Stuck Outside of Time With Some Singing Trees By Tom Savage
"Hell" by Eileen Myles (libretto) and Michael Webster (music) Simon Leung (Director) Alison Graff(Conductor) Beth Stephens (Sets) Milena Muzquiz(Costumes)
Cast: James Rio (Brine), Juliana Snapper (Raphael), and others in multiple roles and as members of the chorus.
Ensemble: 2 flutes, 2 violins, bassoon, percussion, harpsichord, viola, contrabass. Presented by The Poetry Project. St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, 2nd Avenue and 10th Street. September 28, 2004. Second of two performances.
Hell is one of the most interesting contemporary, short operas I have seen or heard. Except for another one which I saw and reviewed at this website a year and a half ago called Vera In Las Vegas, (libretto by Paul Muldoon), it is the first such short opera in English that I have heard by a poet of approximately my generation. Both Hell and Vegas are a little over an hour long. Both are by leading contemporary poets; both have surrealistic content and interesting music. In Vera, some Irish Republican Army men are accidentally flown to Las Vegas where they meet a transvestite opera singer; in Hell, a female poet named Raphael is mugged, dies, and finds herself residing in a kind of mild Hell where trees sing. I say this Hell is mild because no one is tortured (as the residents are in Dante's Inferno). The music is also mild, although quite beautiful and interesting. The first few minutes of it sounded like Ravel a bit. I thought to myself, if Hell has a Ravel, can it be such a bad place? The music throughout is quite beautiful and since it is mostly tonal, it might be classified as part of a new kind of classical music known as "the new tonality." It is quite eclectic in its influences, however. Although stylistically unified, it clearly has been influenced by Renaissance and Baroque music as well as by late nineteenth and early twentieth century music. There is another short opera which I saw not long ago by Hans Werner Henze called The End of a World, at the end of which, the island on which all the characters are located sinks into the sea. If I remember correctly, that opera is less than an hour long. World, dating from 1953, was also sung in English, although its composer is German.
At the beginning of Hell, a female poet is mugged and dies. In tonight's opera, no one sinks. After death, the characters don't go much of anywhere, which is okay. Vergil as a tour guide has obviously been retired. In this opera, the main character, Raphael, a man's name, is sung by a woman with a beautiful soprano voice. As usual with opera singers singing in English, their diction requires access to the libretto, which was supplied to the audience here. Another character , called Brine, wants to commission the poet to write a script. Apparently, poets have to work even after dying. At this point, the chorus sings the words: "We don't dream, we don't eat, we don't fight" in a short bit of polyphony. When the trees make their presence felt, I remember that this is my second opera in two weeks in which trees play a role. In Strauss' Daphne, performed by the City Opera, the title character is transformed into a tree. By this time I'm relieved to find that Hell is musically and libretto-wise a genuine opera with real classical music, not just a crossover musical disguised as an opera or vice versa, which sometimes happens now. Then there is a duet between a man and a woman (trees?) which sounded vaguely Renaissance. At this point, we have trees with golf clubs. One sings: "Stand tall and deliver" as well as "I'm not too smart cause I'm almost dumb." These lines are very funny, coming from a tree. Comic opera, or opéra comique, usually isn't very funny to us because it's sung in a foreign language, usually French, Italian, or German. The possibilities of true American comic opera occurred to me here because some of the libretto is very funny and made the audience actually laugh, something which rarely happens in opera houses where the classics works are performed in their original languages.
Next we are presented with a soloist at a table made of string, a slightly plumper Yo Yo Ma who can sing. He plays and sings very well but I wondered just exactly what kind of Silk Road we were traveling on. Anyways it was intriguing. He holds some strings in his hands while not playing in a shape called a cat-s cradle. Death (?) with a skull for a head appears but sings nothing. Three Valkyries (one male) drop in dressed in silver suits and Yo Ho, something. Shortly thereafter we're treated to some of the text projected on a sheet sort of what companies call surtitles. This only lasts a short time, however. A large bauble is seen hanging from a string, sort of a kind of Christmas ornament as if designed by Lee Bontecou. "We have place. We don't have time." Someone's died 5,276 times. Not much of a breather or nonbreather between lives, apparently. A dead man doesn't read The Times. Then there is a reference, in song, to one Judith Shulewitz, an occasional writer for the Times. A cut out appears with the wrong SING in large letters in back of these singers. Two large black veiled structure are on stage. There's a little bit of Handelian music between 3 person chorus and the poet-singer. A joke is made at the expense of Richard Howard, J.D. McClatchy, and Billy Collins. Are they dead? Who cares or would know? I thought of Dryden's MacFlecknoe and Pope's The Dunciad. An argument is presented in favor of the live performance of poetry by poets. At this performance of Hell, we in the audience were handed copies of an article by Ms. Shulewitz published approximately two years ago in The Times in which she announces her disinclination to hear poets read their own works out loud. She prefers actors, apparently. She dislikes readings and performances as poetry even more so. As I'd long forgotten about her article until I encountered it again in this operatic Hell, my first thought was, why resurrect this uninformed opinion? Especially since her name didn't linger at least in my mind, I thought why not let forgotten dogs sleep outside our memories? I remembered also that there are some poets who are uncomfortable with poetry readings. James Schuyler, for one, didn't like them and only gave readings at the very end of his life. Still, many fine poets give readings for whom the live readings are the main venue for their poems. Would Ms. Shulewitz silence them all in favor of actors reading "classic" poems, instead? But then, while I was writing this review, Ms. Shulewitz's name surfaced again as a book reviewer for the Times who apparently specialized in "religious" books. Her intolerance of spoken word would seem odd for someone religiously inclined. Don't people intone the Bible, the Koran, the Buddha's sutras, etc. out loud all the time in places of worship? These are poems after all. Would she prefer actors to priests, preachers, imams, and bhantes? Perhaps she will get her wish, then in some sadly depleted future life. At any rate, since her opinions may become a more regular feature of The Times, it makes sense to confront her somewhat know-nothing attitude to poets reading their own work out loud. It's interesting that Myles has chosen to do this within the context of an opera and provided us with the footnotes (in the form of Shulevitz' article as an audience handout) so that we know why she's reserved a special place for Ms. Shulevitz in "Hell." This is the first time I've seen such a debate conducted in the forum of opera and with all the texts supplied as appendices to the libretto. It's an interesting thing to do. Such a practice might expand the nature and depth of discourse possible in opera librettos which, recent, are pretty straightforward and intellectually simple stories. That Hell succeeds in doing so within the context of such a short opera is amazing. But, of course, poetry performance (she says she'd prefer to hear poets on CDs but, with few exceptions, where would these be found?) is primarily of interest to poets and lovers of live poetry performance, I wondered if this part of the opera has a future outside the poetry community? But apparently, there were performances of the opera in other venues beside The Poetry Project (see the interview with Eileen Myles which follows this review) so she's answered that concern.
By the end of Hell, I found myself comparing "Hell" to the short opera The Breasts of Tiresias, libretto by Appollinaire. There's humor in both, also dealing with then current issues of the day, surrealistic content (in the case of Tiresias from the poet who coined the term "surrealism"), brevity, and wit. This bodes well for the future of Hell, which I hope will be long. Since Eileen Myles agreed to answer some questions about "Hell," I submitted these to her via email and she replied as follows. Q: Are there any plans for "Hell" beyond the Poetry Project?
A: Sure, we have shows in Provincetown MA at an alternative radio station, WOMR. Then we go LA, one night at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Then SF, Yerba Buena Center and finally CECUT which is in Tijuana. Then we start sniffing around for round two, post-workshop Hell.
Q: Is it called "Hell" or "Workshop From Hell"? (I'd been given both titles by the Project Office.) A: It's really Hell. But we liked the sound of the workshop from Hell and we don't consider this to be exactly the premiere. We're figuring it out.
Q: How did this opera come about? A: Michael is a composer who has set my poems and other poets poems to music. He asked me if I wanted to write a libretto.
Q: Which came first the words or the music? A: Words. His idea was that he would commit them to memory and compose to that.
Q: What inspired you to attack Howard, McClatchy, & Collins? A: I didn't attack them. I was using them as examples of official poetry standards. They are very typically spokesmen for mainstream poetry. When I was in Russia a few years ago I realized that in the old Soviet system there were official poets and unofficial poets. We have pretty much the same thing. Whoever's poet laureate is generally official. Billy Collins was the poet least willing to oppose Laura Bush a few years ago. He has to keep himself in expensive loafers. Richard Howard has long set the standard for filling the hall with predictable music in poetry. It's so hard to want to read Roland Barthes since you have to go through. Richard Howard. Where do you really go?
Q: Are they figures to you like Shadwell in Dryden's MacFlecknoe and the people spoken of in Pope's Dunciad? A: Sorry, never read it.
Q: Could you tell me more about the composer? (It so happens I've never heard of his music before.) A: Well, he's interested in writing to the beat of speech. He's matching note for beat, I think. He has interesting music heroes. He turned me on to early Opera, Poppea, stuff like that, Monteverdi. He also likes these European composers who escaped Hitler and arrived in Hollywood where they composed for cartoons. Q: How long did it take to write and compose "Hell"? A: We talked for a year. I wrote for a couple of weeks. Then stopped for a year, wrote another week, stopped for a month and then wrote the rest over two weeks. Michael took almost a year. He wrote some stuff when we were already in rehearsal.
Q: What need or role does contemporary opera fill for you? A: It's public art, it's collaborative. It's grand and so it's weirdly subversive, depending on what you set it's sights on.?"
Q: Why set it in Hell rather than in Purgatory or Heaven? A: Why do you think? Everyone loves to say Hell about almost anything. It really fits this moment.
Q: Was there a harpsichord in the instrumentation? (I thought I heard one but couldn't see from where I was sitting in the Sanctuary.) A: Yes. She's from New Mexico and loved the show so much she did both coasts. We raised an orchestra for each coast to save some money, but a couple of musicians chose to do both sides of America (and Mexico.) I want to close by saying that I enjoyed your opera immensely and look forward to hearing from you soon. I remember going to see Sapho with you, years ago. Glad to have caught your ear, Tom.
Regards, Tom Savage
Hell is one of the most interesting contemporary, short operas I have seen or heard. Except for another one which I saw and reviewed at this website a year and a half ago called Vera In Las Vegas, (libretto by Paul Muldoon), it is the first such short opera in English that I have heard by a poet of approximately my generation. Both Hell and Vera In Las Vegas are a little over an hour long, both are by leading contemporary poets, and both have surrealistic content and interesting music. In Vera In Las Vegas, some Irish Republican Army men are accidentally flown to Las Vegas where they meet a transvestite opera singer; in Hell, a female poet named Raphael is mugged, dies and finds herself residing in a kind of mild hell where trees sing. I say this hell is mild because no one is tortured as the residents are in Dante's Inferno. The music is also mild, although quite beautiful and interesting. The first few minutes of it sounded like Ravel a bit. I thought to myself, if hell has a Ravel, can it be such a bad place? The music throughout is quite beautiful, and because it is mostly tonal, it might be classified as part of a new kind of classical music known as "the new tonality." It is quite eclectic in its influences. Although stylistically unified, it clearly has been influenced by Renaissance and Baroque music as well as by late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century music. There is another short opera which I saw not long ago by Hans Werner Henze called The End of a World, at the end of which, the island on which all the characters are located sinks into the sea. If I remember correctly, that opera is less than an hour long. The End of a World, dating from 1953, was also sung in English, although its composer is German.