Tempest Treatments[; Marga Richter Biography]
Nearly seven years ago, James L. Paulk noted in the pages of this magazine that The Tempest, the most musicalized of Shakespeare's plays, had been subjected to "many operatic assaults," most of them failures. Reviewing the US premiere at Santa Fe of Thomas Adès's opera on the subject, commissioned by Covent Garden in 2004, Paulk found it "odd" that "perhaps the most successful one, by John Eaton," premiered in 1985 at Santa Fe "to mixed reviews," seemed to have been forgotten.
(c) 2013 by Leonard J. Lehrman
New Music Connoisseur, Fall/Winter 2012, v. 20 #2, p. 8
[Words in brackets did not appear in printed version.]
Margaret Ross Griffel's Operas in English (Greenwood, 1999) lists 8 different operas based on the play, from the 17th, 18th and early 20th centuries, along with the Eaton; a 1992 version by Peter Westergaard premiered in 1994 by the New Jersey Opera Festival (where she lists Christopher Mattaliano as having conducted, when in fact he directed; Michael Pratt conducted); and the one I'd really most like to hear, complete: the late Lee Hoiby's, on a libretto by Mark Shulgasser, that premiered in Iowa in 1986, repeated in Dallas in 1996, both times with Constance Hauman as Ariel and Jacque Trussel as Caliban. Hoiby revised it for an April 26, 2008 production at SUNY Purchase, bringing excerpts (what American Opera Projects called an "excerpted, semi-staged concert version") to Symphony Space two days later. In
my NMC review of the event I noted that it "left one wanting to hear more of it," that Molly Davey's coloratura as Ariel was "awesome," while "Eric Barry as Caliban displayed a nice lyric tenor, unfortunately often covered" by the orchestra.
Also worth mentioning is the forthcoming musical, La Tempesta, by Tom Jones (of Fantasticks fame) with songs by Andrew Gerle, which Jones claimed during York Theatre's spring 2012 mufti festival [(covered in my last NMC article, though only online - cut from the printed version)] will be his magnum opus. And various songs from Shakespeare's play have of course had their own life, especially Ariel's "Where the bee sucks," in innumerable settings, including a recent successful one by David Lang,
and a classic by Albert Tepper.
Paulk noted that the Adès opera "rewards careful repeat listening. And there will almost certainly be plenty of opportunities." The Metropolitan Opera provided one this past October, in a well-received production conducted by the composer. The part of Ariel, sung by Audrey Luna, written almost entirely above the staff, was so stratospheric as to be virtually unintelligible, though of course one could argue that supertitles ameliorated that somewhat. Simon Keenlyside dominated the stage as Prospero, but King Alonso's music was most memorable, gorgeously sung by William Burden. Caliban was assigned to a tenor, Alan Oke, not too dissimilar to Ferdinand (Alek Shrader), making him more exotic than vulgar. One sensed a European colonialist attitude here, trying to find nobility or at least sympathy in the savage (as Hoiby seems to have done also). Paulk noted that in Santa Fe the part required "that he spend the evening virtually naked on stage," which was not the case at the Met.
Bringing out Caliban's vulgarity - he is, after all, referred to and even addressed constantly as "Monster" - seems to have been the aims of both Eaton and Westergaard, the latter casting him as a bass. Both composers generously sent study scores and videos for this article. Both Princetonians, they write music that is highly controlled, serial in pitch though not in dynamics, containing moments of deliberately chaotic aleatoria. Their third act librettos are more identical than not, both concluding with Prospero's Act I Scene 4 speech, invoking "the stuff dreams are made on."
(Some may know that phrase as "the stuff dreams are made of" - made famous by Humphrey Bogart in John Huston's 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, and often quoted by others [- including me, in the finale of my musical portrait of Emma Goldman trying to come back to the U.S., with the chorus singing: "E.G., the stuff dreams are made of - E.G., what's America afraid of!?"] A 1940 edition I have of the complete plays of Shakespeare actually uses the word "of" in the passage, not "on." But "on" seems to be the consensus of later scholarship, and an online wit at enotes.com actually chides Bogart and Huston for not having sufficiently "brushed up" on their Shakespeare!)
But while Westergaard achieves a feeling of uneasy symmetry in his harmonic treatment of half-tones and tritones as consonances, Eaton's palate is more varied, encompassing consistent quarter-tone harmonies, Renaissance modality (and instruments), and a jazz trio that accompanies Caliban and his cohorts. Eaton writes: "All of the 1/4 tones in Caliban's part are 'blues notes' and can be easily negotiated, once a jazz singer knows what they are. Furthermore, this part should be rewritten for each performance, especially for the singer employed, to take advantage of his or her special capabilities. If a female singer is used, she must have a low, husky, masculine voice. Therefore the part presented here is just a skeleton, subject to change and improvization."[(Act I partitur, p.179n1] Both productions of his opera, the 1985 premiere at Santa Fe and one a year later at Indiana University, used a female singer. While Ann Howard sang the part beautifully at Santa Fe, the crassness I think a male singer could have brought to the role was missing. John emailed me (full disclosure: I studied with him, and worked on one of his operas, at Indiana in 1975-76): "To my ears most female jazz singers communicate masculinity whereas male jazz singers can often sound feminine. Also, I wanted his voice to sound 'un-human' in a way." In both the Westergaard and the Eaton, the role of Prospero was sung magnificently - by Tim Noble at Santa Fe in the Eaton; by William Parcher at the New Jersey Opera Festival in the Westergaard.
[In general, Eaton's music seems to stop rather than end; he doesn't seem to believe in "buttons" at the ends of numbers or scenes-curious for the creator (with his librettist daughter Estela) of the quite successful Curious Case of Benjamin Button, premiered by the Center for Contemporary Opera in 2010 and just issued on DVD by Albany, Troy 1366. Sopranos Linda Larson as the teacher and wife and Jennifer Roderer in 4 roles were radiant in the most lyrical music of the opera.
Eaton's Tempest also makes extensive use of simultaneous conflicting tempi among his various ensembles, a technique used by Karlheinz Stockhausen in his "Gruppen," which received a rare performance at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Lincoln Center Festival June 29 & 30, 2012, conducted by Alan Gilbert, with two assistants - composers Magnus Lindberg and Matthias Pintscher. Though my overall impression of the performance was positive, I had to raise an eyebrow, watching the same group do the Act I Finale of Mozart's Don Giovanni (plus some Gabrieli) earlier in the concert. The Mozart also has three orchestras, in three conflicting meters (not tempi, just meters), and had three conductors. The subsidiary conductors, however, did not beat the contrasting meters, but rather stuck to the main orchestra's meter that Gilbert was conducting, which made me wonder how faithful they were to the composer's intentions in the lesser-known Stockhausen piece. ]
Both Westergaard and Eaton make use of electronic sounds in their scores, especially in the scenes with Ariel and the other spirits. Eaton's Ariel is a coloratura mezzo, going up to a C (his Miranda goes up to a D, and beyond), "because," he emailed me, "he (it) must communicate all the power of Prospero's intellect"--accompanied by a trio of spirits, many string harmonics, and a "Harmonizer" that produces an echo. Westergaard remarks in his long preface: "Synthesizer and midi technology is changing so rapidly that it would be foolhardy to specify the best means for achieving" his goal: "to make the voice note and the synthesizer note become one sound... An ideal arrangement would use the singers' input to shape the synthesizer's output in real time..."
[The most effective use of such a device I've ever heard was in Kaija Saariaho's immensely impressive one-person opera Émilie, enacted by Elizabeth Futral at Lincoln Center July 19-22, 2012, where she managed to sing in harmony with herself, not just at the octave, but often at the third or the sixth. Saariaho is an extraordinary composer, and the first subject in a series of biographies of "Women Composers," just now being published by University of Illinois Press. The second in that series is Marga Richter.
Sharon Mirchandani, professor of music history and theory at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, has spent nearly a decade researching, interviewing, and compiling her 170-page biography of the still very active composer Marga Richter (born Oct. 21, 1926), co-founder with Herbert A. Deutsch (in 1972) of the still very active Long Island Composers Alliance (LICA). On the 40th anniversary concert of that organization, in Huntington, June 3, 2012, she stole the show, with a performance by her son Michael Skelly of her piano sonata, originally programmed in the middle of the concert, but properly moved to the end, as no one could follow it.
The biographer tantalizingly describes her subject as "kind, and, most surprising to me, still able to fall in love" (p. xii), but then does not elaborate on that except for a cryptic reference to a fairly recent "relationship" (p. 113), characterized as "the emotional turmoil of a romantic interlude that deepened but then cooled." Responding to a query about this, and an episode between her two marriages (alluded to without names) when she became a "second wife" to a scientist, the biographee emailed me: "Intentionally non-specific. In all cases."
Born in Reedsburg, WI, Marga seems to have had a happy childhood - her mother, Inez Chandler Richter (née Davis) was an American soprano who had an operatic career in Germany; her paternal grandfather had been a composer, conductor and teacher in Einbeck. Her teachers at Juilliard included Rosalyn Tureck, William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti. Marga's second husband, whom she married in 1953, Alan Skelly (1921-1988), was a professor of philosophy at C.W. Post, and seems to have been both a lovely person (according to my father who knew him both at Erasmus Hall High School and Harvard) and extremely supportive of her. It's one of my great regrets that I joined LICA only just after his death, and never met him. But this past April 27, at LIU Post, I had the pleasure of conducting, from the piano, 4-hands with the composer, two Walt Whitman choruses she wrote in his memory. (One of them, "The Last Invocation", is viewable on YouTube.)
The Richter catalog includes 7 stage works, among them one 1-act opera, Riders to the Sea (after Synge); 27 for piano; 9 choral; 17 solo vocal (10 of them cycles); 36 chamber pieces; and 16 for orchestra; plus numerous arrangements, including an orchestral suite, apparently still unperformed, based on Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, dating from 1954. That was the year she got to know Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, working with her on the MGM recording of Marc Blitzstein's version of The Three-Penny Opera. There's a photograph (on p. 29) of Lenya and others with Marga in the recording studio; Marc Blitzstein has his arm around her, the ever-present cigarette clutched between his index and middle fingers. (A new biography of Blitzstein is reviewed elsewhere in this issue. His Mahagonny translation has also never been performed, except two 2 excerpts, in 2005.) Unfortunately, though she has warm memories of Lenya, she remembers little about Marc.
All the photos in the book are lovely. The one on the cover is the least flattering, but is also expressive, in a mysterious sort of way, of an aura that is maintained throughout the book. It is also, admirably, virtually typo-free. In fact I found only 2 in the whole work:
p. 43 Bennington Composer[s] Conference; p. 139n11 Kurt Weil[l]
Less admirable, though small, are a couple of musical gaffes: a reference to the non-existent interval of "a minor twelfth" (p. 89); and "an A major-minor seventh chord with an added C-natural" (p. 120) - isn't C-natural already in that chord?
The most serious criticisms I have of the book are the lack of any dates in the Discography, the omission from the index of other composers listed on pp. 77-78 (Kay, Benson, Siegmeister, Brant, Smit, Adler, Hanson, Chávez, Persichetti, Barber, Busby, Schwartz), and the author's neglecting to consult the History of LICA, in which she would have found performances at Adelphi and in Germany of some of Richter's songs to German texts.
Those matters aside, the book is an important guide to the important works of an important composer. If the mood of her music, especially since the advent of her widowhood, is predominantly dour, somber, and best taken "in small doses," as NY Times critic Theodore Libbey, Jr. wrote, reviewing the only all-Richter concert, to date, at Merkin Hall, Oct. 21, 1981, it is still often remarkably expressive, usually quite moving, and always worth hearing.]
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