Double Your Pleasure is our new experiment. We sent Counter Critic (Ryan Tracy, a conservatory trained composer, conductor, and all around art freak) and Sidekick (Shari Goldhagen, a novelist and celebrity stalker who doesn’t know shit about classical music) to cover a new opera. Below, we post our critical findings without comparing them. See what happens when critics stop being polite, and start getting real.
Opera Review: George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill
Counter Critic writes…
When you ask most people what they think opera is, the majority will tell you, at one point or another, that opera is BIG; grand, superlative, huge-ass, grandiose, etc. And seasoned opera lovers will unquestioningly indulge that expectation of opera, and even go so far as to say straight up that that’s what they love about the operatic experience.
But opera hasn’t always been big, in fact some of its history were rather puny, thinking of 18th century comic intermezzi. And throughout its life, the cannon of opera has been blessed with several contributions that fall under the category of “chamber” opera. Like its purely instrumental counterpart, the size expectations of chamber opera are usually physical (how many performers take part in the work) rather than temporal (there are some chamber music pieces that go on forever and ever).
But British composer, George Benjamin, however, has tamed the unwieldy genre in both categories, penning a deft little chamber opera that includes only two singers and fifteen instrumentalists, and clocks in at around forty minutes.
Into the Little Hill, which had its North American premier last night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is based on the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and sports a sharply spare libretto by Brit playwright Martin Crimp, though this production is less sharply but just as sparely directed by Daniel Jeanneteau.
The two singers, Anu Komsi (soprano) and Hilary Summers (contralto) played the roles of all the characters in the town.
What I like about this piece is that it trusts the essential powers of the theater to convey storytelling through sung vocal expression; or singing. Ms. Summers brought a solid theatrical presence to the stage; rearing back from the chest and casting a dominating side glance to intimate the smug authority of the town Minister, or stammering plaintively as the Minister’s Wife who demands from her husband to know where her child has gone (in case you hadn’t guessed, into the little hill with all the other children in the town).
Ms. Comsi performed in a variety of ways, both theatrically and vocally. The direction here was a little strained at times. Her default seemed to be a clenched-fisted, crooked-necked, face-forward pose with a wide-eyed crazed gaze that (and sorry to be a little catty, but hey, isn’t this a queen’s art after all) consistently struck me as a cross between the Firestarter and Misery.
Now, Ms. Comsi has a unique vocal talent. Her abilities range from a glass-cutting straight tone to a pretty convincing full-vibrato soprano. But what she brings to the stage with agility, she seems to lose in demeanor. By this I mean, he face goes through a whole gamut of contortions to accommodate the elasticity of her instrument. At times it worked; other times not. Cecilia Bartoli has a similar issue, but in her case the singing is always technically sound. By contrast, some of Ms. Comsi’s tone production blurred the line between extended technique and poorly chosen technique. Some will probably disagree with me on this, but for a piece of such brevity and clarity, the vocal high jinx were cumbersome.
But this opera does a couple of things right. Mainly, its starts small. The institution of professional opera could save its ass if it realized that to make an opera you don’t need a celebrity conductor, twelve superstar soloists, fifty choristers, two camels, a donkey, a set the size of a city block and and an unending drama that tries to figure out the meaning of life. Start small. And an age-old children’s story is a great place. (Of similar success was Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories performed a couple of years ago at the City Opera.)
Second, it keeps the musical language of the opera quite advanced. Mr. Benjamin’s music is consistently–though lyrically–atonal, and his orchestrations for a wonderfully unbalance ensemble of mostly low-ranging instruments (of note were the bass flute, basset horn and contrabass clarinet). There was a particularly brilliant passage for the low woodwinds during the scene where the rats are lead to their demise), where adjacent tones created a lush sound scape over which the strings in pizzicato threw delicate sparks.
But there are few things that keep this production from being an entirely successful work, and a wholly successful production.
First and foremost, Mr. Benjamin’s vocal writing is problematic. People say that English isn’t inherently a musical language. Turn on your local radio station and I think you’ll find about a billion examples of how that is a gross fallacy. The problem is that contemporary classical composers who write for singers in English have a hard time finding a natural prosody for the language. Case in point, in the very first few moments, Mr. Benjamin sets the word “enemies” with the first two syllables as low sixteenth notes (I’m guessing about the specific rhythmic notation) and the last syllable holds out the longest and is set at a much higher pitch. The result is that the word becomes mispronounced when it is sung. In this case, it sounds like “enemies.” Rather than how the word sounds when we speak it, enemies”, with the accent on the first syllable, not the last. Throw in a string of miss-set words and you’ll start to understand why even in opera that is performed in English you’ll still find subtitles. There were no subtitles in this performance, but I was advised to glance at the libretto beforehand. If the language is set correctly, that means, true to its natural rhythmic structures, the lyrics have a much better chance of surviving the exaggerated pronunciation effects of the operatic voice.
Then there is the issue of the direction and set design (also credited to Mr. Jeanetteau). To spice up repertory operas, some opera companies hire a set designer to come up with some super edgy, deconstructionist set to, you know, makeover an old idea. This is common too in some modern Shakespear productions. In Into the Little Hill, the set is certainly pushing an envelope. The entire stage is covered with thick wood chips. The instrumentalists are on stage and divided into three groups between what look like a pair of deconstructed catwalks that the singers come out and stand on, at the upstage end of which are two panels that back-light the singers in bright white lighting. There are other lighting elements; florescent lights run underneath the catwalks, and the white backed instrumentalists’ stands each have a very Mac-inspired pin light on the back.
While I think all this is great, in a way, it doesn’t really serve the purpose of an opera that already pushes the envelope in form and style. It’s too much. And what’s worse is that the fussy set diminished chances to correct the most troublesome snag that nearly every opera falls into: what to do with the singers’ bodies. With the catwalk grid setup, the singers only really have four options; move forward, move back, move in, move out. And that’s what they did. The whole time. Lucky for us, this lasted well inside an hour’s time. But with a piece as spare and narratively inventive as Into the Little Hill, so much more could have been done in terms of staging the singers. It looks like a lot of the direction went into the set concept, and less of it went into directing the pweformers. There was even a half-hearted use at mask-play early on to represent the piper, but the idea never came back; for better (cuz it was weak) and for worse (cuz it kind of proved that the idea was an ill-conceived gimmick).
All this is to say that opera continues to confuse new makers of the medium. Is it possible to get it completely right? I can’t say for sure. But Mr. Benjamin and company do a lot in the way promoting a more broad and faithfully contemporary notion of opera. If this isn’t the best opera you will ever see, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And in today’s tepid opera climate, that’s saying a lot.
As to the opening pieces, um, they are probably really different, but Viola, Viola (performed by Garth Knox and Genevieve Strosser) and Three Miniatures (violin soloist Jagdish Mistry) sound exactly the same to me—here’s some cacophonous long note, now he’s going to pick a few minutes like it’s a fiddle, another long screechy note, he must be done because he’s stopped playing, I guess we clap. Also discordant stuff is cool and all, but when you’re listening to something that is intentionally painful to listen and you’re sitting in a dark auditorium with nothing to look at except for a stage inexplicably blanketed in wood chips and a spotlighted musician dressed in the black on black usually reserved for stage crew, you may start to wonder if this is actually expanding your cultural horizons or just giving you a headache.
On to the main event!
Into the Little Hill begins with a blast of light from two “doors” on stage. Bright light hurt Sidekick. Sidekick must rummage through purse for sunglasses.
The program is kind enough to include Martin Crimp’s libretto, but tall singer, Hilary Summers, and short singer, Anu Komsi, have decent enunciation so it’s pretty easy to follow along. The fact that it’s based on the tale of The Pied Piper doesn’t hurt either.
So minimalist is the piece that short singer and tall singer perform all parts—crowd, narrator, minister, minister’s wife and minister’s child. While not hard to follow, it is distracting to have a character sing a line, then add, “said the minister.” The whole thing can’t shake the feel of a cold read through—cast reading directions and descriptions because the piece hasn’t been staged yet. I’ve always thought of opera as something that involves singing and acting, but tall singer and short singer pretty much just walk upstage and downstage and some lighting guy keeps alternating the door lighting from supernova to moderately blinding.
All that aside, what seems oddest is the parts of the story Benjamin highlights. The thing about The Pied Piper is that the fun is in watching the rats and then the rugrats be charmed away into the hills. Even when I was a wee Sidekick and my mama would read me various illustrated versions, the first couple pages were always something to be slugged until you got to the cute illustrations of dancing vermin. So it seems strange that someone would write a whole 40-minute opera based on the tale and not work in at least a little rat and child romping.
Don’t get me wrong the whole section where child questions mother about what’s going to happen to the rats is an amusing tangent: How will they die? With dignity, sweetheart. But while I’d be the first to lock Michael Vick away for good if the dog fighting charges are true, it’s sort of hard for any New Yorker who’s ever seen a fat rodent dart across the C train tracks to get to worked up about the fate of rats. I just want to see them do a jig!
Into the Little Hill continues tonight and tomorrow night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. For more information, click here. Also on the program are two short chamber works by Mr. Benjamin.
Photos by Stephanie Berger