Saturday, March 10, 2012

Joan La Barbara 2: On The Constantly Shifting Jacob's Room

The soprano Joan La Barbara above will be joining Meredith Monk and Jessye Norman for a selection of John Cage's Song Books this Saturday evening at Davies Hall as part of the American Mavericks Festival, with a repeat of the performance on Wednesday the 14th. Tomorrow, on Sunday afternoon the 11th, she will be performing in a world premiere of her husband Morton Subotnick's newly reconfigured Jacob's Room opera. In an interview with Dr. Wood Massi, she detailed the long and winding road the piece has taken since the 1980s, which should be a help for musicologists of the future.

Massi: The multimedia piece Jacob’s Room, which first premiered in 1985 and which you will be performing as a “Monodrama” this coming Sunday, was performed in 2010 in Austria with four singers (and by the way the YouTube excerpts of this are wonderful, click here to check them out). Would you describe the creative evolution of the piece?

We’re doing a new version that Mort is calling “Monodrama” from Jacob’s Room. The first version of it was actually commissioned for me and the Kronos Quartet by Betty Freeman. It was commissioned for string quartet and voice and we performed it that way for several years. That would be the 1985 version.

I don’t remember exactly at which point, but Morton decided to expand it to an opera. It was essentially a solo-performer opera, so it was myself as the single voice, and there were recordings of Thomas Buckner that was played as part of the score, and there was a single cellist onstage and then the electronic score. So the material that had been in the string quartet was used for the solo cello and electronics. That was version two.

Then we went out to Minnesota and the Minnesota Opera had an experimental workshop. They had a group of singer/actors who spanned the gamut of different kinds of performers/singers. One was more an actor than a singer, and only two real opera singers, with everything in between. So Mort then added characters from the various stories that he had created the material from. We workshopped that for several years and never got to an actual production, so I don’t know if there’s anything on YouTube that anybody took from those years. Then that got scratched because I think there was more money to be raised to workshop than to actually do the production, so they just kept workshopping.

Then we went back to the single character again and worked with the director Herbert Blau who was very, very active here in San Francisco with The Actor’s Workshop in the 1950s and 60s. And then Herb and Mort went to Lincoln Center and they were Artistic Director and Music Director of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre when it first opened in New York City. So Herb and Mort go back many, many years. Then this new production was developed that again was my voice, Thomas Buckner, onstage cellist and that incorporated some video. And so there was that version.

And then the Bregenz Festival in Austria commissioned a new version with four singers and a number of cellists and electronics. We really love the piece so the idea of having all these different versions is not a problem. This is a new version for the Mavericks Festival. My voice has gotten a little bit lower and so there are certain things from the original version that are simply out of my range at this point. It is for string quartet with the electric keyboard and electronics, and then mezzo soprano.

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