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Posts tagged 'Kate Soper'

On Kate Soper's "Romance of the Rose"

As manyreviewers of Kate Soper's recently-premiered opera The Romance of the Rose have observed, this work was a long time coming: its original premiere, slated for early 2020, was cancelled due to the COVID epidemic. In this sense, this opera is the culmination of five years of work. But in another sense, this opera is also the culmination of fourty-two years of work, and also seven hundred years of work: it synthesizes musical ideas that the composer has been developing for her whole life into forms, styles, and narrative tropes that others have been developing for centuries. 

In a 2020 essay about this opera, Soper explains that her interest in Medieval European music lies in “the occult sense that its messages are hidden even when its surface is transparent.” “By dialing up the surface intelligibility,” she writes, "you can increase the contrast, you can circle around things that you can’t look at directly.” In previous works such as 2017’s Ipsa Dixit, Soper’s exploration of things that you can’t look at directly, or perhaps things that you can’t listen to directly, was often undertaken through what some listeners might have heard as “difficult” sonic excursions through material both musical and philosophical. Ipsa Dixit, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music, sets texts from the European tradition with an almost ekphrastic musical style, drawing on differing musical traditions to express, and interrogate, the natures of both words and music. 

In The Romance of the Rose, Soper builds on this strategy, but takes it one step further. Yes, the music, as Zachary Woolfe wrote in the New York Times, contains “astringency, complexity and moments of plain noise.” But those moments are framed by more comforting musical styles, such as in the aptly-named “Torch Song” that dates back to Soper’s early career as a singer-songwriter. 

Rather than a simple post-modernism, Soper’s radical use of differing musical styles has a very specific purpose, and a very powerful function: even as the audience might recognize the stylistic references intellectually, their formal arrangement in the narrative of the work has a very real effect on the heart. Soper likens the effect of this kind of formal intentionality to alchemy: the creation of a new, unknowable thing from a few well-known but ordinary elements. 

The beginning of Act II exemplifies this feeling of musical alchemy: it begins with a welcoming serenade sung with early renaissance style imitative polyphony led by the Dreamer, accompanied by a single plucked string instrument reminiscent of a lute. As the Lover wakes up, however, she begins to converse with these characters in plain, spoken language; they respond with fantastical evocations of dream-like spaces. After the Lover huffs that she’d rather go to a bar than any of these proposed dream-worlds, the piano begins playing the opening of Soper’s “Torch Song,” which melds a descending minor tetrachord—the same device that undergirds such well-known operatic arias as “Dido’s Lament”—with both jazzy seventh chords and medieval open-fifth harmonies. More than a “juxtaposition” of musical styles, this is an alchemy of musical form: as Soper writes, “a glimpse of something real, even hard, underneath a glittering surface.”

On Feeling Like a Bored Teenager with Kate Soper

"What should I do today?" This question, typically asked by a bored teenager in the doldrums of summer, is not one that many composers have the ability to ask themselves: in normal times, daily responsibilities, social engagements, work, rehearsals, and performances occupy much of their time. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, many more people have found themselves in this state of mind. And for Kate Soper, a combination of social isolation and the grief of losing the texture of everyday life has led to a renewed sense of creativity, pushing her to create new kinds of work that otherwise would have remained unrealized. While Soper continues to work on long-term projects that have been temporarily paused—including her opera The Romance of the Roseshe has also begun work on an ambitious array of new projects, often written for herself (or multiples of herself), and taking advantage of the virtuality afforded by platforms such as YouTube and Zoom. 

Soper's new opera, The Romance of the Rose, was scheduled to premiere in April 2020, during the first peak of the pandemic. But rather than entirely pausing its development during a year of physical distancing, Soper and her collaborators have continued to think of new ways to work on and with its materials. This has led Soper and collaborator Josh Modney to re-think the way they work together, trading audio and video recordings, and editing together new kinds of performances. Soper has produced a new kind of remote, collaborative workshop performance—here, an excerpt from Act II. 

Soper's work with video began early on in the pandemic with a series of "Unwritten Operas"—short, speculative operatic interpretations of novels, performed and recorded by Soper at home. The series began with her setting of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, and has continued with eleven other books by Anne Rice, Shakespeare, Apollinaire, and Douglas Adams, among others. 

During the Summer of 2020, Soper created SYRINX—a five-part video series that follows a woman with a mysterious vocal ailment. In SYRINX, Soper weaves together a dramatic fabric from the voice, technology, nature, and identity, inhabiting multiple roles and exploring spaces both real and virtual. 

Looking forward to a time when live performance is again possible, Soper has also begun to reimagine some of her existing works for performance by reduced numbers of people, working together a "solo set" that she can perform without the necessity of other musicians. Included in this collection is "Here to Me from Krete," from her opera Here Be Sirensa work whose original forces included three sopranos and piano, and which Soper has also arranged as a suite.

Even as Soper has explored video and other modes of working virtually, she reports desperately missing live music. Even as vaccinations and social distancing help stop the spread of COVID, she reflects: "many people have gone through a lot of trauma in the past year. Everyone has something to grieve, and so many have been isolated. What kinds of things will they want to see, hear, and experience?" 

Weekly Playlist: Kate Soper

We continue our new Weekly Playlist series this week by featuring the work of Kate Soper, whose work often explores the sonic, narrative, and instrumental possibilities of the human voice. Soper's work is brimming with possibilities, and although her recent project The Romance of the Rose has been put on hold by the COVID pandemic, she has been producing weekly "Unwritten Operas", speculative works that are exemplary of her unbound imagination. 

1. We start with Soper's IPSA DIXIT, which Alex Ross has called a "philosophy-opera." Translating roughly as "she, herself, said it," IPSA DIXIT is an evening-length work that contains many of Soper's foundational works from the 2010–2016, all of which can be performed individually or as a complete cycle. 

2. Cipher, a 2011 work which forms the sixth movement of IPSA DIXIT, is often performed as a standalone piece. Originally composed for Soper herself and the violniist Josh Modney, Cipher is a fantastic example of Soper's interest in the narrative, instrumental, and sonic possibilities for the human voice. Soper has also made an instructional video with tips and techniques for the performance of this unique work. 

3. Here Be Sirens, Soper's "brainy, baffling, consistently astounding" 2013 opera for three sopranos and piano. Also available in a shorter suite, this work "presents the daily life of three sirens, who kill time on their island as they await an endless procession of doomed sailors."

4. Wolf (2010) is one of Soper's instrumental works, for two pianists, serving as what she calls "a vivisection of the piano," commissioned by Yarn/Wire in 2010.

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