Lear on the 2nd Floor
opera in 2 actscl(bcl).bsn-2perc(I. drum set; II. vib, mar)-pno-vn.va.vc.cb-laptop (2013)
|Text information||Libretto by Allan Havis|
|Commission||Commissioned by Princeton University with funding from the Academic Senate of UCSD|
|Premiere||2013; Conrad Prebys Music Center Concert Hall, La Jolla CA; Steven Schick, conductor|
|Roles||Nora Lear - Soprano|
Nora's Mind - soprano (improviser with extended techniques)
Mortimer/The Judge - Bass Baritone
Lyla - Soprano (light lyric)
Tara - Mezzo Soprano
Jenna - Mezzo Soprano
The Doctor - Tenor
The Nurse/The Lawyer and Husband - Baritone
Lear on the 2nd Floor is my third collaborative project with Allan Havis. Our first piece together was the 2nd movement of Restless Mourning, a four movement work for chorus and chamber ensemble commissioned to commemorate 9/11. Allan's section of the oratorio looked at 9/11 from the perspective of the pilots, initially the pilot for American Airlines and later the pilot for Allah. Needless to say, this approach to September 11th was controversial and I realized immediately that I had found a subversive co-conspirator who revels in challenging conventional thinking. Lilith, our 2nd piece together explored Adam's rejected first wife. The opera, an adaptation of Allan's play, was set in a divorce court in the Garden of Eden and in the present. Coincidentally, we both worked on prior Lear projects. Allan conceived a “Yiddish” Lear for actor Shelly Berman and I composed music for a Lear production at Yale Rep with Avery Brooks as Lear. The Yale Rep production envisioned Lear in pre-Columbian Mexico in the Olmec civilization imagining a connection to West Africa. My experience creating the music for the Yale Rep production was frustrating because I thought the “Storm” had so many musical possibilities. The “Storm” could be a mental storm or the rumors and insinuations of a family and community. I began to imagine Lear as an opera and realized as Verdi also discovered that an operatic version of Lear would be impossible. I came to the realization that an opera could “riff” on Lear, using Lear as a starting point and creating a story that mirrors Lear. In Shakespeare's Lear there are many unanswered questions that perplex directors and dramaturgs today. Was there ever a Queen Lear and what happened to the Fool?
As we approached our work on Lear on the 2nd Floor, we immediately decided that Lear should be a woman with three daughters and that the Fool should be her deceased husband who only is seen by Nora Lear. As with many Lear scholars we decided to explore Lear in a state of dementia in this case afflicted by early onset Alzheimer's Disease. This allowed us to take a post-modern view of Lear as a person of authority who is losing her grip on her power as well as her faculties. We imagined Nora Lear as a neurologist or a researcher in the field of neurological disorders. She has an episode during a conference lecture. We could explore in a somewhat humorous manner the terrain of neurological disorders as a powerpoint lecture goes awry.
In the music, I have given each daughter a musical character and a singular language. Their conflict reflects varying views of the world. They each want acceptance from their mother that is finally unattainable. I approach opera as a dance with music that propels the story, that implies movement and physicality. Opera is a visceral form that seduces creating a rhythmic theater, negotiating the rhythm of speech and the rhythm of drama and music. Music should embody drama and not accept an antiseptic distance or detachment. Sometimes in my music the listener discovers the familiar not as a distancing parody but as a site of reference that summons memory and layers of meaning. The work exists not just as a separate and self-contained world but as a reflection on cultural history, a mirror on who we are and our connection to the past, a past that rejects categories of “high-low”, classical or vernacular, jazz, popular, or experimental, the old racist hierarchies and constructions that cripple American music.