A wife returns home. Her husband appears cold and concerned; you expect him to accuse her of having an affair. Instead, he tells her that she left her credit card at a restaurant. She tells him that she came home after having champagne, but calls it “bubbly wine.”
Early onset Alzheimer’s—and how it wrenches a musical couple apart—is the subject of Marc Neikrug’s new chamber opera A Song by Mahler, which was produced by Chamber Music Northwest (it had its world premiere at Reed College on Tuesday and will be featured at more music festivals later this summer).
In a fit of meta-awareness, the husband, a pianist and voice coach named Kelly (baritone Kelly Markgraf), describes his life as “a grim, grim tale.” A Song by Mahler can be hard to watch—it would be strange if it weren’t—but it is undeniably potent. Neikrug has imbued an intimate domestic saga with scope, dignifying ordinary lives with the same grandeur that classic operas reserved for vain counts and vengeful queens.
In A Song by Mahler, which was directed by Douglas Fitch, Kelly is married to Jen (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano), a singer who performs Gustav Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit as an encore at her concerts. The message of the song—that there is no value in loving for superficial pleasures like beauty and youth—becomes all-too pertinent as Jen becomes lost to the mental ravages of her disease.
Some of the signs are small—like saying “duck” instead of “fuck”—but eventually, Jen can’t even remember her son, who she recognizes only as a stranger yelling at her. “No keys, no phone,” Kelly castigates her. “You don’t even know what day it is anymore.” Eventually, Kelly decides to place her in a facility that he vaguely describes as “a home,” which he admits is anything but.
Cano and Markgraf are accompanied by clarinetist David Shifrin (CMNW’s longtime former artistic director) and the FLUX Quartet, which includes Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris (violin), Max Mandel (viola) and Felix Fan (cello). Together, they create a sonic embodiment of Jen and Kelly’s crumbling marriage. When the couple is musically and mentally in sync, notes flow like gentle waves, but as Jen’s forgetfulness increases, Neikrug allows discordant anti-melodies and plucked strings to infiltrate the score.
Neikrug’s libretto is equally evocative. The characters express themselves like human beings, not stereotypically eloquent opera characters. “Jesus! I don’t know. Why are you yelling at me?” Jen exclaims when Kelly becomes angry and exasperated at her latest lapse. It’s a deliberately unpoetic declaration that captures Neikrug’s devotion to realism.
There are parts of A Song by Mahler that are almost too much to bear. While some people who have lost a family member to Alzheimer’s may find the opera’s acknowledgment of their pain cathartic, it left me feeling profoundly disturbed. Alzheimer’s has long been a scourge on my family, and seeing that scourge dramatized was difficult—not least of all because Kelly’s enraged helplessness is painfully relatable.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see A Song by Mahler; it just means that you should emotionally prepare yourself if you do. Even Neikrug—who is the artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival—seems to struggle with the story, which ends with a bit of fourth-wall bashing that suggests that he’s torn between his determination to be honest and his desire for hope.
Is there hope to be found in the story of Jen and Kelly? Each audience member will have to decide that for themselves. What is clear is that, like Mahler, Neikrug is heroically committed to finding meaning beyond beauty and youth.
A Song by Mahler is co-commissioned by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the La Jolla, Lake Champlain, and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festivals. It was performed live once at Chamber Music Northwest, at its premiere on July 6, and will be available to stream July 20-Aug. 31 via CMNW’s AT-HOME Summer Festival for $20 single or as part of a $150 season pass. A Song by Mahler will be performed by the other commissioning companies this summer or in the 2021-22 season.