Thursday, October 11, 2018

Philip Glass in Carmel

The composer Philip Glass spent last weekend in Carmel as his 2000 Kafka chamber opera In The Penal Colony was given three performances by San Francisco's Opera Parallèle troupe.

In 2011, Glass started the Days and Nights Festival in Big Sur/Carmel, a fairly remote location which you have to work at seeking out, a theme that has been one of the running threads in the composer's life. This year the festival included performers from Tibet and Mexico, two of the cultural traditions that have most influenced him.

The opera was being performed at the 330-seat Golden Bough Playhouse, which has a tenuous link to the original leftist Bohemians who flocked to Carmel in the first three decades of the 20th century who created radical art of every sort, including theater.

These days it is run by a local professional troupe, Pacific Repertory Theatre. The ambience was strikingly reminiscent of the rich women's Monterey Peninsula TV miniseries, Big Little Lies, and brought back amusing memories of the subplot involving Reese Witherspoon and her adulterous affair with the theater's artistic director while fighting Laura Dern over the suitability of presenting Avenue Q.

Glass's memoir, Words Without Music, was published in 2015 and I stumbled across it last month in an airport bookshop. The book is well worth reading, jumping between intimate family stories, the sketching of artistic milieus, philosophy musical and otherwise, and his travels over the decades and the globe in the pursuit of transcendental enlightenment. One of my favorite sections is early 1960s Paris, when Glass is young and newly married to genius theater director JoAnne Akalaitis. Both of them were part of the avant-garde theater troupe, Mabou Mines, who formed a relationship with Samuel Beckett in Paris that continued with colaborative productions over the next two decades. Glass composed some of his first professional music for random interstices in the text of Beckett's Play, and was bitten forever by the theatrical bug.

He writes:
"If you're not a minimalist, what are you?" many have asked over the course of my career.

"I'm a theater composer," I reply.

That is actually what I do, and what I have done. That doesn't mean that's the only thing I ever did. I've written concertos, symphonies, and many other things. You only need to look at the history of music: the big changes come in the opera house. It happened with Monteverdi, with his first opera, L'Orfeo, first performed in 1607. It happened with Mozart in the eighteenth century, Wagner in the nineteenth century, and Stravinsky in the early twentieth century. The theater suddenly puts the composer in an unexpected relationship to his work...Once you get into the world of theater and you're referencing all its elements—movement, image, text and music—unexpected things can take place."
At the same time, Glass was studying for two years with the formidable Parisian musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, famous for shaping a century's worth of American composers from Copland to Glass. My favorite anecdote in the memoir involves her:
One afternoon I arrived with my usual stack of counterpoint—at least twenty very dense pages. She put them on the music rack of the piano and began to speed read her way through them. At one point she stopped and caught her breath. She looked steadily and calmy asked me how I was feeling.

"Fine," I replied.

"Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?" she continued.

"No, Mlle. Boulanger, I am really fine."

But now I was getting worried.

"Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist? It can be arranged very confidentially."

"No, Mlle. Boulanger."

She paused for only a moment, then, wheeling around in her chair, she practically screamed at me, while pointing to a passage in my counterpoint, "Then how do you explain this?!"

And there they were—hidden fifths between an alto and bass part.
(Pictured above are actors David Poznanter playing the sadistic prison guard and Michael Mohammed the condemned prisoner between a double-header of performances on Sunday afternoon and evening.)

At the same time Glass was a student, friend and collaborator of Ravi Shankar. He writes:
There were countless moments during my years in Paris where Mlle. Boulanger or Raviji passed on to me insights about music in particular and life in general. It was if I had two angels on my shoulders, one on the right and one on the left, both whispering in my ears. One taught through love and the other through fear...And, between teaching with love and teaching with fear, I have to say the benefit of each is about the same."
In 2011, Opera Parallèle presented the first of Glass's Cocteau operas, Orphée, in an exquisite production at the Herbst Theatre, with Brian Staufenbiel directing and artistic director Nicole Paiement conducting. Last year, they performed the last opera in Glass's Cocteau trilogy, Les Enfants Terribles, and the composer flew out to see a few rehearsals of an infrequently produced work. He was so delighted that he returned on a red-eye flight for an actual performance. Out of that encounter, the opera troupe was invited to present another fairly obscure Glass opera, In The Penal Colony, at his annual Days and Nights Festival. The opera is composed for two male singers, two actors, and a string quintet and is based on Kafka's dark, absurdist, and sadistic short story.

Glass introduced the work by describing how Kafka was never published in his own lifetime, and that he wrote his dark stories for friends as deeply black humor. The composer has always had a taste for outsiders (Celine and Genet were his favorite modern French writers, for instance), and Kafka certainly fits into that category. In the memoir he writes: "The real secret of writing operas is having a good libretto..." I'm not sure if his friend Rudolph Wurlitzer's libretto fits into that category, but it was graceful and was easily understood, even without the usual operatic surtitles. I would have probably enjoyed myself if the work about colonialism, torture and capital punishment had gone more in the black humor direction rather than the seriously somber, but that is the direction the surprisingly lyrical music takes. I do know that it will be impossible to forget seeing this production, particularly with the composer himself sitting in the seat behind us for the whole show.

The Opera Parallèle troupe did a remarkable job of making a static, baritone-and-tenor-and-strings opera absorbing, using the theater's new turntables with abandon, and illustrating the horrors in abstract animated projections by David Murakami and Jon Altemus. Noah Kramer's horrifying Death Contraption also did its job. Tenor Javier Abreu sang "The Visitor" with absolutely beautiful tone that was never forced, and was always a pleasure to hear, although the fey characterization didn't really work. Iron Man baritone Robert Orth is one of the continuing wonders of the operatic world, and he gave yet another amazing performance as the nostalgic, murdering Officer while singing almost continuously for 80 straight minutes. (Click here for his "Dark Bio", one of the greatest artist biographies ever, starting with "ROBERT ORTH is the best baritone in his price range.")

Opera Parallèle and Philip Glass are an oddly perfect fit, and I hope they collaborate further. One of the incidental details of Glass's memoir is that he was close friends with the British writer Doris Lessing for over 30 years, and created two operas based on installments from her Canopus in Argos science fiction series. I would love to see at least one of them in this lifetime.

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