Midas in Milwaukee

Kamran Ince conducting the premiere of Judgment of Midas, at UWM's Zelazo Center
Kam­ran Ince con­duct­ing the pre­miere of Judg­ment of Midas, at UWM’s Zela­zo Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. All pho­tos here by Susan Span­gler.
Pan, sung by Jennifer Goltz  (to left of Kamran Ince), during the music contest
Pan, sung by Jen­nifer Goltz (to left of Kam­ran Ince — yes, the part was cross-cast), dur­ing the music con­test.
Left to right: singers Gregory Gerbrandt and Abigail Fischer, Miriam and Kamran clapping for the orchestra
Left to right: singers Philip Horst, Gre­go­ry Ger­brandt and Abi­gail Fis­ch­er, Miri­am and Kam­ran clap­ping for the orches­tra. The pro­ject­ed image is by Craw­ford Gree­newalt Jr., depict­ing the par­tic­i­pants in the leg­endary music con­test as an ancient mosa­ic.

Judg­ment of Midas pre­miered in Mil­wau­kee last week, and I’m still buzzing. It was an incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence. Kevin Stal­heim, who leads Present Music, and Jill Anna Polasek of Mil­wau­kee Opera The­ater, suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing this won­der­ful pro­duc­tion feel like an opera, even though it was “semi-staged.” Kam­ran Ince, the com­pos­er, con­duct­ed the Present Music ensem­ble, expand­ed to small orches­tra size and includ­ing five Turk­ish musi­cians. The soloists lined up con­cert-style to sing, but each one cre­at­ed their char­ac­ters in place: Fran­ny and Theo, the con­tem­po­rary cou­ple vis­it­ing the ancient ruins of Sardis; the guide Melik/King Midas; and the Gods Apol­lo, Pan and Tmo­lus. Pro­ject­ed images and dig­i­tal light­ing on the Zela­zo Cen­ter stage gave the per­for­mances a visu­al pres­ence and oper­at­ic scale.

I felt the piece com­ing alive, and the audi­ence being pulled in to it, as Kamran’s thrilling, high-octane music, the sto­ry and words, the beau­ti­ful singing and play­ing, and the visu­als came togeth­er into a sin­gle whole. I’m so grate­ful to every­one who gave their best to this pro­duc­tion. Both nights were cap­tured on audio and video, and we are look­ing ahead, hop­ing Midas will con­tin­ue to devel­op and be seen again.

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Touching on Midas

It’s just a week now before the pre­miere of Judg­ment of Midas, the opera I’ve been work­ing on with Kam­ran Ince. It’s hap­pen­ing in Mil­wau­kee, in a pro­duc­tion with Present Music and the Mil­wau­kee Opera The­ater. I’m real­ly excit­ed, look­ing for­ward to see­ing how it’s been imag­ined, and hear­ing the com­plete score for the first time. This is my sec­ond libret­to, and I know I will feel that amaz­ing sen­sa­tion again, of hear­ing words I’ve writ­ten come alive through the music.

For me, Judg­ment of Midas began when I met Kam­ran in Philadel­phia after a per­for­mance of his Strange Stone by Relâche. I found Kamran’s music rav­ish­ing, with beau­ti­ful tex­tures and a sweep­ing ener­gy. I told him how much I liked it, and in the con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lowed he men­tioned he had received a com­mis­sion to write an opera, but had no libret­tist yet. My first opera, Vio­let Fire, had had its first per­for­mance at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty just a few weeks before.

Describ­ing the project, Kam­ran explained that it was inspired by an ancient myth, a sto­ry con­nect­ed with the arche­o­log­i­cal site of Sardis—part of the king­dom of Lydia, and now in west­ern Turkey. My anten­nae went off: I had vis­it­ed Sardis a few years before and remem­bered it vivid­ly. Thanks to Steve, my hus­band, who has a life­long pas­sion for antiq­ui­ty, we’ve been to Turkey sev­er­al times, that last time with our son Ethan.

Sardis sits on a high plain. You see the Gre­co-Roman city ris­ing up out of an emp­ty field, and far­ther away, the huge bur­ial mounds that dat­ed to an even ear­li­er time. It’s one of those places like Stonehenge—so qui­et, you can hear the breeze going past your ears.

It’s also the place where Dr. Craw­ford Gree­newalt, Jr. spent every sum­mer for decades, super­vis­ing the arche­o­log­i­cal dig. It was Greenie’s idea (that’s what every­one calls him) to com­mis­sion an opera based on the sto­ry of King Midas—not the Gold­en Touch, but the less well-known sequel, known from Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses.

The sto­ry that Gree­nie sug­gest­ed to Kam­ran involved a music con­test. It goes like this: after Midas has washed off the Gold­en Touch, he retires to the woods, fol­low­ing the god Pan. Pan chal­lenges Apol­lo to a musi­cal con­test, a sort of Lydia’s Got Tal­ent, to be judged by the local moun­tain god, Tmo­lus. Midas protests when Apol­lo is declared the win­ner, which leads Apol­lo to pun­ish him by giv­ing him a pair of ass­es’ ears.

Full dis­clo­sure: I am a mythol­o­gy nerd. Being able to dive into this sto­ry, with its range of divini­ties from the most sub­lime to the least, and play with the themes it throws off, was a great attrac­tion. Midas was a real king, and is his­tor­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed to the even ear­li­er Phry­gian king­dom. But leg­end said that he washed him­self clean near Sardis, in the riv­er Pactolus—the source of gold for wealthy Lydia.

One of the gifts of this project was meet­ing Gree­nie, a remark­able man who fol­lowed his pas­sions for arche­ol­o­gy and music with­out stint­ing. If he were still alive, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t want any fuss made over his cen­tral role in the project. For­tu­nate­ly he was able to see the con­cert per­for­mance of Midas in New York in 2011. But I’m sure he’ll be with us in Mil­wau­kee too.

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