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Cover image of Darkling: A Poem by Anna Rabinowitz (2001, Tupelo Press)
30 Mar 2006

Darkling by American Opera Projects

The East Thirteenth Street Theatre is so unprepossessing that it would be easy to miss it altogether. From the street the entrance looks like an ice cream shop more so than a theatre. The crowded foyer has chairs around little tables and a food service counter.

Behind this façade and through sets of double doors is a dark, intimate theatre with seating on three sides of an open performance area. The stage, which is really just the space in the center of the room, is completely surrounded by translucent screens onto which Hardy’s poem is projected. In this dim, almost secret space, American Opera Projects, Inc. is doing great things. Recently at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre AOP presented Darkling, a new opera that is so multi-layered it defies description.

Anna Rabinowitz’s response to coming into possession of some family letters and postcards dating from the Holocaust was to write the long poem Darkling (2001). Rabinowitz used Thomas Hardy’s poem of 1 January 1900 “The Darkling Thrush” to guide her in the writing of her own poem—specifically, Rabinowitz’s Darkling is a loose acrostic based on Hardy’s poem. In addition to the acrostic, the Hardy poem also inspired the somber mood of Darkling, as well as its moments of brightness.

Director Michael Comlish adapted Darkling to the opera stage, creating a new, multi-media work based completely on Rabinowitz’s poem. At an after-performance Q and A panel with the creators of Darkling, Comlish emphasized that every word was Rabinowitz’s including the aria-like sections, the words spoken by the actor-singers, the texts projected onto the walls of the theatre, and the texts performed on the taped “soundscape.” Through these media, nearly all the lines of the poem Darkling were expressed somewhere in the opera. Comlish worked closely with composer Stefan Weisman and a host of designers to realize his vision for this multi-media event.

Weisman looked to the setting of Hardy’s poem by Lee Hoiby, a song that has been popularized by such luminaries as Leontyne Price and Jean Stapleton. The entire work was concluded with a straightforward performance the Hoiby setting, allowing the audience to access both the musical and poetic works that inspired the various creators of Darkling.

The thirteen performers of Darkling had the difficult task of capturing the audience’s imaginations and hearts without the safeguard of a plot, and they succeed in this admirably. Neither the poem nor the opera has clear narrative thread; rather, according to Rabinowitz, the fragmented nature of the opera reflects the fragmented nature of her poem, which in turn points toward the history told by the letters, postcards, photos, and other documents from her family’s experiences in the Holocaust. The opera, like the letters, allows us to glimpse a small piece of history—the histories of particular individuals and of a war.

In 80 minutes of intense visual and aural stimulation, Darkling achieves moments of powerful emotion. At times I felt moved to tears, though I cannot quite explain all the details that contributed to that because so much was happening simultaneously.

A postcard advertising Darkling features a line from Rabinowitz’s poem, asking “who will acknowledge things of darkness as their own?” Indeed, the work places the onus of understanding and acknowledging on the audience. Through lighting, projection, stage effects, and choreography, the creators of Darkling make the audience a part of the performance, demanding one’s attention at all times.

At the Q and A session, one of the creators on the panel mentioned that Darkling makes abstract ideas and music accessible, to which an audience member replied, and I paraphrase, ‘not really.’ I don’t think this gentleman was criticizing the opera—indeed, it seemed that everyone who stayed to hear the panel really enjoyed it—I think that he was pointing out that the unfamiliarity of the form of the work was disconcerting or disorienting. I suspect that this disorientation was planned all along because by not presenting the story in a linear fashion or filling in any pragmatic details, Darkling requires the listener to engage in some contemplation. The listener gets out of the opera what she or he put into engaging with the material.

There is an optimistic message to be found Darkling. Rabinowitz pointed out at the Q and A that in the Hardy poem the darkling thrush of the title chooses to sing despite the bleakness all around. In Darkling, the Jewish couple whose fate we are following survives the Holocaust almost by accident when they come to America. There is gloom all around them in the form of their loveless marriage and poverty in the United States, but I sense that in a way, this very production is possible only because they struggled on.

Clearly, this is only one reading of an intensely complicated work of art. Bravo to AOP for supporting such controversial and ultimately important work, and to the creative minds that fitted it all together in a thought-provoking way.

Megan Jenkins
The Graduate Center – CUNY

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