‘Contralto’ and ‘Queer Opera Experience’: queer is a verb

Third Angle New Music and Portland State University productions transcend rigid gender boundaries

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Queer, like pride, is a verb. As a verb, it can have two opposing meanings: to problematize, and to normalize. In a single September weekend, Portlanders heard both, in very different approaches to queering art music.

Third Angle’s September 14 season opener Contralto, created by percussionist and experimental composer Sarah Hennies, derived strength and meaning from an Artaudesque confrontation with the challenges faced by transitioning women learning to retrain their voices. Part of this year’s TBA Festival, the hour-long film-and-music piece normalized the voice of the outsider, to be seen and understood, reminding us that people whose gender identities and sexual orientations lie outside traditional boundaries are still normal people, human beings with beautiful aspirations no different from those accustomed to passing in straight society.

Third Angle New Music presented ‘Contralto’ at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA:18 Festival. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

The next night, two concerts of traditional classical vocal music performed by students in Portland State University’s Queer Opera Experience aimed for the opposite type of queering: by flipping the genders of famous opera characters, and leaving everything else the same, these singers demonstrated their right to a seat at the operatic table, loving whom they will, insisting on freedom of representation and authentic self-expression within the context of a conservative musical tradition.

Contralto

Seven women face the camera and deliver snippets of the speech therapy texts, beginning with body meditation affirmations—“your body is soft, your body is smooth”—reminiscent of hypnotic self-awareness techniques. The women move on to isolated syllables, gradually building up to words and phrases, “her voice is so soothing,” “when is your next appointment?” It’s a diverse assortment of women, young and old, and when they start singing musical notes their voices come together in moments of shyly emerging beauty. Composer and filmmaker Hennies earlier explained that “all of the text of this piece was constructed by speech therapists who assist trans women during their transitions.”

‘Contralto’ creator Sarah Hennies with Third Angle artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

Throughout, three percussionists crumple papers, drop keys, and create a creaking starfield of random sounds. The four string players get right into the extended bowing techniques, scratchy whispering harmonics, maximally sparse, minimally vibrant. Gliding tones never quite line up, never really go anywhere, certainly not towards any coherent harmony or melody. In one clever bit, the strings play a single note which one or the other of the prerecorded women then sing, a counterpoint of alternating tones, a composite scale emerging from the interplay of live performance and video, totally T:BA appropriate. But the music never really becomes very musical, remaining in this inchoate John Luther Adams territory for the whole very long hour. The only relief comes when the video soundtrack emits lovely sung chords, presumably constructed from samples of the women’s sung tones; the effect is a little like Imogen Heap on the vocoder.

I have to admit that this sort of experimental music wears thin fast, at least for me. Like its popular counterpart, noise rock, it seems all too easy to create a lot of sounds and call it good: no harmony, no melody, no groove, no take home pay. The infinite world of experimental music unleashed by Cage and Co. in the 1950s will probably never run its course: it’s a deep well, after all, and it most definitely scratches a musical itch. I suppose I was hoping (perhaps in part due to the show’s title, contralto being the lowest of the female singing ranges) for something along the lines of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices. That work, which Quince Ensemble performed for Third Angle last year, is certainly avant-garde and experimental in every sense, but it nevertheless features compelling melodies and harmonies.


Sarah Hennies – “Contralto” (preview) from Sarah Hennies on Vimeo.

Hennies describes her aesthetic as “concerned with an immersive, psychoacoustic presentation of sound brought about by an often grueling, endurance-based performance practice.” She’s no stranger to the music of Feldman, Alvin Lucier, et al, and she does have more harmonically driven music in her catalog (Live Fleas and Gather & Release are particularly good, although of course none of it is Mozart). All of which suggests that Contralto’s arrhythmic, aharmoic, amelodic scoring of the strings and percussion was a completely deliberate choice, an aesthetic layering meant to be experienced in counterpoint to the audio-visual presentation, a troubling sonic evocation of the difficult undercurrent running through the life-affirming experience of transition. It’s a bold move, a film composer sort of decision, a way of queering the narrative.

Queer Opera Experience

It was with great relief that I got to go hear several hours of sheer uninterrupted melody at two concerts produced by PSU’s Queer Opera Experience that weekend. Seven singers (again seven!) performed two concerts of classical repertoire—an evening of opera scenes on September 15 and an afternoon of art songs on the 16th—flipping genders and singing what they wanted, without regard to traditional voice type.

PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard, who accompanied the performers in Lincoln Hall’s little black box studio theater, came out before the show to discuss the project. “I want to start by saying that I love my mother,” he said from the stage, relating a phone call on the subject of queer opera. “She said, ‘Charles, you might be a lot of things, but you are not queer.’ And I understood what she meant, sadly. But it made me reflect on what the word means, has meant, and can mean.” He discussed the word’s history as a means of torment and ridicule, and its reclamation as a positive expression and “an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as L, G, B, or T.”

“Tonight,” Dillard concluded, “queer is a verb.”

I was totally sold right from the first scene, Samantha Peters and Lydia O’Brien performing the famous opening of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. While Figaro (Peters) measures the new bedroom she’ll share with her wife Susannah (O’Brien), they argue about their boss and the danger of their bedroom’s proximity to his. In the next scene—another famous Mozart opening, Cosís coffeehouse quarrel over (un)faithful women—O’Brien returned to play Ferrando, joined by Maeve Stier as Guglielmo. “Woman’s constancy is like the Arabian Phoenix,” sings Helen Soultanian as the old cynic Alfonso (“Phoenix” changed here to the more contemporary “unicorn”). “Everyone swears it exists, but no one knows where.”

In both cases, the queering showed us normal couples with normal problems (well, normal within the stylized context of opera). Figaro and Susannah’s happy newlywed homeliness and their struggle to see eye-to-eye on a potential problem—every couple has experienced this, regardless of gender and orientation. The scenario of two soldiers defending (perhaps naively) the honor of their girlfriends against Alfonso’s taunting takes on new meaning when accuser, defenders, and girlfriends are all the same gender; lines about woman’s inconstancy lose their misogynistic overtones to become less divisive and condescending in favor of a fresher, more authentically human tone.

Maeve Stier and Savannah Panah as Rodolfo and Mimi in ‘La Boheme.’

Scenes from Puccini’s La Bohème and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos followed, and although it would be pretty tough to top those Mozart openers, the quality and queerness kept up. Savannah Panah and Rebecca Yakos shone as Mimi and Musetta, Soultanian and Stier returning as their lovers Marcello and Rodolfo, the four singing through the querulous strains of Puccini’s soap opera. In the Strauss, Yakos as Zerbinetta and Jena Viemeister as The Composer sang an entirely different kind of argument. For the last number, everyone except Yakos and Soultanian returned for a bit of Bernstein (the centennial, remember?), a scene from his satirical vernacular opera Trouble in Tahiti. O’Brien, Panah, and Stier sang a lovely trio while Viemeister and Peters delivered their touching, suburban, middle-class argument about happiness. It’s always a pleasure to hear Bernstein, and this one made a wonderful closing number.

In all three scenes, as with the Mozart, changing the genders of some characters imbued the familiar musical stories with new layers of meaning; the change in voice types narrowed each scene’s overall vocal range, treblizing everything in an unusual but not troubling way. The normalizing process was pretty well done by the time the bohemians hit the stage: by that point, it really just felt like we were watching opera scenes, performed with love and skill by seven terrific singers. The representation was refreshing—we so rarely see same-gendered couples on the stage, acting like real gay couples and not like stereotypes.

At the post-show Q&A. Stier spoke of their (both performers prefer “they” pronouns) feeling of liberated honesty on the stage. “Before this, there was this expectation that I would spend the rest of my career being dysphoric in my body, singing roles that I don’t identify with.” Peters—returning to opera after a six-year break—agreed, happy to not be confined to the usual mezzo roles (“maid, nurse, sidekick, mom”) and “able to inject my perspective into Figaro.”

“We can make visibility happen in opera, ”Soultanian said. “To keep it alive we have to utilize the people who want to be a part of it.”

Stage Director Rebecca Herman, who directed the all-female La Femme Bohème that helped inspire Queer Opera Project’s inception, spoke of the power of adaptation. “The stories we tell in opera don’t have to be stuck in the eras they were written in.” Dillard commented on how the process of normalization worked in this queer context. “The queerness all happened in the minds of the performers, and it’s not different from the norm. It may be unique, but it’s not other.”

Samantha Peters as Figaro and Lydia O’Brien as Susannah in ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’

Ultimately the experiment left me wanting to see all opera done this way. I want to see Peters, a brilliant Figaro, give us their take on the character over the course of the whole opera. I want to hear an all-female Bernstein production (Treble in Tahiti, perhaps?) And I’d love to hear this approach done with male singers (Dillard: “I hoped men would apply; none did”), and with trans singers, and with countertenors and contraltos and anything else. The genre is ripe for queering: the union of realism and surrealism that is opera’s traditional métier seems ideal for such experiments, a timely, timeless stage for normalizing the outcast, for problematizing that which we take for granted, for visibilizing the invisible. In the words of QOE assistant director Sarah Mini, let’s “Make Opera Gay Again.”

Coming Soon

More queer opera is coming your way this weekend, as PSU kicks off a year of Poulenc with a the one-woman opera La voix humaine, with performances this Friday and Saturday in Lincoln Hall by soprano Malinda Haslett (with Dillard on piano).

Third Angle returns November 1-2, both shows in Studio 2 in N.E.W. on SE Belmont. Play Like A Girl features percussionist Luanne Warner Katz performing Reich, Hatzis, Rzewski, Spencer, plus a few of her own compositions and a whole lot of Eve Beglarian.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito 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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