From the Ground Up

Isaiah Zagar landscape painting
Isaiah Zagar’s Islands of Nova Scotia, 1973 – a pre-mosaic painting

“Like embedded journalists, Peter Kinney, Isaiah Zagar and Jeff Waring have made the work in this show as ‘embedded’ artists, burrowing deep into the natural world to bring back its dirty, messy, mysterious secrets… Each of these artists is after full-on communion with the natural world, the kind that leaves you surrounded and bowled over, forgetting the difference between being human, rock, plant or divine…”

Me and artist Peter Kinney - a painting by Peter on left, and one by Jeff Waring on right
Me and artist Peter Kinney – a painting by Peter on left, and two by Jeff Waring on right

This is part of the statement I wrote for the exhibit From the Ground Up: LandWater&Sky, now up at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens through June 9. Thanks to Ellen Owens for inviting me to be part of this wonderful show, which has work by Peter Kinney, Jeff Waring, and some rarely seen early landscape paintings by Isaiah Zagar, dating to before his outdoor mosaic work. Two years ago I included Peter Kinney in a small-group show called Ecstatic Landscape in the Borowsky Gallery at the Gershman Y, where I’m the curator. Peter, Isaiah and Jeff’s work feels like they’re all part of the same school: wild, made-outside visionary landscape?

A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah's mosaic ceiling and floor - works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring
A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah’s mosaic ceiling and floor – works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring

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.


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.