13 Mar 2007
Native-American Drama at Opera Omaha
Perhaps the gestation period for “Wakonda’s Dream,” premiered by Opera Omaha on March 7, was too long.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Perhaps the gestation period for “Wakonda’s Dream,” premiered by Opera Omaha on March 7, was too long.
Rossini, employing the formulae of his day, could dash off a new work in a week or two; the collective responsible for “Wakonda” - composer Andrew Davis, librettist Yusef Komunyakaa, director Rhoda Levine and OC general director Joan Desens - began their brain storming in 2002. “Wakonda” was five years in the making.
Originally focused on the 1879 trial of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, the story changed into a “meditation” - to use Davis’ designation - on the court decision that first recognized the rights of Native Americans. (They were not granted citizenship until 1948.) In its many meetings the collective decided upon a family drama set in the present, heavy with the dreams - and nightmares - faced still today by Native Americans.
Standing Bear - now positioned among the chorus at stage rear - has become a reference point for two generations intent upon keeping “their feet on the path” while finding “a place beyond shame and sorrow.” And although Louisiana-born Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer prize winner noted for his writing on the Vietnam war and now a professor at Princeton, feels that he delivered a “straightforward narrative,” he also wanted to tell a story that goes “beyond history.”
A plethora of problems has found its way into the opera: the kids- even Native-American kids - playing “Cowboys and Indians” all want to be Cowboys, and there’s discrimination and alcoholism. Budding romance between a young Indian and white girl Laura leads an irate father to threaten violence. It’s more than can be handled comfortably in a two-hour work, and thus it’s not surprising that “Wakonda’s Dream” ends a bit up in the air. Davis and his colleagues might have done better to keep the focus on the trial that made Standing Bear a legend.
Davis’ creative concern with racism brought him early fame with his widely praised “Malcolm X” (1986) and “Amistad” (1997). Yet one understands his hesitation to compose yet another trial after the courtroom scene at the center of “Amistad.” The changed plot stresses the continuing dilemma of Native Americans, for whom “the past is one long death march to nowhere.”
Blue-collar Justin Labelle (Eugene Perry) dreams of a better life for his son Jason (William Ferguson). But in an alcoholic haze, confused by the spirit of the trickster Coyote, the father shoots - and kills - his son. It’s a tragic tale, and on the heels of this murder the consolation of the finale - even with the American Indian Dance Theater on stage for the ceremonial dance that returns Justin to his tribe - seems a facile resolution of the many problems involved.
Davis is a gifted craftsman and has done is utmost to tailor a score suited to the subject matter at hand. Indeed, in the first act he has perhaps gone too far in giving primacy to words over music, for here he largely restricts himself to the illustration of narrative. One anticipates - but waits in vain - for an outburst of melody in an aria or duet.
The score is more engaging in the conflicts and confrontations of the second act - especially in the meeting between Jason and Standing Bear that is at the heart of the story. Davis has written music of particular strength and beauty for the chorus that sits with immobile dignity in an arc at the back of the stage throughout the opera.
He faced a major challenge in writing a score “that lets the audience in,” that brings emotional weight to the experience of the story by causing the listener to identify with the characters on stage. The opera opens with a “soundscape,” recorded sounds of Nebraska nature that fill the Orpheum before giving way to instrumental voices. Davis weaves jazz and folk motifs, along with Native-American hip-hop, into a score that keeps the listener alert. And Opera Omaha has assembled a strong cast for the staging. In addition to Perry and Ferguson and Ricker, Phyllis Pancella is a lovingly concerned wife and mother, while Arnold Rawls portrays a regal Standing Bear. Kids Lilly Nunn and Jonah Davis excel as central figures in childhood.
Peter Harrison designed a single set that evokes an inner landscape of desolation. Costumes were by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Steward Robertson conducted an enlarged chamber ensemble drawn from the Omaha Symphony.
Opera Omaha made the work the center piece of a month-long festival of outreach events designed to provide the community with background on this chapter of early Nebraska history. This, in turn, no doubt accounted in part for the many Native Americans in the opening-night audience.
“Wakonda’s Dream” joins such earlier operatic “meditations” on the fate of America’s natives David Carlson’s “Dreamkeepers” (Utah Opera, 1996) and Henry Mollicone’s “Coyote Tales” (Kansas City Lyric Opera, 1998) as an admirable endeavor to focus attention on a dreadful heritage. Whether it moves beyond Omaha remains to be seen. Before the March 7 premiere Rufus White, a spiritual leader of the Omaha Nation, blessed the cast of the production.