After Life in Seattle: Music of Remembrance's new one-act opera lingers long after
By Thomas May, 12 May 2015
“Questions remember me,” sings the unnamed girl in After Life, the one-act opera by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason that received its world première on Monday evening in Seattle. Rounded up by the Nazis and sent from her orphanage in a French village to a concentration camp, the girl sings to us from the 'other side', the voice of a life stolen by the Holocaust. She knows she has been forgotten – yet the girl's poignant questions make her presence indelible as she encounters the spirits of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in the afterlife: two famous figures who survived the war while also living in France.
After Life was commissioned by Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based organisation whose unique mission centres around the work of memory: of “remembering Holocaust musicians and their art through musical performances, educational programs, musical recordings, and commissions of new works”. Now in its 17th season, MOR has commissioned instrumental pieces, song cycles and stage works from a roster of (mostly American) composers that includes such names as Jake Heggie, Lori Laitman and Paul Schoenfield, as well as dances from the choreographers Donald Byrd and Pat Hon.
MOR's founder and artistic director Mina Miller explains that the commitment to foster new works by today's composers is integral to the mission of remembering the Holocaust. One of the desired goals is to challenge audiences to think about this unfathomable historical event from unexpected angles. For a Look or a Touch, for example, is a staged song cycle by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer that dramatises the topic of the persecution of gays during the Holocaust.
The idea for After Life originated in 2011 when a pair of art exhibits in San Francisco about Gertrude Stein suggested an imaginary scenario in which Stein and Picasso, the younger fellow avant-garde artist she had championed, confront each other in a posthumous debate. What responsibility did they bear as celebrity artists to respond to what was happening around them during the Nazi occupation? How did Stein, vulnerable as a Jewish woman, survive in Vichy France unscathed, when “fame was not enough” (as Picasso accusingly states)? And though revered for his anti-war masterpiece Guernica, how did the Spanish painter, regarded by the Nazis as a purveyor of 'degenerate' art and a known anti-fascist, get through the war years he spent in occupied Paris?
The poet and novelist David Mason has crafted a potent and searingly eloquent libretto. He cuts through the self-absorbed dialectic between the artists with the haunting, human addition of the teenage girl at the moment when the dramatic arc seems to be headed towards its climax.
Recalling a chance encounter when she had sold a rose to Stein and Alice Toklas from a stand on the roadside, the girl also reminds Picasso of a friend (“almost like a girl”) he painted many times. To Stein's and Picasso's narcissistic preoccupation with the after-life of their art – and their reputations – she counters that her own desire for life was the same as theirs, though “I never read your books/I never saw your art/but I was alive”. Why did they survive while she did not? “You don't know death as I know death”.
What makes this structure so devastatingly effective is that Mason leaves the climactic nodes of each dramatic confrontation unresolved, left to be filled out by Cipullo's music. A recording of his previous opera, Glory Denied, was included on the best-of list for 2014 by Opera News, and Cipullo shows himself to be a natural master of writing for the voice. Within After Life's relatively brief but emotionally eventful duration he successfully differentiates the three characters while at the same time making extraordinary vocal demands of each, from repeatedly stressing the range's outer limits to breathlessly long phrases and sustained notes. Such 'extremist' writing did not distract from but rather intensified Cipullo's lyrical bent, also reinforcing the sense of urgency involved in the questions After Life grapples with.
The première benefited greatly from the committed performances of its cast and the chamber ensemble of five instrumentalists (positioned far stage right) confidently led by the Seattle Symphony's associate conductor Stilian Kirov. As Gertrude Stein, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook sustained a fascinating balance of egotism and guilt-ridden uncertainty. Her powerful voice held its own against the jauntily macho posing Cipullo uses to characterise Picasso, sung with remarkable fervour by the baritone Robert Orth. At times Orth even seemed a few sizes too big vocally for the 536-seat Nordstrom Recital Hall, which had the effect of overemphasising Picasso's arrogance.
As directed by Erich Parce (credits for costumes and scenic design weren't included in the programme), both Cook and Orth were made to uncannily resemble their characters not only in appearance but in attitude and demeanour as well. After Life shifted into a new realm musically with the entrance of the girl in the final 15 minutes or so. Sung with heart-rending beauty and remarkable dynamic control by the soprano Ava Pine, the girl introduced a poignant lyrical serenity that was nevertheless circumscribed by pain. Her role clinched the emotional stakes of After Life.
Cipullo's fluent chamber writing paced the action and argumentation with welcome variety, often following a pattern of scherzando figures that suddenly turn menacing. Mason terms the opera a 'tragicomedy', and the humour of each artist's self-regard was an essential part of Parce's direction as well. A minor quibble regarding the visuals: the iconic Picasso paintings seen as part of the set needed to be rather larger to make their intended impact.
After Life comprised the second half of MOR's concluding concert of the season (and will travel next week to San Francisco). The first half offered a typically thoughtful selection of instrumental pieces to set the tone. Darius Milhaud's Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano, composed as incidental music for the Jean Anouilh play Le voyageur sans baggage, and Music for a Farce, American ex-pat Paul Bowles' recycling of an unused score for a projected Orson Welles film, reminded us of the charming, stylish, ironic atmosphere of Paris between the wars. As for the After Life ensemble, the players mostly featured such veteran Seattle Symphony musicians as the wonderfully mellifluous clarinetist Laura DeLuca, violinist Mikhail Shmidt in a masterful display of stylistic versatility, and, given a prominent and delightfully perky part in the Bowles suite, trumpeter David Gordon.
Miller also programmed music by two little-known Dutch-Jewish composers from the pre-war years: Rosy Wertheim (a deliriously beautiful setting of Le Tsigane dans la Lune, sung by Ava Pine) and Henriette Bosmans (represented by Nuit Calme, a serene piece for cello and piano performed by Walter Gray with Miller herself accompanying at the keyboard). “Both of them were barred from public musical life during the Nazi occupation,” Miller explained, “but they were active in clandestine Amsterdam house concerts that brought courage to many people”.
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