Mozart

“Indisputably beautiful”: Taking ‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors

Local singers deliver an unconventional take on Mozart’s classic

The last six months have left us starved for live music, with the country kinda-but-not-really shutting down to handle the pandemic. Luckily for us, last month a cohort of young singers took it upon themselves to stage the first full opera production in Oregon since March. These singers, collectively known as Lark Opera, started with the obvious first task: finding and securing a performance venue. The task became even more complicated when their first scheduled performance, set for September 19th at Utopia Vineyard in Newberg, was smoked out by the fires rampaging through the state that week.

But the smoke cleared, and the second-now-first performance went forward on the 27th at Lady Hill Winery in St. Paul, another of the many small vineyard towns south of Portland. Watching a performance of The Magic Flute lit by the dimming sunset over the Willamette valley, sitting on the lawn and drinking a light, tart, sour-cherry wine seemed a distinctly Oregon way to experience opera. 

Soprano Angelica Hesse, who spearheaded the production, played Pamina, a role she told ArtsWatch she’s wanted to play since her earliest dreams of becoming an opera singer at thirteen. She said that the last few months “have made it clear to me that I can’t go a year without this, that [opera] is something that really matters–and I had the feeling that is the case for audiences too.” 

The eleven singers had earlier taken a Zoom course on The Magic Flute, and like all musicians they were already familiar with the music. With funding from an ongoing Indiegogo campaign and a series of backyard rehearsals (with masks on), they put their new skills to use in an unconventional way. Hesse asked herself, “how do we make this happen?”–and her answer runs through the whole production.

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Dissonance, tradition, spirit

Rolston String Quartet performs Mozart, Brahms, and R. Murray Schaeffer at Alberta Rose Theater

The twentieth century is the century of the string quartet. While not all great composers of the last century wrote string quartets, the genre became a powerful medium for composers to reveal their deepest emotions and indulge their creativity. The century began with incredibly forward-thinking quartets from Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Arnold Schoenberg. These composers set a precedent leading the way for Shostakovich’s dark humor, Johnston’s microtonality, Carter’s rhythmic experiments and Ferneyhough’s controlled chaos.

Even today, composers such as Caroline Shaw, Philip Glass and John Luther Adams keep this forward-looking spirit alive. As a small ensemble with a wide range and uniform tone color, the string quartet is an ideal medium for composers to test new musical ideas and express their voice in an intimate setting.

Rolston String Quartet performed at Albert Rose Theatre in July as part of Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Kimmie Fadem.

Of course the string quartet was always an important medium, even from its early days of Haydn and Mozart. I can imagine Hadyn writing his sixty-eight string quartets and keeping himself entertained with syncopation, odd-measured phrases, fancy counterpoint, and other tricks. At some point, composers get bored and can’t help but try something new. This spirit of experimentation has always been present in the genre, from Beethoven’s fantastic late quartets to the most contemporary works. The Rolston String Quartet’s Chamber Music Northwest concert at Alberta Rose Theater on July 3 showed their strength as an ensemble while demonstrating the string quartet’s special compositional spirit.

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Building Mozart’s garden

PSU Opera's designers and artisans create a world onstage for the comic "La Finta Giardiniera." Joe Cantrell tells the tale in photographs.

Photographs by JOE CANTRELL

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 18 years old when his opera La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend, or Fake, Gardener) debuted at the Salvatortheater in Munich in 1775. When it opens Friday evening at Lincoln Performance Hall in Portland it’ll feature a cast almost as young, made up of singers in the elite Portland State University Opera program. Under the artistic leadership of onetime New York City Opera star Christine Meadows, PSU Opera has become known for its high-quality, relatively low-cost, professionally designed productions.

The latter is definitely true in the case of La Finta Giardiniera, which is double-cast in seven major roles (“the students have grown incredibly through the experience of preparing Finta,” Meadows says) and will have four performances, April 19, 20, 26, and 28. Its design team is stellar: set by Carey Wong, lighting by Peter West, lavish period costumes by Hadley Yoder, wigs and hair (a major task for this period comic opera) by Jessica Carr and Randy Graff respectively, props by Sumi Wu.

Maeve Stier as the servant Serpetta, surrounded by painterly foliage.

Wong’s ravishing set is dominated in many scenes by a landscape painted on its walls and inspired by Wooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting, a bucolic painting by Mozart’s near-contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, perhaps best-known for his portrait The Blue Boy. Other scenes take place in a cave, providing a sharp contrast in mood between bright and colorful and dark and forboding.

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

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

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.”

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