I'm familiar with three of Philip Glass's operas: Akhnaten, which I once accompanied at the piano for a concert performance in Richmond, VA; Satyagraha, which I recently caught in the live Met Hi-Def transmission at a movie theater; and Orphée, which is the upcoming production of Virginia Opera.
Of the three, I much prefer Orphée and am grateful that the suits who oversee artistic matters in Norfolk made that choice.
You see, I'm pretty sure that a production of
Satyagraha could have ended my marriage of 35 years. One performance almost did the trick.
What I find appealing in Orphée is that it has a plot, dialogue in a language that can be understood, interesting characters, and vocal lines that signify a basic understanding of how to write for the human voice.
Those are all helpful things in an opera...
I wanted to like Satyagraha, I really did. I had read a good bit about the piece and listened to a few audio excerpts. I'm not so tradition-bound that I insist all operas must have love duets, vengeful murder plots, tearful twenty-minute death scenes with multiple farewells to stuff and an illegitimate baby or two.
Heck, Orphée even coughs up a decent love duet.
The point is that my wife Ruth and I motored up to Richmond to see Satyagraha fully prepared to appreciate it for whatever it was and not condemn it for what it wasn't. We chose Richmond so we could see it in the comfort of one of those CineBistro joints where patrons watch films in comfortable chairs while noshing on $13.00 sandwiches.
The burger was really scrumptious - almost worth the price - and the production was colorful and engagingly performed. It was cool to see the composer interviewed by the broadcast host, bass Eric Owens. (Blog digression: my daughter Kathleen Winters once played in an orchestra seated next to Mr. Owens, who recently has gotten rave notices for his incarnation of Alberich in the Met's Robert LePage-directed Ring cycle. This happened at the Aspen Music Festival, where my daughter was a flute student and Owens was a conducting fellow. At Aspen, playing an orchestral instrument is a pre-requisite for being named a conducting fellow, and as it happens the guy has real chops on the oboe. So he and Kathleen wound up seated in adjacent chairs for a reading ensemble - that's an orchestra gathered for the purpose of reading through orchestral works for the benefit of aspiring maestros. That concludes this digression; you may now return to your regular blog, with enhanced respect for Eric Owens.)
Anyway, the repetitive nature of the musical episodes and the lack of traditional "Then What Happened?" narrative did not faze me. I've read books on meditation; I know about Glass's interest in Eastern thought and spirituality; I get it. I'm familiar with the phenomenon of some audience members experiencing a form of ecstasy as a result of the percieved sublimity of Glass's transcendental passages flowing over and over them like sonic waves. And in music like that, it's not vitally important that the language being sung is Sanskrit; it's not like they're telling jokes up there and we're going to miss the punchlines.
I totes get all that.
As the final credits scrolled down the screen while the Lincoln Center audience cheered and the CineBistro audience began shuffling to its feet in bemused silence, Ruth and I debated whether to stop for a coffee at Starbucks. Steaming cups soon in hand, we made our way to the car and began the 70-odd mile drive back to Newport News. (It's a really nice movie theater, people.)
That's when the trouble began.
Listen, after thirty-five years of marriage, the pressure of being a perfect date for one's lady-love or beau isn't as big a deal as it once was. Companionable silence is a valid option to witty, seductive banter, know what I mean? But there's no denying that both my wife and I were "in a mood".
First, there was the issue of finding our way back to Interstate 64. We'd never been to this theater before and had relied on Dolores (that's the name we've assigned to the female-ish voice on my Android Navigation App) to find the place. Now homeward-bound, there were testy discussions of whether I could re-trace our route without Dolores, a somewhat resentful agreement that I would turn on the Navigation again, and no small degree of impatience waiting for the damn phone to boot up and Dolores to pipe up.
While my memory isn't exact, the following is an approximation of the type of conversation that took place.
"Can't you find the address?"
"Yes, for Pete's sake, give me a minute!"
"Well why is it taking so long?"
"Oh good Lord, it has to find a signal and get our location. HANG ON!"
"Just stop and ask somebody. Roll down your window and ask those people over there!!"
"NO! The phone will work faster than chasing strangers through a mall!"
"We're never going to get out of here!!!!"
It got even stupider than that, before Dolores cheerily started barking out directions and forced us to retreat into sulky, bitter silence. Boy, was that a long ride home...
What in the world? Had we regressed to the age of eleven? We'd had a perfectly nice day: a road trip to Richmond, a performance from the Metropolitan Opera, two absolutely dee-lish hamburgers with that fancy Angus beef and bacon and stuff, and now we were interacting like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. What accounted for all this discord, for heaven's sake?
Later that evening, my wife, far wiser than I, figured out the source of the tension:
It was the vocal writing in Satyagraha.
To his credit, Philip Glass has since conceded that he's learned a lot about writing for voices since Satyagraha. Lemme tell ya, he had a lot to learn. Richard Croft in the title role had the best luck in this regard; many of Gandhi's lines lay nicely in the voice and had an appealing floating quality. Such was not the case for soprano Rachelle Durkin as Miss Schlesen and especially baritone Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach.
These two artists were assigned roles which kept them squawking and barking at the top of their ranges on repeated notes that were sung over and over with no relief. They gave it their best shot, doing all that technical supporting-stuff singers learn in their formative years: soft palates raised so high they touched the cerebral cortex; breath management that would blow down any Little Pig's house of bricks; and (I'm guessing) lower body strength of ox-like power.
But no voice can make a pleasing effect when submitted to vocal writing as cruelly obtuse as that. Look, Beethoven has been panned for two centuries for his vocal writing in the Ninth Symphony and other works, but he was Richard Rogers next to Satyagraha. Looking back on the afternoon, Ruth and I realized that we became so tense while listening to this strained vocalism that we carried it out of the theater and all the way home, fussing and crabbing over nothing.
So it is with genuine pleasure and intense relief that I am able to report that the vocal writing in Orphée is as expertly handled as it was manhandled (in my humble opinion) in Satyagraha. The setting of the French text displays a complete facility with the language, with rhythms that effortlessly simulate the flow of native French speakers. And while challenging, the demands of the vocal lines are entirely conventional.
Divorce lawyers must look elsewhere than the Harrison Opera House to troll for new cases.
And now, a brief commercial message. Remember: my forthcoming book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is due out from Kendall Hunt Publishing in just a few days. It's not available in book stores, so to get a copy please email the publishers at email@example.com. My editor will contact you with all the details. Happy reading!