Sunday, March 22, 2015
Death With Interruptions
The recently deceased Poruguese writer, José Saramago, published a short novel in 2005 called As Intermitências da Morte, or Death With Interruptions in English. The first half of the book is a social satire which concerns the political and economic implications for a country where the entire population suddenly stops dying (you can still expire if you are smuggled over the border). The second half describes death in the form of a woman returning in a gentler manner, now sending snail mail letters of warning to those about to die. One such letter, from a cellist in a local orchestra, is repeatedly returned to sender, so she investigates and unexpectedly falls in love with the musician. (Pictured above are soprano Nikki Einfeld as death and Daniel Cilli as the cellist.)
The UC Berkeley History professor, Thomas Laqueur, who wrote the definitive Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation in 2003, has now moved on to the subject of death. The Mellon Foundation awarded him a grant to study cultural conceptions around dying, and one of Laqueur's uses of the grant was commissioning an opera taken from Saramago's novel, with a libretto by Laqueur himself and music by San Francisco composer Kurt Rohde. (Rohde is above right, playing prepared piano strings, with tenor Joe Dan Harper singing as the grim reaper, among other roles).
I went to the dress rehearsal last Wednesday at the small ODC Theater in the Mission District, and though the one-act opera took about 20 minutes to get going musically and dramatically, by the gentle, romantic end of the piece, I was completely absorbed and moved.
The score called for piano, percussion, string quartet, and a solo cello played by Leighton Fong in his boxer shorts above, tangling with death. The music sounded spiky and disjointed during that first third, perhaps mirroring the libretto, but it was hard to tell because the staging by Majel Connery seemed more interested in obscuring the story with abstract gestures than clarity.
Once the opera started concentrating on its Orpheus story in reverse, as composer Rohde put it, with death becoming human through love, the music became more lyrical and the ritualistic staging focused. Cilli and Einfeld and Baker were all superb, with excellent diction, unforced beautiful voices, and a rueful sexiness to their performances.
There was also a great chamber chorus, sung by members of Volti, and Rohde's music for them and his three soloists demonstrated that he knows how to write for human voices, a rare gift not given to every composer (I am not naming names). The instrumentalists from the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, where Rohde is "composer/violist/artistic advisor" were integral members of the piece and played the complex music under the young conductor Matilda Hofman splendidly.
The two performances over the weekend sold out at the small ODC and I look forward to hearing the piece again in a larger space with reconceived staging. The music and performers deserve it.