I experienced one of the great joys tonight at a new opera. For awhile I was lost. In a world of GPS precision and universal surveillance, it’s very hard to be so engrossed as to not know where you are.
I was whisked away from my usual realm on the wings of song, or more particularly, the songs of Ana Sokolovic, in Svadba – Wedding, a new opera commissioned and premiered by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre.
Let’s not quibble about the usual things one might expect in opera, such as a storyline or characters. If this were the usual sort of thing you’d know exactly where you are, and where’s the fun in that? The usual procedure is also the usual ticket to something predictable, where this was anything but.
I previously encountered Sokolovic in another work premiered by Queen of Puddings, namely The Midnight Court. At the time I remember feeling very optimistic about the future of opera, as Sokolovic opened several compositional pathways that I had never encountered, playing exquisite games with the human voice and with sound. I felt freed of many of the unfortunate compositional pigeon-holes used to identify new music. Then as now, I was sufficiently disoriented to be freed of categories, which is another way of saying, I was freed of the usual sorts of expectations.
And so, while Svadba too felt new, in the end it did feel quite familiar. Perhaps I was projecting, following a line of association through the Serbian text, Sokolovic’s Eastern-European ethnicity, and repeated patterns of notes in the music; but I was reminded of other composers of the last century, particularly Stravinsky and Bartok, who would take an angular phrase, and by repeating it, normalize some of that angularity for us.
Svadba may only be an hour long, but it’s quite powerful, particularly in a tiny space. Six women effortlessly fill the stage with voice, with stage presence, with all the quirks each brings to the stage. Only one of them is really differentiated as a character, namely Jacqueline Woodley as Milica, the young Bride.
That the others –a powerful ensemble of some of the best voices in this country—do not create personages as in a usual opera is but one of the wonderfully disorienting aspects of this work. Yes, each one has a named character, but i found it very difficult to identify much that was unique in their work. I took in their portrayals en masse, partly because the work is new to me, partly because i was experiencing the work sensuously –through pure sound and sensation– rather than in a logical fashion. I think, too, that the surtitles malfunctioned for part of the evening, making the story a bit harder to follow. Essentially an a capella tour de force, Sokolovic works her cast very hard in the hour they are onstage. Although a few places seem to call for higher singing, the biggest challenge appears to be in the co-ordination of passages calling for fast ensemble singing. Conductor & co-artistic director Dairine Ni Mheadhra led the ensemble in a precision reading to make the composer proud. I don’t think it was an empty gesture when Sokolovic crossed the stage, passionately hugging every single cast member in turn, namely Shannon Mercer, Andrea Ludwig, Carla Huhtanen, Laura Albino, Jacqueline Woodley and Krisztina Szabo.
Upon their first entrance my mind drifted to the last act of Die Walküre re-broadcast last week by the Metropolitan Opera high definition series, when the Valkyries sing as one powerful ensemble. I hope the comparison doesn’t seem lame –it was just last week after all—but it struck me just how rare it is for an opera to be handed over to an entirely female cast. Puccini’s Suor Angelica (another short opera) and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites are the only two comparable works I can think of. Whereas the other two both take us to the rarefied world of the convent, in this case we’re among young women who seem decidedly normal in their outlook and deportment. While the circumstances are traditional, the very fact of so many women taking the stage in a work composed by a woman feels very political to me, and worthy of applause. In a world where women composers & conductors are the exception rather than the norm the look and feel of this opera was a breath of fresh air before the first note was even sung.
For all the newness Svadba managed simultaneously to be as old and traditional as the pre-nuptual rituals portrayed onstage. I am perhaps cheating in my inference, but The Midnight Court seemed newer and more disorienting in its construction. Svadba is both new and old, easily invoking a realm of Slavic folklore for me.
Svadba continues until July 2nd Downstairs at the Berkeley Street Theatre. http://www.queenofpuddingsmusictheatre.com/