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Steven Ebel [Photo by Richard H. Smith courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
16 Oct 2009

The Truth about Love — unusual new work by young American singer and composer.

Steven Ebel is a young American, and a member of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, which nurtures young singers and theater artists, and commissioned this unusual new work, The Truth about Love.

Steven Ebel: The Truth about Love

Elisabeth Meister (soprano), Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Steven Ebel (Tenor), David Gowland, Steven Moore (pianos). José Dario Innella (director and designer), Alejandra Espector (designer), Doinald Cox (lighting).

Above: Steven Ebel [Photo by Richard H. Smith courtesy of The Royal Opera House]

 

It’s quite an accolade for any young composer to have his work given such high profile coverage. It’s very ambitious, a 90 minute cycle combining Ebel’s own songs based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Diary of a Young Poet with songs by Robert Schumann and Benjamin Britten.

Ebel is a singer as well as a composer, so his approach focuses on song, and the way three very different musical styles cam be juxtaposed to create a new, integrated whole. Composers who truly understand voice are less common that you’d expect, so this alone makes The Truth about Love worth attention. It’s certainly interesting, if parts of the staging distracted from the music.

Rilke is a difficult writer, whose works are profound discourses on philosophy,and the nature of art and life. But Ebel has conviction. “Rilke introduced me to myself… at least I was able to recognize myself as an artist after reading his work..From there I read all the books he recommended and thought I would look into what Rilke was doing and writing when he was my age. At that time I fancied myself a poet and wrote gobs of extemporaneous poems, a practice which seldom happens now, as I find more expressive language in my singing and my compositions. He is sort of the opposite of Proust: where Proust pointed his finger, Rilke pointed inside, to his soul and opened it up for the world. As someone who lived in a culture (mid-west) that is much more internal, where outward expression is difficult, I found that Rilke made me feel at home in myself and gave me a place, at least for my inner life.”

Having heard the piece at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House on 13th October 2009. Rilke’s piecs make frequent references to other works, so the tripartite form of The Truth about Love stems from this idea. The three segments interweave surprisingly well, linked by richly harmonic piano writing. “The darkness and light of the text” explains Ebel, “are reflected in the music with harmonies moving from constant fluctuation, hinting at major triads and tonality, but it does not move into a real ‘tonal sounding’ texture until moments of triumph inthe arch of the piece.”. This sense of constant movement makes it possible for the Schumann and Britten songs to alternate, without in any way changing their character, It’s like listening to three different spheres of sound rotating. separately, but in harmony.

One of Rilke’s recurring themes is “Dig into yourself”.Frauenliebe und Leben describes a woman’s journey through life. The Britten songs, too, describe differents of human experience.. In this production, a sand bed stood which each singer in turn searched, discovering precious objects. Perhaps it’s a fairly obvious metaphor for what’s happening in the songs, but the image of shifting, elusive patterns in sand caught the spirit of the piece. I also liked the bowls of water and the set, but was less enthusiastic about the exaggerated make-up and costumes. Perhaps the idea was to bring out the surreal quality of a work that shifts between three poles, but perhaps in future productions the staging could be toned down.

Approaching Rilke takes courage. I asked Ebel how he’d come to terms with the project. “It is a process I have had to do a lot of over this past year or two. This has been more for my singing, I would say, than for my composing, which I think becomes richer as a result of my development as a singer. I am quite horrified often when I look inside. It can be painful at times, but a great peace comes over you when you look inside, listen to your emotions and thoughts, and live with them. A sort of peace comes, much like the end of the cycle. When working on the piece, I never struggled with ideas, it was always an arch, where it was going. I think I needed to grow in order to finish it…..it wasn’t completed until May of this year, after re-reading the book and letting go of my old ending for a more affirmative one, where all the voices came together, literally.”

It is unusual for a singer with a career as promising as Ebels is, to dedicate so much time to writing music as well as performing. “Learning my own songs is difficult, because I know them as a mental thing, but when I have to sing them, they become physical. Sometimes it takes a while for me to get them right, sometimes more so than other pieces of music, because I think I know how they should go… I would love to have more opportunities to compose and for other voices than mine.” Elisabeth Meister sang the Britten songs and Kai Rüütel the Schumann Songs, with enough character that the strange context did not distort them.

Ebel sang Victorin/Gaston in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt at the Royal Opera House in January 2009. Even as one of the ensemble, he stood out as he has natural stage presence and sings with clear, firm tone. He’s appearing later in the season in Prokofiev’s The Gambler. He sings regularly at Tanglewood where he sang Jimmy Mahoney from Kurt Weill’s *Mahagonny. *

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