Category Archives: New Opera & Performance

Tesla, recorded

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola TeslaVio­let Fire, the opera about Niko­la Tes­la that I worked on as libret­tist with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son, is final­ly get­ting a stu­dio record­ing! It’s a lit­tle late—the world pre­miere and U.S. pre­miere hap­pened in Bel­grade and New York in 2006—but I’m still excit­ed. Last week, Jon con­vened a stel­lar group of musi­cians at a record­ing stu­dio in Brook­lyn to lay down tracks for the record­ing.

Jon Gibson, Gregory Purnhagen, Dean Sharenow
Jon Gib­son look­ing over score, left; singer Gre­go­ry Purn­hagen, cen­ter; record­ing engi­neer Dean Sharenow, right

I was able to sit in one day as the solo singers record­ed their parts. They includ­ed Scott Mur­phree, who played our orig­i­nal Tes­la; Peter Stew­art, our orig­i­nal Mark Twain; Solange Mer­din­ian, as Tesla’s friend Katharine John­son; Gre­go­ry Purn­hagen, as the Reporter; and Marie Mas­cari as the White Dove. The great Mick Rossi led the record­ing as music direc­tor and con­duc­tor.

Scott Murphree as Tesla
Scott Mur­phree, singing the part of Tes­la

Each char­ac­ter in the opera is there to show a dif­fer­ent facet of Tesla’s life, from the most inti­mate to the most pub­lic. Mark Twain, who sensed the mag­ni­tude of the inventor’s break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent and wire­less trans­mis­sion, sings in praise of his accom­plish­ments and glob­al influ­ence, while the Reporter offers com­men­tary on Tesla’s wax­ing and then wan­ing fame. Katharine John­son sings plain­tive­ly to her “dear and silent friend” who, devot­ed to his work, seems to have “no human needs.” Mar­ried to the writer and edi­tor Robert John­son, Katharine host­ed Tes­la at many din­ner par­ties. Her elo­quent­ly emo­tion­al let­ters to him reveal a deep but one-sided attach­ment to the inven­tor.

The real Mar­garet Storm wrote a book, The White Dove, that gave the opera its name: in it, she described Tes­la as “Prince of the Vio­let Fire,” and told of his being born on Venus and then trans­port­ed to Earth to offer his oth­er­world­ly knowl­edge to human­i­ty. And the char­ac­ter of the White Dove is inspired by a pigeon that Tes­la, late in life, admit­ted to lov­ing and car­ing for in the parks of New York. The opera took form around the sense that this bird should be allowed to sing.

Marie Mascare as the White Dove
Marie Mas­cari, singing the role of the White Dove

It was won­der­ful to hear Jon’s music brought to life again by these great singers and musi­cians. In the sin­u­ous melod­ic lines and slid­ing chords, I hear the sad­ness woven in with Tesla—not just from his self-imposed human iso­la­tion. When Scott Mur­phree, as Tes­la, sang the line “An end to suf­fer­ing…,” it car­ried both Tesla’s grand, glob­al-scale ambi­tions, and also the fail­ure to achieve them that would inevitably fol­low. Then there’s this line sung by the Reporter, tak­en near-ver­ba­tim from a poignant head­line in the New York World: “At night and in secret, Niko­la Tes­la lav­ish­es his love on pigeons.” Great explo­sions of ener­gy, secret com­mu­nion with birds, oth­er­world­ly visions—all these things are part of Tes­la, and they’re all in the opera, real­ized through Jon’s beau­ti­ful music.

After the tracks are edit­ed, a record­ing of Vio­let Fire should be available—soon, I hope. I’ll let you know.

 

 

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Leah Stein, Dance Alchemist

LSCD 2 crop Leah Stein, a mas­ter of site-spe­cif­ic chore­og­ra­phy, is known for cre­at­ing out­door dances that work a kind of alche­my on the places where they hap­pen. She pro­ceeds inclu­sive­ly, allow­ing her dancers, the audi­ence, the place itself, and ran­dom ele­ments includ­ing passers­by and even the weath­er, to come togeth­er into a new kind of com­mu­nal zone.

In TURBINE, the col­lab­o­ra­tive piece cre­at­ed with the Mendelssohn Club to mark the 200th anniver­sary of Philadelphia’s his­toric Fair­mount Water Work’s com­plex, we in the audi­ence fol­lowed the fif­teen dancers and sev­er­al dozen singers as they moved through the out­door site, and some­times sur­round­ed us. Immer­sion was a fit­ting strat­e­gy for this place, once an ear­ly-indus­tri­al mar­vel that sup­plied clean water to the city, and now an eeri­ly beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of open Greek-Revival struc­tures, cliffs, trees and lawn set between the Philadel­phia Muse­um and the Schuylkill Riv­er.

Begin­ning in a grove of trLSDC1 smees, the dancers and singers appeared with­out fan­fare among the audi­ence, offer­ing sim­ple arc­ing ges­tures and short, over­lap­ping musi­cal phras­es. We fol­lowed them as they moved across the grass, entered a river­side gaze­bo, and then made their way along a short pal­isade to a wide plaza. The dancers, in bright orange, and the singers in blue-green vests or scarves, seemed to be mak­ing a new map of the place while mov­ing across the sur­face it described.

Writ­ers includ­ing Charles Dick­ens and Mark Twain vis­it­ed the renowned Water Works in their time, and com­pos­er Byron Au Yong culled haiku-like frag­ments from their descrip­tions to cre­ate flex­i­ble son­ic mod­ules. Au Yong, who has made site-based work before, allowed the singers some lib­er­ty in the tim­ing of their own phras­es, which inter­wove, some­times fad­ing in the air, some­times res­onat­ing like depth charges. For the choir mem­bers of the Mendelssohn Club, who have worked with Stein before, the piece offered a unique­ly chal­leng­ing adven­ture, and we felt their brav­ery as they bal­anced walk­ing and expres­sive ges­tures with out­door singing. Mean­while, the dancers held the space like sentries—moving, or often still; offered rit­u­als of pour­ing water; and danced, all with nev­er-flag­ging con­cen­tra­tion.

Dancers and singers on the plaza
Dancers and singers on the plaza

As we attend­ed to what was hap­pen­ing, the site came to life around the per­form­ers. Stand­ing in the ear­ly evening light, I was struck by the uncom­mon grace­ful­ness of this place, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly felt it as it is right now: a place ringed by parked cars and traf­fic noise, part of a liv­ing city.

Expe­ri­enc­ing a work by Leah Stein, I’ve found, has after­ef­fects. Some good art does this—by desta­bi­liz­ing our per­cep­tion, it makes us see dif­fer­ent­ly. It may be part­ly the shock of dis­place­ment into an unex­pect­ed venue that inten­si­fies our atten­tion, push­ing us into the present moment (like com­ing on a flash-mob per­for­mance, which may be a new folk form of site-spe­cif­ic dance). But her out­door events, although large-scale, are anti-spec­ta­cles, induc­ing a sense of won­der through an almost hyp­not­ic sense of height­ened recep­tiv­i­ty. After the last min­gling of per­form­ers and audi­ence on the plaza, we left trans­formed, released into the sur­round­ings and sud­den­ly see­ing the col­ors of dusk as more sat­u­rat­ed, the sounds more crisp, and every move­ment as a sig­nal.

 

TURBINE was per­formed on June 28, 2015 at the Fair­mount Water Works. 

Leah Stein Dance Com­pa­ny

Mendelssohn Club of Philadel­phia

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More women in opera?

Giulia Grisi as Norma, 1844
From an engrav­ing of Giu­lia Grisi as Nor­ma, 1844, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

With all the great women’s roles in opera, from Aida to Nor­ma to Tosca, bring­ing up the issue of increas­ing women’s role in opera could seem like beg­ging the ques­tion. Or like the set­up for a punch line—how many sopra­nos do you need to put on an opera? But at the recent Opera Amer­i­ca con­fer­ence, held ear­li­er this month in Wash­ing­ton D.C., a ses­sion on Women in Arts Lead­er­ship drew about 100 peo­ple, most of them women, for an ener­getic dis­cus­sion prompt­ed by ques­tions like: Why are there so few women lead­ing opera com­pa­nies? Why are most of the new operas pro­duced still writ­ten by men? If more women could make deci­sions, would the sub­jects of new operas change somehow—maybe fea­tur­ing more parts for women?

The all-women pan­el, includ­ing three opera com­pa­ny direc­tors, was eager to move past such ques­tions and start act­ing on solu­tions. One pan­elist sug­gest­ed a goal of reach­ing thir­ty per­cent par­tic­i­pa­tion in each cat­e­go­ry of opera pro­duc­tion, from direc­tors to com­posers, set design­ers and more—a lev­el that’s con­sid­ered a tip­ping point after which fur­ther changes can begin to take care of them­selves.

Opera Amer­i­ca has already begun one strate­gic ini­tia­tive: offer­ing com­mis­sion­ing grants to women com­posers, and to opera com­pa­nies will­ing to help pro­duce their work. I was there at the con­fer­ence with one of the sev­en recent grant win­ners, Kit­ty Brazel­ton, a fan­tas­tic com­pos­er and an old friend from col­lege. We’re work­ing togeth­er on a new opera project, and the grant she received will make pos­si­ble a work­shop per­for­mance this fall, in New York. We’ve both worked on opera projects before, with col­lab­o­ra­tors who hap­pened to be men—although the first music project Kit­ty and I worked on, play­ing in a four-piece folk-rock band she orga­nized in our fresh­man year, was also an all-women ven­ture.

Will our project, called Art of Mem­o­ry, be fla­vored dif­fer­ent­ly some­how because of our gen­der? Since the sub­ject is the strug­gles of two male saints—St. Augus­tine and St. Ambrose, who knew each oth­er in Milan in the 4th century—it wouldn’t seem to be nudg­ing any gen­der shift in sub­ject mat­ter. But Kit­ty is writ­ing both lead­ing parts to be sung by women. In fact, she plans to sing St. Ambrose her­self, con­trast­ing her rock-mez­zo vocals with more tra­di­tion­al opera vocal style. Very cool!

Women have tra­di­tion­al­ly played some male roles, called “trouser roles,” often when the male char­ac­ter is young. Our project’s cross-cast­ing is meant as a way to shake up the audience’s encrust­ed ideas about two long-revered saints. In my last opera project, Judg­ment of Midas, Kam­ran Ince rewrote the part of the god Pan for a sopra­no. Anoth­er com­pos­er, Melis­sa Dun­phy, used a sim­i­lar approach in her 2009 piece, The Gon­za­les Can­ta­ta, with music set to the tran­scribed tes­ti­mo­ny of for­mer Attor­ney Gen­er­al Alber­to Gon­za­les before the Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee. Dun­phy neat­ly flipped the cast­ing of the piece, so that the near­ly all-male par­tic­i­pants in the orig­i­nal hear­ings were all sung by sopra­nos; only Sen. Dianne Fein­stein was sung by a man. In this case, the num­ber of sopra­nos need­ed to put on an ora­to­rio, at least, was four­teen.

Change is hap­pen­ing in opera, and we don’t know where it will lead. It’s excit­ing to be part of that.

 

 

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Remembering Sun Ra

Limited-edition press of a Sun Ra remix by Brendan Lynch/deUS
Lim­it­ed-edi­tion press of a Sun Ra remix by Bren­dan Lynch/deUS

Space is the Place—the wild space-fan­ta­sy film star­ring Sun Ra, the leg­endary exper­i­men­tal jazz artist—came out in 1974. It fol­lows Sun Ra and his Arkestra as they trav­el to anoth­er plan­et, where they hope to cre­ate an off-earth home for African Amer­i­cans. Back on Earth, they do bat­tle with a pimp-over­lord over the fate of their mis­sion, and play some fan­tas­tic music.

This Fri­day, Bower­bird will screen a new­ly restored, dig­i­tal ver­sion of this one-of-a-kind film at the Rotun­da in Philadel­phia. The event cel­e­brates (just a lit­tle late) the movie’s 40th anniver­sary, and the cen­te­nary of Sun Ra’s “arrival,” as he called it, in 1914 in Alaba­ma, as Her­man Poole Blount. He set­tled in Philadel­phia for the final chap­ter of a long and pro­lif­ic career, “leav­ing” in 1993.

I saw Sun Ra and his Arkestra in the ear­ly 1970s, a lit­tle before Space is the Place pre­miered. I was a col­lege fresh­man, and I’d nev­er heard of him. A friend who was a musi­cian took me to a lit­tle club in West Philadel­phia that looked like a bar on the outside—maybe it was a bar. Crowd­ed in at small tables, we sat just feet away from a pha­lanx of psy­che­del­ic Pharaohs: the mem­bers of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, dressed in shiny, many-col­ored robes, and head­gear that includ­ed some tin­foil. They pro­ceed­ed to blast me out of any thought I’d ever had about music and what it could be, build­ing to a wail­ing, clang­ing, pound­ing wall of sound, even while the musi­cians seemed to know exact­ly what they were doing. That night the Arkestra played their guts out, mak­ing sounds that seemed devised to lift the club into earth orbit. Sun Ra may have intend­ed to give black peo­ple a sense of tran­scen­dence and galac­tic-lev­el free­dom, but he also made room for some­one like me, a white teenaged girl who’d stud­ied clas­si­cal music, to sense the far hori­zons he was aim­ing toward.

That night became a touch­stone for me. Sun Ra’s join­ing of cos­tumed spec­ta­cle and no-holds-barred play­ing made a kind of alche­my hap­pen, and over the years I mea­sured oth­er exper­i­men­tal music and per­for­mance against it. No ques­tion, Sun Ra achieved seri­ous regard in the jazz world, even as he influ­enced many oth­er musi­cians, from George Clin­ton to Deep Pur­ple to Phish. He may not have man­aged to trans­port his peo­ple to anoth­er plan­et, but he made music that sug­gest­ed it was pos­si­ble.

Space is the Place, screen­ing as part of Bowerbird’s GATE @ The Rotun­da

Fri­day Jan­u­ary 16, 8 pm / 4014 Wal­nut Street, Philadel­phia, PA

Intro­duc­tion by Sun Ra biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed / Free / more info at bowerbird.org

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Opera, Real and Surreal

Three operas featured at New Works Forum
Three new operas show­cased at Opera America’s New Works Forum: l-r, The Sum­mer King, Judg­ment of Midas, Dog Days

Opera per­mits us to go into a world that is not real.”

This was spo­ken by Nicole Paiement, artis­tic direc­tor of Opera Par­al­lèle, about halfway through a pan­el dis­cus­sion of sto­ry­telling in opera at Opera America’s New Works Forum, held last week in New York. I was there because Judg­ment of Midas, the new opera I’m involved with, was sched­uled for a show­case performance—an excerpt with singers and piano.

I heard these words with a sense of relief and recog­ni­tion. After this, oth­ers in the room acknowl­edged that many opera com­pa­nies have got­ten into a “qua­si-nat­u­ral­is­tic groove,” devel­op­ing new operas that share with much of tra­di­tion­al opera a straight-ahead, scene-by-scene nar­ra­tive arc.

It’s been almost forty years since the 1976 pre­miere of Ein­stein on the Beach, with its shock­ing mix of enig­mat­ic text, Robert Wilson’s hyp­not­ic move­ment and the propul­sive sound of Philip Glass—and it’s been eighty years since Vir­gil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, sung to a blithe­ly out-there libret­to by Gertrude Stein. Since the ground­break­ing Ein­stein, new opera and music-the­ater have staked out a wider range of pos­si­bil­i­ty for the sto­ry, or in some cas­es, the text that goes with the music. Operas like John Adams’ Doc­tor Atom­ic, about the first atom­ic blast, expand the sto­ry with diver­sions into poet­ry and myth, while Anna Nicole bor­rows TV talk-show for­mat and flash­backs to cre­ate a large-scale ver­sion of the would-be Pop god­dess.

At the New Works Forum, Nicole Paiement described an upcom­ing pro­duc­tion planned for her Opera Par­al­lèle in San Fran­cis­co, a mash-up of Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel and the Baroque-era Les Mamelles de Tiré­sius by Poulenc, which sounds—well, I can’t even imag­ine how this will turn out, which makes it pret­ty inter­est­ing. In some ways, a lot of new opera has more in com­mon with Baroque opera, with its sto­ries of myth­i­cal heroes, gods and god­dess­es. With Judg­ment of Midas, the libret­to I wrote offers a place where Greek gods inter­act with present-day humans. In the libret­to for Vio­let Fire, I tried to cre­ate a dream-like space in which the events, peo­ple and visions expe­ri­enced by the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la could inter­min­gle.

Peo­ple still respond to the big char­ac­ters and pas­sion­ate sto­ries that are the stuff of tra­di­tion­al opera. But it may be that now, with our lives marked by a dizzy­ing inter­play of the vir­tu­al and real, we need art forms to reflect that mul­ti­plic­i­ty of experience—the feel­ing of liv­ing in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties. That kind of mul­ti­plic­i­ty is cod­ed into the struc­ture of opera, with its syn­the­sis of sto­ry, move­ment, visu­als and the human voice at its most pow­er­ful. You could see this mul­ti-lay­ered approach as stretch­ing back to the ear­li­est human sto­ry­telling, which com­bined rhythm, move­ment, cos­tume and voice to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence of a greater, expand­ed real­i­ty shared by humans and gods.

I came away from the New Works Forum recharged and inspired by the work of some gift­ed artists in the field, and the ded­i­ca­tion of the opera pro­fes­sion­als who want to see new work hap­pen. Here’s to the mak­ing of crazy, weird new operas that help us make sense of our strange, fast-chang­ing world.

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How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s some­thing about the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la that has strong­ly attract­ed artists—much more than his arch-rival Edi­son, let’s say. Tesla’s amaz­ing life and grand visions have pulled artis­tic cre­ations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, nov­els and sto­ries, film and video. I know about this first­hand, because it hap­pened to me. Dis­cov­er­ing his sto­ry led me to write a libret­to for what became the opera Vio­let Fire.

Niko­la Tes­la, born in 1856 to Ser­bian par­ents in Croa­t­ia, was a vision­ary scientist/inventor who helped cre­ate the bedrock of our tech­no­log­i­cal world, with his ground­break­ing dis­cov­er­ies in elec­tric­i­ty, radio, robot­ics and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. His intense stream of visu­al­iza­tions led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull elec­tri­cal ener­gy from the upper atmos­phere, still sound like sci­ence fic­tion. He was a charis­mat­ic fig­ure who moved through New York’s Gild­ed Age high soci­ety, befriend­ing Mark Twain and oth­ers, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire
From top: Niko­la Tes­la as an old man; a still from Vio­let Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s sto­ry knocked me over. How could he not be uni­ver­sal­ly known? His visions seemed like those of a mys­tic, yet they had led to inven­tions that have had glob­al effects on how we live. With his strange, out­sized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to por­tray him. I cen­tered the sto­ry on Tesla’s rela­tion­ship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of pow­er­ful light. Vio­let Fire was brought to life by the beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing music of Jon Gib­son, and the con­tri­bu­tions of direc­tor Ter­ry O’Reilly, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Nina Winthrop, and video design­ers Sarah Drury and Jen Sim­mons. Exact­ly sev­en years ago, on Niko­la Tesla’s 150th birth­day, my col­lab­o­ra­tors and I had the great hon­or of see­ing the pre­miere of Vio­let Fire at the Nation­al The­ater in Bel­grade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tes­la. A large-scale opera, Light­ning in His Hand, has been mount­ed in Hobart, Tas­ma­nia. Melis­sa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recent­ly per­formed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jar­musch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tes­la is redis­cov­ered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in art­forms we haven’t yet imag­ined. Hap­py Birth­day, Niko­la Tes­la.

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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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