woody guthrie

Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second Summer

Out-of-town festivals, funk at the zoo, opera ‘bout Guthrie, we’re all Kulululu

Oregon, as everyone knows, has two summers every year. The first lasts from the first hot weekend in May until the end of Chamber Music Northwest. The second summer—the one you’re in right now—occupies all of August and lasts until Oregon Symphony gets rolling for real at the end of September (their annual Zoo show on the 7th doesn’t count).

If you want to hear live classical music during Second Oregon Summer, you’ll have to head down to Jacksonville for the Britt Music & Arts Festival, happening right now through the 11th, or else head out to wine country for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, happening right now through the 18th. You can read Alice Hardesty’s previw of Britt right here, and Angela Allen’s preview of the WVCMF right here.

Other than that, you’re out of luck. There’s no music happening in Portland during Second Summer, so you might as well stay home, stay hydrated, catch up on your reading, and dig into that 10-disc Lutosławski boxed set.

Polish composer Witold Lutosławski.

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