Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Desert Spire
17 Feb 2008

Navajo oratorio a triumph in Phoenix

A sound designer? Isn’t that merely a euphemistic upgrade of “sound engineer?”

Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio
The Phoenix Symphony

 

No! — at least not when the designer in question is Mark Grey, who is now emerging as a major American composer. Listen to Grey’s new “Enemy Slayer” and you’ll hear what the difference between a designer and an engineer is. The beneficiary of extensive collaborations with John Adams, Peter Sellars and the Kronos String Quartet and of work at a Norwegian jazz club above the Arctic Circle, Grey understands sound — the raw material of music — as a fashion designer understands fabric, color, cut and style.

“I sit in the audience surrounded by people’s reaction to music,” says Grey, now 41. “I feel their emotional energy and I know how to sustain a tension that keeps them involved.” In “Enemy Slayer” Grey has woven a sonic tapestry that overwhelmed the audience at the premiere of the work by the Phoenix Symphony on February 7.

Commissioned by the orchestra to mark its 60th anniversary, the 70-minute oratorio is something new in music. One does not seek to define the style of the score, but surrenders rather to a flow of energy that parallels the forces of nature. True, Grey employs bi-tonal and bi-diatonic means to make the score increasingly atonal as the story develops, but these are only the externals of an achievement that has all the markings of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk [italics] — a composite work of art that might well prove a major monument of early 21st- century music. And the contemporary relevance of “Slayer,” subtitled “A Navajo Oratorio,” will astonish those who come to the work “cold,” expecting an evocation of the Native-American past but confronted by a wrenching drama of the present day.

A young Arizona native returns to his people from a desert war, where a cousin died in his arms. "Your blood poured brightly through my hands like a lamb being slaughtered,” sings the baritone soloist. “I could not stop it!"

In the story, told in verse with urgency and economy by Laura Tohe, a Navajo poet on the faculty of Arizona State University, the monsters of native myth become the tormenting memories of death and devastation that haunt the returned soldier and prompt him to tell his story. Although Grey’s ideas for the oratorio reach back several years, the work — once defined — was quickly written. Grey met Michael Christie, now in his third year as music director of the Phoenix Symphony, in 2004 in Rotterdam, where both were involved in the staging of John Adams’ “Death of Klinghofer.”

navajo-title2.png

“Several times we took the train to Amsterdam to hear the Concertgebouw and visit museums,” Grey says. “The trip was an hour each way, and that gave us time to swap ideas.” Christie premiered Grey’s violin concerto “Elevation” at the (Boulder) Colorado Music Festival in 2005 with Leila Josephowicz as soloist. The conductor had just accepted the Phoenix appointment and talked with Grey about a new score for the orchestra‘s up-coming anniversary. “Michael is eager to premiere new and exciting works,” Grey says. “And although he left the door open to me, the idea of an oratorio came up immediately.”

Grey thought about a re-telling of the David and Goliath story, but found that it had little meaning for Phoenix. At that point he stumbled on Monster Slayer and his brother, central figures in the Navajo epic of creation. Twin warriors, they made the world safe for others. Grey was especially fascinated by Nidaa', the Navajo ceremony that washes away the psychic torments resulting from violent acts. When Enemy Slayer returned from killing the monsters that had threatened his people, he went through this ceremony. The relevance to a modern veteran is obvious.

“We were not out to make this a literal translation of myth," Grey says, "but to view a ceremonial path through a contemporary lens.” Grey found librettist Laura Tohe by googling [does that need quotes?]“Navajo” and “poet.”

Mark Grey Near Sunset Crate.pngMark Grey

Born on the Arizona reservation and educated in one of its boarding schools, Tohe is now professor of English at Arizona State in near-by Tempe. And although Tohe admits that when she accepted the assignment as librettist she had to look up both “libretto” and “oratorio,” the idea of an updated version of native myth caught her fancy.

As Grey continued his research he saw this story increasingly within the context of the entire Southwest, for the Navajo reservation, the largest in the United States, reaches into New Mexico and Utah. “It’s a region rich in creation stories,” Grey says, “and more and more I felt the energy of this region with its mountain spirits, deities and monsters. “And it was clear to me that this would be a large work — a work for mammoth chorus and orchestra.”

Grey’s source material, of course, came from oral tradition, and that posed a problem. “The minute you write something down, you remove it from its ceremonial function,” he says. “And out of understanding for the Navajos and their community, we did not want to do that. “What we wanted was a contemporary window on a very old story.” And Grey opted for a single solo voice, a baritone protagonist as the suffering soldier and kept at his reading while Tohe moved the project forward. “Laura got me involved in a dialogue with the Navajo community,” Grey says. “She put together a group of elders, and with them we discussed cultural sensitivity — what was appropriate and what wasn’t. “She opened doors and built a bridge between us.”

Grey speaks of his collaboration with Tohe as “a shared passion.” “We achieved an incredible balance between Navajo tradition and a contemporary dialogue,” he says of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal relationship that characterized their collaboration from the beginning. “It was back and forth from the outset; we worked in tandem. I sent Laura fragments of the score, and she came by to talk with me. “Together we visited places associated with the story, and the cultural palette grew wider and wider.”

In one of their first conversations they agreed that there would be no effort to make the score “sound Indian.” Grey was determined to avoid the stereotypes that one encounters in films — and in contemporary operas. (Well-intended recent operatic exercises in cultural tourism come to mind: Henry Mallicone’s “Coyote Tales” (Kansas City, 1998). David Carlsons’ “Dreamkeepers” (Salt Lake, 1996; Tulsa, 1998, and Anthony Davis’ “Wakonda’s Dream” (Omaha, 2007). Grey felt no temptation to “import” drummers and dancers from the Navajo nation. “Their tales are told with dance,” he sys. “It is all part of a myth-rooted ceremony. You cannot take its components out of this context.”

The chorus — director Gregory Gentry expanded the PSO Chorus to 150 for the premiere — speaks for the Navajo people and in a larger sense for all humanity. “Family and community are especially important for the Navajos,” says Grey, noting that the chorus functions here much as it does in Greek tragedy. “The ensemble speaks with an ancestral voice; it is there to help — and to cleanse the returned soldier.” (Tohe tells of an older brother who never recovered from his involvement in the Vietnam War. Upon his return to Arizona he refused ceremonial cleansing and died at 40 from his exposure to the toxic environment of war.)

Given the power of Grey’s music and Tohe’s poetry the inclusion of a visual perspective on this story might seem superfluous. However, what photographer Deborah O’Grady contributes to this production is far removed from the travelogue sometimes considered a bonus at concerts. With what she defines as “projected visualizations” O’Grady has brought another dimension to the oratorio. Using the latest digital software, she underscores the sweep of the music with images that move and morph and make the Arizona landscape an integral part of the work. "I tried as much as I could to be sensitive to the music," O’Grady. “And with digital technology, you can do something more sophisticated than just one picture fading into another."

Most moving are O’Grady’s shots of the tattered flags above the Fort Defiance Navajo Veterans Cemetery. (O’Grady, by the way, is married to composer John Adams.) Soloist for the premiere was Scott Hendricks, a youthful American now in great demand in European opera houses.

“Enemy Slayer” is a big work — in the sense the Mahler is big. It requires space to tell a story of urgent importance that reaches across cultures and centuries, and at the premiere Christie demonstrated a refined understanding for the spaciousness of the score. The carefully prepared performance of Grey’s lush and loving music brought home just how original the composer is in his understanding of the design of music. He has created here a collage of colors that brings the many voices of soloist, choir and instruments together with near-magical homogeneity.

In “Enemy Slayer” Grey might well have composed cthe requiem that laments America’s unfortunate adventure in the Middle East. The work deserves to be widely performed. Michael Christie will conduct “Enemy Slayer” at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, Colorado, on July 24 and 25, 2008. Soloist at that time will be Daniel Belcher. For information, visit www.coloradomusicfest.org.

West Blomster

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):