The world of contemporary opera seems to have fallen hard for Gertrude Stein, one of the 20th century’s most influential and controversial writers and thinkers. First came Ricky Ian Gordon’s 27, commissioned by the St. Louis Opera and starring Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral as the indomitable Stein and her long-time lover Alice B. Toklas. The opera’s world premiere in 2014 garnered some of the most enthusiastic reviews of any new opera in the last two decades and helped introduce Stein and her legacy to people who may have known little or nothing about her.
Now comes a new opera that is more modest in length and scope, yet more artistically and theatrically daring and innovative. After Life, by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason, imagines an otherworldly, after death encounter between Stein and artist Pablo Picasso, who shared a long if sometimes turbulent friendship after they each found their way to Paris in the early 20th century and became part of its vibrant intellectual community. As ardent and fearless modernists they were artistic and creative allies, but their political differences generated friction that worsened into estrangement with the calamitous events of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In After Life, Stein and Picasso are brought together to try to make sense of the difficult and sometimes controversial choices they made as so much of the world around them began to crumble. “What did we leave for the living,” Stein asks at one point with more than a twinge of regret, although she and her friend are just as apt to prattle on about how famous and successful they were. (There is something both amusing and pathetic about Stein’s relentless preoccupation with the fact that her face once adorned the cover of Time magazine or Picasso’s smug recitation of the names of just some of the many women whose hearts he has conquered.) Kudos to both Mason and Cipullo for daring to make Stein and Picasso such complicated and even unlikable characters, especially as they unpleasantly argue through the first third of the opera.
What finally compels these two squabbling colleagues to step beyond their own arrogance and honestly confront their personal moral missteps is the mysterious appearance of a teenage French orphan whose name remains unknown to us. In earlier, happier times she had met Stein when she was selling flowers on a rural road not far from Paris. The libretto even suggests that this was moment when Stein bought the rose for her lover Alice that she first uttered her famous words, “a rose is a rose is a rose.” Tragically, the girl was later taken from her orphanage to a Nazi concentration camp and it was the terrible deprivation she suffered there that eventually led to her untimely and essentially anonymous death. It is only as this young girl recounts her heartbreaking story that both Stein and Picasso can surmount their own self-absorption and begin to grasp the towering tragedy of the Holocaust and the insufficiency of their own response to it. It is a highly unsettling story, which, in the words of the composer, “is more concerned with raising questions than answering them.”
Such a complex and troubling story prompts the question of whether or not After Life might have been even more effective as a spoken play. The text would have been much easier to understand and its impact might have been even more direct and immediate. On the other hand, we would be robbed of Cipullo’s ever-compelling musical score, which conveys the contradictory complexity of the two artists and the aching innocence of the Parisian girl with such potent authenticity. For as vividly as we know these characters from the words of Mason’s expertly crafted libretto, we begin to truly understand and empathize with them because of the music with which those words are set. Cipullo shapes his melodic phrases with an uncannily perceptive ear for each character’s profile and personality, and the harmonic language beneath is an
exquisite kaleidoscope of colors. The chamber orchestra accompaniment is a bold yet never overbearing presence, and it serves up every emotional flavor this story requires, from biting pain and bitter tragedy to transcendent beauty and stirring hope. The musicians from Music of Remembrance play with unfailing skill and sensitivity under the able guidance of conductor Stillian Kirov.
One might only wish that the composer had made different choices regarding tessitura. The recordings we have of Stein’s speaking voice reveal it to be a warm and hearty contralto, but Cipullo’s melodic lines for the character consistently stray well above that register and do not exploit those deeper colors as often as one might like. Likewise, the tessitura for Picasso’s music is unkindly weighted toward the top of the range, although the resulting unloveliness of certain climaxes is perhaps meant to reflect the painter’s more unattractive qualities. And while the orphan girl’s music is almost unfailingly lovely, she is asked to sustain a couple of stratospheric high notes that nearly amount to cruel and unusual punishment, no matter how skillfully they are rendered. One particularly moving passage, in which she is remembering how much she loved selling flowers, ends with a delicate high C that is sustained for seventeen arduous seconds; for as lovely as the moment might seem to be on paper, as we actually hear it sung we suddenly find ourselves feeling more sympathy for the soprano than for her character. In a work meant to be as deeply personal and affecting as this, the composer is subverting his cause every time a listener’s attention is drawn away from the heart of the narrative to marvel at a singer’s skill or to lament at how difficult the music is to sing.
Fortunately, the opera is performed by three exceptionally able singers who successfully manage to contend with this score’s considerable challenges. Mezzo soprano Catherine Cook is a formidable artist in every respect, and she vividly embodies Stein’s larger than life persona. It is especially impressive how she conveys Stein’s overpowering grandeur and arrogance in a way that also reveals the very real insecurity and fragility just beneath the surface. Hers is a gleaming voice with thrilling thrust, but she also manages the moments of gentler lyricism and grace with assurance and aplomb. Baritone Robert Orth is a singing actor of the first rank and he perfectly captures Pablo Picasso’s swaggering charm. The aforementioned challenge of unreasonable tessitura causes his voice to curdle a bit in certain climaxes, but otherwise his singing is rich and highly communicative. Ava Pine delivers a radiant and moving performance of the unnamed orphan, though in the best of all possible worlds she would sound even a bit younger than she does. Nevertheless, her sound is fresh and perfectly supported, and her diction is the most pristine of the three singers.
So many modern operas eschew any semblance of “numbering” in favor of a free-flowing form in which there are almost never arias or ensembles as such. In many cases, the result is a work that feels (for better or worse) like a sung play, but one in which the typical audience member comes away recalling almost nothing from the score except a blizzard of complexity; nothing specific is remembered at all. After Life is that rather rare modern opera that contains extended passages that stand out in relief from the rest of the score and are not easily forgotten. One such instance in this opera is a trio in which all three characters are reflecting back on what life was like for them; there is striking disparity both textually and musically between the three lines, as there was in their respective life experiences during the war. The trio surges in intensity as the two artists struggle to assuage their sense of guilt while the orphan raises heartrending questions of why she had to die. The three voices converge in a searing climactic chord, and as it dies away we hear the tender music that ushered in the orphan’s earlier arietta in which she describes the circumstances of her death. This would seem to be the moment when Stein and Picasso finally begin to take in the significance of the orphan’s heartbreaking story, and the three singers finally join together in the same text: “What we wanted was more life.” It is here that these three disparate stories converge as one and the effect is profoundly moving. It is only as Stein and Picasso fully grasp the tragedy of this young girl’s story, which is just one of millions of other similar stories, that they can finally give themselves back up to death. The final moments of the opera are left to the orphan as she looks back on her all too brief life and wonders if she ever had a name. It is the culmination of an extraordinary journey that takes us less than fifty minutes to complete.
After Life was dedicated to composer Lori Laitman in part as a memorial tribute to her mother. It is fitting that this disk also includes yet another Laitman masterpiece that springs from the collective pain and loss of the Holocaust. In Sleep The World Is Yours is a set of three songs for soprano, oboe, and piano with texts written by Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger. She was a talented German-Romanian Jewish girl who died of typhus in a Nazi SS camp in 1942 at the age of eighteen. Just days before she was shipped off to the camp in the Ukraine, Selma gathered about fifty of her poems into a simply bound album that she titled Harvest of Blossoms. She dedicated the collection to a young man named Leisher Fichman who had been a very close friend and confidant. She was not able to give the album to him directly, since he had already been deported to a labor camp in Romania, but it somehow reached him after her death. When he decided a couple of years later to travel to the presumed safety of Palestine, he decided that he should entrust the poems to another hometown friend. Tragically, the ship on which he sailed was torpedoed and everyone and everything aboard the ship was lost. We should be grateful that Selma’s poems did not suffer a similar fate. The poems were carefully safeguarded by the friend and eventually published in their original German in the 1970s. It was not until 2008 that they were finally published in English translation under the title Harvest of Blossoms: Poems from a Life Cut Short. The poems reveal all kinds of facets of young Selma’s life and personality, but in many of them we are treated to the frank, unrestrained outpouring of a young heart battered by bewildering sorrow, struggling to understand how the world could turn so dark and what place she had in such a world.
The composer writes in the liner notes of her appreciation for the spare, unguarded simplicity of Selma’s poetry as well as its rich layers of additional meaning and emotion to which any composer derives his or her highest inspiration. In a recent conversation with your writer, Laitman confessed that she did not immediately grasp the greatness of these texts. “Selma’s poetry,” said Laitman, “did not initially overwhelm me because the language was so simple. Consequently, I had to dig deeper with the subtext . What was she trying to convey? And how could I translate the deeper meaning musically? I found these poems required more of my imagination than normal because the balance of my musical translation was skewed more towards the subtext.” It’s a potentially valuable word of caution to those who might bypass a given text because of its apparent simplicity. Some simple texts are only that, with no deeper meanings to explore and convey. These texts by young Selma, on the other hand, harbor a reservoir of richer meanings that Laitman brings to life.
Ms. Laitman chose three poems that have evoked some of the most expressive and affecting music she has ever composed. “Lullaby,” gives this set its title with these haunting words that one can imagine a frightened mother whispering to her young child:
Sleep, my child, just fall asleep.
Sleep, sleep, and don’t cry anymore.
Just look, in sleep the world is yours.
Please sleep and don’t cry so hard.
The poem goes on to describe how the safety of sleep brings us into a world“ where there is no hate and no scorn,” and where one can still find joy and beauty in the rivers and winds.
These words are powerful enough on their own, but when wed to Laitman’s exquisite music they become almost unbearably moving. Especially telling is how Laitman utilizes repetition—or rather an impression of repetition—in much the same way that most lullabies work their soothing magic. The song begins in circumspect fashion, with its melodic lines very gently contoured, as if to convey the singer’s quiet assurance. Little by little, however, we detect increasing desperation as the melodic line surges more forcefully and the music’s dissonance becomes more pungent. Still more heartbreaking is how the lullaby ends with almost no sense of resolution. Both harmonically and melodically we are left with the same disquieting unease that must have been an all too familiar emotion for people caught in such circumstances.
In the second poem, “Yes,” Selma writes of how the precious gift of memory can allow us to hold close someone who is, in fact, far away. In those turbulent times, such separations were all too common, but that didn’t make them any less painful to endure. There is a touching sense of grim determination in this text, which opens with these words:
You are so distant.
As distant as a star I thought I’d grasped.
And yet you are near—
just a little dusty
like time that’s past.
In contrast to the relatively peaceful calm of the opening song, this music begins with almost fierce turbulence, as though the singer’s feeling of separation is at its most painful. The longer the song proceeds, however, the more centered it seems to become, even if complete peace remains just out of reach.
The third and final poem, “Tragedy,” is indeed the most tragic of the three, and may be one of the most heartbreaking texts to emerge from the Holocaust. The fact that these words were written by an 18 year old girl with only months to live only deepens the dimensions of their crushing sorrow:
This is the hardest: to give yourself away
and then to see that no one needs you,
to give all of yourself and realize
you’ll fade like smoke and leave no trace.
This song opens with an extended and restless sounding introduction for the piano and oboe. The singer enters in halting, stammering fashion as though she is emotionally undone and unable to fully comprehend the empty anonymity of her impending death. The text folds back upon itself again and again, as though to form an inescapable knot of despair. Laitman’s finest stroke of genius comes in the final phrase of the song, where she knits together the opening and closing words of the poem: “this is the hardest: to leave no trace.” The last moments are all but whispered a cappella, and as the final note dies away we find ourselves staring into same abyss that confronted young Selma in that harsh prison camp more than seventy years ago. Laitman has achieved something truly extraordinary here. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any art song in the last century that has achieved this kind of utter perfection.
As fine as these songs are in themselves, their deep impact is due in large part to the superb musicians to whom they are entrusted. Soprano Megan Chenovick possesses a shimmering voice and perfectly poised technical prowess. Even more importantly, she sings these songs with disarming sincerity and warmth. We’re not told in the liner notes if these songs were crafted with her in mind, but one can scarcely imagine a more perfect pairing of music and singer. Benjamin Hausmann’s oboe playing has an uncanny vocal quality to it, and he renders even the most intricate passages with melting ease. Mina Miller, the artistic director of Music of Remembrance, is the capable and sensitive pianist. She is also to be commended as the artistic heart and soul of so many important projects such as After Life and In Sleep The World Is Yours that draw all of us back again and again to remember this tragic chapter from our past and—one can only hope—learn from it. - Gregory Berg