Giving Voice Through Music: Performative Expressions of Nature, Folk, and the Black Experience
Giving stage, voice, and representation to historically underrepresented and marginalized groups was a prominent theme in productions last summer. In August and September, I observed three very different attempts at realizing this aspiration at the Glimmerglass Festival, the Bard Festival, and the American Repertory Theater.
It’s a typically human impulse to wish to put into words the speech, actions, and supposed thoughts of the other beings on this planet—an impulse that both radiates an empathetic longing for connection and the hubris of supposed understanding. From Aesop’s fables, to the stories of the Brothers Grimm, to David Attenborough’s commentary in Planet Earth, we place human thoughts and speech in the mouths of animals as a way both to understand ourselves in the guise of other beings and to try, somehow, to peer into the being and existence of the world’s cohabitants. Leoš Janáček’s 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) is a particularly enchanting sonic manifestation of this impulse and was performed at the Glimmerglass Festival this past summer in the apt natural surroundings of Otsego Lake.
Taking its name from James Fenimore Cooper’s appellation for Otsego Lake in his novels The Pioneers and The Deerslayer, the Glimmerglass Festival was founded in 1975 with a production of La Bohème in Cooperstown Public High School. It now boasts around one hundred events per season on and around its campus on the western shore of the lake in Cooperstown, New York. Its main event space, the Alice Busch Opera Theater, is a jewel, unexpected in the context of its rural Upstate surroundings. Designed by the American architect and theater renovator Hugh Hardy on the site of a turkey farm, its intimate 914-seat theater blends seamlessly into the outside through ingenious sliding panels that transform it into an open-air space before the shows and during intermission. The production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen was particularly effective in this context: the musico-dramatic blurring and dissolving of the boundaries of nature and human artifice was accentuated architecturally.
Janáček penned Příhody lišky Bystroušky at the age of seventy, inspired by the playful antics of “Vixen Sharp-Ears” and her companions in an illustrated newspaper serial by Rudolf Těsnohlídek. Janáček’s housekeeper Marie Stejskalová claimed to have put the idea of an opera based on the serial into the composer’s head. As she recalled, she had said to Janáček, “Sir, you know so well what animals say, you’re always writing down those bird calls—wouldn’t it make a marvelous opera!” Stejskalová was referring to the composer’s habit of transcribing bird and animal calls into his notebooks. In these notebooks, the composer would not only record the species along with the musical transcription, but would playfully suggest the motivations for the animals’ sonic utterances with one another. Underneath the transcription, one finds “translations” as well—“I love you so much!,” “Want to beat me?,” “It’s very hard,” Janáček’s birds say.
Attaining the right balance between the anthropomorphism of animal characters and the animalization of their human performers has been at the crux of music criticism since Příhody lišky Bystroušky’s premiere in 1924. The costuming and gestural language has been at the heart of the criticism. Too subtle an animalization of the characters, and the innocence and charm of Nature disappears; too great, and the production can come off as a children’s pageant of Noah’s Ark. In many respects, I thought the production and performance on August 10 struck this tricky balance: the animal characters were at once distinguishable from the human characters, but the costuming (by Erik Teague), hair, and makeup (by Dave Bova) was ingeniously devised so as to create animal features out of human fashions and features. For instance, the Vixen’s ears were represented through artfully-arranged hair, her “tail” through the fishtail cut of her skirt. The set, which featured a whimsically-arched tree as a central device, captured something of the fairy-tale magic so essential to the opera. Of the “animal” cast, I found the movement and gestures of Fox (played by Alyssa Martin) and Badger (Zachary Owen) most convincing. These actors were able to suggest the charming cartoon origins of the opera, without tipping into pantomime or an attempted natural-realism. I felt less satisfied with the choreography of the title role, played by Joanna Latini. Although she executed the movements with great facility and stamina, the self-consciousness of her portrayal left me ambivalent. While the opera uses the Vixen as a representation of animal and human sexuality, and while the character at times suggests very human ideas such as female liberation in Scene II, a sense of unaffectedness and amorality, present in the original serial and in the libretto, was missing.
In the production, I was surprised to find that every cast member except the role of Forester (Eric Owens) was played by a member of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program or Youth Chorus. It seems that the “training ground” element is a much more defining feature of the festival than its promotional materials lead one to believe. The young artists performed quite ably—with some of them clearly on the cusp of professional careers—but the Artist-in-Residence, Eric Owens, stole the show in a noticeable way. Vocally, soprano Joanna Latini was cast well as Vixen. Her consistent precision, clarity, and feeling, together with the athleticism that her choreography required, were impressive. Her duets with Fox (sung by Alyssa Martin) evoked something of the naturalistic tenderness of affection that I found quite moving.
Although the program noted that the production of The Cunning Little Vixen utilized one of the largest orchestras the festival had ever assembled, its size was nevertheless insufficient to meet the exigencies of the score. The musical interest and glue of the opera is its orchestral writing; the drama is played out there, and the singers’ voices should fit into the tapestry of the orchestral score rather than stand in relief to an accompaniment. Unfortunately, the orchestra was much too small to achieve this effect, and Janáček’s score sounded at a disadvantage. The violin section often was out of tune because there were too few players to achieve orchestral intonation. There was a regrettable entrance of the contrabassoon on a wrong pitch in the second act. For my taste, the overall orchestral sound was both mushy and without lushness—although whether that was again a result of the small orchestra or a choice of the conductor, Joseph Colaneri, I could not say. I thought that a greater variety of articulations might have helped compensate for the orchestra’s small size and cast the opera’s leitmotivic language into better relief.
Given that the company has a young artist program for vocalists, I wondered why the Glimmerglass orchestra does not have a similar training component. Such a scheme could provide valuable training for orchestral musicians and provide paid summer work for conservatory students. At the same time, the orchestra could be filled out without breaking the bank. Glimmerglass has the infrastructure, location, and energy to be able to develop the festival in a variety of directions; I’ll be interested to see which path(s) it chooses.
From the idyllic forests and glades of the Hudson Valley came the majestic strains of late-Romantic Russian music for two weekends in August. Situated on the campus of Bard College, the 29th Annual Bard Music Festival presented “Rimsky-Korsakov and His World.” To explore the music, life, context, and legacy of the great Russian composer, the festival carefully curated concerts, lectures, panels, and film showings ranging from “Amateurs and Professionals,” to “The Legacy of Pushkin,” to “The Classical, the National, and the Exotic.” Boasting a who’s-who list of music scholars on the panels and top-notch musicians on the platform, the festival seemed a public celebration of Bard College Conservatory’s scholar-performer ethos, built and made famous by Bard president, festival director, and conductor Leon Botstein. With co-director Christopher H. Gibbs, Botstein aspires toward the much sought, but seldom successfully achieved, marriage of an academic conference with a music festival. Each summer, one composer is chosen around whom to build a hive-mind of new scholarship and performance. In connection with the festival, Princeton University Press publishes a book of essays, translations, and correspondence relating to the festival’s composer (this year, Rimsky-Korsakov and His World, ed. by Marina Frolova-Walker). Next year we can look forward to a festival and accompanying book on Erich Wolfgang Korngold; in 2020, Nadia Boulanger.
Though combining scholarship and performances is certainly not a novel concept in the realm of academia, it is nevertheless a bold and unusual one to execute at so big a scale and so high a level of professionalism on all fronts. For me, the aspirations of the festival and their realization in the schedule and materials felt as improbable as the existence of the Frank Gehry creation where the performances take place. Driving to the festival through miles of wilderness and farmland, fog and mist and arriving at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts—which resembles the façade of Disney Hall in Los Angeles—is like finding a spaceship in the middle of nowhere. The Bard Music Festival was like an alternate reality oasis, where musical and intellectual cultures, rural and urban cultures, so often at opposite poles, meet.
I attended what I took to be one of the headier sessions of the festival, “Russian Folk Music in the Mirror of Art Music,” on Friday, August 17. Described as a performance with commentary by the festival’s Scholar-in-Residence, Marina Frolova-Walker, that explored “the use of folk materials from the Lvov-Pratsch Collection of Russian folksongs (1790/1806) in classical music from Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets through the Mighty Five to Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka,” I expected a careful exposition of the history and use of the Lvov-Pratsch Collection with art music as the program’s focus. Instead, I was shocked and delighted to be offered a wormhole to colorful and animated Russian village life through the bewitching performances of the Russian ensemble the Virtual Village. Created in 2005 by ethnomusicologists from the Moscow Conservatory, the ensemble—whose members, incidentally, had originally trained and studied Western classical music —specializes in the performance of authentic Russian and Ukrainian folk songs and music.
Under Sergey Starostin’s direction, the performers (Svitlana Kontsedalova, Olga Lapshina, Aleksandr Poliachok, and Olga Velitchkina) have worked in villages for years with transmitters of the Russian folk tradition. According to the commentary by Marina Frolova-Walker, in the era of the radio, television, and internet, those folk singers are often now embarrassed to sing the old songs in the traditional, rough folk style. The younger generations tend to leave the villages altogether, and traditions fade and die out without new practitioners to continue them. The Virtual Village preserves and shares these endangered songs, sounds, costumes, and dances. According to Frolova-Walker, the program at Bard was devised by the Virtual Village, who playfully constructed it in four vignettes, each a collage of folk and art music, echoing the formal scheme of a four-part “classical” symphony. The first “movement” focused on the music of seasonal rites; the “Andante,” on Lyrical and Melancholy songs; the “Scherzo,” on dances and urban songs; and the fourth “movement” on a single song, the “Slava” (Glory to God). Woven among the folk offerings and commentary from Frolova-Walker were art music selections from Rimsky-Korsakov, Collection of 100 Russian Folk Songs and Lel’s third song from Snow Maiden; Anatoly Lyadov, “Cradle Song”; Ludwig Van Beethoven, String Quartet Op. 59 No. 2; Igor Stravinsky, “Danse russe” from Petrushka; and Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Slava” from Six Morceaux, Op. 11.
The juxtaposition onstage of these two very disparate worlds was an enlightening, and at times, uncomfortable one—a further alternate reality offered by the festival. As Frolova-Walker noted, “at every stage, the representation of folklore in art music conformed to whatever sophisticated urban artists and intellectuals wanted of the peasantry, whether mystical or grotesque—anything but to sleep under the same roof as actual peasants and their livestock.” The program forced art song to do just that. In the first “movement,” after the luxuriously rich renditions of Rimsky-Korsakov Collection of 100 Russian Folk Songs, Op. 24 by mezzo-soprano Monika Krajewska, the piercing brightness and alien sonorities of the Virtual Village suddenly burst through the artifice of the concert and song settings. No longer a shadow seen only in art song’s mirror, Folk sang its own stories in a voice that was alive. The program held up many different art-mirrors to Folk, neither shying away from the blatant distortions, nor neglecting to show the humor and joy in the interactions between the two traditions.
Should the Virtual Village repeat this concept again, however, some tweaks may be in order. For instance, the experience of an audience member rustling through the translation-handout to find the correct number while at the same time missing the costumes and action onstage is an awkward one. A projection with the text translations and with images connected with the commentary would make the show more cohesive and comprehensible. Work with a lighting technician and choreographer would go a long way in toning down the lecture-demonstration aura that occasionally chilled the otherwise warm authenticity of the experience and could even visually clarify the deep and various relationships between the folk and art traditions onstage. Finally, though perhaps this was not the intention of the show, folk song very much came off the “winner.” In the context of a twelve-program festival focusing on art music, this presents no real problem; in a standalone context, the art-music side of the story would need to be developed. Folk song was the dominant voice in the conversation, leaving art song to slide in and out with short excerpts paired with the folk cycles. For my ear, there was not enough time spent in the art music tradition to appreciate the beauty of its folk borrowings. I think the development of this angle in a future standalone show would complexify the audience’s takeaway in a meaningful way. Lastly, I thought that the closing number—a four-hands rendition of “Slava” from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 11—was an insufficient climax for the weight of the show as a whole. Why not orchestrate an operatic, whole-village tutti finale in which the performers of both folk and art traditions might make music together?
For my money, this concert achieved the lofty ambitions of the festival; it was hands down the best marriage of scholarship and performance I have witnessed. The commentary was lucid and enjoyable, and the performance instructive and delightful. I came away both moved and contemplating new thoughts. I regretted that I could not stay for the rest of the festival.
The Black Experience
As described by Artistic Director Diane Paulus, the productions of the American Repertory Theater this season focus on themes of “resistance and resilience” from around the globe. Fittingly, their first production was an adaptation of Langston Hughes’s poem The Black Clown by co-creators Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter. Bass-baritone Tines and composer Schachter began working together on a song-cycle adaptation of The Black Clown in 2010. Over the years, the project has grown into a full-scale stage production fostered by the A.R.T. Though billed as a musical theater production, The Black Clown (like Hughes’s poem) resists generic categorization. Compositionally, Schachter blends a wealth of musical influences ranging from European art song and opera to the blues, work songs, spirituals, New Orleans second line, and Gospel. Vocally, Tines and the twelve-member cast moved seamlessly among these styles.
Hughes’s poem was made for musical adaptation. The poet heads it with the following description: “A dramatic monologue to be spoken by a pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown, to the music of a piano, or an orchestra.” As explained by Schachter in an interview published in the A.R.T.’s season guide, Hughes provides the reader with “THE MOOD” in an italicized sidebar that describes a dramatic presentation and musical accompaniments. The Tines-Schachter Black Clown incorporates many of Hughes’s specific musical suggestions, including spirituals like “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But Schachter goes further: the score charts a rich journey through the history of African American music.
Exploring the slavery, emancipation, disappointment, and struggle of the African American experience, Hughes’s Black Clown ends with the narrator “throwing down the hat of a fool, and standing forth, straight and strong, in the clothes of a modern man.” Based on my last experience of the A.R.T.’s production of Matthew Aucoin’s The Crossing—another work blending poetry and operatic theater with clear themes of social activism (see my review in Vol. LXX, No. 4)—I came to The Black Clown at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge on September 7 anticipating and fearing a sentimental and literalist production. As the curtain opened, I dreaded to see Tines decked out in the white suit and the hat of a clown, ultimately to be reclothed at the end in hipster attire as a heavy-handed symbol of the connection between the past and the present (in the manner of The Crossing). I was happy to be proved wrong.
Directed by Zack Winokur with choreography by Chanel DaSilva and lighting by John Torres, the A.R.T.’s production of The Black Clown understood Langston Hughes’s eloquence on multiple levels. It is a work of honest beauty and power. Elegantly simple in aspects of form and style, the show’s architecture was strong enough to bear the weight and grit of the content and support the soulful performances of its powerhouse cast. The music, lighting, choreography, costuming, and performance worked together at the service of the story told by Hughes. Opening with Tines standing alone at a mic to the stark backdrop of white panels, he declaimed the opening lines of the poem in spoken voice. The show then unfurled in song in two graceful arcs—the first closing with the raucous tutti celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation; the second with a powerful tutti coda, “Cry to the World,” that was expressed almost as a spirited exhortation or prayer to humanity itself. Onstage, the all-Black cast invited the mostly white audience into an embodied emotional portrayal of the Black American experience. The cast didn’t merely perform the work, they gave their bodies, hearts, and souls to it with such earnestness that it was clear the performance was not merely a representation of Black experience: it was an expression of it. These were not “characters” in the usual sense.
In tune with Hughes’s poem, the production approached this experience in a tragicomic mode. “You laugh / Because I’m poor and Black and funny— / Not the same as you,” says the openings lines of the poem. A facile production would either attempt to induce guffaws in the audience, then turn that laughter back on them for ethical reflection, or it would instill a sense of self-complacency in the audience—Langston Hughes’s audience may have laughed at him, but we enlightened progressives never would, whispers an insidious voice in our heads. By contrast, this production achieves a true tragicomic uncanniness through a sophisticated play of mixed emotions. One experienced the aesthetic and sensory pleasures of beautifully-composed and performed dance, music, and lighting in tandem with the grim realities of the semantic content of Hughes’s poem. Toe-tapping and finger-snapping numbers like “Strike up the Music” and “Freedom” awakened emotions of fun, joy, exaltation simultaneously with feelings of horror as one watched the Black bodies onstage dance with nooses, in chains. Schachter’s macabre tonal language in these numbers accentuated the emotional ambivalence. The clear parallelism of the celebratory Emancipation scene, “Freedom,” with the closing number, “Cry to the World,” makes the show end on a question mark for me: “Freedom” had been followed by “Then sadness again— / No land, no house, no job, / No place to go.” The once-ebullient cast literally swept up the confetti of the Emancipation party, a tragic symbol that the burden of cleaning up slavery was placed on the formerly-enslaved people themselves. The parallel number, “Cry to the World,” seemed to me to ask the audience whether the show would ultimately fall in cyclic return to the stale dregs of a preemptive celebration: as the lights go up, we might read the real world as the formal parallel to the line “Then sadness again.”
In the role of the narrator and protagonist, co-creator Davóne Tines’s performance was an exhilarating tour de force. In the continuous seventy-minute show (without intermission), barely does he take a single occasion for a momentary break from singing or dancing. Tines is a young artist enjoying a deserved quick ascent to international recognition and fame in the operatic world; his voice, style, and expression are truly one-of-a-kind. The production would have probably been a success (of a different kind) had one given him the text of the poem and told him to make something up on the spur of the moment onstage. But what makes The Black Clown a triumph is that Tines was not treated as the shining jewel of the show. He was just one of an exceptionally well-able cast that gives Tines a run for his money. Not only were the tutti numbers compelling, but the solos of minor cast members such as LaVon Fisher-Wilson were world-class, spine-tingling performances. It is rare to see a collection of such enormously-talented individuals onstage who have made up their minds both individually and communally to commit fully to a production in all of its dimensions.
While most audience members would be cognizant of the virtuosity and soulfulness of the performers, they might not realize the extent to which The Black Clown’s impact is due to the creation of a masterful musical artifact by composer Michael Schachter. Though the sonic surface of The Black Clown is such that a musical layperson could happily enjoy the score in its apparent similarity to the sounds of musical theater and popular styles, Schachter is meanwhile quietly and ingeniously weaving a coherent musical and dramatic form through which he, with the audience, traverses a difficult emotional and intellectual topography. It is the kind of musical object that—to paraphrase the words of fifteenth-century music theorist Johannes Tinctoris in his De arte contrapuncti—one would never hear or study without coming away happier and more learned (letior ac doctior). Woven within and through the variously joyful, mournful, and contemplative numbers is a lexicon of recurrent motives, subtle counterpoint, large-scale forms which contribute to the show’s careful and powerful mixtures of affect. In “I am the Fool” beautifully-constructed harmonic sequences set Tines’s voice aloft as gradual bass movement made musically manifest the spiritual struggle and rise of depicted people. Musically, Schachter sets the last number, “Cry to the World,” as a long tonic prolongation of what has already been musically tied-up and finished at the end of “Say to All Foemen.” While the audience’s attention is on the catchy melodic surface, dancing, and vocal impact of the cast, their emotions are coaxed to retrospection and transition to a future orientation through the sequence of harmonies that unfolded over the prolonged tonic. Schachter’s technique reminds me of the kinds of post-cadential prolongations used by J. S. Bach in his choral preludes. For instance, in “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” BWV 668, the melody arrives at its end before the inner parts arrive at their harmonic closure. The prolongation of the ending helps the listener to turn him- or herself from what has happened musically and emotionally over the course of the piece to an affective attitude that will allow him or her to face the end—the silence on the other side of the final bar line. It was in part Schachter’s empathetic stance toward his audience, manifested harmonically, that allowed The Black Clown to realize—and the audience to endure and appreciate—the awesome and terrible beauty of the embodied struggle of the human spirit. His music guided and fortified them to face the looming silence after the end of the show—to the silence that exists as much in potential to contain a return to Hughes’s line “Then sadness again” as it does a celebration of the last lines—“But now— / I’m a man!”
The only aspects of the production that I felt did not attain the heights of the rest of the show had to do with artistic decisions surrounding the performing instrumentalists. Led competently by music director Jaret Landon, the ten-piece pit orchestra did a professional job of executing the score. But compared with the dancing, singing, and acting which burst out from its road maps into authentic and visceral personal and communal expression, the instrumental performance fell somewhat flat. Part of this effect was the result of the decision to keep the instrumentalists from the audience’s view. In a show that on so many levels exalted Black bodies, the acousmatic effect of the orchestra seemed dissonant with the production’s very values. Visually, the band was for me palpably absent in the big dance-hall and gospel scenes; I felt the production really missed the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate in embodied, visual form the important history of Black instrumental music in America. Secondly, it sounded as if the ensemble adhered too closely to the literal writing of the score; I sensed this in those numbers where the style or tradition referenced was essentially improvisational, but in which it seemed the pit was relying on Schachter for explicit instructions. In several of the scenes, the rhythmic energy and dynamism set by the conceit of the music and the performance of the singers and dancers would come to a crest and seem to call out for an inspired and improvised drum or piano solo that never came. Why not hire a pre-existing (Black) combo that could make and navigate such artistic decisions in dialogue with the composer and the energy of what’s happening onstage? Finally, several of the orchestrational textures seemed to me thin and calling out for more timbral variety and richness. While I appreciate the decision to evoke an old-timey theater orchestra through small size and reed players doubling on multiple instruments, it would not have been incongruent with the concept to have added some upper and middle strings. The orchestrational potential in even this small addition could have ameliorated the sonic effect of numbers like “Rise from the Bottom.”
The Black Clown gives voice by making room: room for Langston Hughes himself, for an all-Black cast, for a community of voices and experiences. A riveting production, its artfulness illuminates palpable, living reality, and it does so intelligently and with great beauty. I hope and expect a long life for it.
 As quoted in John Tyrrell, Janáček’s Operas: A Documentary Account (Princeton, 1992), p. 282.