporary pop…

M: The link.

S: Yeah, the link. Although it’s not, you know, what would be the modern equivalent? If I had a bunch of like…

L: Michael Jackson M: The Beatles

S: Yeah, or Kanye West, and like, Madonna or something like that, that would be like…[singing to the tune of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’] ‘Like Ms. Peacham’ [laughter]

M and S in unison, still singing the tune: ‘Fucked for the very first time! [more laughing]

S: We could add that to the show now.

M:[increculously] yeah…

L:'That’s in! That’s in! Write that down!' S: So we chose not to go that route. L: OK

S: There’s this sense that, whenever you’re adapting something that’s… I mean, to America it’s not a really well-known piece but to the English it’s very well-known…but when you’re adapting something you sort of walk this fine line between wanting to do honor to the thing…the original thing--it’s brilliant, it’s a masterpiece, but, at the same time just sort of like kinda kick it in the gut a little bit and slap it around and be very irreverent to it. But we’ve actually…I’m surprised thinking about it now about how reverent we’ve been to much of the intention of it. The fact that there’s not big choral pieces. I mean, there’s a lot of ensemble singing, but it’s usually unison, or two parts. The music is not…you know, when you think of the Britten arrangement of the Beggar’s Opera—it’s Britten’s take on it, so it’s very naughty, there’s a lot of intricate harmonies. We liked the…I…and I think you really responded to the simplicity of the original, the idea that there’s a tune, and an arrangement of it. It’s not overly messy.

M: But also to be said that I’m not a classical composer either. S: right.

M: So bringing me on board was kind of saying ‘ok, so we’re gonna run with this simplistic idea.’ Not to say that it’s all two or three chords, but you know, not having that kind of classical composition background, I..we were already working from that point of view.

S: Yeah, that was the idea. M: That was the idea. Exactly.

L: [to S] o it’s kind of funny, ealier today I was looking at your Facebook post about the Beggar’s Opera, that, you know, this seems to be a popular time to be re-doing the Beggar’s Opera. So how does it fit in with that tradition of—and I think this is kind of something you were just touching on –this BO coming back over and over again for the last 300 years.

S: Again and again and again. Yeah. Why is it still important?

L: Yeah, like how does the way you’re doing it fit in with that tradition of doing the BO?

S: Yeah. I think that anything that’s worth it’s weight as, you know, like, what would be a touchstone piece that people…like Romeo and Juliet, is something that’s been kicked around a lot in terms of different interpretations, and new film adaptations, like that all-male R&J that was big in the 90s and all those sort of things. So I think that if something is timely in its way, it’s gonna want to be re-imagined again and again. We…there are certain…I make some winking references to the Threepenny Opera, and I make plenty of references to Gay in this. I’m going to be very interested to know what the audiences pick up, because obviously audiences are going to come from people who have no idea, who have never heard this piece before and don’t know it from Adam…this is a whole new piece for them, which is great. And we’re gonna have some people who are like ‘oh, I’ve studied this in college,’ and so it’s going to be interesting to see what they pick up in terms of…there are a couple lyrics that I’ve brought in wholehandedly…92% of the music lyrics are my own. A very small number of…

L: Brought in from...

S: Well, I took from Gay. Polly and Mac have a duet in the second scene which is [singing] ‘Were I laid on green’ [to M] wanna just do it? [guitar strumming]

S: [singing] Were I laid on Greenland’s coast
And in my arms embrace my lass
? amidst eternal frost
To soon the half-year’s night would pass.
Were I laid on Indian soil,
Soon as the burning day was closed
I could mock the soldiery toil
When on my charmer’s breast reposed
And I would love you all the day
Every night would kiss and play
If with me you’d fondly stray
Etc Etc.

L: That’s an example of where you took the lyric…

S: That’s Gay’s lyric, not mine. But in the context of the scene it just seemed so right… and actually it’s a lovely little pop tune.

M: And it’s because we kept the lyrics original almost original totally original? Almost like Gays, is it

S: It’s like 92-93% mine. M: on that tune? S: Oh on that tune that’s all Gay.

M: So because we kept that we had this idea of 'let’s make this like an old folk song, you know like this could be was something that was unearthed 100 years ago and played in Ireland or something like that,' so we, I don’t know let's keep it folky and Scott’s playing it on its own, so for me it worked with keeping the lyrics

S: But is is important for this piece to be seen today because…nothing’s changed. Like in London of 1728 when political corruption was running rampant and people were dying with you know, rats eating their fuckin' brains out on the streets of London, and you know and like, it was this filthy, festering, disgusting, wonderful place, and Portland is just like that.

M: [laughter. A pause] L: [wryly] It sure is. All: [laughter.]

S: And Portland is just like that. And we keep a lot of the spirit of the Gay. There’s social commentary in this piece, we make fun of Portland celebrities. You know Locket, who is the, both a Portland Police officer and also the Warden of the Wapato County Jail, is inspired by Randy Leonard; you’ll see some Randy Leonardisms in him. Lucy takes a few cues from Storm Large…

L: Nice.

S: …because if there’s one person that we need to hear fucking less of right now it’s Storm fucking Large, so

M,L [laugh]

L. Nice. Let’s see here, um one of the other things here, oh what did I have, it’s kind of funny here you guys are answering my questions before I get into them…

S: That’s good, that’s good. L: I’m not half as clever as I thought…[M,S laugh]

S: Twice as clever…

L: [incredulous laugh] yeah…The collaborative process between composer and librettist historically hasn’t always been the smoothest working relationship in music [M,S laugh] so how was it? Was it good for you?

S: [to M] You talk first.

M: I thought it was incredibly…well, first of all, yes. It was very smooth, and I thought…I think Stephen and I work very well together. Like, you know, having said that, this was also a brand new process for me. As a songwriter I am, you know, usually the lyricist and the composer, so, it’s like, this was a different process for me, absolutely. But, I welcomed it, I was totally all about it, like that’s part of what I want to do as a songwriter is to be stretched in these different ways, and try different avenues of writing songs, and Stephen and I just clicked. I don’t know, there isn’t an ego battle, or struggle between us at all…

S: [muttering] Because he knows who’s in charge [laughter]

M: Yeah…the guy holding the guitar. [laughter from all] But

S: That’s good.

M: But, no , it was just like right off the bat…first of all, we established the relationships…the you know, like the working relationship: 'this is what I’m gonna do, this is what you’re gonna do; we’re gonna come together and see how it goes, iron out any…problems.'

Conflict resolution at OTO rehearsal

L: So what was that? If you could just boil it down…

M: It was: Stephen was gonna write the lyrics and send it to me, and I’m gonna write around it. Basically.

S: Yeah. And, well, improve upon it sometimes. And you know there are…this is my first time writing music lyrics without writing music, so…well, no, this is only the second. I wrote an opera libretto in 2002 in Boston for a one-act opera, so that was my first time writing words that someone else was setting to music. But this is the first time I’ve done it with a pop-tune writer. And I had to…it’s very hard for me to divorce myself from thinking about a tune while you’re writing it. And very often, to be totally honest with you, I would sometimes write a lyric with a song in mind.

L: Yeah.

S: Like, even a song that’s already composed. There’d be like 'oh my gosh, I really like that song, or that style,' so I would sometimes write in the verse-style of a certain song, and it was like: wow, this is something totally awesome.

M: Mmhm.

S: Like the very first song! Which is the first song of the show.[he starts humming] [muttering between them] It was like, I gave him this lyric, and was like ‘that’s not what I thought it was going to be—it’s so much better.

M:[laughter.] Well, I didn’t know what he had in mind either. I didn’t know that…and I didn’t want to know either, because it probably would’ve…

S: It would’ve unduly influenced you…

M: It would’ve influenced, it would’ve made me go look at the song or something. So…I just liked starting from printed page. 'This is what I’m working with, and so it’s like you know, let’s mess around with the melody…'

L: The printed page as in he gives you the lyrics? S: Yeah.

M: He e-mailed me the lyrics, I printed them out and that’s what I worked with.

L : And you knew the tune, then, was that all if I understand it correctly...

M: Well, if we’re talking about the originals, then we’re starting from scratch. If we’re talking about the airs, then yes, I had the melody…

L: You had the melody and the lyrics M: and the lyrics.

S: Sometimes not always the lyrics though M: That’s true.

S: Sometimes a working version, and that’s hard because, you know, Michael’s seen his share of crappy lyrics that I’ve given him, and I would be like ‘ok, well this is not the lyric, but like, this is maybe a first iteration of what will be a final lyric in three weeks…'

M: Yeah.

S: …but, I need to give you something because we’re behind schedule, so…work with that.' And Michael too deserves credit, especially when we’re talking about the original tunes…he was really good about improving on the lyric that I gave him, and there are some things that…for his delivery of it, and for where the tune was going it was like 'I need to drop that word, I need to add these little connecting things,' and that really helped a lot.

L: Cool. So of course you’ve answered my next question [laughter]

M: Which was…how did you connect the…

L: [self-mocking] what specific challenges did you face and how were they overcome? Boy isn’t that a nice, original question here. [loud laughter] And so then my last one was you know, are you guys like Mozart and Da Ponte now…are you gonna do…are there any envisioning for more projects, or is this kind of a one-off thing, and see how it goes down the road?

M: I’d like to get through this one. [ All laugh loudly]

S: That’s the goddamn truth. M: You know what I’m saying? S: Oh my god. M: Well…well…

L: I guess what I would say: it seems like you’re not at each other’s throats as this is coming together…

S: No. L: So… M: We’re each other’s allies in this.

S: Yeah. Very much so. I would love to create more stuff with Michael, and I think the challenge [laughing] just as Mozart and Da Ponte had, was, um…the fucking cabbage. The greens. You know? You gotta have some sponsors and underwriters to do it [murmurs of assent from L] And so we’re grateful, obviously, to Opera Theater Oregon for commissioning us to do this…

M: Absolutely.

S: And this is not our…this is OTO commissioning us to write the piece, which for OTO is huge step [M: Mmhm] and we’re grateful for the opportunity. We never could have done this, I mean we never could’ve said ‘Oh, we wanna put on this show, so let’s do it.’ I mean this is a major undertaking that requires the backing of a company or organization, or and institution or something, and so if we’re gonna do something again…and oh, you know what? I would be very curious to know what if any life this would have outside of this performance. And obviously, we’re creating it for a specific time and place

M: Sure. S: Which is now… L: But that’s what, you know…

S: But that’s what Gay did, and, you know…exactly.

L: And here we are, three hundred years later, and, we’re doing the same thing.

S: Yes. M: And it’s still now. L: Yeah.

S: So, three hundred years from now there’s [laughter], when they’re…

L: ...Portlanders in their spacesuits, and they’re hovering from building to building…

S: So, the idea of doing more stuff like this, I mean, this has been a year…I’ve been at this for a year [to M] You came on in February?

L: That’s a good point. I never thought to ask how long it’s been…

S:I’ve been working on this… M: It’s been February? S: January, February? January.

M: It’s been a while, yeah. L: So Katie [Taylor of OTO] came to you last fall, and…

S: Katie came to me in October…right around a year ago this time. Excuse me, September…of 2008. And then I signed on in late October, and spent some time thinking about what I really wanted to do with it before moving forward. You came in around January.

M: Yeah. I think that’s about right.

S: So it’s been…it’s a long… process. But…yeah. This is a project that, like, in many ways, could not happen in many other towns.

L: Yeah. S: So… M: Why is that? S: [thinking] Why is that?! Why is that?

M: Just out of curiosity.
S: Because, there is a, I think, with the…musicians and people in the arts community here, loosely speaking, there’s a curiosity about, sort of like, collaboration? [M murmurs assent.] And people willing to take risks that doesn’t…it was not this way in Boston. You know, it was a much, the scenes are much more formalized, they’re much more discreet sort of places. But I think people here will sort of try anything.

L: Fortunately, for those of us who live here. [laughter.] S: Exactly.

[The cast heard rehearsing outside the door for the last 15 minutes sounds restless…]

S: Alright. Any other questions?

L: Not off the top of my head… I’m sure I’ll probably have a follow-up question or two, maybe I can shoot it to you via email.

S: Yeahyeahyeah. Or grab us at the break or something. Is there like a tune that we wanna end with, or something… I don’t like going out like that. At the same time I don’t wanna give away all our.

M: [strumming a minor chord on the guitar] S: Oh that’s a lovely one. I’ll do that one. Yeah. So, interestingly…I’ll let you read this while I do this…so this is an example of my keeping the same verse form as Gay, and keeping even some of the same lyric ideas as Gay, but it’s my lyric. The original tune is like [singing] 'Virgins are like the fair flower in its luster.' Which is now this:

M: [playing arpeggiated chords on the guitar, Stephen singing. Slow, melancholy.] There was a time when life opened just like a perfect flower.

Bloss’ming with riches and nectar sweet as wine.
I was on top and then bowed down before my power.
God blessed my days with a wealth of cash divine
But now this rose is no longer alluring.
Once it’s been picked, it is surely bound to die.
Here I sit, here I grow sick, failing and enduring.
Doomed to rot and surely doomed to die.

S: That’s one of the tunes.

L: That’s beautiful. I noticed the like, thematic relation…

S: Thematic relationships, even, things like that. Cool! So, we’re gonna start rehearsal, and…

L: Yeah... [end of recording]

There it is. I left in all of the 'like, you know' and all of the little conversational absurdities common to our generation because that's the way we speak. So what if we sometimes sound like valley girls, and sometimes we say 'fuck this fuck that and fuck the other thing'--here we are creating operas (well, not me; just writing about the people who create them) so we must be doing something right. Hopefully the Beggar's Opera is as interesting as I think it will be. Stay tuned for the review of the 10/22 show.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thomas Hampson explores the role of the singer as storyteller

On Tuesday night at the Newmark Theater, renowned baritone Thomas Hampson delivered a masterful recitation of American song as part of the acclaimed 'Song of America' program that he has been developing in conjunction with the Library of Congress. This program is an ongoing project that has as one of its goals the launch of a website dedicated to American poets, composers, songwriters, and their songs, and to serve as a jump-off point for research into this topic. After the intermission Hampson spoke at length about his passion for this project, and gave some sense as to the immense scope, and incredible importance, of this undertaking. He spoke of the importance of song as a "dialog of metaphors between one language [words] and another [music]," as well as the unique ability of Americans to portray "American culture in its wide, deep, confusing, entertaining" nature.

The program began with the first song definitely attributed to an American composer, "My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free" by Francis Hopkinson. Stephen C. Foster was next, with a lilting "Open thy Lattice, Love" that gave the feeling as though one was sitting in a log cabin in front of a crackling fire in the youth of our nation, listening to an American troubadour of the highest caliber.

One of the most impressive aspects of the performance, aside from the rich, nuanced and impeccable singing styles Hampson brought, was his ability to tell a story. Whether sending the audience into rip-roaring laughter with Aaron Copland's rendition of "The Dodger," or leaving the audience in humbled solemnity with his repeated impassioned cries of 'Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!' at the end of Michael Daugherty's setting of Abraham Lincoln's famous "Letter to Mrs. Bixby," there was never a moment where Hampson's intent was unclear, when his interpretation of the work left anything to be desired by way of emotional import. His amazing ability to bring every tool of the storyteller's craft to his beautiful, intentioned singing left no doubt that he fully believed in the dialog of metaphors about which he spoke. His ability to inform that dialog to such an expert, heartfelt degree in both languages was the truly amazing feat displayed in this concert.

His range of choices was impressive as well. There were difficult, modern atonal compositions that had been composed specifically for him by Michael Tilson Thomas and John Corigliano, whose novelty and complexity provided some of the most gratifying moments of the evening; there was Copland aplenty, Bernstein, Charles Ives, and a fresh rendition of the normally sentimental 'Shenandoah' that seemed to not take itself too seriously while still displaying the deep pride of place inherent in the timeless American classic. Wolfram Rieger, the accompanist, was superb as well, and the repartee between the two was seamless, intimate and engaging.

In talking during the intermission with some friends who had attended Hampson's master class, they spoke of his kindness, of openness, of a giving nature and an easy sense of humor. All of these things and more were readily apparent throughout the evening. The term 'national treasure' is perhaps sometimes used too glibly, but such praise is not too high to be heaped upon one so skilled and dedicated as Thomas Hampson is to preserving, continuing, and enriching the glorious tradition of American song.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Monday, October 5, 2009

New Article at Primer Magazine; other stuff coming soon!

Well the slow summer months which (for me) involve a slow-down in my blogging are over, and coinciding with that is the publication of the first piece that I've written for Primer Magazine in quite some time; thanks to my editor Andrew Snavely there for his patience. Although I won't lay claim to any of the mp3 samples embedded throughout the work (except for the Gould) it was a pretty good idea to include examples of the pieces about which I was writing. Classical music afficionados, feel free to rake me over the coals (or back me up as the case may be); nothing like a 'top ten' list for controversy.

I've got a lot of other stuff coming up at MO and NW Reverb; an interview with the librettist and the composer/arranger of Opera Theater Oregon's upcoming production of the Beggar's Opera; a review of leading American baritone Thomas Hampson's concert tomorrow night at the Newmark Theater for starters.