‘Two Yosemites’ review: mythological quest

Opera Theater Oregon premiere effectively dramatizes a famous camping trip that had a monumental effect on America

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I confess to approaching Oregon composer Justin Ralls Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera with a few biases and reservations. For one thing, I usually skew more urban than rural in my musical tastes. I like a Gershwin tune (how about you?) and I tire of the pentatonic open-fifth/open-prairie sound pretty quickly. Worse still, I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle listening to an environmental opera about my home state while my adopted state is engulfed in flames.

Short and Meyer as Roosevelt and Muir in ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: Ted Sweeney.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. The UO doctoral candidate’s music was Copland-esque, sure, and I had a few emotional moments as I reflected on the hundred-year-old argument about whether nature is worth treating with respect (we haven’t figured this out yet? really?). But I ended up enjoying last Friday’s premiere at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel so much that I’ll probably go back for the undoubtedly more epic outdoor premiere at L&C’s Law School Amphitheater this weekend.

Before the Opera Theater Oregon production, Ralls took a moment at the conductor’s podium to talk about his journey and his opera’s relevance. “It’s been a long, long journey for me, almost seven years,” he said. “People are saying how topical it is all of a sudden. I say it’s always been topical. The environment is where we make art. There is no culture without the environment.”

A bold statement indeed. It’s easy enough to think of culture as being the exclusive province of cities and city dwellers, a detached intellectual human phenomenon that could just as well exist in a glass jar (or a virtual network). But, just as culture is inherently social, it is also inherently natural. It is too easy to forget that we are nature, not separate beings who simply occupy nature. A forest has its own consciousness, and those of us who live close to nature feel this deeply in our souls. We have all been distraught as the Gorge has continued to burn, a depth of feeling that goes far beyond mere environmentalism into full-blown grief, “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

We depend on “the environment” because we are the environment. Recent ecological threats (both physical and political) and the perennial problems of land use rights in industrial society color Ralls’ opera as thoroughly as the democratic-imperialistic tension that animated Beethoven’s heroic Third Symphony and the naturalistic Romanticism that motivated his pastoral Sixth.

Composer Justin Ralls conducts the orchestra in ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: Ted Sweeney.

Ralls took this thematic coloring to the next level, in the finest operatic tradition. Essentially an extended argument between two Great Men on “the most famous camping trip ever,” Two Yosemites is based on the play The Tramp and the Rough Rider by John Muir scholar/interpreter Lee Stetson and handles similarly timely (and timeless) issues, from the ethics of hunting and logging and conservation to the problematic character of Industrial Man’s Relationship with Nature.

“Roosevelt and Muir’s odyssey of departure-transformation-return leaves fertile ground for opera — a genre which, at its best, concerns itself with myth and the exploration of momentous questions.” The story of their meeting is “a mythological quest,” with the heroic Roosevelt going into the wilderness, “choosing John Muir as his ‘shaman’ or spiritual guide.” Like so many heroes before him, Roosevelt “undergoes a spiritual transformation with Muir.”

Aaron Short as Theodore Roosevelt in ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: Ted Sweeney.

This mythic camping trip had a monumental impact on our real world: “After meeting Muir his Presidential speeches and policy reflected this change, leaving a legacy of over twenty National Parks and Monuments — a Presidential record of conservation that has still yet to be matched.”

This is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth — another major influence on Ralls’ opera — writ large. It’s even got the bit, often neglected, wherein the triumphant hero brings something magical back from the quest.

The indoor version of this outdoor opera started humbly enough, photos of the eponymous Yosemite alternating with Muir’s magnificently bearded visage and Roosevelt’s eternally intense, corny grin. (With every glimpse of El Capitan I couldn’t help thinking of James T. Kirk). The overture started up with Jayde Weide’s piccolo representing the hermit thrush, soon joined by the rest of the Britten-inspired 12-player mini-orchestra (string quartet and bass, wind quintet, harp, and percussion) and a quartet of sopranos singing Yosemite Miwok words and phrases.

I was amused to discover that Ralls is, like the present writer, a drummer as well as a composer. Lone percussionist Chris Haynes adroitly navigated an array of toms, snare drum, bass drum, crotales, triangle, and a nice thrumming tam-tam; the effect reminded me (not for the last time) of Grofé. The small, open stage in Flanagan Chapel was adorned with a platform bearing a small campfire, the men’s kits and bedrolls, and a boulder for climbing and sightseeing and singing arias on.

An opera starring Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and purporting to be mythological had better do justice to its subjects’ legends. Appropriately enough, when Muir (interpreted to perfection by Ralls collaborator and Two Yosemites champion Nicholas Meyer) and Roosevelt (sung and personified beautifully by tenor Aaron Short) hiked up onto the stage, the very first lines had Short— decked out in Roosevelt’s signature glasses, bandana, and walrus mustache — singing “I feel bully! I feel fine!” exuberantly to the mountains. Roosevelt’s legendary exuberance is part of his enduring charm — and also stands as something of a synecdoche for the rampant industrial exploitation Muir cautions him against.

From there, we actually get into pretty standard operatic stuff. Musically, Ralls the nature-composer does fall pretty firmly in the familiar American tradition of Aaron Copland and John Luther Adams, but there were shades of Debussy and Bartók and even a little George Crumb (and he does that open-prairie sound better than most). Dramatically, the first few scenes were pure Mozart comedy, hinging on tension and agitation and misunderstandings, introducing the characters and their varied perspectives via arguments over bear-killing, a mysterious and critical letter from a mutual friend, and similar tropes.

“Have you ever shot one of our famous Yosemite bears?” Roosevelt asks early on, sparking one of those recurring arguments that suffuses the rest of the long conversation. “When will you get beyond the boyishness of killing things?” Muir later chides him.

Nicholas Meyer plays John Muir in ‘Two Yosemites.’ Photo: Ted Sweeney.

In one of my favorite musical moments, Roosevelt whistled to the hermit thrush — “My favorite songster” — and the piccolo answered from the ad hoc orchestra pit.

Another favorite: when Muir and Roosevelt bunk down for the night at the end of the first scene, the singers coaxed eerie tones from half-filled wine goblets, singing against the ghostly drones.

And yet another: when Muir sang of the sound of the waterfalls and rivers and the rushing wind — “If you listen, you can hear her” — everybody in the orchestra, including the singers, whipped out bells and chimes of various sizes, shaking them quietly at first, the singers adding their voices as the ensemble built to a giant crescendo.

I am a relatively inexperienced opera-goer, and frankly I missed the supertitles that seem to normally accompany opera productions. Even when the libretto is in English, it can be hard to track words and images and music all at the same time, and I’m sure Flanagan Chapel’s more organ-friendly acoustics didn’t help. Many lines I caught only part of, and they were some of the best lines. Roosevelt talking about seeing the big picture of political compromise, singing something like “I understand the forest for the trees. Conservation is the spirit of democracy. We hold in our hands the fate of the world. It is our task to cherish and conserve the beauty of life.” Muir singing “The grizzly will be pleased to hear of man’s golden plan.” One line I did catch, right at the end, was Muir singing a quote from the book of Revelations: “Behold the new heaven and the new earth!”

It’s been a good summer for short, topical, minimal operas by living composers in Oregon. David Lang’s pair of operas dealt with the experiences of the marginalized and the problem of invisibilization, highly relevant issues in the age of Black Lives Matter and the precariousness of minority rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, nature’s rights, and so on. Ralls really went out on a limb, stepping into this current of highly meaningful chamber opera with his big little experiment in narrative nature music. His “seven years labor” may be fewer by five than Herakles but it still seems pretty heroic to me.

Did it work? I sure thought so. Come on out this weekend and decide for yourself!

Outdoor premiere performances of Two Yosemites: 7:00 pm Friday, September 15 and Saturday, September 16, at Lewis & Clark College’s Law School Amphitheater. Tickets online at Opera Theater Oregon

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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