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Michael Hersch's "On the Threshold of Winter" Available to Stream Online

“The essence of Michael Hersch’s music,” soprano Ah Young Hong reflects, “is being alone in your thoughts. To be able to have this incredibly earth-shattering silence that is screaming at you—the internal world that we have to grapple with. That is what is so unforgiving and powerful about his work.” 

Hong’s relationship to Hersch’s music is unique: beginning in 2014, she has performed the solo role of On the Threshold of Winterin three productions, the third of which she directed, across six cities in North America, and is the only singer in the world to have performed the work to date. Of the premiere, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote in the New York Times

"Mr. Hersch's music, for all its dark and fragile beauty, offer neither comfort nor catharsis. A traumatized silence clung to the Fishman Space auditorium after the last line sung by the soprano Ah Young Hong, the opera's blazing, lone star."

In 2015, Hong worked closely with Hersch, the chamber ensemble NUNC led by Miranda Cuckson, and director James Matthew Daniel, to produce this filmed performance of the opera, which is now available to stream. 

With what Anne Midgette called a “cold, uncompromising brilliance,”On the Threshold of Winter sets texts by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu, written during the last five weeks of his life while dying from liver cancer. Hersch’s libretto transforms those texts, which were dedicated by Sorescu “to those who suffer,” into a monodrama in two acts, in which Hong’s character is both in time and out of time, at turns raging against death and struggling to accept its inevitability. For Hong, Hersch’s instrumental writing functions to illustrate the structure of her character’s mind, at times with directly audible relationships between her voice and an instrument—always cut short, however, and prevented from reaching resolution. 

It is precisely this denial of resolution that Hong finds so powerful in Hersch’s work: it ultimately enjoins both her and her audience to experience this work alone. That isolation, however, produces a kind of rare empathy, emerging from what she calls the “dark world” of the monodrama into a shared connection and emotional release. She describes this as an exploration of the crevices and folds in one’s soul that normally remains that untouched, with Hersch’s music functioning as a liquid that seeps in, forcing a reconciliation with the pain and agony of death. Indeed, in the last moment of the work, she sings Sorescu’s words: “Terrible is the passage/ Into the fold/ Both for man/ And / Animal.”

In James Matthew Daniel’s 2015 production, Hong is joined on stage by other bodies: or, more precisely, almost-bodies of broken plaster, producing abject remnants of dust and blood. These life-size sculptures, by artist Christopher Cairns, both complicate and emphasize the isolation of Hong’s character on stage; she, too, will become abject in death. 

Indeed, watching this filmed performance in the time of COVID-19 adds another complicating fold to the power of Hersch’s work. At the time of its premiere, suffering, illness, and death were still topics that could still be largely avoided in everyday life. With the world thrust into a pandemic, Hersch’s work perhaps takes on a renewed sense of power in its confrontation with these abject experiences. For Hong, emerging from this work produces a renewed empathy for both herself and her community of family and friends, a renewed reconciliation with human mortality. 

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