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Faces of Myth

Six New Operas to Include Two in Korean

by Roger Brunyate

Scene from Korean film on the same subject as the opera étude
The concept of opera études will already be familiar to readers who have followed Peabody News for some years. In this adventurous biennial collaboration between departments, a group of composition students have the opportunity to develop short original operas which are staged and presented by the singers of the Opera Department. The most unusual feature is that each piece is written for specific performers, who work with the composer in exploring the subject through improvisation before a note is written. [The program, which I believe to be unique in the country, has produced 32 new short operas since its inception in 1985. In addition, we have presented 18 longer works written by Peabody students who originally cut their teeth on an étude, culminating in the premiere production of the three-act opera Where Angels Fear to Tread in February of this year.]

In past years, the études have tended to be quite restricted in scope. Typically, they were scenes for two characters based on realistic situations. While subjects in the past have included such important issues as racism and sexuality, political integrity and religious identity, Alzheimer’s Disease and AIDS, they have more frequently been explored in a strictly domestic setting than on a cosmic canvas. The reason is that the improvisation process, which we have always used as a touchstone of truth, works best when the actors remain rooted in the world that they know.

In the Spring of 1998, however, I received a grant to visit the Banff Centre in Canada, which is probably the foremost center in the world for developing new forms of music theatre. In discussing our program with the people there, I began to wonder whether our bias towards realism might not give rise to musical limitations, such as a certain sameness of language and form. How would it be if we were to work instead from mythic subjects, taking themes so far from our everyday experience, so powerful, or so colored that there is no question of handling them in terms of what we already know? Might the individual composers not find themselves expanding in new directions to find a musical language to match the unmatchable?

The improvisation sessions became a kind of theatrical laboratory for widely different approaches to drama, from street theatre to dance, from kabuki to religious ritual.

And so, the idea was born of an étude program based entirely on myth. Each composer was given free rein to choose an existing story from any culture, to focus on as much or as little of it as could be handled within a 15-minute work, to select their cast and instrumental ensemble, and to develop an appropriate musical and dramatic language. The two weeks of improvisation sessions (all of which were recorded on videotape) became a kind of theatrical laboratory in which widely different approaches to drama, from street theatre to dance, kabuki to religious ritual, were tested for their effectiveness in leading an audience into a strange world and retelling a story that is both old as creation and ever new.

The present set of études are break the pattern of previous years in several important respects. All the works include at least three people, and one calls for as many as six. For the first time, the production (now given off-campus at Theatre Project on Preston Street) will include simple scenic elements, lighting and back-projections. Instead of being written strictly for piano accompaniment, each of them involves one or more additional instruments — or, in the case of three of the six composers, computers. Two of the composers are Korean nationals, and their pieces will actually be performed wholly or in part by Korean singers in Korean.

Folk painting of 
The Magic Orange Tree  
The Magic Orange Tree
Cover painting from the book by Diane Wolkstein
I suppose that when I suggested myth as a subject, I had expected a set of variations on the well-known classical stories. But in the event there was not a single Greek story among them. Both Korean composers suggested stories from their own culture. Ssibaji (The Seed Bearer) by Ye Sook Lee is the story of a young girl hired to bear a child in place of a noble woman who is infertile, but who falls in love with the father, is killed by the jealous woman, and returns as a ghost. My libretto, closely based on the improvisation by the Korean artists, will be sung in English, though it also contains traditional Korean poems sung in that language. Mu-Rung-Do-Won (Cloud Dreams), by Taehi Kim, is a folk tale containing elements of both the Garden of Eden story and The Magic Flute. I also wrote the libretto, but this time with the intention of having it translated entirely into Korean, to match the wonderful spontaneity shown by the Korean cast in the original improvisations. [Unfortunately, Ms. Kim was injured during the writing of this, and the music was taken over by Charles Bunkyu Kim.]

  Cain murders Abel; 
print by Odilon Redon
Cain murders Abel
Print by Odilon Redon, 1886
Spontaneity was also the hallmark of the improvisations for The Orange Tree by Meg Schedel, based on a Haitian story about a magic tree that would grow to provide fruit for a starving girl, but which kills her wicked stepmother when she attempts to steal from it. This tale is told in street-theatre style by a narrator who works the audience with an improvised spiel in performance, and a chorus of three who interrupt the action with social or political comments whenever they feel like it. At the other extreme is Aislinn's Boon by Christopher Palestrant, which retells a Celtic tale about the love of a fairy for a mortal, all within a spell of magic and dreams more akin to that of Mendelssohn or Tennyson. Both these composers wrote their own texts.

The most powerful myths encapsulate powerful truths, and two of our stories may not be regarded by everyone as fiction at all, since they derive from the very first chapters in the Bible. Monica Schwartz has written text and music for Wings of Fire, an exploration of the Jewish kabbalistic myth of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. In her retelling of the Garden of Eden story, Eve becomes empowered by her contact with the freedom represented by Lilith and by her eating of the fruit, although she decides to channel this freedom into partnership with Adam as the parents of mankind. Eve appears again in Sacrifice by Timothy Nelson, once more to my libretto, in which she sees her son Cain’s murder of his brother Abel as but the first step in a chain of death and warfare that extends from her original sin through to the end of time. Although probably the most serious and certainly the most harrowing of the six pieces being performed, Nelson’s opera ends with reaffirmation of faith and a beautiful peace.

Reprinted from Peabody News, March/April 1999.

The FACES OF MYTH program of opera études was presented at Theatre Project, Baltimore, in three performances between April 23 and May 2, 1999. The conductors were Laurence Patrick Devlin, JoAnn Kulesza, and Bryan Nies. Jennifer Blades and Roger Brunyate shared the stage direction.

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