Jerry Mouawad: Re-envisioning Opera

Imago director brings his offbeat imagination to Eugene Opera's "Lucy" and his own "Satie's Journey."

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“Opera is a new world for me,” says Portland theater director Jerry Mouawad. He’s figuring it out fast. After soaring to local, then international acclaim with the mime-inspired, movement-only work he’s staged, often with his partner Carol Triffle, at Portland’s Imago Theatre, some years back, he created a few movement pieces called “operas beyond words.” Then, a decade or so ago, Portland Opera’s then-general director Christopher Mattaliano invited Mouawad to try the kind of opera that does have words, and music, and the rest.

Jerry Mouawad. Photo: K.B. Dixon

The results have been strikingly successful, including a dazzling double bill of David Lang chamber operas in 2017 and 2019’s stark, chilling setting of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Those productions didn’t look much like any other opera you’re likely to have seen in Oregon. Mouawad’s stagings grow out of movement and milieu more than music and lyrics.

Now, Mouawad is bringing his own, singular,  stripped-down take on opera to Eugene Opera in this weekend’s staging of the 2014 monodrama, Lucy, and — for the first time — making his own original mini-opera, Satie’s Journey, which premieres in a concert version next month at Imago.  A stage director for an opera,” Mouawad muses, “comes with different visions.” 

The Lucy Show

A different vision is what Eugene Opera artistic director Andrew Bisantz and executive director Erika Rauer were looking for when they approached Mouawad in 2019 to direct Lucy, which runs Friday and Sunday at Springfield’s Wildish Theatre. The monodrama (one character show) had earned positive reviews in its 2014 premiere at Milwaukee Opera Theater. Partly inspired by an early Radiolab episode, it dramatizes the fascinating true and ultimately tragic story of the famous chimpanzee, who was adopted by psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife Jane in 1964 and raised in Norman, Oklahoma as if she were their human child. 

The show veers between expositional diary entries that tell the audience what’s going on at each stage of the experiment, and songs that show Temerlin’s emotional reaction and reflections. Lucy is portrayed as much more than an experimental object or even pet. Despite the title, it’s really about how a lonely scientist develops an emotional, paternal connection with his supposed subject, and is torn between his love for her and the realities of the differences between our species. It’s reminiscent of Mouawad’s previous Imago project, The Strange Case of Nick M, also about a scientific experiment gone awry. Composer John Glover’s engaging music and Kelley Rourke’s often funny, poignant libretto cover a surprisingly wide emotional range and tell an ultimately moving story about the ethics and emotions surrounding how people and animals connect.

Andrew Wilkowske as Dr. Temerlin in Eugene Opera’s Lucy at Wildish Theater. Photo: Kelli Matthews.

While the original production featured only the stirring baritone Andrew Wilkowske (who’ll reprise the role in Oregon) as Temerlin, it posed a potential challenge of holding the audience’s attention for an hour with only a single person reminiscing onstage.

“Andrew and Erika gave me free rein to stage it the way I want,” Mouawad says. “I told them I think I have a concept that will make him even lonelier.”

He imprisoned Temerlin in a small square onstage, symbolizing how he’s trapped in his own experiment. That kind of design thinking is a hallmark of Mouawad’s work, operatic and otherwise. “I sometimes conceptualize and design the environment myself,  which I did in In the Penal Colony and this one,” he explains. “Once I have the space defined, it’s like a painter defining the size of the canvas before laying on a brush. Having that architectural scenic design in place lets me run free.”

Not entirely, though. In opera, unlike theater, some elements, like the tempo of the songs, are fixed beyond a director’s modifications. “That is a big limitation,” he admits, “and it seems to feel like a confinement but it isn’t. Rhythm is a giant aspect of theater, but when that’s taken away from you, you need to resort to other things. I’ve staged big spectacles, intimate dramas, all the work with [Imago’s popular movement shows] ZooZoo and Frogz — it’s all given me an understanding of the architecture of space, and psychological acting. I have so much in my toolbox.”

Excerpt from earlier production of Lucy.

Mouawad also asked the opera’s creators if he could add a narrator character, who’d appear on stage as a lab assistant, voicing the brief interpolated lab reports (previously only heard on a tape recorder) that punctuate each song. He allowed Temerlin to embody shifting perspectives, including Lucy’s, while the narrator/assistant almost seems to be running the experiment, with Temerlin as subject as well as scientist. 

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Wilkowske, who’d been with the original production from the get-go, provided unofficial dramaturgy so Mouawad could be sure his changes reflected the essence of the creators’ original vision.

Imaginary Journey

There’s eccentric, and then there’s French composer Erik Satie, who practically defined the concept of bohemian artiste. Even today’s humble Brooklyn boho walkups would seem luxurious compared to his tiny, cluttered garret apartment. The one time he had disposable income, he used a small inheritance to buy seven identical grey suits (shades of Ralph Nader’s legendary footwear, or Steve Jobs’s turtleneck) so he’d never have to think about what to wear. The titles of some songs alone (Pieces in the Form of a Pear, Unpleasant Glimpses, Flabby Preludes for a Dog, Dried-up Embryos, Bureaucratic Sonatina) are as piquant as the music, which also had a serious side. 

For all his quirks, Satie was venerated as friend and artist by Debussy and Ravel, and admired by the next generation of French composers. His music influenced them, and even later artists like John Cage and Brian Eno, whose ambient music owes a lot to Satie’s “Furniture Music.” When some of it was performed as background sound to an art exhibit, Satie exasperatedly urged attendees to stop listening to the music. Though Satie died in 1924, every generation seems to rediscover his inspired simplicity, his still-too-rare sense of humor, and his crosswise attitude toward institutions. 

Satie in 1920 by Henri Manuel. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Even if you don’t know Satie’s name, you almost certainly know his music, like the inescapable Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. A few years ago, Jerry Mouawad realized that that music, and the crazy stories he’d heard about Satie for years, both belonged to the same artist. “He was a part of my life without my even realizing he was there,” Mouawad remembers. After doing some research, he resolved to write a play about this composer who allegedly tucked his umbrellas underneath his coat to keep them dry. 

Even though he’s quick to admit he’s no Erik expert, Mouawad might have sensed some similarities. True, he’d never, for instance, created his own mock religion, from which he could excommunicate critics, rivals and anyone else he fancied, like Satie did. But like the French composer, Mouawad created art that often seemed at obtuse angles from the mainstream. And both artists displayed a restless creativity that evolved throughout their careers. The largely self-taught Satie, in fact, went to music school at age 40 (he was older than some of his teachers) when he realized he needed technical skills to express the sounds he wanted to create. His music went from being performed in cabarets to concert halls. 

Similarly, Mouawad has traversed the distance between fringey, movement based theater to creating operas for established companies. He wanted Satie’s Journey to be the next.

But he couldn’t get much traction on the story. Though fascinated by Satie’s possible connection to what we’d today call neurodiversity, “I couldn’t find an angle in,” he remembers.

He decided to set Satie aside and work instead on a more personal story, drawn from his own Lebanese American heritage. Around the time immigration was becoming a heated political issue in America, and Lebanon was descending into the latest chapter in a long tale of corruption, refugee inundation and foreign meddling, he began co-writing a libretto based on his grandparents’ 1917 journey to the U.S. from the mountains of Lebanon, part of an earlier Syrian refugee diaspora that brought many here from that region. 

But that project, too, stalled. It’s the risk any intuitive artist takes when trying something new. Mouawad, of course, always had his regular, immensely popular Imago work with his equally off-center artistic partner, Carole Triffle, to fall back on. But both abandoned stories still tugged at him.

Finally, last year, the creative breakthrough: why not combine the two ideas? He decided to use the figure of Satie “not as a real character, but as a jumping off point,” sending a fictional version of the composer to a fictional Edenic Beirut (“a city you cannot visit unless you have a special gift: the gift of a thousand umbrellas”) free of the wars that have riven and roiled that alluring but troubled metropolis for decades. Then he created an opposite world, Gibraltar, with Satie’s journeys (rendered in Mouawad’s poetic, Calvino-esque libretto) betwixt the two imaginary cities representing humans’ tendency to veer between living happily in the moment, and miserably fixating on the complications of the past and worries about the future. To Mouawad, it seems, the single-minded obsessiveness that fuels so much artistic achievement also has a dark side.

Marisa Wildeman, composer of Satie’s Journey.
Photo by M. Wildeman

For music, Mouawad turned to another unconventional source: a recent Portland State music school graduate who’d never scored an opera. Recommended by one of her instructors, well-known singer Hannah Penn, Marisa Wildeman had written, among other compositions, a song cycle and a piece accompanying a narrator that drew on medieval Spanish music. When she and Mouawad alighted on the Satie-Lebanon collision, “it made for a genuinely fun challenge for me musically,” she remembers. “It was all over the place stylistically, so the challenge was to bring all these things together.” As with any musical project involving new music and the historical legacy of a great composer, “it was a little daunting.”

Wildeman, too, embarked on research into Satie’s colorful career. What really stood out was his sense of  tongue-in-cheek satire, “considered almost sacrilegious in France at the time,” she explains. Since Mouawad didn’t give the character actual spoken lines, Wildeman included little musical quotes (“Easter eggs”) from his works, embracing the playfulness she sensed in his works. “The concept is that this is his dream, so of course the music would be drifting in and out.” 

Wildeman braided Satie’s sounds with tunes inspired by Middle Eastern music, including the songs of Lebanon’s greatest living singer, Fairuz, traditional Turkish music (many of the Lebanese refugees of the time were fleeing brutal Ottoman occupation), film music, and more. Neither a mashup nor a traditional score, the three movements take listeners through the story by evoking both the main character’s evolving mental state and the imagined settings.

In this concert performance — no full staging is currently planned — Wildeman’s score is performed by an experienced band: Austin-based mezzo-soprano Julie Silva, bass baritone Austin Allen, tenor Alexander Tull, flutist Camila Oliveira, English hornist Victoria Racz, ARCO-PDX violist Chris Fotinakis, pianist Rob Fishel, and emeritus Fear No Music percussionist Joel Bluestone, all conducted by Wildeman’s fellow PSU grad and singer-about-town Ben España.

Operatic Evolution

Mouawad may consider himself an opera newbie, but his off-center approach is finding itself welcome in an operatic world freeing itself of historical constraints. Glass himself noted that he used the word “opera” for some of his own works precisely because its literal meaning (“work”) is so indeterminate. (It didn’t hurt that it also got him huge grants, especially in Europe, and access to opera houses.) Artists like Glass’s frequent collaborator Robert Wilson have liberated opera from conventional narrative. Opera, Glass concluded, was anything that involved music, theater, and happened in an opera house. 

Maybe not even that. Recently, directors like The Industry’s Yuval Sharon have shown that opera could happen in a train station, in cars, even outside Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. That expansive definition suits Mouawad, whose Imago Theatre had long embraced stagings not always recognizable as traditional drama. The nature of opera itself “seems to be undergoing a reexamination in the opera community,” he says. “For me, in the serious or dramatic ones, opera is showing the human condition at a heightened state. I’m looking for a highly dramatic, non-sentimental examination of what humans do.”

Opera’s musical elements allow Mouawad to up the dramatic intensity, and open new vistas for his irrepressible imagination. “I’m realizing opera is so much more” than theater, he says. “It’s exponentially more stuff. Every time I do an opera, it’s so many different elements going on at once.” Like Satie himself throughout his own artistic journey, “I’m still learning.”

Eugene Opera presents  Lucy  at Springfield’s Wildish Community Theater on September 26 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets.

Imago Theatre presents Satie’s Journey on October 9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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