Composer Ethan Gans-Morse: Music as Social Voice

New opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna dramatizes contemporary concerns

By GARY W. FERRINGTON

The Canticle of the Black Madonna opened my heart and brought new healing to me, 44 years after I returned from Vietnam. This is a gift that should be shared with the world. — Bill Ritch, combat veteran, Silver Star recipient, former West Point instructor.

Ethan Gans-Morse is an Oregon composer whose compositions bring together his love of Baroque and Renaissance music with “his passion for new, socially relevant works of art that inspire a sense of human connection” as he notes in his Oregon ComposersWatch profile.

Composer Ethan Gans-Morse introduces CBM cast and principals. From R-L: Gwendolyn Brown (the Black Madonna), Michael Mayes ( Adam), Kristine McIntyre (Director) Tiziana Della Rovere (Librettist), Ethan Gans-Morse (composer) and Lindsey Cafferky (Mara). Not shown: Ryan Heller (Music Director), Ethan Sperry (Chorus Master). Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Composer Ethan Gans-Morse introduces CBM cast and principals. From R-L: Gwendolyn Brown (the Black Madonna), Michael Mayes ( Adam), Kristine McIntyre (Director) Tiziana Della Rovere (Librettist), Ethan Gans-Morse (composer) and Lindsey Cafferky (Mara). Not shown: Ryan Heller (Music Director), Ethan Sperry (Chorus Master). Photo: Gary Ferrington.

His new opera, The Canticle of the Black Madonna, which premieres in Portland September 5-6, tells the story of a returning Afghanistan war veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the challenges he and his wife face as they struggle to survive amid the ecological disaster of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. Composed in collaboration with librettist Tiziana DellaRovere, the opera exemplifies the Portland composer’s commitment to creating and producing original projects that “harness the power of art to stir the soul, foster community, and address urgent social problems,” he says. See: OAW “Preview: Bringing Anima Mundi’s “Canticle of the Black Madonna” to life.”

ArtsWatch conducted an e-mail interview with Gans-Morse, who received his Masters in Music Composition, summa cum laude from the University of Oregon in 2013. We asked him about his becoming a composer; the influence of socially meaningful content in his music; and his views about the future of opera.

ON BEING A COMPOSER

OAW: Have you always had a passion for music? When did you discover your interest in composition?

EG-M: I’ve always had a passion for music, but the journey to becoming a composer was a somewhat winding road for me. I played piano and clarinet, and I sang in choirs. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve explored the relationship between words and sounds, both spoken and sung.

My two strongest abilities have always been foreign language and music theory. In college, I double majored in linguistics and music. Later, when I was teaching linguistics in two universities in Oaxaca, Mexico, I stumbled across a composers’ workshop in the most improbable of places. It turned out that one of the most recognized names in Mexican art music, Victor Rasgado, had family there and was offering workshops, along with guest composer Mario Lavista, as a service to a community that otherwise wouldn’t have had formal music training.

Around the same time, I was asked to perform a piano recital in a 400-year-old Spanish chapel, which was (somewhat miraculously) attended by all socioeconomic strata. I really got the sense that music was following me doggedly, that my skills with language should be at the service of my composition, and not the other way around.

Composer Ethan Gans-Morse with Librettist Tiziana Della Rovere Photo: Anima Mundi Productions.

Composer Ethan Gans-Morse with Librettist Tiziana Della Rovere Photo: Anima Mundi Productions.

AW: Who have been the major musical influences in your career?

EG-M: If you mean composers I admire, I’m particularly fond of the great contrapuntalists, Bach above all. I definitely think about music contrapuntally, and many of the greatest composers in the Western canon were solid contrapuntalists. But I also greatly admire Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Béla Bartók (admittedly also a contrapuntalist), Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, and Benjamin Britten.

Most recently, the biggest influence on my career has not been a musician, but rather Tizana DellaRovere, my partner and collaborator. She’s a poet, author, painter, and writer, and she has opened up new vistas and horizons for me about the power of art. Before her, [University of Oregon music professor] Dr. Robert Kyr, whom I’ve written and spoken about extensively.

OAW: What are some of the challenges a composer has, as storyteller, in addressing contemporary issues?

E-GM: Honestly, I don’t find the challenges to be artistic in nature. Telling stories through music is what makes being a composer so extraordinarily satisfying. Even though composing music is certainly very difficult and not to be understated, I think the biggest challenges are extra-musical: fundraising, administration, etc. It takes a lot of people to produce a project on the level of The Canticle of the Black Madonna, so in a sense, some of the biggest challenges begin after the ink on the page is dry.

If you’re looking for an artistic answer to this question, I see them more as opportunities than challenges. Contemporary issues lend themselves to the same artistic challenges as writing any other piece of music, but present a wider palette of solutions to those same challenges. I’m very proud that my musical score for The Canticle of the Black Madonna is coherent: all the characters’ issues are presented, developed, and resolved through the music, but the contemporary nature of the work opens up all kinds of extra-musical artistic solutions like having combat veterans appear on stage, the use of digital projections, etc. which bring a contemporary edge to the stagecraft.

AW: Many of the young composers I know have little interest in composing for opera. What is the appeal of this form to you?

EG-M: I strongly believe that content dictates form. The idea that a piece of music should be an opera—or a symphony or anything else—simply because the composer decided it was time to write an opera is begging for trouble. Similarly, there are plays and novels and poems that might not be suited for operatic treatment, and might work better as say, movies or other art forms. I do not think that the arts should be elitist in this sense—I think that each story should be told in the medium(s) that best suits it. (Obviously sometimes a story works in multiple media and that’s great too. Other times, not so much…)

I wrote The Canticle of the Black Madonna as an opera-oratorio because the story that librettist Tizana DellaRovere wrote clearly combined elements of dramatic opera with hints of sacred oratorio. In the 2014 Portland world premiere, director Kristine McIntyre has done a magnificent job of fully dramatizing the oratorio parts, converting it into a true opera.

Opera is inherently psychological. It creates a window directly into the inner world of a character. Music, almost by definition, expresses what words cannot. THAT is the narrative strength of opera. Opera cannot compete with film for narrating events, or with literature of narrating thoughts or philosophies, but for expressing the emotional and psychological world inside a human being, opera is unbeatable.

In fact, the emotional content of the music can even go below the literal sense of the words. So a character might sing about, say, happiness, while the music underneath reveals a world of deeper complexity. This “window into the soul” that opera provides is the ideal medium for a story about combat PTSD, which is a condition largely characterized by an inability to express and come to terms with deeply repressed emotions. In The Canticle of the Black Madonna opera, we can have our two characters — Adam and Mara — on stage side by side in a house on the Louisiana coast, and let the world of the music reveal profound truths about their psychological state. And because Tiziana’s libretto is so rich, there is an extraordinary degree of nuance in these characters.

I would encourage the younger generation to revisit the importance of opera. It’s not decadent or passé, or obsolete, but it is expensive to produce, and because of that cost we need more collaborations, more innovation, more “buy-in,” not just from the musical community but from social service agencies, theaters, filmmakers, etc.

MUSIC AS SOCIAL VOICE

OAW: I’ve read that you are interested in composing “socially relevant works of art that inspire a sense of human connection” and “harness the power of art to stir the soul, foster community, and address urgent social problems.” Please tell me more about these interests.

EG-M: Roger Ebert once said something to the effect that the power of film is that it lets you see the world through the eyes of somebody very different from yourself, somebody whose worldview you would never experience directly. I think the same can be said about opera. That’s why Tiziana and I have embraced opera as an avenue of social awareness, and why The Canticle of the Black Madonna is only the first in a series we’re doing that will also take on complex issues of gender, racism, and human trafficking, all with a commitment to the highest level of artistic quality. After all, La Traviata and Le Nozze di Figaro were socially active operas that pushed the social awareness of their times, but they’re remembered today for their artistic quality, which must always come first.

OAW: How did your opera evolve out of an interest in “urgent social problems” and why the theme of PSTD rather than say, the life and death struggle of immigrants along the border?

EG-M: The content and the story behind The Canticle of the Black Madonna came entirely from Tiziana. She wanted to tell a story about the power of love to heal even the most profound wounds of the world. In 2010, those were the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf Oil Spill.

CBM-SquareDellaRovere’s original libretto “responded to the pain of the world that was present every day throughout the spring and summer of 2010: the dual tragedies of the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the escalating war in Afghanistan with its concomitant levels of PTSD. In the face of these tragedies, she crafted a completely unique story of hope, healing, and reconciliation.”

Regarding “art for art’s sake,” I don’t judge it; in fact much of the most beautiful work in human history was likely created just for the sake of creating beauty by great geniuses. But for me personally, as a creative artist, the decision to dedicate my life to the arts was a real question of vocation, and I do believe that since art has an undeniable power to express the human condition, just as we’re doing with The Canticle of the Black Madonna, that socially-relevant art is the most satisfying on many levels.

Just look at the level of community we’ve built around this production: we have a number of combat veterans who never would set foot in an opera house, utterly overcome with excitement about the project. One who is actually appearing onstage as a supernumerary reported that this has given him a whole new meaning in his life and has lifted him out of an insurmountable depression. This is not inaccessible art; on the contrary, this is a project that invites people in and changes their lives in profound ways.

It’s also important to note that this kind of art does not have an agenda per se. We’re not connected with any kind of political aim, and the only concrete outcome we’re working toward is greater compassion, community, charity, consciousness, and awareness. If we approached The Canticle of the Black Madonna with a political agenda, it would diminish both the quality of the artistic representation and the level of buy-in we’re getting from all ends of the political spectrum.

OPERA TODAY AND TOMORROW

OAW: Large opera companies in many American cities keep recycling the same old classics and seldom support new operas (with some great exceptions, of course). Clearly they feel that can’t risk losing their conservative audience by trying composers and contemporary stories. How can these big opera companies become relevant to contemporary culture?

EG-M: I think it’s a bottom-up transformation with the mid-sized companies having the dexterity and flexibility to do groundbreaking, earth-shattering new works in mid-sized venues with national-level talent. In time, I hope that the boards of the larger companies see these smaller companies running circles around them not only in terms of programming but also in terms of audience participation (and age!) and community support, thereby putting to rest the idea that opera is not sustainable or appealing to a younger generation.

Let’s be honest. Big opera companies have a lot to lose financially and will naturally be the slowest to adapt, so it’s up to all of us to provide new models that are both artistically and financially innovative.

OAW: It seems that much of your fund raising and promotional efforts have focused on building an audience outside that of traditional opera patrons. Why do you see this as a successful strategy for bringing new audiences into the theater?

E-GM: I think it’s a crucial component. We’ve been creative in finding ways to involve generally low-income constituencies like combat veterans in the creation of the opera itself so that instead of being priced out, they’re an organic part of the production itself. These methods have included all kinds of community outreach, free art sessions, having veterans work on the production and promotion of the opera, allowing them to attend final dress for free in the presence of a licensed trauma specialist, and offering free public education about PTSD to both the military and civilian communities.

Composer Ethan Gans-Morse. Photo: Anima Mundi Productions.

Composer Ethan Gans-Morse. Photo: Anima Mundi Productions.

Another obvious example of this approach has been the number of productions of [Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s] Dead Man Walking sweeping across the country [including Eugene] and beyond, which is usually paired with similar community outreach around the death penalty.

The point is that the general public mostly self-identifies as either opera lovers or not (mostly the latter) so it’s up to us to give them the opportunity to reevaluate that self-identification. Many supposed opera haters have never in their lives seen an opera, and when they do, there’s a great chance that they’ll love it.

We do very much hope our strategy brings more people to see The Canticle of the Black Madonna, and I can absolutely state with confidence that many if not most of the audience will be so taken with the piece that they’ll share it with others and explore other new works. So this is certainly a successful strategy for building new audiences organically from one production to the next!

OAW: What do you see as the future of opera given the challenges of costs, production, and audience building? Do alternative opera companies like The Industry in Los Angeles, and Opera Theater Oregon, as examples, serve as indicators of opera in the late 21st century?

EG-M: I see the rebirth of opera as a huge wave sweeping this country, and I think alternative opera companies are an important part of that wave because they bring in crowds that might not go to a traditional house. We must keep in mind that the internet has scooped up all these isolated, regional efforts and we can start to package these alternative projects and all other kinds of new, vibrant, contemporary opera as one national narrative. Individually, these projects might be small compared to a major company, but through the power of the Internet, we can link hundreds of them together in many ways: artistically, financially, and through audience development campaigns. Imagine buying a ticket that allows you to see a series of these shows both live and also online depending on where you live. The technology is a game-changer.

The net effect of all of these changes is we can finally move past the perception of opera as only powdered wigs, antiquated stories, million-dollar contracts, exorbitant ticket prices, and social elitism. Many of these works started out at the level of the artistic revolutionaries themselves (think Mozart!) before becoming associated with an aristocracy.

Related:

The Canticle of the Black Madonna, “Northwest Previews” on All-Classical radio. Broadcast.

Gary Ferrington, Preview: Bringing Anima Mundi’s Canticle of the Black Madonna to Life, Oregon ArtsWatch, June 19, 2014

Victoria Schmidt, Through The Eyes of Someone Different: Alum’s Opera Spread Awareness, UO School of Music and Dance.

Recordings: Audio examples from an earlier 2013 workshop version of the Canticle of the Black Madonna

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and coordinates OAW’s Oregon ComposersWatch.

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