It’s been difficult to coherently organize all my news since my last post. Life since the winter of 2019 has been, to put it mildly, chaotic. Many accomplishments, many reversals, some reversals which turned out to be accomplishments. Which is a post in itself.
For better or worse, it seems that at the height of chaos, the Universe or the Force or however you care to regard it has a tendency to throw me a psychological lifeline. Which, bizarrely, most often centers around Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra.
In September of 2014, struggling with a fairly flattening romantic situation, I was approached by a small New York opera company to undertake an edition of Elektra for considerably reduced orchestra. (Read all about it on my Elektra-lite blog!) While the company wound up backing out of the project, my pursuance of the edition and publicizing of it brought me two other orchestration assignments – one of them actually involving the full scale Elektra.
Work on this reduction eventually came to the attention of the peerless dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, an artist I’ve admired since her days as a lyric soprano with a renowned stage presence and sense of humor, qualities that have only heightened over time. Her Armida in Rinaldo in 2000 left me both enraptured and doubled over. And her much heralded transition to the major heavyweight roles, particularly in the Wagnerian rep and its ilk, has put her in the top ranks of her fach. There never has been, nor currently is, another artist who so completely realizes both vocally and dramatically the title role of Strauss’s harrowing opera.
The above panegyric will give some indication of my astonishment when, in June of this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic having shut down the entirety of in-person performing arts across the U.S., Christine herself contacted me with a proposal:
Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit was shortly to announce the hiring of a new artistic director, Yuval Sharon – the recipient of widespread acclaim for his work both at his self-founded Los Angeles opera company as well as some of Europe’s most hallowed venues, including Bayreuth.
As his inaugural project, Yuval wanted MOT, in a joint commission with Lyric Opera of Chicago, to brave the new and still tricky world of safe in-person operatic experience with a reimagining of Wagner’s six hour (if you’re lucky) Götterdämmerung, the final opera of his titanic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungs. Naturally with Christine performing her matchless Brünnhilde.
Yuval specifically conceived the production to be performed live by an opera company, or at least by operatically trained singers, and to utilize – and more importantly provide employment for – an opera company’s stage crew and orchestra. His idea was a one-hour condensing of the opera centered on four of its key scenes, with the extensive narrative material supplied by Detroit poet Marsha Music. It would be staged in the parking garage MOT owned across the street from the Detroit Opera House, one scene per level. The transition between scenes would be by Marsha’s narration and sound design by Lewis Nicolas Pesacov based on Wagner’s score.
The singers would perform Wagner’s original music with a new English translation by Yuval to make the experience less distancing for the local audience. Each scene would be accompanied by a small chamber group of instrumentalists, conductorless, working symbiotically with the singers. Would I be interested in abridging and reducing Wagner’s monumental soundscape?
In order for the production to make even partial financial sense, a minimum number of ticket holders / cars would have to be accommodated across the planned three hour span of each evening. The computations wound up at 8 cars per rotation, 12 rotations running simultaneously across that three hour period, with a 30 minute break in the middle. Meaning that each scene would be performed 12 times in quick succession every night. (On opening night, this was increased to 14 rotations due to the high demand for tickets.) Each scene could not be longer than 8 minutes so as to keep each rotation within the overall 55 minute cap. (Think the narrative rides at Disney World).
Which posed all sorts of challenges for me as the arranger and orchestrator to make each scene fit within the inflexible parameters while not being overly taxing for the performers.
Still, the chance to work with arguably one of the most imaginative directors living? On a piece I love? To help restore some work to the performing arts, and confidence to its patrons? AND TO WORK WITH CHRISTINE GOERKE?
Reader, I allowed myself to be persuaded.