December 11, 2008

12.11.08_QOnStage_LatertheSameEvening Last night in New York I had the privilege of witnessing one of those sensational musical-theatrical moments. Since I wrote the program notes for the event, and have other sympathies both personal and professional with various principals, I am hardly a disinterested observer. But the assembled luminaries and intelligent followers of the art seemed remarkably united in a community that, as the libretto said, “laughs together, weeps together … and then goes out into the night again.” And, since the New York Times critic assigned to the event came down with the ‘flu’ at the last minute and couldn’t come, I thought I’d do my compensatory bit by posting my own non-evaluative account of this work, written before last night’s New York premiere:

Few could have anticipated the kind or degree of interest and excitement that crackled through a wing of the National Gallery of Art on that summer morning in 2006. A press conference had been called to announce something utterly unprecedented in the illustrious history of the institution. As one of the Gallery’s prominent patrons said to me with a conspicuous overflow of joy: “We’re causing an opera!” — which they were in fact doing, in collusion with the fine opera program at the University of Maryland and its elegant Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

People who labor in an exacting discipline are not always content to have another discipline superimpose new meanings on the subjects of their concentrated analysis. The well-communicated pleasure of the curators of American art there that day was thus particularly gratifying to a habitual partisan of the artistic tasks that only opera can accomplish. To this day you can go to the National Gallery’s site and hear for yourself how the idea of Later the Same Evening was already being received by the Gallery’s paladins of 20th-century American art history.

When a soprano and two pianists (one of them the composer) combined to confect what amounted to a preview sketch of the third scene of the opera (the letter in the hotel room — that performance also being available online), I looked around me at the audience and thought, “Uh-oh. These people aren’t accustomed to making the required imaginary leap. They can’t know how such compositions bloom when they are translated to the stage, with orchestra, lights, sets, and costumes. They won’t be able to appreciate what they’re hearing.” I was very wrong. The audience enthusiasm evinced there was hardly less pronounced than that which produced the opening-night ovations in College Park in the next November. But, in retrospect, one sees why this should not have surprised me, for the whole project had benefitted from a radically organic continuity.

This unity was reflected in the remarks that so charmed the press conference. For, after the art curators, they came not only from the librettist and composer, but from the director, too. His rôle had not just been pasted on to a completed work for which he was then brought in and expected to realize a stage production — a procedure that can result in hit-or-miss fidelity or compensatory directorial innovation. Leon Major had been an active participant in the gestation of the whole piece. It was Mark Campbell who had come up with the idea of linking five of Hopper’s New York scenes into cohesive dramatic form, but the fertility of his invention had the benefit of the prospective director’s ideas and insights from the beginning.

Fortunately both director and librettist were dealing with a composer in John Musto who was already justified in trusting them — after the team’s hit with Volpone — and who would have that faith confirmed only three months later at Carnegie’s Weill Hall by the remarkable one-act Bastianello.

It was a song that Mark Campbell and John Musto had done together in 2001 that led the latter to suspect that he might have found a dream librettist. Mr. Campbell, with all the writing he had done for the stage, had never produced an opera libretto before Volpone. (He has since done one for William Bolcom that was given, like Bastianello, by the New York Festival of Song last winter and is now working on a fourth opera with Mr. Musto, a commission from the St. Louis Opera Theater and Wolftrap Opera.) We may well turn the creative stream in the opposite direction and imagine what kind of painting might based on the text of that fateful song, which runs thus:

Here I sit,
Nude at the piano,
On this cold, cold stool.
I got with me here
A bottle of beer
And I’m feeling like a fool.

And while I
Brood at the piano
You are somewhere faraway.
So I sit and I freeze
And I stare at the keys
Wishing I knew how to play.

I would jump
Off the Verrazano
But I’m really just too blue…

So I sit,
Nude at the piano,
The piano
I bought for you.

It’s almost as though Edward Hopper’s spirit had come back to his Manhattan haunts and updated his vision somewhat. In fact the title “Nude at the Piano” could almost serve for a picture that we can imagine Hopper painting. Thus tonight’s opera is by no means the result of routine genesis or a purely manufactured affinity with its subject matter. Its coming home to New York via the Manhattan School of Music, borne on music composed by one of its own alumni, is strikingly fitting.

And distinctive music it is. The audience for this work comes at the music in the opposite direction to the one that must be taken by the performers. For the listener, this music comes bearing cultural signifiers that make it easy to hang onto. Its musical vocabulary is faithful enough to a distinctively American music-theatrical tradition that the superficial listener has the luxury of taking it almost at that level alone and finding it a rewarding experience. The performer, however, is not deceived by that easygoing patina. To execute the work requires a high level of technical mastery by all engaged in the performance, and the interpreters become aware of intricate formal devices. These include sophisticated chromatic alterations of recurring patterns, shifting metrical environments, and complex contrapuntal textures that culminate in two extended fugal passages — one purely instrumental and the other also vocal. All these compositional manners are put to dramatic purpose. Looking to the fugues, for example: an instrumental interlude brings the successively entering imitative voices into play with each other just as most of the characters are heading toward their own temporary theatrical community. The two exceptions to that general gathering in the theater are the one who is walking out on the New York experience and the husband who is temporarily AWOL at the tavern — and his music makes him present when it is superimposed on the fugue like a chorale. Then that community, called forth by the first fugue, will be ratified by the musical interaction of the characters’ own fugue sung when they leave the theater and discover the rain that has been predicted piecemeal all evening. So Hopper has created characters through one art who are transformed into a community via another.

Fans of Baroque music will detect more than the fugues for their special delight, since the lover being stood up does his worrying over a passacaglia bass.

Perhaps the most musically complex formal feat of the opera comes with the trio of the three women from the first three episodes. It consists of the expressively combined musical material that had already introduced each woman in her separate scene. That their individual characters can become a trio for us before they have met is an illustration of what no art but opera was ever able to accomplish before the invention of the split screen or quick cuts in cinema. (These operatic and cinematic dynamics are famously married in the “Tonight” ensemble that leads to the crisis of the 1961 film of West Side Story.)

Given such specifically vocal drama, it is surely significant that some who have witnessed the mimed reaction of the characters to the theater’s imaginary pit orchestra had to have it pointed out to them afterwards that there had been no singing at all, thus no words, during this vivid portrayal of a condensed dramatic arc (with a beginning, middle, and end) accomplished by purely musical means.

Another formal device that can be effective on either an instinctive level or on a conscious, more analytical one is the intricate way that the various songs from the fictional Broadway musical have their prefigurings before, intertwinings during, and reminiscences after the show that brings the characters together. This comes about because the unity lent by weaving these melodies through the texture of the whole opera helps make the work less challenging to non-connoisseurs of modern composition than it might otherwise be, while simultaneously offering to the habitué of recent composition complex patterns to savor. Key, however, is the fact that on both kinds of listener these disciplined ways of employing melodic material will have the same degree of dramatic effect, whatever the subtly different thought/hearing processes proper to each listener. Come to think of it, this state of affairs is remarkably like one Mozart described in a letter to his father in 1782: “Here and there are things which only connoisseurs can really appreciate, but I have seen to it that those less knowledgeable must also be pleased, without knowing why…”

This seems the simplest explanation for the rapturous reception that Later the Same Evening found in the capital and in the nearby Maryland suburb. Many who had gone down for the opening, however, expressed strong feeling that this work, so redolent of Hopper’s own city, had to make its way up the Jersey Turnpike right away. So, while the singer in tonight’s musical-within-an-opera searches for “the man in Manhattan,” Later the Same Evening had to wait just a year (which is only moments in opera-production time) to find the school of music in Manhattan, founded during Edward Hopper’s heyday, that is surely a natural home for it.

    “Nude at the Piano” © 2001 by Mark Campbell; song from John Musto, Collected Songs (New York and Hamburg: PeerMusic Classical, 2008)

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